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The Hotrod Squad

There's hardly a combat mission that the A-4 Skyhawk hasn't flown.

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I ask what advantage this gives.

Clark begins to explain, using his hands to help. In the next simulator, a student glances over. “If you go by my A-4 at 1.2 and I’m doing 0.9, I can turn around faster than you can,” Clark says. “At 1.2 your turning radius is gonna be the state of Wyoming. My turning radius is very small. And if you held 1.2 you’d really get killed in a hurry. Because the missile that I launch at you by the time I get turned around is a Mach 3 missile, so you’re not gonna outrun it.”

Clark’s eyes narrow. “It’s going to get you.

“You have to slow down to my speed to get to a really good turning performance,” he goes on. “Then you’re coming to my fight. At 15,000 feet with a clean airplane, I can pull 6 Gs all day long until I run out of gas.

“And my speed also allows me some vertical penetration that would really get anybody’s attention. We can go right up to 50,000 feet with impunity. Up there you’re above the cons [contrails] and difficult to see. Your energy is high, so you can do virtually anything you want coming downhill.”

And ATSI has heightened its Scooters’ maneuverability. Gone are the guns and armor; the school flies the aircraft “clean”—no external bombs, rockets, or fuel tanks to create drag. The changes have moved the aircraft’s center of gravity aft, boosting the pitch rate—important in air combat.

The director of combat flight training is longtime A-4 vet John “Decoy” Marksbury. I ask him: Is there any airplane he’d choose over the A-4? “A newer version of it,” he says.

Hard use of these 30-year-old aircraft can keep technicians on their toes. Out on ATSI’s hangar floor, amid the woodsy smell of hydraulic fluid, workers in overalls climb around three A-4s, minus engines and tail sections. “Our maintenance program mirrors the U.S. Navy’s,” says Al Edmonson, a Navy veteran and ATSI’s director of maintenance. “We do most everything in-house.”

I ask him about finding spares. He points. “See that room over there? I’ve got five guys whose sole purpose is to find parts.”

Help may arrive soon: ATSI is negotiating to buy 17 more A-4s and a massive parts package from New Zealand. The deal includes a bonus: APG-66 radars and head-up cockpit displays—both of which may make the 50-year-old design an even more formidable adversary for honing the skills of pilots preparing for combat.

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