Douglas Aircraft Corporation's Ed Heinemann could always be relied on to come up with a design that was just right and will stand the test of time. The diminutive A-4 Skyhawk, like the legendary Skyraider, went on to become just such a legend.
Responding to a US Navy's call for a jet powered single seat carrier-capable attack aircraft to replace the Skyraider Douglas Aircraft Company's Ed Heinemann opted for a design that combined speed and manoeuvrability with a large fuel capacity and small overall size. His choice of a delta wing was so compact that it could be stowed aboard a carrier without having to fold the wing and it weighed only half of what the specification required. The result was the Skyhawk. Originally powered by a Wright J65 turbo jet, later versions used the Pratt & Whitney J52, the A-4 had a maximum take-off weight of 24,500 pounds and a top speed of 600 mph (970 K/ph).
On the 22 June 1954 the first prototype took to the sky. Deliveries to the Navy and Marines commencing four years later in 1956.The Skyhawk had one of the longest production runs for a jet powered fighter, the last aircraft leaving the factory floor in 1979. By then 2,960 including 555 two-seat trainers were built.
The Skyhawk was a true warbird. Originally armed with two 20 mm Colt Mk 12 cannons each with 100 rounds per gun plus a variety of bombs, missiles and rockets including nuclear weapons in underwing and centre line hardpoints Heinemann's Hot Rod fought with valour in the Vietnam, the Yom Kippur, and the Falklands Wars.
Attack aircraft have a single role in the battlefield, get to the action, do as much damage as possible and get out. Range is sacrificed for weapons load. Re-fuelling capability on extended missions is therefore is a must and the A-4 pioneered the concept of "buddy" air-to-air refuelling. In a mission one Skyhawk would, in the place of weapons carry, a centre mounted fuel tank with refuelling drogue. The others would carry maximum weapons load with just enough fuel to allow for take-off at maximum weight limit. Once airborne they would top up and was then able to engage the enemy with a full weapons load and full fuel tanks.
Skyhawks were first bloodied in action in the Vietnam War where it served as the U.S. Navy's primary light attack aircraft. The Skyhawk is generally credited with having carried out the first ground attacks and also as the last aircraft to drop a bomb during the war. Heinemann's Hot Rod had only one air to air kill when on 1 May 1967 an A-4C piloted by Lieutenant Commander Theodore R. Swartz shot down a North Vietnamese Air Force MiG-17.Of the 362 Skyhawk losses 32 were downed by surface to air missiles whilst one was shot down by a MiG 17 during aerial combat.
Israel, who purchased 217 A-4s, was the largest export customer for Skyhawks where they served as the primary ground attack aircraft in the War of Attrition and the Yom Kippur War. At least 9 A-4s were downed by anti-aircraft fire and SA-6 missiles. A Skyhawk piloted by Col. Ezra Dotan shot down two MiG-17s but three A-4s were downed by Egyptian MiG 21 fighters.
Argentina became the first export customer when it received 130 A-4s between 1965 and 1970. During the 1982 Falklands War with Britten 48 armed Skyhawks armed with unguided bombs were deployed with devastating effect against British Navy vessels. A Destroyer and Frigate was sunk whilst several others were severely damaged including the Sir Galahad which was later scuttled. Argentine loses were heavy. Twenty two of the 48 Skyhawks were lost. Eight were shot down by British Sea Harriers.
In 1991, thirty seven years after the first prototype flew Skyhawks were still doing what they were designed for. Iraq had invaded Kuwait and Kuwaiti Skyhawks flew rear-guard actions against the attackers. Twenty four managed to escape to Saudi Arabia from where they flew 1,361 sorties as part of operation Desert Storm and the liberation of Kuwait. Only one was lost during the conflict.
So successful was Ed Heinemann's Hot Rod that it went on to serve in the forces of the United States, Israel, Kuwait, Australia, New Zeeland, Malaysia, Singapore, Brazil and Indonesia who obtained a number clandestinely from Israel. Sixty one years after the Skyhawks first flight it a upgraded version is still serving in the Brazilian Air Force.