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The A-4 Skyhawk
Called the “Tinker Toy” because of its diminutive size, the A-4 Skyhawk bore the brunt of Naval Aviation’s strike effort during the Vietnam War. A-4s provided the US Navy and Marines and friendly nations with maneuverable, yet powerful, attack bombers that had great altitude and range capabilities, plus an unusual flexibility in armament capacity.
The Navy’s Blue Angels flight demonstration squadron flew the A-4 Skyhawk II from 1974 to 1986. Skyhawks have also been used by the armed forces of Australia, Brazil, Indonesia, Israel, Kuwait, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore and Argentina.
Argentine A-4 Skyhawk fighter bombers during the Falklands War
By 1982, the backbone of the Argentine combat aviation, both in the Air Force and the Navy, was formed by three batches of Douglas A-4 Skyhawks, with the A-4B and C of the Air Force and the A-4Qs of the Navy.
Despite their age, being a model almost 30 years old at the time of the war, and lacking protection, they took on the overwhelming struggle to fight the British Task Force that opposed the Argentine forces on the Malvinas/Falkland Islands. The Skyhawks were responsible for inflicting the greatest damage upon the Royal Navy, sinking HMS Coventry, Ardent, Antelope, RFA Sir Galahad, and LCU F-4, while damaging many other ships and striking ground targets.
Attempted strike on HMS Invincible aircraft carrier during the Falklands War
According to Santiago Rivas’ book Skyhawks over the South Atlantic, Argentine Skyhawks in the Malvinas/Falklands War, the A-4 Skyhawks from Argentine Air Force’s (Fuerza Aérea Argentina, FAA) Escuadron I Aeromovil even attempted a strike on HMS Invincible aircraft carrier on May 30, 1982.
Coded Mission OF.1268, the Strike on HMS Invincible saw Primer Tenientes José Vazquez (on C-301) and Ernesto Ureta (C-321) volunteering to take part, and they selected PTs Omar Castillo (C-310) and Alférez Gerardo Isaac (C-318) as their wingmen. Teniente Paredi (C-302) was to serve as a reserve. The formation was codenamed Zonda, and each aircraft was armed with three BRP.250 bombs. In front of them was Section Ala, including Super Etendards 3-A-202 piloted by Capitan de Corbeta (CC) Alejandro Francisco, and 3-A-205 with Teniente de Navio Luis Collavino. Because of the long flight and the quantity of aircraft, both FAA KC-130Hs were reserved for this mission, both launching from Rio Gallegos.
“In front is the aircraft carrier”
Alférez [Zonda 4] recalled:
‘At 40 miles from what would be the target, according to the coordinates given, the Super Etendards lifted for the first time, made a radar sweep and went down, at 30 miles did the same and at 20 the launch should occur. When they get up, I look to the left to see the launch, I thought that the missile was coming out of the pylon but it fell down, when I saw that the missile was falling [and] I thought that it had failed, but then its engine started. In this moment their leader said “in front is the aircraft carrier,” turned left and returned to Rio Grande.
‘We follow the trail, we start to converge and the missile disappeared in a moment, it got lost in the horizon (the weather was covered with clouds, grey with some showers that we had to avoid) and in the same place where the missile was lost, a few seconds later, the silhouette of a very large ship appeared, unlike all the silhouettes we had studied and the clearest was the asymmetry, the ship was in the same direction we were flying and it was totally asymmetric, the flight deck gave me a disruptive vision.
‘I was clearly looking at an aircraft carrier, I clearly saw the flight deck and the island where all the antennas and the bridge are, as we approached two columns of black smoke began to emerge on both sides, as if screwed, came from both sides, more and more smoke began to settle in the area of the aircraft carrier and began to cover the lower part of her.
‘As I got closer I started to see her only from the flight deck upwards, in this moment I started to feel hot air, I started to feel the mask very hot and I thought I had to put more cold air, but this meant that I had to take the hand from the accelerator and grab the stick with the left and with the right hand move the command of the air. I sent the command to both hands and neither responded, the left stayed on the accelerator and the right on the stick.
‘I stuck close to the water, since I saw the aircraft carrier, I forgot the rest of the world, I had what is called target fascination, I experienced it exactly as the manual says, as if two earmuffs began to close and the only thing that existed for me was the ship. Until about 10 kilometres away I felt an explosion that I knew was not from my plane, I looked to the left and saw an A-4 [callsign Zonda 1, flown by Vasquez] that was exploding, a wing broke, showed the belly and crashed on the water.
Shooting with guns
‘Everyone was to my left, I was on the right. I did not know who it was. I looked forward again, back to the ship and when I was about to start shooting with the guns – I wanted to start shooting the guns from afar, because on May 25 when I entered San Carlos and entered shooting with guns, I felt invulnerable, I felt that nothing was going to happen to me – they were firing at us, the explosive ammunition was visible.
‘When I was about to start firing, I felt another explosion, much stronger, inside the cabin. I felt it as when you let out the gas for a while and then throw a phosphorus, pressure and depression, it’s the same sensation because it’s not even noise and I looked to my left and saw, at between 5 and 10 meters, another A-4 [callsign Zonda 2, flown by Castillo] that exploded, the image I have was an A-4 twice as long and twice as fat, with the same shape of the A-4 but with all the sheets separated and between sheet and sheet all orange.
Attempt to hit HMS Invincible during the Falklands War
‘I looked again at the nose and began to shoot with the guns, 200 rounds came out against the stern and over the smoke, because I was flying between the flight deck and the water, up to the right was the island and I couldn’t climb to pass over the deck, so I turned right and went through the right side of the aircraft carrier. When I passed the bow of the aircraft carrier, I started to make turns with high load factor, right and left for a long time, trying to prevent from being hit.’
Ureta [Zonda 3] recalled the attempt to hit HMS Invincible as follows:
‘We approached on heading 340° or 350°, forming to the Super Etendards, at 100 feet altitude and a speed of 420 knots. Before launching the Exocet, the Super Etendards made a slight correction to the right and the wingman remained slightly ahead of the leader. heard the leader indicating the position of the target, so I asked “how far?” and he replied “20 miles ahead.”
‘Then I pulled the throttle to full power and I called Zonda 1, but he didn’t answer, although I had him within sight: he was approaching me while we were converging to the target. Once we were at 30 meters from each other I saw that a part of his left wing detached from his aircraft: seconds later, the engine exploded, leaving the aircraft without the rear part. He began a descend to the left. I had not seen the moment in which it hit the water, nor the pilot ejecting. We were too low and I do not think he could do so.
Target in sight
‘Meanwhile, my target was in view and [I] continued my approach and when I was in range for my guns, I opened fire. However, my cannons jammed after firing only two rounds. Thus, I continued my approach keeping the pipper at the target all the time, then pressed the trigger to drop the bombs while attacking from about 30° from the stern, before passing over the rear half of the ship.
‘Once on the other side, I called Numbers 2 and 4, but they did not answer. Thus, I assumed I was returning alone. It was only later that I saw [in] my mirror that another aircraft was to the right and behind me: on changing the frequency of my radio to that for contacting tankers, I realised this was the Number 4.
Argentine A-4 pilots claim to have attacked HMS Invincible during the Falklands War
‘When I recall that mission, I am sure we attacked HMS Invincible: it had a long island atop a long, empty flight deck. On the final leg of my attack run, I saw a lots of dense, black smoke rising from the ship. Moreover, when trying to see the ship after the attack all I could see was even more smoke rising from it. I did not see any other ships, at least not to my left — because my vision was concentrated to that side – except for the carrier.’
Ever since this attack was undertaken, the British have been insistent that all the Argentine reports about an attack on HMS Invincible are wrong, and that the ship was neither attacked nor hit. The Argentines remain persistent with their claims until this very day: unsurprisingly related discussions are often heated.
Six fighter-bombers involved
What is certain is that the six fighter-bombers involved in the controversial attack on HMS Invincible during the Falklands War took off at 12:30; the Super Etendards fired their Exocet two hours later, and then returned to land at 15:30. The two surviving Skyhawks landed back at the base at 16:23. At 15:40, the Base Aérea Militar (BAM, Military Air Base) Malvinas forwarded a message from the FAA’s radar on the Falklands to Comando Fuerza Aérea Sud (CdoFAS, Air Force Command South, FAA):
‘… lots of British helicopters were detected over the fleet, all moving to the east, where the HMS Invincible was supposed to be, and the Sea Harriers – which flew their CAPs at an altitude of 30,000ft -were landing at a different point than the one where they have taken off.’
Argentine version of the attack on HMS Invincible during the Falklands War
The rest of the Argentine version of this affair is based on what Ureta and Isaac claim to have seen: both of them agreed that the ship they bombed was the same that they saw in the pictures before mission, that it had a rectangular flight deck, a big long island, and the two radar masts. They also both stressed that they had left the ship enveloped in a dense cloud of black smoke, rising from about centre of the hull, below the island. Moreover, the two Super Etendard pilots stated that the target that they had tracked with their radars was the size of an aircraft carrier.
Re-attacking the burned-out hulk of SS Atlantic Conveyor
Once the corresponding reports were published in Argentina, late on 30 May, the British Defence Minister John Nott stated that the Argentines had re-attacked the burned-out hulk of SS Atlantic Conveyor, and that one Skyhawk was shot down. Actually, Atlantic Conveyor had sunk already days earlier, which means that Nott’s statement was false.
Three days later, the British stated the Skyhawks actually attacked the Type 21 frigate HMS Avenger (F185), which – together the destroyer HMS Exeter (D89) – was south-east of the Royal Navy’s task force and heading for the islands with the task of providing fire-support following night. The frigate was seven miles south-west of the destroyer, and 24 miles west of HMS Invincible at the time of attack: about 45 seconds after the incoming airstrike was detected it may have shot down the approaching Exocet with her 4.5in (115mm) gun.
The two Skyhawks were then shot down by Sea Dart SAMs fired by HMS Exeter, and the black smoke seen by the Argentine pilots was ‘normal’ for such a ship. With their own navy operating exactly the same guns on its two British-made destroyers, the Argentines concluded this version as ‘very doubtful,’ because they consider such guns as ineffective for use even against aircraft, not to mention sea-skimming missiles.
Argentine Skyhawks managed to penetrate the defences of the Royal Navy’s task force
Whether during the Falklands War they actually attacked the HMS Invincible, or a frigate, there is little doubt that the Skyhawks managed to penetrate the defences of the Royal Navy’s task force and their pilots demonstrated bravery beyond what could have been expected from them. Unsurprisingly, Isaac and Ureta were both decorated with the Medalla al Heroico Valore n Combat – the highest military award of Argentina.
Skyhawks over the South Atlantic, Argentine Skyhawks in the Malvinas/Falklands War, is published by Helion & Company and is available to order here.
Photo credit: Argentine Air Force, U.S. Navy and Royal Navy