What did the A-7 Corsair II have that gave it such a great combat record and a devoted pilot community, aka the “A-7 mafia”?
It is not easy to replace a legend, but in May 1963, the Navy called upon aircraft manufacturers to submit design proposals to succeed the A-4 Skyhawk in the light attack role.
‘With the Vietnam escalating, the USN found that their current inventory of attack aircraft (A-1 Skyraider, A-4 Skyhawk) lacked the range and payload necessary for that war. They released an RFP which indicated the new aircraft had to be based on an existing airframe, in order to reduce cost/risk. Vought won with a design derived from the beloved F-8 Crusader. First flight of the A-7 Corsair II [dubbed SLUF, Short Little Ugly F****r, by its aircrews] was in 1965. The A-7A was rushed into service. The A-7B with upgraded engine followed,’ says David Tussey, former US Navy A-7 Corsair II pilot, on Quora.
‘Following the Navy’s procurement, the USAF was arm-twisted to buy the A-7 also (ostensibly to provide CAS for the Army in Vietnam). The USAF insisted on significant upgrades to the engine, avionics, armament, radar, and instrumentation. This upgraded configuration was the baseline for all further A-7 procurements, especially the USN A-7E (which I flew).
‘And while the A-7A and A-7B variants were successful, it was those upgrades, initiated by the USAF configuration, that led to the superb performance of the A-7, both the “D” and “E” variants for USAF and USN. The Navy benefited enormously from the USAF upgrades.
‘So, what did the A-7D/E have that gave it such a great combat record and a devoted pilot community, aka the “A-7 mafia”?’
- Great range and endurance provided by the TF-41 turbofan. Missions of 3+ hours were possible.
- Great payload and mission flexibility. Six external stores stations + sidewinders + M61 Vulcan cannon. Great flexibility in loadouts for various mission types from mining to anti-ship to armed interdiction to traditional CAS.
- State-of-the-art avionics. Equipped with a digital computer (allowing for continuous upgrades), inertial navigation, HUD, moving-map display (Google maps before there was Google maps), excellent radar, self-defense EW + active jamming, digital air data computer, etc.
- Computer controlled weapons delivery: This was probably the biggest impact, the ability to have weapons delivery controlled by a computer connected to the air data computer and inertial system — this was a true game changer and improved bomb delivery by a factor of 2X-3X in accuracy.
- Ease of maintenance and reliability: The A-7 enjoyed excellent “up time” and was relatively easy to maintain and service. Doing an engine replacement onboard a carrier was much easier than for the A-4 it replaced. Similarly, many of the issues that had plagued both the A-4 and F-8 (hydraulic leaks) were resolved. For the USN, this led to the A-7E being a real workhorse for the carrier airwing, able to generate high sortie rates.
- The ability to automatically extend the leading-edge flaps (Auto Maneuvering Flaps-AMF) at high AoA maneuvers was added in the mid-80s to the A-7E. It was a great help and probably saved several lives by preventing inadvertent stalls.
- Upgrades: Over the life of the A-7, the digital bus and computer control enable numerous upgrades to weapons carriage (Maverick, HARM, APAM, laser-guided bombs, etc.) as well as some performance changes such as automatic maneuvering flaps. Avionics upgrades also followed with upgraded radar to the improved digital scan version, upgraded Havequick dual radios, improved flight management systems, improved ejection seats. This kept the A-7 viable even into the Desert Storm conflict in the early 90s, when the last USN A-7 squadron was deployed, after a 25-year heritage.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy