“I knew a 102 could easily outrun an A-4, but I can also tell you that if flown properly, they can fly slower than a Skyhawk, too, which I wouldn’t have thought until saw it…” Walt Fink, former A-4 Pilot.
Former Scooter driver Walt Fink provides a memoir of his time in an A-4 utility squadron in the mid 1960s in Tommy H Thomason’s book Scooter! The Douglas A-4 Skyhawk Story:
‘My time in A-4s during my tour with VU-1 [later VC-1] was all in B models, which were our squadron’s first Skyhawks. We had five: BuNos 142842/UA40, 142865/UA41, 142950/UA42, 145012/UA43, and 144876/UA44. Each bird flew a little differently and had its own personality.
‘Our squadron’s unofficial motto was “Skeet For The Fleet” and we worked with Fleet Training Group Pearl Harbor and COMFAIRHAWAII, pretty much providing “bad guy”—type missions for both. Exercises ending with the codename CC were radar training ones where we’d provide a Bogey aircraft and a Shooter aircraft for shipboard controllers to practice their radar intercepts and calibration runs. Exercises ending with the code name G were gunnery exercises involving our being targets for ships to track. We didn’t tow any targets for them with the A-4, so there were no live firing episodes.
‘We also flew scheduled FLETRAGRUPearl Battle Problems for surface ships in which we had a specific Time On Target (or two) where we’d come in right on the water and cross amidships, setting off their battle scenarios. Sometimes it was just one pass and other times the specific Battle Problem would have us making more than one.
‘As carriers would transit the Hawaiian area on their way to WESTPAC, COMFAIRHAWAII would administer Operational Readiness Inspections [ORIs] to them, which would last anywhere from three days to a week, and we’d fly against the ships as raid aircraft for the Air Wing’s F-4s and F-8s to intercept. The directed procedure was to fly a predetermined inbound course and altitude to the ship with transponder and anticollision lights off, then turn both on when we were intercepted, so the controllers could wipe us off their screens as kills.
‘We weren’t permitted to engage the fighters or take any evasive actions, but toward the end of an ORI, the fighter jocks would be getting pretty testy with their long hours and little sleep, so we’d get “bounced” with gusto, and probably a couple times there was some “spirited maneuvering” to try and get out of a Phantom’s path after turning the parrot and beacon on.
‘We also provided Bogeys for the Hawaiian Air Defense. Similar to the ORIs, we’d head outbound to a predetermined point (they had me go westbound one early morning as far out as French Frigate Shoals), then reverse course and head back inbound, while the HADD controllers would vector the Guard’s F-102s to intercept us. As with the ORIs, we were directed not to engage the Deuces when we were intercepted, but they’d come up and fly wing on us and we’d exchange… well, salute. I knew a 102 could easily outrun an A-4, but I can also tell you that if flown properly, they can fly slower than a Skyhawk, too, which I wouldn’t have thought until saw it.
‘We assumed a limited ECM capability for training purposes with the arrival of ALQ-31 pods that we carried on the centerline. Using it, we’d see the interceptors either pass by or be well abeam of us, until at the direction of the controller we’d turn the pod off, at which time the fighters would pounce.
‘We also acquired Beech AQM-37 target drones—missiles—which we carried on the centerline and could launch for live fire Fleet exercises. The missiles were “smart” for that time, meaning that unless all was copacetic with their innards and the electronics in the aircraft, they wouldn’t launch, which saved having them go expensively stupid and fall into the sea. To ensure a good target, we sent up a section of A-4s, each carrying an AQM, and both pilots would go through the countdown to launch. If the primary aircraft’s AQM didn’t fire, the wingman would punch his off, saving the exercise. I saw this up close and personal on the only AQM launch I ever flew.
‘The firing group (F-4s, if I remember correctly) was in a downrange holding pattern while the launch aircraft (us) were in a similar pattern up range. We wanted to time everything so that when we reached the firing point, the fighters would be on their inbound leg for a down-the-throat shot at the AQM with Sparrows. What this meant for us was that there were going to be some missiles coming our way. Quickly. So, our procedure was to launch the AQM, then break down and away, and get the hell out of Dodge.
‘The only way to be sure you had a good AQM launch was to punch the missile off, feel the thump as it left the rack, then roll up on a wing and look down at it to be sure you saw the booster rocket fire. On my launch, we were IFR in turbulence anyway and when I hit the pickle, I couldn’t tell if the telltale thump was the AQM’s going on its way or the turbulence, and when I rolled up on a wing, all I saw was whiteness. For all I knew, the thing was on its way in the clouds.
‘But my best buddy “Skbortz,’ flying wingman, saw the missile still on the rack, and according to procedure, pickled his AQM off—and this one worked. The thing roared by me trailing fire and was then gone in a flash. Pretty impressive show, and not one I was prepared to see quite that close up and personal.
‘We received a couple of buddy stores and practiced in-flight refueling. My understanding was that we were being considered for utilization as ready tankers for Air Groups’ Operational Readiness Inspections, but that never materialized, at least during my tour.
‘I’ve heard it said that Composite Squadrons were tasked with doing the jobs that Fleet Squadrons wouldn’t do. We seemed to have interesting missions, though, plus a lot of low-level flying that was great duty.’
Scooter! The Douglas A-4 Skyhawk Story is published by Crecy and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Navy