‘It came down to a great little airplane, the A-4, being less capable overall than a larger and more efficient airplane, the A-7, which could get more bombs off the bow. For sheer fun in flying though, I’d take a Super Fox A-4 over any other aircraft,’ CAPT T.J. (Jeff) Brown, Jr.
CAPT T.J. (Jeff) Brown, Jr., received his wings in February 1970 and was temporarily stashed awaiting a squadron assignment. When USS Hancock and its air wing returned from its first last deployment in 1971 (it was to make three more “last” deployments), he jumped at the chance to be assigned to VA-212, which was to deploy with Air Wing 21 on its second last deployment. As told by Tommy H Thomason in his book Scooter! The Douglas A-4 Skyhawk Story, a result, he got to fly that cruise with the A-4F and on the penultimate of Hancock’s last deployments, the Super Fox. He subsequently deployed with the A-7E twice and flew the A-7B in the reserves:
‘The A-4 was a dream to fly. I’m perfectly honest when I say that it wasn’t so much that you were flying the airplane as you thought about doing something and the airplane responded. Some thought it was oversensitive but I did not. Every control input was there right now. Its roll rate was phenomenal and only limited to 720 degrees per second because of possible longitudinal coupling, a most undesirable out-of-control condition.
‘The sensation of being one with the airplane was heightened by the size of the cockpit. Most of the canopy rail was part of the canopy itself. When I closed the canopy, the rails almost rested on my shoulders and I’m only average in size. Some of the larger pilots had to sit sideways and stoop their shoulders to fit. With the canopy closed, I could move my head maybe 2 inches side to side before hitting the canopy with my helmet. It was tight.
‘The consoles were very close together. Lord help you if you dropped anything on the floor. The instrument panel was close to the pilot; so close that its lower edge was something of a concern from the standpoint of retaining your legs from the shins down in the event of an ejection.
‘The visibility over the nose and the sides of the fuselage was excellent and what you couldn’t see because it was beneath you was quickly revealed by a flick of the stick. Rearward visibility was enhanced by two rearview mirrors. All this led to an illusion of smallness in a good way, the feeling that the enemy couldn’t see you.
‘One of the major drawbacks was the lack of self-boarding. It was very easy to get into the cockpit using the Douglas-issue ladder and both difficult and dangerous without it. The E and the F had a gun blast deflector just below the engine inlet that could be used to step from the wing to the cockpit and back. On earlier models, the fairing over the fuel line leading aft from the in-flight refueling nozzle could be used to access the fuselage but it was even less suited as a foothold than the E/F blast deflector.
‘The aerodynamic actuation of the slats was useful in the event of the loss of the angle-of-attack indication. If you slowed down so the slats were about halfway extended, that was a good approach speed for the weight.
‘Asymmetric deployment of the slats was a possibility in a rolling pullout. The onset was not abrupt or the difference in lift so high that it wasn’t easily and quickly correctible with a lateral snap of the stick into the uncommanded roll. However, it was possible to rip a slat right off the airplane during violent maneuvering at high speeds.
‘The avionics were pretty basic even in the Fs. It had a radar that you could use to distinguish land from water, one radio, the TACAN, an ADF, an autopilot that usually didn’t work, a navigation computer that was both rudimentary and inaccurate, and a fairly decent ECM/IFF suite. When deployed, we purposely did not troubleshoot problems with the autopilot, nav computer, or approach power compensator. They weren’t mission necessary and required a lot of TLC to work properly. We channeled the work of technicians onto systems that were vital, such as weapons delivery and ECM. Basically, anything that did not help to get bombs on target was neglected until we were back in the States.
‘With a lightbulb and one moving part (two if you count the rheostat for the light bulb) the gun sight couldn’t have been simpler but placed a premium on pilot technique and practice. In that regard, you would not expect that an airplane so sensitive on the controls would be a good dive-bomber but it was. The roll rate and response made instantaneous corrections possible and even with the World War II—style gunsight, most of us became very good at all types of weapons delivery.
‘For a non-afterburning aircraft, the Skyhawk was pretty peppy, even with the J52-P-8 engine. It had excellent power response, fairly good economy, and at that point, great reliability. There was one weakness in the P-8 engine, a condition called “Idle Undershoot.” Pratt & Whitney had redesigned the burner cans to reduce the amount of smoke in the exhaust. This caused the fire to go out in a few of the burner cans [they were connected laterally] if the engine was at idle for a length of time in the air. Advancing the throttle would not correct the situation. The pilot had to shut the engine off and relight it, which usually worked fine. We didn’t spend a lot of time at idle anyway, but as a precaution we kept the engine as some percentage higher than idle.
‘Unlike the fighters, we usually didn’t have to tank. Before we got the Super Foxes with the P-408 engines, we could outturn the F-8s but couldn’t follow them in vertical maneuvers. Instead we had to wait for them to come back down. When we got the Super Foxes, going vertical was no longer a way for them to disengage.
‘The additional power in the -408 was very noticeable. With a formation takeoff with the -8 engine, the flight would run the power up to 85 percent while holding the brakes. With the -408, the brakes couldn’t hold the airplane at anything like 85 percent. Fortunately for pilot workload, everything on the Super Fox was factory-fresh and worked well, especially the Approach Power Compensator [APC], which was an autothrottle. The P-408 had so much thrust that to maintain on-speed during a carrier approach, an unnaturally low power setting, with resultant far aft throttle position, was required. This was disconcerting to those of us who were used to the P-8; we had to make our arms stay back for the correct throttle position. The APC solved this problem very nicely and most of us became devout users, especially at night.
‘The A-7 could carry more ordnance and fuel with a more efficient engine and better avionics. The Bravo was just a big, fat A-4 with respect to its avionics suite, however. The only improvement, as I remember, was a better gun sight. It had the same two Mk 12 20mm cannons as the A-4, but with space in a turtleback compartment behind the pilot for a significantly greater amount of ammunition. It was powered by a Pratt & Whitney TF30-P-408 engine that produced about 13,500 lb.; had good power response and specific fuel consumption; and seemed very reliable. It had a good Approach Power Compensator and Mode II needles so carrier approaches were easy.
‘The cockpit of the A-7 was huge, with double-wide consoles on both sides and a broad front instrument panel. Instead of the canopy resting on my shoulders, I could now barely reach the canopy sills with my elbows! Gone was the sense of strapping on the airplane like the A-4. It was more like entering the airplane. Visibility was excellent, although not as good downward as the A-4. Another welcome feature was the integral boarding with a pull-down step and hand/foot wells.
‘The Echo’s avionics suite was just stunning for an A-4 pilot. The ones I first flew came direct from the factory with Forward Looking Infra Red [FLIR] pods installed, a new digital radar that could actually be used for targeting, an improved HUD that could display the infrared images, and an inertial navigation system. As low as 5,000 feet, we could see the carrier from almost 100 miles away; synch up the FLIR picture with our radar, and be ready in all respects for offensive action, all the while transmitting real-time information to the E-2C and the ship. If we couldn’t see the target, we could turn on the excellent autopilot and let the E-2C data link steer us to it.
‘The A-7’s speed brake was effective in flight but could not be used on approach like the A-4’s because it was on the belly of a low-slung airplane. Even with the gear and leading and trailing edge flaps extended, the A-7 was very slick. Being on-speed and on the glide path required you to be way back on power, particularly in the Echo, into the realm of slower engine response.
‘Another landing problem in the A-7s was that the aircraft tended to wheelbarrow after touchdown, with the aircraft weight shifting off the main landing gear and on the nose wheel. Despite the use of spoilers and the presence of the anti-skid system, blown main landing gear tires were not unknown if the brakes were applied when the airplane weight came off the main landing gear.
‘The main shortcoming of the A-7, though, was “departure from controlled flight,” or “departure” for short. What’s worse, there were two different departures, one at lower speeds and another at higher. The low-speed departure was encountered when the pilot kept pulling on the stick in a nose-high turn. The airplane flopped over on its back and snapped into an opposite turn, indicative of an incipient spin. If there were no external stores or the load was symmetric, then merely neutralizing the controls resulted in the nose falling through and the regaining of flying speed with some altitude loss. With an asymmetric stores load, the departure often resulted in a spin entry and significant altitude loss during the recovery.
‘The high-speed departure was even more attention-getting. It occurred when the pilot put too much of a pull on the stick at high speed. If the airplane departed, it was very violent, much worse than an A-4 asymmetric slat deployment. Brief loss of consciousness was not unknown in the resulting combination of snap roll and head-over-heels tumble. As large as the A-7 canopy was, your helmet would bounce off both sides of it. Unlike the A-4 asymmetric slat situation, you couldn’t feel the onset in time to avoid the departure. The good news was that the airplane recovered on its own from a high-speed departure while you were getting your wits back.
‘There was enough concern about the high-speed departures that a four-flight T-2C syllabus was developed to demonstrate it to A-7 pilots, with the basic takeaway being to avoid the onset conditions, as opposed to how to recover from it.
‘Everything on both the Bravo and the Echo was hydraulic and prone to leak. The standing joke was that if you stuck your finger in the bilge in one of the access panels near the tailhook and didn’t get at least one finger joint wet with hydraulic fluid, then it needed servicing.
‘It came down to a great little airplane, the A-4, being less capable overall than a larger and more efficient airplane, the A-7, which could get more bombs off the bow. For sheer fun in flying though, I’d take a Super Fox A-4 over any other aircraft.’
Scooter! The Douglas A-4 Skyhawk Story is published by Crecy and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Navy