Former US Navy F/A-18 pilot explains why although during his era the Hornet was the best airplane on the carrier his fun meter was most pegged flying the A-4 Skyhawk

Former US Navy F/A-18 pilot explains why although during his era the Hornet was the best airplane on the carrier his fun meter was most pegged flying the A-4 Skyhawk

By Dario Leone
Mar 2 2023
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‘I will say this – and I know a lot of other Navy guys that would say the same thing – my fun meter was probably most pegged flying the A-4 Skyhawk,’ Jim Danhakl, former US Navy F/A-18 Hornet pilot.

Douglas built 2,960 A-4 Skyhawk attack aircraft between 1954 and 1979.

Built small to be cost effective and so that more of them could be accommodated on a carrier, the lightweight, high-speed bombers were affectionately nicknamed “Heinemann’s Hot Rod” (after Douglas designer Ed Heinemann), the Bantam Bomber, Mighty Mite and Scooter. Skyhawks 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.

Given its unique capabilities, what was it like to fly the A-4 Skyhawk?

Jim Danhakl, former US Navy F/A-18 Hornet pilot, recalls on Quora;

‘During my era the F/A-18 was the king of the hill. It was by far the best airplane on the carrier. We used to eat Tomcats for lunch in a dogfight and the missions both air to air and air to ground were more diverse and challenging. I also loved being single seat and the pride that comes with “doing it all”.

VFA-34 F/A-18C Print
This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. F/A-18C Hornet VFA-34 Blue Blasters, NE400 / 165403 / 2017

‘But I will say this – and I know a lot of other Navy guys that would say the same thing – my fun meter was probably most pegged flying the A-4 Skyhawk.

‘Maybe it was first love maybe it’s the way you slid in the jet and wore it vice larger cockpits that felt more rub-a-dub-dub. But the A-4 was a performer – especially the big engine A-4F.

‘We fought against adversaries who flew those all the time and I’ve been embarrassed by those guys in guns only 1 v 1 dogfighting.’

Danhakl concludes;

‘I would not want to go to war in one – today that choice would be the F-35 – but for flat out fun factor – I would have to say the A-4F Skyhawk was my fav. I don’t think anyone who flew carrier fighter-based aviation in last 30 years would disagree too much!’

Photo credit: U.S. Navy

A-4 model
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Dario Leone

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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  1. FL420 says:

    In the early 70’s my first shore duty after 2 combat cruises was to the west coast F-4 RAG at NAS Miramar in Dan Diego. As the first aviator from my squadron to be selected to attend NFWS aka TOPGUN, John Cheshire was the second) I spent most of my time teaching ACM to RAG studs in the Advanced Tactics Phase. The training pipeline was overflowing so we instructors were going to and from work almost every day in the dark year round.
    I flew 2 and often 3 hops a day. I had to run back and forth between the VF-121 spaces to hop into an F-4B or J Phantom, to VF-126 to hop into a 2 seat T/A-4F or J Skyhawk or to TOPGUN to hop into a single seat A-4E ” Mongoose.” I was also qualified in the T-28B/C Trojans owned by the Air Station base ops pilots to retain currency but we used them to play FAC for the studs in the air-to-mud tactics phase.
    I loved all those machines for different reasons and different missions. I have to agree that the A-4E Mongoose was my favorite for up close and personal knife fight in a phone booth missions. The Blue Angels and TOPGUN were the only 2 units who bolted the aerodynamically independently extendable leading edge slats up that were fashioned after the slats on the North American F-86 Sabrejet and the Sabreliner bizjet.
    The pros of unbolted slats were lower approach, landing and stall speeds useful for landing aboard the boat and flying as slow as possible in control in a scissors-type maneuver during ACM.
    The cons of unbolted slats is during high G maneuvers slat deployment depended on the angle of attack(AOA) ON EACH WING . Well adjusted slats(which is checked on every preflight inspection) should extend at almost the exact same time as both wings are experiencing the same AOA during slow deceleration in one G level flight as when dirtying up for landing.
    During a hard G break turn or while pulling lead to saddle into a guns firing envelope inside wing is flying a smaller concentric circle at a slightly slower speed and higher AOA than the wing on the larger concentric circle at a higher speed and a lower AOA than the inside wing. Everyone who has flown a stock A-4 in ACM has had their bell rung when the slat on the inside wing rapidly and unexpectedly deploys increasing the lift on that wing before the slat on the outside wing deploys. The result is the aircraft rapidly rolls opposite the direction of turn, bouncing the pilot’s helmet off the canopy and often spitting him out of his advantageous position against the opponent.
    I flew adversary missions against quite a few Air Force aircraft during deployments at Nellis AFB during Red Flags, Luke AFB fighting the F-15s of the 555th TFS “Triple Nickels and USMC Harriers at MCAS Yuma, AZ.
    The Mongoose was as honest as a C-150, maybe more so. During Red Flags, my wingie and I would screw around with the controllers in the ACMI trailer while max conserving fuel while waiting for our second flight of “victims.” With our power set we would pull our noses up and decel while climbing until the controllers, usually called on us on the radio to “check airspeed, check airspeed!” I would wait until we ran out of airspeed then reply, “yep, it’s zero.” The aircraft would then stall in a combat spread formation straight ahead wings level and pick up airspeed and do it again. Ahh, those were the days.

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