It was the only time a Royal New Zealand Air Force A-4 Skyhawk aircraft ever fired its weapons in anger.
Jim Jennings became part of Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) history when in 1976, piloting his A-4 Skyhawk, he fired warning shots across the bow of a Taiwanese squid boat illegally fishing in New Zealand waters.
It was the only time a RNZAF Skyhawk aircraft ever fired its weapons in anger.
While that moment captured the public’s imagination, it did not define Mr Jennings’ extraordinary flying career, which spanned more than 60 years and took him around the world.
He has now retired and on May 27, 2021 he was farewelled at a small ceremony at RNZAF Base Ohakea.
After growing up on a North Canterbury farm, in 1961 an 18-year-old Mr Jennings enlisted and trained as a mechanic and engine fitter.
In 1964, he decided he wanted to be a pilot. He trained on Harvard and Devon aircraft before being posted to Ohakea to fly Vampires.
“The old Vampire that sits outside of the main gate of Ohakea is one I’ve flown many times,” he says in a New Zealand Defence Force news release.
The RNZAF then upgraded to Skyhawks and Mr Jennings flew them on exercises in Singapore, Malaysia and Australia. He also did a stint on the Strikemaster as operations flight commander.
He spent some time at headquarters in Wellington before, along with his family, being posted to Malaysia in the integrated Air Defence System, from 1981 until 1983.
Mr Jennings then returned to his old stomping ground at Ohakea where he served as the Strike Wing’s Executive Officer before an “out of the blue” offer he couldn’t refuse to take command of the Skyhawk training unit, No. 2 Squadron.
“I had two lovely years there training lots of pilots on the Skyhawk and having a real blast.”
Another career highlight occurred in 1989, when Mr Jennings deployed to Iran as the Detachment Commander of the Air Unit providing the in-country air transport to the United Nations mission there.
“It was a very nice place and a lovely country and the mission itself worked quite well but it did have its moments dealing with Iranian Revolutionary Guards.”
The country was like “Central Otago on a grand scale”.
“It had magnificent scenery, lovely people, and snow. My tour was a winter one and at the back of Tehran, where we were based they had a very good ski field. It was a real highlight of my career.”
In 2010, he was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List, for services to the military.
In 2011, Mr Jennings’ position was turned into a civilian role. For the past 10 years he has looked after operational support matters, including the airline diversion capability at Ohakea.
The 79-year-old is now ready for retirement and a “good sleep in”.
“I feel young, but the reality is, that’s quite a few years on the clock. I think it was time to retire and give someone else a run at it.
“I think I will miss being on an air base with aircraft around, because I’ve been with aircraft nearly all my life, but it’s been a lovely experience and I’ve worked with some excellent people over the years.”
The A-4 Skyhawk in service with the Royal New Zealand Air Force
In 1970, 10 A-4K single-seat aircraft and 4 TA-4K were delivered to the RNZAF, joining 75 Squadron. These were joined by 8 A-4G Skyhawk and 2 TA-4Gs from the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) in 1984, which allowed a second Skyhawk-equipped squadron, 2 Squadron, to form.
In 1986, Project Kahu was launched to upgrade New Zealand’s Skyhawks with new avionics, including an AN/APG-66NZ radar based on that used by the F-16, and weapons, as a lower-cost alternative to buying new replacements. All 10 ex-RAN and the 12 surviving original RNZAF aircraft were converted to the A-4K Kahu standard.
In 2001 the three Air Combat Force squadrons (Nos 2, 14, and 75) were disbanded and the Skyhawks put into storage awaiting sale. They were maintained, with occasional servicing flights, and then moved to RNZAF Base Woodbourne, where they were preserved in protective latex.
Draken International signed an agreement with the New Zealand government in 2012 to purchase eight A-4Ks and associated equipment for its adversary training services. Six were former RAN A-4G airframes which as carrier aircraft had logged significantly fewer flying hours. These were subsequently relocated to the U.S. at Draken’s Lakeland Linder International Airport facility in Lakeland, Florida. The other A-4K aircraft were given to museums in New Zealand and Australia.
Photo credit: Royal New Zealand Air Force, U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy