The A-4 was the backbone of the US Navy and Marine Corps’ light strike force for much of the 1960s, and especially during the first half of the ten-year struggle in Vietnam.
A-4 pilots hurled themselves daily at heavily defended targets up and down the south-east Asian peninsula, often paying a heavy price in lives and aircraft. Flying into vast thickets of anti-aircraft bursts mixed with huge surface-to-air missiles took great courage and skill, and to do so repeatedly during a carrier’s tour of duty on the line bespoke a depth of dedication and character that can only be wondered at.
In May 1967 the mighty Scooter also shot down a North Vietnamese MiG.
As explained by Peter Mersky in his book US Navy and Marine Corps A-4 Skyhawk Units of the Vietnam War, although it was small and nimble, and had a fairly heavy defensive armament with its two 20 mm cannon, the A-4 was a bomber. And again, although they certainly trained in aerial manoeuvres, mainly for defensive measures should they be attacked by enemy fighters, `Scooter’ pilots were, after all, attack aviators, earth movers, breakers of dykes. And although the A-4 would enjoy a secondary career as a highly successful adversary type, even having a starring role in the blockbuster 1986 film Top Gun, it was still, after all a bomber.
Yet, attack pilots are akin to their fighter pilot brethren — aggressive, determined, and opportunistic. Often, the two types swap communities, cross-pollinate, as it is sometimes described. One such pilot was high-time F-8 Crusader ‘driver’ Lt Cdr T R Swartz, who decided that the place to be in the growing conflict was an A-4’s cockpit. He was eventually assigned to VA-76 aboard USS Bon Homme Richard (CVA-31). The Squadron had made one previous combat deployment, aboard USS Enterprise (CVAN-65) in 1965.
The North Vietnamese had steadily built up their fighter force with contributions from the Soviet Union and communist China. Flying an assortment of MiGs, but mainly the MiG-17 and MiG-21 (which was always in short supply), the Vietnamese People’s Air Force (VPAF) had occasionally given US flight crews more than a little trouble. Each victory over a communist fighter was celebrated at both squadron and command level, with the victorious pilot usually whisked away to Saigon to answer media questions. The Navy’s F-4 and F-8 squadrons were the main `distributors of MiG parts’, but Swartz and his A-4C contributed their share on May 1 during a trip to the large VPAF base at Kep, near Hanoi.
`TR’ launched in A-4C BuNo 148609 ‘NP 685’, along with seven other VA-76 A-4s. VF-24 F-8s and A-4s from VA-212 made up the rest of the strike package of 22 jets. Two of the F-8s turned back because of mechanical problems, leaving the rest of the strikes to press on. As they approached Kep, two MiG-17s appeared — a pair of F-8s from VF-24 broke off to pursue the interceptors. Lt Cdr Swartz was the leader of the flak suppressor section, and was thus carrying Zuni pods, which each contained four of the big rockets that were proving so effective against ground targets.
As the bombers hit the airfield, ultimately destroying as many as 30 MiGs on the ground, Swartz and his wingman, Lt John Waples, headed for flak sites on Kep’s eastern side. Diving towards his target, Swartz saw two MiG-17s taxiing onto the runway preparing to take off. He and Waples fired their Zunis and destroyed the two enemy fighters.
As Swartz and Waples pulled up from their dive, they came under attack themselves as tracers flew by their canopies. Rolling their Skyhawks, they spotted two more MiGs that had sneaked up behind them. Waples called a warning and Swartz snap-rolled into a left turn. The MiGs tried to match the hard turn until Swartz pulled his control stick into his stomach. As the A-4 nearly stood on its tail, the VPAF pilots decided to return to their airfield. Waples fired his cannon at the departing enemy fighters, and it looked like he was hitting one of the MiGs when he ran out of bullets.
Swartz still had a few Zunis kit, and he slid in behind the MiGs and fired one of his missiles, which failed to hit the target. He fired again, but could not wait to see if he had hit the MiG-17 in front of him because Waples called a third VPAF fighter sliding in on Swartz’s tail. The Navy pilot racked his A-4 around to disrupt the MiG’s set-up. Waples, however, watched as one of the first MiGs descended behind a hill. A few seconds later he saw a large column of black smoke.
By now Swartz had cleared his tail and gone after the second MiG, firing his cannon, but he too ran out of ammunition. Never intended as a primary air-to-air weapon, the A-4’s twin cannon had a limited amount of ammunition, which had been recently further reduced to make space for additional electronic defence gear. T R Swartz received a Silver Star for his success, which was the only air-to-air kill made by an American A-4.
US Navy and Marine Corps A-4 Skyhawk Units of the Vietnam War is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force
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