Because of its air-to-air prowess the A-4 was soon nicknamed Mongoose, and provided to most fighter pilots the experience necessary to prepare them for actual combat
Even if the legendary Douglas A-4 was designed as a simple light weight Navy carrier attack plane, the Skyhawk served in many different roles such as aerial refueling, nuclear strike and also as adversary aircraft. In fact, although not equipped with an afterburner, a lightly loaded A-4 flown by an expert in air-to-air maneuvering could be the perfect aircraft to reproduce the small Soviet fighters in Dissimilar Air Combat Training (DACT) sessions.
As explained by Tommy H. Thomason in his book Scooter! The Douglas A-4 Skyhawk Story, the first time a Skyhawk was used as U.S. Navy adversary aircraft for development of air-to-air combat tactics appears to have been in late autumn 1968 at VF-126, a West Coast fleet readiness squadron assigned to instrument training and operating A-4s. The United States Navy Fighter Weapons School, known as Topgun, was born just few months later in March 1969 at Naval Air Station (NAS) Miramar, California, where it operated as a local detachment of VF-126 until it was made a separate unit in July 1972.
Topgun was born after the unsatisfactory U.S. fighters air-to-air combat exchange in the early years of the Vietnam War. These poor results were primarily due to the fact that F-4 Phantom pilots training was focused on the Soviet bomber threat rather than air-to-air combat between fighters. So, since the Russian fighters encountered in the skies over the North Vietnam were very different in size and maneuverability from the Navy fighters, a surrogate more closely matching the threat was required. That turned out to be a stripped-down A-4E Skyhawk to simulate the MiG-17 and the T-38s to represent the MiG-21.
As adversary, the A-4 was more than a handful in a furball for Crusader and Phantom pilots. Because of its air-to-air prowess the A-4 was soon nicknamed Mongoose, and provided to most fighter pilots the experience necessary to prepare them for actual combat. And most important, thanks to the A-4 presence, Topgun greatly enhanced the air-to-air combat exchange from the first half of the Vietnam War.
The DACT demand increased and other units were activated: the VF-127 at NAS Leemore, the VF-43 at NAS Oceana and the VF-45 at NAS Cecil Field. In September 1973 two reserve composite squadrons were also established to provide adversaries for dissimilar air combat training: VC-12 and VC-13.
The A-4 continued to be the perfect airplane to simulate Soviet bandits also against the newest U.S Navy fighter, the F-14 Tomcat. Actually in a DACT sortie against the mighty Tomcat the A-4 was perfect to play the part of a small highly maneuverable fighter, hard to acquire and easy to lose track of during an engagement. In fact even if the Mongoose was not equipped with an afterburner, thanks to its fast roll rate, small turn radius, acceleration and rate of climb could hold its own even versus more potent fighter jets.
More squadrons were activated in the following years primarily using A-4Es and the more potent A-4Fs and TA-4Fs. Among the new units there was also the VC-10 that flew Sidewinder-armed TA-4Js to provide air defense for NAS Guantanamo Bay, until some fighters could get there from south Florida. In 1987 NAS Dallas received some A-4Ms which were stripped of all armor, nonessential avionics and other nonessential equipment reducing the empty weight by approximately 1,500 pounds. These aircraft traveled as required to provide adversary DACT for Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Canadian fighter pilots at various bases in the United States and Canada.
The Skyhawk was officially retired by the U.S. Navy in 1999. Nevertheless the VC-8 continued to fly TA-4Js until 2003 from NAS Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico, to tow targets, simulate threat emitters and jammers, and provide DACT sorties, proving to be still a handful in a visual engagement. This claim is confirmed by the fact that at the second annual Atlantic Coast Strike Fighter Shoot Out in May 2001, a VC-8 pilot recorded a 23.5 second gun kill against an Air Force A-10 and another took only a minute to get a gun kill on an F/A-18, the fighter/attack replacement for the A-7, which was the replacement for the A-4.
Currently Draken International operates several former Royal New Zeeland Air Force A-4K, in adversary role providing DACT for all branches of the U.S. Military.
In the interesting video below, taken between the late 1980s and the early 1990s, you can see VFC-12 (formerly known as VC-12, but re-designated as Fighter Composite Squadron 12 in 1988) A-4s conducting DACT engagements against F-14 Tomcat fighter jets.
Photo credit: U.S. Navy
Artwork courtesy of AircraftProfilePrints.com