The Navy had developed a hand-held laser, which allowed the aircraft crew to pinpoint the target themselves, but the single-seater pilot could not fly the aircraft and handle the laser simultaneously. Another pair of hands was required, and the TA-4F was just the thing.
The basic role of the TA-4 Skyhawk was a two-place, lightweight, high-performance trainer capable of operating from an aircraft carrier or shore base.
In order to create a two place Skyhawk, Douglas built a 28-inch plug into the A-4E between the normal cockpit and the fuselage fuel tank, which was reduced in size somewhat to accommodate the change. Pratt & Whitney’s J52-P8A/P8B turbojet engine powered the TA-4F.
The TA-4F saw also a combat deployment in Vietnam operating from the flightdeck of an aircraft carrier.
As explained by Peter Mersky in his book US Navy and Marine Corps A-4 Skyhawk Units of the Vietnam War, two TA-4Fs came on board USS Hancock (CVA-19) in August 1972. Assigned to VA-164, the two-seaters (BuNos 154325 and 153491) had been transferred from the Marine Corps, with the ‘Playboy’ FAC mission having been cancelled two years before in September 1970.
As now-retired Adm Stan Arthur later wrote, ‘Pilots of VA-164 logged some serious combat time in the two-seat A-4. The A-4 squadrons of CVW-21 had been assigned responsibility for developing expertise in unique types of missions, an example being VA-55’s specialisation in the Iron Hand mission. VA-164 deployed with its aircraft wired for equipment to facilitate the delivery, of laser-guided bombs, and worked on developing tactics for delivery and control of those weapons in high threat environment’.
`Ghostrider’ CO Cdr Stanley R Arthur had started his naval aviation career flying S-2s, but he had changed to jets as a lieutenant commander. He flew 514 combat missions in Vietnam, accumulating 11 DFCs and 51 Air Medals. Capping off his 38-year career, he rose to four-star rank, serving as the Vice Chief of Naval Operations before retiring in 1995. Stan Arthur had checked into VA-164 as XO in July 1971, and ‘fleeted up’ to CO a year later.
Several `Ghostrider’ A-4Fs carried a Laser Spot ‘Tracker (LST) in their nose cones, along with a Ferranti gun sigh I dim could show the spot where the laser energy was directed. The problem with this arrangement was that the single-seat ‘Foxtrot’ pilot had to rely on a FAC, airborne or on the ground, to ‘lase’ the target. The Navy had developed a hand-held laser, which allowed the aircraft crew to pinpoint the target themselves, but the single-seater pilot could not fly the aircraft and handle the laser simultaneously. Another pair of hands was required, and the TA-4F was just the thing.
Arthur and his unit recruited other crewmen from the CVW-21 squadrons to man the rear seat. Originally, the most likely candidates were Naval Flight Officers (NFOs), usually found in F-4s and A-6s. However, as neither of these aircraft flew with CVW-21, the only NFOs came from the E-1B Tracer det, as well as the occasional pilot looking for a new combat experience. Some of the F-8 and RF-8 pilots tried it, but predictably they did not feel comfortable making an approach to the small flightdeck, trusting their safe recovery to another pilot up front. It would be the only time the two-seat Skyhawk saw combat from a carrier flightdeck.
On a particular mission against a bridge near Thanh Hoa (not the well known railway bridge), Arthur had his A-4Fs loaded with an incredible 5000 Ibs of ordnance, including two 500-lb bombs on the outboard stations, two 1000-lb bombs on the inner stations and a huge 2000-lb Mk 84 on the centreline, replacing the normal 300-gallon fuel tank.
The strike plan called for a TA-4F to designate the target for the laser-guided bombs from another squadron, and the `Ghostriders’ would drop their ordnance visually. Adm Arthur recalled;
`It was a great bomb load with very little drag, so even with 2000 lbs (a gallon of gas weighs six pounds) of’ fuel missing, we could fly a fairly normal profile and get back with adequate fuel. Part of the reason we tried this load was our experience with the TA-4Fs. They used the double-bubble drop tank configuration, while the “straight” A-4 used a single tank on the centreline. We had started putting on a 1000-lb Mk 83 so the two-seater could deliver a punch if needed. It was a natural evolution to free up the centreline on a few birds for this strike.
`Of course, it was more complicated than it sounds. One drip tank and two TERs had to be deleted, then fitted back after the strike. There was then the risk that all the connections wouldn’t be made right, and the next flight would have hung bombs or the drop tank wouldn’t transfer. However, our ordnance gang was top notch, and we had no such problems on the next sorties.’
Pilots manned up sound of ‘Ghostriders in the Sky’, a popular song of the 1950s by Stan Jones relating a cowboy’s encounter with spirits on horseback while riding the range. It was just the right sound to send them of as the driving tune piped over the flightdeck loudspeaker.
The strike was a success, and Stan Arthur got a direct hit, dropping his huge load in one salvo! Denny Sapp was flying as Iron Mind, and he orbited the striker group as it hit its target. No SAMs came up, and Sapp was free to film the attack with his 8 mm movie camera.
During the intense ground battle fo An Loc shortly after the NVA invaded south Vietnam, Cdr Arthur and his flight supplied close air support for US troops. The shoulder-fired SA-7 SAM was causing concern, and the A-4s maintained a higher than normal altitude for releasing their ordnance. Although previous tactics during Rolling Thunder did not allow for multiple runs, they were required during this new phase of the war because of the closeness of both sides on the ground. Accuracy was paramount to prevent killing friendly troops.
As Arthur’s flight attacked the targets they had received from one FAC another controller came on the frequency asking what type of ordnance the A-4s had, and whether they could see the large building in the city square? Cdr Arthur replied he saw the structure. The FAC said he was in the basement, and that the enemy was coming in on the ground level. He added his only hope for escape was if the Navy could hit the building, with one bomb fused so that it would not go down into the basement. Fortunately, the flight had dual-fused bombs, which used both mechanical and electrical settings to detonate.
Arthur told the FAC there was no guarantee that the bombs could be depended on to detonate with the electrical fusing, and that they would default to the mechanical setting if the first method failed. All this meant that there was no sure bet that the bomb would not, in fact, go down to the basement where the FAC, was hiding before exploding. The FAC nevertheless told Arthur to drop his ordnance, and to hurry up!
The XO acknowledged, rolled in and dropped his bomb, getting a direct hit — the bomb did go off instantaneously, which is what the FAC wanted. Arthur later mused;
`The question that is still unanswered is did he get out? A few years ago, I heard about an Army guy who got out of An Loc because he survived a bomb hit on a building he was hiding in. But I have no idea if that was true, and if so, was it that mission?’
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