A study in simplicity, the A-4 Skyhawk resulted from Douglas Aircraft Company designer Ed Heinemann’s concern about the increasing weight and cost of combat aircraft appearing during the 1950s. The A-4 ran counter to this trend, incorporating a small delta wing that eliminated the need for a heavy wing-folding mechanism for improved storage aboard aircraft carriers. Additionally, engineers reduced the number of cockpit components and redesigned the pilot ejection system in order to reduce weight. Other measures included elimination of a heavy duty battery in favor of a fuselage stored wind driven generator, the removal of a back-up hydraulic system through use of gravity-dropped landing gear, and installation of a simplified air conditioning system that was one third the weight of those then available. In final form, the “Tinker Toy,” as pilots knew the A-4, bettered the Navy’s maximum weight restriction by more than half.
According to the National Naval Aviation Museum, in the skies over Vietnam, Skyhawks logged more combat missions than any other naval aircraft, including notable strikes against bridges, power plants in North Vietnam, close air support of troops engaged in ground combat in South Vietnam and Iron Hand missions.
As told by Peter E. Davies in his book A-4 Skyhawk Vs North Vietnamese AAA North Vietnam 1964-1972, an outstanding example of Iron Hand skill was displayed on Apr. 20, 1967 by VA-192’s Operations Officer, Lt Cdr Mike Estocin, flying from Ticonderoga as part of CVW-19. Determined to destroy as many SAM batteries as possible, he led a three-aircraft Iron Hand flight against three 285th Missile Regiment SA-2 sites near Haiphong. His approach was to fly as close as possible to a site before releasing his missiles. All three sites were destroyed, but Estocin’s A-4E received substantial AAA damage to its wings.
With one Shrike still left, he returned to the target to expend it, despite rapidly increasing fuel loss. Estocin then went “feet wet” and linked up with an A-3 “Whale” tanker that towed him back to Ticonderoga, pumping in fuel a little faster than his aircraft was leaking it out. Two miles from CVA-14, he detached from the tanker and headed for the deck, knowing that he had fuel for only one attempted landing. Although Estocin’s A-4E caught fire on its final approach, he made a safe landing into the barrier and the fire crew doused the flames as he descended intact from the cockpit.
Lt Cdr Estocin was SAM hunting again on Apr. 26, 1967 – the day that his squadronmate Lt(jg) J. W. Cain was shot down by AAA in A-4E BuNo 152076 during VA-192’s Alpha strike attack on a fuel dump in Haiphong. Shortly after Estocin’s Iron Hand section had lofted a Shrike ahead of the strike force, he saw an SA-2 rising towards him as he was climbing back up to 12,000ft. Having probably positioned himself to attack its launch site, he began an evasive diving turn just as the missile exploded close to his aircraft. With his A-4 (BuNo 151073) on fire, he rolled and dived towards the ground, before pulling out at 2,000ft. Estocin’s aircraft was by now burning furiously as the pilot headed for the coast, the Skyhawk gradually losing speed and being almost hit by another SAM that passed close by. Future MiG killer Lt Cdr John Nichols of VF-191 accompanied the crippled A-4E in his F-8E, noticing severe damage to its forward fuselage and seeing Estocin apparently slumped forward in his cockpit, unresponsive to radio messages. Just short of the coast, the aircraft rolled inverted at 1,000ft, its stores were jettisoned as their wiring burned out and it crashed. Estocin was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor shortly thereafter, thus becoming the only US Navy jet pilot to ever receive that award for a combat mission.
A-4 Skyhawk Vs North Vietnamese AAA North Vietnam 1964-1972 is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Navy; Artwork: Osprey
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