‘Yes, the A-4 Skyhawk was agile. However, it takes more than agility to make a good fighter,’ John Chesire, former US Naval Aviator and TOPGUN graduate.
Douglas built 2,960 A-4 Skyhawk aircraft between 1954 and 1979. Built small to be cost effective and so that more of them could be accommodated on a carrier, the lightweight, high-speed bombers were affectionately nicknamed “Heinemann’s Hot Rod” (after Douglas designer Ed Heinemann), the Bantam Bomber, Mighty Mite and Scooter. Skyhawks provided the US Navy and Marines and friendly nations with maneuverable, yet powerful, attack bombers that had great altitude and range capabilities, plus an unusual flexibility in armament capacity.
Moreover, even though the legendary 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.
Since the A-4 Skyhawk was agile enough to serve as adversary aircraft with the US Navy, why wasn’t it used as fighter during the Vietnam War?
‘The A-4 was designed as an attack aircraft and not a fighter. Its forte was air to ground. It was never designed for the air-to-air role of a fighter. It did however have a gun and the capability of carrying Sidewinders, but it really lacked a fighter’s radar and a complete air-to-air weapon system. Nor did it have the speed like an F-4, an F-8, or the F-105. Furthermore, it lacked an afterburner which is a necessity for any true fighter aircraft.
‘The reason that the A-4 was used as an adversary training aircraft for TOPGUN and fleet pilots was not because it was a good fighter. It was because its tight turning radius simulated the tight turning MiG series aircraft. It was useful in that it taught F-4 pilots to avoid a turning fight with them and rather use some of the F-4’s advantages against the A-4.’
‘While a rookie might have trouble fighting an A-4 with an F-4, it was an entirely different story with a well-trained F-4 driver. Using the F-4’s advantages, the A-4 was most always easily defeated. It was a great attack aircraft and a great training device, but it was not a great fighter even though it had a tight turning radius.’
Photo credit: Lt. Cmdr. Joe Parsons / U.S. Navy