Cold War Era

US Naval Aviator explains why even though the A-4 was agile enough to serve as adversary aircraft with the US Navy, the Skyhawk was not a great fighter

‘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?

‘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, explains on Quora.

This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. A-4F Skyhawk VA-212 Rampant Riders, NP306 / 155019 / 1970

‘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.’

Chesire concludes;

‘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

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Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

View Comments

  • That's why it was called an "A"-4 and not an "F"-4. "A" stands for Attack and "F" for Fighter. Neither the A-7 or A-6 were good fighters either. Today we have the F/A-18 that performs both roles. Duh.

  • Pretty sure that it was a demonstration of the difference between strategy and tactics for training. Just my own .01 adjusted for inflation.

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