The A-4 Skyhawk is a light attack bomber, built by McDonnell-Douglas and flown by the U.S. Navy and Marines. Powered by a Pratt & Whitney turbojet, it was nicknamed the “Scooter” for its small size and tremendous maneuverability. The Skyhawk was also called "Heineman's Hot Rod", after its designer. The A-4 had a maximum speed of 670 mph, was armed with 2 20-mm cannons, and could carry 4000 lb of bombs.
The Skyhawk first flew on June 22, 1954, and entered operational service in October 1956. The Scooter served prominently during the Vietnam War. An A-4 was the first plane shot down over North Vietnam, in a raid on a torpedo boat base and oil installations in retaliation for the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Among the Skyhawk pilots who flew in the war were Medal of Honor recipient Michael Estocin and future Senator and presidential candidate John McCain.
Although several A-4s were lost to SAMs and AAA, only one fell in air combat, to a MiG-17 in April 1967. About a week afterward, a Skyhawk pilot from VA-76 scored the A-4’s only kill in American service (and one of the more unusual kills of the war) when he downed a MiG-17 with an unguided Zuni rocket.
When France stopped supplying Israel after the Six Day War, Israel turned to the United States, and the Israeli Air Force took an immediate liking to the F-4 Phantom and the A-4 Skyhawk. First delivery of the little bomber was in late 1967, and the Skyhawk became the workhorse of the bombing campaigns in the War of Attrition and the Yom Kippur War. Losses in the latter were heavy (30 Skyhawks were downed in the first day of fighting), due to Egyptian anti-aircraft defences, but losses went down as Israeli tactics improved. Within a week, Israeli bombers were on the offensive again, and the destroyed planes were replaced by emergency shipments from the United States. A-4s also participated in strikes on PLO bases in Lebanon and Syrian SAM sites during Operation Peace for Galilee in 1982. One Skyhawk was lost during these strikes, to a hand-held SAM. The Skyhawk has been replaced in front-line service by the home-built Kfir and the American F-16, but it’s still used for advanced pilot training.
The A-4 operated in the Falkland Islands War for Argentina against the British fleet. Bombing attacks by Skyhawks sank the destroyer HMS Coventry and the frigates Antelope and Ardent, and damaged a number of other ships. A total of 23 A-4s were lost in the conflict: three to accidents, one to friendly fire, eight to Sea Harriers, and eleven to anti-aircraft guns and SAMs.
Kuwaiti Skyhawks flew against Iraqi forces when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. Two A-4s attacked an Iraqi armored column in the first hours (with little effect), and other Scooter pilots claimed to have shot down three Iraqi helicopters. Many Kuwaiti pilots managed to escape to Saudi Arabia when their airfields were overrun. The planes were integrated into the Royal Saudi Air Force for the duration of the Gulf War, and came to be known as the Free Kuwaiti Air Force. The FKAF flew over 1300 combat sorties, losing one aircraft to enemy fire. After the war, Kuwait replaced its Skyhawks with F/A-18 Hornets. The Skyhawks were sold to Brazil for use on their aircraft carrier, Sao Paulo.
A-4 in Popular Culture
The Scooter will be familiar to all fans of the movie Top Gun, as A-4s are flown by aggressor pilots Viper and Jester to train the Tomcat pilots. An A-4 also plays a small but pivotal role in the Tom Clancy novel and film The Sum of All Fears. In the anime Area 88, Skyhawks are common, and one is flown by mercenary and air-to-ground specialist Greg Gates.
- Fast Movers, by John Darrell Sherwood, St. Martin’s Press, 1999
- Rolling Thunder: A History of Jet Combat From World War II to the Gulf War, by Ivan Rendall, Dell Publishing, 1997
- MiG-17 and MiG-19 Units of the Vietnam War, by Istvan Toperczer, Osprey Publishing, 2001
- U.S. Air-to-Air Victories in the Vietnam War, Part 1
- Israeli Skyhawks in Combat
- Air War in the Falklands 1982, by Christopher Chant, Osprey Publishing, 2001
- Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait, 1990
- Skyhawk for Kuwait
- A-4 Skyhawk at GlobalSecurity.org
- The A-4 Skyhawk at Boeing.com
- The Skyhawk Association
- Douglas A-4 Skyhawks: Provided Support for Vietnam War
- Douglas A-4 Skyhawk: Attack and Close-support Fighter Bomber, by Jim Winchester, Pen & Sword Books, 2005
- US Navy and Marine Corps A-4 Skyhawk Units in the Vietnam War: 1963-1973, by Peter Mersky, Osprey Publishing, 2007