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A-4 Skyhawk The Australian Connection

A-4 Skyhawk
The Australian Connection

Compiled by
EVAN BURTON
Nowra, Australia

INTRODUCTION:

"A small aeroplane designed to do the job of a medium-sized aeroplane" is one writer's description of the Douglas A-4 SKYHAWK, designed in the early 1950s as a naval attack aircraft, and intended to reverse the trend towards ever larger and heavier aircraft.

"Heinemann's Hot Rod", "The Scooter" and "Tinker Toy Bomber" were some of the nicknames applied to the diminutive SKYHAWK, which first flew in 1954 and must have achieved many of it's designer's aims as production ended 2960 examples and a quarter of a century later - the longest production run of any US combat aircraft.

In between, the SKYHAWK successfully fought in several wars - Vietnam, the Middle East and the Falklands - and is still in front line service with several nations. For an aircraft which flew in the face of conventional wisdom at the time of conception, that is a remarkable enough record; that the SKYHAWK's airframe and concept is still considered worthy of being modified and updated to create a combat aircraft with a useful part to play in the last years of the 20th century only adds to it's already ledgendary reputation.


THE ROYAL AUSTRALIAN NAVY FLEET AIR ARM - A BACKROUND:

To talk about the SKYHAWK in Australian service, it's appropriate to know something about the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), the Fleet Air Arm (FAA) and it's aircraft carriers.

Despite a long tradition of naval aviation dating back to December 1917, when FLTLT F.N. Fox performed a successful takeoff of a Sopwith PUP from the quarterdeck of the cruiser HMAS AUSTRALIA, it wasn't until 28 August 1948 that Australia's FAA was established. On that day, the 20th Carrier Air Group was commisioned at Eglington Naval Air Station in England and equipped with Hawker SEA FURIES and Fairey FIRELIES. In 1950, the second Carrier Air Group (the 21st) was established and also equipped with SEA FURIES and FIREFLIES.

The FAA was established to provide a force capable of aerial anti-submarine and fighter protection for the Fleet, and was based around two aircraft carriers and shore establishments, the latter comprising of former RAAF airfields at Nowra, on the New South Wales south coast, and Schofields, west of Sydney. These were renamed HMAS ALBATROSS (NAS NOWRA) and HMAS NIRIMBA, respectively. NAS NOWRA remains an operational RAN airfield today. HMAS NIRIMBA had a relatively short life as an airfield before being converted to a technical training facility. It was decommissioned in early 1991 as part of Defence cutbacks.


THE CARRIERS:

The first of three light fleet carriers operated by the RAN was HMAS SYDNEY, the former Royal Navy Majestic-class ship HMS TERRIBLE. She was transferred to the RAN in 1948 and saw active service in the Korean War. SYDNEY retained a straight through deck in her career with the RAN, making her unsuitable for for the operation of jet aircraft. As a result, and due to government policy dictating a single carrier sufficient for Australia's operational needs, SYDNEY was relegated to training duties in 1955 and served in that role until 1958 when she was put into "special reserve" - mothballed, but capable of being returned to active service. This happened four years later when Australian concerns and confrontations in South East Asia warranted SYDNEY's recommissioning as a fast troop transport. Combining this role with training, SYDNEY made numerous voyages to Vietnam in support of Australia's involvement in that theatre and thus gained the nickname of the "Vung Tau Ferry". She was finally decommisioned in 1972, and sold for scrap in 1975.

The second of the RAN's carriers, the Colossus-class HMAS VENGENCE, served briefly while on loan from the Royal Navy pending the arrival of HMAS MELBOURNE, which was being modernised with a lengthened and angled flight deck, steam catapults and mirror landing system, all designed to allow her to operate the latest jet aircraft. VENGENCE was commissioned into the RAN in November 1952 and was returned to Britain in August 1955. Whilst in RAN service, she operated SEA FURIES, FIREFLIES and SYCAMORE aircraft.

Perhaps the best known of the RAN's aircraft carriers was the illustrious HMAS MELBOURNE (CVS-21), the flagship of the Fleet from her commissioning in October 1955 until her paying off in June 1982. During her checkered career she operated SEA VENOM, GANNET, SKYHAWK and TRACKER fixed-wing aircraft, along with WESSEX and SEA KING anti-submarine helicopters. Laid down in 1943 as the nameship of the Royal Navy's Majestic-class light fleet carriers, she was launched in February 1945. With the end of WW II, work on the ship stopped until her purchase by the Australian government in 1947. Upgraded with a 5.5 degree angled flight deck, larger flight deck lifts, a steam catapult, new arrestor gear and mirror deck landing system, MELBOURNE was commissioned into the RAN on 28 October 1955. After working up with her new SEA VENOM and GANNET aircraft, she arrived in Australia in April 1956.

The increased importance of ASW and philosophical changes as to the role of the FAA very nearly saw the end of fixed-wing flying from MELBOURNE some two decades before it actually happend. Had those changes been implemented as planned, the RAN would not have had purchased the A-4 SKYHAWK and fixed-wing operations would haved ceased for the RAN in 1963.


THE SKYHAWK ENTERS THE PICTURE:

In September 1959, the Australian government announced that that the RAN as a whole would concentrate on ASW and that the defence forces generally would be standardised with the forces of the US. Among the various proposals was one that the FAA be disbanded in 1963 when the SEA VENOMs and GANNETs reached the end of their planned operational lives. It was considered that any likely replacement aircraft would not be able to operate from MELBOURNE. This was modified slightly in 1960 when it was decided that MELBOURNE would continue in service but be modified for ASW-only duties with the WESSEX helicopter. Fixed-wing operations would still cease in 1963.

That very year, the threats associated with "confrontation" of Indonesia were fully appreciated and the SEA VENOMs and GANNETs were given the go ahead to continue operation from MELBOURNE until 1967. This resulted in a rethink of the FAA's worth, and resulted in the orders for 14 Grumman S-2 TRACKER aircraft in November 1964, and 10 (then) Douglas A-4 SKYHAWKs in October 1965.

The 10 SKYHAWKs were listed as A-4E variants, and deliveries scheduled to begin in 1967. The SKYHAWKs were later reidentified as A-4Gs, based on the USN's A-4F but incorporating modifications to meet Australian requirements. Of the 10 ordered, eight were to be the single-seat A-4G and the remaining two TA-4G two-seat trainers. A second order for 10 aircraft, again eight single-seaters and two trainers, was placed in March 1970. These were A-4Fs and TA-4Fs from USN stocks and modified to A-/TA-4G standard.

The A-4G retained the strike capabilities of it's US counterparts but was intended as much for fleet defence duties when embarked aboard MELBOURNE. As a consequence, they were capable of being fitted with a pair of AIM-9B SIDEWINDER IR AAMs, but could also carry 250lb or 500lb bombs, 2.75in or 5in rocket pods and other stores for use in the maritime strike, army support or fleet support roles. Changes were made to the avionics fit of the A-4G, and Australian SKYHAWKs differed externally from the A-4Fs by the lack of the distinctive dorsal avionics "hump".

The TA-4Gs were not able to be operated from MELBOURNE. The changed C of G in the two-seater resulted in slower elevator response at low speed, this in turn preventing the TA-4G from lifting it's nosewheel from the deck of the small carrier in time in the case of a "bolter" (or so it was calculated).

In Australian service, the SKYHAWKs retained USN serial numbers, preceded by the RAN serial prefix for the SKYHAWK - N13. These were supplemented by a side number painted on the nose of the aircraft. All 20 SKYHAWKs were delivered in standard USN Light Gull Grey and White colours, but a major change came in 1979 when the surviving aircraft were repainted in an overall pattern of Aircraft Grey and Light Admiralty Grey camouflage.


SKYHAWK SQUADRONS:

Two FAA squadrons operated SKYHAWKs during the types career with the RAN, 805 Squadron (renumbered VF-805 in 1969) as the front line unit, operating from MELBOURNE when it was at sea, and from NAS NOWRA when it wasn't; and 724 Squadron (later VC-724), the SKYHAWK Operational Flying Training School, also based at NAS NOWRA.

The first operational RAN SKYHAWK squadron, No805, was commisioned at NAS NOWRA on 10 January 1968, and remained operating the A-4 until the end of RAN carrier operations forced it's final disbanding in July 1982. The squadron's SKYHAWKs were transferred to VC-724.

724 Squadron was commissioned in June 1955 as an RAN operational flying school with a variety of aircraft. By 1966, the squadron was operating as an all-jet pilot conversion unit with VAMPIREs and SEA VENOMs, joined by the newly-delivered SKYHAWKs in early 1968. The squadron was redesignated VC-724 in 1969. The VAMPIREs and SEA VENOMs were replaced by Macchi MB326s in 1970 and the squadron's role was now defined as weapons training, photo reconnaissance and target towing, as well as SKYHAWK conversion training.

Pilots converting to the A-4 at 724 Squadron undertook a six month course, during which they typically flew about 110 hours on both the TA-4G and A-4G. A pilot's first SKYHAWK solo usually took about five hours dual instruction to achieve, and after 25 hours he was fully converted to the new type. The remaining 85 hours of the course comprised the advanced phase during which the skills necessary for operational flying - day/night air-to-air refuelling, tactics, bombing, interception, etc - were taught. Some 100 mirror-assisted simulated deck landings were then practised at NAS NOWRA before the pilot tried the real thing on MELBOURNE, about 20 of these (and catapult launchings) being performed in daylight before moving onto the more demanding night operations.

In July 1982, VC-724 absorbed VF-805's SKYHAWKs, and a year later the types number in service had been reduced to four, mainly for target towing duties. In addition, the MB326s were transferred to the RAAF as RAN fixed-wing operations were being wound down. The last A-4s were withdrawn in June 1984 and the squadron disbanded two months later.


SKYHAWK LOSSES:

By the end of the SKYHAWK's 16 years of service with the RAN, exactly half of the 20 aircraft which had been delivered were lost in accidents. It is a spate of accidents in the 1979-80 period which contributed the lions share of the losses. Six aircraft were lost (three in each year) including two in the same month (October 1980).

The RAN didn't lose it's first SKYHAWK until June 1973, some five-and-a-half years after the type entered RAN service. Another was lost in 1973 followed by single losses in 1974 and 1975, and then nothing for 42 months until January 1979. No losses occured after 1980. Below is a summary of RAN SKYHAWK losses:

N13-155060 / 873 (A-4G) - 5 JUNE 1973:
Engine failure off Williamtown, NSW. SBLT T. DerKinderen ejected and recovered by RAAF helicopter.

N13-154910 / 889 (A-4G) - 8 NOVEMBER 1973:
Catapult failure while launching from MELBOURNE during multinational exercise near Singapore. SBLT B. Evans remained in the aircraft while the ship passed overhead and freed himself underwater. Picked up by helicopter.

N13-154648 / 879 (TA-4G) - 16 MAY 1974:
Crashed into sea 64Km north-east of Nowra during mock attack on MELBOURNE. LEUT R. McMillan killed.

N13-155055 / 872 (A-4G) - 17 JULY 1975:
870 and 872 were part of a four-ship mission conducting bombing practice at Beecroft Head Firing Range, NSW. Pulling off the range, 872 pulled up and into 870. After the collision, 872 crashed near the Firing Range killing the pilot SBLT K. McCoy. 870 landed into NAS NOWRA crash barrier after hydraulics failure and nose-wheel collapse, LCDR S. King (CO VF805) unhurt.

N13-155051 / 870 (A-4G) - 23 JANUARY 1979:
Turbine failure 24Km south-east of Braidwood, NSW. SBLT C. Tomlinson ejected and picked up by RAAF helicopter.

N13-154909 / 888 (A-4G) - 23 MAY 1979:
Crashed over side of MELBOURNE after arrestor wire broke during landing 90Km east of Jervis Bay, NSW. LCDR K. Finan, USN, ejected and rescued unhurt. The alert rescue SEAKING (N16-098 / 01) suffered a tail-rotor failure and ditched by MELBOURNE before it was able to retrieve the pilot of the A-4. A second SEAKING performed the recovery of both crews.

N13-154907 / 886 (A-4G) - 24 SEPTEMBER 1979:
Rolled over side of MELBOURNE when ship suddenly rolled 20 degrees to starboard in heavy seas 355Km east of Newcastle, NSW. Aircraft was being repositioned at time, broke free of towing tractor and lashing chains. Maintenenace sailor in cockpit (AB E. Kann) suffered lacerations but managed to get clear. Thrown lifebuoy and joined in water by diver. Both picked up by HMAS HOBART (DDG 39).

N13-154647 / 878 (TA-4G) - 28 APRIL 1980:
Crashed 5Km north of Nowra after engine failure while in landing circuit at 1000'. LEUT A. Sinclair ejected and picked up by RAN helicopter.

N13-155062 / 875 (A-4G) - 2 OCTOBER 1980:
Engine failure during launch from MELBOURNE 70Km north of Sumatra in Andaman Sea. LCDR C. Blennerhasset ejected safely.

N13-154906 / 885 (A-4G) - 21 OCTOBER 1980:
Crashed off MELBOURNE during takeoff after catapult failure 200Km south-west of Colombo. SBLT D. Baddams ejected and picked up by RAN helicopter.


THE END OF THE LINE:

By the mid-70s, the Australian goverment realised that MELBOURNE would need to be replaced during the next decade. The search for a new carrier began formally in 1977, when companies were invited to register interest in the project. It called for a ship of about 20,000 tonnes capable of accomodating about 20 aircraft in a mix of ASW helicopters and STOVL fixed-wing combat aircraft (ie, the HARRIER). In February 1982, Defence Minister Jim Killen announced that HMS INVINCIBLE would be purchased from Britain, and renamed HMAS AUSTRALIA. Delivery was scheduled for late 1983. In the meantime, MELBOURNE would be withdrawn from service.

The decision to purchase INVINCIBLE was a two-edged sword for the FAA. On one hand it guaranteed the continuation of carrier flying of some kind, but on the other meant the FAA's current fixed-wing fleet - the SKYHAWKs and TRACKERs - would shortly have no role. The end came quickly for FAA fixed-wing flying. In early April 1982, it was decided to pay off MELBOURNE as quickly as possible and amalgamate the FAA's fixed-wing squadrons. By the middle of the year it was all over. MELBOURNE was paid off with due ceremony on 30 June and relegated to the strategic reserve, while on 2 July, VF-805 (SKYHAWK) and VS-816 (TRACKER) were disbanded. Despite repeated arguements about their usefulness as shore-based assets, the TRACKERs remained firmly on the ground at NAS NOWRA and were eventually offered for sale. From pristine examples, they were left to rot for ten years until finally being sold in 1992. The SKYHAWKs, for the moment, flew on with VC-724. Discussions on MELBOURNE's fate continued and included one short-lived proposal to convert her to a tourist attraction.
On 30 June 1983, six of the RAN's remaining ten SKYHAWKs were withdrawn from service, while the other four were permitted to fly on for another year. For a short time there was discussion about retaining the SKYHAWKs for ground attack duties. The last official A-4 sortie took place on 30 June 1984. On the same day, a family day was held at NAS NOWRA and in appropriately bleak and soggy conditions the RAN's final fixed-wing flypast took place. But at least there was still the prospect of HMAS AUSTRALIA; or was there?

A war and a change of government finally put paid to the RAN ever operating a carrier again. When Argentina occupied the Falkland Islands on 2 April 1982, Australia lost it's second last chance to acquire a new carrier. After the conflict was over, the British government realised the asset it had in the "Harrier Carriers" and withdrew the vessel from sale. The much older HMS HERMES was offered for sale instead but in Feburary 1983, after much discussion, it was decided to temporarily defer a decision. A month later a Federal election was held and the Labour Party swept into office. On the very same day it was sworn into office, the new Defence Minister, Gorden Scholes, announced that no carrier would be purchased to replace MELBOURNE. She was gradually stripped of equipment and sold for scrap. Her last voyage was from Sydney in April 1985, when she was towed by tug to Shanghai to be cut up. The RAN's Fleet Air Arm was dead.


A NEW LIFE?

But the Australian SKYHAWKs would live on. After negotiations, the ten remaining airframes and all spares were sold to the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) for the bargain basement price of AUS$28.2 million. The aircraft were ferried in three batches from NAS NOWRA to RNZAF Base OHAKEA in July 1984 where they would be modified and overhauled before entering service with Nos 2 and 75 Squadrons and joining the RNZAF's existing fleet of A-4Ks and TA-4Ks, though retaining the RAN colour scheme. They also serve as the RNZAF aerobatic display aircraft, as part of the " Kiwi Red" aerobatic team.
Later, when all the RNZAF's 21 SKYHAWKs were upgraded to "Project KAHU" (Maori for "Hawk") standards, the former RAN aircraft were redesignated A-4Ks and TA-4Ks and repainted in the standard RNZAF colour scheme. They also gained one of the external physical characteristics of the 'K' models - the larger "squared-off" fin. Early modifications applied to the A-4Gs - before the KAHU programme - included the fitting of a braking parachute and VHF comms, plus some minor instrument panel and switch position changes. The KAHU programme, which was instigated in 1987 and completed three years later, basically involves an avionics upgrade although a rewiring programme was first completed using the spares and jigs which came with the large stock of RAN spares.

The avionics upgrade is based around a new Nav/Attack system, the incorporation of HOTAS technology to effectively manipulate the new systems, and a HUD. Data from the Nav/Attack systems is displayed on two CRT screens on the substantially redesigned instrument panel, and is also fed to the HUD - the primary source of flight information and weapon-aiming control. The RNZAF SKYHAWKs can carry a variety of modern weapons such as the AIM-9L SIDEWINDER, MAVERICK AGMs, laser-guided bombs and unguided rockets. The pair of internal 20mm cannons is retained. Externally, A-4Ks converted to the new configuation lost their distinctive "humps" - of course, the RAN aircraft didn't have them in the first place.

KIWI A-4s taxi to the runway, Lead is A-4K BuNo.157908, NZ 6205 & Wingman is former RAN A-4G BuNo.154903, NZ 26211.
Photograph by Evan Burton

KIWI BuNo.154903, A-4G NZ 6211, formerly of the RAN, on the runway.
Photograph by Evan Burton

KIWI A-4G BuNo.154903, NZ 26211, formerly of the RAN, on the runway
Photograph by Evan Burton

THE SKYHAWKS RETURN HOME:

In July 1990 it was announced that a five year agreement had been reached between the Australian and New Zealand Defence Forces, which would see RNZAF SKYHAWKs from No2 Squadron based at NAS NOWRA to provide air defence support for Australian forces. This agreement was renewed in 1996.
The arrangement involves up to 800 flying hours annually by the normal complement of four A-4K and two TA-4K aircraft, in the air support operations role for Australia and conversion of RNZAF pilots, No2 Squadron's normal role. New Zealand pays for the first 400 hours and Australia the remainder. The RNZAF began flying from NAS NOWRA in February 1991 and have subsequently been involved in several exercises apart from their ADF support duties, among them dissimilar combat training with RAAF F/A-18 HORNETs at RAAF WILLIAMTOWN. They've also provided the star turn at several Australian airshows over the years - all part of the great PR the Kiwis have generated as a result of their local activities. But best of all, the hills around Nowra again ring to the sound of Pratt & Whitney J52 turbojets pushing examples of "Heinemann's HotRod" around the sky.

BuNo142871 is reworked to display as BuNo.154906, the last Skyhawk to be lost in service for Australia.
A-4B 142871 in primer paint. Photograph by Evan Burton
She is displayed in the Australian Naval Aviation Museum at NAS NOWRA, New South Wales, painted as A-4G N13-154906/ 885. The original 885 was the last A-4 to be lost in Australian service. BuNo 142871 is on loan from the U.S. Navy.

AUSTRALIAN SKYHAWKS:

SIDE No RAN SERIAL RNZAF SERIAL TYPE DELIVERED DISPOSAL
878 N13-154647 N/A TA-4G Aug-71 LOST 28APR80
879 N13-154648 N/A TA-4G Aug-71 LOST 16MAY74
882 N13-154903 NZ6211 A-4G/K Nov-67 SOLD TO RNZAF JUL84
883 N13-154904 NZ6212 A-4G/K Nov-67 SOLD TO RNZAF JUL84
884 N13-154905 NZ6213 A-4G/K Nov-67 SOLD TO RNZAF JUL84
885 N13-154906 N/A A-4G Nov-67 LOST 21OCT80
886 N13-154907 N/A A-4G Nov-67 LOST 24SEP79
887 N13-154908 NZ6214 A-4G/K Nov-67 SOLD TO RNZAF JUL84
888 N13-154909 N/A A-4G Nov-67 LOST 23MAY79
889 N13-154910 N/A A-4G Nov-67 LOST 8NOV73
880 N13-154911 NZ6255 TA-4G/K Nov-67 SOLD TO RNZAF JUL84
881 N13-154912 NZ6256 TA-4G/K Nov-67 SOLD TO RNZAF JUL84
870 N13-155051 N/A A-4G Aug-71 LOST 23JAN79
871 N13-155052 NZ6215 A-4G/K Aug-71 SOLD TO RNZAF JUL84
872 N13-155055 N/A A-4G Aug-71 LOST 17JUL75
873 N13-155060 N/A A-4G Aug-71 LOST 5JUN73
874 N13-155061 NZ6216 A-4G/K Aug-71 SOLD TO RNZAF JUL84
875 N13-155062 N/A A-4G Aug-71 LOST 2OCT80
876 N13-155063 NZ6217 A-4G/K Aug-71 SOLD TO RNZAF JUL84
877 N13-155064 NZ6218 A-4G/K Aug-71 SOLD TO RNZAF JUL84



RAN S-2 Trackers line, prop undone.
Photograph by Evan Burton

RAN S-2 Tracker wings folded.
Photograph by Evan Burton

RAN S-2 Tracker wings spread.
Photograph by Evan Burton

RAN S-2 Trackers ripped off.
Photograph by Evan Burton




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