France checking out the A-4M Skyhawk
The A-4M Skyhawk was designed specifically for use by the U.S. Marine Corps.
In late 1972, two A-4M’s were flown from NATC RDT&E, NAS Patuxent River, MD, to Landivisau, France via Goose Bay, Labrador, and Keflavik, Iceland for compatibility tests on the French aircraft carrier Foch. After a week of shore-based flights, the Skyhawks bagged seventeen traps and catapults on the 845ft long Foch. Launches with the BS-5 catapult built up to 21,500 pounds until the weight limit of the catapult track cover deflector was reached.
After briefing the French Defense Ministry, the pilots flew the A-4M’s onboard John F.Kennedy in the North Sea for transportation to Norfolk, VA.
Tom Myers (left) and Myrden Pelligrin with A-4M Skyhawk BuNo 158148 148, on-board the French aircraft carrier Foch.
From left: LCDR Tom Myers, project pilot; CAPT Jack Chalbeck, head of the Flight Test Division at Pax River; and LT Myrden Pelligrin, project pilot; in front of one of the two A-4M Skyhawks used in the Foch (R 99) carrier suitability trials. The Skyhawk, BuNo 158148, is now on display at the Quonset Air Museum, North Kingstown, R.I.
Photos from CAPT Tom Myers, USN (ret).
20 MAR 1973:BuNo 148425 marked with "Black Sheep", but really serving with PAX River. Per contributor, this a/c was being used for testing by the French Navy for use on their aircraft carrier.
Date Unknown, perhaps MAR73: Believed to be at PAX River.
Further details from "Boom"
Le Cielfaucon Francais!
That’s French Skyhawk for those who don’t parlez. After an item appeared in the Skyhawk Association’s journal, A4Ever, Tom Myers who was head of the Carrier Suitability Branch at Pax River, wrote and turned a TINS into a true tale of adventure.
We were tasked to fly two A-4M's to France in September 1972 and operate off their carrier Foch (R99). I learned the Marines were taking a squadron of A-4M's over to Norway for an exercise at the same time so we had a meeting to see if we could tag along and use the same SAR forces on the crossing from Argentia to Iceland. The Marines said it would be OK to add ourselves to the end of the line. The navigation would be all dead reckoning after Newfoundland and the Scooters would be tight on gas. I had arranged for the Recce RAG’s (RVAH-3) TA-3 to go with us. (ed: trainer Skywarrior, not a tanker) When the Marines found out we had a pathfinder they asked if we would please go first and call back wind corrections, etc.
At the flight briefing I made some smart remark about if you have to eject, just before you hit the water you should raise your arms over your head. The rescue folks wouldn’t come get you unless they saw body movement. With your arms frozen in that position the Atlantic waves would make it seem you were waving. The young Marines didn't see the humor.
The leg from Pax to Argentia was my first flight in an A-4M. The next day the weather was near zero-zero and solid to 30,000 feet. We lined up and requested a section takeoff with our pathfinder. Not approved. Asked for the two A-4s to go in section. Not approved. So the TA-3 went first, then me, and then the second A-4M. Their radar was good only out to fifty miles. It took 100 miles to get on top of the clouds and another 100 miles of direction finder cuts to get the two A-4s together only to learn the TA-3 had climbed slower and was now behind us! After much praying in the cockpit, God put the three of us together just as we approached the no return point.
We could hear the Marines talking as they climbed and got their flights together. The pathfinder crew would call back winds and recommended headings which would be radioed back to each flight. Everything seemed to be settling down except the weather was still solid below us. As we got to Greenland, the clouds looked like they had been cut with a knife, a perfect sharp line, and from that point on it was sky-blue perfect. The TA-3 passed the word back, "You can see Greenland" You could hear it being relayed back to each flight, "You can seen Greenland. You can see Greenland" Probably from the last flight to get airborne, a nervous voice filled with relief said, "Thank God!" The BOQ bar in Keflavik was pandemonium that night. And the TA-3 crew didn't have to pay for a single drink. The two A-4M's we took over looked identical from the outside, but one aircraft had an internal self-starter while the other needed the standard ground gear. The first night at the French air base in Landivisau, the Douglas factory crew changed the 300 gallon fuel drop tanks for 300 gallon water tanks which look exactly like the gas tanks except for a small vent line that allowed you to blow the water out quickly when you pressurized the transfer system. Inside, a system of baffles stopped the slosh of water during a cat shot if only partly full. You would take a cat shot at a certain gross weight, turn down wind, blow the water out and land, fill them up again to the desired weight.
In the morning when the French saw us filling the drop tanks with a garden hose the word spread and soon a large crowd was watching sure that either the Americans had learned how to burn water, or they were going to see a crash at the end of the runway.....in either case they wanted to watch. The French line personnel looked like they had a new piece of yellow gear— the hose was pure white without a mark on it—and came over to start me. After I started, my wingman used his self-starter and was up and running within seconds. The French stared with amazement and you knew they were thinking, Sacre Bleu you start the lead and it's good for everyone else. What a wonderful A-4M, we need this aircraft. The object of the tests was to get as high a gross weight cat shot and the fastest engage speed on landing as possible. We had our own LSO, USN maintenance chief and plane captain plus several Pax River Carrier Suitability engineers; the rest were Douglas contractors for maintenance. Great team of folks who really wanted the aircraft to give its best show. My wingman was LT Myrden Pelligrin who was on the team because he was from New Orleans and understood some French. The Douglas folks really wanted to sell the aircraft, but the USN in the form of me as a LCDR was in charge.
As we increased the launch weights we started seeing some strange effects. The catapults were made by the Brits and not reinforced as frequently along the track as ours are. With the steep angle of the bridle and the heavier weights putting more and more downward pressure on the nose wheel and the track itself, the track deflected and didn't have time to flex back up by the time the shuttle got there. Metal was shearing off the underside of the track. At those heavy weights we could have had a bridle failure and gone off sideways or something equally unpleasant. The simple fix would have been to rotate the nose tire forward to give the track time to rebound. But since the French didn't buy the A-4…
Our impression when we flew out to the Foch and landed was the deck was small, really small. Also, that the lens setting put us a little short. Since they wanted to get closer and closer to the theoretical max engaging speed, we were given exact speeds to hit the wire. Because of having to fly within one knot on approach and the wind over the deck determining the actual engaging speed, it was only after landing that we knew how it went. Somehow we hit every point on every landing we did. Their own development folks onboard thought we walked on water... so they kept pushing us to go faster and faster. Twice we upped our own limits. Finally, we said, “That’s it. Buy the aircraft and you can do your own tests”. After that I flew to Paris to debrief the higher-ups, shake hands all around and went back to Landivisau.
We were not looking forward to flying the Skyhawks back across the pond against the wind in even colder weather and learned that JFK was in the North Sea and headed back to Norfolk in a week. We had the Test Center get permission through what we thought were appropriate channels to land and have an A-7 squadron take care of the aircraft while we COD’ed off and went home in airliner comfort. We were given radio and tacan frequencies, a PIM, an overhead time and off we went. On first contact, the ship asked, “Who?” We said, "Us." They said "Wait One" This was repeated several times, until, " Say intentions." We said, "Landing." They said, "Wait One". So it went back and forth. We just knew that no one had told the ship we were coming. Finally, from our six o’clock, two F-4's slowly came up, one on each side, to confirm we were just two American Skyhawks looking for a home plate. After landing and a tricky dismount without a ladder, I naturally was invited to the bridge for a chat. The captain was even unhappier about his unexpected visitors when I requested a COD ride to the beach because we had a flight to catch in London.