Douglas A-4C Skyhawk
Carrier-based Single-engine Single-seat Low-wing Jet Attack Aircraft, U.S.A.

Archive Photos 1

Douglas A-4C Skyhawk on display (c.1993) at the San Diego Aerospace Museum, Gillespie Field, El Cajon, California (Photos by John Shupek)

Douglas A-4C Skyhawk (BuNo 148516) on display (11/21/2004) at the USS Midway Aircraft Carrier Museum, San Diego, California (Photos by John Shupek) copyright © 2004 Skytamer Images)

Douglas A-4C Skyhawk (BuNo 148492) on display (6/22/2007) at the Flying the Neck Aviation Museum, MCAS Miramar, San Diego, California (Photos by John Shupek)

Douglas A4D-2N (A-4C) Skyhawk (BuNo 145067) on display (c.2005) at the Joe Davies Heritage Airpark at Palmdale Plant 42, Palmdale, California (Photos by John Shupek)

Overview 2

The Douglas A-4 Skyhawk was an attack aircraft originally designed to operate from United States Navy aircraft carriers. The aircraft was designed and produced by the Douglas Aircraft Corporation which later became McDonnell Douglas and was originally designated the A4D under the US Navy’s pre-1962 designation system. Fifty years after the aircraft’s first flight, and having played key roles in Vietnam, the Falklands and Yom Kippur wars, some of the nearly 3,000 Skyhawks produced remain in service with several air arms around the world, including active duty on a carrier.

Design and Development 2

The Skyhawk was designed by Douglas’ Ed Heinemann in response to a US Navy call for a jet-powered attack aircraft to replace the Douglas A-1 Skyraider. Heinemann opted for a design that would minimize size, weight and complexity. The result was an aircraft that weighed only half of the Navy’s specification and had a wing so compact that it did not need to be folded for carrier stowage. The diminutive Skyhawk soon received the nicknames Scooter, Bantam Bomber, Tinker Toy Bomber, and, on account of its nimble performance, Heinemann’s Hot-Rod.

The aircraft is of conventional post-World War II design, with a low-mounted delta wing, tricycle undercarriage, and a single turbojet engine in the rear fuselage, with intakes on the fuselage sides. The tail is of cruciform design, with the horizontal stabilizer mounted above the fuselage. Armament consisted of two 20mm Colt Mk 12 cannon, one in each wing root, with 200 rpg, plus a large variety of bombs, rockets and missiles carried on a hardpoint under the fuselage centerline and hardpoints under each wing (originally one per wing, later two).

The design of the A-4 is a good example of the virtues of simplicity. The choice of a delta wing, for example, combined speed and maneuverability with a large fuel capacity and small overall size, thus not requiring folding wings, albeit at the expense of cruising efficiency. The leading edge slats are designed to drop automatically at the appropriate speed by gravity and air pressure, thereby not needing motors or even a pilot switch. Similarly the main undercarriage did not penetrate the main wing spar, designed so that when retracted only the wheel itself was inside the wing and the undercarriage struts were housed in a fairing below the wing. The wing structure itself could be lighter with the same overall strength and the absence of a wing folding mechanism further reduced weight. This is the opposite of what can often happen in aircraft design where a small weight increase in one area leads to a compounding increase in weight in other areas to compensate, leading to the need for more powerful, heavier engines and so on in a tight, vicious cycle.

The A-4 pioneered the concept of buddy self air-to-air refueling. This allows the aircraft to supply others of the same type, eliminating the need of dedicated tanker aircraft - a particular advantage for small air arms or when operating in remote locations. A designated supply A-4 would mount a center-mounted buddy store, a large external fuel tank with a hose reel in the aft section and an extensible drogue refueling bucket. This aircraft was fuelled up without armament and launched first. Attack aircraft would be armed to the maximum and given just enough fuel allowable by maximum take-off weight limits. Once airborne, they would then proceed to top up their fuel tanks from the tanker using the A-4’s fixed re-fueling probe on the starboard side of the aircraft nose. They could then sortie with both full armament and fuel loads. While rarely used in US service since the Douglas KA-3 Skywarrior tanker became available, the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet includes this capability, with a view to the imminent retirement of dedicated tankers.

The A-4 was also designed to be able to make an emergency landing, in the event of a hydraulic failure, on the two drop tanks nearly always carried by these planes. Such landings resulted in only minor damage to the nose of the aircraft which could be repaired in less than an hour. The wings had automatic leading edge slats, operated by aerodynamic pressure alone, again a simple but effective and weight saving feature. Ed Heinemann is credited with having a large KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) sign put up on the wall of the drawing office when the aircraft was being designed. Whether this is true, the A-4 certainly is a shining example of the application of that principle to aircraft design. The Navy issued a contract for the type on 12 June, 1952, and the first prototype first flew on 22 June, 1954. Deliveries to Navy and US Marine Corps squadrons commenced in late 1956.

The Skyhawk remained in production until 1979, with a total of 2,960 aircraft built, including 555 two-seat trainers.

Operational History 2

United States

The Skyhawk proved to be one of the most popular US Naval aircraft exports of the postwar era. Due to its small size, it could be operated from the older, smaller World War II-era aircraft carriers still used by many smaller navies during the 1960s. These older ships were often unable to accommodate newer USN fighters such as the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II and Vought F-8 Crusader, which were faster and more capable than the A-4, but significantly larger and heavier than older naval fighters.

The US Navy began removing the aircraft from its front line squadrons in 1967, with the last retiring in 1975. The Marines would pass on the Navy’s replacement, the Ling-Temco-Vought A-7 Corsair II, instead keeping Skyhawks in service, and ordering the new A-4M. The last USMC Skyhawk was delivered in 1979, and were used until the mid-1980s before they were replaced by the equally small, but more versatile McDonnell Douglas AV-8B Harrier II.

The Diamondbacks of VMA-131, Marine Aircraft Group 49 retired their last four OA-4Ms on 22 June 1994. Lt. Col. George Eagle Lake III (CO), Major John Baja Rufo (XO), Captain Dave Yoda Hurston and Major Mike Struts Volland flew a final official USMC A-4 sortie during the A-4 Standdown Ceremony. Trainer versions of the Skyhawk remained in Navy service, however, finding a new lease on life with the advent of adversary training, where the nimble A-4 was used as a stand-in for the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-17 Fresco in dissimilar air combat training (DACT). It served in that role until 1999.

The A-4’s nimble performance also made it suitable to replace the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II when the Navy down sized their aircraft for the Blue Angels demonstration team until the availability of the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet in the 1980s. The last US Navy Skyhawks, TA-4J models belonging to composite squadron VC-8, remained in military use for target-towing and as adversary aircraft for combat training at Naval Air Station Roosevelt Roads. They were officially retired on 3 May 2003.

Skyhawks were well loved by their crews for being tough and agile. These attributes, along with its low purchase and operating cost as well as easy maintenance, have contributed to the popularity of the A-4 with American and international armed forces. Besides the US, at least three other nations used A-4 Skyhawks in combat.

Vietnam War

Skyhawks were the Navy’s primary light bomber over both North Vietnam during the early years of the Vietnam War while the USAF was flying the supersonic Republic F-105 Thunderchief. They would be supplanted by the LTV A-7 Corsair II in the Navy light bomber role. Skyhawks carried out some of the first air strikes by the US during the conflict and a Marine Skyhawk is believed to have dropped the last US bombs on the country. Notable pilots like Lt. (Jg) Everett Alvarez, (Cdr) Hugh Magee, John McCain, and Vice Admiral James Stockdale flew the Skyhawk. On 1 May 1967, an A-4C Skyhawk piloted by LCDR Theodore R. Swartz from VA-76, based on the carrier USS Bon Homme Richard, shot down a Soviet-built Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-17 Fresco with an unguided Zuni rocket in the Skyhawk’s only air-to-air victory of the war.

The first loss of an A-4 occurred on 5 August 1964, when LTJG (USN) Everett Alvarez, VA-144, flying from the USS Constellation, was shot down while attacking enemy torpedo boats in North Vietnam. LTJG Alvarez safely ejected after being hit by AAA fire, and became the first US Naval POW of the war; he was released as a POW on 12 February 1973. The last A-4 to be lost in the Vietnam War occurred on 26 September 1972, when USMC pilot Capt. James P. Walsh, VMA-211, flying from his land base at Bien Hoa, South Vietnam, was hit by ground fire near An Loc. An Loc was one of the few remaining hotly contested areas during this time period, and Capt. Walsh was providing close air support (CAS) for ground troops in contact (land battle/fire fight) when his A-4 was hit, catching fire, forcing him to eject. Rescue units were sent, but the SAR helicopter was damaged by enemy ground fire, and forced to withdraw. Capt. Walsh, after safely ejecting, had landed within NVA (North Vietnamese Army) positions, and had become a POW as soon as his feet had touched the ground. Capt. Walsh was the last US Marine to be taken prisoner during the war, and was released as a POW on 12 February 1973.

During the war, 362 A-4/TA-4F Skyhawks were lost to all causes. The US Navy lost 271 A-4s, the US Marine Corps lost 81 A-4s and ten TA-4Fs. A total of 32 A-4s were lost to surface to air missiles (SAMs), and one A-4 was lost in aerial combat to a MiG-17 on 25 April 1967.

Lt. Cmdr. John McCain flew A-4s, once having to clamber out over the refueling probe of a Skyhawk stationed on the carrier USS Forrestal in order to escape a devastating flight deck fire caused by a rogue Zuni rocket, which eventually cost the lives of 134 sailors. John McCain escaped from his jet by climbing out of the cockpit, walking down to the nose of the plane, and jumping off the refueling probe. Video tape shot aboard the USS Forrestal shows McCain narrowly escaping the explosion. He would ultimately be shot down over Vietnam while flying another Skyhawk.


In the late 1960s and 1970s, Israeli Air Force Skyhawks would be the primary ground attack aircraft in the War of Attrition and the Yom Kippur War. They cost only 1/4 what a Phantom II cost and carried more bombs and had longer range than the air superiority fighters they replaced. In May 1970, an Israeli Skyhawk piloted by Col. Ezra Dotan also shot down a MiG-17 Fresco with unguided rockets, over south Lebanon. The Skyhawks bore the brunt of losses to sophisticated SA-6 Gainful missile batteries. They have been replaced by F-16’s.


Argentina was not only the first foreign user of the Skyhawk but also one of the largest with nearly 130 Douglas A-4 Skyhawks delivered since 1965. The Argentine Air Force received 25 Douglas A-4B Skyhawks in 1966 and another 25 in 1970, all refurbished in the United States by Lockheed Service Co. prior their delivery as Douglas A-4P Skyhawk although they were still locally known as Douglas A-4B Skyhawk. They had three weapon pylons and served in the 5th Air Brigage (V Brigada Aerea). In 1976, another order was made for 25 Douglas A-4C Skyhawks to replace the North American F-86 Sabres still in service in the 4th Air Brigade (IV Brigada Aerea). They were received as is and refurbished to flight status by the air force technicians at Cordoba. They had five weapon pylons and could use AIM-9B Sidewinders.

The Argentine Navy also bought the Douglas Skyhawk in the form of 16 Douglas A-4B Skyhawks plus two for spare parts, modified with five weapon pylons and to carry AIM-9B Sidewinders, known as Douglas A-4Q Skyhawk. They were received in 1971 to replace the Grumman F9F Panther and Grumman F9F Cougar in use from the aircraft carrier ARA Veinticinco de Mayo by the 3rd Fighter/Attack Squadron (3rd Escuadrilla Aeronaval de Caza y Ataque).

The United States placed an embargo of spare parts in 1977 due to the Dirty War, which was lifted in the 1990s under Carlos Menem’s presidency when Argentina became a Major non-NATO ally. In spite of this, Douglas A-4 Skyhawks still served well in the 1982 where they achieved success against the Royal Navy.

Falklands War

During the 1982 conflict, armed with iron bombs and lacking any electronic or missile self defense, Argentine Air Force Skyhawks sank HMS Coventry (D118) and HMS Antelope (F170) as well as producing heavy damage to several others: RFA Sir Galahad (1966) (which was subsequently scuttled as a war grave), HMS Glasgow (D88), HMS Argonaut, HMS Broadsword and RFA Sir Tristram. Argentine Navy Douglas A-4Q Skyhawks, flying from Río Grande, Tierra del Fuego naval airbase, also played a role in the bombing attacks against British ships, destroying HMS Ardent (F184). In all, 22 Douglas Skyhawks (ten A-4B, nine A-4C and three A-4Q) were lost to all causes in the six weeks-long war.

After the war, Air Force Douglas A-4B Skyhawks and Douglas A-4C Skyhawks survivors were upgraded under the Halcon program with 30 mm guns, AAM missiles and other minor details and merged into the 5th Air Brigade. All were withdrawn from use in 1999 and replaced with 36 examples of the much improved OA/A-4AR Fightinghawk. Several Douglas TA-4J Skyhawk and Douglas A-4E Skyhawk airframes were also delivered under the Douglas A-4AR Skyhawk program mainly for spare parts use.

In 1983, the United States vetoed delivery by Israel of 24 Douglas A-4H Skyhawks for the Argentine Navy as the Douglas A-4Q Skyhawk replacement which were finally retired in 1988.


More recently, Kuwaiti Air Force Skyhawks fought in 1991, during Operation Desert Storm. Of the 36 that were delivered to Kuwait in 1970s, 23 survived the conflict and the Iraqi invasion, with only one being destroyed in combat.

Training/Adversary Role 2

The Douglas A-4 Skyhawk was introduced to a training role in the two seat Douglas TA-4J Skyhawk configuration replacing the Grumman TF-9 Cougar as the advanced jet trainer The Douglas TA-4J Skyhawk served as the advanced jet trainer in white and orange markings for decades until being replaced by the McDonnell Douglas T-45 Goshawk. Additional Douglas TA-4J Skyhawks were assigned to so-called Instrument Training RAGs at all the Navy master jet bases under RCVW-12 and RCVW-4. The Instrument RAGs initially provided jet transition training for Naval Aviators during the time period when Naval Aviation still had a great number of propeller driven aircraft and also provided annual instrument training and check rides for Naval Aviators. The assigned TA-4J models were installed with collapsible hoods so the aviator under training had to demonstrate instrument flying skills without any outside reference. These units were VF-126 at NAS Miramar, VA-127 (later VFA-127) at NAS Lemoore, VF-43 at NAS Oceana and VA-45 (later VF-45) at NAS Key West.

Additional single-seat Douglas A-4 Skyhawks were also assigned to composite squadrons (VC) worldwide to provide training and other services to deployed units. There were VC-1 at NAS Barber’s Point, VC-2 at NAS Miramar, VC-5 at Cubi point, Republic of Philippines, VC-8 at NAS Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico, VC-10 at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, VC-12 (later VFC-12) at NAS Oceana and VC-13 at NAS Miramar.

With renewed emphasis on Air Combat Maneuvering (ACM) training brought on with the establishment of the Navy Fighter Weapons School (TOPGUN) in 1968, the availability of Douglas A-4 Skyhawks in both the Instrument RAGs and Composite Squadrons at the Master Jet Bases presented a ready resource of the nimble Skyhawks that had become the TOPGUN preferred surrogate for the MiG-17 Fresco. At the time, the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II was just being exploited to its full potential as a fighter and had not performed as well as expected against the smaller North Vietnamese MiG-17 Fresco and MiG-21 Fishbed opponents. TOPGUN introduced the notion of Dissimilar Air Combat Training (DACT) using the Douglas A-4E Skyhawk in the striped Mongoose configuration with fixed slats. The small size of the Douglas Skyhawk and superb low speed handling in the hands of a well trained aviator made it ideal to teach fleet aviators the finer points of DACT. The squadrons eventually began to display vivid threat type paint schemes signifying their transition into the primary role of Adversary training. To better perform the Adversary role, single-seat Douglas A-4E and A-4F Skyhawk models were introduced into the role, but the ultimate Skyhawk was the Super Fox, which was equipped with the uprated J52-P-408 engine similar to the configuration used by the Blue Angels.

The surplus of former USMC Skyhawks resulted in Douglas A-4M Skyhawk versions being used by both VF-126 and TOPGUN. Even though the Douglas A-4 Skyhawk was augmented by the Northrop F-5E Tiger II, Israel Aircraft Industries F-21A Kfir, Lockheed F-16 Fighting Falcon and McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornets in the Adversary role, the Douglas A-4 Skyhawk remained a viable threat surrogate until it was retired by VF-43 in 1993 and shortly thereafter by VFC-12. The last Douglas A-4 Skyhawk fleet operators were VC-8 which retired their Douglas A-4 Skyhawks in 2003.

Douglas A-4 Variants 2

Specifications and Performance Data (A-4F) 2

General Characteristics





  1. Shupek, John. The Skytamer Photo Archive, photos by John Shupek, copyright © 1987-2012 Skytamer Images (
  2. Wikipedia, Douglas A-4 Skyhawk


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