Modern jet fighters continue to grow ever more complicated and more fantastically expensive. But some of the most influential aircraft in history succeeded instead because they could do their job pretty well at a very reasonable cost. Such was the case of the agile A-4 Skyhawk, a small but heavy-lifting attack jet that would carve out a major place for itself in American history—and also that of Israel and Argentina.
In 1952, Douglas aviation engineer Ed Heinemann sought to create a replacement for the Navy’s AD1 Skyraider attack planes. He proposed to replace one of the largest single-engine fighter-bombers ever built with one of the smallest, lightest attack jets ever. At every turn, Heinemann engineered the Skyhawk to reduce weight and complexity, resulting in a combat jet that measured only twelve meters long and weighed only five tons empty. Even the delta wings on the “Tinkertoy Jet” were so small—little over eight meters from one wingtip to wingtip—that they did not need to fold for stowage inside a carrier. This featured, combined with short-takeoff-and-landing performance, made the Skyhawk particularly useful when it entered service in 1956, as the Navy still operated numerous smaller conventionally powered carriers with limited deck space.
Powered by a single J65 turbojet engine with two side-mounted air intakes, the Skyhawk proved agile but not especially fast, with a maximum speed of around 670 miles per hour—just below the speed of sound. The early-model Skyhawks lacked a radar for detecting and engaging enemy fighters, but at short range could employ heat-seeking Sidewinder missiles and two twenty-millimeter cannons for self-defense. But that was just as well: the Skyhawk’s job was to pound enemy ground targets, and its three hardpoints could lug a hefty maximum bombload of eight to ten thousand pounds, which could include nuclear weapons.
The Skyhawk was cheap, reliable and effective, so the Navy and Marines ordered hundreds of them, with production eventually totaling at 2,500 in a wide variety of models. In the early 1960s, every U.S. Navy carrier had at least two attack squadrons of Skyhawks; the first nuclear supercarrier had four. The Skyhawk was swiftly improved in the A-4B variant with improved avionics and the capability for air-to-air refueling—not just with tanker aircraft, but even from one Skyhawk to another. Though the technique eventually fell out of favor as dedicated tankers became available, the tankers were retired at the turn of the century, and so fighter-to-fighter refueling was recently brought back in the Navy’s Super Hornet fighters. The radar-equipped A-4C followed, giving the aircraft bad-weather and night-flying capability.
First and Last in the Fight for Vietnam
On August 2, 1964, the destroyer USS Maddox fought a skirmish with North Vietnamese torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin off Vietnam. Two days later, shipboard radar seemed to detect a second attack. In fact, the second attack was later revealed to be a technical glitch—a glitch with historic consequences, as President Johnson promptly ordered the first American air strike of North Vietnam, targeting the boat bases and an oil depot in Vinh. Of course, the Navy dispatched its Skyhawks to do the job, and they dropped the first of what would be more than 7.6 million tons of U.S. bombs in Vietnam.
These days, U.S. warplanes mostly attack their targets from high altitude using precision-guided weapons, to avoid having to swoop down within range of machine guns and shoulder-fired missiles. But guided air-to-ground weapons were in their infancy in the age of the Skyhawk. Instead, attack planes hit enemy targets by swooping down upon them and releasing old-fashioned gravity bombs above the target, or strafing the target with cannon fire. Getting that close necessarily put in in within reach of abundant and inexpensive automatic flak cannons, which could be quite effective.
In the initial strikes at Vinh, flak shot down two A-4s, killing Lt. Richard Sather, while Lieutenant Junior Grade Everett Alvarez Jr. managed to eject from his plane—and became the first of hundreds of American pilots to endure years of captivity and torture in North Vietnam. Another participant in the initial raid, future Vice Admiral James Stockdale, who in 1992 ran for the vice presidency alongside Ross Perot, was shot down and captured a year later in 1965.
The Skyhawk remained the workhorse of the Navy as Washington escalated its involvement in Vietnam, flying thousands of ground attack sorties and participating in key engagements such as the Battles of Hue and An Loc. New marks of the Skyhawk also showed up: the A-4E and F boasted two additional hardpoints for carrying weapons, more powerful J52 engines, a doppler navigation radar and a targeting computer. The F model in particular also introduced a pronounced “hump” behind the cockpit, packed full of avionics. The Skyhawk also began to use greater quantities of guided weapons, including AGM-12 Bullpup missiles and AGM-45 Shrike antiradar missiles for knocking out Hanoi’s surface-to-air missile defenses.
Though introduction of A-7 Corsairs gradually supplanted the A-4 complement on larger carriers, the Skyhawk’s shorter takeoff and landing distance guaranteed its continued service on smaller carriers as well as in Marine aviation units, which deployed the A-4s to forward air bases.
Earlier in the war, A-4s even bumped into North Vietnamese MiG-17s, highly maneuverable cannon-armed fighters that were only slightly faster than the Skyhawk. In a clash on April 1967, a MiG-17 dispatched a Skyhawk. But in a bizarre twist, the next month Lt. Cdr. Theodore Swartz managed to down a MiG-17 using an unguided folding-fin Zuni rocket intended for air-to-ground targets.
However, the five-inch rockets were involved in one of the worst carrier accidents in U.S. history, when on July 29, 1967, an electrical surge triggered a Zuni rocket carried onboard an F-4 Phantom that was queued for takeoff on the USS Forrestal. The rocket blasted open the external fuel tanks of a Skyhawk in front of it, spraying jet fuel and debris across the carrier deck, which immediately ignited. A minute later, the fire detonated the thousand-pound bombs carried on the unfortunate Skyhawk, killing most of the trained firefighting crew sent to quell the flames. More than 134 sailors died in the ensuing conflagration and damage-control effort, resulting in an entire squadron’s worth of Skyhawks being burnt to a crisp.
One of those lucky to escape alive was a young John McCain, today the sitting senator from Arizona, who had been in the A-4E next in line to the one that detonated. He managed to jump off the nose of his plane as it caught fire and was blasted across the deck by the detonation of the bomb. Four months later, on October 26, 1967, McCain was dropping bombs on a power plant in Hanoi when an SA-2 surface-to-air missile sheared off a wing from his A-4E. The Navy pilot bailed out into Truc Bach Lake in northern Hanoi, whereupon he was captured and went on to endure six years of torture and captivity.
By the end of the war, Navy and Marine Skyhawks had flown tens of thousands of combat missions, including 195 destroyed by enemy fire. An air strike delivered by Marine Skyhawks in 1973 is reputed to have been one of the last delivered by U.S. combat aircraft in the Vietnam War.
The Skyhawk lingered several more decades in U.S. military service. The Marine Corps was reluctant to part with the reliable ground-support plane. It acquired an advanced A-4M model capable with more powerful engines, extra cannon ammunition, and the hardware to sling early Maverick missiles and laser-guided bombs. These remained active until they were replaced by Harrier jump jets in the 1980s. The Blue Angels acrobatics team also flew used the agile aircraft from 1974 to 1986, replacing much faster but clumsier F-4 Phantoms.
The Skyhawk also remained a favorite “aggressor” plane in U.S. Navy training exercises because it ironically boasted similar speed and agility to its chief historical foe, the MiG-17. As such, it became a valuable training foil at the Top Gun school, teaching Phantom and Tomcat pilots how to deal with slower but more maneuverable opponents. Combined with its reliability, simplicity and low operating costs—only $3,000 per flight hour compared to $42,000 for an F-15—the Skyhawk remained popular as a trainer well into the 1990s. Several Skyhawks continued to be flown by private firms in the role of military trainers today.
Eagle of the Middle East
As the Vietnam War raged, so did the Arab-Israeli conflicts. The Skyhawk, as usual, was at the forefront of the action. Ninety A-4s—known as in Hebrew as the Ayit, or Eagle—entered the service of the Israeli Air Force in 1967. These were modified into the A-4H variant, which can be distinguished by their a longer-tail pipes—a measure designed to lower the Skyhawk’s infrared signature in the face of heat-seeking missiles. The A-4H also had uprated J52 engines and much harder-hitting thirty-millimeter ADEN cannons, as the Israelis placed greater value in strafing runs. In 1973 superior A-4Ms were also purchased and reconfigured to Israeli standards as the A-4N.
The Skyhawks served as the IAF’s primary dedicated attack plane during the incessant border skirmishes of the War of Attrition with Egypt. Five of them fell prey to much faster Egyptian MiG-21 jets. However, in May 1970, one Israeli Skyhawk pilot managed to turn the tables on a slower MiG-17 over Lebanon in an decidedly unconventional manner, as recalled by Col. Ezra Dotan:
I completed the descent to the MiGs’ altitude and sat on the tail of one of them. I decided to use the fire power of the air-to-ground rocket pod in order to hit the MiG. I shot off a first salvo from both pods, at a range of 50 meters. The rockets went very low and passed under the MiG without the pilot even noticing them. I raised the sights, shot off another salvo, and the MiG disappeared in a great explosion.
Dotan went on to bump into another flight of four MiG-17s and chased one of them down to low altitude:
I found him exiting one of the wadis with a sharp bank. I was going at about 570 knots, and in order not to pass by him, I turned off everything I could turn off to slow the plane down. I would have spread my ears out to the sides, too, if that could have slowed the plane some more. . . .
I pulled up so close to him that I couldn’t even point the nose down at him. He got some distance between us and we started playing cat and mouse: He banks right, I turn to follow. He banks hard to the left – I do the same. At a certain point I shot a burst at him. The bullets ripped off the left wing and the MiG rolled right and rammed into the ground.
However, the Skyhawk force suffered in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, as the relatively slow jets were called upon to hammer advancing Egyptian tanks covered by patrolling MiG-21s and long-range SA-6 surface-to-air missile batteries deployed along the Suez Canal. Until Israeli ground forces knocked them out, the SAM batteries reaped a fearsome toll. Israel lost fifty-three of its roughly two hundred Skyhawks in the conflict.
Yet despite this rough handling, the old attack jet remained a fixture in the Israeli Air Force for decades to come, and would see further action during the war in Lebanon, where a Skyhawk shot down another MiG-17. The last Israeli Skyhawks, serving largely in a training capacity, were not retired until 2015.
Bane of the Royal Navy
In April 1982, Argentine troops seized the Falkland Islands, known as the Malvinas by Buenos Aires. In response, the United Kingdom dispatched an amphibious task force to take them back. Lacking the naval power to confront the fleet, Buenos Aires flung its land-based fighters at the British warships instead.
Argentine Etendard fighters famously sank two ships in the conflict using Exocet antiship missiles with a range of forty-three miles. But Argentina had only four air-launched Exocets available, and so the brunt of the antiship raids had to be performed the old-fashioned way, with its forty-eight Skyhawks, which included a mixture of A-4Bs and Cs, as well A-4Qs operated by the Argentine Navy. These had defective ejection seats due to a U.S. arms embargo, had little in the way of defensive countermeasures and required multiple refuelings via KC-130 Hercules tankers to even make it to the combat zone.
Upon arriving, they would have to brave the firepower of a British fleet bristling with high-altitude Sea Dart surface-to-air missiles and avoid the combat air patrols of Sea Harrier jump jets, then dodge shorter-range Sea Wolf and Sea Cat point-defense missiles in order to drop iron bombs directly on top of warships still equipped with old-fashioned flak cannons and even huge 4.5-inch dual-purpose guns with air bursting shells. Even worse for the Argentine pilots, their bombs were notorious for their faulty fuses, and many failed to detonate even after scoring a direct hit.
Despite the long odds, when British troops began landing on the Falklands, the Argentine pilots gave it their all in the Battle of San Carlos starting on May 21. After five days of intense air-sea warfare, nearly half of the Skyhawk force—twenty-two planes—had been picked off while running the deadly gauntlet. Sea Harriers shot down eight, flak blasted two more, and missiles and accidents claimed the rest.
But the A-4s that got through managed to sink the destroyer Coventry and the frigates Antelope and Ardent, as well as crippling the Landing Support Ship Galahad and badly damaging several more destroyers and frigates. The other Argentine aircraft—Dagger fighters and Pucará attack planes—suffered similar losses but inflicted less damage.
The Skyhawk had one more crazy battle ahead, as twenty-nine were in service in the Kuwait Air Force. When Saddam Hussein’s troops stormed the small country on August 2, 1990, the Kuwaiti A-4KUs shot down three helicopters full of Iraqi commandos and strafed the advancing tanks of the Medina Armored division. By the second day of hostilities, the Kuwaiti pilots were taking off from desert roads, as their air bases were damaged by Iraqi bombing. As Kuwait succumbed to invasion, nearly the entire A-4 force then fled to neighboring Saudi Arabia. When an American-led coalition embarked on Operation Desert Storm to liberate Kuwait in 1991, the Kuwaiti Skyhawk flew more than a thousand combat missions in support, losing one jet to a radar-guided missile, though the pilot successfully ejected. One Kuwaiti Skyhawk pilot even had the rare pleasure of blowing up his old office at an air base with a five-hundred-pound bomb.
There were several other operators of this kind. Indonesia flew A-4 into combat against insurgents and East Timorese separatists. The Skyhawk also saw more peaceful service with the air forces of Malaysia, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand, the last three of which flew their own unique variants designated the A-4S, G and K respectively.
The Skyhawk’s Legacy
Argentina and Brazil both continue to operate Skyhawk combat squadrons today. The Brazilian Skyhawks were purchased from the Kuwait Air Force and extensively modernized. For years they served as South America’s last carrier-borne fighters until the decommissioning of the carrier São Paulo (formerly the Foch) in February of 2017. However, the Brazilian Skyhawks (known as AF-1s) have not been retired, nor the upgraded A-4R Fightinghawks serving with the Argentine Air Force.
The A-4 exemplified virtues of simplicity and cost-efficiency that have seemingly been forgotten in modern warplane design. It was light and easy to handle, and could deliver a nasty punch at its targets, without being weighed down with capabilities unnecessary for its primary mission.
But there is a flipside to the Skyhawk story: its American, Israeli and Argentine combat pilots flew in an era when attack pilots had to dive into the teeth of fearsome enemy air defenses to deliver their payloads—and it was simply accepted that many would pay a terrible price for their bravery, which did in fact occur.
Skyhawks cost around $750,000 to produce each, equivalent to roughly $6 or $7 million in inflation-adjusted dollars. Today, the Pentagon may spend thirteen times that price to purchase a single F-35 stealth fighter, with the expectation that said airplane will remain nearly immune to enemy fire in any war not involving a peer opponent.
The costs and benefits of that tradeoff bear consideration, but if nothing else, that reality should inspire renewed respect for the combat pilots of aircraft like the Skyhawk, who routinely undertook dangerous missions and suffered heavy losses that today would be deemed unacceptable.
Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.