Service of Skyhawk with US Navy

Last revised December 15, 2001


The delivery of the A4D-1 to Navy fleet squadrons began on September 26, 1956, when the first Skyhawk was delivered to VA-72 at NAS Quonset Point, RI. It was followed shortly after by delivery of the A4D-1 on November 26, 1956 to VA-93 at NAS Alameda, California. These two squadrons acted as the flight indoctrination squadrons for the Atlantic and Pacific fleets, respectively.

Once the indoctrination program was completed, these two squadrons became the first operational squadrons in the Atlantic and Pacific fleets, respectively. In April of 1958, VA-125 was designation as the Replacement Air Group to train Skyhawk pilots and ground crews.

The A4D-2 began to replace the earlier A4D-1, beginning in December of 1957 with VA-86. Several other VA squadrons were established with this variant. The A-4E began to replace the A-4B, beginning in December 1962 with VA-23.

Throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s, Navy carrier-based Skyhawk squadrons carried out numerous cruises to the Atlantic, to the Caribbean, to the Pacific, and to the Mediterranean. Most of these cruises were routine and uneventful, but aircraft on the USS Essex were involved in providing support for the Marine landings in Lebanon in July of 1958. Skyhawks aboard the USS Enterprise, Independence, Essex, and Randolph took part in the blockade of Cuba during the missile crisis of October 1962.

The Skyhawk became one of the key participants in the Vietnam War. They were in action from the very start, beginning with the famous Gulf of Tonkin incident of August 3, 1964, in which aircraft from the carriers Constellation and Ticonderoga attacked North Vietnamese torpedo boat and facilities, in retaliation for an attack on the destroyer USS Maddox on the previous day. There were two theatres of operation--"Yankee Station" for operations against targets in North Vietnam and "Dixie Station" for strikes against Viet Cong targets in South Vietnam and Cambodia. Operations in the south were also supported by land-based Marine Corps and Navy Skyhawk squadrons. In North Vietnam, attacks were carried out against industrial facilities, bridges, airfields, and fuel depots. The Skyhawks were often attacked by MiGs, but their maneuverability made it possible for them to evade most of these attacks. Although the A-4 was never intended as a fighter, it did achieve an air-to-air "kill"-- during a sortie against an airfield in North vietnam on May 1, 1967, LCdr Theodore Swartz of VA-76 in 148609 shot down a MiG-17 with air-to-ground rockets. This was the only air-to-air kill by an A-4 during the Vietnam conflict.

Losses of Skyhawks to AAA and SAMs were heavy, especially during the initial stages of the Vietnam conflict. Initially, attacks were carried out at low level to avoid detection by radar, but it was soon discovered that the required zoom before bomb release resulted in an unacceptable loss of speed and maneuverability. A change of tactics was called for, and targets were later approached at high altitude and high speed, and were bombed in shallow diving attacks. A high-altitude approach opened up a vulnerabilty to surface-to-air missiles, but the North Vietnamese SA-2 SAMs were relatively easy to avoid, provided that the pilot saw one coming.  Skyhawks were also active in attacks against enemy AAA and SAM sites. For these attacks, Skyhawks were armed with Shrike antiradiation missiles and with cluster bombs to eliminate AAA sites.

The two seat TA-4F entered service in May 1966 with VA-125 at NAS Lemoore in California, which was an A-4 Combat Readiness Air Group. The TA-4F retained all of the combat capability of the single-seat Skyhawks, and were issued to a number of Navy and Marine Corps units, and most if not all of the Marine and Navy Skyhawk attack squadrons had one or two TA-4Fs.

The TA-4J advanced trainer was not fully combat-capable and was intended for use for training in gunnery and in carrier deck landing. They were issued to a number of VT squadrons of the Naval Air Training Command TA-4Js are still operational with VC-8, and will probably continue to serve through 2004.

An additional role undertaken by the Skyhawk was that of aggressor aircraft. During the Vietnam War, it was found that the air-to-air kill ratio against North Vietnamese fighters was too low, a lot lower than the ten-to-one that had been achieved in the Korean War. In an attempt to improve this, the Navy Fighter Weapons School (better known as "Top Gun") which was designed to train pilots to win air-to-air battles against Soviet-block aircraft. The Skyhawk, when stripped of its avionics and weapons systems, proved to be an extremely agile aircraft, one which could simulate the performance characteristics of the MiG-17. Initially, the A-4E was used as the aggressor aircraft, with the bomb racks and pylons removed. Later variants were al\so used, as were two-seat A-4s. Many of these aircraft were painted with Soviet-block camouflage schemes and side-numbers. Some of them even sported red stars. The results of this training was a dramatic improvement in the kill ratio--as high as 15 to 1 during the last couple of years of the Vietnam War. The TA-4J is still active with VC-8 in this role.

In 1974, the energy crisis that arose out of the Yom Kippur War of October 1973 caused the Navy to replace the F-4Js of its Blue Angels flight demonstration team with A-4Fs. These continued to serve with the Blue Angels until replaced by the F/A-18A in 1986. As they completed their tours, some of the Blue Angels Skyhawks were reassigned to adversary squadrons, and the trainer was reassigned to Training Command. Others were donated to museums. There are, however, several A-4s in museums painted to represent Blue Angels Skyhawks, even though they never served with the unit.

Beginning in December of 1967, Skyhawks began to be phased out of Navy carrier-based attack squadrons, and were replaced by A-7 Corsair IIs and by A-6 Intruders. The last carrier units to fly A-4Fs were decommissioned at the end of 1975 at the same time as the last of the Essex-class aircraft carriers were taken out of service. Single seat A-4s remained with Naval reserve units for a few years longer, finally being replaced by A-7s by 1978. Single-seat Skyhawks still served with adversary units into the mid 1980s.

The Navy two-seat Skyhawks served with training squadrons for several years longer. They were gradually replaced by T-45 Goshawks all throughout the 1990s. The last TA-4J was finally retired on October 20, 1999. The two-seaters also flew as aggressors with VF-45, VF-126, VA-127 and the Fighter Weapons School and as electronic aggressors with VAQ-33. They also served in a variety of support roles with several different composite squadrons. The only Skyhawks still serving with the US Navy are TA-4Js with VC-8, operating in adversary training and target tug roles.

The following is a list of US Navy units which operated the Skyhawk. For more information on Navy Skyhawk squadron assignments, check out the Skyhawk Association's web site. I would appreciate hearing from anyone who has any additions or corrections to this list.

US Navy Fleet Squadrons


US Navy Reserve Squadrons




Training Squadrons


US Navy Fleet Defense Fighter Squadrons



US Navy Support Squadrons


Sources:


  1. McDonnell Douglas Aircraft Since 1920, Vol 1, Rene J. Francillon, Naval Institute Press, 1988

  2. American Combat Planes, 3rd Edition, Ray Wagner, Doubleday, 1982.

  3. United States Navy Aircraft Since 1911, Gordon Swanborough and Peter M. Bowers, Naval Institute Press, 1990.

  4. Douglas A-4 Skyhawk Variant Briefing: Part 1, Harry S. Gann, Wings of Fame, Vol 4, 1996.

  5. A-4 Skyhawk Association page, www.skyhawk.org.