Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Young Skyhawk

This photo is stamped on the back with "Douglas Aircraft Company, Inc Santa
Monica", "Douglas-Navy A4D-1" and "Photo Library May 21, 1956"
Those who have ever flown or worked on the Douglas A-4 Skyhawk (A4D under the pre-1962 designation system) have a very special affinity for that plane, and it's not surprising: the Skyhawk remained in production for 25 years, and though it's long-gone from the US military, the Skyhawk still serves in several other nations' services more than 50 years after the type's maiden flight.

The Skyhawk was a product of the era when a company's principal engineer designed the majority of the aircraft, and was a product of the mind of Douglas' brilliant and self-taught Ed Heinemann. Starting as a draftsman for Douglas in 1926, his career spanned almost five decades, and he retired in 1973 from General Dynamics, after having overseen the development of the F-16. Heinemann's philosophy as he himself described it (and as evident in both the A-4 and F-16) was to take the most powerful engine available and design the simplest and lightest aircraft possible around it.

When the Navy requested proposals for a jet-powered replacement for their AD Skyraider, Heinemann came up with an incredibly simple-yet-functional design that weighed half of what the Navy's specifications called for. The plane's delta wing carried plenty of fuel and yet was small enough that it didn't need to fold for spacing on a carrier, thus saving a lot of weight and complexity. A typical A-4 cost only a fourth the amount of an F-4 Phantom, and yet carried more weight in stores. While principally a close strike aircraft, it could also carry nuclear weapons and has been used in air-to-air combat as well.

Douglas built two XA4D-1 Skyhawks (the first XA4D-1 took to the skies on 22 June 1954) and then 18 YA4D-1 flight test and pre-production aircraft (after the 1962 US armed services model designation commonization change, these were redesignated A-4A), and the one shown in our photo, BuNo. 137819, was the sixth of the Y series. Our photo shows it in flight over Southern California (probably either from Douglas' Santa Monica plant or NAS China Lake), then on 21 September 1959, it was assigned to NAS Quonset Point RI, and then on 29 Feburary 1960 819 was sent to the Naval Aviation Test Facility at NAS Lakehurst, NJ (a photo of 819 at Lakehurst can be seen here). On 14 January 1963, it was damaged in an unspecified incident and written off. Its sister, 137818, is currently preserved at China Lake.

As of this writing, A-4s still fly in the service of Singapore, Brazil (carrier-based), Argentina and Israel. In addition, the American company Draken International operates a privately-owned squadron of former New Zealand A-4s in adversary-for-hire service.

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