McDonnell Douglas (T)A-4K Skyhawk


The A-4 Skyhawk, known variously as the 'Scooter' or 'Heinemann's hot rod' was designed by Ed Heinemann for the Douglas Corporation to a USN specification. A light weight fighter-bomber, it incorporated a number of nifty features (such as the short wingspan and rearward lowering undercarriage) to save on heavy extras such as wingfolds and other systems. The XA4D-1 prototype (BuNo137812) took to the air in June 1954, and the aircraft entered US service in 1956. The aircraft has subsequently undergone numerous developments in more than 15 models (both single and two-seaters), and served with a wide range of air forces. Nearly 2,960 aircraft had been built when production ended in 1979, many of these having undergone refurbishment or conversion to new models.

The RNZAF operated the Skyhawk (NZ6201-6218, 6251-6256) as its primary fighter/bomber interdiction aircraft from 1970 to 2001. The aircraft were aquired in two batches. The 1965 Defence Review had recommended the replacement of the RNZAFs Canberra force by 1970, and indicated that the new aircraft should be for a close air support role. Given the lessons of the war in Vietnam at that time, defence planners preferred the F-4. However other factors prevailed and a modified A-4F was recommended. Government approval was given on June 10, 1968, and New Zealand placed what would be the fourth export order for the Skyhawk (after Argentina, Australia, and Israel). The initial batch of 14 aircraft consisted of 10 A-4K and 4 TA-4K aircraft at a cost of NZ$24.65 million spread over the 1968/69 and 1969/70 financial years. (This sum included spares, support equipment, training and training aids for air and ground crews).

The aircraft were allocated to 75 Squadron. Formed in 1946, 75 Squadron was the primary attack squadron for the RNZAF and would receive the new aircraft. (The number was actually 'gifted' by the RAF in recognition of New Zealanders service in Bomber Command - the squadron was formed from the former 2 Squadron). To prepare for the new aircraft 75 Squadron CO S/L W.R. Donaldson was sent on a two year exchange to the USN to create a conversion training programme. While doing so, he was injured in a birdstrike in a USN TA-4 which resulted in the loss of an eye. His programme was completed, and the new CO, S/L J.Scrimshaw took ten pilots and twenty technicians to the US. While the pilots were undergoing their conversion training, ground crew also spent time at Cecil Field learning to maintain the new aircraft. At the same time a team of RNZAF engineers spent six weeks with VMA-311 at Chu Lai in Vietnam learning about the logistics of maintaining the A-4 in the field. The new aircraft were accepted after pilots completed 3 months conversion training in NAS Jacksonville. All the aircraft were test flown prior to delivery - all having their first flight between November 1969 and April 1970. The first two were officially accepted by the New Zealand Ambassador to the United States at a ceremony at McDonnell Douglas' El Segundo factory on January 16, 1970.

Flown to San Diego, the Skyhawks were delivered to Auckland in May 1970 as deck cargo (wrapped in protective plastic cocoons) aboard the carrier USS Okinawa. Unloaded at the docks on May 17, they were then towed by road to RNZAF base Whenuapai where they were prepared for flight. The first aircraft (NZ6254) was flown from Whenuapai by S/L J.Scrimshaw on May 21, with all the aircraft transiting to Ohakea by May 27. The aircraft were officially 'handed over' at Ohakea on June 10, 1970 (see here for individual aircraft details).

The aircraft were operated by 75 Sqn, but conversion and initial strike training were passed to 14 Sqn. Allocation of 4 aircraft (3x TA-4K and 1x A-4K) replaced use of 'pool' aircraft by 14 Sqn in March 1971. The conversion role reverted to 75 Sqn in 1975, with 14 Squadron moving to purely Strikemaster operations. The conversion role passed to 2 Squadron when it was reformed at Ohakea on December 11, 1984. The creation of a new Skyhawk squadron became possible with the purchase of ten ex-RAN Skyhawks ( 8 A-4G and 2 TA-4G) aircraft.

The Australian Skyhawks had been purchased in two batches for use by 805 Squadron aboard HMAS Melbourne and 724 Squadron for training at Nowra. The first batch was eight new build A-4G aircraft and two TA-4G aircraft which first flew between July 19 and August 7, 1967. The second batch were eight ex-USN A-4F and two TA-4F aircraft modified to G standard in 1971. HMAS Melbourne was retired in 1982 and the RAN were directed to abandon fixed wing operations the following year, so the surviving Skyhawk aircraft were no longer required. At that time the RNZAF was not in a position to replace its A-4Ks and a deal was struck to purchase the Australian aircraft at a cost of NZ$150 million over five years. The aircraft were delivered to Ohakea from Nowra during July 1984 These survivors consisted of four of the original new build A-4G aircraft (A-4's in the RAN 880 series), four of the A-4F's which had been modified to A-4G standard (A-4's in the RAN 870 series), and two TA-4G aircraft. These aircraft had all first flown in 1967 (see here for individual aircraft details).

The Skyhawks remained based at Ohakea until 1991 with 75 Squadron acting in the primary strike role, and 2 Squadron providing pilot conversion and operational training, as well as being tasked for reconnaissance, systems evaluation, and procedures development. In mid 1990 the Minister of Defence announced that RNZAF Skyhawks would be based in Australia to work in conjunction with the Australian Defence Forces (ADF). On January 16 1991 the Chief of Air Staff signed an inter-service agreement with the RAN formalising the arrangement for 2 Squadron to be based at RANAS Nowra in New South Wales (ironically the former home of the RAN A-4's) on a cost sharing basis. Under the contract to the ADF, the squadron provided around 400 hours support per year, primarily for RAN training but also to other elements of the ADF. The first personnel arrived on February 11 1991 followed by the remainder with the aircraft on February 26. The squadron was equipped with two A-4K and four TA-4K aircraft supported by 50-60 personnel. Aircrew continued to conduct operational air attack training in the air support and maritime attack role. A five year extension to the agreement was signed in Wellington on October 1996. 75 Squadron remained at Ohakea as the primary strike squadron tasked with operational training, close support, and maritime attack. As well as those aircraft operated in Australia, the Skyhawks have travelled overseas on a number of occasions to particpate in exercises - this has included flights to Fiji, Hawaii, Malaysia, and Singapore.

The 1997 Defence Review had anticipated that the Skyhawk force would begin to be retired in 2004, with the last aircraft being retired in 2010. Consideration was given to a replacement, and in July 1999 approval was given to lease 28 F-16A/B aircraft. The deal was officially signed on July 28, 1999 and personnel sent to the US to assist with the reactivation of the aircraft. A subsequent change of government saw the deal reviewed and despite a report to the contrary (the Quigley report), on March 20, 2000, the government announced it had chosen to cancel the deal. Worse was to come, and on May 8th, 2001 the government announced the the air combat force would be disbanded with effect from December 1 2001 and the aircraft put up for sale. A disbandment parade was held at Ohakea on December 13, 2001 for 2, 14, and 75 Squadrons. Most of the Skyhawks had by this time been flown into storage at Woodbourne. On December 9, the 2 Squadron aircraft returned from Nowra after a farewell parade. On December 11 six Skyhawks along with 14 Squadron Macchis made farewell flypasts of a number of new Zealand centres. A final flypast over Wellington was made prior to a display at Ohakea on the day of the disbandment parade (see here for details and pictures of the display and parade). The remaining aircraft were then flown into storage, with the exception of three aircraft (NZ6217, NZ6252, and NZ6255) which have been retained as 'demonstrators' in the pending sale process, and two aircraft undergoing repairs (NZ6205 and NZ6206). NZ6206 had been undergoing deep maintenance, and NZ6205 appears to have suffered damage to the wings and slats during a rather exuberant final display. These five aircraft remain at Ohakea as at May 10, 2002.

The RNZAF has one further A-4 in its possession, An A4D-2N (c/n 61-0022 BuNo149516) subsequently modified to A-4L status is on long term loan from the USN to the RNZAF Museum. Arranged by MacDonnell Douglas in 1987, the aircraft was retrieved from Davis Monthan and flown to Wigram by RNZAF C-130. The aircraft has been reconfigured to appear as an early A-4K (including straight refueling probe), and is displayed as NZ6207 (which was actually lost in a crash in 1974). (illustrated below).

Two further A-4 aircraft have operated in New Zealand in recent years. The aircraft are TL-0418 (ex Bu154315) and TL-0419 (ex Bu158454). These were two TA-4J Skyhawks refurbished by SAFE Air Ltd for the Indonesian Air Force. Originally the Indonesians had proposed modifying two ex-RMAF TA-4C aircraft, but achieveing commonality with the A-4E/TA-4H aircraft operated by the TNI-AU was uneconomic. Instead two TA-4J were retrieved from the AMARC facility at Davis-Monthan AFB in Arizona and containerised for shipment to New Zealand. On July 6 1998. The aircraft had both arrived at the SAFE workshops at Woodbourne by August 7. During the period the aircraft were being worked on, events in East Timor resulted in protests at Woodbourne in relation to the company carrying out work for the Indonesian government. The refurbishment was completed by June 1999 when the aircraft were text flown. The test pilots were Americans brought in specifically for the job. The aircraft were then shipped by container to Indonesia, where they were reassembled with assitance from SAFE personnel. The aircraft were officially handed over on October 1, 1999.

In RNZAF service the A-4K is known as the 'Model' and the TA-4K as the 'T-bird'. The original A-4K was based on the A-4F (the then current production model for the USN), but incorporated features from the A-4H which was also in production for the Israeli Air Force. Those features included the addition of a drogue chute, and the 'squared off' tail. Changes were also made to the brakes and avionics fit. Although the A-4K had the dorsal avionics 'hump' this was not utilised (apart from carrying luggage). Numerous changes have been made to the aircraft since delivery, most obviously with the livery (more on this below). Technical changes start with the change from the original straight refueling probe to the 'bent' probe in May 1973. (The fleet was also grounded for three weeks in 1972 to rectify problems in the hydraulic system after cracking was found in some fittings). The most recent and significant change was the avionics upgrade in the late 1980's under Project Kahu ( the Maori name for the Australasian Harrier Hawk).

Approval for Project Kahu was given in 1983 after a Defence Review recommended upgrade rather than replacement of the Skyhawks, and registrations of interest were called in May 1984. In March 1986 Lear Sieglar were contracted for the design development and Smith's Industries (of Grand Rapids, Michigan) were appointed as prime contractors. Considerable local input was included in the contract specifications. The first two aircraft (NZ6254 and NZ6205) were rebuilt by Smiths and the RNZAF at Woodbourne - the remainder of the work being carried out at Safe Air at Woodbourne in groups of six aircraft. The first of the updated aircraft was rolled out for testing in June 1988, while the last returned to service in March 1991. The updated installation provides HOTAS and a 'glass' cockpit (2 large CRT screens), new HUD, APG-66 radar aquisition and tracking (as per the F16), and a ring laser gyro inertial navigation system, as well as upgraded VOR/ILS equipment and the provision of chaff/flare dispensers. Parts of the wings were reskinned and some structural elements rebuilt, and the aircraft wiring replaced. The weapons capability now includes AIM-9G/L and AGM-65B. Live test firings of the Maverick were carried out by both Kahu prototypes on the Waiouru range on April 13 1989. The most obvious external change was the removal of the dorsal avionics 'hump' from the single seat aircraft - which had in fact never been used. More subtle changes can also be seen in the aerials (such as the disappearance of the Tacan blade under the nose, and the appearance of ILS blades on the tail). NZ6205 and NZ6254 were the prototype 'Kahu' aircraft, and all the aircraft have subsequently been upgraded. This includes the A-4G aircraft which were converted to the A-4K standard. The upgrade has been described as making the RNZAF aircraft comparable with the F-16A/B at one sixth of the cost.

Apart from the 'Kahu' changes mentioned above, the external appearance of the aircraft has changed greatly in thirty years of service. The aircraft as delivered in 1970 were in a US style SEA paint scheme featuring two-tone green (FS34079 and FS34102) and tan (FS30219) with grey (FS36622) undersides, white undercarriage and underwing racks. The rack tops changed to grey in 1971. Standard warning markings were in red and yellow. RNZAF 'ZK' roundels (blue ring, white inner with red kiwi) were carried on the fuselage, upper port wing and lower starboard wing. Red/white/blue fin flashes were carried on the vertical stabiliser. A white serial was carried on the rear fuselage, with the last three digits repeated below the windscreen. Colourful squadron markings (the tiki and hammers badge on a white oval between bars carrying yellow diamonds on a red background) were carried on the engine intakes. In 1984 the aircraft had had a change in image, wearing a low-vis maritime paint scheme with dark grey (FS36081) replacing the tan and the camouflage extended in a 'wraparound' pattern. Roundels and flashes were reduced to red and blue. Serials and some other markings were changed to black (illustrated below). The colourful 75 Squadron emblem and diamonds carried on the intakes were amongst these. The nose number was reduced to two digits (following the practice on other RNZAF aircraft rather than the USN style three digit number). The former RAN aircraft were delivered in 1984 in their RAN livery (Aircraft Grey (BS 381C-693) and Light Admiralty Grey (BS 381C-697) wraparound scheme) with only the roundel kangaroos replaced by kiwis. The 'Navy' markings were subsequently removed and standard RNZAF markings (with three tone flashes and roundels) over the previous RAN two tone grey. The aircraft were changed to the RNZAF maritime scheme as they went through regular maintenance or the 'Kahu' upgrade. For the RNZAF 50th Anniversary in 1987 a one off paint scheme was applied to NZ6256, which was rolled out on December 14, 1986. Designed and applied by F/Sgt Purdey and Cpl Cooper, the overall gold scheme was embellished with red white and blue stripes on the fuselage and tail, with the stars of the southern cross painted on the vertical tail and scrollwork below the cockpit. After making various appearances during the year, the aircraft was returned to the maritime scheme. In 1997 a new 'one-tone' paint was considered, using FS595b 34079 Dark Green with markings in FS34098 mid-green, and NZ6201 was seen in this scheme. Subsequently the aircraft were repainted in mid-green, but with black markings. Roundels are carried in four positions (fuselage, upper port wing, lower starboard wing). The serial was moved from the rear fuselage to the tail. Because aircraft were regularly rotated from 2 and 75 Squadron for maintenance, the respective squadron emblems were painted (again in a subdued black and without diamonds) on either side of the tail. (illustrated below).

Considering the heavy use of the A-4's, and the lengthy period of service (the aircraft has been in RNZAF service since 1970), the losses have been relatively light. NZ6207 crashed near Ohakea on 18 October 1974 after an engine failure in the circuit due to an oil pump. The pilot, W/Co Fred Kinvig ejected, but suffered a broken leg. NZ6253 was lost along with its pilot on 25 March 1981 when it crashed in the Ruahine ranges about 25 km from Taihape. The aircraft flown by F/L John Dick was on a solo training flight, and the cause of the crash was not determined. NZ6210 was destroyed on 24 October 1989 when it crashed at Ohakea after a collision with NZ6211 during a Kiwi Red aerobatics practice (the manouvre was roll under brake). The pilot, F/O Graham Carter was killed. NZ6208 crashed on the South East Coast of the North Island on 23 July 1992 after an engine flame out due to fuel feed problems. The pilot ejected safely. A further loss was NZ6203 which crashed on 20 June 1996 about 8km north of Ohakea after an engine failure due to total oil pressure loss after a feed line collapsed. Again the pilot (F/L A. Fraser) ejected safely. The final A-4K loss was a fatal accident. NZ6211 crashed at Nowra when the aircraft failed to pull up during a plugged barrel roll with NZ6213 during a practice for an airshow. The pilot, 2 Squadron CO S/L Murray Neilson was killed. One further aircraft, TA-4K NZ2526 was lost during an exercise off the west coast of Australia when the aircraft departed from controlled flight after a tight turn and entered a spin. The pilot, F/L Phillip Barnes ejected and was recovered from his dinghy within an hour. The ejection seat used in the A-4K and TA-4K is the Escapac 1G3 - the IC3 was initially fitted but this has been upgraded in service.

Although aircraft losses have been light, there have been a number of incidents. In June 1975, a USAF exchange pilot was forced to jettison the drop tanks of NZ6201 as the aircraft became uncontrollable due to a hydraulic fault. The pilot was subsequently awarded the AFC for saving the aircraft, becoming the first US Officer since 1946 to receive a New Zealand decoration, and the only USAF officer to do so. NZ6218 rolled over after aquaplaning while landing at RAAF Townsville during an exercise. The aircraft was severely damaged, but after being returned to New Zealand was repaired, and returned to service in 1990. On January 29, 1986, NZ6212 lost its canopy in midair. In September 1989 NZ6255 made a wheels up landing at Ohakea on its drop tanks after losing the right main gear touching down short of threshold. The aircraft was returned to service in March 1990. NZ6211 was damaged in the collision which resulted in the loss of NZ6210, but returned to service on November 17, 1990. NZ6214 had a birdstrike off the Coromandel Peninsula on January 10, 1992 during a low level operation (reportedly 250'at 420kts) which put it out of service till December. NZ6254 was out of service for nearly a year after a heavy landing at Ohakea in March 1994. TA-4K NZ6251 was out of service for five months from February 1997 after the canopy jettisoned in flight. It returned to service on 14 July 1997. On March 19, 2001 NZ6201 struck an 11,000 volt cable at approximately 500' AGL near Lyell in the Buller Gorge. The aircraft was successfully flown to Woodbourne with the top 45cm of the fin damaged.

Several of the aircraft had also been in incidents prior to their New Zealand service. NZ6214 was still '877' during its RAN service when it made a wheels up landing on drop tanks at RAAF Amberley after losing a wheel during a touch & go aboard HMAS Melbourne. NZ6218 was serving with VA-155 as 155069 on 2 July 1969 when it suffered a severe wire strike. NZ6218 is a historic aircraft, in that it was the last A-4F built - and the last A-4 delivered 'new' to the USN. Like several of the RNZAF aircraft, it has a combat history having served in Vietnam prior to being sold to the RAN. The aircraft which saw active service were NZ6215, NZ6216, NZ6217, NZ6218 with VA-155 aboard USS Ranger (26 October 1968 - 17 May 1969), and NZ 6215, NZ6216 with VA-212 and NZ6217 with VA-55 aboard USS Hancock (02 August 1969 - 15 Apr 1970). (More details on individual aircraft histories can be found here ).

Actual combat in RNZAF service has been limited - the only non-training use of guns was by NZ6201 of 75 SQN in an 'across the bows' warning to stop illegal fishing by a Taiwanese squid boat (the 'Kim Nan') on 30 Mar 1975 by pilot F/L J. Jennings. The vessel which had been making for international waters then stopped and was boarded by a RNZN team from the patrol boat HMNZS Taupo. Then on December 16, 1994 rockets and conventional bombs were used to sink a burnt out and abandoned Korean trawler. The Dong Wong 513 had been declared a hazard by the Maritime Safety Authority after it had been abandoned following a fire. As it was too risky to board, the RNZAF were invited to sink it to clear the sea lane off the South Island coast. Six A-4Ks from 75 squadron made two passes, while a 5 squadron P-3K reconnoitered a 20nm safety zone.

Last Update:- 10 May, 2002

Technical Data

Data is for A-4K


2 A-4's side on nose on A-4 cockpit area TA-4 cockpit area landing Cockpit exterior - RNZAF museum taxying flypast - single flypast - formation flypast - pair cockpit area front quarter view flypast - climbing flypast - bottom view flypast - top view takeoff - crowdline

Close Up

The number of closeup pictures is now rather large, so I've moved them to a seperate page HERE .

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