Volume 03, Issue 3
Heinemann’s hot rod a big success
BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
By 1952, tactical aircraft technology was improving as fast as engineers could draft new designs. However, famed Douglas engineer Ed Heinemann saw a disturbing trend. New aircraft were more advanced than ever before, but the new technology was also making the aircraft heavier, often at the expense of performance.
For Heinemann, this tradeoff was unacceptable, particularly for a tactical aircraft charged with protecting the life of the pilot. He said the problem "gnawed at me like a toothache." Like many problems, the solution was simple. It was a widely held axiom among engineers that adding one pound of structural weight to the design meant that the aircraft would need to gain an additional 10 pounds in fuel and engine weight to maintain the intended speed, range, and performance.
When the U.S. Navy requested an attack aircraft weighing less than 30,000 pounds (13,600 kilograms) that could be produced for less than $1 million, Heinemann set out to apply that growth factor in reverse. If he could save one pound in the design, he could reduce the final weight of the aircraft by 10 pounds. Heinemann realized this was an ambitious project, and at his initial meeting with his key people, including aviation artist R.G. Smith, then a configuration engineer at Douglas, he invited anybody who felt the job was impossible to leave. "For this task," he told the assembled group, "I only want believers." Nobody left.
When the designs were completed, they had created the A4D Skyhawk, a plane that bettered every Navy requirement. In fact, the weight of the aircraft as designed was about 15,000 pounds (6,800 kilograms).
Heinemann had a hand in the design of more than 20 different aircraft at Douglas, including the SBD Dauntless, the AD Skyraider, and the F4D Skyray, during a career spanning six decades; but few approached the success of the Skyhawk.
The A4D Skyhawk made its first flight June 22, 1954, 50 years ago last month. As aviators discovered the capabilities of this small aircraft, it quickly became known by many names, including "Heinemann's Hot Rod," "Scooter" and "Mighty Mite." In October 1955, the single-engine Skyhawk set a new 500-kilometer closed-circuit world's record, averaging almost 700 miles per hour.
In 1962, the U.S. Department of Defense adopted a new designation system that aircraft in all branches of the military would share. Thus the first model, the A4D-1 (the "D" stood for Douglas and the "1" designated it as the first production model) became the A-4A.
The A-4 served as the primary naval strike aircraft during the Vietnam War, operating both from Navy aircraft carriers and Marine Corps land bases. In April 1970, the A-4M built for the U.S. Marine Corps made its first flight, featuring many improvements over the original Skyhawk, including a more powerful engine. Its combinations of power, low weight, maneuverability and acceleration led to its being chosen in 1974 for the U.S. Navy Blue Angels Flight Demonstration Squadron, where it served until the F/A-18 Hornet replaced it in 1986.
The A-4 also served with the Royal Australian Navy, the Royal New Zealand Air Force, the Israeli Air Force, the Argentine Navy and Air Force, the Singapore Air Defense Command, the Kuwaiti Air Force, the Indonesian Air Force, the Brazilian Navy, and the Malaysian Air Force. Several of these forces are still flying the venerable Skyhawk.
The last of 2,960 Skyhawks was delivered to the U.S. Marine Corps in February 1979, after a record 26-year production run. The last U.S. Navy Skyhawks in active service were TA-4J models operated by Naval Fleet Composite Squadron Eight in Puerto Rico. After serving as "adversaries" for pilots training in F/A-18 Hornets and other naval fighters, as well as in other support roles, the last Skyhawks were retired in May 2003-more than 47 years after the first A-4s entered service in 1956.
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