New Zealand Skyhawks

When the A4D-1 Skyhawk first entered service with the US Navy and Marine Corps, it was simple almost to the point of crudity. For instance, to pare down the weight, it didn’t even have a battery. External power carts were needed to start the aircraft. The only “sophisticated” avionics on board was the AJB-3 computer used for the delivery of nuclear weapons. A combination of an attitude indicator and  crude analog computer, it guided a Skyhawk pilot through an “idiot loop” over the shoulder toss. It was good enough for nukes, but nowhere near precise enough for conventional weapons. Regular bombs and rockets were delivered using essentially the same aiming technology as a World War II dive bomber or fighter.

Later models of the Skyhawk introduced air-to-ground radar, but even that was more an aid to navigation than anything else, and weapons delivery was still contingent upon clear skies and an ability to actually see the target. And again, the actual delivery was made using the  same techniques as in World War II.

This lack of precision delivery avionics explains why Argentinian A-4B and A-4C aircraft had to press their attacks on British warships in the Falklands to insanely close ranges, to the point where their fuses didn’t have enough time to arm.

Eventually, digital computers would find their way into modern avionics. One nifty tool that quickly gained popularity was the Continuously Computed Impact Point mode. A digital computer would assess the attitude of the aircraft, its airspeed, known winds, type of ordnance selected, and altitude, and predict the impact point. As the mode implies, that process is updated continuously. It made visual dive bombing much, much easier, and much more accurate.

Updating older aircraft to take advantage of these new systems, and new smart weapons such as the Maverick missile, became a very popular option, especially for smaller air forces. And one of the smallest air forces was the Royal New Zealand Air Force. The RNZAF had operated 10 A-4K Skyhawks (essentially an A-4F with minor changes) since the 1970s. In 1986, they began an upgrade program that included the installation of the APG-66 radar (used in the F-16A) and other modern avionics, including the ability to fire the Maverick missile, the 1000 pound GBU-16 laser guided bomb,* and the AIM-9L Sidewinder missile. Known as Project KAHU, the upgraded Skyhawk was a formidable little jet, and the success of the project is evident by the subsequent upgrade of surplus A-4Ms to A-4AR standard for Argentina.


In 1998, the New Zealand government finally decided to replace the A-4 with the F-16, but in 2001 a newly installed liberal Labour government cancelled that plan, and instead decided to drop the combat mission from the RNZAF, leaving it with just transport and maritime patrol capabilities.

The KAHU Skyhawks were retired into long term storage until 2011, when they were bought by Draken International. Today they serve as contract adversary aircraft supporting US Navy and Air Force training.

*It could carry and drop the bomb, but had no designation capability. That laser designation would have to be provided by a controller on the ground, or an allied aircraft.

The Skyhawk soldiers on.

Spill tipped me to this.  The US Air Force has contracted with Draken to provide adversary support to F-35 operational testing at Edwards AFB.

8/27/2015 – EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. — A-4 Skyhawks have taken to the skies over Edwards in support of operational test of the F-35A for the Royal Netherlands Air Force. They are part of a tactics development and evaluation exercise initiated by the 323nd Test and Evaluation Squadron and supported by the Joint Strike Fighter Operational Test Team from Aug. 17-28.
“Each service and each country has their own specific test events that they want to test for themselves, for their own service and their own country requirements,” said Rich Radvanyi, JOTT Planning Cell chief.
The JOTT has five operational test squadrons composed of the 31st Test and Evaluation Squadron, the Marines’ VMX-22 squadron, the United Kingdom squadron 17(R), the Dutch 323nd Test and Evaluation Squadron and Navy squadron VX-9.


Much as Lex worked with ATAC providing Kfir’s and Hunters to the Navy as contract adversary support, Draken offers jets as needed to the Air Force (and other customers).

The Draken Skyhawks have an interesting history. Built as A-4Ks for the Royal New Zealand Air Force as a slight variant of the A-4F, they were later upgraded with the APG-66 radar (same as the F-16A) and avionics allowing the use of precision guided weapons. But in 2001, New Zealand decided they no longer needed jet combat aircraft, and retired their Skyhawk fleet. Having a good radar aboard allows the Draken Skyhawks to provide a sophisticated threat profile in exercises, beyond that of most other contract aircraft.

Sixty-one years after Ed Heinemann’s Hot Rod first took to the skies, the Skyhawk still soldiers on in active service with Brazil, Argentina, Singapore and until this year, Israel. That’s one hell of a record for a combat aircraft.