Flying the A4 Skyhawk with the Royal Australian Navy — Part 2

Guest column by Peter (‘Purps’) Greenfield

Suren Ratwatte

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The McDonnell Douglas A4 Skyhawk was the only aircraft I flew where I felt that I was in it, rather than occupying it. The cockpit was tight, to the point that your helmet ‘bonked’ the canopy in your struggles to see behind. You had to know where the switches were on the side panels purely by feel, especially beside your body. Once the canopy was down it was like flying in a glass bubble — the aircraft practically responded to your thoughts, rather than control inputs. There were two mirrors on either side of the canopy-bow at forehead height, which you adjusted like the wing mirrors of your car, enabling you to see across the arc obscured by the turtle-back into your 6 o’clock.

The A4 had a tiny, intimate cockpit. Here seen approaching the drogue for air-to-air refueling. Notice the mirror on the right side of the canopy. Courtesy RAN

The aircraft was very agile, with half-span ailerons, a powerful rudder, and stabilizer with an elevator: a so called ‘flying tail’. Full aileron input would result in a 720° per second roll rate. Roll coupling was a serious problem, so there were speed limits for full input and roll limits as well. The aircraft did not have a dutch-roll problem, but it had a constant twitch in yaw which could be dampened by dabs of rudder. The AFCS (Automatic Flight Control System; or autopilot) had a full-time Stability Augmentation channel which was selected ON just after lift-off. It was not a ‘no dispatch’ item, but you had to be careful with large rudder inputs if it was unserviceable.

The stall was a classic delta wing stall. Hold the aircraft level, idle thrust, not less than 70%, deploy the speedbrake and trim to hold level. Stop trimming at half-slat deployment, hold it level and it would stall at 100 KIAS (knots indicated air speed). There was no buffet, no rumble, the vertical speed indicator (VSI) would just go to 6,000 feet per minute (fpm) down. The aircraft would just sit there in a deep stall. If you held it there it might go into ‘falling leaf’ mode, rocking from side to side up to 30°. Recovery was simple; apply maximum thrust, retract the speedbrake and the VSI would go from -6,000fpm to +4,500 without a change of attitude. Great for go-arounds and ‘bolters’[i] on the ship.

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Suren Ratwatte

I love airplanes and history. Trying to combine both interests in this blog, with stories of the old aircraft and the recollections of those who flew them.