Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Time to Talk of Things That Hang

Are we ready?

Not by a long shot, at least if the topic is modeling the A-4. There's been substantial progress, but the simple fact of the matter is that it's been slow going, primarily due to the unscheduled interference of Real Life. No matter, though, because there's still quite a bit we can talk about. Friends, and I actually do have some, tell me that I can always find something to talk about. I'm not entirely certain that was meant to be a compliment, but that's how I'm taking it. Let's talk!

Loading for an Alpha Strike

First, a premise. The Douglas A-4 was designed and built to drop bombs and shoot rockets at people judged to be Bad Guys and worthy of such attention. It could also tow targets, pass gas (with a Buddy Pack attached), and give a truly spectacular aerobatic demonstration with folks like the Blue Angels but, when all was said and done, it was a bomber pure and simple. The aircraft could be fitted out with a variety of weapons, some of which had the capability to melt sand into smoking green glass, but we're going to discuss the conventional stuff as used during The Late Southeast Asia War Games. There's no intention of this ever being the last word on same; for that we need to hope that either Jim Wogstad or Jim Rotramel will finish up and publish their respective projects on United States aviation ordnance. What you're reading here is a modeler's look at what to hang on a Vietnam-era A-4C and nothing more. With any luck you're ok with that.

Where Do We Hang That Stuff?

OK, here's some basics: The A-4C (originally the A4D-2N) is a three-station aircraft, as were the A-4A and A-4B that preceeded it in service. Subsequent variants had four-station wings with an additional pair of hardpoints outboard that, in combination with the centerline mounts, made for that five-station aircraft we mentioned. In other words, the A-4C can carry ordnance on the centerline and on one hardpoint on each wing.

Early in the Scooter's career the work was begun on racking systems capable of carrying multiple weapons at one time. That work led to the MER (Multiple Ejector Rack) and TER (Triple Ejector Rack) of the Vietnam era. The MERs could carry up to six individual weapons, while the TERS were restricted to three. The MER was the rack most often found on the Charlie, and was usually mounted on the aircraft's centerline station. All three stations on the A-4C were plumbed and could be used as pylons for fuel tanks as well as weapons.
Gas Bags

Let's get the fuel tanks out of the way first. They came in two varieties; 150 and 300 gallon, but wartime aircraft are almost never seen with the smaller tanks. The 300-gallon tanks can differ in appearance too, for very practical reasons. The "normal" configuration is the one most folks expect to see on an A-4 and has a pointy tail cap with fins. That one shows up under the wings. There's a variation of that, with a bobbed and rounded cap at the tail, that also shows up mounted under the wings. Then there's a third variation with a flat cap at the rear; that one is intended specifically for use on the centerline station and has the flat cap to allow complete access to the Scooter's "aft hell hole", a hinged access panel between the flaps that provides access to the aircraft's single-point refueling system (and also prevents the possibility of the extreme tail of one of the "pointy" tanks striking the deck during the catapult launch of a fully loaded aircraft, an extremely rare occurance but a possibility nontheless). The "bobtailed" tanks (as opposed to what I'm going to call the "flat-caps") could be found on any station, but the Scooter normally carried its extra gas on the wings, with the centerline reserved for ordnance.

Then there's the Buddy Store. You won't see one on an aircraft configured for combat, but if you decide your model needs one it goes on the centerline only. I think you may have to make your own if you go that route, but it's been so long since I've built a jet I'm just not sure. It's an easy mod in any case.

Finally, the A-4 was essentially a short-ranged aircraft and needed that extra fuel. Distance to target and type of ordnance would dictate how much extra fuel was carried and where the tanks were located, but those gas bags would be there. A model of any Vietnam Skyhawk needs to have a tank or tanks on it.

Things That Go Boom!

With the extra fuel out of the way, it's time to talk about ordnance. Not ordinance, which are rules, but ordnance, which are weapons. Got that? Good! With that out of the way, let's talk about carriage of weapons, and then about kinds of weapons. As always, it's best to have a photo of the aircraft you want to build rather than an active imagination.

First, where do you put your MERs? Fact is, they could be fitted to any one of the three hardpoints on the Charlie, and photographic evidence shows that they were, but the "normal" location was on the centerline (Station 2), with gasbags on Stations 1 and 3. Then, how do you load them? That seems like such an obvious question, since there are six places to hang things on a MER, but there's a catch! Shore-based Scoots, most often operated by the Marines but also, on occasion, by the Navy, generally flew with all six locations loaded. It was different on the boat, though, because the bomb in the middle at the aft end of the rack was perfectly situated to smack the deck during a cat shot, so that station was frequently left empty on ship-board A-4s. I would strongly suggest not putting anything there on your model, either, both because of accuracy and because it looks pretty cool too---most people don't expect to see that empty rack back there.

OK, now you've got racks and tanks. Let's load 'em.


The bomb was the most common ordnance used by the Skyhawk during the war. The Navy's standard bombs for most of the conflict were the Mk81 250# General Purpose Bomb; the Mk82 500# GP Bomb; the Mk83 1000# Bomb; and the Mk84 2000# Bomb, in either low-drag or "Snake Eye/SERET" high-drag configuration. Of these the Mk82 is far and away the the one you'll most often find on the Scooter and, I think, the biggest one they could lug around on the MER. (I've seen photos of Scooters with fully-loaded MERs on the inboard wing racks, thoroughly unapproved due to weight restrictions but apparently done at least a couple of times, probably by Marine aircraft, in combat. Yikes!) Early in the war a modest amount of stored ordnance (from WW2 and Korea) was expended but was considered to be largely ineffective and unreliable and its use was discontinued fairly quickly. Limited use was also made of the 750# M117, primarily by the Marine Corps at DaNang. That particular weapon was unsatifactory to the Navy and was rarely carried by their A-4s.

One point to watch, at least if you're using one of the Mk-Something-or-Other bombs, is the surface finish of the items you put on your model. The bomb casings were in an as-manufactured condition for most of the war, but the horrific accidents on the Oriskany and Forrestal led to the introduction of an ablative coating late in the conflict, in the hopes that it would delay the unintentional detonation of bombs involved in a shipboard fire. That coating appears as a highly wrinkled surface finish on the body of the bomb only; not on the fins. Standard paint color is olive drab for any bomb used during the war.


Ask anybody serving on a carrier during the Vietnam era which weapon made them the most nervous and most will reply "napalm". The stuff isn't as dangerous as you might think, and is in truth extremely difficult to ignite without a detonator, but it's scary stuff nontheless. It was used throughout the war for antipersonnel work, and was highly effective in that role. Nape cans were rarely painted and most often appeared in natural aluminum with minimal stencilling. The standard loads were on the front three positions of a centerline MER, or on the lower and/or outboard stations of wing-mounted MERs or TERs (and, as with a centerline rack, on the front half of a wing-mounted MER).

Rocket Pods

We're talking Vietnam here, so rocket pods will basically come in two varieties utilizing two types of rockets, the 2.75-inch FFAR and the Zuni. The 2.75s were carried in either the 7-round or 19-round variations of the LAU-3 rocket pod with the 7-round seeming to be the more commonly used of the two, while the Zuni was launched from the 4-round LAU-10. Aerodynamic fiberglass covers could be fitted to either end of these pods, although they worked just fine without them. From a practical standpoint either of these pods could mount to any station on the Scooter, but as a modeler you need to let Good Sense prevail. You could, for example, mount a LAU-3 to all the stations of a MER as long as you left off the protective caps, but the fallacy of that sort of madness should be pretty evident to you without me even having to say anything; in Real Life the rockets in the pods at the back of the MER would have to fire through the pods attached to the front of same, a practice that would severely limit the ability of the shooter to collect his retirement pay. And yes; this is an absurd thing to mention, except that somewhere, sometime, some modeler will do it. That person need not be you.

One further note while we're talking about rockets: The A-4's only MiG kill of the entire SEA conflict came on 1 May, 1967, when VA-76's Ted Swartz nailed a MiG-17 with a Zuni. That's not the best way to shoot down another airplane, but there's no doubt it works!


Although the AGM-45 "Shrike" was carried by the later Skyhawk variants (VA-212 is noted as having done it), only two types of guided missiles were utilized by the earlier, 3-station birds. The AIM-9B "Sidewinder" was used by Scooters employed as CAP aircraft for those ASW carriers still operated by the Navy during the war, with two rounds being attached to a LAU-7 rail on Stations 1 and 3 for a total of four missiles. The other weapon, the AGM-12 "Bullpup", is perhaps the most famous missile ever carried by the A-4, at least as far as scale modelers are concerned. That fame comes not from any operational success, but rather because almost every kit of the A-4 ever issued had a pair of "Bullpups" included with the model.

"Bullpup" was an interesting round to say the least, being a standard 250# GP bomb with a different fin arrangement (which included the tracking flare) and a guidance unit attached to the nose. You can tell when an A-4 has been configured to carry the missile because a small blade antenna had to be added to the nose gear door to allow guidance transmissions to the weapon. A small control panel, complete with joystick, was mounted to the left-side cockpit console so the pilot could "fly" the thing to the target through visual acquistion of that very bright, and sometimes disorienting, flare at the back of the missile; "Bullpup" most assuredly was not of the launch-and-leave variety of weaponry. It had to be steered all the way to the target and it's guidance parameters (I think it was something like 12-degrees on "Bullpup A", which is the round we're discussing here) meant that the launch aircraft had to fly almost directly behind the missile until it impacted the target. If command lock was broken the missile would immediately become ballistic and unguided, resulting in a miss and a wasted mission. Those guidance parameters ensured that "Bullpup" missions were somewhat less than fondly regarded by those who flew them. The AGM-12 could mount to any station on the Charlie but was conventionally carried on the wing positions.


Yep; gunpods. The A-4C could and did occasionally carry the HIPEG 20mm gun pod in combat. This twin-gun weapon was deadly when employed in the strafing role but, as with "Bullpup", required that the aircraft fly a predictable flight path which in turn provided North Vietnamese AAA gunners with a relatively simple tracking solution. HIPEG proved to be far more popular in operations over South Vietnam; in the North, strafing was nobody's favorite pastime and a highly unhealthy occupation as well. As with most weapons found on the Charlie, the HIPEG can mount to any station via use of an adaptor rail.

Is He Done Yet?

Yep. All finished, almost. This is nearly the end of the weapons part of our Scooter Adventure, but I really ought to remind you one more time to look at lots of pictures of early A-4s before you go sticking ordnance on there, at least if you want to end up with an accurate model. As with almost every aspect of our hobby a good photograph, or two or ten, is a Very Good Thing.

Finally, you might wonder about the illustrations, and rightfully so. They were originally generated (or annotated, in the case of the drawing that's so obviously of a technical nature) for a piece that never got published Way Back When; that "technical" drawing was intended for use with the 1/72nd scale Fujimi A-4C and therefore mentions a missing approach light and a "short" refueling probe, neither of which are an issue with the 1/48th Hasegawa kit. The Morgan Brothers, Rick and Mark, helped considerably both with the drawings and with technical information in general---many thanks, Bros!---and your model will be that much more accurate because of them.

The photo is via my old friend John Kerr (where does he come up with this stuff?) and shows A-4C BuNo145070 tanking off a contract A-26. The Scooter is from the NATC but that's about all I know; if you can add anything to our knowledge of this photo please drop me an e-mail at .

We get by with a little help from our friends...

Be good to your neighbor, and we'll see you again real soon.

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