Argentine A-4s in combat

Grupo 5 de Caza, Fuerza Aerea Argentina.

Argentina was the first export customer for the Skyhawk. Between 1966 and 1970, the Fuerza Aérea Argentina took delivery of fifty refurbished A-4Bs and A-4Cs from the USA. Argentina’s naval air arm, Comando de la Aviación Naval Argentina (CANA) acquired sixteen A-4Qs for use from the aircraft-carrier ARA 25 de Mayo (ex-HMS Venerable). When not embarked, they were based at Naval Air Base (BAN) Comandante Espora, Bahia Blanca.

South American politics being what they are, the first action seen by Argentine Skyhawks was not made against an external aggressor. In December 1975 Navy Skyhawks of 3 Escuadrilla de Caza y Ataque (3 a Esc) made one strike against rebels in Buenos Aries during an internal revolt within the Air Force. During a 1978 dispute with neighbouring Chile over the Beagle Channel at the southern tip of South America, CANA’s A-4Qs flew CAP sorties from 25 de Mayo, which sailed to the region as part of Operation Tronador. Although combat was not joined, there were several interceptions of Chilean Navy aircraft and a Skyhawk was nearly cleared to shoot down a Chilean CASA C.212 Aviocar.

The FAA’s Skyhawks were operated by Grupo 5 de Caza at BAM (air base) Villa Reynolds and Grupo 4 at BAM El Plumerillo. These aircraft were designated A-4P by the US government and the manufacturer, but were usually known as A-4Bs in Argentine service. In 1976 twenty-five more A-4s, this time C models, were imported for the FAA. Like the B/Ps these had been reworked and updated with many A-4F features.

In the late 1970s, both services were desperate to acquire more Skyhawks and other modern weapons, but a US arms embargo against the ruling Argentine military junta prevented this. By March 1982, when Argentina launched an invasion of the British territory of the Falkland Islands (known to them as las Islas Malvinas) approximately thirty-six A-4s remained in FAA service, and ten more could be made ready for action by CANA. The latter, embarked on 25 de Mayo, supported the initial amphibious landings near Port Stanley, and one was operated from the airfield there to test its suitability for A-4s. Fortunately for the British, the airfield was not regarded as safe for operations with a combat load, and for the rest of the war the Skyhawks were operating at maximum range from shore bases on the mainland, a distance of at least 380 nautical miles (705km).

In mid-April, the CANA A-4s were readied for attacks on the British fleet then arriving in Falklands waters, but the loss of the cruiser Belgrano to the British submarine HMS Conqueror forced 25 de Mayo back to port to avoid a similar fate. From then on, the A-4Qs operated from Rio Grande. Although the A-4Qs were Sidewinder capable, they operated with bombs only during the war.

The first full engagement between the FAA Skyhawks and the British task force on 12 May saw HMS Glasgow badly damaged and four A-4s shot down by SAMs and AAA. After this, air force operations fell into a pattern of high-level transit with a refuelling from a KC-130 tanker and a low-level attack run with 5001b Mk 82 ‘Snake eye’, 7501b M-117 or 1,0001b British-made bombs. The A-4Cs had been modified to mount five weapons pylons so could carry two additional Mk 82s in addition to up to three on the centreline. Israeli-made Shafrir I AAMs had been seen on A-4Cs in 1978, but were probably only fitted for publicity purposes during the tensions with Chile, and were not properly integrated with the Skyhawks until after the Falklands War.

Incorrect fusing and the ultra-low-level height from which they were dropped prevented many Argentine bombs from exploding. This was fortunate for the British, as four more ships would have probably been lost had all bombs detonated on impact. Other ‘duds’ fell close to British command posts on land. The bravery of the Argentine A-4 pilots cannot be questioned – the majority of their aircraft did not have a remotely modern navigation system, none had radar, radar warning, ECM or guided weapons of any kind, and they had just enough fuel for a single pass on the target, which was defended by guns, ship- and ground-launched SAMs and Sea Harriers with all-aspect AAMs. Against the Sea Harrier, the A-4s were effectively defenceless, with no missiles of their own and only an unreliable cannon. Accordingly they suffered eight losses to ‘La Meurta Negra’ (The Black Death) The battles of 21 May

One of the heaviest days of air combat was 21 May 1982, the day the British task force began its landings at San Carlos Water in Falkland Sound. Following reconnaissance sorties and some attacks by aircraft from Port Stanley, and by FAAIAI Daggers from the mainland, FAA and CANA Skyhawks were launched against the landings.

First to arrive over the Falklands were two flights of three A-4Bs of Grupo 5, each armed with a single British-made 1,0001b (454kg) bomb. Coming across the ‘Leander’- class frigate HMS Argonaut (F56), which was sailing unescorted, they struck it with two bombs at 1230 hours. Neither bomb exploded, but the ship was badly damaged by explosions of its own Seacat missiles and was out of action for five days.

A second flight of Grupo 5 A-4Bs was already refuelling from a KC-130 as the first mission returned. One of the four Skyhawks was unable to take on fuel and dropped out, followed by another for technical reasons. A third bombed an abandoned Argentine freighter by mistake, leaving Capitán Carballo to attack the Type 21 frigate HMS Ardent (F174) alone. Carballo’s bomb was a near miss and he escaped the scene, but his attack attracted the attention of a combat air patrol of two Sea Harriers, flown by Lieutenant Commanders Mike Blissett and Neil Thomas of No. 800 Squadron from HMS Hermes (R12).

Thomas recalled: ‘We were at about 1,000 feet halfway down Falkland Sound, and [the Type 22 frigate HMS] Brilliant vectored us off West Falkland after a contact they’d got.’ This was Carballo’s Skyhawk, making good its escape. ‘We headed off at a fair old rate of knots, and were approaching Chartres [Settlement] when we picked up four A-4s coming over the ridge’.

This was a Grupo 4 attack, intended to be co-ordinated with one by Grupo 5, but which had the misfortune to arrive just as the defences were at their most alert. The tracks of the attacking and defending aircraft crossed at right angles, and as the Sea Harriers broke to starboard to get behind them the A-4s also broke into a hard 180- degree turn to starboard.

As soon as they saw us the A-4s turned tail, jettisoned their bombs and headed off to the south’. Thomas and Blissett pulled harder into their turn, wheeling at full throttle through a 270 -degree turn which placed them directly in the Skyhawks ’ six o ’clock position.

They must have lost a lot of speed, because we ended up about a mile and a half astern. Mike was nearer than myself, and fired; I couldn’t see him until then. He got the man on the left, and having picked Mike up reasonably well to my left, about 40 degrees off, I got a very good growl from the target, so I just shot the missile and it went straight to it. The other two A-4s broke to starboard, with Mike close astern of them. I got a growl from my second Sidewinder but couldn’t fire, because I didn’t know where Mike was. So we missed the other two’. In fact, Mike Blissett damaged one of the other A-4s with cannon fire, although it returned safely to base. The two Skyhawks came down within a hundred metres of each other. Both pilots, Teniente (Lieutenant) Nestor Lopez and Primer Teniente (1st Lieutenant) Daniel Manzotti being killed.

Although a morning mission by CANA A-4s had been ordered to turn back, in the afternoon the same six A-4Qs were launched with different pilots in two divisions; the first led by Capitán de Corbeta (Lieutenant Commander) Alberto Philippi, and the second by Teniente de Navio (Lieutenant) Benito Rotolo. Each aircraft was armed with four 5001b snakeye bombs and 200 rounds of cannon ammunition and carried two 300- gallon tanks. Forty-two minutes after take-off from Rio Grande, Philippi’s division descended to 100ft and then to 50ft as it crossed Falkland Sound, having failed to find its briefed target, a British frigate acting as a radar picket. Rotolo’s three Skyhawks were about twenty minutes behind the first flight.

Since the earlier FAA A-4 attack, Ardent had been damaged by two bombs from a Grupo 6 Dagger and was making its way to the safety of a group of British ships when Philippi’s A-4s approached in battle formation at 450kts (833km/h). Adjusting his flight path to make a diagonal attack, Philippi fired his cannon, which promptly jammed, and dropped his bombs at the preset 250-millisecond interval as the ship launched two Corvus chaff/flare rockets. Electronic countermeasures had no effect on the A-4s or their ‘dumb’ weapons, and several of the retarded bombs hit Ardent in the stern, as did those of his wingman, Teniente de Navio José Area.

Arca describes his attack and the aftermath: ‘When I started the bomb run against the frigate as the No. 2 , 1 had only seven or ten seconds of separation between myself and the aircraft of Capitán Philippi when I needed nineteen seconds to avoid the bomb explosions. I could not adopt the correct position because when we started the bomb run a curtain of fire formed between the ship and us. The ricochets and the explosions were too close to our aircraft. I remember that I saw a missile launch from the ship and I broke right to avoid it and then I returned to course. Because of the small separation between the planes our manoeuvres to line up for bomb launch were almost simultaneous and I saw the launch of the four bombs of Capt. Philippi and the bomb tails open. At this moment I hoped that he missed the target so as not to give me problems with the explosions, but the fourth bomb made a direct hit on the stern. The explosion was immense and I had no choice but to pass through the fireball at the same time that I said to the leader “one on the stern” and dropped my bombs. After that I heard [No. 3 Teniente de Fragata (Sub-Lieutenant) Marcello] Márquez saying ‘another on the stern’. After we left the target parallel to the shore I identified my leader at 1000 metres to the left and Márquez at 1000 or 1500 metres to the right. No more than fifteen seconds after that Márquez said “here come the Sea Harriers” and at that moment I saw a Sea Harrier firing a Sidewinder that after a short flight went up the exhaust nozzle of Philippi’s plane. I looked to the right and didn’t see Márquez but a Sea Harrier instead and almost at the same time I received the first 30mm shell hits on the right wing. Flying at only three metres altitude I almost hit the water and I tried to control the airplane and go for the one that attacked me to break his aim, but I received more hits on the left wing. I prepared to eject because the hydraulic system was totally destroyed and I had lost the electrical system and oxygen. At 480 knots I turned to manual control (although the NATOPS manual said that the top speed for this was 250 knots) and I tried to turn to face one of the Harriers. The combat lasted for about 40 seconds and they left me, maybe because they don’t have fuel or ammunition. I headed to Puerto Argentino [Port Stanley] over the coast, trying to avoid Goose Green, at low altitude and 500 knots and watching the fuel quantity indicator, because I now had only 1001bs, which was going very fast because of the holes, six on the left wing and four on the right.

Close to the runway I tried to put down the landing gear but only the right and the front wheels went down. The indicator said the left one was not secured. I told that to the operations command and he said “the left landing gear is missing, I can see the sky through the holes you have, go and eject over the bay”. I had no choice. Climbing to 2500 feet I went to the ejection point. I held my oxygen mask and with the right hand I pulled the ejection handle. After a powerful explosion and having the sensation of tumbling I found myself descending by parachute. The aircraft continued flying in a spiral towards me, like he was trying to hit me, refusing to let me abandon him. He passed close to me and made another circuit before the anti-aircraft artillery, watchful of the danger, shot him down’.

José Area landed in the water and was rescued by an Argentine Army UH-1 helicopter. His colleagues were not as lucky, Philippi was shot down by a Sidewinder fired by Lieutenant Clive Morrell of No. 800 Squadron, who had inflicted the damage on Area. Philippi also ejected safely, but spent three days evading capture before reaching an isolated cottage. He was returned to Rio Grande on 30 May. Marquez’s A-4 had been hit by cannon fire from the Sea Harrier of Flight Lieutenant John Leeming, an RAF exchange pilot, and had disintegrated, killing him instantly.

Ardent was attacked by Rotolo’s A-4s fifteen minutes after the first CANA attack. No further hits were scored and the three A-4s escaped with minor shrapnel damage. The frigate had suffered mortal damage and had to be abandoned, listing and on fire. She sank the following evening.

In the final accounting, FAA Skyhawks flew 219 combat sorties during the conflict, sinking four Royal Navy warships and damaging many others. Against this must be balanced the loss of nineteen aircraft and seventeen pilots. CANA Skyhawks flew thirtyfour sorties. Losses were three A-4s and two pilots, with fatal damage claimed on two warships – results hotly debated between the two services. Whatever the actual balance, the A-4 was the most successful Argentine aircraft in the Falklands/Malvinas conflict.

The war led to a collapse of the military junta in Argentina and an eventual return to democracy, but it was not until 1994 that the USA lifted the arms embargo and agreed to the supply of late-model A-4s to the FAA. The new FAA Skyhawks, designated A-4AR (A-4M) and TA-4AR (OA-4M) achieved initial operating capability (IOC) in mid-2000.


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