Warbird Articles

MAY 25 2010
Warbirds >> 'McDougall' Douglas TA-4J Skyhawk N518TA First Flight

The work was carried out by Fighting Classics under the watchful eye of Mike "Maj" McDougall with a highly skilled and dedicated crew based in a single hangar at Marana Regional Airport in Arizona and took just under five years. The aircraft started as an A-4L Bu148602 which was one of a batch of A-4Cs that were converted to A-4L standard and sold to the Malaysian Air Force. This example was one of 36 that were left behind to be used for spare parts and stored at Dross Metals (later called Aircraft Restoration and Marketing) just outside of AMARC. The aircraft were sold as a job lot by the Malaysian Air Force and changed hands a few times before being released to the open market.

The project called for an airworthy A-4 and with the work to be undertaken it seemed sensible to build a two-seat version to give the most use and appeal from an owner's point of view.

The front fuselage sections of some TA-4Js were available, albeit completely stripped with no sticks, no actuators, rotted wires and no complete lines - basically just the shell with no data tags, and as no aft fuselages from TA-4s were available the decision was made to mate the front half of a TA-4 to the rear of an A-4L. The cockpit basically bolts on to the rear fuselage of a standard A-4 and most major sections are interchangeable with the only modifications being different internal housings to accept different engines. The more powerful J52 engine was used on the original TA-4Js and so the fuselage of this A-4L was modified to accommodate the power plant and the plumbing required.

The basic configuration is as follows: Forward fuselage and engine is TA-4J standard with the aft fuselage, tailplane and wing being A-4L standard. The wings from the Lima model differ from the original Charlie model with the addition of spoilers as did the original TA-4s. The front and rear cockpits are identical and everything can be performed if needed from the rear seat. The detail of this restoration is incredible. All unnecessary components have been taken out and everything down to the last nut and bolt have been replaced or serviced.

I'd been following this project for the last 3.5 years dropping in whenever I could to check-up on the progress, and Maj always kept me in the loop with the goings on. The project began when Maj was recruited as a consultant to buy a couple of A-4s but the owners also wanted to find a shop and after looking around came back and said that they would like Maj to build if he was interested in starting a new business. This is when the current location was chosen and a hangar was consequently found and rented from Pima Aviation.

So the project started with a single aircraft and a pair of drop-tanks on 13th June 2005 with the original estimate put at three years. The first six months was preparation, planning, tooling, finding parts then the build started. Maj worked on his own for the first year of so before recruiting his first employee. At any one time in the restoration there have been a maximum of four people working in the aircraft including him.

Just under five years later and here we are with a fully functioning flying aircraft with experienced test pilot Rick Millson ready to fly the aircraft. Rick is an ex US Navy pilot and Vietnam Veteran with 250 combat sorties and 400 carrier landings under his belt in A-4 Skyhawks; he also did one tour with the Blue Angels in F11 Tigers and was also a slot pilot using the F-4 Phantom.

I arrived on Friday morning laden down with crates of water and carbonated drinks, as there would be no time for the mechanics to break for lunch. The first flight was due to take place later in the day but as with most projects this size, time was quickly slipping away with the small things that needed to be tweaked before such an important event. So as the sun slowly slipped below the horizon it was decided that a short taxi run would be performed to check the systems and to allow an early fight the next morning before the heat got to crazy.

This was the first time I'd seen this machine start and taxi under its own power and it sent shivers down my spine to hear and watch it take a life of its own. I didn't sleep that well in anticipation for the next morning, which would certainly be the day this aircraft flies. The first flight brief was planned to be close to the airport using a Siai Marchetti SF-260 as a chase plane with Roger Tonry at the controls. The plan was to leave the gear and flaps down, climb to 6500' and stay below 200kts. Then move to half-flaps, and raise the gear making sure all looked good in the cockpit as well as a visual check from the chase plane. The chase would also lookout for any smoke from the engine and any leaks of fluid. A couple more cycles of the gear and then fly back into the pattern with a low pass on the cross runway (the hangar is at the end of this runway) then a touch-and-go to landing. Basically exercise everything, bring it back for the engineers to have a good look over after landing.

They had ground crew with radio communications positioned at the start for the take-off run and at midfield; all were equipped with extinguishers. Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) at Tucson issued discreet squawk codes even though they would be out of all airspace and Tucson International would be a diversion field if there were issues with hydraulics or brakes as they would be able to trap the wire there. For this first flight a pair of drop-tanks were fitted which, as well as being part of the kit, would save the fuselage if a wheels-up landing was required in a worst-case scenario.

I hitched a ride with one of the mechanics as our small fleet of pick-ups gathered just beyond mid-field next to the taxiway that runs parallel to the runway. The A-4 was up much quicker than I expected so my take-off shots were a little more underside than I'd have liked. As she took to the air Maj was on the phone to the owner, who couldn't be present, as with the sound of the jets he was shouting, "she flies!" As they performed their planned flight manoeuvres we raced back to the hangar for the fly-past. It looked magnificent as she flew by super quick and again we all jumped in the back of the trucks to see it land and taxi in.

This first flight was a complete success with just a couple of adjustments to make with items like the Angle of Attack (AOA) indicator, so the project for the ground crew suddenly moved from a restoration to a maintenance job. The subsequent flights were made with the drop-tanks off and all that is left is to install the oxygen system, then this aircraft is truly ready to go. On landing Maj was showered with bottle of champagne, which I had strategically hidden in the fridge behind the beer the day before. That task alone too forever to accomplish without Maj cottoning-on. You really couldn't have found a happier guy. On the second flight Maj joined us in the SF-260 chase combined with a photo sortie to see his pride and joy close up in the air.

The next morning Rick and Don were strapped in, engines running and ready to go, but a final walk around by the ground crew found that one of the main gear tyres had some thread separation which would involve a tyre change. In the pre-flight briefing Don held his stomach and advised that he didn't feel too well due to what he had eaten for breakfast. He looked at Maj and placed his hand on his shoulder and said "Hey Rick I'm not really feeling that good I must have had too much for breakfast. I don't think I will be able to handle flying this morning. Maj, do you think you would mind taking my place?" Cue laughter and smiles all around, as this was a set-up and took Maj by complete surprise, as he was just happy to work out all the bugs on the aircraft.

Maj's flight was to be short unfortunately as after getting airborne the gear lights would not indicate an "up" position, and as a cycle of the gear didn't change anything, the only thing to do was to land. It was found that the front door was failing to lock flush with the fuselage after she was jacked-up on the taxiway. A few hours of tweaking and testing and the team had the door working perfectly again. So again Maj was ready to fly and I was able to get some more air-to-air shots with a happy guys riding shotgun in the rear. After the photo work was completed Rick simply said, "See ya later boys" and off they powered. Roger and I watched as they performed a roll and generally zoomed around the airspace. After landing I tried to get some group photos next to the aircraft but Maj was just too happy and couldn't stop laughing the whole time.

Monday morning's flight was to test the slow flight characteristics, which again afforded some nice opportunities to snag some photos in a different configuration. This flight ended with no squawks at all which was great news. The elation turned quickly to sadness as Rick took a phone call from a very close friend who was calling to say goodbye and was in the process of dying. Don suggested that they could curtail the last planned flight of the day in the circumstances, as all that was planned had now been accomplished. Rick however mentioned that his friend Frank had encouraged him to, "keep flying as long as he had an airplane to fly".

So the last flight was dedicated to Rick's friend Frank Chesley and Don told Rick that the flight was his and "you go do whatever you wanton this flight." Rick roared down the runway and picked up the gear and held it at about 25 feet or so and when he reached the end of the runway he pulled it straight up and climbed out of sight. It was a fitting end to a memorable weekend.

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