Belgium and the A-4 Skyhawk
by Robert Verhegghen, IPMS Belgium.
March 1965, the Belgian and Dutch governments decided to jointly study the replacement of the aging Republic F-84F Thunderstreak and RF-84F Thunderflash aircraft which had equipped both air forces since the mid-fifties.
1961, both countries had established a joint pilot training program. Basic flying and advanced training was the responsibility of the Belgian Air Force (BAF ) on Stampe SV-4B biplanes and Potez CM-170 Fouga Magisters. Operational transition was the responsibility of the Koninklijke Luchtmacht (Dutch AF) Netherlands on Lockheed T-33s. Final conversion to the F-84F was made in Eindhoven on Dutch planes.
The decision to replace the Thunderstreak and Thunderflash followed the operational concerns NATO Headquarters had expressed some months earlier about the use of those types after 1970. Another reason for replacement was that both planes were to be withdrawn from USAF inventory on 1 January 1968. This meant that the spare parts service would not be provided by the USAF after that date, and both countries would have to buy and stock their own spare parts, a very costly issue in terms of budget, personnel and organization.
From April to September 1965, both Air Force teams worked together on calendar issues (the target date being mid-1969 for introduction of the new fighter), definition of common selection criteria for the replacement aircraft and a study of the characteristics of possible candidate aircraft. The aircraft nominated were the Swedish SAAB Draken, the Northrop F-5 Freedom Fighter and the Douglas A-4E Skyhawk. The Republic F-105 Thunderchief was also considered for a short time, but was rapidly eliminated due to cost and weight issues. The candidates were operationally evaluated by Belgian pilots in October and November of 1965, followed by the Dutch team in February and March of 1966.
The Belgian A-4 evaluation.
Two experienced F-84F and RF-84F pilots attached to “VSP -Plans et Programmes” division of the BAF HQ, which was in charge of the replacement program, went to the USA in October 1965 to evaluate the F-5 and the A-4.
These pilots were Major Aviateur Hugo loeckaert, and Major Aviateur Paul “Staf” Declercq. Both pilots went on to have brilliant careers in the Belgian Air Force, achieving the rank of general officer.
After having flown the Northrop F-5 the week of 18-22 October, both pilots reported to the Douglas Palmdale factory on 25 October to evaluate the A-4E Skyhawk. They were introduced to the A-4 by Douglas representative James Stegman and were allowed to fly the two-seat prototype TA-4E (later TA-4F) Bu.No. 152103. According to his log-book Major Cloeckaert was assigned A-4E Bu.No 152080, which was just off the assembly line awaiting delivery to the Navy. He made 6 flights in that plane between 26 and 30 October to evaluate general characteristics, ceiling, range, radar, navigation systems and formation flying. Major Declercq was in charge of evaluating armament systems and ordinance delivery. Log book information for his flights is not available.
The Belgian F-84F replacement choice, exit the A-4E
March 1966, after evaluation, both Air Force HQs announced a common decision in favor of the Northrop F-5, but the real choice of the Belgian pilots was the Skyhawk. The evaluation pilots did not like the F-5 Freedom Fighter in all aspects studied, especially bomb load and range. During our interview, General Paul Declercq stated that the chances of the Skyhawk being selected were doomed from the beginning of the study because the politicians had already decided that the subsonic Thunderstreak should be replaced by the supersonic aircraft, e.g. the Freedom Fighter. According to members of the project team interviewed, the Skyhawk was discarded due to political, economical and industrial considerations, as well as Dutch pressure for the Freedom Fighter.
However, for months the Belgian government's decision in favor of the F-5 was delayed by the Defense Minister for budgetary reasons. At the end of January 1967, the Dutch decided to force the issue and placed an order for 105 Freedom Fighters to be built in a cooperative program with Canada, which had made the same choice. This meant the end of the joint Belgian - Dutch pilot training program and opened the door for consideration of new candidate aircraft by Belgium, such as the Lockheed F-104S, the Fiat G-91Y and last but not least the French Dassault Mirage, which had gained a very strong reputation during the June 1967 Six Day war in the Middle East. Heavy lobbying by Dassault, combined with many economic incentives, led to Belgium making a final choice for 106 Mirage V B in February 1968. The project coordinator of Mirage V introduction in BAF was no less than Lt. Col. Aviateur Paul Declercq. The Mirage entered into service in August 1970 and soldiered on successfully in BAF service with 4 squadrons until the end of 1993, but that is another story.
Belgian Skyhawk, the story of a picture
In the early eighties, a friend a picture gave me a picture of an A-4E Skyhawk with Belgian markings on the intakes and fin. The pilot in the cockpit was reported as Major “Staf" Declercq. The plane in the picture also had VK markings on the tail fin. Most unusual were dual markings with Navy on the fin base and Marines on the fuselage, as normally seen on reserve squadron Skyhawks.
On 12 Aaugust 1982, during a visit to 349 squadron at Beauvechain AB, I was introduced to a very kind and charismatic high ranking officer, General Paul Declercq, who had the nickname “Staf” on his flying jacket name tag. The General had been the Base Commanding Officer in the late seventies and early eighties, and during his assignment had been responsible for the introduction of the F-16A in 349 squadron, declared as NATO's 1 operational F-16 squadron in January 1 1980.
When shown the picture, General Declercq confirmed that it had come from his personal album and had been taken in MCAS Yuma in late October 1965, when he was evaluating the ordinance delivery and armament of the Skyhawk. He told me that one morning he found his plane on the apron “zapped” with Belgian markings by the crew chiefs of a Marine Corps squadron on exercise in Yuma. His name had been painted under the cockpit and the nose wore OO for “OSCAR-OSCAR,” the civilian aviation call sign for Belgian (although the author's interpretation is that this might also be a reference to use of a MODEX 00 marking due to his high rank). But which aircraft was it? I did not ask, unfortunately.
25 years after meeting General Declercq, I resumed my attempt to identify the A-4E flown by him in the evaluation of the Skyhawk for duty in the Belgian Air Force. Sadly, General Paul Declercq had passed away some months before, and unfortunately his log books could not be recovered. The only way to progress was to start from the photo.
Searching for the Bu.No, of the Mystery Skyhawk
I turned to the Skyhawk Association and made various contacts with VMA-121 SDO Bill “Jigger” Egen and Gary Verver. With their help, I eliminated several A-4Es which seemed to be good candidates based upon evidence contained in photos and production records of Douglas Aircraft.
VMA-211 was in fact on deployment to MCAS Yuma when Major Declercq was there, and the Marines of 211 were obviously responsible for "zapping" the aircraft. If the aircraft left the Douglas factory with NAVY painted on the side, the painting incident by the VMA-211 Marines would explain both the VK tail markings and the addition of "MARINES" on the fuselage, which gave the A-4E the appearance of a reserve aircraft.
General Hugo Cloeckaert confirmed that the plane he evaluated (152080) came directly off the assembly line, making it probable that the “Belgian” A-4E by Major Declercq was part of the 152071 to 152079 batch delivered at that time in the fall of 1965. It was certainly a NAVY plane not yet assigned to a squadron. The clean look and absence of 4 digits of the Bu.No on the tail above the NAVY marking on the Declercq plane confirms this. Unfortunately, further research on this particular block of A-4Es did not confirm the exact identity of the "Belgian" Skyhawk.
To this date, the identity of the "Belgian" Skyhawk remains a mystery The author is still actively pursuing any information about the Belgian evaluation in 1965 and is especially interested in obtaining other pictures of the evaluation aircraft in order to determine the Bu.No.
If you can help, please get in touch with firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
The author wishes to thank General Paul Declercq (deceased), General Hugo Cloeckaert, General Taymans, Col X. Janssens, Col G. Mullenders, Lt. Col. M. Brees, G. Verver, Bill “Jigger” Egen, the Belgian Mirage Pilot Association, the Skyhawk Association and all official US services, museums and archives contacted for their appreciated help .
Major Aviateur Hugo C Loeckaert, and Major Aviateur Paul “Staf” Declercq