NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. — A chance reunion between man and machine took place here during Red Flag 17-1.
Sgt. Murray Staff was deployed to Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, as an imagery specialist to record the the Royal Australian air force’s participation in the exercise, and was surprised to see a familiar A-4 Skyhawk jet parked on the adjacent flightline.
The jet is currently operated by Draken International Inc., but had started its life with the Royal Australian navy in 1967.
It was the same Skyhawk that Staff worked on prior to the jet being retired by the Navy in 1984.
“It’s a bit moving to see the old girl again,” Staff said.
Half a century after its first flight, the Skyhawk is still going strong, contracted to provide the U.S. Air Force and Coalition partners with adversarial support.
During Red Flag 17-1, the jet faced off against a mix of fourth and fifth generation fighters over the Nevada desert — a world away from when it was launched by the RAN from the aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne.
Staff joined the RAN in 1977 as an armorer, a similar trade to the RAAF’s own weapons ordnance technician, and spent much of his time working on the RAN’s Skyhawks.
The diminutive Skyhawk was renowned for its small size yet big punch, loaded by armourers with up to four tonnes of bombs, guided missiles, and even an air-to-air refuelling pod.
“I even spent a year in 1980 working on them on board the aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne,” Staff said.
In 1983, the Australian government announced HMAS Melbourne would be retired without replacement, and the Skyhawk fleet was drawn down at their land base in Nowra, New South Wales, over the following year.
“In the last 12 months, we only had four aircraft left, and each aircraft was allocated to one of the trades who worked on them,” Staff said.
“It was sunset days for the jet with the navy, which gave us an opportunity to take care of the aircraft.”
Staff and his fellow armourers were allocated aircraft N13-154905, which carried the nose serial ‘884.’
The armours duly nicknamed it “Dog” after the beloved main character in the Footrot Flats comic strip, even painting the cartoon Border Collie on the aircraft.
“We had responsibility for keeping it clean, conducting aircraft washes, and anything that needed to be done for the day-to-day running of the jet — securing it at night, towing it where it needed to be, and so on,” Staff said.
“There was always a sentimental attachment to that jet, and I never thought I’d see it again after it left in 1984.”
The navy’s Skyhawks were sold to the Royal New Zealand air force, ‘884’ took on a new life as NZ6213.
Staff meanwhile was offered three career paths — move to the air force as a weapons technician, or change roles in the navy to become a photographer or meteorologist.
He chose photography, but moved over to the air force in 1987. Meanwhile, the RNZAF retired its fleet of Skyhawks — including NZ6213 — in 2001.
In 2013, NZ6213 was purchased by Draken and brought to the United States, becoming N143EM.
In 2016, Staff was selected to deploy to Red Flag 17-1, and waiting for him at AFB was the same Skyhawk he’d worked on decades before.
Whilst this particular Skyhawk first flew in 1967, it’s showing no signs of slowing down after half a century.
“Seeing ‘Dog’ over here at Nellis brought back many great memories of those times in the 1980s,” Staff said.
“Hopefully this grand lady still has plenty of life left in her and will continue to fly for many more years.”
“Like all Defence units, you build a strong camaraderie with your workmates, and I still keep in contact with some of the armorers I knew from over 30 years ago.”