New Zealand A-4s Flew Crazy Formation Rolls While “Plugged-In” To A Buddy Tanker

Flight demonstration teams are a fixture of modern military aviation, performing routines at airshows and other events to help with recruitment and otherwise just promote engagement between the service that operates the aircraft and the public. These units typically draw on the skills of expert pilots to perform often iconic routines with unique or otherwise impressive aerobatic maneuvers. A prime example of this is the “plugged-in” barrel roll that Royal New Zealand Air Force’s now-retired A-4K Skyhawks used to perform.

Martin Pert, the present team leader, or Red 1, of the Red Arrows, the U.K. Royal Air Force’s flight demonstration team, recently highlighted the plugged-in maneuver in a Tweet. The move involves one A-4K linking up with another one flying in front carrying a buddy refueling pod. The two aircraft than perform a barrel roll physically connected together with the trailing Skyhawk’s inflight refueling probe “plugged” into the drogue from the refueling pod underneath the other jet.

Pert’s social media post was accompanied by a clip from an undated video, a longer version of which is seen below, showing the A-4Ks of the new-defunct Kiwi Red team flying a particularly elaborate version of the move with four more Skyhawks also flying in a close, arrow-shaped “Swan” formation, with two on either side of the two linked together jets.

Probe-and-drogue refueling is complex and potentially dangerous under the best conditions, with it not being totally uncommon for receiving aircraft to have difficultly “catching” the drogue basket with their refueling probes or parts getting snapped off on either end. There is even work being done now to develop advanced stabilization systems to try to make the entire process easier.

So, just linking up with the tanking aircraft reliably within the timing constraints of an air show routine is impressive before you add in flying in close formation and staying connected throughout a complete barrel roll.

The Kiwi Red team performed the maneuver regularly starting around 1987-1988 and ending in 1990. The team had six A-4Ks and drew pilots and other personnel from the Royal New Zealand Air Force’s No. 75 Squadron. That unit had also acted as the official display team between 1980 and 1981, during which time they invented to plugged-in barrel roll, initially flying it with just two aircraft.

On Oct. 24, 1989, Kiwi Red’s number 3 and 4 aircraft tragically collided in mid-air during a practice routine, killing one of the pilots, and prompting a review of the organization that eventually led the Royal New Zealand Air Force to disband it entirely in 1990. It’s unclear if the plugged in maneuver was a factor in the preceding accident.

Regardless, New Zealand Skyhawks did continue to perform versions of the plugged-in maneuver after that point, however. Another video available online shows a pair of A-4Ks flying linked together in a less intensive fashion at an air show in 1995.

The possibility of any future aerial performances involving New Zealand’s A-4Ks came to a halt for good in 2001, when the country retired the type. At the time, these Skyhawks were among the most advanced variants anywhere in the world, with the same AN/APG-66 pulse doppler radar found on more modern F-16A/B Viper fighter jets, as well as radar warning receivers, updated weapons and stores interfaces, and updated cockpit configuration that included multi-function displays, a more up-to-date Heads Up Display (HUD), and hands-on-throttle-and-stick (HOTAS) flight controls.

The Skyhawk family has had an impressive run since the first versions of the aircraft entered service with the U.S. Navy in 1956. Other modernized A-4s remain in operational service in both Argentina and Brazil

New Zealand’s A-4Ks have since found their own second lease on life with Draken, a private company that provides “red air” aggressor services, notably to the U.S. military. The U.S. Navy had already operated other Skyhawk variants in this role itself for many years, which you can read about more in this past War Zone special feature.

Draken’s pilots certainly continue to exploit diminutive Skyhawk’s impressive maneuverability in their mock duels with far more advanced aircraft, but days of A-4s wowing crowds by flying plugged-in together are over.

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Joseph Trevithick

Deputy Editor

Joseph has been a member of The War Zone team since early 2017. Prior to that, he was an Associate Editor at War Is Boring, and his byline has appeared in other publications, including Small Arms Review, Small Arms Defense Journal, Reuters, We Are the Mighty, and Task & Purpose.