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Six Things You Probably Never Knew About the Mighty A-6 Intruder


On April 19th 1960, the prototype Grumman A-6 Intruder, Grumman model G-128 and designated the YA2F-1, BuAer 147864, lifted off from Grumman’s Calverton facility for the first time. Nearly 37 years and 693 Intruders later, on February 28th 1997, Medium Attack Squadron 34 (VA-34), the Blue Blasters, retired the Navy’s last operational A-6E Intruders. Those 37 years were remarkable in many ways. The Intruder was one of a kind, and we’ll probably never see another aircraft like it. Or one as capable.

 

The A-6 originally had swiveling exhaust nozzles (up to 23 degrees downward) intended to shorten takeoffs and landings. Flight testing revealed that performance was not significantly improved by variable thrust direction so the swiveling exhaust nozzles were removed. This was the reason for the location of the Pratt & Whitney J52-P6 engines on the airframe, and the reason why they could be dangerous to deck crews. The exhaust nozzles on the production A-6 were still angled a couple of degrees outward in order to avoid turbulence at the horizontal stabilizers.

 

The initial US Navy Bureau of Aeronautics (BuAer) proposal received 11 different submissions from Bell, Boeing, Douglas, Lockheed, Martin, North American, and Vought. And of course Grumman. The Grumman A-6 design team was led by Lawrence Mead Junior. Mead was also instrumental in the design and development of two other notable Grumman products; The F-14 Tomcat and the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) that took our Apollo astronauts to the surface of the moon.

 

The Navy awarded Grumman a contract to build eight A2F-1s in February 0f 1958. The first delivery of an A-6A Intruder to the US Navy was to the A-6 Fleet Replacement Squadron (FRS) VA-42 Green Pawns on February 7th 1962. The A-6A became operational with VA-75 Sunday Punchers for the first time in 1963. A-6As had both fuselage and wing air brakes. The fuselage airbrakes caused controllability problems. The fuselage air brakes were removed, but the “decelerons” (often referred to as “boards”) on the wing remained. The Intruder subsequently retained leading edge slats and decelerons on all models.

The two-place, side by side cockpit of the Intruder put the pilot on the port side of the aircraft and the bombardier-navigator (BN) on the starboard side. However, the BN’s seat was slightly lower and located farther aft. The Intruder was the first fleet aircraft with an integrated diagnostic system for aircraft status, called Basic Automated Checkout Equipment (BACE). In order to train Intruder crews and after finding Douglas TA-3B Skywarriors unsuitable, the Navy and Grumman built nine TC-4C Adademes, Gulfstream I twin-turbine executive aircraft with the nose section (and the associated electronics) of an Intruder faired onto the nose. These trainers were flown by the A-6 FRS.

The design of the Intruder was driven by the size of the two radars needing to be installed in the nose as well as desire to improve crew coordination by seating them side by side in the cockpit. The Intruder‘s large blunt nose and slender tail inspired a number of nicknames, including “Drumstick”, “Double Ugly”, “The Mighty Alpha Six”, and “Iron Tadpole.” But on its five wet (capable of carrying fuel) hard points the Intruder could carry and deliver a war load unlike any other Navy jet. For that, Double Ugly was one beautiful airplane.

After the 1962 BuAer aircraft re-designations the A2F-1 became A-6A. The heart of the A-6A was the Digital Integrated Attack Navigation Equipment (DIANE) system, which provided an electronic display of targets and geographical features even in low visibility conditions. The iconic early example of the Intruder’s ability to hit targets any time was when two A-6As attacked a North Vietnamese power plant during a particularly dark and stormy night. The Intruders dropped 26 Mark 82 500 pound bombs on the target, but the damage they caused convinced those on the ground that B-52s had carried out the attack instead.

Intruders first went to war in Southeast Asia during 1965 aboard USS Independence (CVA-62). The first Intruder loss in Vietnam took place on July 14th 1965 when Navy Lieutenants Donald Boecker and Donald Eaton of VA-75 Sunday Punchers with CVW-17 aboard USS Independence (CVA-62) were shot down. Both pilot and BN ejected and both survived. The Navy and Marines lost a total of 84 Intruders during the Vietnam War (to all causes) while flying more than 35,000 sorties. The Marine Intruder squadrons remained shore-based throughout the Vietnam War. The last Intruder loss in Vietnam took place on January 24th 1973 when Navy Lieutenants C.M. Graf and S.H. Hatfield of VA-35 Black Panthers with CVW-1 aboard USS America (CVA-66) were shot down. Both pilot and BN ejected and both survived.

The 19 A-6B variants built were originally intended to be a clear-air (not all-weather capable) versions of the A-6A but were instead adapted to perform the air defense/surface-to-air missile (SAM) defense role, or in Navy parlance, Iron Hand missions. The A-6Bs saw above-average losses, in part due to the inherent risk of the Iron Hand mission itself. Because the basic A-6A was also capable of employing the anti-radar missile of the day, the AGM-78 Standard ARM, the 14 surviving A-6Bs (5 were lost in combat) were eventually reworked to the A-6E specification during the mid-1970s.

The 12 A-6C variants built were fitted with the Trails Roads Interdiction Multi-sensor (TRIM) mounted in a mid-bottom fuselage location. This early version of a Forward-Looking Infrared (FLIR) and Low Light-Level Television (LLLTV) set was capable of detecting vehicles, trains, and other targets at night, turning the A-6C into a night hunter. The A-6C also carried the “Black Crow” engine ignition sensor for truck targeting. The first squadron to fly the A-6C in combat was VA-165 Boomers with CVW-9 aboard USS America (CVA-66). The A-6Cs were all eventually reworked to the A-6E specification, but the TRIM-equipped A-6Cs blazed a trail for the A-6E TRAM to follow.

78 A-6As and 12 A-6Es were reworked for use as KA-6D tanker aircraft. The fleet’s KA-3B and EKA-3B Skywarriors were getting long in the tooth and never were exactly dainty aircraft. The Intruder tanker conversions were completed during the early 1970s. Most of the mission-specific electronic equipment was removed from these dedicated “Texaco” tankers. The age old NavAir edict stating “you can never too much gas in the air” was eased somewhat by the presence of the KA-6Ds but there weren’t enough of them to go around. Each squadron was equipped with three or four of them and they were often swapped (cross-decked) from carrier to carrier as one returned from deployment and another departed. They were eventually replaced by another re-tasked aircraft- the Lockheed S-3 Viking. Now they use Super Hornets!

 

The A-6E was the most capable version of the Intruder. A-6Es were first delivered to VA-42 Green Pawns in 1970 and first deployed by VA-85 Black Falcons with CVW-17 aboard USS Forrestal (CVA-59) on December 9th 1971. The E model Intruder incorporated improvements to the majority of the mission systems and uprated J52-P8B engines. The two radars in previous variants were incorporated into a single multi-mode radar and much of the 1950s and 1960s era circuitry was updated to more modern and reliable equipment. The navigation system of the A-6E was also upgraded to the more accurate Carrier Airborne Inertial Navigation System (CAINS).

 

The A-6E underwent a number of incremental upgrades over the next 20 years. The Target Recognition Attack Multi-sensor (TRAM) was added beginning in 1974 and by the mid-1980s all fleet Intruders had been updated to the A-6E TRAM variant. TRAM included the basic functionality of the A-6C’s TRIM sensor package but also incorporated the laser designator required for delivery of precision laser-guided munitions. The fleet Intruders were upgraded with improved systems when new munitions or required capabilities dictated.

 

Roughly 85 percent of the A-6Es also received new graphite/epoxy/titanium/aluminum composite wings after the original wings began to show signs of fatigue. Production of the Intruder at Grumman had continued, albeit at a low four or five aircraft per year rate, through the 1970s and 1980s. But in 1990 the Navy made the decision to end production of the Intruder. The final production order placed by the Navy with Grumman was for 20 A-6E TRAM Intruders equipped with the new composite wings, which were all delivered by 1993. A-6E model production was 445 airframes. 240 of them were reworked from earlier A-6As, A-6Bs, and A-6Cs.

 

Intruders were involved in every Navy conflict during the jet’s service life. After Vietnam, during the Mayaguez Incident VA-95 Green Lizards A-6As with CVW-15 aboard USS Coral Sea (CVA-43) flew missions in support of the extraction of US Marines from Koh Tang Island. During Operation Urgent Fury in Grenada on October 25th 1983 VA-176 Thunderbolts A-6Es with CVW-6 aboard USS Independence (CVA-62) flew missions in support of US Army Rangers and US Navy SEALs in contact with enemy troops. This was the combat debut of the A-6E.

During the Lebanon Crisis on December 4th 1983, a VA-85 Black Falcons A-6E with CVW-3 aboard USS John F Kennedy (CVA-67) was shot down by a Syrian SAM. Navy Lieutenants Mark Lange and Robert Goodman both ejected from their stricken Intruder. Lange died of his injuries on the ground. Goodman survived and was made a Syrian prisoner until he was released on January 3rd 1984. During Operation Prairie Fire against Libya on March 24th 1986 VA-85 Black Falcons A-6Es with CVW-17 aboard USS Saratoga (CVA-60), VA-34 Blue Blasters A-6Es with CVW-1 aboard USS America (CVA-66), and VA-55 Warhorses A-6Es with CVW-13 aboard USS Coral Sea (CVA-43) destroyed or damaged several Libyan Navy ships and craft and multiple SAM sites.

During Operation Eldorado Canyon on April 15th 1986 VA-34 Blue Blasters A-6Es with CVW-1 aboard USS America (CVA-66) and VA-55 Warhorses A-6Es with CVW-13 aboard USS Coral Sea (CVA-43) flew attack missions against Libyan military targets as retaliation for the Libyan bombing of a German nightclub which killed two US servicemen and wounded 50 more. The Intruders destroyed 20 aircraft and multiple radars on the ground in Benghazi, Libya. During Operation Praying Mantis on April 18th 1988 VA-95 Green Lizards A-6Es with CVW-11 aboard USS Enterprise (CVN-65) attacked and sank or damaged several Iranian Naval ships and craft. Intruders also kept vital gas airborne for long-duration patrol missions over hostile platforms and facilities in the Gulf.

Naval Reserve A-7 Corsair II light attack squadron VA-304 Firebirds at NAS Alameda in California was reconstituted as a medium attack squadron and re-equipped with A-6Es in 1990. Naval Reserve A-7 Corsair II light attack squadron VA-205 Green Falcons at NAS Atlanta in Georgia was reconstituted as a medium attack squadron and re-equipped with A-6Es in 1990. It seemed like they wanted to keep the Intruders around for a while longer.

One particularly hairy situation developed when Lieutenant Keith Gallagher, a VA-95 Green Lizards KA-6D BN, was partially ejected from his jet during the first deployment of USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72). Pilot Lieutenant Mark Baden was maneuvering to free what was thought to be a stuck float valve when Gallagher’s Martin-Baker ejection seat partially fired. After a few tense minutes and some seriously frenzied aircraft movement on the boat, which was not spotted for recovery, Baden brought the jet and his BN aboard on the first pass within six minutes. Gallagher’s parachute had released and wrapped itself around the Texaco’s tail surfaces. The only thing keeping Gallagher in the jet were his parachute risers pulling him back against his ejection seat! Gallagher recovered fully and was back flying again six months later.

Intruders flew more than 4700 sorties and prosecuted 85 percent of all the laser designations and laser-guided bombs (LGBs) dropped on targets during Operation Desert Storm. Navy Intruder deployments during Shield and Storm were VA-35 Black Panthers with CVW-17 aboard USS Saratoga (CVA-60), VA-75 Sunday Punchers with CVW-3 aboard USS John F Kennedy (CVA-67), VA-115 Eagles and VA-185 Nighthawks with CVW-5 aboard USS Midway (CVA-41), VA-145 Swordsmen and VA-155 Silver Foxes with CVW-2 aboard USS Ranger (CVA-61), VA-85 Black Falcons with CVW-1 aboard USS America (CVA-66), and VA-36 Roadrunners and VA-65 Tigers with CVW-8 aboard USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71). Marine A-6Es also operated from Shaikh Isa Air Base in Bahrain. A total of three Intruders were shot down during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

After the Gulf War, Intruders flew no-fly zone enforcement missions and supported Operation Restore Hope in Somalia. The final operational use of Intruders was over Bosnia in 1994. Intruders were in production with new wings, and older airframes were getting new wings, during and after the Gulf War but the Office of the Secretary of Defense decided to reduce the number of different aircraft in Navy carrier air wings and Marine aircraft groups. The last Marine Intruder operators were VMA(AW)-332 Moonlighters who retired their A-6Es on April 28th 1993. The last Navy Intruder operators were VA-34 Blue Blasters who retired their A-6Es on February 28th 1997. There are 47 relatively young A-6Es in storage at AMARG at time of this article.

Here are a few things you might not know about Intruders:

  1. When the A-6 was retired, several airframes that were in limbo waiting for new wings at the Northrop Grumman facility at St. Augustine in Florida were sunk off the Florida coast to form an artificial reef named “Intruder Reef.”
  2. In the movie Flight of the Intruder (Paramount 1991), Commander Camparelli’s crash-landed Intruder nose section is actually that of a partially scrapped EA-6A. VA-165 Boomers A-6Es were used for the inflight, flight deck, and hangar deck scenes in the film. The film was shot aboard the USS Independence (CVA-62) and at Pearl Harbor.
  3. The movie was based on the book Flight of the Intruder by writer and former A-6 pilot Stephen Coonts. Coonts deployed to Southeast Asia twice between 1972 and 1975 as part of CVW-14 aboard USS Enterprise CVN-65. Coonts flew with VA-196 Main Battery, the squadron which VA-165 was simulating in the film. Coonts has penned a series of books based on the Intruder pilot character Jake Grafton.
  4. Grumman removed the BN from the A-6 and lightened the design to compete for a single-seat light attack aircraft proposal intended to provide a replacement for the Douglas A-4 Skyhawk. The contract was eventually won by the Vought A-7 Corsair II.
  5. Because KA-6D Texaco tankers could not recover aboard an aircraft carrier if the refueling hose could not be reeled in, an explosive cutter system was integrated into the system to detach the hose if required.
  6. The lights mounted on the leading edge of the vertical stabilizer were red on attack versions of the Intruder, but they were green on the KA-6D tanker version.

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Written by Bill Walton

Bill Walton

Bill Walton is a life-long aviation enthusiast and expert in aircraft recognition. As a teenager Bill helped his engineer father build an award-winning T-18 homebuilt airplane in their Wisconsin basement. Bill is a freelance writer, an avid sailor, engineer, announcer, husband, father, uncle, mentor, coach, and Navy veteran. Bill lives north of Houston TX with his wife and son under the approach path to KDWH runway 17R, which means they get to look up at a lot of airplanes. A very good thing.