Legends of Vietnam: Shoulder to Shoulder
The Grumman A-6 was ugly, but it sure could cook.
- By Rafael Lima
- Air & Space magazine, May 2009
Naval Historical Center
(Page 2 of 5)
The intruder's genesis predates Vietnam. During the Korean War the U.S. Navy lacked an all-weather, carrier-launched strike aircraft. So in March 1957 the service's Bureau of Aeronautics issued a request for proposals, detailing a requirement for a subsonic, two-seat attack bomber. Boeing, Douglas, Vought, Martin, Bell, Lockheed, Grumman, and North American submitted a total of 11 designs.
Interviews with flight crews led designers to focus on crew coordination. "The Navy wanted the side-by-side seating," says Joe Ruggiero, a Grumman engineer who worked on the A-6 from the prototype to the final A-6F, and was later a Northrop Grumman program director for the EA-6B Prowler, the Intruder's electronic warfare variant. "They thought, correctly, that it would enhance the workload in the cockpit. The design team knew it was going to be a bomber, and the radar system requirements did not lend themselves to a pointy nose. The engineers designed a plane that could carry lots of ordnance under the fuselage and wings. What eventually showed up on the drawing boards was the configuration of the A-6 Intruder."
Grumman won the design competition and signed the contract early in 1958. Two years later the prototype rolled out and the insults rolled in. "The pointy end was on the wrong end," says Carr. Some called it a "flying drumstick." "Well, it was a really ugly plane when you first looked at it," says retired Rear Admiral Rupe Owens, who has flown every version of the A-6. "But when it went to work flying in combat, the tadpole-looking plane became a thing of beauty." John Vosilla, a Northrop Grumman spokesman, bristles at the put-downs. "When we look at a project at Grumman, we're looking at engineering, not works of art," he says.
"To me and my team," says Ruggiero, "it was a beautiful airplane."
Both Charlie Carr and Rupe Owens liked the Intruder's side-by-side seating. So did the Marine Corps' Bruce Byrum (now a retired general), another Vietnam veteran who, like Carr and Owens, logged more than 3,000 hours as an A-6 pilot.
"There was a lot the bombardier/navigator could do to help," says Byrum. "He wasn't just a passenger along for the ride to operate the weapons system." A good bombardier/navigator, he says, monitored the radio, rate of descent, airspeed, power settings, and attitude, as well as the aircraft's place in the landing pattern as crews returned to the ship. "He had as much to do with the pilot's success as the pilot," Byrum adds.
Carol Reardon, a military historian at Pennsylvania State University and author of Launch the Intruders, an account of a Vietnam-era A-6 squadron called the Sunday Punchers, finds that the crew concept was critical to the Intruder's success in Vietnam, where it flew 35,000 combat sorties. "Pilots and B/Ns [bombardier/navigators] had to learn to trust each other's skills," she writes. "Repeatedly, instructors reminded them that the A-6 required two minds functioning in synch with each other. Both members of an A-6 crew got the same award for the same mission. Both suffered the consequences of an error. The A-6 community could afford no loners."