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 3 of 5)
The crews say that the two-abreast arrangement enhanced interaction. "With two guys sitting side by side, you could communicate with hand gestures, if need be," says Owens. "You could simply look at the other guy and nod."
Good communication was important in dodging surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). Intruder pilots relied on their own skills at low-altitude flying, the eyes of their bombardier/navigators, and the power of their Pratt & Whitney engines.
"You could outfly the SAMs with the A-6," says Owens. "What you did was make hard turns. At their intercept speed of about Mach 3, the SAMs couldn't turn with the A-6, especially at low level." Owens remembers approaching a target when points of light far ahead came at his airplane, streaming long, bright tails of flame, five in all. "We managed to out-turn them all, but I remember the sound of those five rocket motors from the SAMs as they went by. It got loud. Real loud."
SAMs harassed many A-6s, and took their toll—of the 69 Intruders lost to combat in Southeast Asia, 36 were claimed by anti-aircraft fire, 10 by SAMs, and only two by MiGs.
The intruder earned a reputation as a dependable attacker that could drop bombs in pitch darkness in any weather on both stationary and moving targets. Its reliability was due mainly to a new bomb release tool, the Digital Integrated Attack and Navigation Equipment system, or DIANE. Coupled to an analog computer, the system could take into account any angle of climb or dive, speed, G force, and wind and calculate when to drop a payload accurately. DIANE's Vertical Display Indicator gave the pilot a representation of terrain, sky, and horizon, as well as heading, radar altitude, vertical speed, and angle of attack. The aircraft's terrain-hugging capability was key to low-altitude missions. When Intruders were striking some targets, A-7 Corsairs and F-4 Phantoms flew along in formation and released their ordnance when directed by the A-6 crews using DIANE.
The Intruder also carried an Airborne Moving Target Indicator, a unique doppler radar that gathered returns from moving ground objects. And ground-based acoustic and seismic sensors, air-dropped along supply trails, provided another method for A-6 crews, with the help of ground controllers, to find targets moving on such routes as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. "Sometimes at night," says Byrum, "enemy anti-aircraft fire used colored tracer rounds fired aimlessly into the night sky when aircraft were detected flying in the area, to warn all vehicles on the road that we were there." Intruders generally dropped Rockeye cluster bombs first, which pierced vehicles' gas tanks or weapons caches and set off secondary fires. These provided visual aim points for a second pass, in which crews would drop Mk 82s. In the absence of secondary fires, they would head off for preassigned secondary targets.
The Intruder absorbed lots of punches. On one daylight mission, North Vietnamese 23-mm anti-aircraft fire damaged an A-6 in Byrum's squadron. The crew diverted to Da Nang. Byrum flew close to look them over and escort them to the airfield.
"It was hard to believe that the aircraft was still flying," he says. The A-6 had taken a direct hit to the leading edge of the right wing near its root. The pilot, in the left side of the cockpit, couldn't see the damage. His bombardier/navigator could, though, and had apparently decided to say little about it, probably hoping to delay an ejection over enemy territory. "The hole in the wing was about the diameter of a 50-gallon drum," says Byrum. "You could see the landing gear up inside the now-visible wheel well." Miraculously, no fuel or hydraulic fluid sprayed out, so Byrum and his navigator refrained from reporting the damage to the pilot. No sense in unnerving him.