On a May afternoon in 1972 a flight of four Grumman A-6 Intruders, the lead elements in an air wing strike, flew a hundred feet above North Vietnamese rice paddies west of the Gulf of Tonkin, about 25 miles south of Hanoi. Loaded with Mk 20 Rockeye bomblet canisters, the jets were headed toward Bai Thuong, an enemy airfield. Navy pilot and air group commander Roger Sheets flew the lead Intruder. He and his bombardier/navigator Charlie Carr, a Marine Corps captain, used the aircraft's radar and visual cues to guide them to Bai Thuong. "The A-6 was the all-weather attack aircraft," says Carr. "Monsoon season never affected our operations." But that day was clear; Sheets and Carr were getting a good look at North Vietnam, and any other aircraft sharing that patch of sky could get a good look at them.
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As the Intruders approached their target, they climbed to 200 feet. From the right seat, Carr spotted enemy MiGs above. They looked like little arrowheads circling watchfully about 1,500 feet up. He threw a switch and informed Sheets that the A-6's three-plus tons of ordnance were now armed.
"We came in underneath this wheel of MiGs," Carr recalls, "maybe 12, 15 of them. We were hoping to catch them on the ground and bomb the hell out of 'em. The airbase was alerted, however."
Sheets kept the A-6 straight and level as they approached the airfield. A few seconds later he thumbed the release on the stick, freed all 12 Mk 20s, and banked the Intruder hard to the left.
Carr remembers seeing one of the MiGs dive toward them. "OK, so now we had a problem," says Carr. "Now the MiG-17 was on our tail."
Compared to the MiG, the A-6 was no sprinter. Carr armed the aircraft's Sidewinder missiles, but there was little chance that Sheets could get into a position to take a shot. Instead, he began to jink, performing quick dodging maneuvers that made it tough for the MiG pilot to keep them in his sights. Sheets intended to drag the MiG toward the coast, hoping to run it out of gas. Carr remembers seeing puffs of smoke from the MiG's 37-mm cannon. That's when an F-4 Phantom appeared like a big brother late to a fight. The F-4 fired a missile, the MiG went down in flames, and Sheets and Carr made it back to the USS Coral Sea.
MiGs were among the reasons that A-6 crews preferred the cover of darkness or nasty weather. Using terrain-following radar, the crews flew low and fast no matter the hour. Because of the complexity of carrier operations, says Carr, only about a quarter of his flights from the Coral Sea were at night. "But missions from land," he says, "were almost all at night."
If darkness suited the A-6, perhaps one reason was that the airplane was no beauty queen. The twin intakes for the Pratt & Whitney J-52 P-8B turbojets swelled amidships, giving the craft a portly look. A bent refueling probe protruded from the top of a large, rounded snout. "The plane wasn't pretty," remembers Carr. "Only Grumman could make a plane that ugly."
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."