Legends of Vietnam: Shoulder to Shoulder

The Grumman A-6 was ugly, but it sure could cook

On the USS Constellation late in 1968, a catapult crewman gives the signal that an A-6 is ready to launch. A centerline D-704 refueling store augmented the four drop tanks beneath the wings. The D-704’s propeller, driven by wind in flight, powered a motor that extended and retracted its refueling hose. (Naval Historical Center)
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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."

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.


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