The gremlin-plagued airplane is a standard of aviation lore. That’s what A-6 Intruder NE 510 was for my squadron mates and me—an inexplicable menace that stalked our aircrew and defied our maintenance department. It had arrived at the squadron in pieces. Chief Warrant Officer Al Gonzales, who was the maintenance matériel control officer for Navy Attack Squadron 145, recalls: “I’d had a bad feeling about this airplane the moment I laid eyes on it.”
Gonzales liked the A-6. To him it embodied the toughness that earned Grumman the nickname “The Iron Works.” He found A-6 malfunctions generally honest and their solutions straightforward—until 1988, when, at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island north of Seattle, he encountered 510.
At first, the airplane’s problems were minor. Sometimes its speed brakes failed. Extendable wingtip surfaces, speed brakes slow the aircraft rapidly. In the landing configuration, they allow the pilot to carry more power without increasing speed. Their retraction offers a velocity increase much faster than the throttle and makes aborted approaches, or “wave-offs,” safer. Gradually, 510’s speed brakes began to fail more frequently. The sailors in the squadron’s airframes shop couldn’t pinpoint the problem. Whenever they tested them, the speed brakes worked fine.
When problems encountered airborne can’t be readily diagnosed, technicians sometimes seek to replicate stresses aircraft experience in flight. Gonzales’s airframes mechanics jacked up the wings to simulate the effect of lift. They sprayed carbon dioxide fire extinguishers on suspect components to mimic the super-cold temperatures at altitude. Still, the speed brakes performed reliably—until, in flight, when it mattered, they didn’t.
VA-145 was about to begin a six-month Western Pacific/Indian Ocean cruise aboard the USS Ranger. Despite the maintenance department’s best efforts, 510’s speed brakes were still acting up when VA-145 put to sea in February 1989. Gonzales assigned one of his most experienced airframe mechanics to 510 nearly full time. “Throughout the cruise, it could only be flown by test pilots,” Gonzales says. Eventually, 510 was tucked in a corner of the hangar bay to become a source of spare parts. It was cobbled back together and flown by a test crew every 30 days.
During its time as a parts bird, 510 presented an entirely different problem: A rigid pressure line in its backup hydraulic pump sprang a leak. It was readily repaired and quickly forgotten.
Once home, Gonzales called in the experts of the Naval Aviation Engineering Service Unit to address the speed-brake problem. They eventually diagnosed a wiring fault in the wing that caused the speed brakes to fail. At last, 510 was back in action, and Gonzales and his airframes shop turned their attention to other aging jets.
When the airplane returned to the flight schedule after a three-week hiatus, it was immediately clear that something was wrong with the hydraulics. Hydraulics powered the A-6’s flight controls, landing gear, the mechanism to retract the tail hook, and a variety of peripherals. The airplane had two primary hydraulic systems—“flight” hydraulics and “combined” hydraulics—and either one alone was capable of providing full flight control. It also had a third “backup” system designed to power the rudder and horizontal stabilizer sufficiently to allow the crew of a battle-damaged A-6 to escape the combat area before ejecting.
Single-system hydraulic failures were uncommon in the A-6, but they weren’t unheard of. A single-system failure was an emergency requiring a crew to land “as soon as practicable.” A dual failure, however, called for a crew to eject if the airplane became uncontrollable, which was highly likely.
Maintainers identified the problem in 510’s backup hydraulic pump—a check valve separating the port and starboard flight hydraulic systems had failed—and soon 510 was once again airworthy.
For a while, anyway.
Late that September, the airplane flew five times without a problem. Maybe 510 just hadn’t been flying enough, some speculated. Airplanes are meant to fly, and when they sit, problems creep in. But on September 30, an inspection revealed a trickle of hydraulic fluid in the aft section of the fuselage. A few days later, a sailor found a leak in the starboard flight hydraulic system’s pressure filter manifold.
In the squadron, the airplane had already gained a reputation. About the time 510 arrived from its previous squadron, a pilot from that squadron had also joined VA-145. He said 510 had once tried to kill him. Departing Naval Air Facility Atsugi, Japan for night carrier qualification, he’d been forced to abort the takeoff. When he applied the brakes, they’d locked up and caught fire. One of the main landing gear tires blew, and the airplane ran off the end of the runway, hitting a landing aid pylon. The crew were fortunate to escape with minor injuries. After this near disaster, the pilot began calling the airplane “Christine,” after the malevolent Plymouth Fury in Stephen King’s 1983 novel of the same name. The nickname captured VA-145’s imagination, and that’s how 510 was known from then on.
On October 10, Christine flew a practice bombing hop to the range at Boardman, Oregon. All was going well until her primary flight hydraulic system failed over the range. Following the emergency procedures for a single-system failure, the crew diverted to Grant County Airport at Moses Lake, Washington. While waiting to park after a safe landing, the pilot noticed the pressure on the other hydraulic system dropping fast. He shut down the engines to prevent damage to the pumps, but the situation was critical: It was a dual hydraulic failure. Had the crew not diverted to Grant County, they might not have made it back to NAS Whidbey.
Christine seemed to have a malign intent: The pilot was the same one who’d ridden Christine off the runway at Atsugi and given it the name.
The maintenance team dispatched to Grant County to repair Christine found a host of failures throughout the airplane’s hydraulics: a broken union on the backup hydraulic pump, a cracked pressure filter manifold fitting on the flight system, and possibly damaged pumps throughout the flight and combined systems. Gonzales felt nearly hopeless. It was almost as though something catastrophic, some systemic jolt, had affected the entire airplane.
After Christine was put back together following the dual failure, technicians performed a check on her emergency landing gear extension system. Known as the “blow-down” system, it allowed a crew to use compressed nitrogen to force the gear down should a hydraulic failure prevent normal lowering. The system tested fine.
After two uneventful sorties and some minor maintenance, Christine was scheduled to fly a two-aircraft, low-level bombing training mission to Boardman. VA-145 executive officer Denby Starling (the squadron’s second-in-command and senior pilot) and bombardier/navigator (B/N) Chris Eagle were assigned to Christine. The other aircraft would lead the flight.
Every Monday morning at VA-145, an aircrew meeting covered emergency procedures training. As it happened, that day’s lecture was on hydraulic system failures. There was no reason for Starling and Eagle to see this as an omen, but minutes after launching, they both felt a bang in the aft fuselage. Instruments made it instantly clear: The flight hydraulic system had failed.
Starling took over the lead, turned for home, and began dumping fuel to reach landing weight. Eagle advised the controllers at Seattle Center of the emergency and flipped his pocket checklist to hydraulic failures. NAS Whidbey approach control sent the crew to the designated gas-dumping area over the water west of the field, and they were orbiting there minutes later.
A single-system hydraulic failure in an A-6 prevented normal operation of slats, flaps, and landing gear, so Starling lowered the slats and flaps electrically. But when he tried to blow the gear down, the main gear doors opened, though the wheels remained up. Worse, the nose gear only came down half-way.
Starling and Eagle were in a corner. They had to get the nose gear down and locked for any chance of a field landing. They had one hope: an auxiliary nose-gear hand-pump. After Eagle gave it four quick strokes, the nose-gear indicator read down and locked. Their wingmen, however, reported the nose gear hadn’t budged.
At that moment, Starling heard the distinctive whine that could be only one thing: a combined hydraulic system pump self-destructing, probably due to fluid starvation. It was the beginning of a dual hydraulic failure. He told Eagle to prepare to eject.
The aircraft was at 3,000 feet and heading north, the San Juan Islands dead ahead. To avoid them, Starling began a gentle left turn. But as he did, he felt the controls go slack and the airplane stiffen. Christine began a roll to the right and dropped her nose.
“Chris, you’d better get out now,” Starling said. Eagle didn’t need to be told twice. In a blast of rocket motor and Plexiglas, he was gone. Starling followed seconds afterward. Moments later, Christine hit the water two miles short of Lopez Island.
I was in the dining room of the Whidbey Island Officers’ Club that gray November day when I saw an enormous cascade of water and two parachutes settle into Rosario Strait. I didn’t realize at first that I’d just witnessed the death of Christine. But I soon learned that within 20 minutes of ejecting, Starling and Eagle were recovered by NAS Whidbey’s search-and-rescue helicopter. Both near hypothermia, they’d spent the night at Whidbey’s naval hospital. Al Gonzales visited them there. Gonzales later told me that, with understandable trepidation, he poked his head in the room and that when Starling saw who it was, he sat up, thrust an accusing finger at Gonzales, and said, “You SOB, you should thank me! I finally got rid of Christine for you!”
But the end of Christine was not the end of the story.
Given the danger and rarity of dual hydraulic failures—existing data suggest the number of such failures over the A-6’s 35-year lifespan is fewer than 10—the Navy sought to recover the wreckage to determine the cause of the malfunction. But despite four vessels searching with state-of-the-art underwater equipment for more than two months, no trace of Christine was found.
Two members of VA-145 continued looking into the story. One was Pete Hunt, who had flown Christine as a pilot in the squadron. A world-class wreck diver, Hunt decided to search for the airplane—and found it. “I’m not sure why the Navy didn’t find the wreckage,” he said. “It was right in the middle of their primary search area. The winter seas and currents may have gotten the better of them.” Hunt tells the story in his 2017 book, The Lost Intruder: The Search for a Missing Navy Jet.
The other member of VA-145 who couldn’t seem to let go of Christine was me. I saw firsthand how Christine had mystified and frustrated Gonzales and nearly everyone else. Every squadron has a problem child or two, but most hangar queens are merely annoying, not dangerous.
I began to research the airplane’s history, and what I eventually learned astonished me: That day Christine crashed into Rosario Strait was not her first encounter with the sea. I located the story of the first incident in the November 1985 issue of the Naval Safety Center’s journal Approach.
Three years before showing up at VA-145, with its fuel tanks and lines in crates, the airplane was launched one evening from the aircraft carrier USS Midway, cruising in the South China Sea. Its pilot and B/N were taking part in a two-aircraft, night, low-level bombing training mission. The crew were to run in to the target at the Tabones Island range in the Philippines on a heading of 070 degrees. The pilot had set his radar altimeter to 450 feet above ground level. If the airplane dropped below that altitude, the instrument would give the crew a brief audible warning.
At 400 knots indicated airspeed, the pilot was rapidly approaching the entry to the bombing pattern. Noting the altitude—500 feet—the B/N buried his face in the hood of the radar scope and began looking for both the target and a small boat the other crew had spotted on their first pass. The pilot checked his heading: 100 degrees. He made two quick, steep turns—right, then back left—maneuvering hard to get on the 070-degree line for the run-in, while looking for the lead aircraft.
For a few seconds, no one was watching the altitude. The impact was sudden and violent.
The shock the A-6 crew FELT as they hurtled toward the target at Tabones Island had been accompanied by a dramatic deceleration. The crew opted to land at nearby NAS Cubi Point, and on the way, the other A-6 crew joined up and looked over the aircraft. Its underside, including the engine bay doors, was battered, and the drop tank that had been mounted below the fuselage was gone.
It took several days to determine what had happened. The answer was almost impossible to believe, but saltwater residue found throughout the engine bays confirmed that, miraculously, the Intruder had survived glancing off the ocean at over 450 miles per hour. Had any of the countless factors involved—angles of pitch, roll, yaw, and incidence, rate of descent, sea state—differed even minutely, the outcome would almost certainly have been tragic.
Technicians and officers inspected the Intruder carefully post-flight. Aside from the impact damage, everything was working perfectly. Almost the stuff of myth, “the Tabones Rock Incident,” as it had come to be known, was virtually forgotten by 1988, when Christine joined VA-145. The electrical trouble in the wing and persistent, systemic hydraulic failures could certainly be explained by the pervasive water intrusion and probable hydrostatic shock the airplane absorbed when hitting the water.
Christine’s near-tragic history almost certainly led to safety improvements that probably saved aircrew lives. In the wake of the Tabones Rock Incident, the radar altimeter’s warning was changed from a single two-second alarm to one that sounded continuously while the aircraft was below the set altitude. Several modifications added integrity to the A-6E’s hydraulics, including the replacement of aluminum manifold fittings with steel ones, and changes that prevented a backup hydraulic system leak from depleting the fluid of both primary systems. The crash investigation also prompted changes in A-6 emergency and maintenance procedures. For all the trouble Christine gave VA-145, in the end, the airplane made significant contributions to naval aviation.