During the Vietnam War 84 A-6 Intruder attack aircraft were lost, but the toughness of the planes and their pilots made them legendary and inspired the book and film Flight of the Intruder.
Designated the A2F (later A-6) Intruder the aircraft entered fleet service in 1963. The world’s first all-weather attack aircraft, the Intruder carried a crew of two in side-by-side seating and featured Digital Integrated Attack Navigation Equipment (DIANE), which provided an electronic display of targets and geographical features even in low visibility conditions. Introduced on the A-6E version of the aircraft, the Target Recognition Attack Multisensors (TRAM) system combined Forward Looking Infrared Radar (FLIR)/laser sensors with an onboard computer. Located in a ball turret beneath the nose of the aircraft, TRAM enabled a higher degree of bombing accuracy by locating targets and ascertaining their ranges and allowed the A-6 crew to detect ground undulations as small as a plowed field.
Despite initial difficulties in Vietnam, including premature detonation of bombs, the A-6 proved itself in the murky weather conditions over Southeast Asia, oftentimes carrying out single-plane or two-plane nocturnal raids with devastating accuracy that produced disproportionate results.
Flying low-level raids, the aircraft was susceptible to ground fire. 84 A-6s were lost, but the toughness of the planes and their pilots made them legendary and inspired the book and film Flight of the Intruder.
Based on the best-selling novel by retired Navy Commander Stephane P. Coonts, filming of the movie began in November 1989 on location in Hawaii.
Flight of the Intruder was made with complete U.S. Navy cooperation, with eight Naval Air facilities at the disposal of the Paramount production team. The USS Independence (CV-62), provided for two weeks of filming in November 1989 and A-6E Intruders from VA-165 “Boomers” (which were painted in Vietnam-era VA-196 markings) were used.
Roughly 108 production crew members and cast, which included actors Danny Glover, Willem Dafoe and Brad Johnson embarked onboard the 95,000-ton warship during its 10-day carrier qualifications cruise from Nov. 29 to Dec. 8, 1989. Danny Glover portrayed Commander Frank Camparelli, VA-196’s skipper, assigned aboard Independence. Willem Dafoe played BN Lieutenant Commander Virgil Cole alongside Lieutenant Jake “Cool Hand” Grafton, the lead character, who is portrayed by Brad Johnson.
“Logistically, it [Flight of the Intruder] was the most difficult film we’ve supported to date,” then director of the regional Navy Office of Information in Los Angeles, Calif., Captain Michael T. Sherman said.
As explained by then JO1 Jim Richeson in the article “Flight of the Intruder” Naval Aviation Soars with the Stars appeared in March-April 1990 issue of Naval Aviation News, “to lend the film’s realism and technical accuracy, producer Mace Neufeld enlisted the Navy’s cooperation. Various squadrons provided aircraft, which had to be repainted and marked to simulate that time period in Naval Aviation; more than 1,000 sailors appeared as extras in the movie; and fake bombs, painted to look real, were loaded and unloaded.”
Production for Flight of the Intruder began in September 1989 when elements of VA-165 were asked to provide support to Paramount. The Boomers set off on a cross-country hop from home base at Naval Air Station (NAS) Whidbey Island, Wash., to Savannah, Ga., where some of the film’s flying scenes were recorded over the Savannah River Delta.
According to Capt. Sherman, the Intruders returned to their home base on Oct. 8. Five days later, the squadron fitted each aircraft for a transpac flight to NAS Barber Point. While on location in Hawaii, the film crew transformed several sites to recreate scenes of Naval Station (NS) Subic Bay, R.P., and its surrounding community.
As Richeson explains “VA-165 performed most of the flying sequences in the movie, but other aircraft from Fleet Composite Squadron 1, Patrol Squadrons 1 and 17, and a detachment of Helicotper Antisubmarine Squadron (Light) 37 were featured in much of the footage that was shot at NAS Barber Point.”
Capt. Sherman calculated that VA-165 logged in a total of 285 flight hours for the camera, which cost Paramount $885,000. “Military assets are often used in making feature motion pictures, if they meet a certain set of criteria. The script must accurately represent the mission of the military and its people in a credible fashion, the assistance must be unclassified, and filming cannot interfere with ongoing fleet or unit operations. Finally, any assistance provided must be at no cost to the government and is fully reimbursable. That means that any consummable asset must be paid for by the production company. Charges for aircraft flight hours, steaming hours for ships that get under way for the cameras, flares, and even something like maneuvering board paper all get logged in and billed to the Paramount producers,” he said.
Aboard Independence, the film crew formed two units. First Unit filmed the acting sequences, while Second Unit positioned its cameras above and around the flight deck. A mix of A-7s from VA-122, A-6s from VA-128 (at the time the Intruder West Coast fleet readiness squadron), and C-2s of Fleet Logistics Support Squadron 30 were captured on film during takeoffs and landings.
“It’s worked well. We’ve developed a real good relationship with Paramount and they are working around our schedule,” noted Captain Kenny G. Bixler, then Independence X.O. “We came to sea for a mission: to CQ [carrier qualify] 1,400 traps. We were able to let them tag along and do their work during our off periods,” he added.
Capt. Sherman pointed out that safety was a serious matter for the Navy while supporting the production. “Safety was our primary concern because the majority of the film crew had never been on an aircraft carrier,” he noted. He added that the Navy was scrupulously watchful of any safety violation and made no exceptions in making sure that only Navy-approved safety equipment was used by the crew during the filming.
Then VA-165’s C.O., Commander Otis Shurtleff, emphasized that the Navy took thorough precautions to escort the film crew aboard the ship and keep them out of harm’s way. He also said, “The flying we’ve done has been carefully monitored. I’ve been on everyone of the dets, and I get final veto. If I say, ‘That’s not something we’re going to do with the airplane,’ that’s the end of the discussion.”
Capt. Bixler, who began his career flying photoreconnaissance missions over Vietnam in RA-5C Vigilantes and later transitioned into the attack community, was anxious to see the final product. “From the standpoint of the A-6 community, I think this movie will show the camaraderie in the cockpit,” Bixler said. “It is a very unique situation when you’re riding side by side. There is a lot of nonverbal communication between crewmen. This airplane has the best mission in the Navy. There is nothing better than being able to go out on a low level – 200 feet at 450 knots – and challenge yourself as a crew.”
He added, “Down and low at night through the mountains – that’s fun. You get a nose bleed of you get above 10,000 feet. That’s what it’s all about. Hopefully, the movie will portray that.”
Flight of the Intruder was released on Jan. 18, 1991.
Here are some clips showing some highlights from the movie. Enjoy!!
Photo credit: screenshot from the video and U.S. Navy