Born as a carrier based attack plane designed to replace the Douglas Skyraider, the Grumman A-6 had one characteristic that made it distinguishable from every U.S. Navy aircraft: a very particular crew accommodation – with the pilot and the bombardier /navigator (BN) placed side by side to improve mission effectiveness. This feature enhanced crew interaction, which, in turn made of the Intruder one of the best attack aircraft of the Vietnam War.
One of the many missions performed by the A-6 that requested a good crew coordination was the “Iron Hand” one (that is today known as Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses, SEAD), during which the Intruder had to attack and destroy SAMs (Surface to Air Missiles) and AAA (Anti Aircraft Artillery). During this kind of sorties, to avoid SAMs Intruder pilots relied not only on their own skills at low altitude flying but also in the eyes of their BNs. “You could outfly the SAMs with the A-6,” explains the former A-6 pilot (retired) Rear Admiral Rupe Owens in Rafael Lima article Legends of Vietnam: Shoulder to Shoulder The Grumman A-6 was ugly, but it sure could cook published on Air & Space magazine.com “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, who have flown almost every version of the Intruder, remembers approaching a target when several SAMs pointed towards its aircraft, 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.”
The Intruder demonstrated to possess a real all-weather capability thanks to a new bomb release system, the Digital Integrated Attack and Navigation Equipment system, or DIANE, that combined an innovative tool which could take into account any angle of climb or dive, speed, G force, and wind with an analog computer to calculate when dropping a payload accurately. As Told by Lima, 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 A-6s with the help of Forward Air Controllers (FACs) attacked also moving targets that came across the Ho Chi Minh Trail and other supply routes: this particular mission was performed by using special tools such as an Airborne Moving Target Indicator (a unique doppler radar that gathered returns from moving ground objects) as well as relying on ground-based acoustic and seismic sensors, air-dropped along supply trails. These sorties were conducted dropping first Rockeye cluster bombs to destroy vehicles gas tanks or ammunitions caches with the aim to provide secondary fires, giving the chance to the Intruders crews to perform a second strike dropping Mk 82s: if the secondary fires lacked, they proceeded against preplanned secondary targets. These missions could be very scary and the A-6 could become the perfect target for AAA as described to Lima by the Marine Corps’ Bruce Byrum (now a retired general), another Vietnam veteran who flew more than 3,000 hours as an A-6 pilot. “Sometimes at night, 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.”
However the most typical mission performed by the Intruders during the Vietnam War, was the night attack against pre assigned targets. Sometimes these sorties were flew in the light of the day as happened on a May afternoon in 1972 when a flight of four A-6s loaded with Mk 20 Rockeye bomblet canisters headed toward Bai Thuong, an enemy airfield. Navy pilot and air group commander Roger Sheets flew the lead Intruder. He and his BN Charlie Carr, a Marine Corps captain, used the aircraft’s radar and visual cues to guide the flight to Bai Thuong. “The A-6 was the all-weather attack aircraft,” says Carr to Lima “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, like the enemy MiGs that Carr spotted while the Intruders climbed at to 200 feet approaching their target. However while the MiGs were 1,500 feet up, Sheets armed the three-plus tons of ordnance transported by its Intruder. “We came in underneath this wheel of MiGs,” Carr says, “maybe 12, 15 of them. We were hoping to catch them on the ground and bomb the hell out of ’em.” Even though the airbase was alerted, Sheets kept the A-6 straight and level and a few seconds later he thumbed the release on the stick, freed all 12 Mk 20s over the airfield, and then banked the Intruder hard to the left.
But now the Intruders had another problem. “Now the MiG-17 was on our tail.” Carr says. Carr decided to arm the aircraft’s Sidewinder missiles, even if due to the slower speed of the A-6, there was little chance that Sheets could get into a position to take a shot. Instead, he began jinking, performing quick dodging maneuvers that made it tough for the MiG pilot to keep them in his sights, trying 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, when finally an F-4 appeared like a big brother late to a fight. The Phantom fired a missile, the MiG went down in flames, and Sheets and Carr made it back to the USS Coral Sea (CV-43). As it can be easily understood from this account, MiGs were among the reasons that A-6 crews preferred the cover of darkness or nasty weather.
In fact, thanks to the use of the terrain-following radar, A-6 crews flew low and fast no matter the hour. But, as Carr explains, because of the complexity of carrier operations only about a quarter of his flights from the Coral Sea were at night. “But missions from land,” he concludes, “were almost all at night.”
Photo credit: U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps
Artwork courtesy of AircraftProfilePrints.com
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