Cold War Era

Intruder Vs Legacy Hornet: Naval Aviator who flew both explains why the A-6 was like a ’65 Ford F-100 while the F/A-18 was like an ’84 Pontiac Fiero

‘I’m tremendously thankful to have flown both and while the Hornet got me in and out of combat, I’ll always have a special place in my heart for the venerable Intruder,’ Tim Hibbetts former US Navy A-6 and F/A-18 pilot.

The A-6 Intruder had been the world’s first fully all-weather attack bomber capable of detecting and identifying tactical or strategic targets, and delivering both conventional and nuclear ordnance on them under zero-visibility conditions. This extremely accurate, low-altitude, long-range, subsonic weapons system was powered by two turbojet engines partially buried in its plump fuselage. While the Intruder did not win any beauty contests, it clearly excelled in its assigned mission. The A-6 was capable of carrying all US and NATO air-to-ground weapons in its five external store stations–a total payload of 18,000 pounds.

Despite efforts to prolong the aircraft’s service with advanced versions and the rewinging of older Intruders, the aircraft was replace by the then newer F/A-18 Hornet and the last A-6 retired from front-line service in 1997.

How does flying the F/A-18 Hornet compare to the A-6 Intruder?

‘So, you just got your license, are fired up about being mo-bile, when your dad hands you those magical keys… to a ’65 Ford F-100. It is not sexy, it is not fast,’ Tim Hibbetts former US Navy A-6E Intruder and F/A-18 Hornet pilot, recalls on Quora.

‘Nor is it going to win any car awards, with its odd-colored passenger door, creeping rust, and occasional dent. But it’s got a big motor and a set of wheels and you’re stoked to just find yourself barreling down those back roads (though it starts to shake pretty good once you get up to 60, highway or no). You have a lot of fun, with your best friend sliding around on the slick, cracked bench seat—laughing and hanging on for dear life when you take those corners a little too fast. You’re only a little wistful when the girls are more attracted to that little sports car next to you in the parking lot. The dang thing looks better dirty than clean.

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‘After a couple years, dad upgrades you to an ’84 Pontiac Fiero. It is fast, sexy, and turns the girls’ heads. You can hug corners, take it over 100, and jump off the line like nobody’s business. It isn’t as fast or good looking as the Corvette, but it’s a lot more fun to throw around corners than the ol’ truck. It’s got a Blaupunkt and cruise control and just all the bells and whistles you’ve been missing. But, with your books and gear, there’s no room for your best friend anymore. You also can’t haul very much in the back and it really sucks gas quickly from its tiny tank. And while the power steering makes driving a pleasure and all the lights work (day and night) it might lack a little character. You have a new cadre of Fiero friends, but any time you run into your F-100 brothers, you slip right into bad-mouthing the unappreciative Pontiac sots. They’ll never know the challenge of bolting down a dirt road at night—only the running lights working—hauling a load of 22 tires in back and hoping you’re going to make that turn coming up, your best friend counting off the bushes until it’s time to crank it hard over.’

Hibbetts continues;

‘The A-6E Intruder, from the famed Grumman Iron Works, was a Clydesdale with a crooked unicorn-growth poking from its forehead. You could fly deep into enemy territory, hugging the bushes, day or night in all weather, and deliver twenty-two 500-pound bombs, or four 2000-pounders, or a number of guided weapons. It could also be configured to carry a “buddy store” in order to transfer some of its impressive gas load to your buddies (hence the name). It was not fast, nor overly agile, but it was a Hell-a-good bomber, very stable and dependable. While there was virtually no air-to-air capability, it could carry the AIM-9, but was minus any cuing, only the Sidewinder growl to note lock-on. It was really nice around the ship in the daytime, but the scan at night was challenging. Some old Pong graphics on the display worked, but once you got close, shifting your scan in and out was like checking the fridge while watching the game; not ideal. It was supposed to be replaced by the A-12, but that was cancelled and the A-6 slid into the history books unable to hand off the football.

‘The F/A-18 Hornet (not to be confused with the Super Hornet, or “Rhino”) was a modification of the losing aircraft in the competition that saw the F-16 come to fruition. It replaced the A-7 Corsair II and they made tremendous improvements on the basic design. It soon became the backbone of Naval Aviation, inspiring a larger brother that finally started to take over the real duties of the A-6E (minus the huge load). While not as fast as many other fighters, it was quick and agile, its advanced flight control system helping even middling pilots look like stars. It was the jack-of-most-trades, able to carry everything from mines to bombs to air-to-air missiles (minus the F-14’s fat baby, the Phoenix). This made it immensely flexible, but its size and fuel load limited its carry. It also meant that the pilots had to keep up on the delivery of all these weapons with near endless study. The official early tag line was, “One plane, one pilot, two missions.” An unofficial ending was soon put on, “one hour, two bombs” referencing its limited range and load. Naval Aviation modified many of its procedures to better wield the Hornet, to include more gas airborne and shorter cycle times (the amount of time between launch and recovery around the boat). It is a very capable air-to-air platform either beyond visual range, or in-close. It doesn’t have as much feel in the seat when coming aboard, but the Hornet’s HUD is a magic ring for getting aboard at night. You put the velocity vector where you wanted to land and that’s where you go—no looking inside required.’

Hibbetts concludes;

‘An overall comparison could be summed up as the old, capable attack aircraft that could carry a lot, a long way, versus a new, capable multi-role fighter able to carry just about anything and deliver it anywhere (as long as there was enough gas available and you aren’t expecting a huge delivery).

‘I’m tremendously thankful to have flown both and while the Hornet got me in and out of combat, I’ll always have a special place in my heart for the venerable Intruder.’

Photo credit: Cdr. John R. Leenhouts, U.S. Navy

This model is available from AirModels – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS.
Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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