The mission was publicized for years after as the textbook example of how to use a single A-6 Intruder in its designed role.
In order to increase the versatility of its carrier air wings, the Navy sought to develop an all-weather attack capability that would enable strikes against targets under most any conditions, an effort that picked up momentum in the years following the Korean War with the development of advanced radar, bombing, and navigation equipment. The Navy received 11 design proposals in response to a 1956 call for a strike aircraft capable of striking a target in any weather at long range and low altitude, the winner a proposal for a mid-wing subsonic jet by Grumman Aerospace Corporation.
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.
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.
According to the book The Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club by Thomas McKelvey Cleaver, VA-196 “Main Battery” had the opportunity to fly a mission that perfectly demonstrated the value of the Intruder and its superiority over other attack aircraft. The mission was flown by Pilot Lieutenant Commander Charlie Hunter and B/N Lieutenant Lyle Bull, former instructors in Intruder training squadron VA-128 at NAS Whidbey Island, who each had more than 600 hours in type. They had the most experience of anyone in the squadron and remained a crew after arrival.
One of the most important targets in North Vietnam was the Hanoi Rail Ferry on the Red River. It had been on the “high priority” list since being taken off the “prohibited” list and approved for attack. Several attempts had been made to hit the target with air wing Alpha strikes that had failed due to the high number of defending SAM and AAA sites in the area. VA-196’s Lieutenant Commander Blackwood had long maintained that a single Intruder could hit the target by going in at very low altitude at night, stating strongly that the rail ferry was the exact mission the Intruder had been built to do.
On the night of Oct. 30–31, 1967, Hunter and Bull were assigned the mission. After going “feet dry” north of Vinh, they flew toward Hanoi at an altitude of 500 feet, carrying 13 1,000-pound Mark 83 Snake Eye retarded bombs hanging on five MERs. Hunter took advantage of the terrain, running down parallel rocky ridges known as karsts so as to stay inside the radar shadow of the ridgelines. There was no enemy reaction until they were 18 miles from the target, when their PRC-68 radar warning receiver told them they were being tracked by Fan Song SAM radar. Moments later, they spotted the launch of the first SAM.
Flying at 500 feet, Hunter expected to avoid the missile, since it was believed the SAM could not track a target at an altitude lower than 1,500 feet. When Bull reported that the SAM appeared to be tracking them, Hunter began a high-G barrel roll to throw it off. The SAM went behind them and exploded on impact with the ground at the moment the Intruder was halfway through the roll, inverted at 500 feet. Instantly, the darkness below was lit by the launch of five more SAMs as tracers from multiple AAA positions split the night sky. Hunter finished with a snap roll to upright and dove to 100 feet as he accelerated to 450 knots while jinking wildly and they flew on toward the ferry. Bull saw the radar altimeter read 50 feet three times as they headed in, but he had complete faith in Hunter’s flying ability. At that altitude, the SAMs had no chance of catching them.
Moments later, the target appeared on the radar. Hunter pulled up to 200 feet and Bull salvoed the Snake Eyes when the DIANE showed they were in position. All 13 bombs landed on the ferry, knocking it out. Hunter immediately turned east to avoid Gia Lam Airport, which was just ahead. He jinked as much as possible while he headed for the Tonkin Gulf, with the Intruder followed by AAA tracers and large-caliber aerial explosions. One 85mm round exploded so close it shook the plane, but they were soon out to sea. Hunter executed a normal night recovery aboard Constellation after a memorable 1.9 hours in the air. Hunter and Bull each were awarded the Navy Cross.
Their flight was publicized for years after as the textbook example of how to use a single A-6 in its designed role. Both later became admirals.
The Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Navy