The story of the last days of the A-6 Community and the “Intruder Reef”

The story of the last days of the A-6 Community and the “Intruder Reef”

By Dario Leone
Dec 20 2021
Sponsored by: Osprey Publishing
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On Dec. 19, 1996, the last deployment of the iconic Grumman A-6 ended when all the Intruders of VA-75 ‘Sunday Punchers’ launched from USS Enterprise and returned to NAS Oceana.

On Dec. 19, 1996, the last deployment of the iconic Grumman A-6 ended when all the Intruders of VA-75 ‘Sunday Punchers’ launched from USS Enterprise and returned to NAS Oceana.

As told by Rick Morgan in his book A-6 Intruder Units 1974-96, on Jan. 7, 1991, a week before the start of Desert Storm, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney ordered the A-12 Avenger II program (a large, tailless delta aircraft with tandem seats under a long, clear canopy unofficially aimed to replace the Intruder) to be cancelled for ‘breach of contract’. Legal details aside, it was now obvious that the A-6 did not have an apparent successor. Throughout this period Intruders continued to deploy as part of every carrier that left CONUS. The last one built, A-6E SWIP BuNo 164385, rolled out of Calverton on Jan. 31, 1992, ending 33 years of production of ‘the Mighty Tadpole’. This historic airframe lasted barely 18 months, being lost on Sep. 8, 1993 in a mid-air collision while deployed with VA-95 on board CVN-72. While all four aircrew ejected, both jets (the other being BuNo 161682) went to the bottom of the Persian Gulf.

In the fleet, operations remained focused on post-war Iraq, for although Kuwait had been liberated, Saddam Hussein remained in control of his country and had to be watched. The result was Operations Southern Watch and Northern Watch, where large portions of Iraq were ruled as `no-fly zones’ that were enforced by Allied aircraft operating from Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf or (from the north) Incirlik, in Turkey. Intruders were heavily involved in these missions, working off the carriers that spent time in the Gulf and occasionally carrying out attacks on Iraqi units that fired on them. On Jan. 23, 1993, for example, CVW-15 aircraft flying from USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70), including VA-52 A-6Es and a pair of F/A-18As, bombed AAA sites in Iraq as part of Southern Watch. This was almost certainly the last time an Intruder dropped ordnance ‘in anger’.

The 1993 Nimitz deployment to WestPac and the ‘I0’ was also the last cruise for the KA-6D version, VA-165 (as part of CVW-9) taking several with it and retiring the series upon return. From this point the A-6E SWIP would be the primary model, and ‘bombers’ equipped with buddy stores would carry the weight of tanking alongside air wing S-3Bs.

A-6E Intruder Print
This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. A-6E Intruder VA-35 Black Panthers, AJ502 / 151582 / 1977

In the US Marine Corps, conversion of the remaining Intruder units to le new F/A-18D was in full swing. It was up to the Moonlighters’ of VMA(AW)-332 to finally retire the Intruder from Marine service in June 1993. It was the end of the small, but powerful, Marine All Weather Attack community, dating from October 1964 when VMA-242 had turned in its A-4C Skyhawks for the then new Grumman Intruder.

Back in the US Navy, if the future was not already obvious to some, it started being laid out as squadrons were rapidly disestablished. First to go was VA-185, in August 1991. Any remaining doubt as to where the Medium Attack community was headed ended in mid-1992 during an event held at Whidbey. The US Navy’s senior aviator, Vice Adm Dick Dunleavy (as OPNAV OP-05 — he had previously been an A-6 B/N and CO of VA-176), told a stunned crowd at the base theatre that Medium Attack was finished and would eventually be rolled up into the rapidly growing Strike Fighter (VFA) community. As bad as that shock was to the Intruder crowd, not known at this point was that new, larger versions of the Hornet that were being planned (eventually called Super Hornets) would consume both the VF and VS communities as well.

More squadrons were rapidly disestablished — VA-176 did not see the end of 1992, while stablemates VA-155 and -145 went the following year and 1994 saw the demise of VA-36 and -85. 1995 witnessed VA-35, -52 and -95 casing their colours as well.

1994 had also seen the end of the two Naval Reserve Medium Attack units (VA-304 and -205).

1996 dawned with only five Intruder units left in the US Navy. While the ‘Boomers’ of VA-165 would get the axe, two outfits, VA-34 and -115, were selected for transition to F/A-18Cs, becoming VFA units in the change. Which left VA-75 at Oceana and Whidbey’s VA-196 as the last two standing. The ‘Main Battery’ had returned from its last deployment on Nov. 13, 1996, flying off of Carl Vinson and saying goodbye to CVW-14, with which it had performed all but one of its 17 major deployments. The fabled `Sunday Punchers’ wheeled into the pattern at Oceana off of Enterprise on Dec. 19, having completed their final deployment with CVW-17. It was fitting that VA-75, the first Intruder squadron to deploy (in May 1965, and directly into combat), would be the last one.

The story of the last days of the A-6 community and the “Intruder Reef”

The two squadrons’ disestablishment ceremonies were held on the same day, Feb. 28, 1997. Befitting Naval Aviation, there was a little gamesmanship here, however, as both squadrons arranged for ‘last minute’ carrier qualification periods in order to establish which unit could claim `the Last Intruder Trap’. The ‘Milestones’ found a ready deck on Carl Vinson on Feb. 12-13 — this time the ship was working within sight of Whidbey in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Not to be outdone, the ‘Punchers’ managed to snag an invite from Enterprise and worked the ship’s day pattern with two jets on Mar. 12, 12 days after their official disestablishment. A week later the last squadron CO, Cdr Jim Gigliotti, led the final section of A-6s to the boneyard in Tucson, Arizona.

It was truly the end of an era.

The hole the loss of the Intruder made in the air wing’s combat capability was huge. CVWs initially added another Hornet squadron, but that hardly improved precision strike and persistence capabilities. The rapid modification of the F-14 to a strike platform went a long way to make up for the lack of true Medium Attack, but, according to supporters, did not address the ‘all weather’ or range benefits the A-6 provided, let alone the value the aircraft gave as a tanker. Many of the men who flew Intruders went on to other aircraft, including Tomcats, Hornets and Prowlers. A number of them have continued to excel and rise to high leadership positions in the US Navy, and in the process have helped keep the ‘Spirit of Medium Attack’ alive and well in the service.

Now the mention of the Intruder still frequently elicits remarks like ‘retired too soon’ and ‘wish it was still in the Fleet’.

However, as the photos in this post show, after the Navy made the decision to retire the A-6, 40 sanitized airframes were sunk in the waters off the coast of Florida to form “Intruder Reef” AKA “NAS Atlantis” which has become a popular destination for fishermen and scuba divers.

A-6 Intruder Units 1974-96 is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

The story of the last days of the A-6 community and the “Intruder Reef”

Photo credit: U.S. Navy


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Dario Leone

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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