WHIDBEY ISLAND, Wash. — "Not exactly beautiful, with that blunt nose. Flies great, though."
--Former A-6 pilot Stephen Coonts in his novel "Flight of the Intruder."
On a concrete clearing in the deep forest here, a remarkable but little-known era in aviation will come to a quiet and bittersweet end Friday.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday February 27, 1997 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Attack bomber--A caption in Wednesday's editions of The Times misidentified a Navy officer in a photo with a story about the A-6 Intruder attack bomber. The photo was of Capt. Bruce Wood.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday February 28, 1997 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Navy plane--A photo caption in Wednesday's editions incorrectly identified a group of military planes as the Navy's A-6 Intruder attack bomber. The planes shown were EA-6B Prowlers, an electronic warfare plane that is a derivative of the A-6.
Navy Attack Squadron 196, the last West Coast unit to fly the Navy's A-6 Intruder attack bomber, will be disbanded.
To outsiders, the "disestablishment" ceremony set for the naval air station on Puget Sound may look like just another funeral in the post-Cold War whirl of base closings and budget cuts.
But aviation insiders will be paying their last respects to a technological marvel, one of the great warplanes of all time--unheralded, unglamorous but beloved by a unique group of fliers and ground crew members bound by a passion for this plane.
Military analysts know that the carrier-based A-6 Intruder, which has been compared to a flying drumstick, a tadpole, a dump truck or worse, is probably more important militarily than its better-known and better-looking cohorts.
Sure, the F-14 fighter tapped into America's fascination with speed and daring, but there is a Navy saying for that: Fighter pilots make movies--most recently "Top Gun"--but attack guys make history.
For three decades, the ability of presidents to deploy aircraft carriers anywhere in the world to display formidable military power has, in large measure, been a testament to the durability and deadly bomb-dropping and missile-launching proficiency of the Intruder.
"The fighters are sexy, and the B-52s are awesome in size, but the work of winning battles and intimidating would-be enemies has been done by the A-6," said aviation expert Rene Francillon.
In the Vietnam War, the A-6 dropped more bombs than even the Air Force's mighty B-52. In the 1980s, the A-6 was assigned the vital task of running air strikes against terrorist strongholds in Lebanon and off the coast of Libya to strike at Moammar Kadafi.
And in Operation Desert Storm, the A-6 was in the forefront of the air war, completing bombing runs in weather so heavy that other planes were forced to retreat. Its performance even made believers out of Air Force generals who had thought the Intruder was too old and slow to fight a modern war.
"The A-6 is not pretty, but it always gets the job done," said Lt. Stuart Abrahamson, an A-6 bombardier-navigator who flew 40 bombing missions during Operation Desert Storm, most at night, some at altitudes as low as 200 feet.
The sense of loss within what the military calls "the A-6 community" is intensified by the circumstances of the plane's demise.
"The only battle the A-6 ever lost was in the Pentagon," said Capt. Terry Toms, a veteran of 4,000 hours and 40 combat missions in A-6s.
After Friday's ceremony, the few remaining Intruders at Whidbey Island will be dispatched to the desert for storage. A few hours before the farewell at Whidbey, a ceremony at Oceana, Va., will mark the disestablishment of the last A-6 squadron on the East Coast.
Personnel will be reassigned. Toms has opted to retire rather than take an assignment away from the A-6.
Military Hedges Its Bet
The Intruder did not lose out to a better airplane. Nor is it being shelved because it no longer can carry out its missions against ground-based or seaborne targets. It simply has gotten old and lost political support. In an era of cuts, it is considered too expensive to maintain.
"The A-6 is being sent to the desert at the height of its capability," said Lt. Mike Briddell, a bombardier-navigator.
Conceived during President Dwight Eisenhower's first term, the A-6 remained the Navy's main attack bomber into President Clinton's second term--an amazing record of longevity.
It has been called the Navy's mailed fist: capable of low-level precision bombing, night or day, in foul weather or fair. Lest its secrets become known to a potential enemy, Congress has never allowed the A-6 to be sold to a foreign country--even an ally.
Even as the Pentagon phases out the A-6 in favor of the newer, faster, sleeker, more easily maintained F/A-18 Hornet, the military is hedging its bet: A hundred Intruders will be kept in sealed "up and up" condition at an Air Force base in Arizona in case the Hornet, as some military analysts fear, proves incapable of fulfilling the A-6's mission.
Former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman, once an A-6 bombardier-navigator, called the plane's phasing out "a loss to national security" because it will require the military to depend more heavily on the Air Force's land-based bombers, which can be hamstrung in crises by friendly but nervous foreign governments denying them "overfly" rights.
"The real loss is the disestablishment of the A-6 community," Lehman said. "The A-6 guys are a font of knowledge about what works and what doesn't in fighting wars."