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An Unsung Hero's Final Flight

COLUMN ONE

The A-6 Intruder is being retired after three decades as the Navy's workhorse. When it came to winning battles, military experts say, fighter planes got the glory, but this ugly attack bomber got the job done.

February 26, 1997|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For much of the public, carrier aviation is what they saw in "Top Gun," the 1986 movie that glamorized the swept-wing, high-flying F-14 and provided a glimpse of the macho, ego-engorged milieu of the "fighter jock."

Truth be told, however, F-14s do not win wars.

The F-14's main job is to guard the fleet from enemy aircraft and to provide protection for the attack planes like the A-6. Unless those attack planes reach their targets, having a perfectly protected fleet or the best dogfighting fighter planes in the world does not count for much.

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.

"The only reason for fighters to exist is to help get the A-6 to the beach," said retired Rear Adm. John Christiansen, a World War II pilot, Navy Cross winner and a carrier skipper during Vietnam.

Both the F-14 and the A-6 carry two crew members: a pilot and a radar operator. But fighter pilots are wrapped in a mythology dating from the single-seat fighters of both World Wars.

They have come to reflect the quintessential American ideal--the lone hero, like the marshal in "High Noon," facing down the forces of evil and ripping through the skies faster than the speed of sound.

The A-6 musters barely half of the F-14's supersonic speed and possesses no guns or weaponry to shoot down an enemy. Anyone looking for fame and glory by engaging in mano-a-mano combat at 20,000 feet need not apply.

A-6 duty has always required teamwork with crew members sharing duties equally, compared with the fighter jock's hellbent individualism.

"We always felt we were a little bit above that," said Marine Brig. Gen. Charles Bolden, who flew 100 A-6 missions in Vietnam. "We were more mature, less macho. A-6 guys had less to prove."

Navy Petty Officer Bjorn Bjornstad, an A-6 maintenance worker, said A-6 crewmen "are not like fighter guys who run around with their hair on fire. They're just guys who do the job every day and have a lot of pride in it."

In what some A-6 fliers see as the final indignity, some of the Intruders have been hauled to the bombing range outside Fallon, Nev., to provide targets for fighter pilots.

Cmdr. David Frederick, the last commanding officer of Attack Squadron 196, will probably fly other planes and may someday train at the Fallon range. But he's made a vow.

"I will never drop a bomb on an A-6," said Frederick, a bombardier-navigator with 3,800 hours in A-6s and 28 missions in Operation Desert Storm. "An F-14 hulk, that's a different story."

Part of the A-6's elan for Frederick and others stems from facing the danger inherent in the Intruder's low-level, all-weather attack mission.

One reason the Navy is shifting to the F/A-18, despite its shortcomings, is a belief that its greater speed and maneuverability will provide greater "survivability" than the aging A-6.

On Thursday, a plaque will be dedicated at Whidbey to the 86 pilots and bombardier-navigators from West Coast-based A-6 squadrons who have been killed in the last 28 years.

"If you were an A-6 commander, you knew someday you'd be giving a eulogy for an A-6 guy with his 4-year-old son sitting in the front row looking at you," said Toms, commander of the attack wing of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

The plane that Toms and an estimated 4,000 Navy aviators have flown since it joined the fleet in 1964 was developed because of battlefield frustrations during the Korean War. Snow and thick fog often kept carrier-based planes from flying, leaving ground troops without air support.

In 1953, the government sponsored a competition among the nation's aircraft companies to build an attack plane that could fly even when the weather was at its worst. Grumman Corp. of Long Island won and was awarded a $100-million contract in 1957.

By the time the A-6 Intruder--A for Attack, 6 because the Navy had five previous bombers, and Intruder for its ability to go anywhere, any time--was ready for the fleet, the United States had begun its long struggle in Vietnam.

From the beginning, the A-6 was unlike any plane that had preceded it.

The airframe was milled from a single block of aluminum alloy like a keel on a ship. That allowed the plane to withstand repeated pounding from carrier landings and catapult launches.

The wings were straight and thick, providing strength and lift and allowing the A-6 to carry more bombs than any previous Navy plane. A refueling probe protruding from the nose looked like something an entomologist might find on a rare insect, but it extended the plane's range.

The most significant feature--and its dominant physical characteristic--was a bulbous nose crammed with three kinds of radar gear. The width of the nose made it possible to put the pilot and bombardier-navigator side by side in the cockpit, rather than fore-and-aft like other two-seat aircraft.

An early generation computer provided "ground mapping" targeting information for the bombardier-navigator, enabling Navy pilots for the first time to drop bombs without seeing their targets.

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