Remembering flights of the Intruder

Written by Rob Johnson

Dismissed by some fighter pilots as a “Flying Pig” and branded as slow because of its subsonic top speed, no combat aircraft in history inspires more loyalty among those who have flown it than the Grumman A-6 Intruder.

And while Pensacola hosts many military reunions, from the long-ago officer candidate school classes to the alumni of numerous ships, few gatherings draw the roughly 750 retirees and spouses who have reserved hotel rooms and banquet seats for the Intruder Association gathering scheduled for April 3-6.

One of the organizers, retired Navy aviator and Intruder veteran Mike Vogt, said, “In all my years in uniform, I never volunteered for anything. But this time I did.”

Retired Marine Corps Col. Bob Braithwaite, an Intruder bombardier and navigator, said, “It’s a special plane that served across generations from the 1960s to the late 1990s, from Vietnam to Operation Desert Storm. The Intruder was a unique, all-weather attack plane that could carry a huge payload.”

So while the Intruder wasn’t known as a particularly pretty plane, its capabilities evoke the fondness of aviators like retired Navy aviator Kerry Shanaghan.

“That’s why the theme of the Intruder reunion is ‘Preserving the Legend,’ ” Shanaghan said.

The mystique of the A-6 is part fact, with a dash of Hollywood. In the 1991 film “Flight of the Intruder,” which starred Danny Glover and Willem Dafoe, a Navy A-6 crew during the Vietnam War plots an unauthorized attack on Hanoi.

In Stephen Coonts’ novel, on which the movie is based, he described the Intruder thus: “Not exactly beautiful, with that blunt nose. Flies great, though.”

The Intruder Association readily acknowledges the aircraft’s style deficiencies on its website: “The Intruder’s lack of eye appeal has resulted in a low-key image in the minds of many uninformed aviation enthusiasts. But throughout its 32 years of service, it has earned and maintained a reputation as the workhorse of naval aviation.”

The Intruder boasted versatility cloaked in secrecy because the plane could carry nuclear weapons. Crews that practiced for the Cold War missions that, fortunately, never came had to have stringent security clearances. Their training included scanning maps of possible attack routes to the Soviet Union.

Further, the A-6’s unusual capacity to carry every type of conventional weapon, from guided missiles to the heaviest bombs in its day, made it so lethal that none was ever sold to a foreign country, even U.S. allies.

The camaraderie of the Intruder’s flight crews has been enhanced by the cockpit seating arrangement. Unlike other war planes of recent generations, the pilot and bombardier sat side by side.

“Friends I made in that first A-6 squadron are still pretty much my best friends from the Marine Corps,” Braithwaite said

Such relationships led the Intruder Association to design and pay for a new 7-foot-tall granite obelisk in tribute to the A-6 community, located at the National Naval Aviation Museum in Hangar Bay One. The marker stands beside a retired Intruder on display.

Obsolescence finally overtook the A-6 for several reasons, including the development of air defense systems that require evasive actions at higher speeds than the Intruder can attain. There are also financial factors. The F/A-18 Hornets and Super Hornets that succeeded the Intruder can be maintained by support crews of about half the number needed to keep the A-6 flying.

While no longer on carrier decks, nothing can replace the A-6 in the hearts of Intruder Association members.

“I’m one of the guys who thinks the A-6 could still be flying today,” Braithwaite said, standing beside the Intruder on display at the museum.

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