Flying & Fighting in the A-6 Intruder

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Ugly and formidable, the A-6 Intruder was a lethal enforcer of US foreign policy for over a third of a century. We spoke to Bomber/navigator Captain Andrew ‘ComJam’ S. Niemyer about his time on Grumman’s ‘Iron Tadpole’, an impressively effective all weather attack aircraft. 

“Most of the people who fallaciously claim I owe them money know me as ‘Comjam.’ (And a few remember an even earlier callsign ‘Dirty Duck’)”

A-6E ND500 1991

What was the role of the aircraft?

“Three simple words: All Weather Attack. We meant all three.  When briefing the Intruder to guests, I would say ‘When it’s a dark, cold, stormy night and the bad guys are all hunkered down inside, trying to keep warm and dry, we’re there to ruin their night. Because we can’.”

What was the best and worst features of the aircraft?

“From a  bomber/navigator (BN) point of view, the overall radar/terrain avoidance/TRAM (Target Recognition Attack Multi-sensor (FLIR/Laser) system absolutely rocked.  Working together, along with the pilot’s display which was also part of the terrain avoidance and the bombing system, we really had a very robust capability.  With the digital Armament Control Unit, ACU, we could deliver huge varieties of dumb bombs and PGM’s.  The IMU (Inertial nav system), working with the radar (Unless we were not radiating to avoid being ESM’d by the bad guys) to generally identify a target, then rolling out the FLIR to confirm identifying the target, locking it up in the system, then lazing it to get absolute precision and then letting the ACU tell the pilot exactly when to commit the system to automatic bomb release was pretty damn slick.  A very tight system in the Intruder was a wonder to behold.

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Again, as a BN, when the inertial system or the weird analog/digital memory unit would go stupid on you, it would cause a raft of headaches.  A degraded system could lead to decreased accuracy in both navigation on bombing, although we trained from the first day in the Sim at the RAG in systems degradations, for obvious reason.  But it sometimes sucked up a lot of your attention if it went bad at the wrong moment, and that was attention you really didn’t want to divert from your basic duties to get safely to the IP, ID the target and drop on it .  So, you would downgrade the system and work hard to recall everything you were now going to have to enter manually or work around.  Which is why most BN’s carried not only a NATOPS Pocket Checklist, but also a huge pocket gouge book with all those steps and procedures in them.”

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What was the hardest system to operate?

“First, know that I transitioned to the Intruder as a senior Navy Lieutenant Commander, with around 2400 hours in the A-3.  So I had a lot to “unlearn” as well as a huge new set of systems to learn from scratch.  Many of my peers had been flying the A-6 since they earned their wings, and so stuff I found a PITA, they did not and vice versa.  I tried to make up with old age and treachery what I seriously lacked in youth and skill.

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For me, the hardest was really tuning the inertial navigation system while in flight.  You could do that several ways and really being good at it was as much art as it was science.  I was really getting the hang of it at the 400-500-hour point, which is when time caught up to me and I flew my final Navy flight as a Naval Flight Officer as a mid-grade Commander.”

What was the most effective system and why?

“Two of them: The radar system in the A-6E, the Norden (Yes, that Norden) AN/APQ-148.  This was a combined ground mapping/terrain mapping radar that was so precise that you could do) a so-called “Self-Contained GCA” down to minimums, even painting clearly the runway remaining marker boards on either side of the runway.  I did them a couple of times for the fact that I could do it.  Some of my best bombing scores on ranges were done using the radar only and not the FLIR/Laser, it was that good.  When combined with the Moving Target Indicator (MTI) system, you could easily lock up and track a moving target and get a great target lock, bomb solution and whack that mover cleanly.

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The other system?  The most effective one the A-6 had from Day One: The Pilot-Bombardier/Navigator team, hands down. It took the two of you, working in absolute synchrony, to make the Intruder completely function at its peak efficiency.  Each one had specific duties, but both had to have 100% reliance and trust the other was doing his job.  In bad weather/night, terrain following, it was an absolute act of total and complete trust.

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The BN’s radar display was a map as seen from overhead.  The pilot’s display, with silhouettes of seven “slices” of terrain at ascending distances from the aircraft, giving a synthetic horizontal view of that same terrain.  Together, you made it through to the IP and the attack phase.  You looked out for one another in every way possible and totally trusted what the other said and did.  Flying together as often as possible, you could make that airplane do all that it was ever asked to do, and then some.”

How effective was it and why?

“Amazingly so, as its long combat history so amply proves.  One of the best stories comes from the Vietnam War: A single Intruder night mission did some truly precision bombing on the outskirts of Hanoi one night.  No one else went downtown that night.  Next day, Hanoi reported it had fought off a mass attack of B-52’s.  Its systems kept improving with each version, and the late A-6E’s, with highly improved digital systems stayed very effective until it was forcibly retired in 1996.

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The fact that it was well-suited for systems improvements, had exceptional range and was remarkably robust due to its great Grumman heritage all played a part on why it proved so successful.  Granted, the early DIANES system were very problematic, but the fundamental airframe was tough.  NAVAIR remained dedicated to keeping the good stuff and improving the things that needed fixing.”

How well would it have survived in a full-scale war with the USSR?

“What’s the target? In all Strike warfare, that’s your first question.  Some targets were naturally far more highly defended than others, and that would of course drive ingress and egress routes, tactics and SEAD planning.  We had tough losses in Vietnam, the various skirmishes in the 80’s and in Desert Storm, so the answer would have to be is it in Russia, proper?  Is it war-at-sea? Is it a client state/ally of the USSR? What’s my target? That will drive my weapons load and my tactics.  My defensive load, i.e. chaff/flares may also have some variables based on the answers.

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Bottom line: Yes.  But how many would have?  That would have depended on the targets they were assigned.”

What was your most memorable missions and why?

“I flew the Intruder exclusively in the US Naval Air Reserves, and for a lot of complex reasons that require ample amounts of adult beverages to tell, we were less than a week from finally deploying for Desert Storm when the war ended.  So, no combat missions in the Intruder for me. But, two do stand out:

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That being said up front, our Air Wing, due to its proximity to the Naval Strike Air Warfare Center at NAS Fallon, NV was employed extensively to try the proposed tactics that were developed for the active air war phase of the war.  I, along with most of my squadron, frequently flew practice missions into the Fallon complex during the months between August 1990 and January 1991.  We knew what we were doing and why, and we felt we were at least doing something to contribute to keeping our peers both safer and more lethal.

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The other mission was flown in mid-September 1992.  It was from NAS Alameda, CA to the Fallon complex, specifically to bomb in the Range Complex known as Bravo-15.  We were loaded with 12 25# practice bombs, a.k.a. “Blue Death.”  We flew a low-level route across northern California and then down into the range.  We “split” the bomb load, the pilot doing six practice drops using his bombsight and I did six “systems” runs, using the FLIR/laser.  We had a good time, came back low over the Sierra Nevada and down into the San Francisco Bay Area, and landed with no drama back at Alameda.  Another day, another low level, another set of bombing targets.  And it was the last flight I ever made as a fully NATOPS qualified Naval Flight Officer in my wildly improbable Navy career.

Speaking of ‘memorable’, I totally forgot one of the most memorable moments in my wildly improbable time in Naval Aviation (Folks almost universally started and spent their entire careers in one aircraft type/mission; I did three: reconnaissance, over-water pathfinding/navigation and Medium Attack) One year, since we were heading as a squadron to to join the rest of our Air Wing (CVWR-30) for two weeks at NAS Fallon, NV, we decided to do a ‘max effort’ and managed to do a 12-plane fly over of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco Bay.”

 

Was it better than the Royal Navy’s Buccaneer?

“I have zero Bucc time, so I don’t feel qualified to answer.  If you haven’t flown in both, then it’s simply semi-informed opinion.  From what I know, I think the Bucc had some real strengths, but also had its own weaknesses.  Likewise, the Intruder.  Both had the ability to put ordnance right where you needed it, when you needed.  I will note that while the Intruder did indeed look like a flying chicken drumstick with wings, the Bucc looked like the inspiration for Queen’s ‘Fat-Bottomed Girls’ ;)”

Tell me something I don’t know about the A-6E.

“The A-6 had no published maximum speed ever listed in the NATOPS manual.  Under the limitation section, where “Maximum Speed” is listed, are simply the initials “LBA.” Limited By Airframe. No matter the altitude, push the throttles as far forward as you want, you can’t overspeed it.”

Describe the aircraft in three words

“Ugly, lethal and effective.”

A-6E at ramp CV-62 1989

Unlike the USAFR and Air National Guard, the Naval Air Reserves at that time did not take folks in, put them through flight training and have them come back to the squadron.  Only folks leaving active duty and therefore with at least one, if not two, flying tours under their belts, were considered.  Thus a FNG would show up already well-seasoned.  Sometimes they may have been flying another aircraft type, but we knew they were “trainable” and it was a matter of transitioning them.  This was not as common in the Reserve A-6’s, however my squadron had been an A-7 squadron and most of the Reserve pilots did the transition. (Transitioning their mindsets from ‘single seat’ to ‘crew concept’ was a bit of a challenge)  After that, we mainly took guys who’d flown A-6’s.  Not always, but it was less common to transition guys.  This overall level of expertise sometimes raised a little bit of ire among the active duty Navy.  At one point the Admiral who was in charge of West Coast A-6’s banned the Navy Reserves from participating in the annual All-Whidbey Island A-6 bombing derby, as they would win every single year.  Old age and treachery *will* overcome youth and skill every single time.
304 took a number of KA-3B Navs, including me, and we all went to either VA-128 (West Coast) or VA-42 (East Coast) RAG’s for a Fleet Transition BN syllabus, lasting around 120 days or so.  As time went on, more and more Fleet and former USMC Intruder pilot and BN’s came into the squadron.  This led to some interesting ‘sub-cultures’ in the squadron.  We had the ‘Single-seat forever’ former A-7 guys, we had the former Whalers (‘#$%^, what’s this button do again?!?’) we had the long-range, all-weather attack experienced career A-6 guys and we had what we called the “MARDET’ (Marine Detachment)  They’d all focused on close air support and little else.  For a generally unruly lot (“We’re the US Naval Air Reserves: Your Profession, Our Hobby”) they were generally the most unruly.  OTOH, when we’d get calls for CAS training for ground elements, be they US Army, Army Guard, Marines, SOF, we’d have crews who could do that stuff really well.  Word got out and we did a lot of training missions doing CAS all over the western USA.”
*The Navy dissolved the distinctions between USN and USNR in the late 00’s, so formally, I’m USN(Retired) not USNR(Retired).  Whatever.
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A-6E ND500 1991

 

 

4 comments

  1. Andrew Niemyer

    Hi, Comjam here.
    I would be totally remiss and a complete jerk if I didn’t say up front that NONE of the incredible things I got to do in Naval Aviation would have been possible without the grindingly long hours, sweat and above all the expertise of the sailors who maintained the jets they allowed me to fly. Those folks worked far harder and longer than I did and I want to make sure that all who read stories like mine know that while the flying was fun, without the maintainers, it wouldn’t have been possible. I salute them and they have my ever-lasting gratitude for their hard work and efforts.

  2. Michael Christensen

    Capt Andy, aka Com Jam, Chickenhawk here, back then AEAN through AE2, and AE1 with you in Minneapolis. On your limited by airframe for speed, I do not remember who flew it, but on an FCF on one of the tankers (KA-6D) that was stripped of its bomb racks for this particular FCF. It hit mach level .99 on the FCF. The pilot and BN said so much condensation was coming off the nose they could barely see where they were going. I was at the FCF debrief in Maintenance Control. Remember the tankers were faster than the bombers because they didn’t have the cool air being mixed into the exhaust to reduce the IR signature like the bombers did. I bet if the old bird had a pointy nose, she would have hit mach 1.0.

    Another crew, probably the MarDet in us was out playing around and decided to see how high they could get. They wrote up all kinds of gripes when they got back. Airspeed inaccurate over 58,000 feet, and a couple of ones over 61,000 feet. By the books we could find anything wrong with the systems. We signed the MAF’s off as we could not duplicate the gripe and as per the manufacturers suggested altitude limitation of 42,000 feet, do not exceed 42,000 feet.

    We had some great people in 304,lots of knowledge by everyone.

  3. Pingback: A Good Interview About the A-6 Intruder | The Lexicans
  4. Pingback: Flying & fighting in the A-3 Skywarrior | Hush-Kit

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