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A-6 Intruder: The Attack Aircraft the U.S. Navy and Marines Miss?

Sailor Sucked Into Jet Engine
An A-6E Intruder aircraft navigates over the Spanish countryside during a low level training mission in support of Exercise MATADOR, a combined/joint US and Spanish exercise.

When I was a kid, fixated with military aviation, one plane, in particular, held my attention. It wasn’t the angular F-16 Fighting Falcon or the Top Gun-starring F-14 Tomcat. It wasn’t the BatManesque B-2 Stealth. For whatever reason, my favorite plane, without question, was the rounded, somewhat dopey-looking A-6 Intruder, an all-weather attack aircraft first flown in the 1960s.

Unfortunately, during my childhood in the 80s and 90s, the A-6 was already in the twilight of its service life. Retired in 1997, the tough and simple A-6 has since mostly faded into the annals of aviation history, despite its 36-year run as a reliable craft in service with both the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps.

A-6 Takes Flight

The A-6 began to take form in the late 1950s when the Bureau of Aeronautics called for an all-weather attack aircraft with short takeoff and landing capabilities – something the Navy could use for long-range interdiction missions, something the Marine Corps could use for close air support. The A-6 was intended to replace the Douglas A-1 Skyraider. The A-1, designed during World War II, was the last piston-engine fighter/attack aircraft still in service with the U.S. An anachronism by the 1960s, the A-1 managed to stay in service until 1973 when, amidst emerging fourth-generation jet fighters, the A-1 was positively archaic. The A-1 lives on today as the root source of the A-10 Warthog.

Excited by the advent of turbine engine technology, the Navy was eager to replace the A-1 with a jet that didn’t have the A-1’s fair-weather limitations. The Navy’s call for a replacement issued a series of design requirements, which in sum equated to a close air support attack bomber that could operate in any weather environment. Eleven design proposals from eight companies were submitted. Boeing, Lockheed, North American, Bell, and Douglas all vied for the contract. Grumman, who would soon design the Lunar Excursion Module, walked away with the contract.

Shaping the A-6 with Innovative Design

When the A-6 entered service in 1963, the jet was billed as the first all-weather attack aircraft ever. The A-6 was unusual in that it used a side-by-side seating arrangement. In the A-6 cockpit, the pilot sat to the left of the bombardier/navigator, whereas, in most two-seater jets, like the F-14 or the F-15E, the navigator sits directly behind the pilot. The A-6 also featured a clever, futuristic instrument that helped the plane operate in all conditions – a Vertical Display Indicator (VDI). The VDI projected a synthetic representation of the landscape in front of the A-6, greatly aiding in navigation.

Unlike most jets being designed in the second half of the twentieth century, the A-6 was not capable of supersonic speeds. With a max speed of 640 miles per hour, a climb rate of 7, 620 feet per minute, a service ceiling of 42,400, and a g-limit of 6.5, the A-6 was not built to break any performance records. Rather, the A-6 was designed to carry plenty of ordinance and to arrive at the intended target, regardless of the weather. And indeed, the A-6 could carry ordinance. With five hardpoints, each capable of hefting nearly two tons, the A-6 had a nine-ton payload limit. 

The A-6 was used extensively during the Vietnam War. The Intruder’s specs and abilities proved invaluable to U.S. war efforts, although the plane, which generally flew a low-altitude mission profile, was particularly vulnerable to Viet Cong anti-aircraft fire. In total, 84 A-6s were shot down during the war, condemning many A-6 pilots to suffer as prisoners of war. 

In the 1990s, as the armed forces began to emphasize the consolidation of mission profiles into single platforms, the narrowly-purposed A-6 was phased out, its ground-strike mission overtaken by F-14’s outfitted with a LANTIRN navigation and targeting pod. Today, you can see the A-6 on display, from coast to coast – its soft edges and rounded features concealing the jet’s destructive power.  

Harrison Kass is the Senior Defense Editor at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, he joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison has degrees from Lake Forest College, the University of Oregon, and New York University. He lives in Oregon and listens to Dokken.

Written By

Harrison Kass is a Senior Defense Editor at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, he joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison has degrees from Lake Forest College, the University of Oregon School of Law, and New York University’s Graduate School of Arts & Sciences. He lives in Oregon and regularly listens to Dokken.

11 Comments

11 Comments

  1. Rio

    June 14, 2022 at 10:51 pm

    The VA(L) program required that companies in the running only submit entries based on existing designs, requiring as few modifications as possible. This was due to the need to drive down costs and achieve early availability.

  2. Barefoot Cavalry

    June 15, 2022 at 12:34 am

    9 Tons, that is the take off weight off the newer attack helicopter gunship

  3. PBAR

    June 15, 2022 at 4:56 am

    A warplane carries ordnance, not ordinance.

  4. Theodore Forsythe

    June 15, 2022 at 6:35 am

    You used the wrong “ordinance”. You should have used “ordnance”. The version you used is related to city ordinance. Overall, I loved the article as I served on three aircraft carriers.

  5. Skip Logan

    June 15, 2022 at 12:10 pm

    Harrison,
    Thanks for refreshing the memories of a ‘70’s vintage A-6A Marine Corps aviator.
    Her “advanced” all weather nav, targeting/attack vac tube powered systems seldom worked as advertised, but she was such a stable delivery platform you could nail a ground target with a D2 just about every time. The later E mod had solid state electronics, which significantly improved its all weather mission capability. I attended the decommissioning of the last A-6 squadron at NAS Oceana in about ‘97 and heard about its eminent replacement, a flying wedge aptly called the Dorito. Any idea of what became of it?
    Semper Fi
    Skip Logan

    • Daniel Franken

      June 20, 2022 at 7:12 am

      Best long range all weather strike aircraft ever deployed on carrier decks. Gave CV REACH and options not seen today…killed by political decisions at its prime, at the expense of America’s total combat power. I worked on the A model, flew all others, nothing like it!

  6. Vince Pascual

    June 15, 2022 at 1:13 pm

    Grumman was proposing an upgraded version- A-6F, with improved radar, avionics and the F-18’s GE-414 turbofan engines, sans afterburner, which would have given the Intruder greater thrust and longer range. With the availability of newer, more powerful and longer range weapons, the A-6F Intruder would have been an excellent platform to deliver those weapons

  7. Mike P

    June 16, 2022 at 2:05 pm

    As a former USMC FAC team member during the early ‘80s, I got to work A-6s often. Back then, an infantry battalion FAC team consisted of 4 radio operators pulled from the communications platoon and a pilot on loan from the air wing. They could be fixed wing or helicopter jockeys, either way they weren’t grunt officers so life with them was much more pleasant. They treated us enlisted Marines like real people and not like second class citizens. Had one in particular that I remember, CAPT. Jagelski, incorrect spelling I’m sure. He really emphasized cross training so that anyone on the team could effectively call in air strikes. Imagine, lowly Lance Corporals telling pilots flying multimillion dollar aircraft where to drop their ordnance. Those were the days.

  8. Doug Tessier

    June 16, 2022 at 3:57 pm

    My favorite plane as well. USMC 91-95. Beautiful, I smile when I drive past her every time on the way to Morehead.

  9. LARRY ABSHIRE

    June 16, 2022 at 7:18 pm

    In 1965 I had the privilege to be attached to Training Squadron VA42 Virginia Beach.to learn how to maintain the A6A Intruder When we were finished training I was assigned to VA 165 Whidbey Island,Washington just prior to going to Viet Nam I was transferred to VA 52 later that year we shipped out to Viet Nam aboard the USS CORAL SEA CVA 43.

  10. David Arndt

    June 18, 2022 at 10:56 am

    Shame you didn’t mention Flight of the Intruder

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