When I was young I lived a great adventure. I joined the United States navy and went to flight school. Then I got lucky. The naval bureaucracy sent me to NAS Whidbey Island to fly A-6 Intruders.
So the adventure began. I soon met my first A-6. Walked around it, touched it, climbed into the cockpit and smiled broadly. The Intruder was, and, if you can find one in a museum, still is a big,ugly thing, sort of a flying drumstick, fat in the front tapering to a delicate-looking, gorgeous shapely tail. It sported the sexy tail because the jet exhausts were at the wing root, so the plane didn’t have a couple of pipes running out the back.
Like so many of the men now gray-haired grandfathers who flew A-6s, I would love to live the experience over again. Would love to meet my fellow adventurers one more time, when we were young. Would enjoy immensely sitting through the lectures about aircraft systems, studying emergency procedures ad infinitum, spending hours with my NATOPS manual; and finally donning a flight suit, steel-toed boots, G-suit, torso harness with survival vest, helmet, gloves, grabbing my bag with oxygen mask, charts and approach plates, and waddling out to my waiting steed.
If only I could once again settle into that ejection seat and flip switches and twist knobs. WIth the yellow huffer roaring away, I would push the crank button and that right engine would began to turn.
Soon we would be taxiing and my BN and I would be doing all those things pilots and BNs do to ensure their steed is indeed ready, including the takeoff checklist liturgy.
On the runway with the brakes firmly applied, I would advance the throttles, not too fast, not too slow, but just so, “smoothly”, as the book said. The roar was always satisfying, a visceral howl that carried for miles. Everyone on the base could hear the beast ready for flight. The nose oleo would compress a little. Yeeeah!
Then I would release the brakes and away we would go… faster and faster and faster and the stick would come alive and the nose would life itself off because I had the trim set just so, six degrees nose-up. Free of the ground, climbing, I would stop the rotation, start feeding in forward trim, lift the gear handle. Wait for the rollers to lock up, wait for the airspeed to build enough to lift the flaps and slats, checking that there were no warning lights… and my BN and I would roar off into the wild gray Whidbey yonder… again.
One more time.
I have flown airplanes most of my adult life. But I fell in love with flying in A-6s. What a sweet, honest airplane! When you were up there cruising along on a sunlit day the sunshine would stream through that huge canopy and soon you would be thumbing the air conditioning to a cooler setting. Sweating under your flight suit, running a finger up under your visor to swab sweat from your eyes, feeling the way the plane rode the air, responding to every control input, even the tiniest… well, the experience filled a place in my soul.
The men I met in the Navy (the squadrons were all male then) were universally interesting. A few were assholes, a few were super technocrats, but most were extremely competent young men somewhere on the spectrum between those poles. These were men to fly with. These were men to fight with. And if necessary, these were men to die with. They were good friends and good companions for life’s journey.
Walking out onto a flight deck, manning up, taking the cat shots, flying around a while and dropping some bombs (without getting shot at), doing a few whifferdils on the way back to the boat, then catching a wire (hopefully the third one) and strolling into the ready room to laugh and scratch with my shipmates–yes, I’d love to do that one more time. Or two.
Hell, I’d pay to go on another A-6 cruise. I remember poker in the JO’s bunkroom, mid-rat sliders, liberty in Hong Kong and Singapore. It certainly wasn’t all fun and games, but life never is. Naval Aviation was dangerous, people died doing this, combat was insanity, at times I was so scared that even today, all these years later, I remember the fear. And yet… That was Life with a capital L, the 200-proof stuff, the pure, raw essence.
I recall one summer afternoon aboard USS Nimitz off the Virginia Capes. I was the arresting gear officer that day. The ship didn’t have any airplanes aboard, but an A-6 outfit in Oceana had flown an Intruder out so the captain could log some traps. He wanted a thousand. Heck, so did I. He got them and I didn’t.
Anyway, I stood on the fantail looking up that 1,100-foot deck, watching the ship pitching gently up and down, riding the sea, while the lone A-6 with the captain at the stick taxied to Cat One, took the shot, came around and trapped and did it all again. Over and over, pausing occasionally to hot-pump some more fuel. I’ve forgotten how many traps he got, but if I had ben in that cockpit, I wouldn’t have stopped until the hook-point wore out or I wore out the #3 pennant.
Yeah, I would do A-6s again. In a heartbeat.
If only it could be so.