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The A-6 Intruder–leading edge tech but that little red light?

4 May 2022
Grumman A-6A Intruder displayed at the Camp Blanding Museum in a rapidly lifting fog.

Grumman’s A-6 Intruder design was revolutionary in its day and tremendous a leap forward in naval aviation—actually in aviation warfare. Its mission was to attack in any weather and at any time to precisely hit specific targets. Intruder crews could, and did, this either singly or as part of a strike package. It was the first truly all weather bomber as well as the first aircraft with an integrated airframe and weapon system. A fearful package of this twin turbojet engine (Pratt & Whitney J52 non-afterburning turbojets) two man aircraft (pilot and BN).

Perhaps a warhorse disguised as a draft horse the Intruder could carry a large load very far while at high subsonic speeds. There was no USN ordinance it could not deliver and deliver accurately, day or night, fair weather or foul. How could this be done? Too oversimplify, and for a bit of clarity, the radar systems fed into an internal navigation system—which all in turn processed these inputs into DIANE (Digital Integrated Attack Navigation Equipment) used by the BN (Bomber/Navigator) which electronically represented target information and geographic features during good or bad weather. In turn the BN fed cues from his systems to the pilot who would be using his VDI (Vertical Display Indicator). Yes, the outside world represented virtually in the side-by-side cockpit—sans GPS and night vision. 

Why side-by-side in the jet age where modern combat aircraft were as streamlined as possible?  That is where the airframe-weapon system integration comes into play. The Intruder’s radar required a large dish and Grumman designers cleverly saw they could use that advantageously as the seating arrangement allowed for quicker non-verbal crew communication. Grumman designers also thought to place the BN slightly lower and a bit aft of the pilot to avoid restricting vision to starboard. Not that you will see Willem DaFoe correctly positioned in the film Flight of the Intruder (an excellent movie from the novel by Stephen Coontz)—such is Hollywood.

Like Grumman’s OV-1 Mohawk the Intruder originated from a U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) requirement. The cockpit of these two unsung and aircraft are highly similar, as a matter of note.The Corps desired an STOL attack aircraft replacement for the venerated but aged Douglas A-1 Skyraider. Another novel feature in the design was swiveling jet exhaust nozzles for shorter take off runs but these proved unsatisfactory. Aerodynamic and turbulence concerns has these nozzles deflected 7º downward—dive brakes were relocated from the conventional fuselage positioning to the distinctive spilt wing tip locations. The Intruder would go on to be active for 34 years and solely by the USN as well as the USMC.

Now…about that small and curiously positioned red light on the blackout panel in front of the pilot with its petite glare shield? What is its purpose? Thanks to Capt. Mike Vogt (USN, ret.) of The Intruder Association who stated this tiny curiosity—it was used during night time aerial refueling as it would be used to illuminate the tip of the refueling drogue and receiver basket. Thanks again Capt. Voght 🙂



A pair of A-6 Intruders demonstrated a new era in air attack when a power station in what was then North Vietnam was bombed. This extremely damaging raid was accomplished by just two aircraft in the dark of night and cloaked by storms when their 26 Mark 82 (500 pound) bombs devastated the complex so throughly it was originally thought to have been a USAF B-52 raid. The comparisons are intriguing. The B-52 (still quite capable) was born of World War II heavy bomber experience and extremely large as well as weighty nuclear weapons. Yet just two decades after World War II the A-6 Intruder demonstrated that strategic bombing could now be accomplished using fewer bombs and fewer aircraft—so differently the term surgical strike became the new descriptor.

Grumman A-6A Intruder on display at the Camp Blanding Museum located at Camp Blanding FL. The three vertically arranged lights on the nose gear door were used to aid the Landing Signal Officer (LSO) to assess the approaching Intruder’s angle of attack. Note the wee red light in front of the pilot’s windscreen with a closer view of it in the image below.
Closer view of the lighting device used by the A-6 pilot to see the tip of the refueling drogue as well as the refueling basket during night aerial refueling.
4 Comments leave one →
  1. 4 May 2022 22:30

    I was returning from a trip to DC one morning, driving south on I-81. Near the VA/TN state line, there was a stretch of Interstate next to a shallow valley. I could see them as they approached. The Navy came steaming up the valley in an A-6 below me. As they went by me, I could see down into the cockpit from my car. Both helmeted heads were looking down at the panel, not looking outside. I was impressed.

    • Gareth Cook permalink
      4 May 2022 22:35

      Sounds almost like you were in the Mach Loop in Wales!

      • 7 May 2022 22:13

        When I got home, I checked my WAC charts and discovered there is a low-level military route along the Interstate at that location.

  2. Gareth Cook permalink
    4 May 2022 22:33

    “Flight of the Intruder” is an excellent, memorable read – the movie was good too.

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