A good friend of mine who, in his younger days, flew the Grumman A-6 Intruder strike jet for the US Navy once gruffly told me: “They don’t make ’em like the the A-6 … that baby handles so good it could fly itself”. I casually dismissed that claim as bias. Madman, my former naval aviator friend, flew Intruders and even has a few bumper sticker to boot; how could it not be bias? After viewing the video you’re about to see below, however, I was thoroughly convinced that Madman might be onto something.
Lieutenant Junior Grade Robert “Rocket” Rabuse and Ensign Al Hux were newcomers to the Intruder community, back in 1987. Rocket was a pilot while Al was a Bombardier/Navigator (B/N), the officer responsible for managing the weapons payload of the Intruder as well as assisting with navigation while on-mission. The A-6E would be Rocket and Al’s first fleet assignments as brand new officers in the Navy, and before the brass would allow them to deploy on an aircraft carrier, they would have to prove themselves on their airframe. To do so, they were sent out aboard the USS Lexington (CV-16) with their squadron, VA-42 “Green Pawns”, to qualify in launching and recovering aboard the carrier.
On May 12th, Rocket and Al launched in an A-6E (BuNo. 155657/AD) from the Lexington, about 50 miles south of Naval Air Station Pensacola in the Gulf of Mexico, where the Lexington was operating as a training carrier. After getting into the landing pattern, Rocket made his final preparations to “trap” on the Lexington’s angled deck. A trap is essentially Navy terminology for a recovery, where the aircraft is trapped aboard the carrier after its tailhook snags one of the arresting cables strung across the deck.
Gear down, flaps, spoilers armed, no lights flashing that shouldn’t be flashing… everything seemed to be going according to plan. Rocket centered his jet, bringing it onto the glide path and keeping it there. As the deck of the carrier grew larger and larger in his windscreen, Rocket kept adjusting the Intruder’s position to keep it in line with the center of the deck, and thus in the best position for a perfect touchdown and trap. Now for a pilot to have performed optimally, the third wire needs to be hooked during the trap. In this case, Rocket caught the fourth wire after briefly dipping below the glidepath.
Ordinarily, that isn’t usually much of an issue, though to be at the top of the squadron’s leaderboards for traps, a pilot needs to record consistent third wire traps. When a tailhook snags one of those thick wires, it tends to roll to a quick stop, having rapidly depleted its momentum. Upon hitting the deck of the carrier, pilots still push their throttles up, adding power, so that in the event that something goes wrong and a trap is incomplete (known as a bolter), the aircraft can hopefully still lift off for a go-around (i.e. second try). In this case, Rocket and Al were in for a rude surprise and an unplanned swim in the Gulf of Mexico
The Landing Signal Officer (LSO), typically a seasoned naval aviator who “coaches” pilots during traps noted first with fascination that the hook end of the tailhook managed to snap off during the trap. A microsecond later, that fascination turned to horror when he realized what had happened and immediately called out “EJECT, EJECT, EJECT!” into his radio. As the Intruder rolled off the edge of the Lexington’s angled deck, Al was the first to punch out, pulling his ejection seat’s handles a split second before Rocket punched out as well. Instead of falling into the cold bluish green waters of the Gulf, the Intruder decided that it wanted to resume flying.
Rocket, had earlier pushed his throttles up during the landing to prepare for a possible bolter. Now free from its human overlords (and their collective weight), the Intruder carried on its merry way, pitching upwards and flying off at full power without anybody at the controls. All of this happened within a little less than six seconds. Flight deck crew in their multicolored sweaters and vests stopped for a minute to feast their eyes upon the pilotless Intruder, while the Airboss up on the Lexington’s island (the carrier’s superstructure) probably uttered a confused “what the ****” as he too watched the Vietnam-era attack jet fly off into the sunset while sipping from the ever-present crusty old Airboss coffee mug.
The Intruder’s flight from slavery to its Nomex-clothed naval aviator masters was short-lived. As it climbed in an arc away from the Lexington, it began to slow down and bleed off airspeed. Now at the peak of its climb, it entered a stall and dropped like a rock. Now it was the Lexington’s bridge crew’s turn to freak out. The carrier was pointed directly at the falling Intruder and was steaming ahead at a steady pace to ensure that there was enough wind over the flight deck for flight ops. They couldn’t steer the massive warship out of the way of the Intruder, which was now apparently tired of flying around on its lonesome. Luckily, the wayward aircraft impacted the water directly in front of the Lexington, a mere 300 feet away. In comparison, a regulation football field is 360 feet. Way too close for comfort.
An “angel” helicopter was scrambled to pick up Rocket and Al, who were treading water off the port (left) side of the Lexington. If the Lexington steamed into the descent of the Intruder, things would have rapidly devolved from bad to horrific, as the aircraft would’ve likely killed and wounded many on the deck from the impact; that’s not saying anything about the millions upon millions of dollars in damage it would’ve caused. A subsequent board of inquiry cleared Rocket and Al, the former of whom went on to have a highly successful career in the Navy.
Would Rocket have been able to save the Intruder had he stayed with the plane, even after the LSO ordered the crew to punch out? Chances are that if he and Al stayed, they would’ve either died or been horribly injured. The Intruder was able to pitch upwards and fly off only because its center of gravity had shifted when Rocket and Al exited. Their combined weight, along with the weight of the ejection seat, was enough to keep the cockpit/nose section down. Without them, the nose pitched up and thanks to the Intruder’s lowered stall speed (due to the flaps being deployed fully for landing), sufficient lift was generated to send the plane up and back into the air.
So Madman, if you’re reading this (and I’m sure you are because I emailed you a link just in case), you were right, I was wrong, gloat away.