Flight of the Intruder
By Stephen Coonts
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 1986 Stephen P. Coonts
All rights reserved.
The starboard bow catapult fired, and the A-6A Intruder accelerated down the flight deck with a roar that engulfed the aircraft carrier and reverberated over the night sea. The plane's wings bit into the air, and the machine began to climb into the blackness. Fifteen seconds later the bomber was swallowed by the low-lying clouds.
In a few minutes the climbing Intruder broke free of the clouds. The pilot, Lieutenant Jake Grafton, abandoned the instrument panel and contemplated the vaulted stars. A pale slice of moon illuminated the cloud layer below. "Look at the stars tonight, Morg."
Lieutenant (junior grade) Morgan McPherson, the bombardier-navigator, sat on the pilot's right, his face pressed against the black hood that shielded the radar screen from extraneous light. He straightened and glanced up at the sky. "Yeah," he said, then readjusted the scope hood and resumed the never-ending chore of optimizing the radar presentation. He examined the North Vietnamese coastline a hundred miles away. "I've got an update. I'm cycling to the coast-in point." He pushed a button on the computer, and the steering bug on the pilot's visual display indicator (VDI) slipped a quarter-inch sideways, giving the pilot steering information to the point on the coast where the Intruder would cross into North Vietnam.
Grafton turned the aircraft a few degrees to follow the steering command. "Did you ever stop to think maybe you're getting too wrapped up in your work?" he said. "That you're in a rut?"
Morgan McPherson pushed himself back from the radar hood and looked at the stars overhead. "They're still there, and we're down here. Let's check the ECM again."
"The problem is that you're just too romantic," Grafton told him and reached for the electronic counter-measures panel. Together they ran the equipment through the built-in tests that verified the ECM was working. Two pairs of eyes observed each indicator light, and two pairs of ears heard each beep. The ECM gear detected enemy radar emissions and identified them for the crew. When the ECM picked up radar signals it had been programmed to recognize as threatening, it would broadcast false images to the enemy operator. Satisfied all was working properly, the airmen adjusted the volume of the ECM audio so that it could be heard in their earphones yet would not drown out the intercom system (ICS), over which they talked to each other, or the radio.
The two men flew on without speaking, each listening to the periodic bass tones of the communist search radars sweeping the night. Each type of radar had its own sound: a low beep was a search radar probing the sky; higher pitched tones were fire-control radars seeking to acquire a target; and a nightmare falsetto was a locked-on missile-control radar guiding its weapon.
Fifty miles from the North Vietnamese coast, Jake Grafton lowered the nose of the Intruder four degrees, and the A-6 began its long descent. When he had the aircraft trimmed, Jake tugged all the slack from the harness straps securing him to his ejection seat, then exhaled and, like a cowboy tightening a saddle girth, pulled the straps as snugly as he could. That done, he asked for the combat checklist.
Leaving nothing to chance or memory, McPherson read each item off his kneeboard card and both men checked the appropriate switch or knob. When they reached the last detail on the checklist, Jake shut off the aircraft's exterior lights and turned the IFF to standby. The IFF, or "parrot," radiated electronic energy that enabled an American radar operator to see the aircraft as a coded blip he could readily identify as friend or foe. Grafton had no desire to appear as a blip, coded or uncoded, on a North Vietnamese radar screen. In fact, he hoped to escape detection by flying so near the ground that the radar return reflected from his plane would merge with the radar energy reflecting off the earth — the "ground return."
The pilot keyed his radio mike. The voice scrambler beeped, then Jake spoke: "Devil Five Oh Five is strangling parrot. Coast-in in three minutes." "Devil" was the A-6 squadron's radio call sign.
"Roger, Five Oh Five," responded the airborne controller circling over the Gulf of Tonkin in an E-2 Hawkeye, a twin engine turboprop with a radar dish mounted on top of the fuselage. The Hawkeye also had launched from the carrier.
The Intruder was going on the hunt. Camouflaged by darkness and hidden by the earth itself from the electronic eyes of the enemy, Jake Grafton would fly as low as his skill and nerves allowed, which was very low indeed.
The pilot cast a last quick look at the distant stars. Flying now at 450 knots, the bird plunged into the clouds. Jake felt the adrenaline begin to pump. He watched the pressure altimeter unwind and shot anxious glances at the radar altimeter, which derived its information from a small radar in the belly of the plane that looked straight down and measured the distance to the ground or sea. He briefly wished that he could turn it off because he knew its emissions could be detected, but he needed this device. The pressure altimeter told him his height above sea level, but tonight he would have to know just how high he was above the earth. As he passed 5000 feet, the radar altimeter began to function and matched the readings of the pressure altimeter perfectly, just as it should over the sea. The pilot breathed deeply and forced himself to relax.
Dropping below 2000 feet, he eased the stick back and slowed the rate of descent. With his left hand he advanced the throttles to a high-cruise power setting. The airspeed stabilized at 420 knots, Grafton's preferred speed for treetop flying. The A-6 handled very well at this speed, even with the drag and weight of a load of bombs. The machine would fly over enemy gunners too fast for them to track it even if they should be so lucky as to make out the dark spot fleeting across the night sky.
Jake Grafton's pulse pounded as he brought the plane down to 400 feet above the water. They were below the clouds now, flying in absolute darkness, not a glimmer of light visible in the emptiness between sea and sky. Only the dimmed lights of the gauges, which were red so as not to impair the night vision of the crew, confirmed that there was a world beyond the cockpit. Jake peered into the blackness, trying to find the telltale ribbon of white sand that marked the Vietnamese coast on even the darkest nights. Not yet, he told himself. He could feel the rivulets of sweat trickle down his face and neck, some running into his eyes. He shook his head violently, not daring to take his stinging eyes from the red gauges on the black panel in front of him for more than a second. The sea was just below, invisible, waiting to swallow the pilot who failed for a few seconds to notice a sink rate.
There, to the left ... the beach. The pale sand caught his eye. Relax. ... Relax, and concentrate. The whiteness flashed beneath them.
"Coast-in," Jake told the bombardier.
McPherson used his left hand to activate the stop-clock on the instrument panel and keyed his radio mike with his left foot. "Devil Five Oh Five is feet dry. Devil Five Oh Five, feet dry."
A friendly American voice answered. "Five Oh Five, Black Eagle. Roger feet dry. Good hunting." Then silence. Later, when Devil 505 returned to the coast, they would broadcast their "feet wet" call. Grafton and McPherson knew that now they were on their own, because the Hawkeye's radar could not separate the A-6's image from the earth's return without the aid of the IFF.
Jake saw moonlight reflecting faintly off rice paddies, indicating a break in the overcast ahead. The weather forecasters were right for a change, he thought. Out of the corner of his eye the pilot saw flashes: intermittent flashes in the darkness below.
"Small arms fire, Morg."
"Okay, Jakey baby." The bombardier never looked up from his radar scope. His left hand slewed the computer cross hairs across the scope while his right tuned the radar. "This computer is working great, but it's a little ..." he muttered over the ICS.
Jake tried to ignore the muzzle flashes. Every kid and rice farmer in North Vietnam had a rifle and apparently spent the nights shooting randomly into the sky at the first rumble of jet engines. They never saw their targets but hoped somewhere in the sky a bullet and an American warplane would meet. Big morale booster, Jake thought. Lets every citizen feel he's personally fighting back. Jake saw the shuttering muzzle flashes of a submachine gun. None of these small arms fired tracer bullets so the little droplets of death were everywhere, and nowhere.
Patches of moonlight revealed breaks in the clouds ahead. The pilot descended to 300 feet and used the moonlight to keep from flying into the ground. He was much more comfortable flying visually rather than on instruments. With an outside reference he could fly instinctively; on instruments he had to work at it.
Off to the right antiaircraft artillery opened fire. The tracers burned through the blackness in slow motion. The warble of a Firecan gun-control radar sounded for a second in his ears, then fell silent.
A row of artillery fire erupted ahead of them. "Christ, Morg," he whispered to the bombardier. He picked a tear in the curtain of tracers, dipped a wing, and angled the jet through. McPherson didn't look up from the scope. "You got the river bend yet?" Jake asked as the flak storm faded behind them.
"Yep. Just got it. Three more minutes on this heading." McPherson reached with his left hand and turned on the master armament switch. He checked the position of every switch on the armament panel one more time. The dozen 500-pound bombs were now ready to be released. "Your pickle is hot," he told the pilot, referring to the red button on the stick grip which the pilot could press to release the weapons.
Again and again fiery streams of antiaircraft shells spewed forth like projectiles from a volcano. The stuff that came in the general direction of Devil 505 seemed to change course and turn behind them, an optical illusion created by the plane's 700-feet-per-second speed. The pilot ignored the guns fired behind or abreast and concentrated on negotiating his way through the strings of tracers that erupted ahead. He no longer even noticed the flashes from rifles and machine guns, the sparks of this inferno.
A voice on the radio: "Devil Five Oh Eight is feet dry, feet dry."
There's Cowboy, Jake thought. Cowboy was Lieutenant Commander Earl Parker, the pilot of the other A-6 bomber launched moments after them. Like Jake and McPherson, Cowboy and his bombardier were now racing across the earth with a load of bombs destined for a target not worth any man's life, or so Jake told himself as he weaved through the tracers, deeper and deeper into North Vietnam.
"Two miles to the turnpoint," the bombardier reminded him.
An insane warble racked their ears. A red light labeled "MISSILE" flashed on the instrument panel two feet from the pilot's face. This time McPherson did look up. The two men scanned the sky. Their best chance to avoid the surface-to-air missile was to acquire it visually, then outmaneuver it.
"There's the SAM! Two o'clock!" Jake fought back the urge to urinate. Both men watched the white rocket exhaust while Grafton squeezed the chaff-release button on the right throttle with his forefinger. Each push released a small plastic container into the slipstream where it disbursed a cloud of metallic fibers — the chaff — that would echo radar energy and form a false target on the enemy operator's radar screen. The pilot carefully nudged the stick forward and dropped to 200 feet above the ground. He jabbed the chaff button four more times in quick succession.
The missile light stopped flashing and the earphones fell silent as death itself.
"I think it's stopped guiding," McPherson said with relief evident in his voice. "Boy, we're having fun now," he added dryly. Grafton said nothing. They were almost scraping the paddies. The bombardier watched the missile streak by several thousand feet overhead at three times the speed of sound, then he turned his attention to the radar. "Come hard left," he told the pilot.
Jake dropped the left wing and eased back slightly on the stick. He let the plane climb to 300 feet. The moonlight bounced off the river below. "See the target yet?"
"Just a second, man." Silence. "Steady up." Jake leveled the wings. "I've got the target. I'm on it. Stepping into attack." The bombardier flipped a switch, and the computer calculated an attack solution. The word "ATTACK" lit up in red on the lower edge of the VDI, and the computer-driven display became more complex. Symbols appeared showing the time remaining until weapons release, the relative position of the target, the drift angle, and the steering to the release point.
Jake jammed the throttles forward to the stops and climbed to 500 feet. The Mark 82 general-purpose bombs had to fall at least 500 feet for the fuses to arm properly; they were equipped with metal vanes that would open when the weapons were released and retard them just long enough to allow the plane to escape the bomb fragments.
The needle on the airspeed indicator quivered at 480 knots. The stick was alive in the pilot's hand. Any small twitch made the machine leap. Jake's attention was divided among the mechanics of instrument flying, the computer-driven steering symbol on the VDI, and the occasional streams of yellow and red tracers. He felt extraordinarily alive, in absolute control. He could see everything at once: every needle, every gauge, every fireball in the night. With his peripheral vision, he even saw McPherson turn on the track radar.
"Ground lock." The bombardier noted the indication on the track radar and reported it to the pilot with an affectation of amazement. The damn track radar often failed. McPherson was glued to the radar screen, his entire world the flickering green light. "Hot damn, we're gonna get 'em."
He feels it too, Jake thought. With the track radar locked on the target the computer was getting the most accurate information possible on azimuth and elevation angle.
On this October night in 1972, Devil 505 closed on the target, a "suspected truck park," jargon for a penciled triangle on a map where the unknown persons who picked the targets thought the North Vietnamese might have some trucks parked under the trees, away from the prying eyes of aerial photography. Trucks or no trucks, the target was only a place in the forest.
The bomb run was all that existed now for Jake Grafton. His life seemed compressed into this moment, without past or future. Everything depended on how well he flew Devil 505 to that precise point in space where the computer would release the bombs to fall upon the target.
The release marker on the VDI marched relentlessly toward the bottom of the display as the plane raced in at 490 knots. At the instant the marker disappeared, the 500-pound bombs were jettisoned from the bomb racks. Both men felt a series of jolts, a physical reminder that they had pulled a trigger. The attack light was extinguished when the last weapon was released, and only then did Grafton bank left and glance outside. Tracers and muzzle flashes etched the night. "Look back," he told the bombardier as he flew the aircraft through the turn.
Morgan McPherson looked over the pilot's left shoulder in the direction of the target, obscured by darkness. He saw the explosions of the bombs — white death flashes — twelve in two-thirds of a second. Jake saw the detonations in his rear-view mirror and rolled out of the turn on an easterly heading. Without the drag of the 500-pounders, the two engines pushed the fleeing warplane even faster through the night, now 500 knots, almost 600 miles per hour.
"Arm up the Rockeyes, Morg."
The bombardier reset the armament switches that enabled the pilot to manually drop the four Rockeye cluster bombs still hanging under the wings. "Your pickle is hot," he told Grafton. He put his face back against the scope hood and examined the terrain ahead.
Grafton kept the engines at full throttle as he scanned the darkness for an antiaircraft artillery piece he could destroy with the waiting Rockeyes. It would have to be fairly close to his track and firing off to one side so that he could approach it safely. He referred to this portion of the mission as "killing rattlesnakes."
Somewhere below, a North Vietnamese peasant heard the swelling whine of jet engines approaching, first faintly, then rapidly increasing in intensity. As the whine quickly rose to a crescendo, he lifted an ancient bolt-action rifle to his shoulder, pointed it at a 45-degree angle into the night above, and pulled the trigger. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Flight of the Intruder by Stephen Coonts. Copyright © 1986 Stephen P. Coonts. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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