Low Level Intruder
As part of the Cold War arsenal, one of the bread-and-butter missions of A-6 Intruder crews was low level ingress, using terrain masking to avoid enemy radar, delivering conventional or special (think: mushroom cloud) ordnance against a target deep in Bad Guy Land. You know, “toe-to-toe with the Ruskies” kind of stuff. I was in Naval Aviator training during the Evil Soviet Empire and 600-ship navy Reagan years. I was assigned to fly the Intruder just as the Soviet Union was collapsing, but the low-level mission remained a part of our Medium Attack repertoire (Heavy Attack was done by B-52’s, Light Attack was A-7’s and F/A-18’s).
The Intruder was 100% offensive. Offensive in mission, and offensive to look at. We didn’t set any speed records but the beast had impressive range, carried a tremendous bomb load, was rock solid down low, and operated from the decks of carriers all over the world. Even at its advanced age, thanks to updates and improvements, it remained a potent bomber. The mountainous terrain and heavy weather around NAS Whidbey Island in northwestern Washington State was the perfect training ground for young Intruder pilots and Bombardier/Navigators (B/N’s) to hone their skills.
Low-level training came in two flavors: day flying in Visual Meteorological Conditions (VMC) on VR routes, or at night and/or in Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC) on IR routes. One fell into the “I can’t believe they’re paying me to do this!” column, the other into the “They’re not paying me nearly enough to do this sh..” column. I’ll let you figure out which was which. Both were conducted on established VR and IR training routes that wound their way across the plains of Eastern Washington and Oregon, and through the snow-capped peaks of the Cascades. VR routes were flown at 200 feet AGL while IR routes were flown at 500 feet AGL, both at 420 knots ground speed.
As one can surmise, to safely, yet tactically, fly an IR route at night in the weather was not something done “off the cuff”. Each crew (pilot and B/N) maintained a Terrain Clearance (TC) qualification. To earn the TC qual was a multi-step process. As was ingrained in all Intruder crews from Day One, the first step in any mission was chart study. This was before GPS, color cockpit displays, and automated navigation systems. Having an intimate knowledge of the terrain along the route through careful study of Tactical Pilotage Charts (TPC’s) was critical. The next step was to fly the mission in the simulator. Again, we’re talking 1970’s-80’s technology (no “out the window” visual display), but the Weapons System Trainer (WST) did a pretty good job of simulating the terrain on the crew’s radar displays.
During the low-level route the B/N ran the ground mapping radar (housed in the Intruder’s prodigious proboscis) to maintain a “view” out the front of the jet to about 25 NM. His job was to keep The Big Picture with respect to terrain features to be avoided (hills, mountain peaks) or exploited (river beds, valleys) further down the line. The pilot’s display could best be described as a monochrome video cartoon (1960’s TV style) of the ground features immediately in front of the jet out to about 8 NM, giving more close-in detail with which to maneuver the jet to use the terrain to tactical advantage. Both pilot and B/N cross-referenced TPC’s often to compare what they were seeing on the displays to what was on the chart.