Burial At Sea

The Navy's A-6 Intruder is retiring, and what could be a more fitting end?
-- Story and photographs by Erik Hildebrandt

haulinga6.jpg A former Army pilot told me that a whole squadron of Grumman A-6 Intruders had been sunk off the northeast coast of Florida, and suggested the Navy name its new Intruder base "Naval Air Station Atlantis." When I checked out the story with Northrop Grumman's plant in St. Augustine, production and operations manager Steve Blalock told me it was indeed true. The A-6s, until recently the Navy's premier attack aircraft, were being dumped to make some sort of marine habitat. Blalock went on to give me the details of the retirement of the A-6 and how several dozen had ended up as fisheries.

In the late 1980's, Intruders were being sent to Grumman's St. Augustine facility to be overhauled and refitted with new wings made of composite materials. Some of the all-metal wings were over 20 years old, and the Navy was concerned about metal fatigue. That fear was borne out in 1987 when a wing failed on an A-6 executing a high-G pull during a practice bombing run at the Navy's El Centro facility in California.

The Navy established a replacement wing program, and Boeing Military Aircraft won a $588 million contract to produce one-piece graphite-epoxy composite wings for 120 aircraft. Grumman St. Augustine retained control over the final reassembly of 72 as well as manufacturing 120 kits to mate the new wing to the fuselage. Eventually, an overhaul would extend the service lives of 300 plus A-6s well into the 21st century.

Before the structural failure, the Intruder had earned a reputation as a rugged street fighter, able to deliver 15,000 pounds of bombs with pinpoint accuracy in the black of night and in miserable weather to targets 1,000 miles away. The airplane was developed after the Korean war in response to the Navy's need for a low-level, long-range, all-weather attack jet, and the Intruder embodied all that was new: inertial navigation, terrain-avoidance radar, integrated computer controlled attack system, and side-by-side pilot and bombardier/navigator seating for better crew efficiency.

"The thing I love about this plane is that it takes an honest, hard-working pilot to fly it well," says Lieutenant Patrick Day, an A-6 pilot aboard the carrier Enterprise." You can't hide behind a sophisticated autopilot; there's no computer fly-by-wire to make you better than you really are. Flying the Intruder is all hands-on. The low-level overland bomb runs are where this plane really shines from a pilot's perspective. It's what tactical flying is all about: pushing over, rolling out, releasing, and yanking 'til it hurts to get away."

When the decision was made to retire the A-6, the upgrade program ended quickly. On Friday, September 17, 1993, Grumman received a "stop work" order from the Navy. Employees at the facility refer to that date as Black Friday. In the course of one day, Grumman moved from upgrading 80 A-6s to preparing to tear them down. After the stop-work order, the company laid off more than 300 employees.

a6ondeck.jpg Once word got out that the Intruder program had been canceled, several museums requested A-6s for their collections. Six went to museums and a few were sent to Naval bases to be mounted on poles as "gate guards." Eventually most of the organizations that requested aircraft got them. Still, that hardly made a dent in the number of airplanes that were sitting at Grumman St. Augustine marked for destruction.

Regardless of its disposition, each aircraft had to undergo demilitarization and decontamination. "To get these planes ferriable, all hydraulic fluids, fuel bags, and about 50 other items have to be neutralized, removed, re-utilized, and inspected before they could leave our facility," Blalock says. "Once they were clean and all the requests for airplanes had been filled, we began to sell the rest off for scrap, and quite honestly, it was depressing."

In the midst of the gloom and doom at Grumman, Blalock hatched a plan to assign a new mission to the Intruder and provide his hometown with an environmental and economic boost. The waters off Florida's northeastern shore consist primarily of barrier beaches with some rock reefs close to shore. A largely featureless ocean bottom stretches beyond these inner reefs for 50 miles to the Gulf Stream and Continental shelf. This offshore oasis has supported the majority of the region's fish stock, both sport and commercial.

In the early 1980s south Florida's first artificial reefs were deposited some five miles offshore in an attempt to attract marine ecosystems. By monitoring the new reefs as well as local commercial and sport fisheries, marine scientists proved that placing man-made objects on flat, sandy areas of the ocean floor attracts and supports a significant amount of marine life.

The majority of Florida's nearly 400 artificial reefs consist of concrete rubble from ongoing demolition and replacement of the state's aging waterway bridges. But increased commercial demand for this recycled material has sent prices skyrocketing. Communities interested in artificial reefs are searching for alternatives. Blalock, a member of the St. John's County Reef Research volunteer dive team, which provides mapping and monitoring data for the country's artificial reefs, says, "It wasn't too big a leap to make the connection that Grumman's sanitized airplane fuselages could be used in our own reef program."

a6barge.jpg The huge military training presence in St. Augustine during World War II regularly deposited airplanes into the surrounding ocean, and the crashes had littered local waters with an abundance of mini-reefs. Blalock's reef research dive team helped the county apply for a grant from the Florida State Department of Environmental Protection, which was interested in a study proposed by the dive group: an investigation into local fishermen's lore that some fish prefer aluminum reefs.

Third-generation charter boat captain Frank Timmons, Jr. routinely makes runs to the airplane reefs for his customers. "The old timers can tell you stories of pulling 30,000 pounds of prime red snapper off spots we called 'bonanzas' in the '50s," Timmons says. "We fished the hell out of 'em."

Timmons recalls a place called Paul's Wreck off Flagler Beach, south of St. Augustine: "In the old days you named a spot after the guy who found it, and usually a spot was kept secret for as long as possible. But we heard whispers about this particular place, and my dad managed to get pretty close to where Paul's Wreck was supposed to be. We snuck up and busted'em cold and ended up fishing that spot almost every day for the whole summer. Off that wreck alone I caught enough snapper to pay cash for a brand new Camaro."

When Timmons got older he dove on the old sites to learn what attracts fish. "When I dove to Paul's Wreck, it turned out to be some sort of military jet plane half-buried upside down in the sand," he says. "It turns out that almost all the 'bonanzas' I dove on were some sort of airplane or other. Old timers swear it's the aluminum that attracts the snappers."

In short order, both Florida's Department of Environmental Protection and the Navy gave the Intruder reef project the green light, and on June 16, 1995, nearly two years after Blalock had first floated the concept, a bulldozer and a backhoe manhandled a barge load of 26 Intruders into the water 25 miles off St. Augustine. Five days later, another 18 followed.

a6sinking.jpg "As a Grumman guy, it broke my heart," says Blalock, "But as a diver I was excited. We were creating something really important out of this otherwise sad loss. Besides, they were all headed for the furnace anyway, so at least we were saving them from that." As for the A-6s still in the fleet, most will join others in storage at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona.


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