In this second feature to mark the retirement of the Northrop Grumman EA-6B Prowler, Gareth Stringer spoke to one man who has experienced the aircraft at first hand. Images as credited.
There is no better way of getting a feel for what an aircraft was really like than to speak to the men and women who flew it and operated it and, in some cases, did so in combat. I was lucky enough to do just that on the subject of the Northrop Grumman EA-6B Prowler, and that person was Rick Morgan.
Rick was a rated Naval Flight Officer (NFO) and an Electronic Countermeasures Officer (ECMO) in the EA-6B and flew in the type from 1983 through 1994 with VAQ-129, VAQ-139 and VAQ-141. His last tour included 41 missions during Operation Desert Storm and he ended up with about 2,300 hours in the type and over 440 arrested landings. He had two tours at VAQ-129 as an instructor and also taught at the Weapons School for a period. He is currently the historian for the Prowler Association and this is what he had to say when we chatted about the EA-6B:
“Contrary to quite a bit I’ve read about the EA-6B by people who never flew it, the Prowler was an honest aircraft; stable and comfortable. Coming from the Intruder family, it shared that designs’ traits of excelling at carrying loads at low altitudes. Down low, it was not slow; 500+ knots was easy and the aircraft had no problems keeping up with most bomb-loaded strike aircraft, with the notable exception of the F-111 series. The EA-6B was fully manoeuvrable at combat weight although, like most heavily loaded tactical aircraft, had to be treated with respect when it had a full fuel load after takeoff. It was blessed with J52-P-408 motors, which could accelerate the jet quicker than most other aircraft anticipated. The aircraft was stable and predictable behind the boat and on the ball, even if not as pretty coming aboard as, say, an F-4.
“The EA-6B was blessed with a versatile weapon system based on the AN/ALQ-99, which was originally a combination internal RF receiver and podded jammer system. As the weapons system for the Prowler, the ALQ-99 was designed by Grumman to be adaptable as the threat changed. No other carrier-based aircraft in the 1970-2019 time-frame went through as many significant changes as did the Prowler; which is where terms like Standard, EXCAP, ICAP, ICAP II (which also had four sub-variants itself) and ICAP III came from. Each featured a substantial improvement of some sort over its predecessor which required its own training syllabus at the RAG (Ed – Replacement Air Group – a training unit and now called Fleet Replacement Squadron).
“Because of this they could not be mixed within squadrons. Most notable is that the final ICAP III replaced the ALQ-99 receivers with the AN/ALQ-218 from 2005, which is the same basic system now carried by the EA-18G Growler.
“Perhaps more important than the system though was the aircrew that flew the Prowler. ECMOs were walking encyclopedias on threat system characteristics and parametrics; their ability to read signals and manage the jammers is what really made the aircraft effective.
“While all Prowlers had a single Naval Aviator driving the bus from the front-left seat, the other three positions were manned by ECMOs. The first two EA-6B versions (Standard or Basic and EXCAP) were designed with the ALQ-99 system controls on the right side of the aircraft, this being right-front (ECMO-1), while right-rear (ECMO-2) and ECMO-3 (left rear) originally operated the AN/ALQ-92 communications jammer, which only rarely worked and was largely gone by 1980.
“This configuration was supposedly based on the predecessor, the Marine Corps’ EA-6A Intruder, so that it could be flown by only two crew if needed. In practice, ECMO-1 was overworked and ECMO-3 had no job. That was fixed in the ICAP version (1975), with the entire ALQ-99 now in the back with two identical stations. ECMO-1 now became a co-pilot of sorts, running the radar, navigation system and normal communications. That layout was never improved on. ECMOs were qualified to sit in any of the three seats, although personally I preferred the back end because that was where the weapons system was.
“Crew coordination was what you trained for, largely by trying to fly four crew together and by standardising procedures as much as possible. With only one RAG (VAQ-129), as opposed to about every other Navy aircraft community which had a separate training squadron on each coast, we achieved a high level of standardisation, which also included the Marine VMAQ unit(s), because we all trained together at Whidbey Island.
“We built 170 EA-6Bs; more than any other electronic warfare aircraft in military history. We lost 51 in mishaps over the some-odd 48 years of service but our loss rate wasn’t abnormal compared to most other types, although we had our share of bad crashes, including the worst carrier landing mishap since Vietnam. (Ed – a VMAQ-2 Prowler crashed on the Nimitz in 1981 and 14 men were killed).
“Our causal factors ran the gamut and included both crew and supervisory error and mechanical failures. We did have a period in the 1990’s and 2000’s where we suffered a number of catastrophic engine failures, but that was due to a specific failure of high-level support for the J52 and not due to anything wrong with our operational (squadron) level maintenance, which was almost universally superb.
“I was involved in a mishap of my own on 26 October 1984 while with VAQ-139. We were flying off the big island of Hawaii on a ‘Pineapple Cruise’ in Buno 161351 when, on landing, we grabbed the three wire on the Constellation (CV-64) which happened to be attached to an arresting gear motor that was not properly set for recovery. We went off the angle at about 90 knots and ejected. I was in ECMO-3 and left the jet just as it cleared the angle, coming down right off the ship’s port side. The HS-8 helo was over me within two minutes and pulled all four of us out of the water. The crew was made up of two sets of roommates; all three ECMOs were fine other than being wet; the pilot hit the water right at seat-man separation however and broke his back in two places. He survived but never flew for the Navy again.
“I will point out that the Prowler was the first Navy aircraft with four ejection seats in it, which led to a real issue with keeping the crew from hitting each other on ejection. They put a timing system in the seats to reduce the risk and it generally worked very well when combined with the Martin-Baker seat.
“Desert Storm proved to be a real crucible for U.S. electronic warfare forces, and not just the EA-6B. We’d come out of Vietnam with a serious amount of respect for enemy air defenses (what we later called an “Integrated Air Defense System”, or IADS) and Surface-to-Air missiles in particular. The pummelling the Israelis took in 1973 from the SA-6 in particular only increased our concern that air superiority in future battles was no sure thing.
“Nonetheless, we developed several superb airborne EW systems over the ‘70s and ‘80s that were all mature by the time Desert Storm occurred. Not only the EA-6B but the EF-111A and EC-130H “Compass Call” along with F-4G “Wild Weasels”. We entered Operation Desert Storm with a very large defense suppression force and most (but not all) of us thought we’d at least be able to hold our own, even with some dire predictions of doom in some quarters as we squared off against the “battle-tested” Iraqis.
“Turns out our gear did work and our training paid off. Things like ‘Red Flag’ exercises in particular were invaluable in preparing us for the joint war with our Air Force and Allied cousins. What I didn’t see coming was how close it would end up being as, although most of us thought our next major fight would be over Europe, it turned out the Nevada desert was actually much closer to what we ended up in and with a lot of the same players involved; our 1990 Red Flag actually included some of the same F-15, RF-4, F-4G, F-16 and British Tornado units that we fought alongside a year later!
“While some predictions said we’d lose 10-20% of our aircraft on night one alone, we ended up smothering the Iraqi IADS and shutting them down. It was truly gratifying and proof to most of us that the sweat and money we’d put into systems like the EA-6B had been worth it.
“Yet afterwards most of us knew we couldn’t rest on our laurels and continued to push for systems upgrades to keep up with the threat. Nonetheless, our next advancement, the ADVCAP, was cancelled after the war because, among other reasons, “You guys did so well in Iraq you obviously don’t need a new version”.
“Addle-brained comments aside, there was also the new-found, and growing, ‘Cult of Stealth’ that also called into question the need for support jamming from some quarters. The later loss of an F-117 over Bosnia put a big hole in that argument and we eventually got ICAP III, which would prove to be the ultimate expression of the EA-6B. The U.S. Navy’s purchase of 160 EA-18Gs and development of Next Generation Jammer (NGJ) carry on the proud accomplishments of the service’s VAQ community.
“I’m parochial, of course; but believe the EA-6B should be viewed as the most important aircraft in its mission area in history. Simply put, the EA-6B is the Spitfire or B-52 of the airborne EW business.
“It was built in higher numbers, served longer and was in more combat operations than any other EW design ever. When the US Department of Defense had to downsize to only one tactical EW platform they chose the Prowler and not the EF-111 Raven, which is actually a whole other discussion!
“The Navy has now moved on to the Boeing EA-18G Growler and it’s doing very well so far from what I hear.
“The Marines, unfortunately, have decided to end their manned EW support community, a decision that was not very popular in some quarters inside the Corps.”