AL UDEID AIR BASE, Qatar --
For over forty years the EA-6B Prowler has been at the forefront of military electronic warfare allowing high-profile air combat missions – and many others – to be successful from every aerial battlefield since Vietnam.
With the U.S. Navy retiring their Prowler fleet in 2015 and shifting the workload to the EA-18G Growler, the Prowler’s legacy and final chapter was entrusted to the U.S. Marines Corps’ four tactical electronic warfare squadrons or VMAQs.
That final chapter is being written as VMAQ-2, the last of the four Marine Prowler squadrons, is completing its final deployment in Qatar with the last six aircraft in the U.S. military inventory. Those aircraft maintain a high-operational tempo supporting Operation Resolute Support and Freedom’s Sentinel in Afghanistan as well as Operation Inherent Resolve.
“To be able to be part of this last squadron and this last deployment and send it out with class is a humbling privilege,” said Lt. Col. Andrew A. Rundle, VMAQ-2 commanding officer, who started flying the Prowler out of flight school in 2003. “We do our job, we take them home and then we put it to bed the right way – not only for ourselves – but everybody else that flew this and worked on it before us.”
History defines the Prowler mission
The EA-6B was born out of military requirements during the Vietnam War and VMAQ-2’s rich history was built on the legacy of predecessor electronic warfare squadrons, flying aircraft such as the AD-5 Skyraider, EF-10 Skyknight and the EA-6A Intruder.
The Prowler entered service in 1971 and Northrop Grumman produced 170 of the aircraft before wrapping up production in 1991.
The primary mission of the aircraft is to support ground-attack strikes by disrupting enemy electromagnetic activity. As a secondary mission, it can also gather tactical electronic intelligence within a combat zone, and attacking enemy radar sites with anti-radiation missiles.
“Needs drove this airplane to do so much more than it was originally designed to do. Necessity is the mother of invention, so the reinvention and reutilization of some of the aircraft’s capabilities is noteworthy,” said Rundle. “The airplane is control rods, bob weights, pulleys and hydraulic pumps. It is not fly-by-wire. It is an impressive piece of Grumman iron works that is a real airplane and you can hear it coming from a mile away when it’s low to the ground.”
No place is more tied to the Prowler’s history in the U.S. Marine Corps than Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, located in Havelock, North Carolina, where the EA-6B first touched down in 1977. With more than 40 years of history there, it shouldn’t be surprising a handful of people in the area know their way around the Prowler.
“There are old men that have stayed there when they got out and they come out of the woodwork when we have something related to the aircraft,” said Gunnery Sgt. Kevin Randall, VMAQ-2 maintenance control chief, who has been with the Prowler for 18 years and seven full deployments. “Back around 2013, they opened up a civilian contract that one of the prerequisites was being a prior A-6 or EA-6B maintainer and those old men came out of the woodwork to turn a wrench on an aircraft that they had retired 10, 20 or 30 years prior. It was amazing to see and when they came back they taught us tricks of the trade that had been forgotten over the years.”
Challenges at every step – maintaining the Prowler
Keeping a legacy aircraft in the air requires work – lots of it – by a team that embraces challenges and finding solutions.
“I want people to remember how impressive the aircraft was and more importantly the people who worked on it,” said Rundle. “It’s not an easy airplane to work on. Nowadays, components tell you they need to be replaced, skilled troubleshooting doesn’t exactly exist the way that it used to and working on this plane is very much a different skill.”
Randall knows firsthand the skill needed to work on the plane. Having worked on the EA-6B for over 18 years, he described the experience as “demoralizing yet rewarding,” and has faced his share of headaches over the years working on the legacy aircraft.
“You could think you know what is wrong with it and you fix what you think is wrong only to find it had nothing to do with what was wrong and it didn’t help or fix anything,” explained Randall. “You could troubleshoot for days in the wrong direction, but because it is an old airplane there are lots of wires and things that don’t even go to things anymore and through updates and upgrades there are things that cause problems that you never would have thought. Changes that were made 10 or 15 years ago have surfaced and reared their head.”
Maintaining focus while wrapping up the Prowler mission
With the Prowler’s final deployment nearing the finish line in the middle of the Qatari desert, the Marines of VMAQ-2 are starting to reflect on the legacy of the Prowler and where their aircraft will eventually end up.
“The plans for Joint Strike Fighter have been in place for a long time and in 2001 when I started flight school everyone was telling me the Prowler was going away,” said Rundle. “We’ve managed to hang on for a long time because they keep finding a use for us. And even up until the end we have one of the highest operational tempos of any other community in Marine aviation.”
On the maintenance front, Randall acknowledged some challenges with those who have come to the EA-6B in recent years with the aircraft’s sunset on the horizon.
“It’s hard to tell a human being you need to learn this even though tomorrow you’re never going to need it again, so it has been a challenge to keep people motivated to go in the right direction and keep them working on airplanes,” said Randall. “No matter how good you are mentally, there is something in the back of your head that knows you’re learning to do something that isn’t going to be here in four years.”
Despite that uphill battle, there has been a certain pride that has surfaced and kept the mission moving forward.
“I don’t know if it is a legacy thing or a self-pride thing, but nobody likes to fail.” Randall added. “You have Marines that came in four to six years ago that knew the airplane was going away and they are excelling. They’re collateral duty inspectors, quality assurance representatives and they’re the ones leading shops and crews. They just had to come in and approach things differently than people such as myself did 18 years ago.”
Supporting the warfighter and putting the Prowler to bed
Those who have worked on and flown the EA-6B know it’s a legacy aircraft, but they also know they’re writing its final chapter.
“Almost every air mission that people have heard about since the 1970s likely involved a Prowler in some way and we don’t talk about it,” said Randall. “I think that’s the cool thing we all know in the back of our heads. The public reads that bombing missions happened here or we got so and so or completed this mission and you read about the flashier airplanes such as the B-1s, the F-18s, the stealth fighters that took off from wherever, but you never read about the Prowler that had to be in the area days prior or had to be around the area to complete its mission to allow the bigger mission to happen.”
Yet that asset has given back to the fight and contributed to relationships and mission success with the other branches of service, specifically the Air Force and Al Udeid.
“Prowlers have operated out of Al Udeid before and there are a whole lot of goods that come out of operating from here. It has been a great relationship coming in and working with the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing,” said Rundle. “The manner in which the 379th has adopted us and provided for our entire squadron has made this a great place to operate out of and made for a great partnership with the Air Force.”
Walking away from another deployment might be familiar for the Marines of VMAQ-2, but knowing this marks the end for the aircraft and their squadron undoubtedly elicits sentimental and nostalgic feelings.
“After 20 years, I’m going to walk away from the airplane not leaving anything behind because the airplane's not here,” said Randall. “Not only did I get to work on an airframe that people all over the world are now seeing in museums, but I’ll get to look back and say I was the last one to work on them. In fact, I’ll be able to tell my kids when we go to a museum that I was the last one – in fact – I’ll be able to tell my children I was the one that put this here.”