Naval aviation, which for me was A-6 Intruders, was the great adventure of my life. It was one of those rare instances when the reality lives up to its advanced billing. Actually, the reality was better than anything I dreamed it could be. I have certainly had other great adventures, including marriage, the practice of law, fatherhood, civilian flying, and writing. Still, naval aviation was . . . well, let me tell you about it.
I was awestruck by my instructors in flight school. They were mostly fleet pilots doing an instructor tour, except for a few plow-backs who desperately wanted to get to the fleet, and many were combat veterans. They were really old, positively geriatric, in their mid- to late-20s, with a few old crocks in their early 30s.
They were warm and fuzzy, touchy-feely guys. I remember one flight I had in basic training in a T-2 Buckeye, with an instructor who was trying to teach the nuances of basic instruments to me. I was trying to make all those little needles behave and grossly over-controlling with a death grip on the stick when my instructor in the backseat grabbed the stick and started bucking the airplane. “You don’t have to be smart to do this,” he said, and whack, whack, whack with the stick. “If I had any goddamn brains I wouldn’t be here.” Whack, whack, whack. “Now stop trying to squeeze the black juice out of the frickin’ stick. Use your fingers.” Whack, whack, whack. “Your airplane.” I thought those guys owned the ground they walked on, and I wanted to be one of them.
After my time in the West Coast replacement air group (RAG) VA-128, I reported to VA-196, the main battery. On our first cruise to the Western Pacific on board the USS Enterprise (CVAN-65), I realized that I had finally made it into this band-of-brothers, this fraternity of those who were willing and could and did. It was a self-selected group. All those who didn’t want it or couldn’t do it had dropped out, or been washed out, or killed somewhere along the way.
A-6s were something special because they carried a crew of two. That meant the A-6 squadrons were large, with many diverse personalities. Later, when I tried to write a novel about the experience, that wonderful human zoo gave me plenty of inspiration.
The young nugget pilots and bombardier navigators (BNs), the old-fart lieutenant commanders, and the fossil commanders were almost universally from blue-collar or middle-class families. Naval aviation was a step up in life for all of us. To my delight, I fit right in. I had grown up in a coal town in West Virginia; I knew that no matter what happened, I didn’t want to spend the rest of my days grubbing out a meager living in the coalfields. That ambition kept me motivated all the way. Not that we were making big bucks in the Navy, because we weren’t. Still, we were all a part of something larger than we were individually; we served in the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, and we served our nation.
Truthfully, I feel blessed that life gave me that opportunity. I feel sorry for all of those young men who found a reason to take the easy course, who didn’t see or appreciate the challenges of naval aviation that demanded the best that was in them every single day, from flying, counseling sailors, pretending to give guidance to chiefs, wrestling with the supply system and the paperwork, to horsing around with friends in the ready room and ashore. Later, for me, came a flight instructor’s tour at VA-128 and a tour as an assistant catapult and arresting gear officer on board the USS Nimitz (CVN-68). Every day I was called upon to give the best I had.
I loved the Navy and would have probably stayed in until they kicked me out if I had only had a wife who was willing to share the adventure. Mine wasn’t. So after nine years of active duty I pulled the plug, went to law school, became a lawyer, and ultimately got into writing.
It was in 1984, after a divorce, when I had plenty of spare time and absolutely no money, that I finally decided to put butt in chair and write that story of what naval aviation was like during my two Vietnam cruises. The flying, the dying, the fear, the exhilaration I felt in a cockpit with the stick and throttles in my hands and the rudder pedals beneath my feet, the insanity of the Vietnam War, the truly marvelous young men I shared it with . . . all of it. I only wish that I had been a better, more experienced writer. Still, I had lived it and tried to capture it. I was willing to fail. You can’t be a writer unless you are willing to fail.
Like every first novelist, I wrote nights and weekends. Unlike most, I then got lucky: The U.S. Naval Institute was looking for a novel to follow Tom Clancy’s The Hunt For Red October. I had 32 rejections in hand when the Naval Institute accepted my little flying story, picked my manuscript from the 150 that had been submitted. The original working title was For Each Other. I thought that title worked rather well, because if we didn’t know what we were fighting for, at least we knew we were fighting for each other. The publisher thought that title smacked too much of a romance novel. They retitled it Flight of the Intruder, and to my absolute amazement, the novel stayed on The New York Times bestseller list for 28 weeks.
Fools occasionally ask me if I was Jake Grafton, the hero of the tale. Of course not. The book was the lore of the time and place, and the characters were amalgams of all the people I met in naval aviation. I didn’t want to tell my story; I wanted to tell everyone’s story. One perceptive reviewer noted that all the characters in the book were flawed in some ways and heroes in others. Of course—they were human.
That is not to say I liked everyone I met along the way, because I am no saint—and only a saint could do that. I met some jerks, and I met some fantastic officers who rose to very high positions in the Navy. But most of the people I met were like I was, serving their country, doing the best they could, and eventually, sooner or later, they left the service and got on with the rest of their lives. They were the same type of men who served with George Washington, with U. S. Grant, who fought in the trenches of France, who manned the destroyers and destroyer escorts in the Battle of the Atlantic, who went ashore on Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima, who manned SBDs and torpedo planes to hit the Japanese task force at Midway. I am so proud that I was one of them.
All of us carry naval aviation with us everywhere we go, every day. Sometimes young men and women ask me if they should join the service. Yes, I always say. It isn’t a lifetime commitment. The experience will enrich your life if you treat every day as an adventure, not a career. If you spend your days sucking up to the boss while worrying about your fittie, you won’t enjoy the challenge and the people. Do something else.
The success of Flight of the Intruder allowed me to become a professional novelist. I have been doing it for 30 years. So far, I have had 36 books published. One of my novels was published under a pen name, Eve Adams, The Garden of Eden. Three of my novels were semi-sci-fi, the Saucer Trilogy.
Aviation historian Barrett Tillman and I are in the early stages of writing a book about The Dragon's Jaw: The Thanh Hoa Bridge. I was reluctant to emotionally go back to Vietnam, so this project dragged for a couple of years. Finally, I decided to suck it up and do it while I was still able, and many of the men who flew the missions were still above ground to engage.
The best way to help Barrett and me is for anyone to share with us how the mission affected you. Where in the cruise did it come, were you especially worried, how were the flak and SAMs? What was memorable about the mission or missions? In other words, tell us more than date and target. Don’t think this is an English essay: We write the story—that’s what they pay us for; but we need your thoughts and input to do that. Send your inputs to [email protected], and we will get your contributions.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This feature was an edited speech that Steve Coonts gave at an A-6 Intruder reunion earlier this year.