USS GEORGE H.W. BUSH, At Sea (NNS) — As the sun sets on USS George H.W. Bush's (CVN 77) current deployment, it also sets on the illustrious career of the EA-6B Prowler with the Navy.
The jet is retiring after 42 years of service, and this deployment aboard the Bush is its last. The Prowler will be replaced by the EA-18G Growler, a variant of the F/A-18F Super Hornet.
"The Prowler's return on investment is fantastic," said Capt. Daniel "Undra" Cheever, commander, Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 8. "It's a testament to its design and its relevance that it's still being used."
"We're actually flying the Prowler longer than the Navy intended," said Cmdr. Christopher "TJ" Jason, commanding officer of Electronic Attack Squadron (VAQ) 134, "Garudas," who has flown in the Prowler as an electronic countermeasures officer since 2000.
The EA-6B Prowler has been the Navy's main aerial platform for electronic warfare since 1972, first seeing service in Vietnam, until October when the jet supported missions over Iraq and Syria while deployed with the Bush.
"It's a Vietnam-era design," said Lt. Winston "Favre" Likert, a pilot who has flown the Prowler for the past three years as part of VAQ 134. "It's a completely different generation of aircraft all together. It's all manual bell-cranks and pulleys and hydraulics."
Prowler pilots are more dependent on their own strength and situational awareness than in modern airframes because they don't have electronically assisted controls or air-to-air radar.
"It's a very physically demanding aircraft to fly," said Likert. "You don't have computers making up the gaps, it's all you. It's exhausting to fly, but that makes it endearing, like grabbing the beast by the scruff of its neck."
Likert said that piloting a Prowler harkens back to a different era of flight. It's a more visceral experience than other present-day aircraft.
"It's big, heavy, oily, dirty and tough," said Likert. "We absolutely feel like we're part of old school, thick-skinned, hard-nosed Naval Aviation. That said, many of us probably wouldn't feel worthy standing next to one of the old-timers who grew up in that era. The jet definitely commands a certain respect from those who fly in it or with it, as well as maintain it."
Jason added that during this deployment the Garudas and the Prowler have achieved a perfect 100 percent sortie completion rate. They are 20 percent above the requirement for aircraft ready to launch, and the pilots have earned the Top Hook award four out of the last six line periods, which recognizes the overall amount of successful landings on a carrier. The Garudas also received Top Hook Honors for the entire deployment.
"The oldest airframe on the flight deck has executed every single combat sortie assigned the whole deployment," said Likert. "Pretty rare in any squadron. Hornet, Rhino, Prowler, whatever, but for an aging airframe like ours, huge props to our maintenance team to get that done."
The squadron's mechanics listen to pilot feedback, and put hands on the aircraft in order to perform the required maintenance or repairs.
"There's a lot to it, but it's easily understandable," said 21-year-old Aviation Mechanic 3rd Class Jason Lee Gregory, from Sydney, Iowa. "If you sit back and think about it, you can figure out what's going wrong with it."
Jason said the Prowler is a traditionally-built, metal aircraft, unlike other airframes, which are primarily modularly constructed from composite materials. A unique aspect about working on the Prowler is how the mechanics can fix a problem on deployment rather than get a new part shipped in.
"If they need to fabricate a component, they're going out there and bending sheet metal to make it match," said Jason. "They will create it. So, that is going to be a lost art."
Likert said a more modern aircraft can tell a mechanic through electronic codes where problems might be. Over the years, Prowler mechanics have developed an intuition to interpret a pilot's observations into knowledge that can be used to troubleshoot issues with the airframe.
But, nothing lasts forever and the Prowler is no exception.
"The longer you keep an airframe going past its intended lifespan, the higher the cost," said Jason.
Though the mechanics can fabricate a lot of what they need, sometimes they can't and that can reduce readiness, said Likert.
"It is a 40 plus year old airframe," said Cheever. "It is not designed with all the new technology we have today."
Likert added that the airplanes have a limited lifespan, and it's important to understand what might happen structurally to maintain a high level of safety for the crew, in the air and on the ground, while also performing and excelling in its operations.
Both Cheever and Likert describe the Prowler like a 57 Chevy: simple, powerful and beautiful in its own way, but hard to compare to something like a Corvette or the Prowler's actual replacement, the EA-18G Growler.
Cheever said he thinks it is amazing that pilots can fly and land the aircraft at any time of day and any type of weather without the technological aids that most other pilots get from newer platforms.
Likert explained that the Growler will fulfill the same roles as the Prowler: suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD) and the denial of communications to our enemies while protecting those of U.S. coalition ground forces, or Communications Electronic Attack (COMSEA). The Navy's use of fewer types of airframes will simplify and reduce costs to overall maintenance, training and flight operations with the additional defense and attack capabilities of the F/A-18.
Additionally, the Prowler splits the workload between four people, a necessity without air-to-air radar and other modern amenities. The Growler is a two-seater jet, which halves the crew.
"Having a crew of four is great in terms of workload," said Likert. "The backseaters also assist with navigation, general situational awareness, and communication. Overall, we're all there to back one another up. A good crew that gets along well can make for a great time on a long mission."
"The mission is not going to change a lot: air to air capability with the Growler is better," said Jason. "Connectivity, command and control are big advantages for situational awareness of the crews. The change in airframe won't fundamentally change the mission, but it will be done cheaper and more efficiently."
Cheever said the changeover will save hundreds of millions of dollars a year due to simplifying the supply and maintenance infrastructure. The commonality between parts and procedures is a huge benefit.
The transition to fewer airframes will make the job easier for the crew, even if it comes with a little bit of sentimentality.
"It's sort of a bittersweet thing," said Likert. "Of course having as many hours as a lot of us have in this aircraft you get attached to it, and there are certain aspects we're going to miss. On the other hand, it is an old airplane, it's stubborn and it tends to break sometimes. It fights you the whole way, and the Growler is the newest of the new designs. It's got a lot of new tools that make the workload on the aircrew less significant."
Both Likert and the Skipper said they were excited to fly the new aircraft, but they will not cease flight operations with the Prowler. The squadron will be prepared to deploy, but that is not anticipated or projected.
"The air wing coming off deployment has to maintain a level of readiness just in case of a national emergency," said Jason. "The Prowler is not going to stop flying after deployment. We're going to maintain a level of readiness to support that requirement."
The Prowler is leaving service on a high note.
"I'm proud of the squadron for concluding the career of the Prowler with honor," said Jason. "I don't think we could have done anything more to leave a more enduring impression of the excellence of this aircraft than we have."
Cheever said he agrees that the source of the Prowler's success lies in the people who surround it. Everyone involved with the Prowler, from its design phase to its implementation over the years, are responsible for the jet's achievements.
"The overarching message is: 'it's all about the team,'" said Cheever.
Navy leadership tries to accomplish current and future missions by understanding technological developments and listening to the needs of today's pilots. Each man insisted the Prowler works, and that it's an impressive and capable war-machine, however the Growler provides certain advantages.
Cheever said retiring the EA-6B and transitioning in the EA-18G is the next logical step we need to take to win wars.
For more news from USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77), visit www.navy.mil/local/cvn77/.