The Prowler Retires After 48 Years of Electronic Warfare—And No Combat Losses

The iconic Northrop Grumman EA-6B flies into history—and the National Air and Space Museum collection.

The Northrop Grumman EA-6, the only electronic warfare aircraft in the Museum's collection, was flown to the Museum in March by members of Marine Squadron VMAQ-2.

It was loud, slow, and resembled a flying chicken leg. Its nicknames included the unflattering “Sky Pig,” even as its crews tried to encourage the somewhat unwieldy “Chariot of Electronic Armageddon.” But Northrop Grumman’s EA-6B Prowler was an attack aircrew’s best friend, jamming enemy communications, gathering intelligence, and attacking enemy radar sites with its AGM-88 HARM anti-radiation missiles. It wasn’t the prettiest aircraft in the Navy and Marine Corps arsenal, but it was wily: In its 48 years of service, not a single Prowler was lost in combat.

On March 14, 2019, the Marine Corps’ last Prowler made its final flight. Four members of Marine Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron 2 (VMAQ-2) flew the aircraft from their station at Cherry Point, North Carolina, to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. In a nod to history, the crew made a detour over the Northrop Grumman factory in Bethpage, New York, where the aircraft was built.

The crew landed at Dulles International Airport, and taxied to the Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. A group of active duty and retired Prowler aircrew were on hand to mark the last ever military flight of the type. “It was wonderful to see its final flyby,” says Museum curator Larry Burke, “and sad to hear the engines shut down for the last time. But we’re excited it’s now part of the collection.” Maintainers from the squadron arrived the following Monday. “They took off all the parts that go bang,” says Burke, “and one or two secret things they couldn’t leave on the airplane.”

The aircraft was donated by the Navy, and the process was assisted by the VMAQ Monument Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the aircraft and history of the Marine Corps tactical electronic warfare squadrons. The Museum’s Prowler saw combat in the 1990-1991 Gulf War, in operations over Bosnia, and in Iraq and Afghanistan. Before it was delivered to the Museum, the aircraft and crew flew operations in Syria, fighting ISIS.

* * *

While electronic warfare has been around since the advent of radar in World War II, the 1970s Prowler was the first tactical electronic warfare airplane designed from the ground up.

“By the time you get to the Korean War,” says Burke, “there’s recognition that something more active is needed. So engineers start designing pods that can be slung onto the underside of airplane wings—they even tried putting electronic equipment into the bomb bay of B-25s.” But if your decade-old B-25 is protecting a much faster jet, that’s a problem. The old bomber can’t keep up.

After a few more creative work-arounds, Grumman engineers decided to modify their own A-6 Intruder. Designed as a two-seat strike aircraft, the A-6, with its pilot and bombardier/navigator earned a reputation as a reliable workhorse during the Vietnam War. In 1966, a modified A-6 (known as the “Electric Intruder,” or EA-6A)—equipped with special electronics to detect, identify, and jam enemy radar—entered service. “But while the A-6 was meant to take off heavy, drop its ordnance, and return to the carrier light,” says Burke, “the EA-6B takes off heavy and lands heavy. So they had to beef up everything.”

The EA-6B Prowler “was an incredible design solution to the problem that was presented to the Grumman engineers,” says Burke. It received bigger, more powerful Pratt & Whitney J52‑P408A engines, sturdier landing gear, and a more rugged frame.

Visitors to the Museum can see the Prowler—with wings folded—sitting next to its sibling, the Grumman A-6E.

Subscribe to Air & Space Magazine Now

This story is a selection from the August issue of Air & Space magazine

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.