Blog 02/26/21 – Movie & Book Review “Flight of the Intruder”

02/26/21 – MHT Movie & Book Review “Flight of the Intruder”:

The US Naval Institute (USNI), which publishes Proceedings, the professional journal of the US Navy, had a success publishing the first original novel in its 112-year history with “The Hunt for Red October” by future mega-bestselling author Tom Clancy. USNI was flooded with manuscripts and decided to publish as a follow up “Flight of the Intruder” by Stephen Coonts. Coonts was a Denver lawyer who had flown during the Vietnam War; he was discharged in 1977 after nine years of active duty, including two combat cruises aboard the USS Enterprise (CVN-65), 1600 hours in the A-6 Grumman Intruders and 305 carrier landings, 100 of them night traps. He had sent the book to 36 publishers, 30 of whom refused to even look at it, four who rejected it and two that had not responded yet.

Coonts says he made up the Vietnam War plot, "There was no secret bombing. It comes out of the character's deep-seated sense of frustration with the course of the war." The book became USNI’s second best seller for USNI Press, due in part to an endorsement from both Tom Clancy and President Ronald Reagan, published in September 1986 by the Naval Institute Press, spent 28 weeks on the New York Times bestseller lists in hardcover. He now has 45 additional titles and his writing conveys real sailors at war from the ultimate sacrifice for our country, to the hijinks ashore and the daily life aboard ship including the ready room hunt for how should I say this…The Phantom…Defecator!

“Flight of the Intruder” is a 1991 film adaptation of the Coonts’ novel and starred Brad Johnson, Danny Glover and Willem Dafoe as US Naval Aviators serving aboard the aircraft carrier USS Independence (CV-62) towards the end of the Vietnam War. These aviators fly the A-6, a carrier-based strike aircraft that carried offensive missiles and bombs but was not outfitted with guns for strafing or dogfighting. The film was directed by John Milius, best known for helming such notable war films as “The Wind and the Lion” and “Red Dawn” as well as being the screenwriter of “Apocalypse Now”, “Dirty Harry” and “Magnum Force.”

Despite being a high-octane action film with outstanding aerial combat sequences and excellent special effects (for the pre-CGI era by Lucasfilms’ Industrial Light & Magic.) “Flight of the Intruder” suffered greatly from being released during the height of the real-life ground war in Kuwait during 1991’s Operation Desert Storm. It is a shame as the US Department of Defense allowed the US Navy to cooperate with the filming, giving some real inside looks into VA-196 The Main Battery, an actual A-6 Intruder squadron and being onboard the USS Independence in real carrier flight operations.

The film was changed from the original ending to get a more “Hollywood” feel much to the director’s displeasure. As he said because of his conservative stances, “I've led a whole life behind enemy lines. I've been the victim of so much persecution. I'm the barbarian of Hollywood.” So, this was his last big screen movie he directed but he had a huge hand in the excellent HBO miniseries “Rome.”

Weapons in the film: Near the start of the film, a peasant in a rice paddy takes a pot shot at the A-6 Intruder piloted by LT Jake "Cool Hand" Grafton (Brad Johnson) and his Bombardier/Navigator LT Morgan "Morg" McPhearson (Christopher Rich) with a French-made Berthier bolt-action rifle (possibly either the Model 1907-15 or the Model 1907-16 rifles).

"Morg" is fatally wounded by the unlucky shot and has bled to death by the time the plane lands on their carrier. It should be noted that French-made infantry rifles like the Berthier series rifles were commonly encountered during the time of the Vietnam War as many were left behind by French forces after the French Indochina War (1945-1954.) 

Virgil Cole (Willem Dafoe) arrives as Grafton’s replacement Bomber/Navigator and will be a key part of the plot. Interestingly, Virgil Cole in maybe a nod to “Flight of the Intruder” is also the name of the main character of author Robert B. Parker’s "Virgil Cole & Everett Hitch" western book series that began in 2005. Ed Harris plays the character Cole in the movie “Appaloosa” and he takes the staid gunfighter to the HBO mini-series “Westworld” as the Man in Black.

The Naval Flight Officer (NFO) Cole could be called the Man in Tiger Stripe Cammies wearing those rather than the flight suit in the movie and has a preference to fly “Iron Hand Missions” (also called “Wild Weasels”) that was a type of Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) mission, primarily intended to destroy Soviet and Chinese supplied Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) systems in North Vietnam, although neutralizing radar-directed anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) was also important.

The "Iron Hand" is a metaphor to the steady hand and nerves of steel it took for pilots and NFOs to draw the attention and fly directly at the radar-emitting anti-aircraft missile sites while their radar-seeking missiles flew down to destroy the target. The “Iron Hand” tactics employed were designed to diminish the threat of SA-2 missiles to a bombing strike force primarily the B-52s from Guam and Thailand. The A-6s go after SAMs with Shrikes (AGM-45s are anti-radiation missiles that home in on hostile anti-aircraft radar.)

The primary target was the S-75 (NATO name SA-2 Guideline) that was a Soviet-designed, high-altitude air defense system, built around a surface-to-air missile with command guidance radar. North Vietnamese Air Defense Forces used the SA-2 extensively during the Vietnam War to defend targets in and around Hanoi and Haiphong against US bombers. They were produced in the Communist People's Republic of China under the names HQ-1 another airborne export designed to kill Americans. The battle between the A-6s & the SAMs is the central theme of the movie and the air-war over North Vietnam much more so than the MiG 17 & 21 fighters.

A major blunder occurs in the film when the Squadron Commander CDR Frank Camparelli (Danny Glover channeling his Lethal Weapon Sgt Murtaugh character) is supposedly in Subic Bay, PI (but actually filmed in Long Beach, CA) you see the USS Peleliu (LHA-5), a Tarawa-class amphibious assault ship named for the WWII Battle, that didn’t enter USN service until 1980. The USS Sides (FFG-14) that didn’t enter service until 1979 also appears later while the films timeline is set in Nov-Dec 1972.

In the climax of the film, a major equipment star from this 1991 film is the enemy radar-guided ZSU-23-4 "Shilka" Self-Propelled Anti-Aircraft Gun (SPAAG), with its four 23 mm autocannons, was a revolutionary SPAAG, proving to be an extremely effective weapon against enemy attack aircraft and helicopters. The ZSU-23-4 is a very high density, rate and accuracy of fire but saw limited action in North Vietnam and Laos. It became a feared weapon during the Yom Kippur War (1973) as the system was particularly effective against the Israeli Air Force when pilots flying low in order to avoid SA-6 SAM missiles were often shot down by ZSU-23-4s.

The other star of the film’s ending is the Douglas A-1 Skyraider. In 1965 the A-1 was still the medium attack aircraft in many carrier air wings, an American single-seat attack aircraft that flew too late for WWII but saw copious service in Korea and Vietnam. The Skyraider had a remarkably long and successful career; it was a piston-powered, propeller-driven anachronism in the jet age and the plane that replaced it was the A-6 Intruder. Skyraiders from two carriers participated in the first US Navy strikes against North Vietnam on 5 August 1964 during the Gulf of Tonkin Incident. The A-1s struck against fuel depots, with one Skyraider from the USS Ticonderoga damaged by anti-aircraft fire and a second from the USS Constellation shot down, killing its pilot LT Richard Sather, USN, the first pilot lost in North Vietnam.

On the lighter-side in October 1965, to highlight the dropping of the six millionth pound of ordnance, CDR Clarence Stoddard of VA-25, flying an A-1H, dropped a special, one-time-only object in addition to his other munitions – a toilet. As they were released from US Navy service, the Skyraiders continued flying as part of the Republic of Vietnam Air Force (RVNAF.)

In 1972, the film depicts Skyraiders being used by the US Air Force Special Operations Command for search and rescue air cover in "Sandy Missions" usually escorting Sikorsky HH-3E helicopters, nicknamed the "Jolly Green Giant," to perform combat search and rescue (CSAR) flights to recover downed US Airmen anywhere in the Southeast Asia Theater.

What saved “Cool Hand” (Johnson) & Cole (Dafoe) was President Nixon’s Operation Linebacker II aerial bombing campaign, conducted against targets in North Vietnam. The operation often called "The December Raids" or "The Christmas Bombings" was conducted from 18 to 29 December 1972. Unlike previous interdiction operations Rolling Thunder and Linebacker I, Linebacker II was a "maximum effort" bombing campaign to "destroy major target complexes in the Hanoi and Haiphong areas, which could only be accomplished by B-52s." It brought North Vietnam to its knees and back to the Peace Table at a heavy cost of 27 planes 15 of which were B-52s.

The movie version of “Flight of the Intruder” gets 4-Stars from MHT, the book gets 5-Stars+ and is worth a reread as the movie is worth a review. The movie producers would have done better letting Milius do his job and following the book putting the love interest Callie (Rosanna Arquette) in Hong Kong instead of the shmaltzy movie set-up in the PI.