Story and photos by Shawn Byers
This article was first published in 2019 in Photorecon.net
On Friday, March 8th, 2019, the United States Marine Corps said farewell to the venerable Grumman EA-6B Prowler and the last squadron to fly it, VMAQ-2, ‘The Death Jesters”. This was truly an end of two eras.
The Grumman EA-6B Prowler has a direct lineage from the A-6 Intruder attack aircraft. From an A-6 airframe, the original EA-6A ‘Electric Intruder’ was constructed in the 1960s for the Marine Corps to meet a need for electronic warfare. Three squadrons operated a mix of converted A-6 airframes and new builds. By 1966, the lengthened EA-6B was in development for the Navy and eventually went into service with the Navy and Marine Corps in 1971.
The EA-6B has a four-person, double cockpit with a single pilot and three Electronic Countermeasure Officers (ECMO). The Prowler is a twin engine, mid wing airframe capable of high subsonic speed, a range of 1140 miles unrefueled, and can operate from an aircraft carrier under all weather conditions. The prominent, offset refueling probe on the nose allows for unlimited range. A gold hue on the canopy protects the crew against the radio emissions produced by the onboard electronic warfare equipment.
The numerous missions of the EA-6B included, first and foremost, to support the Marine on the ground, jamming enemy radar systems, gathering signals intelligence on those and other enemy air defense systems, offensive High Speed Anti-Radiation (HARM) missiles and remote control suppression of improvised explosive devices. An EA-6B was normally a part of every aircraft strike package regardless of the service leading the strike. Prowlers flew in every conflict since the Vietnam War. There is no true replacement for the Prowler in the Marine Corps. Although the Navy has the EA-18G Growler, the Marine Corps will employ capabilities of the F-35B and wing mounted pods to effect Electronic Warfare.
VMAQ-2’s history began in 1952 as VMC-2, the original composite squadron to feature aerial photographic reconnaissance and electronic warfare capability in the Marine Corps. Later redesignated, VMCJ-2, the squadron flew aircraft such as the AD-5 Skyraider, EF-10 Skyknight, RF-8 Crusader, RF-4 Phantom, and EA-6A Electric Intruder. Initially, the squadron was named the Widow Makers but in 1955, coinciding with the first year of Playboy Magazine, they were granted permission to change their name to ‘The Playboys” and use the bunny logo. This name would remain in place until 1993 when political correctness forced a name change. For seven years, the squadron called themselves ‘The Panthers’, using a rendition of the National Football League’s Carolina Panthers. Since 2000, they have been ‘The Death Jesters’. I can tell you through personal observation that the spirit of the Playboys is still there. The motto of the squadron is ‘Can do Easy’.
The squadron participated in the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War. In 1975, the squadron designation became VMAQ-2 and in 1977, received their first EA-6B Prowler. They continued supporting conflicts at El Dorado Canyon, Desert Storm, Bosnia, Enduring Freedom, Iraqi Freedom, the War on Terror and Inherent Resolve. VMAQ-2 wrapped up their final deployment in November, 2018 and are officially deactivated effective May 30, 2019, ending a 67 year existence.
The actual ceremony took place on Friday at 1pm. The day prior, the squadron held an open house in their hangar and a bus tour of Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point which I took part in. It was a distinct pleasure getting to know some current and former Devil Dogs connected to the squadron or the Prowler. The sunny static photographs were taken on Thursday as Friday was mostly cloudy for the flybys. The sun did peak out on a few occasions while the ramp ceremonies were ongoing.
Two Prowlers and two Harriers launched for a flyby but did not use the runway in front of us. They returned later to begin the event in a five-ship formation pass of Marine Air Wing Two aircraft, featuring an F-35B, two Prowlers, an F/A-18D and a Harrier. From there, the ceremonies shifted to the ramp with three companies of Marines, flag bearers and a band. There was an estimated 800 people in attendance including special guests and keynote speaker Lt. Gen (Ret) William Beydler. All companies paraded across the viewing stand and the colors were retired.
The Prowlers returned in a two-ship formation in front of the crowd. The next pass was a break to land over the crowd. The Prowlers taxied into spots in front of the crowd and shut down. The pride in the aircraft showed on the faces of the returning aircrews. These Prowlers have one more flight to make as one is going to the Air and Space Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center and the other to the Love Field Museum of Flight in Dallas.
I actually had a final opportunity to photograph Prowler ‘Easy 21’ destined for the Smithsonian. Thanks to some coordination with Dulles International Airport Operations and the Smithsonian, I secured a seat in a van with fellow photojournalist, Mike Colaner, for airside access on a sunny, mild and breezy Thursday, March 14th. We photographed the arrival on Runway 19L and some taxi shots before she stopped behind the restoration hangar. The wings were folded and then a long idle to burn off fuel commenced before engine shutdown and the exit of the crew. This was an ideal capstone to my article and an even more personal connection to the retirement of the Prowler and deactivation of VMAQ-2.
A number of individuals need to be acknowledged for their assistance in this article. MCAS Cherry Point Public Affairs, Lt. Michael Curtis, VMAQ-2’s, Capt. Ryan Mikolajczyk, Dulles International Airport Operations, John Robinson, the Air and Space Smithsonian and all the United States Marines of VMAQ-2. Well done, and ‘Done Easy’.