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Intruder lands on a pole

It wasn’t exactly like hanging a painting, but after a lengthy and trying undertaking on Thursday, a crew of contractors and Navy personnel were able to position a formidable A-6 Intruder on poles at the intersection of Highway 20 and Ault Field Road.

An EA-6B Prowler currently being restored at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station will join the Intruder later in the summer, effectively creating a memorable and historic display to greet visitors.

The aircraft made its way to the site early Wednesday morning on the back of a flatbed. A large crane was moved in and everybody began toiling on Thursday.

A group of volunteers worked for 18 months to restore the A-6, many of the active duty sailors donating their weekends to the project. The city had long displayed the Intruder near the waterfront RV park, but the seagulls and salty wind played havoc on the aircraft.

“We repaired the parts that we could,” said Senior Chief Ward Toner, who supervised the cadre of volunteers. “There were some parts that were so damaged we had to go out and buy. We started by stripping it down to the fuselage and wings. Then we did some horse trading with museums.”

The 19,200-pound aircraft has a 15-degree angle nose up and a 10-degree bank.

“It will look like it’s turning,” Toner said. “We made bets about the weight. The crane operator was able to tell us the weight to the pound. I calculated 18,500 pounds, but I lost to another guy who calculated 19,000.”

Under the supervision of the Navy’s project leader Cmdr. Sam Bovington, the base’s facilities personnel and private, on-base contractors guided the plane onto the three poles, which were made by Oak Harbor’s Washington Ironworks.

“Everything was engineered really close,” Toner said.

In fact, everything was engineered a little too close. Two of the poles had to be pulled apart to clear the fuselage, and the holes had to be refitted.

Behind the scenes, the work crew from the NAS Whidbey subcontractor DEL-JEN, INC., was led by transportation manager John Cook. The staff included Everett Seeley, heavy equipment operator; Brad Trumbull, crane operator, and Andy Neumann, maintenance worker.

Seeley and Neumann, over a period of two weeks, arranged for a route survey to move the aircraft by truck from the base to the construction site, secured county and state road permits, as well as arranged for two pilot car escorts and two state troopers to control traffic on the highway. Both of the devoted workers also drove the flatbed truck with the aircraft from the flight line to the final site.

Brad Trumbull operated the large crane needed to perform the lift. It began on the flight line where he picked up the aircraft and placed it and secured it on the truck.

“His big day was Thursday, when he spent 10 continuous hours in the cab of the crane with no opportunity to take a break because the rule of operation is ‘if you have a suspended object attached to the crane you cannot leave the cab,’” said Linda Lockwood, project site manager for the subcontractor. “In this case the delay was due to initial incorrect information given to the contractor regarding the alignment of the three parts of the pedestal.”

Wayne Hiner, DJI safety manager, was also onsite for the two days of preparation and final placement.

“He worked hard at keeping the crowd out of the way and insuring everyone who was on the work site had the proper protective equipment, like hard hats and safety shoes,” Lockwood said. “Way to go Team Whidbey!”

Dave Williams, the city’s liaison for the project, was surprised to see his name on the side of the plane.

“This was a surprise for him,” Bovington said. “We all decided at one of the meetings in his absence.”

Williams was the CO of the squadron VA-145, known as the Swordsmen. On the other side of the plane is Cmdr. Denby Starling — now an admiral — who was also CO of the squadron during Desert Storm.

“It’s a little hard not to get choked up,” Williams said. “We have a fantastic group of volunteers. The plane’s present condition is just superb.”

John McMahon, area manager for Northrop Grumman, the company formerly known as Grumman and the firm that built the Intruder, was similarly moved by the spectacle.

“It’s very emotional,” he said. McMahon was in the A-6 community until he retired in 1986 and went to work for Grumman. The Intruder was decommissioned in 1997 after more than 30 years of service.

Ron Hancock, a 30-year naval firefighter currently with the Oak Harbor Fire Department, had the distinct honor of watching the first A-6 touch down at NAS Whibey and the last one leave.

“I was hoping this would happen,” he said. “It’s just a neat thing to do. This is historic. Everybody has a stake in the country and everybody should give something back to make it better.”

As if on cue, a Prowler tore across the sky, eliciting a big smile from the veteran firefighter.

“That’s the sound of freedom,” Hancock said.

Sue Karahalios, Oak Harbor City Council member and mayoral candidate, braved the rain to watch an aircraft that was a large part of her life growing up.

“My father did the military specs on the A-6 and he was stationed here,” she said. “This plane is what brought me to Oak Harbor.

“This is a tribute to what the Navy past has been. It’s a labor of love, of experience, and of history.”

With one plane down, or rather up, Toner and everybody involved in the project can breathe a sigh of relief for a little while.

“I’ll have my weekends free again,” he said.

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