Intruders, Prowlers, and The Island

This post has nothing at all to do with a television show nor about burglaries and peeping toms.

Instead, it’s just a wee memory about, well, Prowlers, Intruders, and The Island.

Yesterday afternoon, I was in the back yard setting up and airing out the tent for a camping trial with the toddlers next weekend. The kids were exploring the yard and Daisy was working on her garden.

A distant jet engine spooled up — not unusual as we’re under the approaches for three large airports — Centennial, Denver International, and Buckley Air Force base (KAPA, KDEN, and KBKF).

The engine I heard was coming from Buckley.

This one was much louder than I would have expected for the typical kind of traffic leaving that field. This was a strangely familiar sound, evoking a very old memory in my mind.

I knew that sound. I didn’t even need to look up to see it to find out what it was, but I watched just the same.

The engine note by itself told me, it must be a Prowler. Maybe an Intruder… or even the more rare KA6D Tanker. But probably a Prowler.

Within a few seconds, I spotted it. A pale grey outline of a jet from my childhood memory approached head on.

The Prowler and Intruder aren’t the sexiest of aircraft. They aren’t the fastest or even the most maneuverable.

To me, though the sound is distinctive, there are are only three differences that would reveal with certainty which jet this was. Based on the A6 Intruder, the EA6B Prowler has a slightly wider nose (hard to distinguish from the ground), a second canopy for twice the crew (impossible to tell from underneath), and a large pod atop its tail, which gave this one away.

As the Prowler passed overhead, the engine sound grew still louder, tearing through the sky like neverending thunder.

Even my children stopped and looked skyward to watch it pass. They, too, knew there was something different about this jet. Odin pointed and said, “A pane! A pane!” (airplane, airplane)

We watched the Prowler as it climbed skyward and headed over the Rocky Mountains. Its crew of four destined for home.

Home, in this case, is Whidbey Island. Or, as we always called it many years ago: The Island.

On Whidbey Island, just to the North of Oak Harbor, near the main entrance to the air station, there’s a sign welcoming visitors. The sign, for decades, has read, “Please pardon our noise. It is the sound of freedom.”

Freedom is powerful there. Sometimes the sound of freedom is so powerful that you can feel it — almost reach out and touch it.

It seems strange, but growing up on Whidbey Island, that noise was something that to me was a natural part of life. Sometimes, that sound saturated the countryside at 2AM; flight crews practicing touch and go landings in all weather conditions before being sent back out to a carrier.

Sometimes, we couldn’t hear the sound for days or weeks — usually when all of the squadrons were out to sea — things felt misaligned when that sound was gone. Something wrong with the universe, it seemed.

Yet when they returned, their exhaust note seemed almost to sing.

Newcomers to The Island — if not attached to the Navy (or aviation) — often disliked that sound. But the Navy and the natives knew that the sound of those twin engines, neatly tucked into the bellies of Intruders and Prowlers, kept the economy of Whidbey Island running. In a way, it was the pulse of Oak Harbor and Whidbey Island.

While I have been back from time to time, it’s now been about 23 years since I left my childhood home of Whidbey Island. I still remember and very much miss the power, the presence, The Sound of Freedom, in the song sung by the Prowlers.

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