The Navy’s ‘Flying Dorito’

by Dr. Marshall Michel
52nd Fighter Wing historian

The U.S. Navy’s Grumman A-6 Intruder was the finest all-weather aircraft in the world in the ’60s and ’70s, but by the early ’80s it was getting long in the tooth and the Navy began to look for a replacement, dubbed the Advanced Tactical Aircraft.

The ATA offered an increase in both payload and range, though its major advance came from using stealth technology developed for the U.S. Air Force.

The order was large ― 858 for the Navy and, initially at least, 400 for the Air Force. Two teams, one from McDonnell Douglas/General Dynamics and one from Northrop/Grumman, began to compete for the full scale development contract. Northrop/Grumman ― because of Northrop’s familiarity with stealth and Grumman’s long association with the Navy – was the clear favorite, but dropped out when it decided the Navy’s price was not commensurate with the risks.

This should have been a cautionary note to the McDonnell Douglas/General Dynamics team, but they pressed on and were awarded a development contract in January 1988 for the “Avenger II,” as the A-12 was named. The first flight was expected in June 1990.

The A-12 design was visually simple ― a tailless isosceles triangle-shaped flying wing constructed mainly of light-weight, advanced composites. The large wing area provided high lift and, without a fuselage, very low drag. It was powered by two General Electric F412-D5F2 turbofan engines producing about 13,000 pounds of thrust each.

The aircraft had a crew of two and used an advanced synthetic aperture radar for navigation and bombing. The internal payload was 4,000 pounds of guided bombs as well as two air-to-air and two anti-radiation missiles for self defense.

As the development proceeded, it became clear that the composites were not going to provide the expected weight savings and that the A-12 would not meet the required 40,000 pounds empty weight. The weight soon ballooned to about 60,000 pounds, unacceptable for carrier operations. At the same time, there were significant problems with the highly complex Westinghouse AN/APQ-183 Multimode Radar synthetic aperture radar.

Both of these problems caused the costs to increase and the timeline to move to the right. In August 1990, after unsuccessfully attempting to reach agreement with McDonnell Douglas/General Dynamics on a date for delivery of the first aircraft, the Navy unilaterally extended the delivery date to Dec. 31, 1991.

The Navy also began a comprehensive review of the issues arising of the cost, schedule and performance failures associated with the program, which they found to be one year behind schedule and $1 billion over its ceiling price.

It should be noted that many in the Navy were not in favor of the A-12, which they dubbed the “flying Dorito.” Many felt that stealth technology could not survive hard carrier landings and salt water corrosion and were dismayed by the cost ― estimated  to be 70 percent of the total Navy’s budget for aircraft.

The problems snowballed, and in December 1990, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney told the Navy to justify the program. When the response failed to satisfy him, he canceled the A-12 on Jan. 7, 1991.

The companies quickly sued the Department of Defense.

The cancellation had many repercussions. It was one of the main causes of the weakening of McDonnell Douglas ― builders of the F-4 Phantom II and F-15 Eagle ― that led to its merger with Boeing in 1997.

After the cancellation of the A-12, the Navy elected to purchase the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet to replace the A-6. The Super Hornet is the mainstay of carrier operations today.

And the court case? It is still unsettled, 20 years later.

(For questions or comments, e-mail Dr. Michel at