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Sterls' Prowler

Not your regular EA-6B.

The Project

In early 2017 I got in contact via Instagram with Captain Sterling “Sterls” Gilliam, USN (Ret.), who since late 2015 is the Director of the United States National Naval Aviation Museum. CAPT Gilliam is a long time EA-6B Prowler driver, and I had a Prowler kit in my stash, so building one appeared to me as an exciting project, I mean, who doesn’t love the Prowler?

The idea was to donate the model to the Museum, so first thing was to figure out which aircraft to make. Throughout his extensive Naval Aviation career and among several assignments, CAPT Gilliam commanded the Electronic Attack Squadrons (VAQ) 141 and 129, so it made sense to select one of those. I opted for the VAQ 141 for a very specific reason.

In early 2001, when CAPT Gilliam was its Commanding Officer, the squadron embarked on board the USS Enterprise (CVN 65) for a deployment to the Arabian Gulf to support no-fly zone enforcement as part of Operation Southern Watch. After six months of deployment, the Enterprise started on its way back to the states on September 10. On September 11, everything changed.

The Enterprise Battle Group immediately reversed course for the Indian Ocean and joined other American units for the opening days of Operation Enduring Freedom over Afghanistan, having the VAQ-141 play a front-line role by flying some of the most critical first missions of this major conflict.

I was sure these had to be very particular days for the Squadron and for CAPT Gilliam, who had to lead his men and women into combat after such unprecedented events, keeping the morale high after six months away from home in very emotional times. I wanted that moment in time to be represented.

Sterls' Prowler about to be launched from the USS Enterprise (CVN-65) Photo: 2001 USS Enterprise Cruise Book
Sterls' Prowler about to be launched from the USS Enterprise (CVN-65) Photo: 2001 USS Enterprise Cruise Book

The Man and the Machine

CAPT Sterling Gilliam, USN (Ret.)

CAPT Gilliam is a native of Henderson, NC and a graduate of East Carolina University. He attended to Aviation Officer Candidate School at NAS Pensacola, FL, being commissioned in 1983 and designated as a Naval Aviator in 1985. After receiving his Wings of Gold, he was transferred to NAS Whidbey Island, WA to fly the EA-6B Prowler.

His fleet assignments include VAQ-138 deploying aboard USS Nimitz (CVN-68), the Carrier Air Wing NINE (CVW-9) Staff as the Air Wing Landing Signal Officer (LSO) and VAQ-139 as a Squadron Department Head deploying aboard USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70). CAPT Gilliam has commanded VAQ-141, VAQ-129, Carrier Air Wing NINE and The George Washington Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps (NROTC) Unit in Washington, DC.

CAPT Gilliam’s other flying assignments include VAQ-129 where he served as an Instructor Pilot and Landing Signal Officer, as well as Commander, Naval Air Forces where he served as the Force LSO.

His shore assignments include the Joint Staff where he served in the Special Operations Division and later as Executive Assistant to Deputy Director for Current Operations (J-33). He also served as Chief of Naval Operations EA-6B and EA-18G Requirements Officer where he was the resource sponsor for all EA-6B readiness, sustainment, and follow-on platform programs.

CAPT Gilliam is a graduate of National War College and has also served as the Executive Assistant to the Director for Warfare Integration (N8F) on the Navy Staff. Retiring in 2013, CAPT Gilliam spent three years in the private sector before becoming the fourth Director of the National Naval Aviation Museum.

CAPT Gilliam logs over 4600 flight hours and more than 1300 arrested landings on 12 different aircraft carriers. He is a Life Member of the Tailhook Association where he also served as a member of the Board of Directors and as President. He also currently serves on the Board of Directors of Visit Pensacola, from when I took this short biography. You can find about the beautiful and historic Pensacola here:

The EA-6B Prowler Electronic Warfare Aircraft

According to the US Navy Fact File, the EA-6B Prowler provides an umbrella of protection for strike aircraft, ground troops and ships by jamming enemy radar, electronic data links and communications.

The Prowler is a long-range, all-weather aircraft with advanced electronic countermeasures capability. Manufactured by the Northrop Grumman Systems Corporation, it is a twin-engine, mid-wing configured aircraft that has a side by-side cockpit arrangement.

The EA-6B war fighting systems included the ALQ-99 on board receiver, the ALQ-99 pod mounted jamming system, the USQ-113 communications jamming system and the HARM missile. In its later days, the Prowler received two significant upgrades: The Improved Capability (ICAP III) and the Multifunctional Information Distribution System (MIDS). The ICAP III, upgraded the on-board receiving system, providing an accurate threat emitter geo-locator and a selective reactive jamming capability against modern threat systems. The ICAP III upgrade included also new cockpit displays, improved systems connectivity, and improved system reliability. The MIDS upgrade provided the ability to receive and utilize data via the Link 16 tactical data link.

The primary mission of the EA-6B Prowler was Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses in support of strike aircraft and ground troops by interrupting enemy electronic activity and obtaining tactical electronic intelligence within the combat area.

The Prowler replacement by the EA-18G Growler, a specialized version of the two-seat F/A-18F Super Hornet started in 2008, and ended after a long journey with the last Prowler flight in 2015.

Electronic Attack Squadron ONE FOUR ONE (VAQ-141) “Shadowhawks”

According to the Carrier Air Wing FIVE (CVW-5) website, the VAQ-141 was established in July 1987 at NAS Whidbey Island, WA as the twelfth operational EA-6B Prowler squadron.

Assigned to Carrier Air Wing EIGHT (CVW-8), the “Shadowhawks” embarked on board USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) for her maiden cruise to the Mediterranean. Following that first cruise, VAQ-141 saw combat action on every subsequent deployment for the next 21 years.

The Shadowhawks deployed in early 1991 on board TR in support of Operation Desert Storm. Of note, VAQ-141 was the first CVW-8 squadron to deliver ordnance in that conflict, firing AGM-88 High Speed Anti-Radiation Missiles (HARM) on the first night. Following hostilities, the TR and CVW-8 sailed back into the eastern Mediterranean and provided airborne protection for humanitarian relief efforts in northern Iraq as part of Operation Provide Comfort.

In 1993, VAQ-141 deployed again on board TR, this time to the Adriatic Sea in support of Operation Provide Promise humanitarian relief efforts and Operation Deny Flight no-fly zone enforcement over Bosnia-Herzegovina. Following numerous Deny Flight missions, the TR/CVW-8 team steamed into the Red Sea to support Operation Southern Watch, ensuring Iraqi compliance with post-Gulf War United Nations resolutions.

The squadron deployed once more with the Roosevelt Battle Group in March 1995, supporting Operation Southern Watch missions from the Red Sea and Arabian Gulf. In June, the Shadowhawks flew ashore to Aviano Air Base, Italy to support Operation Deny Flight over Bosnia. During this period, VAQ-141 flew defense suppression cover for the successful Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) effort for downed Air Force pilot Captain Scott O’Grady. Operation Deliberate Force began in late August and the Shadowhawks again provided effective Suppression Of Enemy Air Defense (SEAD) coverage for NATO airstrikes throughout Bosnia. After an eventful summer abroad, the Shadowhawks returned home in September.

In 1996 the Shadowhawks and CVW-8 embarked on board USS John F. Kennedy (CV 67) and made the first aircraft carrier visit to Dublin, Ireland. In April 1997 the Shadowhawks deployed on the Kennedy to the Mediterranean/Adriatic Seas and Arabian Gulf, supporting Operations Deliberate Guard and Southern Watch, respectively.

In 1999, the Shadowhawks and CVW-8 reunited with the Roosevelt, deploying in March to execute major combat operations over Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo as part of Operation Allied Force. During that intense 70-day conflict, the squadron distinguished themselves by not losing a single Coalition aircraft to enemy air defenses while a Shadowhawk jet was on station. Following Allied Force, the TR Battle Group steamed through the Suez Canal and began combat operations in support of Operation Southern Watch the following month, finally returning home in September 1999.

The squadron embarked on board the USS Enterprise (CVN 65) for a deployment to the Arabian Gulf in early 2001 to support no-fly zone enforcement as part of Operation Southern Watch. They were well on their way home when the events of September 11, 2001 unfolded. The Enterprise Battle Group immediately reversed course for the Indian Ocean and joined other American units for the opening days of Operation Enduring Freedom over Afghanistan. Once again, the Shadowhawks flew some of the critical first missions of a major conflict.

In February 2003 the Shadowhawks, returned to the Roosevelt, deploying on short-notice to execute the first strikes of Operation Iraqi Freedom I (OIF). During OIF, the Shadowhawks supported Navy, Army and Air Force units, flying over 400 combat hours and launching 21 HARMs in anger. The Shadowhawks logged a 100% mission success rate during that conflict, a testament to both their maintainers and aircrew.

Due to an urgent operational requirement from Central Command, the TR Battle Group was ordered to accelerate their deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in early 2005. With Coalition units in Iraq under relentless insurgent attack, VAQ-141 flew half of the squadron ashore to Al Asad Airbase, Iraq, in order to significantly increase the availability of critical round-the-clock Airborne Electronic Attack protection. The squadron spearheaded the implementation of simultaneous split-side combat operations from both austere sites ashore and the carrier; a template that every carrier-based EA-6B squadron would use for years to follow.

VAQ-141 EA-6B approaching the deck of the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) - US Navy Photo 2006
VAQ-141 EA-6B approaching the deck of the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) - US Navy Photo 2006

Returning from a deployment in which they flew 2400 hours in direct support of Army, USMC and Coalition units engaged in close combat with the enemy, the Shadowhawks maintained a heightened level of readiness by successfully completing detachments to Boise, ID, Dallas-Ft. Worth, TX, Pt. Mugu, CA, and Anchorage, AK.

In April 2007, the Shadowhawks participated in the first Red Flag Alaska, a multi-national air/ground combat exercise out of Elmendorf AFB, AK in which aircrew gained extensive tactical experience and received real-time feedback. Later that same year, the Shadowhawks deployed to MCAS Iwakuni, Japan in support of Pacific Command. While in Iwakuni, VAQ-141 engaged in numerous training events with USMC F/A-18s and USAF F-15s and F-16s.

Returning to Carrier Air Wing EIGHT, the Shadowhawks deployed in September 2008 on board USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71), flying the EA-6B Prowler into combat for the last time. They returned to the skies over Afghanistan supporting Coalition ground forces as part of Operation Enduring Freedom during the course of an almost eight-month deployment. Returning home in April 2009, the Shadowhawks immediately began their transition to the EA-18G Growler.

From June 2009 to February 2010, Shadowhawk aircrew and maintainers learned how to fly and fix the most sophisticated and capable Airborne Electronic Attack platform ever built, the EA-18G Growler. On February 5, 2010, the Shadowhawks became only the second operational squadron to be certified Safe For Flight for the EA-18G.

In May 2011, VAQ-141 embarked on the historic first carrier-based deployment of the remarkable EA-18G on board USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77). In June, the Shadowhawks flew the first carrier-based EA-18G combat mission over the skies of Iraq, followed a month later by the first EA-18G combat mission into Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Over the course of a seventh month deployment, VAQ-141 operated Growlers “from the sea” in the SECOND, SIXTH, and FIFTH Fleet Areas of Responsibility, ultimately executing 237 combat missions in support of US and Coalition forces on the ground, earning Commander, Naval Air Forces, Atlantic Fleet Battle “E” honors for 2011.

Immediately following the first carrier deployment of the EA-18G, VAQ-141 was privileged to introduce the Navy’s most capable Electronic Warfare platform into the SEVENTH Fleet Area of Responsibility in the Western Pacific. In early 2012, the Shadowhawks relocated to Naval Air Facility Atsugi, Japan to join the US Navy’s permanently Forward Deployed Naval Forces as part of Carrier Air Wing FIVE (CVW-5), deploying on board USS George Washington (CVN 73) for the second carrier deployment of the EA-18G.

In November 2013, USS George Washington in coordination with the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade assisted the Philippine government in relief efforts in response to the aftermath of Super Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda in the Republic of the Philippines.

VAQ-141 EA-18G Growler catching a cable of the USS George Washington (CVN-73) - USN Navy Photo 2013
VAQ-141 EA-18G Growler catching a cable of the USS George Washington (CVN-73) - US Navy Photo 2013

In 2015 Carrier Air Wing FIVE cross-decked to USS Ronald Reagan, which replaced the George Washington as the forward-deployed carrier home-ported in Yokosuka. When the carrier is in port the squadron is based nearby at Naval Air Facility Atsugi in Kanagawa Prefecture. It relocated to Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni at Yamaguchi Prefecture in western Japan on November 28 after the conclusion of USS Ronald Reagan's fall patrol of 2017.

The VAQ-141 is currently the largest, most advanced, and only permanently forward deployed electronic attack squadron in the United States Navy.

The Model

The kit it’s the Hasegawa kit in 1/72. This kit has been around for decades now, and it’s the only good 1/72 EA-6B out there. It has the Aires Cockpit set, the Wolfpack wing-fold set, Res-Kit wheels, and some resin drop tanks I found on EBay.

This model marked a before and after in my modeling work, by introducing me to new products and new techniques.

The first thing I did with the Prowler was the canopy tinting. EA-6B canopies have a golden/copper-ish look given by the fact that the canopy is covered over in a gold film with the purpose of protecting the crew from any harmful emissions from their external electronic equipment.

Prowler gold tinted canopy - US DOD Photo.

To achieve the tinting effect I just followed the great tutorial from Fox Three Custom Models. It’s a process that mixes Tamiya Copper, Tamiya Smoke, and Future in several steps. The YouTube two part video tutorial from Fox 3 shows it pretty clearly:

This was the result on my canopies. They are not wow but I think they looked pretty decent.

Next step in the process was the cockpit interior. The Aires set is awesome, very detailed and very accurate, although a little bit challenging to make it fit inside the fuselage. I painted the cockpit tub in a couple of steps because I wanted to weather it in a way that you could see the metal and the zinc chromate color on the floor. I used the MIG scratching effects to achieve this by painting in steps – first the metallic, then the zinc, lastly the gray (which was Medium Gray or US Navy Gray Blue).

The photos below show more or less how the effect ended looking, unfortunately, with the seats on and everything in the fuselage, it’s hardly visible (but now you know it’s there ha!).

The seats are from the Aires set too, but I didn’t use the photo etched harnesses. I don’t like PE harnesses because they don’t look realistic to me, so I use lead tape instead. Lead tape is very cheap and can be bought on EBay or hardware stores, it’s also widely used in golf. It can be cut in very thin strips that thanks to the flexibility of the led are adaptable in different ways making it perfect for harnesses, belts, and other stuff. The final detail for the seats after painting them, is given by the head rest ejection handles, which I made by breading yellow and black sewing threads with the help of a little CA glue.

With the cockpit done I moved to the fuselage and wings. Closing the fuselage with the Aires set was a handful, but in the end worked out well. The Wolfpack wingfold set it’s awesome and goes into the kit like a glove. The Wolfpack products are usually awesome and their wingfold sets really worth every penny. It’s sad that most of these sets are out of production now. There are still lots of kits out there that could use them (A-6, EA-6B, F-8, etc.), so I really hope they make them again one day.

After some gap filling and sanding, the Prolwer was ready for painting. This time I decided to try “Blackbasing”, which is basically priming the model in black instead of pre-shading. I primed the model then with Mr. Surfacer 1500 Black, and followed Doogs Models advice, which you can find here:

This Prowler had the regular three gray tone paint scheme (US Navy Grey Blue or Medium Gray – FS 35237, Dark Ghost Gray – FS 36320, and Light Ghost Grey – FS 36675). I decided to try the Mr. Paint (MRP) range and they were wow. Ideal for airbrush and very thin, which makes them ideal for shading. This is how it looked after general painting and a coat of Aqua Gloss.

With this step done it was time for the real fun, weathering and decaling. Since there is no decal set for this bird in particular, I printed them myself in laser.

For the weathering, I followed my usual steps:

  1. Thin gloss coat,

  2. Panel accent,

  3. Sealing gloss Coat and decal preparation,

  4. Decals,

  5. Sealing gloss coat,

  6. What I call “Stage Two Weathering”, which includes oils, pencils, etc.

  7. Final coat (semi-gloss or flat, usually by spraying Aqua Gloss at low pressure or using Micro Scale Satin or Flat).

With all these completed I moved to put the plane on its feet. The resin wheels made a real difference, while I used EZ-Line to replicate brake lines and wiring. It was also the right time to finally add the seats to the cockpit, the ordnance, and some details like the Remove Before Flight tags.

Final step then called for the folded wings and the canopies. The Wolfpack wings proved to be again a great deal, and I truly loved how they looked.

Some touch ups and details, and the Prowler was done.

With the model completed it was time for the display base. I’m not the author of the carrier deck. I ordered it to my friend Mario Catania from Italy, who is ages better than me in that kind of work. You can see Mario’s art here:

To add some detail to the deck Mario made for me, I decided to tie down the Prowler and include wheel chocks and a tow bar. The tie downs are from the Infini set, which is great, although not easy to find. Both the chocks and the tow bar are from Brengun Models.

I placed the deck over a 10” x 16” Plymor walnut and closed the display with two VAQ-141 patches and a plaque. The final result can be seen in the following photos.

The Delivery

Although I built the Prowler in 2017, I delivered it to CAPT Gilliam at the Naval Aviation Museum in October 2019 along with the History of the Blue Angels models.

Preparing the Prowler for delivery at the Naval Aviation Museum - Photo: Javier Bondanza

The journey to Pensacola, which counted with the valuable company and support of my girlfriend Estefany, and my friend from “Aviones a Escala Argentina”, Javier Bondanza, deserves a post of its own so I won’t go into a lot of detail now, but I can say that I was honored to be able to meet CAPT Gilliam in person and receive his feedback on my work. I was also touched by his reaction when he saw the Prowler, representing the aircraft he flew almost 20 years ago.

CAPT Gilliam and I with the EA-6B Model - Photo: Javier Bondanza

But the Prowler and the Blue Angels models weren’t the only things we took with us. We also donated two prints representing the EA-6B, which I commissioned to my friend Marcelo Allende from 3A Aviation Artist Argentina.

We spent the day at the Museum, and a good part of it with CAPT Gilliam himself. “Naval Aviation is a family business”, he says, and he certainly made us feel at home.

After a brief paperwork process, the Prowler became property of the United States National Naval Aviation Museum, and that’s how 7 months of work and 2 years of waiting concluded for it.

Project Final Thoughts

Projects like these are what keep the hobby alive for me. They connect me not only with real history, but also in some way with the recipient and his/her story.

The Prowler meant for me not only a learning experience from a technique perspective, but also a milestone in my modeling career that I could never have imagined almost 40 years ago when I started this as just a kid. I'll always be thankful to CAPT Gilliam for this incredible opportunity and his hospitality.

Model wise I don’t have a lot of comments others than the ones I already made. The kit is a nice kit, and everything I used this time came together nicely. I truly enjoyed this one because it was really a hassle-free build.

I hope I see the Prowler again, perhaps somewhere around the Museum floors, in the meantime I’ll keep this copy of one of Marcelo’s prints signed by CAPT Gilliam.

I hope you enjoyed this one. There will be more posts related to this with the History of the Blue Angels series coming soon.

If you have comments or questions leave a message below or drop me a line. Until next time, thank you for reading and happy modeling!



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