Confessions Of A Submarine Hunting S-3 Viking Crewman During The Twilight Of The Cold War

In the fascinating first installment in our exclusive multi-part series, Kevin Noonan recounted the unique path he took to learning how to hunt down Soviet submarines in an S-3 Viking during the final years of the Cold War. Now, in part two, Noonan tells us how the shadowy art of anti-submarine warfare is executed, why the S-3 Viking was so good at it, and takes us along on his first cruise, venturing into the Mediterranean aboard the USS Nimitz as tensions with the Soviet Union remained thick. 

So strap into your ejection seat and fire-up the Viking’s sensor suite as we launch off the deck of the Nimitz to play an incredibly high-stakes game of cat and mouse above and below the waves. 

The Many Missions Of The Marvelous Viking

The Grumman S-2 Tracker had served the USN admirably since 1954, but naval technology had changed significantly during that time and it just couldn’t keep up. The introduction of nuclear propulsion for submarines changed their combat capability and performance and transformed ASW acoustics. The S-2 was designed to track diesel submarines and her airframe just couldn’t adapt to the necessity of new technology.

The Navy was also deeply affected by the budget drain brought on by combat operations in Vietnam. Getting rid of excess expenditures was necessary and an entire class of ASW aircraft carriers, the Essex boats, which were home to the anti-submarine, or “VS,” squadrons flying the S-2, were seen as an unneeded fiscal burden. The USN decided to bring ASW (anti-submarine warfare) to the supercarriers, particularly the Nimitz class boats, the newest addition to the carrier fleet. So, the S-2s need for Avgas, requiring extra fuel storage separate from jet fuel, and its overall obsolescence forced the Navy’s hand.

Thus, in 1966, a call was sent out to the aviation industry to bring carrier-based ASW into the latter half of the 20th Century. Lockheed answered with the S-3A Viking. She would not only perform the roles expected of the Tracker, but excel at so many more during her lifetime. 

A VS-37 S-2 Tracker breaks formation with her replacement, a VS-21 S-3A Viking, signifying the end of an era., USN

While the S-2 was the first U.S. naval aircraft designed from the drawing board to be a submarine hunter and killer in one fuselage, the S-3 was the first carrier-based jet designed to perform that mission with all its hunt and kill computerized. Univac joined Lockheed’s effort, providing the AN/AYK-10 General Purpose Digital Computer (GPDC) that coordinated input from all of the Viking’s sensors. Texas Instruments contributed the AN/APS-116 radar, the AN/ASQ-81 MAD (magnetic anomaly detector) system, and the AN/OR-89 FLIR (forward-looking infrared) systems that made the Viking state-of-the-art in non-acoustic detection of submarines. Finally, IBM also contributed to her non-acoustic detection prowess by creating the groundbreaking AN/ALR-47 ESM (electronic support measures) system. 

What was so fascinating about all of these systems is how the GPDC, a computer produced in the late 1960s, could take input from them and create displays for all four of the Viking’s crew to perform the various roles assigned. Once the sensors had detected a specific threat, the computer could take input from aircraft avionics and move the airplane to intercept the target, automatically releasing its weapons. In other words, with input from all crew stations, the TACCO (Tactical Coordinator) could “fly” the plane from the backseat using fly-to-points (FTPs) and sensor/weapons select choices. As the aircraft symbol—or “bug” as we called it—captured the tasking symbology, the computer would send electrons to those particular parts of the aircraft and perform the assigned function. Pretty damn cool for an aircraft designed in the late ‘60s.

Of course, the S-3A was not limited to ASW. Her radar allowed her crew (and the rest of the battle group via secure Data Link 11), to create an accurate surface plot. We called these missions Surface Surveillance & Control (SSC). Her FLIR, if needed, both day and night, allowed for visual confirmation of the surface contacts at stand-off ranges. The “A” model did not carry the AGM-84 Harpoon missile so our weapons delivery was limited to a warship that didn’t pose a significant Anti-Air Warfare (AAW) threat. Of course, if the balloon went up and, say, a Soviet Kashin class destroyer or Kresta I class cruiser was posing a threat that other Air Wing or escort assets couldn’t attend to, then our bombs were as good as anyone else’s, and we were…expendable. Additionally, the S-3’s extremely sensitive ESM system was used by Air Wing strike missions to detect coastal air defense early warning radars and SAM/AAA (surface to air missile/anti-aircraft artillery) sites allowing the attack aircraft to thread their way through to a target.  

The four stations in the S-3. The left rear is where the SENSO worked. , Youtube Screencap

Another critical mission that suited the Viking well was on-scene commander, primarily during SAR (search and rescue) missions. Her long loiter-time, enhanced by her ability to refuel while in flight, allowed her to stay overhead a sinking ship or downed aircraft for well over six hours if necessary. With her sonobuoys and smoke markers (if carried), a life raft or survivor’s position could be “marked.” There were several advantages of dropping a “long-life” sonobuoy (up to 8 hours of transmission time) near a person or craft in distress, it allowed the Viking crew to mark the position and transmit that symbol via Link 11 to the entire CVBG (carrier battle group) or other naval ships and aircraft involved in the rescue. The buoy could be tuned up by another maritime patrol aircraft (MPA), including those from foreign navies, allowing them to mark-on-top of the buoy if the S-3 had to return to the boat and another was not available. Finally, the buoy would be subjected to the same wave and current action the survivors had to endure, ensuring that their drift could be managed until actual rescue assets arrived.

The S-3 performed other missions, as well.  Prior to advancements and proliferation of communications via satellite, the Viking could mount a communications pod on a wing hardpoint and relay fleet communications efficiently and accurately over the horizon (OTH). Also, the A model of the Viking was utilized for various logistics missions and VIP passenger transport, but to a far lesser extent than the SH-3 Sea King, her rotary-wing contemporary.

Although the S-3A had a weapons loadout similar to the S-2 Tracker, she had a capacity for growth not available to her radial-engine predecessor. With the submarine in mind, the Viking could carry a mixture of torpedoes, iron bombs, and rockets. By the time I started flying, she carried a standard loadout of up to four Mk 46 lightweight ASW torpedoes in the weapons bay (unlike the Tracker, we couldn’t carry torpedoes on our wing hardpoints). Also, in the weapons bay, we could carry bombs. However, the wing hardpoints were the primary weapon station for six 500-pound Mk 82 bombs or six Mk 20 Rockeye cluster bombs on a pair of Triple Ejector Racks (TER), two 1000-pound Mk 83 iron bombs, or 5-inch Zuni rocket pods.  

S-3 unleashing rockets., USN

Torpedoes are the obvious weapon when going against the submarine. Less obvious, in a maritime world dominated by the nuclear submarine, is the need to attack one on the surface, something the Mk 46 was not permitted to do in order to protect any friendly surface ships in the drop area. 

One of the most important and neglected missions conducted by NAVAIR was aerial mining. The S-3 was designed with mining in mind. She could carry all of the Quickstrike or Destructor varieties of the 500 lbs, 1000 lbs, or 2000 lbs Mk-80 series on the wing hardpoints or in the weapons bay. She could also carry the much larger Mk 55 and Mk 56 moored mines or the ASW Mk 60 CAPTOR mines underneath her wings. The USN approached the not-so-sexy art of mining halfheartedly and we tended to mirror that feeling by practicing this critical form of warfare with great inconsistency. Searching my memory, there is only one time that I participated in an aerial mining exercise.

S-3 carrying one of the big Mk 55 mines. , USN

Two significant mid-to-late Cold War Soviet threats to the aircraft carrier were the Soviet nuclear-powered Echo II class and the diesel-electric Juliett class of cruise missile-firing submarines (SSGN and SSG respectively). Both of these classes had to surface to launch. To meet this very real danger, Viking crews regularly practiced bomb delivery.

Finally, other things the Viking would carry were the always-indispensable external fuel tanks, one of which we always carried on the left and right-wing hardpoints when flying off the carrier. Also, when we flew from our home base to join the boat, one aircraft flew with a CNU-264/A blivet packed full of maintenance gear for our time at sea. 

A VS-24 S-3 carrying the dreaded CNU-264/A blivet., USN

During the crew brief just prior to the squadron launching to go meet the boat, a notorious moan would issue from the mouth of that poor pilot who discovered he was scheduled to fly the “blivet bird.” I’ll never confess to knowing much about all “that pilot shit,” but it is quite obvious that flying with the blivet hanging off the right hardpoint was the proverbial “sore thumb” for regular aerodynamics, not to mention approaching the carrier for a trap. 

Speaking of sore thumbs, I would imagine that the trim button on the control stick and the pilot’s thumb got one hell of a workout. The blivet could also be used for an emergency logistics flight to the beach anywhere in the world we currently sailed if the CVBG needed something that wouldn’t fit in our avionics tunnel and a COD (carrier onboard delivery) just wasn’t available.  

Oh, and despite the hard-to-contain joy that issued from every aircrewman’s heart and soul when we briefed for the big fly-off from the boat going back to the beach, the ready room was filled with the requisite moan when that poor pilot once again discovered he was scheduled to fly the dreaded blivet bird.

How To Hunt A Submarine From The Sky

During the first 15 years of the Cold War, when the diesel submarine dominated the world’s oceans, several destroyers would work with air assets to exploit a Soviet boat’s greatest weakness if it came too close to a CVBG. Using their hull-mounted active sonar, the surface ships would make run after run over the top the target, especially if it appeared that it was coming to periscope depth. If it did get a chance to put its snorkel up, the destroyers would charge the submarine in a game of chicken, forcing the submarine to go deep. TBFs, AF Guardians, and S-2 Trackers would buzz an exposed periscope or, if contact was lost, work with passive buoys to regenerate contact.  

The S-2, with newly developed active sonobuoys, would harass the Soviets with constant pinging. The goal was to keep the submarine down to the point of battery and/or air exhaustion, forcing him to surface. Sometimes, in rare cases, practice depth charges would be used to remind the wayward boat what it meant to “rule the seas.” During these concerted efforts, sometimes lasting for a day or two, the aircraft carrier and the remaining escorts would escape by putting miles between them and the Soviet threat. With the arrival of the nuclear submarine, the CVBG’s status as ruler of the sea wasn’t simply diminished, it was abdicated to this truly undersea warship.

The nuclear submarine can’t be forced to stay down until it exhausts its air and power. Its supply of those, technically, is unlimited. All its skipper has to do is effectively manipulate the oceanic environment and the effectiveness of those hunting him by either quietly slipping away or going balls-to-the-wall and outrun everything the CVBG could throw at him.  

Allied Navies, after having experienced the USS Nautilus during one of its first exercises against a carrier and her escorts, realized that control of the sea had suddenly shifted. The first nuclear-powered submarine raced noisily under a carrier’s destroyer screen and made mincemeat of the carrier. She then began to sink the screen from within. 

After having embarrassed the concept of US Navy ASW superiority, the Nautilus then added insult to injury by happily racing away beyond the reach of what remained of the battlegroup.  Still utilizing World War II weapons, sensors and tactics fit for a slow, predictable diesel, senior naval leadership throughout NATO realized that this revolution in submarine propulsion required a revolution in every level of anti-submarine warfare. The sensors, the weapons, the tactics and the platforms delivering them all had to change.

YS-3A Viking prototype circa 1972., USN

From the first pencil mark on the Lockheed engineer’s drafting table, the S-3 Viking was created to hunt a nuclear-powered submarine. Its large nose housed the egg-shaped APS-116 radar antenna that could rotate at 300rpm allowing detection of a periscope at considerable distances, even in heavy seas. Its generous canopy provided the pilot and COTAC (Co-Tactical Coordinator) with a commanding view of the ocean below, greatly increasing the odds of seeing a feather on the surface. Its high-set and broad wings provided remarkable lift and aerodynamics required to maintain contact on an evasive subsurface target. Its tall tail ensured rock-solid stability and endurance at altitudes best suited for weapons release, while avoiding the occasional flying fish. 

The S-3’s two remarkable, reliable, and extremely efficient engines could keep it aloft for MPA-like hours if necessary and ensure its safe return. It also had a relatively large fuselage disciplined by the designers to effectively contain the avionics, sensors, weapons, and crew needed to prevent a submarine from ruining an aircraft carrier’s day. And while most products produced for the military are designed for a current threat at the time an engineer sharpens their new pencil, the early 1970s Viking was built with room to grow in anticipation of the evolutionary progress of the Soviet submarine through the remainder of the 20th Century and into the 21st.

At the time, anti-submarine warfare for naval aviation was divided into search, localization/classification, track, and attack. I’ll assume this process is the same today. I haven’t encountered any in-depth narrative about how ASW is performed by a P-8 Poseidon, particularly the high/low altitude method, and I’m exceedingly happy that there is very little open-source information available. 

The Viking’s ASW mission was of a tactical nature—keeping the carrier safe from the submarine’s cruise missiles and then torpedoes. Here’s how we did that in the team context of the CVBG:

Any number of scenarios can present themselves to a battlegroup, but it is rare that we weren’t aware of the general undersea picture around us because of intelligence sources, primarily from the Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS). However, contact on a SOSUS array didn’t mean the submarine was localized, much less being closely tracked in many areas of the open waters in the Atlantic and certainly along the coastal boundaries of that ocean.  That is where MPAs, surface ships, and allied submarines came into play. Then, once a Soviet boat entered the Mediterranean, diligent tracking didn’t guarantee we would maintain constant contact. Thus, regenerating contact with battlegroup ships’ hull-mounted sonars and towed arrays (if they carried one) along with allied MPAs and the S-3s from the carrier, was an absolute priority.

S-3A circa 1987., USN

In the context of that need to regenerate contact, Allied air assets would lay large sonobuoy search patterns or the S-3s would lay relatively smaller search patterns if no other fixed-wing aircraft were available. If this was the case, then a second Viking might be sent out two to three hours later to maintain the current pattern by reseeding buoys that had malfunctioned or had come to the end of their life. The hope, of course, was that contact would be gained with the initial search pattern. Other strategies were to lay barriers of sonobuoys and position ASW ships along the path of the carrier as she approached and then penetrated the various choke points the Mediterranean offered.  

More specifically, depending upon the expected target—nuclear or diesel submarine—we would begin the hunt by flooding the area with our radar and investigate all contacts. This provided us with a “big-picture” of what was out there and ensured we didn’t drop buoys on unsuspecting surface ships at night or in bad weather.  

If a contact suddenly disappeared—known as a “radar sinker”—it would draw our attention all-the-more. This could be anything from a periscope, a passive detection antenna mast such as ESM, or a diesel boat’s snorkel as it attempted to recharge its batteries. It could also be a whale, schools of fish at the surface, trash, or even a sinking ship. If we are under EMCON (Emissions CONtrol—radio silence basically across much or all of the RF spectrum) within the battlegroup where none of the ships or aircraft are running their radars or radios, then we would launch and hold turning on our radar until we reached a certain distance from the carrier.  

One of the greatest advantages that the Viking introduced to the CVBG was our digital computer and sensor systems. We could turn the radar on for a few sweeps and then go emissions silent. As the antenna made its one or two sweeps, the SENSO (Sensor Operator) would quickly mark all returns on his screen and these would become permanent digital symbols displayed each of the crew’s screens. In the S-2, the screens were analog and the radar operator had to mark his screen with a grease pencil or on a plot board, keeping in mind the aircraft’s track, position, and compass bearing. 

In the S-3, the TACCO, who received all marked symbology placed on the screen by the SENSO, could then send that data via Link 11 to every receptive ship and aircraft in the CVBG. Meanwhile, the pilot would turn toward the targets of interest and “quietly” investigate. The S-2 operator, on the other hand, had to pass the data to the officer in the right front seat either verbally or on a plot board and have it communicated to the ASW commander via radio if not under EMCON and all the while relying on radios that might not always work as advertised.

Other EMCON scenarios might have the S-3 vectored to contacts of interest by the E-2 Hawkeye or a surface ship well distanced from the carrier that is acting as the controller of the mission. By its very nature, EMCON invites targets to start looking for the battlegroup. Thus, when an enemy submarine or supporting warship radiates in an attempt to find the CVBG, the ships and aircraft can get lines of bearing to the source of the enemy emitters. 

For every type of contact generated from sources such as an ESM line of bearing or a datum, the S-3 Viking would lay specific sonobuoy patterns. As individual buoys hit the water and deployed their hydrophone, the SENSO would tune them up and begin to analyze what sounds the ocean was making around that particular sensor. One of the ideas behind a pattern of buoys was to space them in such a way where more than one buoy would gain contact. This helped to localize the position of the submarine to a specific area in the pattern.  From there, we might wait to determine the direction of movement of the target as other buoys gained contact and the bearings from directional buoys, such as the AN/SSQ-53 DIFAR (Directional Frequency Analysis and Recording), changed with the passage of the submarine. 

Once a course was established, we would run in and drop more buoys, at closer spacings, to refine our understanding of what the target was doing. The idea was to maintain a solid track that allowed us to catch any changes in course or depth. The other idea, in time of war, was to have enough tracking data refinement to drop a torpedo.

While we preferred to use passive buoys to achieve this refinement, it was always nice to have additional confirmation of the submarine’s presence. Active sonobuoys could be used, but that wasn’t the best choice against a nuclear submarine. Magnetic Anomaly Detection, or MAD, was an excellent choice that allowed us to remain passive in the prosecution of the submarine. It was (and is) a very short range sensor that detected disturbances in the Earth’s magnetic field made by a submarine’s own magnetic field. Usually, we’d have to fly very low against a submarine that was not very deep. 

S-3 with the MAD deployed., USN

As opposed to the Orion, the Viking’s “stinger” MAD boom was retractable—at times it would get stuck in the extended position. Once we extended the MAD boom, I would have to “equalize” the ASQ-81 MAD head at the tip of the boom to help eliminate any field disturbance that came from our own aircraft. This is why most MAD booms are designed to be as far away from the aircraft as possible. Having a solid deflection of the MAD trace provided that warm-fuzzy feeling that confirmed we were doing a solid job of tracking the submarine. 

Of course, submarines have several means at their disposal to counter or weaken the non-acoustic detection ability of MAD such as degaussing equipment within the hull or going through the process of deperming, or reducing its own field prior to deployment. The longer the submarine is deployed, however, reduces the effect of deperming. The Soviet use of titanium alloys on the hulls of some of its submarines was also effective at reducing the overall magnetic signature.  

The S-3 regularly worked alone to search, detect, localize and track a submarine. We wanted to quickly find and keep a potential enemy as far away from the carrier as possible. However, gaining contact on a submarine and maintaining it was a far more successful endeavor when we worked as a team with all the ASW-capable assets of the battlegroup.

Mark on top! An S-3 Viking and A-6 Intruder from the USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67) fly over a Soviet Foxtrot class diesel submarine. , USN

One of the very best platforms to work with was a frigate or destroyer trailing its AN/SQR-19 towed array sonar. The sensitivity of that type of passive sonar and the professionalism of the Sonar Techs aboard those ships was humbling. Helicopters with dipping sonars were another team combination that encouraged a submarine to break off its plans. As a threat moved closer to the carrier, or we obtained contact in close, the carrier’s complement of SH-3 Sea Kings with the AN/AQS-13 dipping sonar would join in. If two helos were available, then even a nuclear-powered submarine would have difficulty getting to the carrier or getting away.

The Soviet naval philosophy of submarine warfare rarely called for a submarine to attack a carrier on its own. From its birth, the subordinate Soviet Navy understood the concept of joint operations since it was primarily utilized to support the Soviet Army during World War II. While Admiral Sergey Gorshkov grew the Cold War Navy into a dangerous blue water fleet, he translated the lessons of mutual support he had learned from the Black Sea campaign against the Germans into tactics that incorporated all air, surface, and subsurface naval assets. The Viking was flexible enough to engage most of this effort in one way or another.  

If a cruise missile-firing submarine was relying on a Surface Action Group (SAG) of ships for targeting data for example, the S-3, while hunting the submarine, could also target and identify the accompanying group of surface combatants. The ability of one aircraft to carry a mixture of weapons such as torpedoes in the weapons bay and bombs or other ordnance on the wing hardpoints, invited the possibility of attacking both surface and subsurface targets. However, I would not have wanted to be in that airplane considering the excellent air defenses on all Soviet warships.  

Of course, you soon learn the concept of expendability when they explain the big picture to you about how all aircraft and their crews are expendable during wartime when an aircraft carrier’s survivability is at stake. Preferably, once a combined fleet strike has completed an attack against a SAG, we could also provide post-strike standoff bomb damage assessment (BDA) utilizing our FLIR. If necessary, we could then use our weapons to finish off a heavily damaged enemy vessel.

The underbelly of the Viking is perforated with sonobuoy launcher holes., USN

The historical record is not clear about how many Soviet submarines actually came within firing distance of carrier battlegroups during the expanse of the Cold War. I’ve personally only seen two periscope photos that claim to be taken from our enemy. And when one considers the nature and pride of Russia, I would think that the Internet would be flooded with many, many more if the genuinely professional and brave Soviet submarine commanders had experienced repeated success.

We did our very best to contend with the complexities of ASW every time our wheels went into their wells on missions to keep the submarine away from our aircraft carriers. Unfortunately, if one were honest and able to evaluate all the data from 1946 to 1991, it would be clear that the ratio of green flares launched by a submarine going after a flat top to the number of non-reactionary, simulated torpedo or other ASW weapons’ drops was distressingly high.

On A Viking Cruise

Much like professional athletes who train for the big game, military units train for war.  But one of the unique things about serving aboard a warship or a deployed unit in the United States Navy is that the enemy you are planning to fight kindly offers his services to help you prepare for that war.  An aircraft carrier battlegroup’s deployment to the North Atlantic or the Mediterranean ensured a Soviet naval response and presence allowing both sides to potentially discover and learn how the other would act in time of war.

On Dec. 30, 1986, after a break for Christmas, the USS Nimitz entered the Western Atlantic with her bow pointed east toward the Strait of Gibraltar and entrance into the Mediterranean Sea.  The squadrons of Carrier Air Group 8 (CAG-8, more commonly referred to as Carrier Air Wing Eight) which had been with the namesake of the Nimitz class of supercarrier since 1977, were already aboard having joined the carrier during the early days of December for the standard pre-deployment work-ups. The Nimitz flight deck and hangar bay was overflowing with a full complement of F-14 Tomcats from VF-84 Jolly Rogers and VF-41 Black Aces, A-7 Corsair II’s from VA-82 Marauders and VA-86 Sidewinders, A-6 Intruders from VA-35 Black Panthers, EA-6B Prowlers from VAQ-138 Yellow Jackets, E-2 Hawkeyes from VAW-124 Bear Aces, SH-3 Sea Kings from HS-9 Sea Griffins, and S-3A Vikings from VS-24 Scouts.

USS Nimitz with CAG-8 in early 1980s highlighting incredible aircraft diversity.  Note the high visibility paint schemes., USN

We made our way quickly across the Atlantic. I don’t recall ever “stopping” to do flight ops before we entered the Med. Having transited the Strait at night, the CVBG grew in strength by one warship. A destroyer of the Soviet Navy took station off the Nimitz’ port side. 

Someone mentioned it in our ready room and I grabbed my camera for one of the painfully rare photos I took while I was in the Navy. There she was, a Kashin class destroyer with her two (of four) SS-N-2C Styx stern-facing missile launchers catching my eye. If the Cold War went hot in the next six months, she would turn and run away from us at a remarkable 35 knots and launch all four of these weapons, each of which carried a 1,000-pound high-explosive warhead. 

My first Soviet. The Nimitz picks up her tattle-tail destroyer, a Kashin class in the Western Med in January 1987. , Personal Photo

The Soviets planned and trained for this scenario, something they called the “Battle of the First Salvo.” Hopefully, our Sea Sparrow launchers and 20mm CIWS (close-in weapon system) mounts would greet all four of her missiles before they arrived while our own genuine escorts sent the fleeing Kashin to the bottom.

As this 20-year old kid stood there pondering the Soviet warship’s presence beneath a Western Mediterranean winter sky, the reality I had only read about suddenly became quite real.

Chasing Charlie

Before my 21st birthday, I would receive two stronger doses of that reality. The first came quickly. We had been attempting to relocate a Soviet Charlie II nuclear guided missile submarine (SSGN) that had been sent down from the Red Banner Northern Fleet and entered the Med to hunt the carrier we would eventually relieve, the USS John F. Kennedy, and now us.  While I had been flying since we passed by Gibraltar, this would be my first actual ASW mission. Did I hear that right? My first sub-hunting mission in the Mediterranean Sea would be to find a genuine Soviet submarine!  

I was scared S.H.I.T.L.E.S.S.

We launched and headed to the southern edge of the Tyrrhenian Sea (one of the many seas within the Med) to relieve a P-3 Orion flying out of Sigonella, Sicily that had been monitoring and re-seeding a large search pattern of sonobuoys laid by previous P-3s. The pattern was designed as a flanking barrier to protect the Nimitz’s movement east and southeast toward the central Med just south of Sicily. Our mission was to monitor and re-seed the southern end of the pattern to replace dying buoys. Contact with the Soviet submarine had been lost a day or so before, at least by aviation and surface ASW hunters. We needed to regain it so we could keep the carrier from getting within the 40-mile range of the Charlie’s eight SS-N-9 Siren anti-ship cruise missiles.

For four hours, we overflew each buoy in the pattern to update our plot and its geolocation to pass on Link 11 data link to the CVBG, the ASW Operations Center (ASWOC) at Sigonella, and the incoming P-3 that would relieve us. I tuned up sections of the pattern and I watched and listened. We reseeded specific buoys whose batteries died while we were out there. 

I watched. I listened.

No contact.

It was time to return to base. As we got vectors to the ship from the E-2, we climbed up to a decent cruising altitude and pointed our nose home. I continued to scan my tuned-up buoys, switching between acoustics and radar as I searched for the battle group to give the pilot an exact location of the boat. I switched back to acoustics and scanned.

There…there! Was it? It looked like a submarine. It wasn’t quite the exact signature I expected from a Charlie. I doubted. What should I do? Tell the TACCO? We’re almost out of fuel. The ASMOD (intel unit that coordinates ASW operations) aboard the carrier said the relief P-3 was having problems and wasn’t going to launch on time. My mind racing, I kept thinking to myself: “Was it the Charlie? It looked like a submarine. I don’t want to make the wrong call. I can’t make a mistake during my first real-world ASW flight on an actual Soviet submarine. Is it a submarine? It looks like it but it only was a whisper, a very short contact.” 

I said nothing.

I was terrified and the self-doubt was overwhelming. And then the guilt set in. My gut was screaming at me: “You know it is her!” But the doubt…the fear…

Charlie II SSGN., USN

We trapped aboard and the Nimitz resumed her transit eastward, just before she turned southeast to pass between Sicily and Tunisia. I unloaded my ATR (AN/ASH-27 Analog Tape Recorder glass reel that records all of our acoustic and other data for an entire mission) and carried it down one deck beneath the flight deck to the ASMOD.  I handed it the Nimitz’s ship’s company AWs (aircrewmen) who analyzed all the tapes that we used to record our ASW flights. I was a very green AW and these guys knew it. I hesitated, then told them that I may have seen something on buoy such and such. “We’ll check it out.” They knew from my body language that I was worried.

In the ready room, I tried to relax. Everyone noticed a sudden tremor underneath our feet as the carrier increased speed. It felt the same as when we crossed the Atlantic. I looked up from my chair and noticed that some AWs from the ASMOD were in the back of the ready room talking to my Chief. I sheepishly headed toward them. They had a large sheet of carbon-based paper in hand. On it, I noticed the same signature characteristics I had seen in the aircraft. My stomach sank and the blood rushed away from my face.

“You were right, it was the Charlie. Just a couple of minutes of contact!” They left and I waited to be dragged by my flightsuit collar at the strong hand of my Chief behind the curtain that separated the ready room from our tiny squadron operations office. 

VS-22’s ready room aboard USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75) circa 2003. , USN

Although he rarely displayed it, I’d already seen his temper and was certain I would incur his wrath. I wasn’t really afraid of him, I just didn’t want to disappoint him because he was such a good leader.

Crickets. Not a word from him. Not a word from my Division Officer. Not a word from my OPS boss. Not a word from the Skipper. The only response to my failure was the 100,000-ton aircraft carrier and her escorts making much more speed through the Strait of Sicily than originally intended.

What really should have happened was that I had my ass reamed by all of the above. In fact, it would have been best if I had been dragged by my flightsuit collar out of the ready room, down the passageway to see CAG and the CO of the Nimitz. I think I might have been an even better sailor, an even better AW, and an even better human being had that happened. Instead, my self-doubt and second-guessing would continue and, in a few months, put me in a very similar position where I would finally get a clue as to just how much responsibility a single, kid-AW in a multi-million dollar aircraft had in the protection of well over 5,000 priceless lives and four and a half acres of a multi-billion dollar piece of sovereign United States territory.

There was one very important takeaway from this experience: My gut was right and I would learn quickly that I had a sixth sense for finding submarines acoustically.

Horror On The Deck Above

The second dose of reality came tragically and violently on the night of January 25th as I watched from the warm safety of ready room four. The single EA-3B Whale from VQ-2, which had joined us as we entered the Med, was having major difficulty getting aboard. After missing the arresting wires five times, the Commander of the Air Group (CAG) ordered her to divert to Crete. However, she would need to refuel in order to do so.  

During her attempt to take on gas, she damaged the buddy store attached to the A-7 that was acting as tanker that night. Out of options, the CAG and the CO of the Nimitz decided against having the crew bailout and into the frigid waters the carrier was sailing through. Instead, she would take the barricade. 

After an inordinately long time rigging the barricade, the pilot and crew of six approached the carrier. It was clear, listening to the communications between the CAG Landing Signal Officer (LSO) and the navigator of the intel-gathering aircraft, that most all of her fuel had been burned waiting for the barricade. She was high, too high. The LSO screamed “Cut! CUT! CUT!” admonishing the pilot to cut power to the engines as the Whale crossed the fantail. Sadly, she just floated there. 

Her nosewheel struck the top of the barricade and the EA-3B hit the angle deck just above my ready room. I will never forget the sound as she scraped down the deck and off the angle, the fuselage splitting just forward of the wings.

PLAT sequence of the loss of Ranger 12 aboard USS Nimitz, the EA-3B from VQ-2.,

There was absolute silence in the ready room as all eyes were on the PLAT (Pilot Landing Aid Television) screen. The Nimitz’ engines crashed back and we came to a stop with the aircraft’s aft fuselage and tail now jutting skyward off our port side. The plane guard helo hovered over it, her searchlight illuminating the wreckage and our hope that helmets would appear. We also listened as the helo pilot requested permission for his Rescue Swimmer to go into the water and enter the aircraft.  “NO!” was the answer.  After what seemed like an eternity, hope turned to horror as the tail slipped beneath the waves.

I had never seen men die.

Hijacked Hijinx

On Jan. 27, 1987, Terry Waite, an envoy for the Church of England trying to obtain the release of hostages held in Lebanon, became a hostage of those he was attempting to negotiate with. Soon after, and in Sixth Fleet fashion, we were ordered to respond to this latest of eternal Middle East crises making our way to the Eastern Med. As we moved across the Mediterranean Sea, I began to hear of the place we were headed: BENO station.  

Like “Yankee Station,” where our aircraft carriers sailed and launched airstrikes against Vietnam, it was a place where the carriers would loiter off the ruined coast and countryside of Lebanon where civil war, which had been raging since I was in the 4th grade, continued. If necessary, it was the plot of sea from which we would launch strikes. Unlike, Yankee Station, it wasn’t an official USN name.

BENO stood for: BE NO liberty, BE NO time off, BE NO fun, BE NO end.

As we made our way there, our priorities shifted from fighting the Cold War to fighting the “War on Terror,” a conflict many don’t realize we were engaged in long before it arrived on our own shores on that fateful September day in 2001. In light of the common tactic used by terrorists in this region—namely hijacking airplanes—CAG-8 was tasked to train for a specific tactic designed to ensure the hijackers went where we wanted them to and VS-24 and I got to be a part of it!

During the briefing, we were told only that our S-3 would act as the hijacked airliner and we were instructed to squawk a simulated international IFF code reflecting our hijacked state when we arrived over the portion of the Eastern Mediterranean Sea we were training in. It would be during the second half of a four-hour flight. During the first half we would conduct an SSC mission. 

S-3 launching off the waist catapult., USN

We launched for what for me would be one of my most amazing flights. The first two hours were spent making a surface plot of the water surrounding the carrier, checking some of the shipping and performing a mission of mercy that I’ll describe below.  Then, at the appropriate time, we squawked our code, and soon, a gaggle of F-14s from both VF-84 and VF-41 were directed to intercept us by the E-2 (everyone in the Air Wing wanted in on this important training).

I dropped the FLIR and rotated it as they approached and, for the first time in my life, I got to see these breathtaking beauties occupying the same airspace I was in! One Tomcat gracefully took station on each of our wings. Another two held station on opposite wings but off and behind their wingmen. Two more flew well aft of us. I could not believe that I was here at this moment in time!

Unknown to my crew, our COTAC, Lieutenant D.R., had dressed the part having pulled a wash towel from the Officers Mess that perfectly resembled the headdress worn in that area. He took off his helmet, donned the cloth and from his helmet bag produced an Uzi water pistol! With Uzi in one hand, he held up a sign he had pre-written in a bold hand and plastered it against his right canopy glass so the Tomcat pilot and RIO—now tucked very closely off our right wingtip— could clearly read it. I don’t recall what D.R.  had written, but it was obviously something snarky and it garnered a response from the F-14 on our UHF radio:

“Damn! You guys don’t have to take this thing so seriously.”

All four of us were laughing. Per the scenario, we then dropped our landing gear as if we were on final approach to a regional airfield in a country that supported terrorists. The Tomcats moved away, but stayed just off our wings. My eyes were then drawn back to my FLIR screen as eight pinpoints of heat came up on our six very fast. They would quickly materialize into eight A-7s that passed quickly beneath us and the water, almost “thumping” us. And then…they all released their (practice) bombs!  Right down the simulated runway we were supposed to be landing on!


The E-2 called an end to the exercise and gave everyone vectors back to the boat. 

God! To be a part of such things!

A High Stakes Intervention High In The Sky

Now, let me relate what happened at the front end of this flight, something that will stay with me until I die. I already said I got air sick during my first flight in an S-3 at VS-41. Well, the truth is, I had been throwing up on every flight since then. Thankfully, it wasn’t debilitating at this point and I could do my job; but it was so persistent that I decided to approach my Chief W. about it (who already knew—you built a reputation, particularly as a new crew member and the officers in the aircraft would let the Chief know).  

AWC expressed his concern saying that it could be a career-ender. I was a little overwhelmed by that statement and asked about the possibility of switching to P-3s (he had flown in P-3s prior to coming to the Viking), which I assumed would be a more stable platform. He proceeded to inform me that like the S-3, an Orion spent a lot of time at low altitude dropping buoys, among other things. This was a problem because the location of the Sensor 1 and Sensor 2 stations in the P-3 was right on top of the wing which meant that any turbulence the aircraft flew through would be transmitted from the wing to the two aircrew who were in a tunnel with no windows, their seats facing the left side of the aircraft. He made an additional, critical point: “Add to all of this, the smell of burning carbon-based paper that will permeate your station as you search, for hours and hours…” The P-3C Update III, with plasma screens that replaced paper grams, had just achieved IOC—Initial Operating Capability—the previous year.  

My mind was reeling as I was instantly transported back to the acrid smell in the trainer at NAS Willow Grove. At least in the Viking, I did have a small window, a limited view out the COTAC’s windscreen, and no burning paper. Were I to transition (back) to the P-3, I’d be puking multiple times each flight. I simply had no options. I had come so far. I had to stay in the S-3.

Apparently, my pilot for that unique flight, Lieutenant Russ Bartlett, had been following my story. During my time at VS-24 I had so many outstanding pilots. But I will always hold Russ as my favorite and the very best. He was that rare person that showed zero arrogance in his ambition for career and life. I had never encountered such a well-rounded officer. He showed absolutely no stress and always smiled. He was genuinely friendly with everyone and, as I would discover, was an incredibly compassionate human being (believe it or not, he was a U.S. Naval Academy grad!). The Viking was a second skin for him. He had no problem being a “bus driver” and he was extremely well versed in ASW tactics. He always invested everything into the moment.  

The view out of the S-3 from the cockpit was absolutely amazing., USN

After we got airborne and began working the SSC part of the mission, going from altitude to get a radar plot, down to checking out specific ships, my stomach began to come unglued. My TACCO asked if I was alright and Russ expressed concern. We finished rigging another ship and Russ decided we would climb out, head to the area for the second part of our mission as the hijacked airliner and wait for the E-2 to commence the exercise. On the way, Lieutenant Bartlett would do something that changed my life.

“Come up front.”  

My stomach had calmed down since I’d emptied its contents. We safed our ejection seats and Lieuantant R. D. climbed out of the COTAC’s seat and traded places with me. I climbed into the COTAC seat (the first time I’d ever flown up front), strapped in and was immediately awed by the incredible view my pilots and COTACs had. 

We rearmed the ejection seats and then Russ told me he was going to fly a series of maneuvers. He took us through turns and then we did an aileron roll. My stomach became uncomfortable but nothing like it was while sitting in back.  He then took us through a loop.

“Now, you fly the airplane.”

WTF! ME? I had never flown an airplane before. With caution and some reluctance, I put my hand around the stick. Russ then talked me through turns (he kept a light touch on his control stick and did the throttle work). Then, an aileron roll (that amazed me and scared the hell out of me). Then, he took me through a loop. All the while, he kept a running commentary forcing my mind to focus on what I was doing and not listening to my stomach. 

Once finished with this final maneuver, he explained some things: “In the back, your inner ear is tumbling as the airplane maneuvers. However, because you are enclosed back there with sparse reference to the aircraft’s movement and you are monitoring your screens, your eyes tell your brain a perceived truth that you’re not moving. That conflict between eyes and inner ear causes you to get sick. Being up front allows you to have clear movement references. Even better, being in control occupies your brain. Unless you become a pilot or an NFO [Naval Flight Officer], you’re not going to get up front here on a regular basis. So, when the airplane starts maneuvering or it’s a bumpy flight, take more time to look at the COTAC’s artificial horizon [most of the time you could see it if the COTAC’s flight gear didn’t get in the way]. More importantly, start telling your brain what is happening and that it’s okay.” 

After all the maneuvering and discussion, I realized something…I didn’t feel any nausea! I wanted to stay up there for the rest of my life, but it was time for the second part of our mission.  Once again, we safed our seats and as I climbed out, I turned and stood for a moment looking out of the front windscreen…such an incredible, beautiful view! I returned to my seat and we heard the E-2 calling, telling us to squawk the hijack IFF code.

A very maneuverable aircraft causing much discomfort for those in the back seats. A VS-29 S-3 in the vertical., USN

Lieutenant Bartlett saved me that day. After that flight—no less than seven years of additional flying—I never threw up again. Over the next two years, we would fly together many times and his mastery of the aircraft and the air would once again save me, our crew and, our airplane from near-disaster.

Russ would stay with VS-24 for our next Med cruise aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt and he would be selected “1989 US Navy S-3 Pilot of the Year.” His humble ambition opened amazing doors for him, allowing him to slide into his next skin: The F/A-18 Hornet. As a fighter pilot, he would come back home to CAG-8 and fly 33 combat missions from the Roosevelt’s deck with VFA-15 during Operation Desert Storm. In 1999, he would command his own Hornet squadron and then, in 2002, reach the pinnacle of his career by being selected as the Blue Angel’s boss for the 2003-2004 airshow season. A genuinely brilliant life for a genuinely great soul and I had the honor of flying with him!

Unknown Contact!

We stayed for what seemed an eternity on BENO station. Sadly, our presence did nothing to liberate Terry Waite or the other hostages (Waite would remain a prisoner until 1991). As the Mediterranean winter transitioned into spring, I gained flight hours, experience and, to some degree, confidence in myself as a Viking SENSO. However, the battle group was about to enter into a major Sixth Fleet/NATO exercise known as Dragon Hammer ’87, and I would face another opportunity to be hammered by yet another dragon that would force me to get a clue as to just how much responsibility a single, kid-AW in a multi-million dollar aircraft had in determining whether we would kill an enemy or a friend. 

During the intel brief, we were informed we would be searching for an Orange Force (enemy) submarine of the Italian Sauro class. All U.S. nuclear submarines (nucs) were operating as Blue Force (friendly) and were in designated “safe” boxes to ensure there would be no “Blue on Blue” engagements, something that was common in exercises and, tragically, far too common during wartime. The intel officer warned us, however, that one of the U.S. boats was close to the expected position of the enemy Sauro. I thought to myself: “Diesel vs. nuc? No problem!”

Upon launching from the Nimitz’ deck, we were immediately vectored to a datum of a suspected enemy submarine “snorkeling” about 150 miles along the carrier’s PIM (Path of Intended Movement). The pilot pushed the throttles “to the stops,” as they say, and I prepared my system for classifying the contact.  


We arrived on top and the submarine was still there…still at periscope depth (PD)…and according to the front-seaters, only a periscope was visible. This was odd. It was broad daylight.  The boat wasn’t moving. It wasn’t snorkeling. Just before we marked on top the TACCO popped a buoy out and just after we passed over the periscope, he dropped another. The pilot, in a startled voice, said “I can see it clearly! She’s just hovering there with her periscope out of the water!”  

One of the two NFOs chimed in: ”So what you’re saying, then, is it isn’t a POSSUB?” I’m sure the pilot turned to whoever said it and raised his middle finger. Meanwhile, he was setting up for another pass down the right side of the aircraft so the COTAC could get a look-see and hopefully classify the boat. After all, our NFOs were far more ASW-minded than our bus-driving pilots.

“Yeah, it’s a submarine alright.”

Dammit! Well, we AWs trained regularly in visual recognition of submarines. I asked the pilot to bring it down the left side of the aircraft in hopes of getting a very short, limited glance at it.  “Let the recce-expert see it, I’ll make the call!” I said in my head. He obliged. 

I reported to the TACCO that I wasn’t seeing or hearing anything distinctive from this contact that I could use to make a classification with. That was good news. The odds were clearly against it being one of the friendly U.S. nuclear boats. He warned me we were almost there and I pasted my face against my tiny, tiny window….and it flashed by. 

Dear God! It had a sail with sailplanes!  

All U.S. nuclear-powered submarines had a sail with sailplanes. 

It had a periscope with a camouflaged tube!  

US nuclear submarines had periscopes with camouflaged tubes.  

I wiped the gathering beads of sweat from my forehead just as Alpha-Xray asked again: “Scout 702, classify the contact. Is it an enemy or friend?!” The TACCO looked at me. The COTAC twisted his body around to look back at me.


“I…ummm…I…she has sailplanes and a camouflaged periscope! Is it a friendly? U.S. boats have those things!”

Sauro class submarine. This is basically the perspective of what I saw, except she was at periscope depth, distorted by the water and my tiny window., Italian Navy

We climbed a little bit and I watched as my system began to process the buoys we had dropped.  I had been anticipating the noises of a diesel submarine just as we approached, but with no snorkel up, I really didn’t know what I would find. The TACCO established radio contact with the ASW commander for the battle group, “Alpha-Xray,” and informed him what we had come upon. His immediate question: “Enemy or friendly submarine?”

The first trickle of sweat rolled down my spine.

The crew asked me to answer Alpha-Xray’s question. My system was still processing the first transmissions from the two sonobuoys. I willed a submarine signature to start showing itself on my display. Nothing was showing. Since he had such a clear view of the submarine, just below the surface, I asked the pilot to describe what he saw—better to deflect responsibility for a moment and buy time while I quietly begged the system to reveal its secrets.  

“It’s a submarine!”

“Yes, sir, but was it large? Did it have the hull of a U.S. nuc or a short hull expected of a diesel?”

“It’s a submarine!”

There was a collective sigh of frustration from my three officers. We began to discuss it. The COTAC rummaged through his helmet bag and pulled out a copy of An Illustrated Guide to Modern Sub Hunters and flipped through the pages. He started shaking his head: “The Sauro has sail planes!” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Worse, as the supposed expert on recce of submarines and warships, I should have already known that and should have prepared much better for this mission—this wartime mission. Even though he now had an S-3 Viking making passes over his periscope, the submarine commander still did not move, adding more pain to my attempt at solving this equation.    

“What do we do?” the pilot asked the TACCO. And then it happened. Over the ASW commander’s net came a voice different from the one we had been hearing from:

“This is COMSIXTHFLEET, I need you gentlemen to make a decision. You are there. Is it an enemy submarine or not.”

As we returned to the carrier to enter the overhead stack for recovery, not a word was spoken inside the cockpit except those verbalizations necessary for safe navigation of the aircraft. The t-shirt underneath my flightsuit was soaked (and I have to confess, the air conditioner in the Viking is the best damn AC unit I have ever experienced). I had a lot of time to think and I came to a full realization just how much responsibility I had sitting in that seat. Yes, my crew, my ship, my battlegroup, and even our fleet commander relied on the decisions I made about whether or not a submarine was friend or foe. Far more important and overwhelming, however, was that my decision could kill an entire crew of a U.S. Navy or Allied submarine. My decision:  50…80…120 lives. I was just a 21-year old kid, and in that seat, I was completely alone.

S-3 about to trap., USN

We were told in debriefing that the Sauro we had attacked had already been sunk by the U.S. nuc that was not too far away.  The Italian submarine skipper was just waiting out the required time before he could regenerate into another enemy submarine and continue the exercise. Why he had retracted his snorkel prior to our arrival was a mystery. Perhaps his batteries had a full charge? However, when COMSIXTHFLEET voice was heard on our radio, he had raised it again and resumed charging his batteries. My helmet was filled with the sound and my display with the visual representation of his diesel engines.  And why Alpha-Xray or COMSIXTHFLEET wasn’t aware of that fact just confirmed that even in an exercise the fog of war was very much present. Our attack, though carried out with an emotional mix of anger and triumph, was ultimately inconsequential, not to mention opportunistic in a shooting-fish-in-a-barrel sort of way.

Dragon Hammer continued until May 15, 1987. I flew a few more missions, but the person manning the cockpit was a different Anti-submarine Warfare operator. And then, on the morning of May 18, history would once again mark the time. I walked into ready room four in pressed dungarees and my VS-24 ball cap preparing to do a turnover with the ASDO (Assistant Squadron Duty Officer) watch with my fellow AW who had been standing it the night before. I had just come from CVIC (carrier intelligence center), having picked up the squadron’s morning message traffic. It was my job to compile them and, based on time and security classification, sort them and then place them on the “message boards” to be read by the skipper, the XO, and all the officers. 

The off-going ASDO looked over my shoulder and said, “The XO and CO have already come through.  They are in a briefing with the battlegroup commander.” That was unusual. He reached for a message I was about to place on the “secret” board and said, “That one!” I read the subject line:

Subj.: USS Stark attacked by missiles in Gulf

For a day or so there was the usual Navy scuttlebutt going around that we would transit the Suez Canal and head into the Persian Gulf to launch strikes against whoever did this.  Thankfully, despite losing twenty-nine in the initial attack, the incredible crew of the Oliver Hazard Perry class frigate fought to save their seemingly fragile warship and the Stark was able to limp to Bahrain. We stayed in the Med and two days later anchored in Augusta Bay just off the east coast of Sicily to commence our turnover with the USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63). As has been done since the birth of the Sixth Fleet in 1950, weapons, supplies, equipment and sometimes aircraft were transferred from the carrier ending her tour to the one replacing her. And just like that, my first Med cruise came to its end.  

Nimitz Battle Group resupplying in the Med in 1987. , USN

We weighed anchor and headed west toward Gibraltar. Unfortunately, I really didn’t grasp the historical significance of what would happen as we passed through the Strait into the Atlantic, something the USS Nimitz had done at least ten times since 1976. Instead of maintaining a course west toward Norfolk, Virginia, her homeport since she was commissioned a warship of the United States Navy on May 3, 1975, we turned south and set sail for her new home on the west coast.   

The Nimitz would never again return to the Med as an aircraft carrier under the flag of the Atlantic Fleet. 

A Rite Of Passage

Our passage south would take us across the equator to a port call in the exotic Brazilian port of Rio. We would then sail around the southern tip of South America through the infamous Cape Horn and head toward Bremerton, Washington, where Nimitz would call home, sailing under the flag of the Pacific Fleet.  

Although the crew was excited to depart the Med, we didn’t have the classic case of “channel fever,” that dangerous ailment that infects a crew heading home. We still had a full month to go at sea.

As we made our way to the equator crossing, we did not do any flying. For me, Nimitz’s bow became a place of rest and relaxation as I marveled at the different views the late afternoon sky and sunsets provided.  

A crossing of the equator on any American warship is a rite of passage, an important tradition.  Even as early as the 1980s, naval traditions were slipping through the fingers of sailors and were not being replaced with anything substantive. Being woken up by screaming voices and hands pounding stand-up lockers sent me back to that first morning at Great Lakes. My once faithful SENSO comrades had donned the clothes one would expect to find on pirates and herded us to the hangar bay to join a significant majority of the carrier’s crew. There, we were reminded that all humans were born a Wog (short for “Pollywog,” a tadpole or a sailor who has not yet crossed the line) and nothing was of a lower lifeform than a Wog.  

I won’t go into the particulars of the tradition here, but the remainder of the morning and early afternoon was spent experiencing advanced techniques in humiliation. My favorite was the competition between two Wogs to see which could blow the putrid water out of the padeyes that littered the carrier deck (these are where the aircraft tie-down chains are fastened to keep a plane from moving). Of course, one Wog is ordered to put their face just above the padeye while the other Wog is ordered to do the same on the opposite side. You can figure out the rest (yeah, my face was covered!). Also, having to squirm through a tunnel filled with the compiled garbage and wasted food of 5,800 sailors over the past few days was simply one of those bucket list moments!

Shellback initiation aboard a US Navy ship circa 1982., USN

A final favorite was having my face forced into the belly of the “royal baby” which was thick with catapult grease.  It wasn’t the grease that disturbed me, it was the fact that the Navy’s PFT (physical fitness training) program certainly wasn’t working.  

After enough entertainment was had by all of King Neptune’s court, we were all baptized and converted into the Order of the Shellback. It was a fantastic, needed experience that binds sailors together, reminding them just how unique and important their lives are with the Navy family. The ceremony also provides the perfect opportunity for the flight deck and the hangar bay to get a thorough scrub down which becomes a major exercise in the movement of aircraft.

We continued on a south-by-southwesterly heading and pulled into Rio. As had been the practice of the Nimitz’ Captain in the Med, we would only have three days to enjoy this port.  One of the things that strikes you when you arrive at the waterfront of any major seaport where the U.S. Navy visits is the obnoxious greeting you receive from the loud presence of McDonalds’ Golden Arches. In the face of all of the rich history and magnificent cuisine, the line of American sailors roping out the door of the American fast food joint is a genuine cultural tragedy. (I had a Big Mac, medium fry, and a large Dr. Pepper).  

A Sikorsky SH-3H Sea King helicopter from the U.S. Navy helicopter anti-submarine squadron HS-9 Sea Griffins of Carrier Air Wing Eight (CVW-8), assigned to the USS Nimitz and a Sikorsky/Agusta SH-3 Sea King helicopter from the Brazilian Navy squadron HS-1 lower AQS-13 dipping sonar during Exercise Topex 1-87, an anti-submarine warfare exercise in which four inter-mixed U.S. and Brazilian helicopter flight crews participated., USN

Sadly, our brief stay in Rio wasn’t a good one. A couple of my squadron mates (not AWs) were arrested on what I recall were questionable charges. We ended up having to leave them there—a complicated story that goes beyond the legal issue; we had some difficult senior officers throughout the Nimitz that showed far too much self-interest than leadership. As we pulled out of Rio, our angry carrier CO berated VS-24 over the 1MC, or 1 Main Circuit, the ship’s public address system…and shortly after almost lost his job— and potentially some lives—as we nearly collided with an oil tanker. Fun times were had by all!

Flight ops were once again suspended for the duration as we now raced south to the bottom of the world. The aircraft that couldn’t be stored in the hangar bay were tied down and sealed off against the elements. We all anticipated that our carrier would be tossed about by the weather and seas Cape Horn is notorious for.  We were surprised by a relatively clear, cold morning sky as the Nimitz’ Navigator invited everyone to see the very southern tip of South America off our starboard side.

We made our way quickly up the west coast of the Americas, not stopping to visit Chile or anywhere else. As we approached San Diego, our 10 Vikings were readied and 10 AWs were picked for the fly-off and cross-country flight back to Florida. I was very happy to be number 10. It was, in reality, very unfair to fellow AWs who had been in the squadron longer than I. But the Navy does things by rank.  

We flew, first to NAS North Island and stayed overnight. It was a remarkable “full-circle” for me to walk back into the Trainer Building and say hello to all my instructors.  All 10 of the flight crews were exhausted from our seven months at sea and slept the night away. Early the following morning, our 10 aircraft launched out of San Diego and flew across the incredibly beautiful expanse of the United States—well, what I could see of it out my tiny window, anyway. 

S-3s in formation., USN

We refueled at Tinker AFB in Oklahoma and arrived at NAS Cecil Field in Florida in the early evening, having crossed through all of the countries’ time zones. 

It was good to be on solidly dry land.  

A first cruise is difficult for any sailor regardless of age, rank, or job title. For me, it was a loss of innocence and forced entry into the responsibility of being an adult. I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t prepared. I was actually angry with my brother for not telling me about what I would encounter. He wrote and told stories that were filled with the excitement of flying in the S-3 aboard the carrier.  However, he was far better prepared for the world of the sailor than I. 

My experience as a loner, growing up, prepared me to sit alone in my SENSO seat and become the best AW I could be. My desire for solitude failed me in an environment that feeds on teamwork and inter-reliance to make it through arduous times of being aboard ship. I quickly found out that any free time sailors had became time to find all the weak points of their fellow sailors and exploit them with various forms of harassment. If you showed any emotion, the feeding frenzy ensued. It was a brutal experience for a kid like me… and it was the greatest thing that could have ever happened to me.  

I had to grow-the-hell-up. 

I wish, among so many other things I failed to do, that I had had someone measure the thickness of my skin in December of 1986. I’m certain, had they done a second measurement in July of 1987, it would have been found to be considerably thicker.  

A Theoretical S-3 Viking Mission From Start To Finish

Allow me to take you on a ride in the S-3A. It’ll be a morning hop from the deck of Nimitz that is scheduled to last 2 hours.

When I woke up at 0500, on my way to take a shower, I checked the flight schedule which is posted on our berthing bulkhead. The OPS guys were usually up until the wee hours waiting for the Air Wing to figure out what was going to happen the following day. So, we usually hit the rack before the schedule was done. My launch time is 0700, so I’ll grab some breakfast in the main galley one deck below the hangar bay and be in the ready room for the briefing at 0615.  It’ll be the second launch of the day.

Two birds are launching with the other collection of Air Wing aircraft. Both of us will be doing SSC missions, one ahead of the Nimitz’s PIM and our aircraft, Scout 710 will be going north of the carrier. “Good mornings” are passed among the two crews, and we sit in the comfortable chairs as the ready room TV comes to life with the meteorological brief. The pilots and NFOs (Naval Flight Officers) make notes. The CAG intel officer then briefs today’s strike mission that the fighter and attack guys are going on. Although there will be no ASW brief from the ASMOD, the CAG intel guy gets our attention when he informs us that we will be looking for a North Korean freighter that entered the Med from the Suez Canal a week ago and is suspected of trying to deliver arms somewhere along the North African coast. A picture of it is shown. Then our own Squadron Duty Officer (SDO) briefs us on aircraft numbers, aircraft mission status, frequencies, codes and things for the pilots and NFOs to do their pilot and NFO shit with.

Finally, my pilot turns to us and we begin our crew brief discussing the mission and then emergency procedures. I listen intently as he covers “Single Engine Failure off the Cat” with the COTAC and they go through the procedure together, actually acting it out as if they were in the cockpit. He then picks a random emergency procedure from Part V or “Section Five” of our NATOPS manual, usually something related to ejection or emergency egress from the aircraft. It is always something we long-ago committed to brain and muscle memory. He calls out “Man-Seat Separation Failure.” As we verbalize it together, I close my eyes and act it out in my chair:

Harness release handle – squeeze/pull

Occupant – rotate forward

Seat – forcibly push away

D-ring – manually pull

The TACCO and I then head out of the Ready Room and go forward down the long passageway on the O-3 level to the ASMOD to pick up the TTC (Tape Transport Cartridge) and ATR (Analog Tape Recorder). I check in with the AWs to see if there are any submarines of interest out there. They tell us that a Soviet Foxtrot class diesel boat left its anchorage off Tunisia four days ago and for us to be on the lookout for it. My TACCO heads to CVIC to get the 35mm intel camera and I head to the VS-24 Paraloft to suit up for the flight.  

I enter the paraloft, which is a few doors down from our ready room. My flight gear, along with the individual gear of every other AW, pilot and NFO in the squadron, is hanging from one of the pegs along the bulkhead. I pull on all my flight gear and make my way out to the flight deck.  

A Navy pilot gears up for a flight in the paraloft. , USN

As I reach the flight deck, I put my helmet on since the HS-9 plane guard Sea King is launching.  Aircraft 710 is on elevator #1 and I only have a short walk to take from the protection of the carrier’s island superstructure. 

As I move forward, my head begins a constant swivel looking for turning propellers, speeding MD-3 flight deck tractors or ‘huffer’ carts, purple shirts hauling fuel hoses, and aircraft either under tow or taxiing. After passing two A-7s and an F-14, I find 710 with the APU (auxiliary power unit) already started. I greet the flight deck crew with a smile and climb up into the bird, checking to see the head-knockers (ejection seat arming levers) on the TACCO and SENSO’s ejection seats are down (safe) and put my helmet bag and ATR on my ejection seat. 

I then drop back out of the crew hatch and begin a quick external preflight, checking avionics bays for secured boxes, the Liquid Oxygen (LOX) bay for any signs of frost or ice on the 10 liter LOX ‘bottle’ (which looks more like a green basketball than a bottle), landing gear tires for undue wear, the engine fan blades for damage and consistency, the tailhook for damage, and the presence of a “remove before flight” pin. Finally, I check the 60 sonobuoy chutes for buoy placement, secureness, and the load we want to carry.  

Kevin pre-flighting the S-3 Viking., Personal Photo

During the entire inspection, I keep an eye out for hydraulic and fuel leaks or puddles.  Frequently, with such a relatively large aircraft, the tail of the Viking is hanging over the deck or elevator edge precluding any preflight. It is then that we truly rely on the professional attention to detail of the squadron plane captain (brown shirt), maintenance techs and mechs (green shirts), and final checkers (white shirts with a checkerboard spray-painted on it) to check that portion of the aircraft before they park it in that position and after we begin to taxi to the catapult. 

Climbing back into the aircraft, I move into the avionics tunnel to load my ATR and check all the avionics boxes ensuring they are mounted correctly. After checking the circuit breaker panels, I perform my most important preflight: inspection of my ejection seat.  

By the time I sit down, the TACCO is just settling in and the pilot is starting #1 engine. The hatch is closed and #2 engine is started. The TACCO then turns power on to the GPDC and starts the loading sequence from the TTC. If we have any problems with the load, and there is time before the launch starts, the pilot will shutdown the #2 engine to allow the troubleshooting techs to determine the source of the problem. 

As the computer loads, I’m checking my own boxes and screens at my station to ensure I have a system that is completely ready. I sit and listen intently to the talk in the cockpit, particularly between the two front seaters. They have an informed view of what is going on outside the aircraft and any safety issues, such as the very real possibility of an aircraft crashing on deck or one catching fire, that will be relayed by them directing what actions, if any, we in the back should take. They also will begin the checklists that will require us to arm our ejection seats as soon as the plane captain gets permission to remove the chains binding us to the flight deck.  

An S-3 crew prepared for launch. , USN

As we taxi, I’m going through my various sensor systems ensuring they are working correctly.  Meanwhile, the COTAC or pilot is giving us a running commentary of where we are on the flight deck (particularly at night and/or in bad weather) providing us with situational awareness.  

You learn to listen to the tone of the officers’ voices to have that additional understanding of what is happening. This is so critical because an aircraft carrier deck, despite its layer of non-skid, is a very slippery place where airplanes regularly slide along, sometimes beyond what the yellow shirt directing the aircraft intends. Add a stormy night when you are trying to get to a catapult on a moving deck and it can be downright terrifying. 

On one such terrible night, a sliding aircraft and the fear heard in the voices of the front seaters caused a SENSO in another squadron to self-eject, thinking the aircraft was going over the deck edge into the ocean. Thankfully, he survived and the aircraft stayed on the deck.

The always amazing yellow shirts direct us from our parking spot to the waist catapults. I hated launching from Cat 4 since our left main-mount tire rubbed the deck edge scupper and out my tiny window was nothing but ocean. I loved launching from Cat 4 because it was the shortest track of the four catapults on a modern carrier deck. Thus, it provided the most powerful cat shot, particularly if you had a heavy airplane. As we turn sharply by elevator 4, I see that we are being readied to go to Cat 4 (dammit and yay!). 

View from the cockpit as the S-3 prepares to taxi aboard the boat. , USN

We are positioned behind the raised Jet Blast Deflector (JBD) of cat 3 where an E-2 is just going to full power—it just had to wait for us and the other S-3 to pass before it unfolded its wings.  The pilot calls for the stowing of the INCOS trays (our control interfaces in the back) as the Hawkeye quickly disappears from view. Cat 3’s JBD is retracted back into the flight deck, giving us a clear path to cat 4. We’re next.  

We taxi forward, the pilot unfolds the wings and we are hooked up to the catapult shuttle. I deselect ‘hot mic’ on my intercom system control panel ensuring that the engine sound at full power will not bleed over the intercom system, dangerously interfering with cockpit communication. If I see or smell something wrong, I’ll simply shift my foot to the foot pedal actuator on the floor and let them know. I glance around at the right-side circuit breaker panel, look at the TACCO and his station to make sure he looks hooked up and ready to go. I give him a thumbs up and look over my station one last time.

The airplane goes to full power and I assume the position, ensuring my entire body is in the proper ‘ejection envelope.’ If something goes terribly wrong, I will not have time to think about where my arms, legs, or head is. Should one of the front seaters pull their ejection handles, my seat’s rocket motor will have me clear of the aircraft in 4/10ths of a second, separated from my seat in 7/10ths of a second and I’ll be underneath a full canopy in 3.7 seconds regardless of whether or not my neck is broken.  

The pilot then does his full ‘wipeout’ of the controls and calls out particular instruments that the COTAC confirms are good for a proper launch. The engines are screaming and airplane is bucking against the holdback fitting and the COTAC looks back to see two thumbs up from the both of us in the back.  

Boom! We are racing down the track and with a jolt we are airborne!  


The aircraft banks quickly to the left performing the requisite clearing turn to ensure we don’t collide with someone launching from the bow catapults—there isn’t anyone but we do it every time regardless or the Air Boss will make sure the pilot knows he failed to do so in his usual, loving and condescending manner on UHF for all to hear. Wings go back level, the gear are up, and everyone relaxes a bit.  

Launching and trapping are always the most dangerous moments in naval aviation. So, what just happened there, from the moment we manned the aircraft to this point we are climbing out away from the ship, not a single radio transmission is made by anyone on the carrier or in an airplane during a day VFR launch, unless there is an emergency. Not a word! I am still humbled by this tremendous fact.

If we aren’t under EMCON (emissions control—basically radio frequency silence) conditions, I ask the COTAC to put power to the radar and I get down to work. As we climb to altitude and check in with the E-2 for tasking or vectoring, I begin my search in a relatively small scale on my radar screen. My desire is to develop an immediate picture of what radar contacts we have around the carrier. I also want to try and catch any airborne targets to warn the pilot of the presence of another aircraft. Although I really couldn’t determine altitude, the APS-116 radar did a really good job detecting aircraft. 

As contact was made, I ‘hooked’ it with my trackball and created a radar symbol on everybody’s display. If, say, there was a large collection of fishing vessels in one locale, I’d mark one contact and inform the TACCO of the number of boats so as not to clutter our displays.

The E-2 does have tasking for us. Real-time intel suspects that the North Korean freighter might be in a shipping lane 140 miles to our north. We level off at a good cruising altitude and I extend the range of my radar display and begin to mark contacts. Since it will take a while to get there the inevitable cockpit talk begins and fattened helmet bags are relieved of their contents.  I might have some candy bars I share with the other three, they might have crackers or a couple of cans of Coke or Pepsi. The discussions are always informative and fun. My enlisted-ness was left on the flight deck but there was always the standing rule: what’s talked about in the cockpit, stays in the cockpit. Of course, if one of the senior officers (Lieutenant Commander or above) was in the cockpit with us, it might be a quiet flight. However, if you’re flying with the Ops or Maintenance Department officer or the XO or CO, they tended to loosen their tongue and we had tabloid access to the latest Air Wing, carrier, and battlegroup gossip. 

Being the sole enlisted guy in the aircraft had its unexpected benefits!

Normally, when doing an SSC mission, we would make a radar plot and then drop down to investigate as many of ships as time and tasking allowed. If of interest, the COTAC would take a picture of the ship. On this flight, we just plotted the ship returns and made our way to the area that the North Korean ship might be. As we get closer to the site, the TACCO sets up a search box and I mark every radar contact. We have plenty of fuel, so we drop down and begin a systematic search.  

We aren’t going to spend any time with each ship, just check to see if it resembles the intel pic the COTAC has in hand. If there are multiple ships in the area, I alternate between radar and FLIR to visually rule out ships that are clearly not similar. If we think there is one, we go over and take a closer look. Also, I am constantly updating my radar contacts. By doing so, the GPDC (mission computer) takes my multiple entries and estimates the speed and direction of movement the contact is making, displaying it on everyone’s scope. The good thing about cargo ships is that they rarely alter course or change speed since their owners want them to go from point A to point B as quickly and fuel efficiently as possible.

Warships are another matter. If we gain contact on one and determine visually that it is a warship, it automatically gets our full attention. We report these immediately and give them extra care, especially if they belong to an unfriendly nation. After another hour, none of the contacts develop into the North Korean boat. Clearly, we won’t be making it back to the carrier for our scheduled recovery, but when you’re flying in the S-3, that isn’t a problem.  

We hear the E-2 calling, but not on our UHF frequency. “Scout 710, Bear Ace on guard.” We climb up to altitude due to poor radio reception with the Hawkeye and try to get them on UHF. 

“Bear Ace, Scout 710 on UHF.”

“Scout 710, read you. Ident and say fuel.” The COTAC determines the fuel state and radios it to the E-2.

“Roger that, 710. Go UHF secure.” We comply. 

“Scout 710, read you loud and clear. New tasking. Possible subsurface contact bearing 176 from you, 102 miles. Detected by Briar Patch. Briar Patch heading in that direction from the south, ETA 1.5 hours. Mother and escorts have gone EMCON and are moving further south. Be advised, Intel states no expected Soviet submarine in this area. Your signal is buster.”  

The E-2 is telling us that one of our escorts, call sign Briar Patch, had an ESM (electronic support measures, basically RF emissions) hit north of its position from an emitter usually only seen from a Soviet nuclear submarine. We passed over Briar Patch, a Knox class frigate on our way up here.  So, the origin of this ESM hit is between us and our escort. We didn’t get the hit for our own ESM systems since we were down low checking surface ship names. We are to head there at fastest, practical speed. As always, the pilot is keeping a running tally on our fuel load.

“Bear Ace, Scout. Roger that. Advise Mom to have another Viking ready if we do obtain contact.  We estimate only 1 hour on station due to fuel expended and Mom’s move away from us.” The E-2 acknowledged. Thank God for the ever-present angel that the Hawkeye always was for Vikings everywhere.

The TACCO instructs me to turn off the radar as the pilot pushes the throttles forward and we climb out to take up the prescribed heading. “I don’t want him to know we are up here if he hasn’t already figured it out. We’ll wait until we are in the suspected area before we radar flood.” I “Roger that, Sir” and turn the APS-116 off. 


I get my acoustic system ready and tune-up one of the 31 frequencies available to us to get the system processing. I also check additional frequencies to see if anything is being transmitted on them since there is shipping in the area and the coast of Crete is relatively close. Unfortunately, the frequency range allotted for sonobuoys transmission just so happens to be used by dispatching companies, fire and police departments, and doctor’s messaging beepers…at least in the United States, anyway. Any sort of RF transmissions could interfere with my reception from the sonobuoys. It’s not expected, but I always want to be ready.

“ESM hit from a Snoop Tray!” the COTAC excitedly calls out. At the same time, the TACCO says a Link 11 ESM contact is displayed giving a relatively good fix on where the possible submarine might be transmitting. It’s looking more and more like an actual submarine since the transmissions are only single sweeps. She is clearly trying to find the battlegroup with her mast-extended Snoop Tray radar. I ask the TACCO if I can radiate to try and gain contact on the exposed masts. He hesitates, then says “No. We have a fix, let’s go in and drop a pattern and try and maintain some measure of surprise.”

We begin to descend to a good altitude to drop sonobuoys. The TACCO has been talking with the frigate, convincing the ship’s TAO to convince the ship’s skipper to stop their highspeed run toward the contact and deploy their SQR-19 towed sonar array since we are going to be on top of the fix in a few minutes. Alpha-Xray comes up on our frequency and informs us that the S-3 they had planned to send to relive us, due to our diminishing fuel, is ‘mission-down,’ probably meaning they don’t have a good system. Another Viking won’t be able to get here for another two hours. They have decided to send an A-6 tanker out to refuel us. Additionally, NAS Sigonella is going to launch its alert P-3 and a Royal Navy Nimrod operating out of Cyprus has changed course and is headed this way. Clearly, Sixth Fleet has been caught off guard by this contact.

The TACCO sets up a pre-planned pattern of sonobuoys and sends a Fly-To-Point (FTP) to the pilot’s limited screen—he can only see symbology, such as this FTP or a radar contact, we don’t want him distracted by an actual radar or FLIR display. “I’m not going to drop a BT buoy right away. That temp probe will make too much noise.”After a few more minutes the TACCO calls “60 seconds for first drop. Keep an eye out for a feather.” I hear a pop as the SSQ-53 DIFAR buoy is ejected from our aircraft and the TACCO calls “RF2 away.”

I instantly tune up RF2 and begin to listen. You can actually hear the buoy’s hydrophone descend to its depth. Even as it descends to its preset depth, the buoy begins to transmit the sounds the ocean is making. I look hard for that classic signature associated with a variety of Soviet submarines that have a Snoop Tray radar. Nothing. “After we lay this initial pattern, we’ll climb out and hook up with the tanker,” the pilot tells the TACCO. As if on cue: “Scout 710, Bear Ace. Raygun 502 bears 196 at 27, angles 15, left-hand pattern.” Raygun was the callsign for an A-6E tanker from VA-35 Black Panthers 

“RF 10 away. Depth for this one is 200 feet. I’m going to alternate as we go along.”  Since we didn’t drop a BT buoy to evaluate the temperature of the water down to a depth of 1000 feet, we don’t know where the ‘layer’ is. Buoys placed at 90 feet and then 200 feet attempts to get a hydrophone above and below a possible layer in hopes of gaining contact. We laid the remaining buoys and I tuned each one up, waiting for the information to populate. It was a 12-buoy pattern so I could watch all of them at the same time. In the S-3, we could display 16 buoys at one time. The S-2 Tracker, on the other hand, could only watch four at a time.  And just as the pilot said, we began to climb out to meet the tanker.  

NATOPS only required an oxygen mask to be worn by the crew during a controlled ejection.  It left the option to the crew to wear one during launch, recovery and inflight refueling with the exception of tanking above 10,000 feet or refueling from a KC-135 or KC-10. The Intruder slowly grew in front of us, its drogue already hovering in the sky behind it. “IFR checklist complete,” the COTAC called over the intercom. My oxygen mask was on and my visor was down. I glanced one more time out the front windscreen and advanced my display on the MPD.  On my upper screen, I began to see something on RF22, one of the last buoys dropped and set at 200 feet. I quickly brought that buoy up on my MPD.  


“Contact RF22, subsurface contact, very weak. Possibly a Victor class SSN. No other buoy contact at this time.” As I’m saying this, the pilot eases our refueling probe into the tanker’s drogue with just a hint of vertical movement.  

Contact RF22! Subsurface contact. SENSO station MPD (lower screen) and Auxiliary Readout Unit (upper screen)., Lockheed Martin

“Alpha-Xray, Scout 710 has subsurface contact on RF22, possible Victor class SSN.”

The buoy was placed on Link-11 as soon as it was dropped, so the battlegroup will know where in the world it is. “Damnit! We aren’t getting gas.”

‘Raygun, Scout, are you seeing any fuel transfer?’

“Negative, 710.”

Our attention is now divided between this surprising contact and the fact that we might not be able to take on gas. The pilot backs us out and away from the drogue. He might not have hit it hard enough to get it to transfer fuel. He increases the throttle and hits it pretty solidly. 

“Scout 710, Alpha-Xray. Briar patch has contact.” We only have two UHF radios so we are only talking to the A-6 and the ASW commander. Wish we could talk with the Knox class frigate directly to find out what they are classifying it as. Their towed array is far more sensitive than my DIFAR buoys.  

“Losing contact on RF22, Sir. Gaining very weak contact on RF30.” The last buoy in the pattern, also set at 200 feet. The submarine is moving south, toward the carrier. We have got to get some gas so we can lay more buoys!

“710, still no transfer. We got a good package check from an F-14 just before we headed your way.”

“Roger that, Raygun. Break. Bear Ace, 710, we have to bingo to the boat right now.”

KA-6D about to refuel and S-3., USN

Damnit! We won’t be able to go down and track this guy. Thankfully, the tail ship has contact.

“Alpha-Xray, 710. Interrogative, P-3 or Nimrod?”

“Scout 710, Alpha-Xray. Standby.”

The E-2 vectors us and the tanker to the carrier while the TACCO gets the ETA on the P-3 and Nimrod. The former is an hour out, the latter about an hour and a half. The frigate will hopefully maintain contact. We don’t have enough fuel to go back down and drop a proper tracking pattern. And there is something peculiar about this Victor. I should have contact on several buoys at one time. I continue to watch it fade in and quickly fade out on RF30.  

“Alpha-Xray, Scout 710. Lost contact RF30.”

“Roger that, 710. Briar Patch has intermittent contact.”

We returned to the ship with vectors from the E-2 since the carrier went to EMCON to keep the submarine from finding her. This includes no TACAN emission. We had enough fuel to come in for a CASE I recovery, meaning no radio communications with the carrier since it was still visual flight rules conditions. Of course, the boat would have had us do a Carrier Controlled Approach had the weather been bad or had we been making a night recovery. Because everybody’s faster than us, the A-6 had already recovered and we broke at the bow. The pilot did call the ball on the radio and gave our very low fuel state. The pilot caught the “3-wire” and the LSOs gave him a grade of “OK.”

Back aboard safely. A VS-32 S-3 is directed out of the arresting gear aboard USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71)., USN

I quickly pulled the ATR out of the recorder and made my way to the ASMOD. The TACCO and COTAC beat me there by a few minutes. All of us are still in our flight gear, all three of our helmets resting on the watch officer’s desk. During the debrief, we reviewed the tape. We also found out the reason why the Victor was so quiet.  She was a Victor III.

So, this is how a complete mission from the carrier might go. This was all just a story I made up to show some of the detail of a typical flight…and a ‘typical’ flight might just have turned out like this in the 1980s when you’re flying off an aircraft carrier in the Med, the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf, or the Western Pacific. Actually, some of the particulars did happen to me, such as not being able to refuel in flight when we had already called ‘bingo fuel.’ Thankfully, we weren’t operating in a Blue Water Ops situation and we made an emergency landing at Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico with both of our ‘fuel low’ lights glowing ominously. Also, I have never tracked a Victor III or any other boats of the Victor class. Regardless, it’s a good end-to-end look at how life in the S-3 could unfold on any given day while deployed. 

In The Enlisted We Trust

One of the genuinely amazing things about the U.S. Navy is how they train and then rely on enlisted personnel to perform critical missions that can hold the lives of many fellow sailors and objects of great monetary value in the balance. The S-3 was not alone in having an aircraft whose primary mission, at the time, relied on the training and professional performance of an enlisted Naval Aircrewman. The maritime patrol community relied on three AWs to contribute to the historical success of the P-3 Orion. 


Additionally, I will never be able to say enough about the helo community where the AWs in the back of the SH-3 Sea King, the SH-2 Seasprite, and the SH-60B Seahawk not only performed similar tasks as their fixed-wing brethren, but routinely risked their lives as SAR swimmers by leaving their aircraft “so others may live.” In my view, these guys defined the concept of hero each and every day the rotors turned overhead.

Part III of our Confessions Of An Ancient Viking Submarine Hunter series will take us back out to sea on Kevin’s second cruise. Now a far more experienced and hardened SESNO, we get more exciting tales from above and on the high seas. We also hear about a harrowing crash that Kevin was involved in, we dive into the new capabilities the upgraded S-3B brought to the fleet, what life was like in an S-3 squadron while deployed aboard the carrier, and more of the ins and outs of how to successfully keep Soviet submarines at bay. You can find Part III here.

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