In April of 1980, my ship led a Battle Group of warships from Norfolk, Virgina to the shores of Iran. Primarily, we stayed put in an imaginary box of water called Gonzo Station, waiting for word to strike at the Iranians with the bombers that we carried aboard the USS Eisenhower. At the time, we were the largest warship afloat, and we controlled the sky for 1,000 miles in every direction. Our Battle Group kept busy, preparing for a war that only Jimmy Carter knew wasn't coming.
My squadron, the Topcats of VS-31, flew little jets assigned the task of detecting and destroying enemy submarines. However, in the shallow bath-tub of the Persian Gulf, our new task was chasing rubber Zodiac boats and trying to keep tabs on the dozens of oil tankers and patrol boats that made the Gulf such fun. The warm, flat waters in the North Arabian Sea were much better suited for helicopter operations, so we didn't accomplish much with our aerial-moving van jets.
I worked the flight deck of the carrier, as a mahoot (elephant servant) for an aircraft called VIKING 747. We called all of the small sub-hunter jets Vikings; the side number of mine was 747, or Boeing, as I named her. This jet flew all but one mission that she was scheduled to fly during that year at sea. I was very proud when my name was painted on her landing-gear door. I washed it, fueled it and at night, I tucked her in bed.
This was as close to a relationship as I could get, but it still wasn't why I joined the Navy. It wasn't flying. I spent all of my slack-time hanging out in the Pilot's Ready Room (a big no-no), talking with crews from all of the other squadrons.
Eventually, I convinced a SENSO (Enlisted Airborne Sensor Operator) that I was dedicated to making the jump. He agreed to tutor me and help prepare me for Flight School. Joel Baker and I holed up for hours; studying Red warships and tactics, and breaking every rule of security to do it. That man did more than anyone to give me a chance at flying.
In June, I borrowed a flight suit and went to the helicopter squadron onboard. Often, there are open seats on the birds and it is not unheard of for a visiting crewman to jump rides and tag along. Since all flights in the North Arabian Sea (NAS) were operational sorties (not training flights), passengers -- anyone unqualified to fly -- were strictly forbidden.
Somehow, I convinced a pilot that I wouldn't get in the way and he said okay. With that nonchalant comment, my Naval flying career began. Joe went over safety procedures with me so I could bluff my way through a briefing and flight. Sweat was trickling down my back as I approached the Ready Room. One deck above us, Tomcat fighters and A-6 Intruder jets were taking off and landing with their howls and thunder.
I sat in my brand-new flight boots and tried not to look conspicuous. My own squadron was only one Ready Room away and if I was detected, I would be dancing on the carpet for my Skipper.
The mission was a long, circular track around the perimeter of our convoy. The warships were arranged to provide overlapping radar and missile coverage and each day, a helicopter would launch at dawn to make sure we had the same number of ships we started with.
The Dawn Patrol conducted a vectored search, identifying each contact in our vicinity. We were searching for Red-flagged or Soviet ships. One trawler, the NIKOLAI ZUBOV, had been in our shadow for months. Other ships were executing their chess-board moves and we observed them all.
We lifted off, flying very low in the cold grey predawn. Soon, the enormous aircraft carrier disappeared behind us and we were alone. Silhouetted shadows on the horizon presented low, menacing targets, but these warships were American. The hours of staring at Recognition manuals and photos brought a whisper of a name for each of the combatants as we hurried by.
The Indian Ocean sunrise began to paint the bottom of the overcast, its intensity almost blinding. The fingers of dawn reached out, crossing the wave tops - darkness seemed to flee from its touch. Night quickly dissolved all around us.
The heavy blanket of overcast would soon cost us the sunlight we needed for photos, so we tried to expedite: the big SEAKING helicopter shuddered in acceleration. The turbine whine of the big chopper was deafening, but I found the vibration and smells familial and comforting. It felt quite natural.
I sat beside a bearded crewman, professional and busy at his electronics console. He seemed genuinely uninterested in the waves scurrying by the window fifty feet below at 100 knots (114 mph). We swung the North-Eastern loop of our mission, far out ahead of the convoy.
After several fast passes over American missile-cruisers, we settled down to land on the USS VIRGINIA for fuel and a snack.
Several crewmen rushed forward to chain us to the tiny deck, and a fuel hose snaked its way out to stick in our helo's side. Quickly, we lift off and go, to investigate a radar contact that had approached our Battle Group in the night.
A long way out, we ID'd the white passenger ship as a Soviet snooper. He had hardly "blundered" into the backyard of our aircraft carrier: satellites and communiques from the Motherland had directed the white ship to a spot just over the horizon from where we slept.
With all speed, we buzzed the Soviet's masts, making photo passes within 100' of the intruder. No people came out on deck to wave; no smoke from its stack, or call of greeting on the radio. The SENSO deployed his sensors to trail behind our helicopter as we continued our unfriendly encounter with 'the Bad Guys'.
On the third pass, the equipment picked up the transport ship, just as it should; however, the sensors also pointed a questioning finger into the depths below it.
There is a tactic that the Empire used to mask their submarines from us. A ship that sounds similar to one of their subs is sent into an area, and the Trojan Horse has the submarine lurking along beneath it. If a Sonar Operator or SENSO hears the combination of engine noises on his sonar, he looks out his window and sees the large cargo ship on that bearing and it gets dismissed as "surface related" noise. End result, the submarine gets a free ride into areas that only a transport ship should be.
The ambiguous readings that the First Crewman received corresponded to this position. The cloak of invisibility parted for a fraction too long and now, we had found our Carrier's mortal enemy. While the crew sorted through the elusive signals, I sat at the window, watching the wake of the Bad Guy and wondering if their really was a sub anywhere near.
I stared hard at the Russian ship, trying to memorize details. It continued on its way, seemingly oblivious to our angry attention to its wake.
There it was! In the flattened part of the wake, just below the swirling white foam, there was a distinct black shape.
The long, slim submarine was so close to the surface, I could see the red-and-white rescue buoy attached to its submerged deck. The co-pilot and I both yelled as he pulled the controls away from the startled pilot.
Our helicopter bucked around and pounced on the deadly shadow: in an unprotected moment, he had raised his rack of antennae and periscopes, probably wondering what the buzzing sound was overhead.
The pilot's voice boomed across the radio, "Positive contact with an unknown - possibly enemy - submarine." He sounded so calm - my heart was jammed in my throat!
In the distance, the mighty USS EISENHOWER began her ponderously majestic turn toward deeper water. Other ships were converging on our position, only now, it was a DATUM; our word for the location of a target. My little instamatic clicked twice in the 20 seconds that the black hull was near the surface. His run at periscope depth had earned him a thrashing and half of the Navy was on its way. I took home proof of our encounter with the Russian ECHO II nuclear submarine.
Other aircraft, including units of my own squadron, relieved us and we bingo'd (turned for home for fuel) as the overcast locked in. Contact with the ECHO was never regained and the elusive sub evaded all further attempts to locate it. Debriefers aboard the IKE were doubtful until we gave up the film.
I landed on that ship with the confidence that I had found a game I could truly play. My request for Flight Training came through the following month.
©Gordon Permann 1995
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