Seasnake's Aviation Page

Introduction

I flew for the USN from 1979 to 1989 at the height of the Cold War. I deployed to the Indian Ocean, Somalia, the North Arabian Sea, the Pacific, the Bering Sea, Sea of Japan, Sea of Ohkotsk, and many other places off the beaten track. I rode ships from tiny Frigates up to the largest nuclear Aircraft Carriers, and made a five day trip aboard a nuclear submarine.

I began my career as an S-3 "Viking" Plane Captain, inspecting and keeping S-3A BuNo (Navy Bureau Number, or serial) 159747 ready to fly at all times. My first deployment was a year spent in the Northern Indian Ocean aboard USS Eisenhower, where I learned to fly in SH-3 "Sea King" helicopters in my off duty hours.

I went to AW "A" School in 1981, learning how to hunt submarines -- I was the first sailor to "challenge" the course, completing the 14 week school in 4 weeks with a 90.22 average. This got me command advanced to petty officer (AW-3) and recommended for the next promotion cycle, so I went from E-3 to E-5 in a year.

I volunteered for isolated duty and was assigned to the staff of Patrol Wing One on Diego Garcia in the center of the Indian Ocean, flying missions against the Soviets all around the IO and into Africa. I visited Mogadishu and Berbera Somalia, Djibouti, Oman, and a few other places no one ever heard of. In 1983, I did something that made a name for myself in the intel community and I never had a regular job in the Navy after that. Part of my job on "Dodge" was to brief and debrief flight crews going out to intercept transiting Soviet Naval units, including their rare aircraft carriers and "Papa 046", a nuclear submarine that sank after we chased it around for half a year.

I returned to San Diego and learned how to crew the aging SH-2F "SeaSprite", a wonderful helicopter that became my favorite toy. For a couple years, I was assigned to HSL-33 at NAS North Island and also ran the intel library and taught Soviet tactics and threat recognition to pilots and aircrews.

Detachments from HSL 33 "Seasnakes", 35 "Magicians", and 37 "Lamplighters" spent the mid-80s cycling through forward deployments to Atsugi Japan. When not assigned to trailing the USS Midway, these frigate-embarked SH-2F detachments occasionally were sent into the northern Pacific, Sea of Japan, and on rarer occasions, into the Sea of Ohkotsk. The Soviets met us at the door in all three of those places.

During 1985, I was assigned to the USS Kirk as senior crewman on two SH-2F detachments, Det 3J and 3K (one relieved the other; I was left in place as a replacement for an aircrewman that quit his job in fear of our aging helicopter and its propensity for crashing).

Our encounters with Soviet gunships, known as “Hinds”, were usually limited to when we were in the Sea of O. Outside the Kurile Island chain, the Soviets sortied a wide variety of aircraft to investigate close approaches by USN units such as ours. The usual thundering Tu-95 Bears were familiar to everyone, but we also met low flying  Tu-16 Badgers, graceful Be-12 Mail seaplanes, and during one exciting afternoon, a force of 48 Tu-22 Blinders and Backfires coming out of Central Asia. Once inside the Sea of O, just about everything in the Soviet aerial inventory came out to harass and dog us including the very rare Mi 14 "Haze" (only time I saw them). Fighters, both modern and archaic, took turns radiating at us or thumping our 30 year old helicopter.

On the same day, we'd get gravity-laced messages from "Sky King" announcing that "Suhkois are off the deck inbound from Ostrov Iterup." and "MiGs are active - Heads up."

One call always got our attention - "Rotary wing aircraft are inbound from the mainland." That meant Mi 24-Ds were coming out to intercept us. Always a pair; one high and 1/2 mile behind us, and one co-sharing our airspace. They came close enough we could hear them over the sound of our own helicopter. We could feel the vibration of their rotors through our own airframe. As an intimidation tool, more than once they brought their Hinds right up into closer than we flew to wingmen - on two occasions, they forced us to break away to avoid a collision as they just kept on coming at us.

We flew with a "spook" (a dedicated intelligence-trained photographer) and we had spooks aboard our ship - the onboard spook was there to monitor radio traffic between the Soviet aircrews and ground control, to tell us when we had gone too far (either geographically or otherwise). Often it was a white faced plea - "We need to get out of here!"

We flew two five-hour cycles using whatever daylight was available. Due to the risk of collision and the absence of any SAR effort if we went down, there were no night flights. That meant we were really hopping during the day. Once we launched, the Soviets sent someone out to intercept.

It soon became apparent that they were sending one particular airman out frequently - whichever Hind was assigned "close escort" to us, almost every day, the forward / gunner's cockpit was crewed by a pleasant man we (for obvious reasons) called Ivan. Ivan had a broad black mustache and a ready smile. He was like the neighbor that waved at us from over the hedge each day.

Judging by things they did, it was clear we were not seen as any sort of threat and after the initial period of aggression, the Hind crews played with us. Our landing gear malfunctioned routinely due to the cold temps so we left them down and pinned when it was at its coldest. OAT simply didn't register and we joked that we needed an OAT guage that measured in Kelvin. When the Commie rat bastards realized that the Yankee Air Pirates couldn't raise and lower their gear, they flew alongside of us with big smiles, cycling their gear up and down.

Other times, the crewmen in the cargo stations of the brutish gunship helicopters put signs up in the windows with our call numbers on them. In this balmy period of the Cold War, they came right out and played games with us, like a well-armed cat slapping around an unarmed mouse.

We frequently raced them, either starting from a hover or from a 'flying start'. The only contest we ever won was hovering - often, the Hinds could only manage to hold a slow creep and it was clear they were too heavily loaded with weapons and fuel.

After weeks of watching us end our flights by flying approaches to our ship with recognizable 'gates', our "high escort" broke away from following us one day and made several _perfect_ approaches to our ship, as if it intended to land. After the first, the flight deck crew realized we might have a "Red October" situation on our hands, so they hurriedly made a sign in Russian saying, "Go ahead and land!" (See? This is why you need Spooks on your ship - to make posters.) We made a video tape of the event - sadly, CDR Fondren now has the only copy. The plan was to allow the Hind to land, quickly cut off its blades and tail pylon, then shut the hangar over the top of it. That wouldn't leave any room for our trusty old POS Seasprite, so we were told that if push came to shove, we were to ditch alongside the ship. Seriously.

We wore "elephant asshole" anti-exposure suits but I still wasn't looking forward to a dunking in the 29-degree Sea of O.

I got my next job in an unconventional way.  Out at sea, we were required to take incredibly hard tests to measure our knowledge of acoustic methods of catching submarines.  For most of the “AWs” assigned to the fleet, hunting submarines was primarily done by these methods and it proved to be an extremely perishable skill.  To fight off the creeping degradation of those skills, all AWs were ordered to take and pass these four hour grueling math tests every three months. 

The problem with us in the LAMPS community is that we did not use these skills to detect or track submarines – in fact, we had neither the gear nor the necessary publications to keep any level of training up to an acceptable level.  Worse still, once we left shore, helicopter AWs were assigned literally dozens of additional jobs that often kept us working 15 to 18 hours a day.  Flying endless missions and dealing with all the other tasks meant that training in Acoustic Analysis was simply impossible.  There was no way to avoid the Admiral’s orders to take and pass those tests, so cheating was not only acceptable, it was encouraged.  For years, each detachment was left to find its own way to avoid failing these tests which were seen as senseless, wasteful, and aggravating. 

One day, we got our usual thick packet of tests and I read the instructions, dutifully arranged, packaged, and mailed to us from an office 7,000 miles away.  I was just getting down from a five hour flight after working the previous 12.  I was exhausted and run down, keeping up with all the jobs we had.  Danny saw the tests, as did one of our officers – everyone knew that a failing grade could literally get Danny and I permanently grounded with the loss of our jobs.  Instead of the usual dance where we would go to the Combat Information Center to raid their publications safe for the books that would answer the excruciating tests, I made the choice to fight city hall.

I took the packet and instead of starting the treasure hunt for the answers, I turned the test over and wrote a sincere letter to the Admiral back in San Diego. I honestly do not know what I intended, but I tossed the dice with my career and told the Admiral everything – how we were flying around the clock, completing long and detailed inspections of the helicopter often several times a day, and all the other jobs that made it impossible to study.  I pointed out that our tiny Frigate didn’t even have the books we were supposed to study, or any of the gear that was covered on the tests.  With that, I mailed the tests back to the Admiral, which alarmed Danny and the officers, who naturally thought I had lost my mind. 

For the next few months, the event faded from memory and I didn’t realize that the test packets seemed to have stopped.  Eventually, that cruise came to an end and I returned to San Diego where we were home-based.  Shortly afterwards, I had two visitors come calling – a pair of Master Chief Petty Officers that worked directly for Admiral Rich, the Commander of all the Anti-submarine forces on the West Coast.  These two fine gentlemen brought their briefcases and it dawned on me that I was screwed.  The letter.  What was I thinking?  They were polite but determined to find out what the *hell* I was thinking!  I explained that I meant every word and that the situation was the same throughout the fleet.  The two men took my answers and left – I was fairly certain I would be reduced to being a cook or the guy that scraped rust off ships.   Too late to feign a temporary lapse of reason, so I just blew it off. 

The following month, I received a set of orders to report for duty to the Admiral’s Staff – he figured I would work hard and honestly for him, and so I leapfrogged over my peers into the rarified air of working among Captains and Admirals as Rear Admiral Rich’s designated representative.

After I left HSL-33, I worked at COMASWWINGPAC, for about three years. I served as the aircrew representative for all West Coast "Sea Sprite" squadrons, as well as duty teaching and acting as a Naval Courier.

My best success during this period was pushing through fleet introduction of the HEEDS or Helicopter Emergency Escape Device. With this little air bottle, victims of a crash that find themselves underwater in a sinking helicopter have the precious gift of an extra five minutes of life to use while escaping the wreck. If I had been able to do it years earlier, at least some of the 31 friends I lost in Naval Aviation mishaps might have survived. I succeeded too late to help my own friends, but in later years, dozens of airmen got that extra chance.

My swan song was a twilight tour as an instructor at SWATS, a Navy war college for airmen tasked with sinking enemy ships, typically with missiles, torpedoes, or mines. "Sea-based Weapons and Advanced Tactics School" was one of the first Navy schools to fully incorporate computers into training aircrews. We taught folks how to hunt down and destroy ships – it was during the little brush wars of the 1980s and some of our graduates actually used our training in combat.  I was one of very few enlisted instructors and I had a blast, developing my own classes and teaching up to 60 officers and enlisted aircrewmen at a time.

In 1988, I earned the honor of Sailor of the Year for the 22 squadrons and units assigned to Admiral Adams' command. I was buried in accolades and received awards on a weekly basis.  Inside, I was a wreck, but outside, I was the model of professionalism.  At the same time, I self-destructed following the loss of two more comrades.  Nightmares ruled my nights and I spiraled down.  I couldn't keep doing my job, after an entire career with the highest evaluations and dozens of awards, I made a series of stupid choices that wrecked my reputation and landed me in a huge amount of trouble.  Just as the Soviet Union collapsed under its own weight, I was grounded for a nagging back injury and my flying career ended. By New Years 1990, I left the Navy and all its wonderful experiences behind me.

These days, I raise my children Alexander and Jenna in a world that rapidly forgot what we did during the Cold War. The rise of terrorism and the shooting wars that followed have made the sacrifices of our friends into dim memories, even for those of us that lived them.   Bob is preserving my memories here, before they are gone forever. On behalf of my friends, particularly those that never came home, I thank him for his efforts.


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       Gordon Permann
    NAVY SAR AIRCREW

 

 


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Last Modified: Tuesday March 10, 2009

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