Seasnake's Aviation Page

 

The Minsk

 

 

For a brief, shining moment, the most powerful ship the Soviets possessed was a warship named MINSK. His designation (Russians feel warships are masculine) was a TAKR, or Aircraft-Carrying Heavy Missile Cruiser. That pretty much summed up this Man o' War. From an Empire built on repression and darkness, this looming steel leviathan came under the Southern Cross, and toward us.

 

 He was built in the Black Sea, and with fitting out completed, the MINSK was assigned to the distant Red Banner Pacific Fleet. The Point A of this math problem is in Euro-Asia's land-locked Black Sea, some 20,000 sea miles from Point B, the Far East Russian city of Vladivostok.

  

This class of ship is hugely expensive to build. The economy of the Soviet Union sagged under the burden of producing gigantic submarines and warships such as these. For propaganda purposes though, nothing could compare with the image of an aircraft carrier launching warplanes. So, the Russian shipyards at Nikolaev began to crank out these giants.

 

 The lead ship was called KIEV, and it caused quite a stir the first time it sailed. The Western/NATO nations had grown accustomed to owning the oceans and these new ships were built to take some of those waters away. KIEV had the muscle to do it.

 

 Unlike any other Carriers, the KIEV-class carried more offensive punch than just his jets. Heavy, long range anti-ship missiles bristled on the deck, along with rapid fire cannons in several dual mounts. Some 20 weapon systems studded the brute, most all from its blunt bow. Everywhere, there was another gun, torpedo, missile, or radar.

 

 But, of course the jewelled daggers in any Navy are its jets. KIEV had a long, straight orange flight deck that could handle two dozen rocket-armed jump jets, similar to our HARRIER jump-jets. In addition, the ship carried a handful of helicopters adapted to guiding passing missiles to distant targets. The whole package sailed with several heavy cruisers, acting as a nucleus for a Strike Battle Group, capable of operating anywhere we could. And some places, apparently, that we could not.

 

 This was unacceptable to us. With each trip, we followed the KIEV and its escorts. Strangely, it preferred home waters, and rarely peeked out from under its protective umbrella of land-based bombers.

 

 Early in 1983, Unit #2 was completed, and the pristine, proud warship was christened MINSK. It was a near copy of KIEV, with the exception that its ceramic tile Flight Deck was pale green, vice the odd orange of the earlier ship.

 

Immediately, it was dispatched to join the fleet at Vladivostok on the far side of the Asian Continent. The journey would truly begin at the Dardanelles Strait, at Istanbul, then out of the Mediterranean and South down the coast of Africa. Next, around the Cape, within spitting distance of Antarctica and across the trackless void of the Indian Ocean. That was the first half of the voyage!

 

 On through the Mallaccan Straits at Singapore, the South China Sea, Sea of Japan, and ultimately to the chill waters of Vlad. We had 20,000 miles to study the Soviet's shiny new toy, as it travelled intently toward the Far East.

 

 MINSK rounded the lower tip of Africa and headed North, into the range of our patrol bombers, stationed on Diego Garcia in the center of the Indian Ocean.

 

 We calculated that the enemy ship would be within range of our bombers for two weeks.

 

 I trained on anti-submarine helicopters, but the Navy had attached me to a Patrol Wing command unit on the little rock called Diego Garcia. It was an odd setup, but I filled a niche in RECCO (Warship/aircraft Recognition) and Tactics, preparing the flightcrews that went out against the Soviets.

 

 During this time, I briefed the crews, then rode along as an extra set of trained eyes and my photographs were sometimes better than those of the crew.

 

 A crew showed up, bleary and bouncy from the ride from Splinterville to begin the three-hour pre-flight of the large, capable bomber. One Command crew briefed the crew and provided information on Order of Battle (who has what toys), radars and weapons, and probable sailing routes of the opposing ships. In the night, a satellite had detected only scattered ships, but we felt we knew where the MINSK might be.

  

We realized that an educated guess might bring us as close as our technology would, and there was a logical reason for our wager. Besides, Admirals don't like to hear, "I don't know."

  

The dispersed group, now called the Soviet Indian Ocean Squadron (SOVINDRON), was monitoring every radio call we made from the air or the island. Each transmission brought a subtle shift on the board, as we each made our gigantic chessboard moves. The large scale version of chess was intricate and had been fatal to each participant in the past.

  

The big four-engined ORION bomber flew out, climbing North toward 18,000 feet. There is nothing in the skies over the steel gray Indian Ocean, except clouds that stretch on forever. We were heading to the "Eight- Degree Channel", a common path that any sailor of these oceans knew well.

  

There were several ways to transit across the expanse from Cape Town to Singapore, but the most efficient way led North to the un-allied country of India, then due East toward the Mallaccan straits. It was a very long passage with little to disrupt the tedium for the Soviets, except hiding from us.

  

Just South of the tip of India, we approached the Eight-Degree Channel with dawn streaking the heavens. Dawn happens as much as half an hour earlier up at altitude than at sea level, and the clouds in the middle play havoc on visibility as they pass through the day/night demarcation. Under these conditions, it is impossible to see down through the clouds, or up.

 

 Ten US Navy flyers sat at windows on the bomber, straining our eyes to catch sight of a wake. It seems strange that we have so much in common with the men who fought in the 1942 Battle of Midway, hoping to catch sight of their enemy under identical circumstances. So much for technology!

  

The Major, a 3P (Third, or spare pilot) that I didn't know, and Gabe the Flight Engineer, all sat in the cockpit driving us northward. The cloud layer was scattered perhaps five to eight thousand feet below us making visibility truly horrid.

 

I walked up the tube to the radar operator to check his logs. He also handled the equipment that would detect any probing flashes of the Soviet's RADARs, as they in turn, searched for us. That day, there were no intercepts to guide us. Chess by feel, in the shadowed darkness....

  

I climbed up into the ORION's cockpit and slid into the corner behind the Major's elbow. He wore big padded headphones and Raybans, looking like he would be comfortable hunting U-Boats 50 years earlier. A career long-range pilot, he was completely at ease in these skies South of India.

 

"Nothing yet, Spy." I looked out his side window at the impenetrable patterns of cloud and shadow on the water below. The mist hid everyone, friend and foe. We had arrived in our search area, so the Major nosed the big plane into a shallow dive, picking up speed as we dropped. Each lower level of clouds seemed to dissolve as the suns advancing rays brushed against them. Our thick white contrail strung out behind us like an exclamation mark through the clouds.

 

 Breaking through a layer, Gabe (shaven headed, muscular, guitar playing Gabriel) pointed out ahead of our diving bomber and announced, "Ship!"

 

 The ship slowly coalesced into a recognizable shape, and in a moment, I realized that I knew what it was. My job, stupid.

  

"That's a Soviet water carrier. Called a MANYCH, I'm pretty sure. No reason for it to be out here alone." The Major nodded, and as the crew discussed the probabilities, we rose and turned, regaining the clouds. In our aircraft's tactical gray paintjob, we were invisible as we passed the ship's stern.

  

The crew clicked into a different mode, with each man performing their own precise chore as we approached the lurking Red carrier. Just two days earlier, the aircraft carrier's lead escort ship (the cruiser TASHKENT) had fired on this same American ORION. The short range missile was judged to never actually have been a "threat". After 23 years of duty against the Soviets, it appeared this old bomber was heading toward yet another confrontation at sea.

 

 "That..." The nose of our ORION nudged slightly further North. The Major leaned forward in his seat, intently eyeing the distant horizon. He did not put any other words in his sentence, but the word quickly passed through the crew. We began a full power climb, leaning back until the Lockheed P-3 bomber was pointed at the still dawning sky. The MINSK was nearly under us as the clouds poured by - the time to "on top" ticked off. We were going to "pop up", then dive low on the water, simulating one method of attack.

 

 Now, my question is, why do this over a warship crew that is new and itching to prove itself for its own Navy, and Nation? Well, on that day in 1983, it was our job.

 

"Five...and Mark time. On top,...Now! Now! Now!"

 

 Gabriel leaned forward and left, in concert with the Major's control imputs. The big bird obeyed, and we swum up and over, to dive upon the enemy warship, 18,000 feet below.

 

 Like every war movie, our aircraft raised its voice to a howl as it fell out of the sky toward its prey. We made a dive to a point some three miles away, to suddenly appear off the Soviet aircraft carrier's side, to fly over the wake or past the nose of the giant warship.

  

With glaring finality, the dawn arrived to wash the night away. On board the Red warship, men yawned and stretched after a long night on watch or sleeping to the machinery sounds of their ship.

 

 Astern, an American destroyer from a bygone era slipped into the MINSK's broad wake, and the game is on again. The much larger, newer, and more efficient Soviet ship began a high-speed run toward the 8-Degree Channel, only a couple of nautical miles distant. With all the speed the 1950's had to offer, the USS Towers pursued the retiring MINSK.

 

The sailors on the bridge of the MINSK must have enjoyed that brief moment, as the American fell further and further behind. Then, the tension of the second was broken loudly by the cry of the Starboard Watch. Seamen swung their heads to the direction of the new threat. We had arrived.

 

 In a classic profile of a torpedo attack from amid-ships, we strained out of our dive at 100 feet above the Indian Ocean. The Soviets were within sight of the Channel, and the entry to the Bay of Bengal. Hundreds of miles from any American base, we roared low and fast and LOUD at our enemy.

 

 Klaxons wailed, men ran to their posts, powerful systems sprang to life all over the Aircraft Carrier. The numerous weapons systems that the ship was so well known for began to wink into awareness.

 

 Our approach happened too fast for a coordinated response. The general confusion of the moment multiplied by another factor as one of our own lookouts sang out that a second bomber, a big Ilyushin, was coming down too! My mind ticked down the various likely bases for this new intruder, but its Soviet origins were pretty obvious.

 

As we rampaged by at full power, the other bomber began its run, drawing some of the MINSK's attention. We sailed by, caught in the bright illumination of the massive search radar. In that quick, firing-pass second we had time to snap off dozens of photographs of the new ship, as it scrambled to respond to our insult.

 

 Scrambled was the operative word! As we CPA'd (Closest Point of Approach), we were quite close enough to see an immaculate row of polished, baby blue fighter jets parked tightly on the aircraft carrier's deck. Of the many men running across the flightdeck, at least one was clearly a pilot, in helmet and cammo flightsuit.

  

It was now time for us to make speed out of there. The pass was over, and we were a long way from home.

 

 From down the tube, the head of the Sensor 3 poked out to pass the word that we were still being tracked by the ship, rapidly fading behind us. The specs on that radar said we had miles to go under their guns and missiles. Gabe coaxed a few more knots out of our old Lockheed, that probably had a huge reserve of untested speed.

  

Our radio blared to life with an authoritative voice named "Sky King". On encrypted circuits, Sky King called, "There is radio traffic on the Soviet GCI (Ground Control for Interceptor Aircraft) channel. Expect launch imminent." They ended with our callsign, but we already had figured out who was in trouble. That radar had us spotlighted for the hounds.

 

 Far behind us, the 45 seconds it took to cold-start a stubby Yakovlev fighter ticked down to zero. With an ear-shattering bang, the engines belched to life, screaming like a harpy. The jet's single pilot girded the VTOL fighter into wobbly, ungainly flight. The tricky little YAK-38 had a notorious reputation among Soviet pilots, but on this day, it was a completely unknown quantity to us. We only knew he was coming.

  

The safety of the wavetops was now reduced to nothing, so we made the old airman's trade of altitude for airspeed. You pull up, you loose speed. The trick is to have the right mixture of each. Ahead and above us, the skies were filled with the clouds we had so recently left.

 

 Our information said that the Yak jump jet was not all-weather, which to us meant that it had trouble doing its mission in anything except clean air. We ran off, desperate to find a rain shower.

  

A few more grains of sand passed, when the Port Aft Observer yelled, "One bandit, passing under us!" The Major pulled up abruptly to keep us from getting thumped by the Soviet fighter's close pass. For one dazzling second, we danced an improbable aerial ballet -- a propeller-engined, antique ORION bomber and a shiney blue Yakovlev vertical takeoff fighter. Our size difference was around 6:1...

 

 Steeply, we swooped up to the protective anonymity of the clouds while our antagonist rolled past us.

 

 In the next tick, we shuddered and slammed our way into the whiteout of an open-ocean squall. The large Lockheed was swallowed whole, forcing the nearly blind jump jet to break off and scoot for home. The YAK-38s Achilles' Heel was extremely short range, but we were unaware of it.

 

 The aged bomber's many years of active duty had led to many improvements that created a sturdy, solid airframe, that was not intimidated by the sudden spring storm. We plowed on ahead, through the storm, and out of danger. Far behind us now, the probing spotlight of the Soviet's main search radar suddenly shut off, and our meeting with the mighty MINSK was over.

 

 Two hours South, heading home to an island of palm fronds and calm coraline beaches, we passed another P-3, making the trip to locate the MINSK. Our contact report was sent, and the second Lockheed continued outbound, looking for trouble.

  

Our mission ended with tires smoking on the runway of Diego Garcia, in the midst of a torrential tropical down-pour. The photos came out excellent -- the type of sortie was our equivalent of "tagging the bear".

 

The Minsk went on to serve with distinction in the Red Banner Pacific Fleet, until the fall of the Soviet Union. Freedom ripped its teeth out, and sold its engines and deck tiles for scrap. With sadness, I watched the moment of this ship's vitality pass.

 

 The gleaming symbols of the vanquished empire sank quietly at their piers in the harbors of Vladivostok, victims of neglect and the passage of time. Rust claimed the MINSK, the TASHKENT, and dozens of others.

 

 


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