The Making Of A Submarine Hunting S-3 Viking Crewman

This is what it took to become a sub hunter tasked with protecting America's carrier battle groups at the twilight of the Cold War.

S-3A Viking
W. M. Welch, USN/Kevin Noonan

The following is the first in a multi-part series—the most in-depth we have published since our Paul Nickell series—about what it was like to train, fly, and fight in the Lockheed S-3 Viking. It's a personal story not just about one man's passion for his profession and his time executing it in the jet, but also about the nuts and bolts of often misunderstood anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare, what it took to keep Soviet submarines at bay during the twilight years of the Cold War, and on more contemporary issues surrounding the critical art of hunting enemy submarines. It also comes to us from one of The War Zone community's favorite people, Kevin Noonan, better known as Ancient Sub Hunter in our commenting section and on his colorful Twitter feed

So, without further ado, our deep dive begins, well, at the beginning as our subject set out to accomplish his dream and began to master the cat-and-mouse art of hunting submarines from the sky.

A Viking Love Affair

For an aircraft originally designed to hunt submarines, the Lockheed S-3 Viking repeatedly impressed the navy it served and those it flew against with its versatility, reliability, mission prowess, and its uncanny ability to evolve. 

The Viking held her stride no matter what task she was called upon to perform. She served a spectrum of needs within the carrier battle group (CVBG), while eagerly stepping up to the call of the odd jobs assigned by fleet commanders and even serving national political demands. 

Most importantly, the S-3 performed her primary mission of Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) and Anti-Surface Warfare (ASuW) with a finesse that can only be fostered when deeply professional aircrews and maintenance personnel are fused with a durable, forgiving, and well-designed airframe.  

Twin turbofan engines carried the Viking’s 35,000 to 50,000 pounds and four crew to any mission asked of her and kept us airborne for up to six hours without the need for refueling. Her variety of sensors and weapons ensured we could detect and destroy targets both beneath and on the surface of the ocean that threatened the CVBG. The tasking required of the S-3 would send her far and wide from the carrier and her 450 knots maximum speed allowed her to get from one place to another at a decent clip. Granted, in the jet-age of sexy-fast Tomcats, Phantoms, and Intruders, 450 knots was relatively slow.

But so are submarines.

As one of the four souls onboard the Viking, I was the sole enlisted man sitting behind the pilot and co-pilot/COTAC (Co-Tactical Coordinator) sharing the aft cockpit with the TACCO (Tactical Coordinator). My primary job was operating the acoustic, radar, and forward-looking infrared (FLIR) systems. My official title was SENSO—Sensor Operator.

I loved my job.

Kevin Noonan

Kevin alongside his beloved S-3 while aboard the carrier. 

Dreams Of Submarines And Wings

I was born into an Air Force officer’s family. The obvious question follows and was asked repeatedly over my lifetime: “Why then did you join the Navy?” 

Clearly, there is a touch of the sea and sailor in the bloodstream since my father had initially joined the Coast Guard and served in the North Atlantic on a weather observation cutter. But the aviation gene won the day when he headed off to a commission in the USAF once he completed college.

The skies of my memory are filled with the scenes and sounds of B-52s, C-124s, KC-135s, and F-105s. These daily sights, along with all the visiting aircraft—not to mention the view from my front yard of the north end of the General Dynamics plant—ensured the activation of my own predisposition to flying. However, an odd mutation arose one day in the library of my 5th grade schoolhouse. While scanning the shelves for something to read about airplanes, I discovered a book about submarines.

As the formative years progressed, aviation remained the primary influence while a love for the submarine continued to germinate. Being the baby of six kids and two years’ distant from my nearest sibling, I would lock myself in my room and read any book I could get my hands on about submarines. 

I found myself particularly fascinated with the Battle of the Atlantic during World War II. This rising infatuation with the submarine and my tendency to be a loner would both serve me well—and not so well—in the quickly approaching years of adulthood and the direction my life would take. 

There was no question that I would join the military, but which branch? My oldest brother headed off to jump out of airplanes with the Army. My oldest sister became a linguist in the USAF. My next oldest sister headed off to the USN as a Hospital Corpsman. Another sister became a Personnelman. But it was my other older brother’s chosen career that would introduce me to a field and aircraft that, surprisingly, I’d neither heard of nor seen: Aviation Anti-submarine Warfare Operator (AW) and the S-3A Viking.  

Kevin Noonan

Me in a Huey at the Carswell AFB Base Exchange parking lot circa 1974.

Training With A Cherry On Top

I had no idea that my competing, dissimilar loves had been fused together a decade before into the singular AW rating (Naval Aircrewman). Yet, in the final months of decision making, I remained torn between becoming a submariner or an aviator. 

When I finally did make the decision to become an AW, I felt I needed to take a path different from the one my Naval Aircrewman brother had taken. Instead of active duty, I chose the Naval Reserves (NAVRES). Instead of the S-3 Viking, which did not have an established Reserve squadron as the Patrol Squadron Navy had, I would be an Acoustic Sensor Operator in the Lockheed P-3B Orion.

Even as a Reservist, I would go to all the initial active duty training required of regular Navy sailors. A week after I graduated from high school, I was on my way to boot camp at Great Lakes, Illinois in the early summer of 1984. I then headed to that magnificent (and terrifying) place: the home of Naval Aviation, Pensacola, Florida. There, in Naval Aircrewman Candidate School, I earned the right to fly in naval aircraft…boy, did I earn that right!

It was there I learned how to aggressively exceed my established self-limitations. The endless running through the Naval Air Station’s historic streets and the challenge of the beach-side obstacle course was as exhilarating as it was exhausting. I was overwhelmed with the marching, inspections, and workouts on the famous sea wall where in decades past the seaplanes of a then-fledgling Naval Aviation cadre were taxied down ramps and into the bay for launching.

But it was the required water survival training that would force me to run headlong into a reality my new employer, the U.S. Navy, had not yet discovered.

I was terrified of water. 

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. What the hell was wrong with me? Joining the Navy was bad enough, but then I chose to go into a field that required I get thrown into the very environment that made my soul tremble. And the greatest dragon I would have to face was waiting for me in a building I ran past every day.

As a child, I experienced a near-drowning. Fully aware I would have to come to terms with my fear, I decided to take swimming lessons a few months prior to my departure for bootcamp. While it helped, I remained a relatively weak swimmer. Thankfully, Pensacola anticipated that some of its prospective flyers would not have been born with the requisite fin and gills that so many “natural” swimmers seem to be adorned with. Each time I entered any body of water, I was required to wear the “cherry” red helmet. This bold covering assured that the water survival instructors would keep an extra, wary eye on the tenuous swimmer wearing it. 

With a beacon on head, my journey began.

In days past, all officer and enlisted candidates were required to pass a mile-long swim qualification in Pensacola Bay wearing a flight suit, helmet, and flight boots. When I arrived in 1984, they had moved this critical qualification to one of the indoor pools. You had to swim without stopping to rest, without putting your foot on the bottom, and without touching the side of the pool. Along with these difficult demands, the presence of many future aircrewmen swimming around the pool churned up what felt like a sea state of six! I was pretty sure the bay would have been the better locale. 

Another very difficult one was treading water in full flight gear without an inflated life preserver. Again, no touching the side of the pool and we were in the deep end so we couldn’t rest our feet on the bottom, though several sank and had to be brought back to the surface by the attending rescue swimmers. 

Having survived those basic evolutions, we moved on to other pools with progressively ominous and (I was convinced) torturous devices. One intriguing contraption that had the appearance of a praying mantis folding its laundry was the next challenge.  

Known as the Parachute Disentanglement Trainer, it actually wasn’t a very difficult evolution. The parachute was centered and then dropped over you. Initially, it kind of left you with the impression that you were lying in a water bed and someone just covered you with a silk top sheet. But then you ask yourself: “why is this top sheet trying to kill me?”

Getting out of this potential nightmare required taking fistfuls of increasingly water-logged silk and what seemed like thousands of parachute lines and moving them over your head as you attempted to move slowly away from the center of the canopy. You then ensured that not a single parachute line was wrapped around any part of your body.  

USN

The Praying Mantis...more appropriately, the Parachute Disentanglement Trainer.

The full weight of this training has remained with me to this day. A search and rescue (SAR) swimmer once warned that if the parachute canopy an aircrew survivor had just used to escape a dying aircraft remained attached to him, it could fully blossom underneath the surface of the water and sink, taking the helicopter down with it if the survivor was also attached to the helicopter’s hoist. Thus, the absolute need to quickly peel away the shock of where you are at, having just bailed out of a doomed airplane and the absolute need to become aware of your surroundings and discover what direction the wind is blowing on the surface of the ocean. Then, just before impact with the water, turning your parachute to ensure it collapses downwind from you as you release the risers and settle into the water as your feet hit. These were procedures you had to execute under duress to ensure you don’t end up being drowned by silken sheets. 

Thankfully, the Navy eventually developed saltwater activated riser release mechanisms that would aid an unconscious survivor, but we were adamantly told to never rely on them if we were aware of our predicament. 

The truth is that I was beginning to really love this stuff, but then that day arrived.

Dragon Slaying

The Navy called her the 9D5 Helicopter Underwater Egress Training Device. She was commonly known as the “Helo-Dunker.” I knew her as my second chance at drowning.  

I don’t recall if we had ever been in the building before that day. If so, my fear blotted her out. When I entered the facility, the normally heavy and wet West Florida air suddenly became freezing cold. My pulse and respiration rate increased. I have always been rather pale in skin color, but I’m sure, if at that moment I had walked into a morgue, I would have been mistaken for just another cadaver.  

To me, the ‘Dunker looked like an engorged 55-gallon drum with six seats. They were running empty-tests as we filed onto one set of bleachers awaiting the egress briefing. The impact with the waterthe rolling upside down…I noticed my instructor walk around the pool and sit down on another set of bleachers at the entrance to the device…the sinking of the 55-gallon drum with six seats. The device instructor began to speak: “You will be blindfolded for all the rides!” The class wasn’t happy about the blindfold. Personally, I didn’t give a damn since I weld my eyes shut anytime I’m in the water. I was far more interested in why the asshole called this a ride as if we were at an amusement park.  

A fucking ride

USN

The 9D5 Helicopter Underwater Egress Training Device.

I then stopped listening after he said we would have to ride the device three times. Or was it four? 

The first six members of my class made their way to the drum. I would go with the next six. I watched. They surfaced. I watched. They surfaced. I’m going to drown today. I watched. They surfaced. Divers in full gear were in the pool. The device instructor yelled: “Next six!”

I walked behind one or two of my classmates. All I could see was my instructor sitting there…writing… not paying attention to the fact that one of his candidates was going to drown in a few minutes! My mind was pulsating: d.o.r....d.O.R!…D.O.R!! I turned the corner. I could move to my left, climb the bleachers and declare: “Drop on request!” to my seemingly disinterested instructor, bringing an end to the hope of becoming a Naval Aircrewman. 

Or…

I can’t tell you much more. The only thing I clearly remember during one of my drownings—when I was strapped into one of the four seats in the back—was the voice of the device instructor: “Keep hold of a reference point then find another as you move, purposefully, toward the picture of the hatch in your mind where you know it is supposed to be. Reference point to reference point.”  

I also remember getting kicked in the face by another classmate making their way to the picture in their mind. I held on to the reference point, which I’m sure had a full imprint of my handwoven into the canvas seat.

USN

 The initial impact of the Helo Dunker just before it rolls upside down as top-heavy helos do.

Back on the bleachers, I was grateful that the air was once again hot and humid and that the pool water, dripping from my Cherry Red Helmet down across my face, made the tears hard to distinguish, should anyone have looked.  

I happily admit that several of the water qualification evolutions were great fun: the parachute drag, the poolside winching up into a simulated helicopter, intense rotor downwash included, and the zip-line ride into the water after a simulated ejection followed by the truly hilarious struggle to board a one-man life raft in full flight gear and, if you forgot to properly detach it from the seat-pan in the ejection seat. 

Then, it was out to the bay and real water where we fired off our Mk 31 pencil and Mk 13 signal flares. We also practiced boarding larger life rafts carried by patrol aircraft or those dropped by USCG C-130s for survivor rescues. 

The most exciting moment came at the end of the day when we rode a whaleboat further out into the bay and the helo squadron assigned to SAR duties at NAS Pensacola came out to pick us up. What a blast it was to be winched up to a real, live, hovering Sea King helicopter! 

I had hoped it would turn out to be my first helo ride, and some classes did get to fly back to the airfield in her. However, we apparently had a too large a class and after the rescue swimmer let me hang outside the door for a moment, he slapped my helmet with a smile and back down I went.

And just like that, it was over.

From The Sea To The Swamp

The final phase of training was Land Survival at Eglin, AFB, which was just a short bus ride east of Pensacola. Here we were joined by graduating Officer Candidate School (OCS) pilot and Naval Flight Officer (NFO) candidates. And once again, I was faced with the limitations of my childhood having only had a brief overnight stay in the Adirondack mountains when I was growing up. My outdoor skills were comparable to my ability to swim. Worse still, I was so damn tired during the initial land survival classroom phase that my stuporous state prevented me from absorbing the vital lectures explaining survival equipment and techniques. 

So, at one point during the adventure, I was handed the compass and instructed to take over land navigation for my entire class of officers and enlisted. Here was my chance to guide my fellow “downed” aviators to rescue and safety! 

Yeah…no. 

I held the compass in my hand following the needle as it pointed in the direction we were to go. That’s right, instead of doing it the right way and picking landmarks along the bearing line and navigating around obstacles in the path, I happily followed the wavering needle. Needless to say, after half an ignorant mile, a very angry instructor snatched the compass out of my hand just as I was leading my class to certain death in one of Eglin’s notorious, shadowy, alligator-occupied swamps.

Amid echoes of bitter laughter and a few choice words rising through the autumn forest around me, I was certain I could see flashes of white teeth briefly glistening against well-camouflaged faces in said dark swamp—we had been told we would be sharing the woods with a class of U.S. Army officers and men slogging their way toward earning the coveted Ranger Tab.

Yeah…no.  

It was more-than-likely a simple hallucination brought on by a mix of leftover catatonia from the classroom and a need for even more humiliation. Oh well, the class and I survived, and most importantly, a dragon had been slayed. 

Pensacola was, without a doubt, the most life-enhancing encounter I would experience during my time in the Navy. 

I could actually do this shit!

Kevin Noonan

Kevin's Aircrew class. He's standing in the second row, on the left side of one of the first female Aircrew Candidates. The guys in red t-shirts are Marine Corps Aircrew. Kevin's "Helo Dunker DOR" instructor is on my row under USN Flag.

One final Pensacola note: toward the end of my time there, I was informed by a disinterested and ill-informed “career counselor” that there was a good chance I would be selected to continue on to Rescue Swimmer School due to the needs of the USN and USNR as there was a critical shortage of helo AWs.  

Yeah…NO!  

Had I had my cherry red helmet in hand, I would have placed it gently on his desk and using today’s texting parlance would have written, in a bold hand: “ROFL!” on his forehead. 

The next step in my adventure led me to Aviation Anti-Submarine Warfare “A” School in Millington, Tennessee. Whereas Pensacola was a trial of the body, AW “A” School would be a trial of the mind.  

Alien Language

Millington was a well-worn town with a well-worn naval base. The barracks and school buildings spoke of decades of sailors passing through on their way to the variety of aviation ratings. The only difference between the unassuming building I would be mustering at and most others was the need to have a security clearance to get in. Here we would be introduced to the full intellectual weight of what it meant to be an AW. 

We were instructed in very basic courses on Radar, Magnetic Anomaly Detector (MAD), Electronic Support Measures (ESM) and Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) weapons by instructors who had served in P-2s, P-3s, S-2s, S-3s, ASW Modules (ASMODs) aboard carriers, and the larger land-based ASW Operations Center (ASWOC). They would attempt to introduce us to the craft of hunting the elusive submarine. 

After these initial classes, we then delved into the ‘meat and potatoes’ subjects learning how submarine machinery worked and how the propulsion and equipment transmitted sounds into the ocean. Next came oceanography, or “Ocean O” as we called it. It was a difficult class, but I could finally see just how the ocean worked to increase or decrease our chance of finding a submarine. I was very grateful we weren’t confronted with too much of the math usually associated with oceanography. To me, fractions and equations were almost as terrifying as the Helo Dunker.

A startling aspect of this phase of training, one causing a bit of cognitive dissonance, came when I heard the voice of Casey Kasem on a series of classified videos describing everything from the function of a diesel submarine’s ballast tanks to the path a particular machinery sound source took during a certain time of day to cross the ocean. I was used to hearing him every Saturday morning on American Top 40 telling stories of how Stevie Nicks met Mick Fleetwood, or the critical role Linda Ronstadt had in the success of Don Henley and the Eagles. It actually made this portion of the training that much more enjoyable.

During the next phase, we would become acquainted with something called LOFAR gram analysis and interpretation. I can only describe it as learning an entirely new language that had no relationship or comparison to any articulation made by human beings. 

It was purely alien

My mind was reeling. I came away from each day’s class with a headache and a thousand-mile stare. I could not grasp how lines and shading and white space on a texturally strange piece of paper could be a rainstorm, a merchant ship, a pod of whales, or a submarine.

It is well understood by those who do ASW that hunting submarines tends to be more art than science. This is true, to an even greater extent, when learning how to use the tools of the trade. I was being told that what I was seeing was very logical and scientific and it was. Yet my mind could not create a bridge to cross the chasm between what my instructors were telling me and what my eyes were actually seeing. In order to really see it, to really comprehend and bridge the chasm, my right brain would have to play a greater role than my left.

LOFAR, or “LOw-Frequency Analysis and Recording,” came to undersea warfare as a result of desperation and industrial curiosity. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, a series of ASW conferences exposed just how weak and ill-prepared Allied navies were to handle what the snorkel, the creation of the Type XXI U-boat, and post-war Soviet design brought to the submarine. Far worse, the fast-approaching adaptation of nuclear propulsion to the hull of an undersea craft would render post-war “hunter-killer” ASW methods and sensors obsolete since the submarine could simply vanish. Some of these conferences were held at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and were attended by members of industry, such as Bell Labs.

At Bell Labs, it just so happened that engineers and scientists were trying to figure out a way to enhance the human voice to ensure that long-distance and trans-Atlantic phone calls would be clear and comprehensible. These brilliant souls discovered that a low-frequency analyzer would place discrete lines of information on heat-sensitive carbon-based paper, providing “a graphic sketch of the acoustic signals in black, white, and grey, offering an image of aural reality…” wrote Gary Weir, a historian at the U.S. Naval Historical Center, in an exceptional paper on the history of Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS). 

Public Domain

The LOFAR gram: Black lines, gray shading, and white space representing sound created on burnt carbon-based paper.

On May 2, 1951, the U.S. Navy was handed a gift—a new, complex method to prevent the nuclear submarine from vanishing. If a voice could create visible images on paper, a noisy submarine could do so, as well. As Weir describes: “If any part of the boat moved, pumped, or circulated, the resulting sound radiated into the ocean and formed part of the trail that enabled the system to find the submarine and track it.”

But it would take time, years in fact, for the SOSUS operators, sonar techs, and airborne sensor operators, to really appreciate what Bell Labs had given them. The LOFAR gram offered so much more than simple lines on paper. Weir continues:

“Embedded within the many varied graphic images, operators found themselves able to discern subtle nuances in sound signals via intensity, color, shape, and shade that often made the difference between seeing a school of fish or a submarine… Operators looked beyond the data, the physics, and the engineering, to the ways the LOFAR trace betrayed the personality and attitude of the detected signal that very often revealed its nature… Some signals appeared in such a regular and familiar way that, after initial detection, future identification did not present a problem. These visual patterns became the much-vaunted “signatures” which betrayed particular targets or classes of targets.”

While I hadn’t taken piano or violin lessons as a kid, I did have a deep affection for and intangible connection to art in general and music, in particular. And while my instructors were really good teachers, I had to take what they were telling me and essentially let the right brain silence the left and see the nuances brought on by the shading and colors and then trust that what I was being told about sources was true. Dr. Weir expresses what operators through the years came to understand: “The nature of the task and the acoustic imaging techniques employed by LOFAR made a well-trained and intellectually able operator with an artistic eye a necessity.” 

As my time at “A” School was nearing an end, I slowly and unwittingly began to cross that chasm. I gradually began to understand the nature of sound, of harmonics, and comprehend how the black lines, gray shading, and white space sound created on burnt carbon-based paper could be a rainstorm, a merchant ship, a pod of whales, or a submarine.

Studying Orion

Once I finished AW “A” School, I was off to a town in Pennsylvania I’d never heard of, and a Naval Air Station I never knew existed. Horsham is a small township just north of Philadelphia and was home to NAS Willow Grove (now a Joint Reserve Base) which trained aviation components of the NAVRES, particularly the future crew members of P-3 Orion aircraft, and was the home field for VP-64 Condors, a P-3B Reserve squadron (“VP” being the USN’s designation for fixed-wing, patrol).

Here, instead of slides, movies, and naval teaching manuals showing pictures of radar scopes and LOFAR grams, I would finally get to put my hands on the actual primary hardware an Orion Sensor Operator used to hunt submarines: the AN/APS-80 radar, the AN/AQA-7 LOFAR “gram machine,” and the AN/AAS-36 Infrared Detection System (IRDS).

Learning about and then operating the radar and acoustic processor in a training simulator that provided “actual” contacts was a highly motivating experience. I began to realize that all the reading, the dreaming and the imagining I had done from childhood was slowly transitioning into a reality. I couldn’t wait to start getting flight time in an actual aircraft hunting actual submarines.

Well, actually, I would have a relatively long wait for my first flight in a submarine hunter and it would be a very long two-year wait for my first hunt of an actual submarine. This, despite a flight line full of P-3Bs just a stone’s throw away. Hell, not only would I not get any flight time, I wouldn’t even get to climb inside one of VP-64’s aircraft. It just wasn’t part of this training syllabus.

After training in Pennsylvania, I joined my regional NAVRES squadron—the “Crawfishers” of VP-94 stationed at NAS New Orleans for the required orientation and training in the aircraft.  Once I finished all of my active duty training, I would return to my childhood home in Texas. I could have simply chosen NAS Dallas, the closest NAVRES base to my home, but I didn’t want to allow my AW skills to go to waste and I sure as hell didn’t want to spend my reserve weekends cleaning endless buildings, listening to endless lectures, or standing endless (and irrelevant) watches. 

San Diego Air and Space Museum

Crawfisher P-3B.

What was really cool about joining VP-94 was that their P-3s would fly across several of lower southern states on the Friday of the requisite one-weekend-a-month and pick up reservists who were members of their squadron.  Granted, I would still have to clean squadron spaces, listen to lectures, and stand a watch or two, but they’d all be relevant to my newly minted, part-time AW life. Far more important to me, I would gain flight, mission, and classroom hours toward earning my wings.

Wheels Up!

Finally…FINALLY! I was about to take to the skies on my first fixed-wing naval aircraft: the Orion, the legendary hunter of submarines. I would be under the tutelage of a great division AWC for this first hop (I wish I could remember his name and had taken a camera with me). After an instructional preflight, I donned my helmet, SV-2, rolled down my flight suit sleeves and put my flight gloves on. I strapped myself into the Sensor 2 station seat and rotated to face the tail of the airplane all in accordance with P-3A & B NATOPS safety procedures.  I was ready and eagerly absorbed all the sounds, smells and intercom chatter as we started two and then the remaining two engines and taxied to the active runway.

We lifted off from NAS New Orleans, climbed and turned on a northward heading to Illinois and then to NAS Jacksonville on some sort of logistics flight. Both legs of the mission would keep us over land so we wouldn’t get a chance to drop buoys and operate the AQA-7.  However, my chief made sure I would get to sit at the jealously-coveted Sensor 3 station and work the APS-80 radar and the IRDS (Infra-Red Detection System, basically a FLIR system). 

Meanwhile, my first task was to complete a critical duty performed on every P-3 Orion that has ever slipped the surly bonds of Earth: inspect each avionics “closet” that lined the forward right section of the crew tunnel enclosing most of the mission black boxes for smoke, sparks, or fire.

With the pilot’s permission, I replaced my helmet with a set of headphones equipped with a boom mic and a long ICS (InterCom System) chord that would allow me to talk to the crew while moving about the tunnel.  I wasn’t even aware that I was climbing the few steps forward to the first closet. With my AWC hovering above my left shoulder, I began the inspection placing the back of my flight-gloved hand against the door and felt for heat. I then opened it cautiously and sniffed the air now filled with electrons and sounds emanating from boxes whose names and functions I had started to learn at NAS Willow Grove and would have to know intimately if I was going to earn my wings.  

With no evidence of sparks or fire, I closed the first closet and moved slightly aft to inspect the next one. For the first time, I noticed the steep incline of the flight deck as the Orion climbed to cruising altitude.  I had to catch myself, ensuring I wouldn’t tumble down toward the aft end of the aircraft. AWC said nothing but his ear-to-ear smile confirmed what every newbie aircrew member had to understand about flying inside a P-3:  she loved to “dance the skies on laughter-silvered wings.” 

I inspected each additional closet for signs of sparks or fire. Once I had completed checking every rack, I reported “all secure” to the pilot and settled in for the flight northward.

The ride north was uneventful, but I had an absolute blast running the radar and was captivated seeing FLIR imagery for the first time in my life. It was intriguing to see actual radar returns from the land, large structures, and weather. We landed at a civilian airport somewhere in Illinois, completed some logistical task and, having refueled, started the engines up for the flight to NAS Jacksonville.  

 P-3B Sensor 3 station with APS-80 scope. 

On this launch, I was invited up into the cockpit to sit behind the pilot on the radar cabinet.  Oh…my…God!  For the first time in my life, I would get to be in the midst of military pilots flipping switches, manipulating levers and bantering their way through start-up and takeoff checklists. All the dreams and imaginings sparked by books, movies, and airshows had finally come together in this moment. 

We taxied to the active runway and I eagerly listened as the tower gave us clearance for takeoff, climb-out instructions, and the frequency switch to departure. With a nod from the pilot, the Flight Engineer pushed the throttles forward and the four Allison T56 instantly responded pulling the air across the Orion’s stubby wings. The pilot released the brakes and we began a roll that quickly translated into speed. And then, just like that, we were airborne.

Music. Where was the music?!  There wasn’t any music!

I had been a child of classic military aviation movies that played on one of the three major television networks once a year. When a B-36, or a B-17, or a formation of F-86s lifted into the air, they were always accompanied by an orchestra striking up a dramatic melody.  Yet, here I was, in the cockpit of the mighty P-3 Orion climbing away from the earth and there wasn’t a single octave of music, not even an eighth or a sixteenth of a note!  Just the sound of the wheels coming up into their wells, the high tonal hum of four responsive turboprop engines, and the co-pilot calling back to the tube asking the Chief to bring up three cups of coffee.

Once back at NAS New Orleans, reality set in. Things moved at an excruciatingly slow pace compared to the active Navy, and that was the way the Reserves liked it.  It was clear we weren’t going to be flying any missions out into the Gulf of Mexico while I was there doing my orientation. Any hope I had for time-on-top of a submarine essentially vanished when I learned that the more senior operators and the TARs (Training and Administrative Reserves, the guys and gals who ran VP-94 Tuesday through Sunday), would get the choice billets when the squadron deployed for the long  two-week summer of “active duty” to exciting places like Iceland or Spain.

USN

P-3B Orion aircraft of Patrol Squadron 6 (VP-6) "The World Famous Blue Sharks" in-flight near Oahu, Hawaii.

I began to wonder if this had been the right decision.  I took a walk one night down to the airfield. The sun had just set and the early spring air was unusually cool for the normally sweltering Louisiana delta. There was no wind and only the blue lights marking the taxiways and the flashing signal from the base water tower lit the dusk. No engines turning, no fuel trucks moving, no maintenance personnel yelling for another wrench. I had never been on an airfield at a time like this where the silence permeated everything in a way that was almost sacred. No, it actually was sacred.  

Amid this loud silence, I meditated over where I had been and where I wanted to go. My soon return to civilian life promised a 9-to-5 job power-sanding wood furniture in a small strip mall store. I was only 19 and here I was dreading the fact that my only salvation from the normalcy of civilian life was a rather benign one-weekend-a-month in New Orleans hoping and praying I’d get a few hours of flight time. 

I simply couldn’t shake the dreamer in me and the possibilities of being in the thick of things that active-duty life promised. While the offerings of fleet VP squadrons had definite advantages, my brother’s tales of flying off a carrier in the S-3 haunted my contemplation.

I spoke with the Chief the next day. He absolutely understood and had me call the AW Detailer at the Pentagon that afternoon. I asked if they needed any S-3 SENSOs in the fleet. They did.  My Chief said: “Let’s get the paperwork started!” 

He was such a great leader.

It would take time. I made two or three more visits to VP-94 over the next few months between sanding chairs and bookshelves. The anticipation built and then the day came with the arrival of my orders to active-duty:  

Report to Fleet Replacement Squadron, AirAntisubron 41

VIA Recruit Training Center, Orlando, Florida

VIA FASOTRAGRUPAC, NAS North Island, San Diego

I was on my way.

Calm Before The Storm

That first “VIA” on my orders caught me a little off guard. I didn’t realize that I would have to go back to a Recruit Training Command (RTC) having just completed 8 weeks of bootcamp the previous year. But, the Navy, in all its wisdom, demands that all Reservists going back to active-duty be reminded how to properly salute and wear their Dixie cup in a sharp, Navy fashion. It was actually a fun couple of weeks. They made sure I had all my shots and my seabag was filled with all the regulation uniforms and my underwear was stenciled properly.

And then I was off to lovely southern California where I checked in with Fleet Aviation Specialized Operational Training Group Pacific. Since North Island had evolved into a Naval Air Station that primarily housed sea-based ASW aircraft such as the S-3 Viking, the Kaman SH-2 Seasprite, and the brand-new, Sikorsky SH-60B Seahawk, FASOTRAGRUPAC’s had a primary mission that focused on the aircrew and missions those aircraft flew.  

This meant ASW, baby!

Here, nestled among enlisted barracks, senior officer housing, and buildings and hangars lining the eastern side of the airfield, FASO trained newly minted officer and enlisted aircrew in the basics of anti-submarine warfare, including tactics, operations, and for the fixed-wing and helo AW, a deeper dive into tactical oceanography and far more detailed acoustic training covering all classes of Allied and Soviet submarines.

Of course, I loved anything submarine. Learning the finer points of the tactical ASW ocean environment and the noises produced by submarines opened the door to a fuller understanding of just how important my job as a SENSO in the Viking would be (well, at least in theory…I would have to face the stark reality of the weight of responsibility in real-time during my first Med cruise the following year). What was even more invaluable were the “war stories” my instructors told about their recent past on the front lines of ASW.  Again, we had AWs who had flown in every helo and fixed-wing aircraft type and their tales of actual time-on-top of Soviet submarines brought everything together.

As you move through life, certain days of historical significance mark the time. One such day during my FASO training did just that. It was an unusually cold winter morning and we had just started a class on the particulars of Soviet submarine diesel engines. Around 0845, another instructor, sullen-faced, interrupted the lecture and told us to join him in the instructor’s office.  We filed in among those already crowding a small television screen. It was January 28, 1986. On the screen, in a seemingly constant replay, I could just make out a billowing cloud of upward climbing smoke and what appeared to be an explosion. The Space Shuttle Challenger had, moments before, disintegrated during her launch from Cape Canaveral.  

Of course, I didn’t know it then, but a few years later, I would be doing range clearance for another Shuttle launch in my Fleet squadron S-3 at the northern limit of the warning area that covered the adjacent Atlantic Ocean. 

Captured Behind Friendly Lines

As my time at FASOTRAGRUPAC was coming to its end, and before I could find my way into that coveted Viking SENSO seat I had been longing to climb into, I would have to go to one final school. FASO was also responsible for sending all of its aircrew students to an immensely important training evolution that attempted to prepare them in the event they were shot down over enemy territory. For me, it would be yet another of life’s dragons.  

After 24 hours in a desert survival environment, that culminated under a sky of stars so immense that it made the surrounding terrain seem like perpetual twilight, we headed to a wintry mountainous area northeast of San Diego known as Warner Springs. There, FASO conducted Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape (SERE) school. 

Along with my class of AWs, we were joined by the officers from FASO and other individuals who required the training. Among those individuals were three or four gentlemen who had completed their SEAL training and were getting their SERE check-in-the-box.  

They were led by a young officer who had an engaging personality and had us and the instructors laughing. At one point, we learned that larger groups of SEALs had historically been sent through SERE together at one time. However, this practice was ended when a routine began to take shape in the form of the team taking over the prison camp and, in some cases, inviting the instructors to experience the same maltreatment levied against the students.  

If memory serves, there was an interesting debate whether this young SEAL officer was senior to one of the aviators, requiring one of them to take the role of Senior Ranking Officer (SRO). I think the SEAL was senior, but declined SRO because he wanted to remain independent of the group to escape, and far more interesting things of that nature. 

I also remember another debate about footwear: the SEALs had shown up in boots they preferred to wear in combat and they were concerned that the camp guards would recognize them for who they were based on the boots. As a group, we had agreed upon a common story that we were passengers in C-141 that had been shot down—now that I think about it, there weren’t any USAF folks among us so that story probably didn’t sell well at the Warner Springs Department of Interrogation and Torture. The classroom instructor assured the LT he had nothing to worry about.

For me, the first days of Survival and Evasion started out okay, but that took an abrupt turn when the time of evasion was coming to an end. The speeding trucks, the firing off of AK-47 rounds, the yelling and the loudspeakers all set the stage for a very realistic and troubling experience. Both me and the officer I had teamed up with had grown weary from lack of food and our diminishing water supply after two full days of this part of the camping trip. In our now filthy, dilapidated flight suits, we stumbled across a road that we thought was clear.  

Yeah…no.

An enemy Security Force truck was sitting there in plain sight. Neither one of us saw it. Weary arms and hands went up above our heads. We were bound and forced into the bed of the pickup. It was only a week-long training evolution, but the days of resistance and escape would last for what felt like a month. Surprisingly, I did fairly well with the waterboarding—it was the repeated slamming of my body up against the wall with an enemy guard screaming an amazing level of anger, spittle and epithets in my face that was most difficult for me. 

Being held in what I think was something like an enclosed concrete cinder block was also unnerving. I wasn’t claustrophobic, but the inside was too small to sit up straight. It was also definitely too small to lie down in. They played a constant stream of white noise, preached sunny sermons from The Very Best of Marx and Lenin or made generous Public Service Announcements of our soon and pending death. As night fell, the concrete walls radiated the freezing California air quite efficiently.

Then they came for me.

USAF

A scene from modern-day SERE school.

By this time, I had passed into what Rod Serling liked to call the Twilight Zone. I wasn’t exactly 100 percent sure at times that I hadn’t been shot down and I was actually in a POW camp somewhere. 

I was pushed into a room with a nice gentleman sitting at a desk who offered me a hot drink and some food. He had an “International Red Cross” armband on and told me if I would just sign this confession, I and my fellow POWs would be treated much better. For the first time, I looked into his eyes and then I fell back into my chair, snapping back into reality. I recognized who this was sitting across the desk from me. I had seen his face in one of the films we had watched as part of the classroom training for this evolution. 

I had the honor of being soft-cell interrogated by a genuine hero of the Vietnam War: Doug Hegdahl. Tragically, while serving aboard the USS Canberra (CA-70) during a naval fire-support mission in the Gulf of Tonkin, Doug had been blown overboard by a shockwave from one of the cruiser’s 5-inch gun mounts. He was picked up by Cambodian fishermen, but was later captured by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and interned at the Hanoi Hilton. His story is truly remarkable. Because he wasn’t considered much of an intelligence source or a threat to the NVA, he was allowed free reign around the camp. During this time, he began to memorize over 200 names and stories of his fellow POWs. When the NVA offered an early release, Doug was ordered by the SRO to take it so he could divulge the names and the horrific conditions faced by the men there in Hanoi. 

I don’t remember much of that night after my session with Doug. I do remember, quite vividly, the events of the following morning, however. Inside my concrete cocoon, I was awoken by screams, pounding of feet and gunfire that shattered the otherwise freezing morning air.

Yep…the damn SEALs had escaped.

A few hours later, they were required to surrender. Yeah, I seem to recall clear loudspeaker instructions reminding them that they had to come back to the camp and finish the course.  (There was a definite Please, Guys…come on…you have to plea in the announcer’s voice!). Gotta love the damn SEALs!

More time passed and I had no idea what day it was, but another afternoon or another morning came and went and our captors called us to quarters for another round of verbal abuse when more gunfire broke out.  We all scattered for cover. Then…our instructors mysteriously disappeared.  

Overhead, it sounded like a helicopter of some sort passed with guns blazing. Someone came running into camp with an American flag streaming from his hands. He went to the flag pole that had a Soviet flag flying and pulled it down. He attached the Stars and Stripes to it and raised it high above our heads as we gathered back around. It was then, over the loudspeaker, that the Star Spangled Banner began to play… 

…and a dozen or so grown men began to sob.

Obviously, the nature of the training was unsurpassed in importance.  The experience and lessons learned would stay with me throughout my time in the Navy. Also, I learned more about myself during that week and in the days of self-reflection that followed. I wasn’t pleased with my performance because I encountered far too many weaknesses. But it was done.  Another dragon was sorta-kinda slayed. 

The bus ride back to North Island was quite remarkable. We left the Naval Air Station a week prior in a Navy bus (a school bus painted haze gray) and we returned in a chartered luxury bus (of Greyhound quality). Hey, sometimes the ol’ Navy took care of its own! 

Finally, it was time to enter into the world of the S-3 Viking. But before I describe the training required to become a “Tailhook SENSO” (as we called ourselves), allow me to compare and contrast the P-3 with the S-3.

Related But Not The Same: The Unique Worlds Of The P-3 Orion And S-3 Viking

Aside from the obvious cosmetic differences of such things as the number of engines and motive power used by the two aircraft, or the fixed presence of the Orion’s “stinger” MAD (Magnetic Anomaly Detector) boom as opposed to the retractable one carried by the Viking, we flew our common missions differently because we each came from decidedly different communities and mission philosophies.  These remarkable distinctions can be attributed to another cosmetic disparity: only one of the two aircraft had a tailhook.  

Let me explain: The historical experiences of the VP Navy contributed to the evolution of a very well developed, disciplined, and highly motivated community philosophy unique within USN. In many ways looking like the USAF’s Strategic Air Command, they became an air force within NAVAIR. The nature of their consistent mission, fully established in combat during WWII and sustained during the years of the Cold War, allowed them to maintain separation from the burgeoning and then dominate carrier-based naval aviation.  

USN

 An S-3 Viking and a JMSDF P-3 Orion fly in formation.

Moving from their flying boat origins and eventual obsolescence, their dry feet demanded the establishment of unique operations, bases, and logistics exclusive from the Navy they were a part of. They were also savvy enough to read the fiscal and political writing on the wall and made their own inroads throughout Washington D.C. As a result of this distinction and the type of aircraft flown, they developed their own philosophy on how to approach ASW which tended to be a more strategic form than the tactical form flown from the aircraft carrier.

Strategic ASW came into focus with the rising Soviet ballistic missile submarine threat. The VP community had legs. They were based in permanent areas, such as Iceland and Scotland, which allowed easy access to the Barents Sea and the GIUK gap that were the natural choke points Soviet submarines had to pass through to arrive at their patrol areas in the Atlantic.  The maritime patrol aircraft (MPAs) expended relatively little fuel getting there and they could carry larger sonobuoy loads and seed the needed large search patterns to regain contact or localize and track what SOSUS had already detected.  

In contrast, the VS community was part of a larger whole: the carrier Air Wing. The commander of the Air Wing was usually a fighter or attack guy by birth, initially a senior commander, but was eventually changed to a captain to respectfully stand toe-to-toe with the carrier’s skipper when needed.  

USN

S-3 with MAD and refuelng probe extended.

The COs of S-2 and S-3 squadrons were mere commanders. The admiral and staff in charge of the CVBG were fighter/attack-oriented, so what the Air Wing/carrier needed or wanted to fulfill its strike missions was everyone’s priority. ASW, despite its critical contribution to the survival of the carrier amid the growing Soviet anti-carrier submarine threat, was only a supporting role in the non-ASW mind’s eye. 

Even during the heady days of the anti-submarine carrier groups of the ‘50s and ‘60s, the CVS (anti-submarine carrier) was essentially subordinate to and protective of the attack carrier battlegroups. Besides, the job of the ASW aircraft aboard the carriers and escorts was to find and attack any and all submarines with the hope of killing them while the carrier made good her escape. By the nature of this form of ASW and our place within the Air Wing, the VS philosophy was considerably different from that of VP.

The VP communities’ political strength was legendary, despite not having a Curtiss LeMay at the helm like Strategic Air Command. When the P-2s and P-3s needed something, they usually got it. When questions of getting the necessary updates to airframes to meet the Soviet naval threat or the need arose to arm the Orion with the Harpoon and even the Sidewinder, they played political ball.  

USN

US Navy P-3 equipped with AGM-84 Harpoons, AIM-9 Sidewinders, and iron bombs (all training rounds).

An even stronger argument for their ingenious skill can be seen at the end of the Cold War when the Viking first lost her ASW equipment and SENSO in 2000, and then lost her place in the fleet entirely nine years later. The P-3 flew on with all of her ASW gear and became an invaluable asset for the Global War on Terrorism by doing ISR over land!  More importantly, she was ready for the return of Cold War 2.0, which we have since waded into.

I’ve said this before, the P-3 Sensor Operators (and their foreign MPA counterparts) have always been masters of airborne ASW.  When the S-3 community received one into their ranks, they immediately became the very best of the SENSOs. But a major contrast between the two communities’ sensor operators can be seen in the attributes of the Viking SENSO: unlike our P-3 brethren—or Sonar Techs aboard submarines or surface ships—we didn’t have an additional AW or senior AW to share the load and call upon once the wheels were in the well. We also didn’t have the space the P-3 Orion did, so no chance to carry reference publications and things to make the job easier (other than what you can stuff in your helmet bag)—in an aircraft carrier environment, any FOD in the cockpit can kill during a launch or landing. 

We had to store our information, knowledge, and confidence inside our skin each time we went flying. We were very much alone in making calls, such as classifying targets, and maintaining responsibility for those calls. 

It was a great place for a loner like me. It was also a terrifying place for a loner like me.

Enter The Viking Hall

After completing FASO, I walked a few blocks toward the end of Runway 29 at NAS North Island and stood at the security window of a non-descript, otherwise windowless building.  Behind the glass, a future S-3 AW who was standing watch asked me for my name while eyeing the security badge hanging from the left breast pocket of my USN working blues. He smiled. I heard a buzz from the unassuming security entrance door. I smiled too.  

I had arrived at the VS-41 Trainer Building (TB), which at the time, was the only place in the world where Lockheed S-3A pilots, TACCOs/COTACs and SENSOs were built. Inside this seemingly cavernous building, I would learn the very core of what it meant to be a sensor operator in the Viking. 

Down its passageways were a multitude of classrooms, instructor offices, and several full-size and fully operational Weapon Systems Trainers (WST) that were replicas of the TACCO and SENSO stations in the S-3. The pilots and COTACs would train in two fully operational and flight motion capable front cockpit flight simulators made by Link. 

In the classroom, we covered every box that resided at the SENSO station, every “black box” occupying the avionics tunnel related to our station and every multi-function button that lined the revolutionary INtegrated COntrol System (INCOS) tray which allowed the SENSO to operate all of the sensors contained within the Viking.  I loved learning and then thinking through the process of converting a system function to a tactical problem. I felt completely at home in the learning environment at VS-41. As we were taught the different systems, we then went into one of the WSTs with the instructor sitting in the TACCO seat or outside at the instructor console guiding us through the operation of each function.

Lockheed

 SENSO station MPD (lower screen) and Auxiliary Readout Unit (upper screen).

As time progressed and we became proficient with system operation, we spent less time in the classroom and more time in the WST with student NFOs who were at a point in their training where we could begin to work as a team.  

This training philosophy was priceless. It was the first time I worked so closely with an officer and it allowed me as an enlisted man to understand the relationship we would have to have in the actual cockpit of the Viking. It also forced me to think outside the narrow focus of the functionality of my job in the aircraft by keeping the TACCO informed of what knowledge I was gathering from my sensors so he could develop and manipulate the tactical “big picture.”

The WSTs were genuinely amazing creations. From rooms filled with computers came realistic ocean environments, sensor signals, and signatures—functions and mission profiles that real-world warships and aircraft were expected to present. We trained to identify, classify, and determine the location and intention of these signals. Our instructors could “break in” to the mostly pre-programmed scenarios and make the training more or less difficult, based on how well or poorly we were doing.  

As we progressed through the training, additional threats were added in the form of a second submarine or surface warships. Although the computer technology of the day did an incredible job of trying to create real-world conditions for us, nothing but the real-world would suffice.  The most important benefit of this training was the establishment of a great foundation of system knowledge and procedural performance and the absolute necessity of cockpit communication and coordination among the crew. But it wasn’t all about the job.

Free time was very generous at the RAG (or Replacement Air Group, an older name for NAVAIR’s training commands). Arrival at VS-41 was our introduction into the Brown Shoe Navy; after all, our instructors had cut their teeth in the fleet. The atmosphere was very professional, but also laid back. The focus was on preparing us for the fleet, but not losing sight of the fact that we were human. 

My free time was occupied by standing watches, studying, or just getting off the base. Watches consisted of weekend security watch at the entrance to the TB or overnight flight line watch ensuring no Soviet commando had a chance to place a bomb in the wheel well of VS-41’s collection of S-3s. 

USN

VS-41 flightline at NAS North Island in the 1980s. 

Studying was a never-ending process. Most of our courses were classified so I ended up spending most of that free time back in the TB. But I did take time to walk around the base or sit at the end of the runway and watch the fleet squadron S-3s takeoff and land—something I loved to do back on Carswell AFB as a kid. I wasn’t a partier, but I did take the occasional opportunity to get off base and explore the Strand or the Hotel Del Coronado with my classmates. Of course, the movie Top Gun hit the theaters on May 12, 1986 and my fellow AWs and I made our requisite pilgrimage to the theater in downtown San Diego. In fact, we would spend most of the summer of ‘86 going to see it—I stopped counting after the 7th viewing.  

I didn’t care much for the storyline—I will always prefer The Final Countdown—or the pathetic use of F-5s for MiGs, but what I had to see over and over was the opening flight deck scene and all the Tomcat air-to-air scenes (yes, I’m one of those people that can listen to the same song a thousand times). Whatever the specific reasons for the multiple viewings, we soon-to-be Viking AWs knew we would be flying off similar flight decks with the movie’s featured fighter and that was motivation enough for our significant contribution to Top Gun’s more than $358 million box-office windfall.

You’re welcome, Mr. Cruise.

The summer progressed and graduation was just around the corner. We continued to work hard in the classroom and the WS, but it was time for us to finally take everything we had learned into the air.  

First Viking Voyage

Other classmates made their first flight already and came back to report their experiences. Most said they were too busy “doing it right” to really enjoy the first-time experience. One or two of them got airsick. 

My day finally came and I was very excited. I don’t remember much of the flight because of how much time I also spent trying to do it right, too. However, I wasn’t too busy not to get airsick.  Thankfully, the instructors made sure we carried an airsick bag. I needed two. I was mortified because we didn’t do any maneuvering that was extraordinary. I had assumed my handful of air-sick-free hours in the P-3 would ensure this wouldn’t happen to me. But I survived and was very pleased with my choice to go active duty and fly in the Viking. 

Finally, my time at VS-41 neared its end. All of the classroom and trainer time didn’t culminate in the air. Instead, it ended in a final practical exam that would take place in the WST that was linked up to the “flying” simulator down the passageway where a student pilot and COTAC would join me and a TACCO. The exam was a full combat mission that included cockpit and systems preflight,  launching procedures from the carrier, then flying out to the threat area to hunt for the one or two Soviet submarines looking to sink our carrier while working hard to avoid the reach of the surface-to-air missiles that would come from the Soviet Surface Action Group (SAG) intent on shooting us down. It was a complex, intense, and fantastic experience.  We all had our individual problems, but we found and sank the submarine. And with that I had passed my final hurtle and would now wait for my classmates to finish their final WST evolutions before we would all gather for graduation.

USN

VS-41 S-3 off the San Diego coast near the picturesque Del Coronado Hotel.

Along with the obvious reward of completing a comprehensive, challenging, and satisfying naval aircraft training course, two other elements made our graduation such an incredible experience. On Aug. 8, 1986, my fellow Viking SENSOs and I had our Naval Aircrewman wings of gold pinned to our chests. Although we only had a few hours in the S-3, NAVAIR decided the Viking AW would get his wings upon the successful completion of the RAG syllabus. If memory serves, there was some controversy within the fleet about this practice.  Apparently, many felt that more time-in-aircraft and time-in-fleet should have been the standard.  

Oddly enough, not a single one of us complained!  

Along with receiving the beautiful chest decoration, each member of the class got to pick a fleet squadron from what AW billets were currently available, based on their final grades. I was honored to get first pick and it was a very difficult choice between some great squadrons, great aircraft carriers, and two distinctly different US Navies:  Just across the flight line at NAS North Island was the “Dragonfires” of VS-29 aboard the USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) or VS-38 “Red Griffins” aboard the USS Ranger (CV-61). On the East Coast at NAS Cecil Field there were three choices available: VS-31 “Topcats” aboard the USS Eisenhower (CVN-69), VS-32 “Maulers” aboard the USS America (CV-66), or VS-24 “Scouts” aboard the USS Nimitz (CVN-68). I decided on the Scouts for several reasons.  

First off, they had an outstanding reputation on both coasts. I also didn’t want to serve aboard a “coal-burning” aircraft carrier. The squadron, part of Air Wing 8, was about to deploy to the Mediterranean soon after I arrived and I wanted to get right into the action. VS-24 offered the best opportunity for that. Finally, my brother had just left a very successful tour with VS-29 and, though I ultimately followed his footsteps into the S-3, I still needed to have my own unique experiences in a Navy different than the one he had served in.

Orders in hand, I said “so long” to NAS North Island not knowing that I would land here in one of ten Vikings with my chosen squadron in less than a year. I would miss this group of incredible instructors who guided me through a mountain of information and prepared me to be the very best SENSO I could be. I would miss sharing a classroom with this tremendous group of fellow students. Fortunately, I only had to say goodbye to half of my class, the ones that chose the West Coast squadrons. I would see the other half in our shared squadron spaces at Cecil Field in the years to come.  

Though we had learned, trained, and prepared to be an individual in a four-seat combat aircraft that essentially had a very singular mission against a target that tended to act alone, I felt a part of a team for the first time in my life. I left VS-41 with a heavy, but happy and somewhat naive heart.  

I arrived at the Scouts’ doorstep full of piss and vinegar, certain I had achieved lasting greatness due to how well I did at the RAG. I would be a magnificent asset to the squadron ensuring that with my knowledge and wisdom we would sink Soviet submarines left and right during the coming cruise (regardless of a declaration of war).  Very, and I mean very, quickly, I realized I had joined an aircrew shop manned by a seasoned AWC, two AW1s, and a generous collection of AW2s and AW3s who were incredibly well-versed procedurally in the extraction and bottling of piss and vinegar and the disassembly thereof.

USN

VS-24 S-3As circa 1986.

With equal swiftness, I would also be faced with a strong dose of reality as a result of my first flight with VS-24. When I walked out to aircraft 704 that late September morning, there would be no Aircrew instructor, no fellow AW, no familiar face joining me. As I strapped myself in amid the deafening whine of the APU, the officers finishing their pre-start checks and the wail made by the start of our #1 TF-34 turbofan engine as it sucked in gobs and gobs of the cool Florida air, I realized something:

I was completely alone.

Part II of our Confessions Of An S-3 Viking Submarine Hunter series will take us right into the anti-submarine warfare action as Kevin blasts off of carrier catapults in his beloved S-3 to protect the Carrier Strike Group and ruin Soviet submarine captains' days. The stories he has to tell are absolutely incredible. Kevin will also discuss the fascinating and shadowy artform of hunting submarines and how the S-3 went about executing its critical mission. Stay tuned!

Contact the editor: Tyler@thedrive.com