June 10, 1969, I entered Aviation Officer Candidate School in Pensacola, Florida. The Vietnam War was at full tilt. Exemptions from the draft were abolished. The best and the brightest were subject to becoming members of the military.
Did you want a draft notice, serve a couple of years, and return to civilian life? Or did you entertain options that possibly reduced your risk of service in Vietnam and extended your tour of duty in the service?
I graduated from college, and less than two weeks later, I entered boot camp to become a Naval Aviator. There were two choices – Pilot or Naval Flight Officer (NFO). Pilots flew the aircraft, and NFOs handled other functions depending on the type of aircraft and mission.
Our second day in boot camp was spent in medical (Naval Aerospace Medical Institute – NAMI), getting physicals, shots, x-rays, etc. My class had around 60 men – almost all recent college graduates. Pilots and NFOs were intermixed in Class 24-69.
A message was read to us early that morning about changes in the pilot program. Effective immediately, the duration of time in the service was extended from 3.5 years after the date of earning your pilot’s wings to 5 years. I asked if NFOs were also extended and was told they were not.
I had my file with me as we progressed through the various medical exams. I entered Class 24-69 as a pilot. It took me literally seconds to think about making a change from pilot to NFO.
I added an “N” in front of “AOC” on my form and became an NFO unbeknownst to anyone else in the Navy. There were no computer lists back then. I never told anyone until many years later. I was never confronted about the change. No one cared. I entered on Day 1 as a pilot and became an NFO on Day 2.
In retrospect, was that a good decision? Hindsight is always perfect. But, at that time, about half of the NFOs were going to Vietnam in various aircraft types (F4, A6, and P3). F4s and A6s flew off carriers. P3s were land-based. One recommendation my father (a pilot) gave me before entering the Navy was to consider the Patrol community seriously. His WWII time was spent in patrol.
Pilots and NFOs had to finish sixteen weeks of basic training before aircraft assignments were made. You had to be highly ranked in your class to be guaranteed of getting a specific type of aircraft. I was fortunate to be at the top of my class and chose the P3 community. The next eighteen chose jets (F4s or A6s). It would be months before I knew if the squadron I was assigned to would be supporting the war effort in Vietnam.
My next training assignment was to Corpus Christi for the next step toward a P3 career. P3s primarily fly antisubmarine warfare missions; however, they can perform other missions as well. In Vietnam, the primary mission was surface surveillance.
NFOs worked initially in P3s as the enroute and tactical navigator. Over time, an NFO would advance to the tactical coordinator and eventually become a mission commander. In Corpus Christi, we learned basic airborne navigation along with celestial proficiency. Upon graduation, we were assigned to squadrons.
I was sent to VP-6 stationed out of Barbers Point, Hawaii. Half of my class was sent to the west coast and would be involved in Vietnam. The other half were sent to the east coast, and most never saw one day of service in Vietnam.
VP-6 was flying missions in support of the Vietnam War. P3s tracked infiltrator trawlers hauling guns and ammunition from North Vietnam to South Vietnam. They also tracked all vessels moving north or south in the South China Sea with detailed attention to all Soviet bloc vessels.
I had further training in San Diego, CA, and then to Moffatt Field, CA, for my first introduction to P3s. The P3 has three pilots (two flying and one crew resting), two flight engineers (one flying and one resting), one radio operator, one non-acoustic operator, one navigator, one tactical coordinator, two acoustic operators, and one ordnance man.
The pilots, flight engineers, and radio operator faced forward in the direction the plane was flying. The tactical crew (except the ordnance man) faced the left wing, and each had a crew station with their required equipment.
The body dynamic of flying facing the left wing with the need to communicate with the person to the left or right of you, plus the occasional turn or bump, can lead to airsickness for many. I was airsick for most of my first 500 hours, especially when we flew at 200 feet over the water and made constant left and right turns (pulling Gs with each turn).
I survived and became proficient in navigation, then tactical coordination, and then as mission commander. My tour in VP-6 ended in November 1973 – 3.5 years after I earned my NFO wings. I left active duty and entered the world of the Reserves for the next twenty years. I flew for 16 years and accumulated over 4,000 hours in P3s.
I spent many years in senior officer positions in different commands and was fortunate to return to active duty in the mid-90s. In late 1999, I retired with 31+ total years and the last six mostly on active duty. Did my decision on June 11, 1969, enhance my career? I believe so.
The world of antisubmarine warfare (ASW) changed significantly in the early ‘70s. When I entered the ASW world, tactical decisions were relegated to waiting and observing before deciding to take action. From 1972 on, the advent of new technology made the wait-and-see philosophy obsolete. We no longer worked under decision-making under uncertainty.
As such, my civilian careers blossomed because of that experience – comfort in evaluating and deciding quickly what actions needed to be taken. Would I have had that same mindset as a pilot? Maybe, because some outstanding pilots always kept their heads in the game when we flew tactical missions. They knew what and why certain tactics were being employed from the beginning to the end of the tactical phase of our flights.
Live Longer & Enjoy Life! – Red O’Laughlin – RedOLaughlin.com