P3 aircraft
P3 aircraft

The year was 1972.  I was flying a patrol mission (P3-A Orion aircraft) out of Subic Bay, Philippines.  Our mission that day was to provide MAD-VEC services to a Chinese Nationalist destroyer.  The United States and Taiwan were having an exercise off Taiwan.  There were a couple of US destroyers, a Chinese Nationalist destroyer, and a US submarine.

MAD-VEC sounds like an interesting word – at least something you don’t run into on a regular basis.  MAD is a synonym for Magnetic Anomaly Detection.  VEC is short for vectoring.  MAD is a non-acoustic sensor which relies on measuring the difference in magnetic fields.  If there is no submarine or another large body of metal under the surface of the ocean when we overfly that position, the MAD equipment will detect no change in the earth’s magnetic field.  If there is a large metal object under the water, there will be a ‘blip’ on the MAD equipment indicating something is there.

For MAD to be effective you have to fly low – around 200 feet over the water.  The wingspan on a P-3 aircraft is a little over 99 feet.  During MAD maneuvers the aircraft will make sharp turns routinely up to 45 degrees – sometimes higher.  The MAD sensor is located in the tail – the ‘stinger’ part of the tail.  It is separated as far as possible for the metal in the aircraft in order to measure the magnetic field of the ocean below.

The Chinese were working with the Americans to improve their coordination skills – using aircraft to ‘confirm’ an underwater contact.  The basic maneuver is to fly over the top of the destroyer and then fly outbound on a bearing line given to us by the ship.  Since the ship is moving and the submarine is moving, there will be mid-course corrections given as we approach the suspected submarine’s position.

We preflighted the equipment on the ground and everything looked good.  We took off and did our in-flight checks.  Suddenly, it appeared that something was wrong with our MAD equipment.  Since the mission was scheduled to use MAD as our primary sensor, we had to make a decision to abort the mission or continue with something that might not be 100%.  There was no ‘back-up’ aircraft standing by to take this mission if we aborted.

We continued to check out the MAD as we flew towards the operating area.  We noticed that if the aircraft made a right-turn, the gimbals in the MAD sensor would go crazy and it would take a minute or two of steady flight to stabilize again.  However, if we made left-hand turns, the MAD worked as advertised.  It was strange, but functional if we made no right-hand turns.  So, we decided not to abort, and to join the ships and do our part of their training.

Here’s where it got interesting.  I’m talking to the Chinese Nationalist destroyer and telling him that we can only make left-hand turns once we mark on top his boat – any corrections that are needed must be made with left-hand turns.  Everything was understood.  We marked on top the destroyer and were told to fly outbound on a heading of 035 degrees and expect contact in six miles.  We are about two miles from the ship when he wants us to correct our heading to 040 (a right-hand course correction of five degrees).  We tell him again that we cannot do this mission if we make any right-hand course corrections.

It was our fifth or sixth departure from the ship when they finally understood that our aircraft could not get a MAD contact if we made any right-hand corrections.  After that, it worked like clockwork – only left-hand corrections for the next couple of hours.  Then the watch changed on the ship and we had to explain it again to the ‘new guys’ that our aircraft could only make left-hand course corrections.  We had to train the new watch sections before they got the hang of it.

Four hours later a new shift appeared on the bridge, and we went through the same learning curve again.  We got them straightened out and performed our part of the mission for them,  We soon found our time was up and departed for home base.  I thought that was the end of the story.  Two weeks later, I’m at the Latitude 23 Club on base in Tainan, Taiwan.  We had flown just a mission that required us to fly out of Taiwan the next day, so we pre-positioned the aircraft in Taiwan to get our briefing and be ready to depart from there.

I’m playing pool with a good buddy of mine, having a beer or two, and this new American flight crew (different squadron) shows up at the bar.  There are some other crewmembers at the bar they know from their squadron.  It was a boisterous reunion – nothing out of the ordinary.  Then, out of the blue, one of the guys who had just walked started telling his buddies about these stupid officers on a Chinese Nationalist destroyer.

Apparently, he was tasked to do MAD-VECs, just like my crew did.  He told these other guys that the very first question the ship asked was, ‘Can your airplane turn right?’  Of course, their airplane could turn right – and left– and they thought it was the dumbest thing they had ever been asked.  The other guys had not flown that kind of mission with the Chinese Nationalists and they thought it was funny.

Here it was, two weeks after our mission, and we apparently had made a real impression on the watch officers on that Chinese Nationalist destroyer – we were the first airplane they ever saw that could not make a right-hand turn.  When everyone stopped laughing, I went over and introduced myself to them and told them the rest of the story – what had happened on our plane and why we insisted on no right-hand course corrections.  Everyone laughed again, but I’m sure there are some other flight crews that will tell the story of some Chinese Nationalist destroyer that asked them if their plane could turn right.


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