A more modern version of the ships we used to identify during the Vietnam War.

It was 1972 and we were flying ten days out of Cubi Point, PI, ten days out of Cam Rahn Bay, Vietnam, and ten days out of Utapao, Thailand every month. We have been flying the standard rigging run in the South China Sea from both Cubi Point and Cam Rahn Bay.

We would take off just before dawn so that we could start our first ship rig at first light, and fly until it was too dark to read the names on the vessels. Our mission was to rig all vessels over 1000 tons. Rigging implied getting the location, time, course, speed, name, upright sequence, funnel markings, type of stern, type of vessel, and maybe one or two things I have forgotten in nearly 50 years.

We also had to cross-reference the vessel with some classified and unclassified pubs onboard the aircraft to determine if the vessel had already been rigged. If not, our report would eventually update that manual. If the vessel was a merchant ship of the Soviet Bloc, then we would overfly and take pictures from above.

The Navigator was the busiest man aboard. The SS3 operator (Radar) would give the Navigator contacts numbers with ranges and bearings. The Navigator would tell Flight (our pilot) which contact to investigate next. With the stabilized binoculars, the ship’s name would be visible several miles away. If the contact was in a specific pub, then we would just do a photo run and re-capture the standard rigging information.

The primary equipment for mission success was radar. If it went down, we aborted and went home. On this specific flight, the forward radar started overheating and would shut down. We took the radar enclosure off the forward radar and did our best to funnel airconditioned air to the radar equipment.

Several times the forward radar overheated and shut off for up to ten minutes at a time. We would turn the aircraft around, and the Navigator would plot the contacts from Radar who was using the aft radar. This kept us on the mission without having to abort. The hours wasted away, and we knew we would finish that day’s mission with over a hundred contacts rigged – a normal day on the Yellow Brick Road.

We were on a four-day rotation of Duty, Fly, Ready Alert, Train/Off. This had been our Fly day. We wrote the forward radar up as best we could, and prepared to stand the Ready Alert the next morning.

Before any flight, we review the last ten days worth of equipment malfunctions and the results of any maintenance actions – replacing equipment or whatever. We started our preflight well before dawn. I checked our aircraft and decided to see what maintenance action had been done on the airplane we flew yesterday. The response to the defective forward radar was that it “could not be duplicated on the ground.”

I mentioned this to our crew during our preflight. Most of the crew had also read Maintenance’s response. As the Ready Alert Crew, this Maintenance response literally guaranteed that we would be flying that day. We finished with the airplane preflight and everything was good. Maintenance Control was called, and they knew that the Ready Alert Bird was good to go if needed.

Instead of heading back to the hangar, we had a brief crew meeting and decided to wait a short time to hear if the aircraft with the bad forward radar was going to abort or not, once they did their first inflight check.

Sure enough, fifteen minutes after takeoff we monitored a message to Maintenance Control advising them that the forward radar was not working and that they were considering an abort. Maintenance Control told them to continue with the mission and see if they could get it to work.

Our crew decided that we were going to be launched in a few minutes, anyway. Why not launch ourselves right now? We were all aboard and ready to go. It was just a matter of time before we would be in the air anyway. A Command decision was made by our crew to launch ourselves. We contacted Departure Control, taxied, and took off. We did not tell Maintenance Control what we were doing.

We continued to monitor the aircraft with the bad radar and within minutes after our takeoff, they reported an abort. I had just completed the first inflight (Condition Four) check and walked up to the cockpit to let them know everything was OK.

It wasn’t a minute after the Condition Four check was completed that Maintenance Control called our aircraft and told us to “Launch the Ready Alert!” We informed him that we had been in the air for five minutes and were proceeding to the mission.

I don’t know of any other negative response time Ready Alert launches, and I’ve asked many TACCOs over the years. I would have loved to have been in Maintenance Control when they heard we were already in the air proceeding to our mission area when they told us to launch.

Live Longer & Enjoy Life! – Red O’Laughlin https://RedOLaughlin.com

13 Responses

  1. Hi Red!We served together in that unit and your story reminds me of a similar flight in a dangerous area of the Sea known for “Sea Mounts”. As you know Sea Mounts vary in size, shape and can appear at any time anywhere. They mimic the Gopher game where you whack them as they pop up!. We had a low overcast and used the aft radar as forward unit was down to plot the contacts and “rig” them. The Plane Commander got weary of going up and down through the overcast and we leveled off about 2500 feet above the water and were “hard” IMC in Stratus. Suddenly the clouds parted like a curtain and there was the biggest, reddest Sea Mount we ever saw. The top and edges were obscured by the Stratus and we were closing on it fast. The engineer automatically applied immediate full power and the Plane Commander pulled the yoke back into his chest and up we went. Dead silence for several moments,,, and we knew we had cleared the obstacle when we popped out VFR looking like a P3 doing an F4 combat climb. Plane commander told Nav plot the course to our destination and out-chop to head quarters. Tacco, wanted to know why we cancelled,,,. It was the quietest flight to our destination ever and no one ever talked about it. The Flight Engineer is from the area I live in and during one of his family visits we met up a few years back and the event came up; it made a lasting impression on all of us. Great story Red!

    1. I can guarantee you that I was not on that flight. I can easily imagine it happening. We were doing the Yellow Brick Road up near mainland China and had been at 200 feet for hours. Lots of contacts! Radar mentioned verbally that it looked like we might have some weather up ahead. He had it on a ten or 20-mile scale or something like that. I mentioned it to Flight that there might some weather ahead and to keep an eye open. Everything was hazy beyond five to ten miles. We continued on and soon the ‘weather’ appeared close enough to visually see. I went up to the cockpit and looked around. One of the pilots thought he saw land. We agreed! Immediately, the aircraft dove below our 200′ limit onsta altitude and he applied max-power to remove us from ten+ miles from the Chinese mainland. We thought we had created an International Incident. We expected some Chinese pilots to join up on us. Nothing happened. We ventured outside the 100 NM limit and stayed there the rest of the day. The Loran lines were nearly parallel and it was difficult to get a decent fix. That also contributed to the error in being too close to China. No one on the crew ever said anything. No Incidents were filed. I was never (and our pilots also) brought up to the CO about it. I guess China thought it was a typical PARPRO flight and didn’t do anything. Maybe we were just blessed that day! Yes, lots of stories abound in our worlds.

    1. Yes, all of us who served have stories of various times in our lives that we were part of making a difference. Sometimes we know the intimate details. Other times, we were helping and not knowing those details.

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