A true story of a crew’s mission to make something special happen for one of them.

Circa 1983, I had been chatting with my P3 ASW crew on the way back to the States from our deployment. Sensor Station One asked about having his reenlistment done with our crew on top a Soviet submarine. I thought it was literally an impossible thing to do. This is a true story of a flight crew making a mission happen for one of the crew.

I told him I would try to make it happen. We would need our entire crew together for at least a weekend, most likely longer than a weekend. We would have to get permission from our Squadron Skipper. We would have to figure out a way to minimize the cost to the government – no-cost orders for the non-drill weekend. And more.

We are Reservists stationed at VP-94 in Belle Chasse, Louisiana. We drill one weekend a month. For the non-military, that means that we get our butts to Belle Chasse on the designated weekend and work both Saturday and Sunday. Some people drive in. Others fly on government airlifts supporting our squadron. Others arrive the best they can.

I broached the subject with our Skipper and he told me that whatever we did could not jeopardize normal attendance at our regularly scheduled drill weekend. He would help us where he could with other details. I talked to the Operations Officer and told him what we wanted to do. I told him the Skipper backed me up. He told me to let him know what he could do to help.

Things were looking up from the operational perspective. We had flown from Louisiana to Spain, the Azores, Bermuda, and other places in support of real-world operations in the past. Bermuda was the closest place logistically.

It was also difficult to schedule trips to Bermuda. Billeting was scarce. Sonobuoys were even more scarce. Regular operations went on all year long. We would have to work our way into an active tempo that was normally covered by another squadron.

I talked to our crew over the next few months and picked a couple of potential dates that our crew could get together and fly a mission in the Atlantic somewhere. We cleared birthdays, anniversaries, and other events with all the crewmembers and narrowed it down to two different weekends. We would leave on a Thursday night and fly to our destination – wherever that would be.

I talked to several people at various levels around the operations in the Atlantic and told them what we wanted to do as a free-lance crew. Sort of like, Have P3 – Will Travel! I was surprised that no one said that we could not do it. I got a nod to plan to do this mission out of Bermuda, so long as we brought our own sonobuoys and we stayed off base.

Our squadron would give us no-cost orders. Our meals and accommodations would be on our nickel – not the government. Everyone in the crew agreed. The hotels in Bermuda are expensive. We made reservations for our planned weekend. I got the OK from our squadron to take a full load of ‘refurbished sonobuoys for this flight.

I cannot remember the name of the sonobuoy manufacturer (actually, I remember it well and will not reveal their identity). The sonobuoys were past their shelf life and had been sent back to the manufacturer (or contractor) to refurbish and recertify that the sonobuoys are ‘new’ again. Our history using them in training did not put a gleam in my eye.

Regardless, the crew was ready. The location was expecting us. The squadron gave us their blessing. The sonobuoys were also approved for our use. What can go wrong?

I made sure all the proper paperwork was sent to those who needed to have it. All the orders were typed up. The aircraft looked good on paper. We would not know how good it was until we did our preflight. We could always switch planes if need be.

We are finally winging our way to Bermuda with our whole crew and a few extras observers. We land and check in with the ASWOC (AntiSubmarine Warfare Operations Center) and see what they have scheduled for us. I expected to have the opportunity to fly on a submarine that had already arrived and was cruising up and down his operations area.

But, no, that was not the case. There was a submarine transiting into the Bermuda operations area, and it had been a long time since they had a confirmed location. We were tasked to locate this transiting submarine.

This was a normal type of flight for our two-week active duties every year. However, we usually had more current information than what we received at our initial check-in. Regardless, we are here, as a crew, to find a submarine, and to reenlist our Sensor Station One operator.
ASW operations start with the ocean and a small area that the submarine might be in. We fly to a designated spot and drop sonobuoys according to the master plan briefed before each flight. The pattern dropped is based on several conditions pertinent at that time and the area of the ocean we are working on.

As the TACCO (Tactical Coordinator – also Mission Commander), I determine where and when to release sonobuoys. I follow given protocols for the first few hours, and, if no contact has been found, then I have the liberty to try my own tactics.

Sensor Station One and Sensor Station Two are acoustic operators. They sit directly to my left. Most T/Cs (TACCOs) think their SS1 (Sensor Station One) operators are pretty hot. I know mine is. I flew seven years with him, He had only guessed wrong twice – both times in trainers – no time in real life when it counted. He knew what he was doing and was rarely wrong. He was a true professional in this line of work!

I could not make the next step in tactical planning until I knew that we knew there was a submarine in the waters below us. It might be a few miles from a sonobuoy, or dozens of miles. I had to have a nibble to do something.

We arrived on station and began to deploy our pattern. We were laying sonobuoys so many miles apart and so many miles from the next series of sonobuoys. It was a large ocean search that was supposed to help us find a submarine transiting the area and at an expected time.

The first sonobuoy failed to activate. No problem. We can always replace it. The second sonobuoy failed to activate. I am beginning to have a problem. The third sonobuoy did activate properly. WOW! I have hope now. The fourth sonobuoy did not activate.

We are en-route to the fifth sonobuoy drop and I must decide to re-drop the first, second, and fourth sonobuoys, or continue dropping the remaining sonobuoys in the prescribed search pattern. I called Flight (Flight station – pilot) and told him that we were going to replace the first row of sonobuoys. My rationale was that the pre-briefed position of the sonobuoys accounted for the maximum distance the submarine could have traveled since his last know position (a long time ago!).

We are headed back to the beginning of the drop zone and my SS1 calls out that he has contact. I scoot over to my left and chat with him for a quick moment. He tells me that we have the contact of interest and that he might be close to the sonobuoy. We swap headphones and I listen to what he was listening to.

I agreed with him. I told Nav (Navigator) to give us a course to the third sonobuoy. I told Flight (and the whole crew) that we had contact on our contact of interest. I asked Flight to begin a descent en route to our next sonobuoy drop.

I can go on and on about the tactics, the decision, the results, or non-results, and the corresponding activities that happen in a mission like this. Our initial contact was good enough to drop more sonobuoys and begin to localize the submarine’s position, course, and speed. We were now at our minimum flight altitude allowed and the success rate of our refurbished sonobuoys was good.

There is a difference between dropping a sonobuoy from thousands of feet in the air and hundreds of feet in the air. It really should not matter, but with refurbished sonobuoys it did.

Long story short – we flew over the submarine and gained a MAD (Magnetic Anomaly Detection) and confirmed the location, course, and speed. I asked Flight to be prepared on the next ‘mark on top’ of the submarine to read aloud the Reenlistment Order for our Sensor Station One operator.

We marked on top of the submarine. Sensor Station Three (non-acoustic operator) called another MAD! I had previously asked for the bomb bay doors to be opened and Master Armament Control to be turned on in the cockpit. I verified that the armament panel was set properly. I chose a simulated weapon (torpedo) and pressed it at the appropriate time.

Flight read the Oath of Office for Reenlistment as the simulated torpedo was being dropped. Navigator noted in his logs our first simulated attack and the reenlistment of our SS1.

The rest of the flight went well. I cannot tell you how many simulated attacks I made but suffice it to know that our bomb bay was absent cocked racks and we kept going. We were scheduled for eight hours on this mission. After six hours, as Mission Commander, I consulted with Flight and decided to call it a day.

We had achieved the requirements of the mission. There was nothing to be gained by further tracking and attacking. The ASWOC would know his location, course, and speed and that was the purpose of us being on this mission.

We terminated the mission. They were not ready for us to arrive a couple of hours early. We explained what happened and they had no problem. I have found it is a lot easier to get forgiveness than permission. We scored as high a grade as could be given.

We were able to claim that our Sensor Station One operator had his ‘wish’ of being reenlisted on top of a Soviet submarine. Members have their reenlistments in unusual places and times. Crews have their crew pictures taken likewise – something that is significant to the crew or the location.

This might be the only reenlistment that had been planned from the beginning to include the whole Reserve crew operating with no-cost government orders, bringing our own sonobuoys, to a location that doesn’t support ‘extra-curricular operational flights on real-world events, to use refurbished sonobuoys, to find, localize, track, and make simulated attacks.

Months ago, it seemed an impossible tasking. We returned home and cherished the moment that few can dream of – reenlisting where it counts!

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

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