Above and Beyond: Adventures in the South China Sea
- By Tracy Wilkinson
- Air & Space magazine, January 2010
Courtesy Tracy Wilkinson
(Page 2 of 4)
"Smut, get up here with the camera."
Most of us who fly naval aircraft acquire a nickname. They have a place in tactical aviation under combat conditions, but despite what you see in the movies, rarely are they flattering, cool, or macho. Early in my naval career (and for reasons I care not to discuss at this time) I had the misfortune of being nicknamed "Smut." It could have been far worse: They could have named me Ears, or Mr. Potato Head.
Another duty I had was to take pictures with the Agiflite 70-mm camera. I already had the camera loaded with a fresh film magazine and new batteries. As I scooted up to the flight station, I handed a super-8 camcorder to Zim, our inflight technician, so he could get some video if we broke out of the fog. I took my seat at the optical-glass camera window behind the pilot.
The along-for-the-ride Navy captain was flying the airplane. I didn't doubt his flying ability: I simply did not know him, and flying a real-world tactical mission over a Chinese sub, in and out of fog at 200 feet with one engine shut down, was not the time or place to become acquainted. Just sayin'.
Jez called out distance and steering commands to the contact. Getting imagery of a surfaced Chinese sub would be a coup for our squadron, and would have made working in a steamy airplane with no air conditioning and no food on board almost worth it.
Our first pass showed what we'd known all along: This guy was in the fog. We were never going to see him. Another pass. Jez called "Now now now!" as we zoomed over the invisible sub, and all of us strained to see through the thick fog. Nothing. Regulations did not allow us to go lower than 200 feet. Should something go horribly wrong, the time to impact would have been seconds. I'd have no time to make it to a ditching station and strap myself in before cartwheeling into the drink, which I had heard was shark-infested.
On the next pass, the captain dipped below 200 feet. We all shifted uncomfortably. As I watched the radar altimeter over his shoulder tick down to 190 feet, the altitude alarm blared its little tune. The altimeter warning lights on the glareshield started flashing big, bright, and red, and this guy was holding us at 190 feet. Unbelievable.
"On top, now now now!" Jez called. We nudged up to 200 feet and everyone started breathing again. Then the captain stood the big Orion on its right wing and racked into a turn for another pass. Again he flew us across the sub at 190 feet. Another turn—this time down to 180 feet. The alarm blared, lights flashed, hearts pounded. The captain glanced at the flight engineer, nodded toward the circuit breaker panel, and grunted. The flight engineer held my gaze momentarily—I could read in his eyes just what he thought of the situation. He reached over to pull the radar altimeter warning circuit breaker, silencing the alarm and extinguishing the red lights that people far smarter than us saw fit to place there for very specific reasons.