Above & Beyond: Adventures in the South China Sea

Above & Beyond: Adventures in the South China Sea

The author with his anti-sub Lockheed Orion. (Courtesy Tracy Wilkinson)
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In the summer of 1999, I was part of the reservist crew from Naval Air Station Whidbey in Washington state, on our annual cruise in the western Pacific, with detachment sites in Misawa, Japan, and Kadena Air Base in Okinawa. We'd been alternating with our other VP-69 "Fighting Totems" aircrew, standing alerts for days on end.

"Standing alert" entails a little time in the airplane—a Lockheed P-3C Orion—to preflight and spool up computers and radars, then a lot of time back at quarters for 24 hours of sleeping, watching movies, doing laundry, ordering pizza, and generally lying about, all in the name of maintaining crew integrity and defending the Republic.

One morning, while it was still dark and a few hours before the alert airplane was turned over to another crew, someone knocked on my door and announced: "Get up, we got paged." Along with a few equally groggy members of Combat Aircrew One, I looked out to see who was guilty of such bad grammar, but he had already left. I got dressed, laced up my flying boots, grabbed my bag, and tumbled down the stairs to join the others at the crew van.

Standard operating procedure requires us to be in the air within an hour of getting a call; we were taxiing our P-3C UDIII Orion to Runway 5R with 12 crew on board, plus a Navy captain from the tactical support center who was coming along for the ride. We'd been dispatched to locate and track a Chinese submarine that someone had gotten a whiff of.

A four-hour transit put us on station in the South China Sea to relieve a P-3 that had been in intermittent contact with the sub. That crew lost track of it just before we arrived.

Before they left, they expended the last of their sonobuoys, which use sound waves to identify objects underwater, for us to start on. We shut down an engine to save gas and feathered the propeller to reduce drag. Soon our sensor operator picked up the trail, and in no time had the sub boxed in. After the euphoria of contact calls, steep turns, high-speed dashes, rapid-firing strings of buoys, and reporting back to tactical support center once we had the sub cold, we settled into the tedium of anti-submarine warfare: hours and hours of circling, laying down buoys, and watching lines on a scope. It was hot and muggy at these latitudes, so I stripped my flightsuit down, tied it around my waist, and put my survival vest on over my soaked T-shirt. Outside my starboard aft cabin window lay a blanket of fog 200 feet thick.

As ordnanceman, my job was to keep the tactical coordinator supplied with sonobuoys armed with impulse cartridges and set to the depth, radio-frequency channel, and operational lifespan he would need when it was time to launch them from the three pressurized sonobuoy chutes in the cabin floor. We'd tracked and classified the sub—now we just had to stay in contact until we too were relieved. We were operating at 200 feet, our normal anti-sub altitude. Then, over the intercom system: "Flight, I think he may be coming to the surface.

" Jez, the radar operator, confirmed a contact, possibly a periscope. In short order we had the surfacing submarine just off the nose one mile away, invisible in the thick fog.

"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.

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