Feb 14

CAC-7: Skeet for the Fleet

Thursday, February 14, 2019 12:01 AM

By

I am only 20 years old and the Soviets are going to shoot me down? That is NOT what I had in mind when our crew took off this morning!

Like all good sea stories, this one too starts with a ‘there we were’ moment. But before the story starts, a bit of background and setup information first:

Date: September 1989.

Location: Sigonella (Catania Province), Sicily

Purpose: VP-24 (Batmen) Deployment from home base in Jacksonville, Florida

Aircraft: P-3C (Baseline models)

CAC-7 Skeet For the Fleet P-3 Orion by Don Feight

CAC-7 Skeet For the Fleet P-3 Orion by Don Feight

VP-24 deployed to Sicily in July 1989 while the Cold War was raging (though waning, but nobody on our side knew that at the time). P-3s, the U.S. Navy’s premier anti-submarine aircraft, routinely deployed to the Italian island in the Mediterranean in order to keep track of the Soviet Union’s surface and sub-surface order of battle. The Soviets maintained their base in Syria, and would replace units through the Strait of Gibraltar in the West or through the Dardanelles connecting to the Sea of Marmara and up to the Black Sea in the North East. Sicily’s location in the middle Mediterranean and the facilities at Sigonella were ideal for monitoring everything the Soviets did in the entire U.S. 6th Fleet’s area of responsibility.

As a 20-year old aircrewman assigned to Combat Air Crew 7 (CAC-7), I was extremely excited to finally be able to put my two-plus years of Navy school training to practical use in an exotic environment against real, not simulated, Soviet targets. My particular job was called the In-Flight Technician or IFT for short. I was responsible to maintain and fix, if possible, any electronic system, computer, radar, radio, etc. while still in flight so we could maintain the prosecution of whatever target we were tracking or monitoring and not have to abort the mission due to equipment failure. I was equipped with many spare electronic cards and assorted parts, an oscilloscope, multi-meter, tool box, and schematic diagrams for the majority of the systems aboard our aircraft. Readers may be surprised to know how often our aircraft’s systems malfunctioned during flight. Did its frequency really justify keeping a permanent IFT on the crew? Well, in the case of our baseline model P-3Cs, the answer was a resounding yes. Many of our aircraft were accepted in the late 60’s, with the remainder beginning their service in the early 70s. And the technology and finicky equipment inside them reflected that.

When all the systems were working however, my crew station was at position #10, which was the port side, just aft of the main crew cabin door. My seat could swivel 360 degrees, (aft for take-offs and landings, but usually forward during mission) and was situated next to a bubble type window for observing things like engine starts or aiding photographers in ‘rigging’ merchant shipping, warships or anything else the good ole’ MK I Mod 0 Eyeball was useful for.

So there we were. 22 September 1989. CAC-7 was assigned a RUBY HUNTER mission to collect imagery of the Soviet anchorage near the Libya/Egypt border. Intel briefed the tactical crew what to expect and what aspects they were interested in collecting, while the maintenance crew (myself as the IFT, our ordnanceman and our Flight Engineers) started pre-flighting our assigned aircraft (bureau number 158935).

Take-off and flight out to commence our search was uneventful and straight forward, and while in route to the anchorage, our Non-Acoustic Operator (SS-3), AW3 Dennis (MAC) McDonald found two Soviet surface combatants underway just south of Crete. So, in accordance with our rules of engagement, our Patrol Plane Commander (PPC) LT Bill (Weedy) Weidenhammer informed the crew to put on our Life Preserver Assemblies (LPAs) as we were descending below 1000 feet. We shut down engine number one for two reasons: Firstly to save fuel as the P-3 still had plenty of power in reserve to fly with just three engines, but also in order to prevent shooting photographs from my crew station through the hazy exhaust trail. The PPC leveled us out at 200 feet, and selected one notch of flaps to allow more margin when flying slow and turning. We began our approach to the first Soviet ship, a Slava-class cruiser on its aft starboard side. We took photos and infrared video and then continued straight ahead, as the second warship, a Sovremennyy-class destroyer was leading the tandem formation.

It was exciting to me to actually see real Soviet warships. It sure beat looking at the old black and white photos the intel folks quizzed us on all throughout our work-ups! Anyway, the first orbit around the two-ship formation was benign and we began to circle once more to ensure we got all the photos and angles expected of us. Again we passed the big Slava with its instantly recognizable and formidable slanted arrays of SS-N-12 anti-ship missiles. We took pics and video along the way and then approached the destroyer again at the head of the formation. This time though was drastically different!

22 September 1989 CAC-7 (Courtesy of the Author)

22 September 1989 CAC-7 (Courtesy of the Author)

As we approached the Sovremenny, its aft twin 130mm gun turret rotated to an approximately 2 o’clock position, but I am not sure any of our crew saw that at the time. What we did see and feel almost immediately afterwards though was one of those guns firing. In sequence, was a bright flash of light, followed by a lot of white smoke, and then a pretty significant blast of turbulence as our aircraft passed through the concussion from its gun. No prior radio warning or communication. No evasive maneuvering following our first circuit around their ships. Nothing before BOOM!

What followed was a bit comical in retrospect, but deadly serious at the time. Someone in the flight station called out via intercom (ICS) something to the nature of “What the @*$# was that?” Even though I was watching the whole event unfold in real time and in color, it still took a moment for me to process what I just saw, as it definitely was NOT something I was expecting. I am pretty sure it was Mac, our SS-3 who reported first that the ship had just taken a shot at us. The Flight Engineer instinctively shoved the throttles forward, which was followed up quickly by the PPC as he actually bent the power levers trying to get us out of the ship’s surface-to-air missile range (~7 NM). At the time we were only flying around 160 knots with one engine feathered, and flaps down a notch so it took a while to regain a lot of airspeed. The PPC ordered the crew to set condition 4, which had us all perform visual inspections to ensure our aircraft was intact. The sudden huge throttle increase caused our SS-3 to see large heat plumes on his infrared display which lead him to initially report our engines may be on fire. I quickly reported via ICS that that was not the case, and in the end it appeared that we were not actually hit by anything. By then however, we were already well on our way to returning to base.

Meanwhile, AX2 Lorenzo (LA) Aragon was aboard one of the squadron aircraft on deck back in Sigonella and was troubleshooting one of the HF radios in preparation for his crew’s flight. He was therefore perfectly situated to overhear the initial reports our Navigator/Communicator (NAVCOM) LT (j.g.) Ron(SPIKE) Carvalho transmitted out discussing what we just experienced. Obviously excited, he spread the word of what happened, and needless to say by the time we landed, our crew was extremely popular!

Once safely back on deck, our entire crew (not just the tactical crew like usual) was whisked off to the ASWOC (Anti-Submarine Warfare Operations Center) for a debrief, to include a Flag officer who happened to be in Sigonella at the time . ICS tapes were replayed of the incident so analysts could reconstruct an accurate account of events, and after a bit of embarrassing and somewhat sheepish confession by many of us to using various colorful metaphors and epithets, a clearer picture emerged. Our crew was dismissed after a couple of hours and told to not discuss the matter until further permission was given. Oddly (or maybe not so oddly), the entire incident came out in the newspapers just a couple of days later. The Navy filed a diplomatic protest under the 1972 Incidents at Sea Agreement, and the Soviets ended up offering an apology saying they had been conducting gunnery exercises.

Of course our crew could not avoid being assigned our new moniker “CAC-7: Skeet for the Fleet” following that incident.

November 1989 that has an article about the Soviet's visit to Norfolk. Note that one of those ships is the same one that I later had the encounter with (Courtesy of the Author)

November 1989 with an article about the Soviet’s visit to Norfolk. Note that one of those ships is the same one that I later had the encounter with (Courtesy of the Author)

Note: no still imagery exists showing the exact moment of the Sovremenny’s gun firing, but the attachment labeled Sovremenny Vs P-3 is one taken about a second or so afterwards, with white smoke obscuring the turret.

Note: Link to LA Times article of incident http://articles.latimes.com/print/1989-10-05/news/mn-909_1_soviet-union

Author’s note and unabashed plug: I commissioned an original painting of this incident by the famous aviation illustrator and painter Don Feight http://feightstudios.com/. He has graciously agreed to allow me to include the completed paining.