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 starts with a “there we were” moment. But before the story starts, here’s a bit of background:

Date: September 1989.

Location: Sigonella (Catania Province), Sicily

Purpose: Patrol Squadron (VP) 24 “Batmen” deployment from home base in Jacksonville, Florida.

Aircraft: P-3C Orion baseline models

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

The author’s P-3C Orion approaches a Soviet warship shortly before the aircrew received a rude surprise, as depicted by Don Feight. (feightstudios.com)

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 antisubmarine aircraft, routinely were deployed to Sicily to keep track of the Soviet Union’s surface and subsurface order of battle. The Soviets maintained a base in Syria and would replace units through the Strait of Gibraltar or the Dardanelles. Sicily’s location in the middle Mediterranean and the facilities there at Sigonella were ideal for monitoring everything the Soviets did in the U.S. Sixth Fleet’s area of responsibility.

As a 20-year old aircrewman assigned to Combat Air Crew (CAC) 7, I was extremely excited finally to 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. The in-flight technician, or IFT, I was responsible for maintaining and fixing, if possible, any electronic system—computer, radar, radio, etc.—while in flight so we could tracking or monitoring a target. I was equipped with many spare electronic cards, assorted parts, equipment, and schematic diagrams for the majority of the systems on board 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 1960s, with the remainder beginning their service in the early ’70s. And the technology and finicky equipment inside them reflected their age.

When all the systems were working, however, my crew station was at position no. 10—the port side, just aft of the main crew cabin door. My seat could swivel 360 degrees (aft for takeoffs and landings, but usually forward during the missions) and was situated next to a bubble type window for observing things such as engine starts and ships at sea.

So there we were, on 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 preflighting our assigned aircraft (bureau number 158935).

Takeoff 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), Naval Aircrewman Third Class Dennis “Mac” McDonald found two Soviet surface combatants under way just south of Crete. So, in accordance with our rules of engagement, our patrol plane commander (PPC) Lieutenant Bill “Weedy” Weidenhammer informed the crew to put on our life preserver assemblies (LPAs), as we were descending below 1,000 feet. We shut down engine number one to save fuel (the P-3 still had plenty of power in reserve to fly with just three engines) and cut down on hazy exhaust obscuring photographs taken from my crew station. 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 her aft starboard side. We took photos and infrared video and then continued straight ahead, as the second warship, a Sovremenny-class destroyer was leading the tandem formation.

It was exciting to me to see real Soviet warships. It sure beat looking at the old black-and-white photos the intel folks quizzed us on all through 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 her 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)

On 22 September 1989, smoke obscures a a 130-mm gun turret on board a Sovremennyy-class Soviet destroyer immediately after she unleashed a blast as CAC-7 passed nearby. (Courtesy of the author)

As we approached the Sovremenny, her aft twin 130-mm gun turret rotated to an approximately 2 o’clock position, but I’m not sure any of our crew saw that at the time. What we did see and feel almost immediately afterward though was one of those guns firing. There was a bright flash of light, a lot of white smoke, and then a pretty significant blast of turbulence as our aircraft passed through the concussion from firing. There had been no prior radio warning or communication. No evasive maneuvering following our first circuit around the 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 Mac 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 (about seven nautical miles). 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 was not the case, and in the end it appeared we were not actually hit by anything. By then, however, we were well on our way to our base.

Meanwhile, Aviation Antisubmarine Warfare Technician Second Class Lorenzo “LA” Aragon was on board one of the squadron aircraft on deck back in Sigonella troubleshooting one of the HF radios in preparation for his crew’s flight. He therefore was situated to overhear the initial reports our navigator/communicator (NAVCOM) Lieutenant (junior grade) Ron “Spike” Carvalho transmitted discussing what we just experienced. Obviously excited, he spread the word of what happened, and by the time we landed, our crew was extremely popular.

Once safely back on deck, our entire crew was whisked off to the antisubmarine warfare operations center for a debrief. Present was a flag officer who happened to be in Sigonella . ICS tapes of the incident were replayed so analysts could reconstruct an accurate account of events, and after a bit of embarrassing and somewhat sheepish confession by many of us to having used various colorful metaphors and epithets, a clearer picture emerged. Our crew was told to not discuss the matter until further permission was given and dismissed after a couple of hours. The entire incident was reported in 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.

Following the incident, our crew could not avoid being assigned a new moniker: “CAC-7: Skeet for the Fleet.”

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: 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. credit-n.ru
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