24 September 2006

Badgers, Buccaneers and Bears...(Pt 2)

(Note: I am in the process of moving the postings off the old site to this one, beginning with this series)

Badgers, Buccaneers and Bears...(Pt 2)
(A North Atlantic tale from the "good ole days")

Stopping by Maintenance Control, the lieutenant asked for the aircraft discrepancy book on 602. All the current and near past ills of the aircraft are chronicled in this three-ring binder, giving crews an idea of what they will be working with.

“Hi chief – looks like 602 again” he said. “Did the AT’s have a chance to look at the DTS yet?” The Data Terminal Set, or DTS, was not much more than a glorified modem, connecting the E-2 into the digital data network known as TADIL-A or Link-11. Link-11 allowed the tracks passed by participating units, surface and airborne, to be shared, dramatically expanding the situational awareness and battlespace.

“Yes sir, they swapped it out” the chief replied. “Any more word on 604? All we heard was a radar problem, no specifics yet...”

“Sorry chief, I’ll see if I can get something out of them when I go to CIC, looks like our radar problems are continuing though, especially with 604.”

“Roger that – thanks sir” The chief was his QA division chief and recently the two had grown concerned over the number of radar problems the squadron was encountering. He had suggested a special trend analysis on certain radar boxes on the transmit side, in the high power section. They were awaiting the data run from the ship’s AIMD department on these boxes to see if there were any common areas of failure.

As he headed down the passageway to CIC, he started turning over in his mind what the causes of this rash of failures might be. To be sure, the CO was going to be one very unhappy camper when he got back on deck and he was glad he’d be airborne when the CO got back to the ready room – it wasn’t going to be pretty.

Opening the hatch into CIC, he stepped into the perpetual darkness, lit only by the vertical plot boards, consoles and weak, blue lights. Several overhead speakers were announcing their traffic and one in particular; the AAW circuit immediately attracted his attention.

“Whiskey, Alpha Whiskey, Tango3 – Tango 3 track 1210 Badger Charlie-Mod, VID Taproom 101”

Finally, the bear was coming out – this could get interesting. Tango 3 was the E-2 they were going up to relieve. 604 was supposed to have been the relief, but with the busted radar, 601 was extending until he could get airborne. Tango 3 was passing that the unknown they had been tracking (Link -11 track 1210) was visually identified as an ASCM-carrying version of the workhorse Badger medium range bomber by one of the ariwing’s Tomcats. Carrying up to 2 AS-4 “Kitchen” anti-ship missiles, individually, it was a relatively straightforward target for the airwing’s Tomcats and their Phoenix missiles – nail the archer, not the arrows was the goal. However, in the large waves expected as the BG approached the Soviet homeland closer than many remembered in recent history, well, that could be a problem.

“Whiskey, this is Alpha Whiskey, designate track 1210 as unknown, presumed hostile.” Alpha Whiskey was the Anti-Air Warfare Commander who was either on the carrier or one of the AAW-equipped cruisers like USS Virginia, accompanying them. AW had just ordered all of the units on the AAW net to consider track 1210 as a presumed hostile – actual designation of hostile was reserved for a shooting war.

Looking over the shoulder of the Force Weapons Controller, he rapidly took in the situation. Three Bear Delta’s airborne and hanging around the extreme outer edges of the battle group all with escorts from the battle group – one with a pair of the new Sea Harriers from the HMS Hermes and the other two with F-4s from the Forrestal, who was waylaid on her homeward bound leg from a Mediterranean deployment. Talk about happy campers...

The just ID’d Badger C-Mod was inbound at 18, 000 ft making around 350 knots. Close aboard was Taproom 101. The bucket brigade of tankers, KA-6s and A-7s with buddy stores, were shuttling out to CAP stations to refill the thirsty fighters.

Turning to the TAO, he waited for a break in the action to get a quick update.

“Hi Mike, I’m on the hot switch – what’ve we got going?”

Quickly the TAO passed the brief – “AW is on Virginia who is also NCS. AAWC is on UHF covered and Link-11 is on HF, we’re still in EMCON A. We have indications of a possible raid coming out of the north-east and an orange air raid is expected during your second cycle. Real world threat axis is 020, exercise 020 and 140.” Hmm, AW was over on the Virginia, not altogether encouraging as they had a tendency this at sea period to lose the picture. Voice reporting was secure UHF which meant he could be a little freer in passing information – no chance of a screw-up converting info with “base plus” information. Link-11 being on HF made sure he could push his station out further to extend the radar coverage of the force, but EMCON A would make launch and recovery not fun – no navaids, radio comms or radars off mother (the carrier) to help the returning aviators, so it would be up to the airborne E-2 to help, adding to the workload.

“Whiskey, Alpha Whiskey, Tango 3, new Tango 3 track 1215, red-185, taking with CAP station 1, Dakota 201.” Business was starting to pick up.

“OK Mike, I think I got it – talk to you all airborne” The TAO gave a quick nod as he turned back to the task at hand. Stopping by the enlisted controller working Strike, he asked if 604 had passed any codes back. The controller nodded and passed a sheet of paper on which were listed several Bravo codes. Quickly deciphering them, the lieutenant saw it was the high power side of the radar that had failed – the trend continued. A quick call back to Maintenance control with the codes and he was off to flight deck control.

As he exited the hull just below the carrier’s island, the icy blast of North Atlantic air wiped what remaining cobwebs there were form his mind. Looking out as far as the shredding mist and low, scudding gray clouds would allow he caught an occasional glimpse of a Knox-class frigate churning along on the starboard quarter. The occasional white spray of sea breaking across the bow reminded him of the carrier’s own movement. Grey seas, grey skies – what a bleak seascape the late summer North Atlantic provided. Some forty years ago, merchant convoys had struggled through the thicket of Nazi submarines and maritime patrol aircraft to deliver their loads of arms to the erstwhile-Soviet allies at Murmansk. Now, he thought, we find our selves plowing similar seas, only this time running the Soviet sub gauntlet and preparing for an aerial onslaught. Surprisingly, while the tools of the trade had grown in complexity and lethality, the means of employment had scarcely changed.

Climbing the ladder to the flight deck and entrance to flight deck control, he gave brief thanks for the bulk of clothing he wore for the protection it provided, knowing full well within the hour he’d be chaffing and cursing it in turn. The bomb farm, abreast the starboard side of the island, was today filled with a variety of missiles – ranging from the “Buffalo” (AIM-54 Phoenix), so named for it’s size to the almost diminutive Sidewinder (AIM-9). In between was the star-crossed Sparrow (AIM-7). Each effective in its own turn, but if you wanted to kill a Bear, then the Phoenix was the trick. Big missile, big warhead and range to reach out and touch someone, a long ways away. At least, that what the sales brochures said...

The flight deck, normally crowded with aircraft was relatively open – anything flyable was either already airborne, preparing to launch or getting ready for recovery. Ike was in “flex-deck” operations allowing for nearly continuous flight ops. Fortunately the wind was cooperating as it allowed Ike to continue along PIM and the open ocean gave her a wide berth to within which to operate. Up on Cat 1 a Tomcat was going into burner for the launch. A quick wipeout of the controls after a once over by the final checkers and the fighter was shot down the deck and into the grey mist. At the 180 was an A-7 getting ready to turn to land. At that moment, the unmistakable sound of an E-2’s turboprops announced the arrival of 602, heading for the break. “Pretty marginal Cat 1 weather” he thought to himself as he watched the hummer periodically disappear and reappear in the low ceiling.

Entering flight deck control he found his pilot ready to go, the two of them making themselves as unassumable as possible, finding an unoccupied part of flight deck control to park themselves. “OK Handler, rest of the crew’s here” the pilot announced to a clearly unhappy officer wearing a yellow flight deck jersey on which was stenciled ACHO. Clearly unhappy because he had to take not one, but two E-2s out of sequence while planning out how to go about striking the broken one down to the hangar bay and bringing the one resident there, up to the flight deck. The Handler, who orchestrated the ballet otherwise known as flight deck spotting could be your greatest friend or your worst nightmare, depending on his mood, how much grief he was catching from the Air Boss and ship CO, sitting several stories above in their glass enclosed thrones, and how difficult you just made his job. Everyone would see both sides of him over the course of a deployment, and of course, in true Naval Aviation fashion, like the Air Boss, CAG and other “senior” officers, he would suffer accordingly at the hands of the junior officer skits and ribald anthems at the foc’sl follies at the end of each at sea period. Many would only know him as some grumpy ex-aviator, ship’s company puke to be avoided except when special favor was to be curried. Fewer still would come to appreciate his job and then, usually only in the course of completing their own ship’s company tour.

“602 on deck handler”

“Spot him in the forward Hummer hole – you guys ready? ‘kay, then get outta my office...”

Thankful to be out of that den of obvious tension, the lieutenant watched the approach of his aircraft. The “grapes” (purple-shirted fuel handlers) were prepping to deploy their hoses and refuel the approaching Hawkeye. A small contingent of maintenance personnel from the squadron were standing by to fix what items needed such, and otherwise get the aircraft back in the air as quick as possible so they could strike below and out of the miserable weather.

As the Hawkeye stopped, the starboard prop began to wind down with the securing of the engine. The refueling point was on the starboard side of the fuselage, under the wing and stopping the engine was a precautionary measure to ensure one of the refuelers wouldn’t inadvertently back into a turning prop. It had happened more than once before, though thankfully not (yet) in his experience on Ike. The huge Hamilton Standard-built prop was merciless to anything placed in its path – be it inanimate metal or human flesh. The port prop was left turning and so their approach would be up the port side of the fuselage to the main entrance hatch, just aft of the prop. That hatch was now open and two aircrew were exiting. Brief exchanges with each counterpart were exchanged – holding his helmet close to that of the off-going CICO, he caught brief snatches of “...good radar” and something about HF1’s trailing wire antenna and then it was time to board.

Walking straight to the tail of the aircraft, he put his right hand on the fuselage out of habit and proceeded to the main hatch. The sound and fury of the nearby turning prop was deafening, his QA chief positioned as part of the safety chain just forward of the hatch incase his crew for some inexplicable reason continued forward. Crouching, he lowered his head to clear the top of the hatch and headed aft to the CIC compartment past the racks of equipment, bundles of wire and high pressure hydraulics tubing.

Throwing himself into his seat, positioned in the middle between his ACO (Air Control Officer) on his left and RO (Radar Operator) on his right, he plugged into the ICS and was immediately greeted, irreverently, by his ACO...

“Willllburrr” It was Bird, using one of the call signs he knew irritated him. Trying not to roll his eyes, he asked:

“Hey Bird, how’s she look today?”

“Well, radar’s real good, best short pulse I’ve seen in a long time. We picked up that Badger much farther than I’ve seen before. PDS is actually working (the PDS was something new to the E-2C – adding an ESM capability to an AEW radar platform had yielded major benefits, when it worked). Radios are OK, except for HF1; we had some problems with the Trailing Wire Antenna and almost had to cut it off. Recommend we stay with HF2 for link today since AW is up on UHF.”

“Got it – how about the tactical picture, looked to be picking up when I left CIC”

“Yeah, it’s getting busy. CAP are pretty well under control as are the tankers, it’s just all the other interlopers that are making things hard. Had a Longhorn (one of CVW-7’s S-3 Vikings) come up and want to get pictures with the Bear. Asked if he had a buddy store, when he said ‘no’ so I sent him away. The F-4s off FID (Forrestal) are having problems with their radars, many are coming up lead nose and the Harriers need a lot of hand-holding. On the up side, Dolly is working great.” On the latter, the RO was vigorously shaking his head in agreement. "Tigertails (Forrestal's E-2 squadron) are working the surface picture and ASUW assets."

Taking a minute to digest this, it looked like the major obstacles were going to be keeping an eye on the F-4s and Harriers, running the gas and watching what developed with regards to the Soviets. Turning to the RO, he asked if he had a preference for control. Being somewhat old school he said he had no problem working the Harriers and Phantoms. Good, that meant Bird could take the Tomcats and work two-way Link4 (Dolly), easing his workload and providing a second set of eyes on the big picture.

“CICO, Flight, you guys ready to go back there?” It was Lefty, prompting the back-end to get ready to restart the starboard engine. Selecting “P” and “CP” on the ICS panel, he responded: “Roger flight, we’re ready” Momentarily deselecting them, he passed a quick safety brief to the backend if there was a problem on the start or launch, confirmed mission taskings and turning his seat forward, hooked up his O2 mask and prepared for the start.

With a clean start, it was a short taxi to the catapult. Enroute, he fastened his lower and upper Koch fittings – lower to the hard seat pan that contained the life raft and the upper to the parachute that rested against the seat back. Locking his harness, he tossed himself against the restraint to make sure it was latched. The one time he had failed to he ended up with a visor full of seatback on a trap.

Window covers down, overhead hatch in and all harnesses locked, the crew was ready. Bluetail 602 went into tension, the throttles against their stops, the aircraft mercilessly shaking. In an instant, they were down the catapult and airborne.

As the wheels were coming up, Bird exclaimed “Hey look, we’ve got a visitor...” Straining against his straps and the binding of the anti-exposure suit the lieutenant looked to his right and aft. There, briefly, he caught it. The unmistakable silver and grey of a Badger C-Mod who had obviously found the carrier and was now trailing the E-2...

To be Continued