Above & Beyond: Adventures in the South China Sea

Above & Beyond: Adventures in the South China Sea

The author with his anti-sub Lockheed Orion
The author with his anti-sub Lockheed Orion. Courtesy Tracy Wilkinson

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.

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.

Screaming along the deck, I suddenly saw a churning wake. "I see him!" I squealed as I brought the camera up. Just as I squeezed the trigger, the sub came into view.

At 170 feet I could almost see the color of the eyes of the three People's Liberation Army (Navy) crew in the sub's conning tower looking up at me. I can still see the white position light on the stern and the water foaming on the sinister black hull as we zoomed overhead.

"Zim, did you get him?"

"Oh yeah, I got him!" The Agiflite required film processing, but the camcorder was right now. We passed it around the cabin and watched the few seconds of footage. We'd scored big for our squadron, the U.S. Navy, and the Republic. We climbed to patrol altitude and continued to track the sub with radar and the occasional buoy until it was time to head back to Okinawa.

By now we were all dreaming of food. We'd not had anything to eat since dinner the night before, close to 24 hours ago, and I am not one who misses many meals. The coffee was long gone, as was the last of the stale corn chips someone had passed around. We were exhausted, sweaty, filthy, and hungry.

Then the fighters showed up.

I was dozing in my chair when somebody hit me in the leg. "Hey man, we're being intercepted!"

Crap! I pulled on my headset, peered into the blackness, and saw the flashing strobes of a fighter a mile off our right wing. Our Chinese friends had scrambled interceptors, and they'd been tracked coming after us. The two fighters in close formation a few feet from the window were in fact Japanese F-4 Phantoms that had come to deal with the threat, but we'd not sorted that out just yet. The Phantoms escorted us toward friendly airspace, but it was a very tense few minutes waiting for the communist missiles to arrive. This was the same area in which a Chinese F-8 Finback fighter would collide with an EP-3 Aries II—the electronic reconnaissance version of our airplane—less than two years later.

When we finally landed at Kadena, the total elapsed time since the knock on the door was just under 23 hours. The duty driver was waiting in the van to take us back to quarters. When we climbed in, she wrinkled her nose, and in her lovely Georgia drawl said, "All y'all smell like a bunch of billy goats."

We drove to the other side of the base in fetid silence. Without prompting, she pulled into the Popeye's Fried Chicken. We all sat together, stinking and eating the piles of chicken. No one said a word.

Later, in a bar in Okinawa, we came up with ideas for the traditional cruise patch. It's a circle (sort of) with a misshapen number 1 (our crew) and an odd silhouette of the Chinese sub. The quality is horrible, the stitching is falling apart, but it's still my favorite.

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