Thursday, February 14, 2013

Landing at Sea at Night is Tough Enough, but...

By R.L. Clark

(This was an event which happened back in the 60s’ during the Cold War which was not always cold but occasionally heated up.)

First, let me lay out a few definitions: 

TACAN—a method of carrier to plane navigation signal which tells the pilot the direction and and distance to the carrier.
CHARLIE  TIME     —  The time that a pilot, returning from a mission, is supposed to be landing on the carrier.
 IM-COM—this a condition whereby the carrier is not sending out a TACAN signal unless requested by a pilot.

An unnamed pilot from an unnamed All-Weather squadron was launched from an unnamed Carrier in the Pacific, Far East Pacific at 02:00 in the morning. Weather was overcast up to 18,000 feet. No Moon. He was armed with 2 Sidewinder heat-seeking missiles and 20mm ammo for his 4 guns. After completing his mission, he dropped down to 20,00 feet and flew to where he guessed the carrier was.  He keyed his mic and  whispered TACAN, clicked twice and waited.In response, the carrier would turn on the TACAN for 30sec so he could fly to a point at 20,000 ft. and 20 miles behind the carrier.

Soviet Trawler
 The Soviets had Trawlers out there which dogged the Carrier. These trawlers (technically, a trawler is a fishing boat but these were in fact ships disguised as trawlers) but were loaded with powerful communication equipment  which could disrupt communication between American pilots and carriers which in a number of instances caused fatal crashes. Nighttime was an especially dangerous time.

 The trawler would try to overpower the carrier's TACAN signal possibly causing a pilot to penetrate from above and  come out of the soup finding no carrier. The Navy squadron we replaced had lost a couple of planes which disappeared at night close to their Charlie Time and there were guesses the trawlers were up to No Good.

When this unnamed pilot was ready to penetrate, he whispered TACAN and received his 30 secs of signal. He flew to his suspected perch and whispered TACAN a second time to positively arrive as close to his projected penetration point as possible.  Subsequently he started down through the soup on instruments. He broke out of the clouds at about 1800 ft and looked for the ship.

 Guess What? no carrier,  but there was a Soviet trawler where the carrier should be. Needless to say, the unnamed pilot was really POed. Checking the fuel, he knew he did not have enough to climb back up and try again. He calmly armed his heat-seeker missiles and fired both at the trawler. then he armed his 20mm guns and emptied them at the debris field. Realizing that the trawler may have had a Soviet sub in tandem, he turned 90 degrees and climbed back up to the cloud level and guessed that he would have to eject when fuel was gone. He wanted to get as far away from the area as possible. Miraculously he looked down and saw the wake of a large ship.  (Stirring up the plankton causes the wake to be visible) 

 He made a quick turn and followed the wake and behold, he sees the outline of a carrier. He hoped that it is his ship but with low fuel, any carrier will do. He switched to Guard channel, declared a MAYDAY and requested permission to land with low fuel. He received permission and was fortunate to safely hook a wire.Then he realized he was on his carrier and was taxied to an elevator. 

When the Intelligence Officer and Squadron Commander debriefed him he supposed that he had made a mistake on his penetration and had broken out of the clouds without a ship. (He did not mention the Trawler) He thought he was going to get wet until  he was lucky and saw the wake. They asked about the missiles and ammo. He explained that he dumped his ordinance to lighten his load because of low fuel. This explanation was accepted so he stopped by the Flight Surgeons’ shop for a “medicinal brandy”.  - R.L. Clark

(The US military and intelligence services referred to these trawlers as AGI’s (Auxiliary General Intelligence). The trawlers’ collected intelligence via their various radio receivers, sonar sets, and radar detection equipment. In addition, they reported any visual observations of US naval activity to their HQ. Besides operating near bases and ports, trawlers were tasked with trailing any US Naval Task Forces and Carrier Groups at sea. In the 1950s Soviet trawlers operating near the US coast damaged several undersea cables. Diplomatic protests were filed and were met with denials. Besides gathering intelligence, the Soviet trawlers sometimes engaged in harassment operations.  -Wikipedia)