Back to ASW: The Ready Alert Bird

I have a couple more posts coming up to finish the flight crew positions on the P-3 Orion. While those are in the pipeline, I thought it would be of interest to talk about some of the missions and other things we were involved with.

The most basic was the Ready Alert. This is a single P-3 that is fully loaded, pre-flighted, and ready to launch on a 1-hour’s notice.  It has a variety of expendables, sans weapons, because it might be tasked on any of a number of missions, from Search & Rescue, to Surveillance, to MediVac, etc.

Each base where P-3’s are located has a bird on Ready Alert status. In the morning, around 6:30-7am, the crew assigned to be the Ready Crew will arrive at the hangar, and find out which aircraft is assigned as the Ready Alert bird for that day. It might be the previous day’s aircraft, or a new one. The Pilots and Flight Engineers will first stop in Maintenance Control Division, and ask for the Yellow Sheets for that aircraft. These are a series of forms and documents kept in a loose-leaf binder that list all of the complaints regarding the aircraft, and what was done to solve them. Notes from the mechanics are included, and any further work pending will also be noted. It’s important for all the crew members to check these books for notes regarding their specific positions, so they can get a feel for the gripe history of the equipment they will be using, things to note, watch out for, etc, and known solutions to those problems.

After that, the crew will proceed to the aircraft and conduct a complete pre-flight.  Fuel will be loaded aboard, sonobuoys replenished if needs be, and everything made ready so that if the call comes down, the crew can get aboard and get airborne in the shortest possible time. The only thing not done is any weapons load-out, as that can be fairly quickly done if needed, and the plugs and covers and pull-before-flight pins, etc are all left in place. Again, these can be removed in just a couple minutes.

Once the aircraft is pre-flighted it is buttoned up and left in place. No one goes out to it without good cause. The crew will then proceed to the ASW Operations Center (or ASWOC) or the Tactical Support Center (TSC) depending upon the location/base/etc, and get briefed on weather, potential threats, situations, and what other missions are operating that day.  This is a general briefing, not a mission-specific brief unless there is a particular threat being monitored with the potential to launch on it.

After that, one of the crew will also check in with the Flight Galley to have them set aside a number of box lunches, coffee, etc, for quick pick-up. One of the crew will also ensure that the onboard 5-gallon fresh water container is rinsed and refilled.

Once all of that is done, usually around 10am or so, the crew can relax. They can travel about the base, go intown, or even back to their apartments or homes if they live close by, provided they give their phone number and location to the Squadron Duty Office. Most try and grab a meal and then sleep, because as often as not, the call to go will come late at night, or very early in the morning.

Everyone who has flown on a P-3 crew has been through this drill, and probably launched several times. When the call comes, it may be in a number of ways. In Lajes Field, Azores, the crew have separate rooms in the barracks, and the first indication of a launch is a call to the desk at the barracks. The Duty petty Officer will then hit the alarm button, and the klaxon in the hallway goes off.  This, of course, wakes EVERYONE up and isn’t a popular method. The klaxon’s piercing sound is followed by the pounding on doors as the Flight Engineer goes down the hall ensuring the crew is awake. A similar thing is happening in the Officer’s barracks.

I always made certain my gear was ready in my room before I hit the rack to sleep. I only took off my flight suit and boots before bed, so I could pull them on quickly and get out the door where a truck would be waiting to take us to the ASWOC.  I also learned early on to have a small bag with a razor, soap, washcloth, spare socks, underwear and some snackage to toss into my helmet bag. The problem we had was that sometimes, you were being launched and wouldn’t be back for a day or two, having to stage somewhere else, etc. better to be prepared than caught short.

The crew would pile into the truck, and the AW’s and Officers would be dropped off at the ASWOC or TSC, while the rest of the crew went straight to the bird. The Flight Engineer would get the APU up and running, while the Ordnanceman supervised anything else that needed to be done, such as pulling the plugs and covers from the engines, etc. Meanwhile, the Squadron Duty Office would dispatch someone to the flight galley for the box lunches, and also a 3-gallon electrically-heated coffee urn that plugged into a section of the P-3’s onboard galley. NOBODY went flying without coffee. Ever.

After a quick mission brief, the Tactical crew would arrive, one of the AW’s would load a reel of tape into the recorder and voice a header for it, then the crew would have an onboard brief, start engines, and take-off.

One of the most interesting factors of the Ready Alert missions, was that you never knew until you got to the ASWOC what you were being tasked for. One time out of Lajes we were tasked for a MediVac mission for two kids, dependents of Airforce folks there, who had been injured. We rigged the aft area to allow for us to strap down a hospital litter, like the Ambulances use, for the more seriously injured, while the other was placed into one of the cots in the aft section of the aircraft.  On this particular mission, we also had a Flight Surgeon and two Hospital Corpsmen to tend to the patients, plus the two sets of parents. We were actually able to get airborne within about 45 minutes of the call, even with the rigging we needed to do. We flew into Andrews AF Base where we were met by an Ambulance from Bethesda Naval Hospital.  We refueled, briefed for the return flight, and headed back to Lajes.

There were other interesting missions flown from the Ready Alert status, and I will write about those in future posts.

VP-26 P-3c in UK, 1981. They used this color scheme when I served.


7 Responses to “Back to ASW: The Ready Alert Bird”

  1. 1 SCOTT the BADGER
    April 24, 2010 at 02:21

    Would there be standard weapons load out for various missions pre stacked in a ready magazine, so you could load out fast, and get going?

    • April 24, 2010 at 14:32

      There was a basic load of MK-46 torpedoes, but if we were standing the Ready Alert in a threat environment, odds are that a specific weapons package would be in place as a part of the aircraft, or at least ready in the magazines.

      There would likely be enough time before the Ready Crew was called to launch for a weapons package to be loaded aboard and inspected, and the rest would be finished up while the crew was being briefed.

      The only time that things would be slowed down a bit is if special weapons were involved. They require time for loading, security teams, extra checks, etc. If those were to be a part of the package, then the load out would be done ahead of time, and the aircraft given priority for any maintenance, fuel, etc.

  2. 3 Ray
    April 24, 2010 at 02:42

    Been reading since you started so this is a little overdue – great blog AW1. I was a Hoover AW but regardless of platform, it’s nice to see references to ASW “back in the day”.

    • April 24, 2010 at 14:35

      Thanks, Ray. Back then we HAD to keep an edge, because the stakes were so darned high. Nowadays, we’ve fallen badly in our ASW skills, and I have some serious heartache about our real ability to come out on top if we get into a situation, especially with diesel boats.

      Those S-3’s were so cool. I actually asked for them out of A-School, but the pipeline for them was full at the time. We had one arrive at NAS Memphis in ’76 while I was there and somewhere I have a boat load of pics I took of her.


      • 5 SCOTT the BADGER
        April 24, 2010 at 22:54

        Whatever possessed the USN to do something as foolish as getting rid of the S-3. We are now in the same position that we were in the late 40’s with the all-F4U air wings that some carriers had. Fighter Bombers are all well and good, but the can’t fight like a fighter, nor can they bomb like a bomber, and they certainly can’t do ASW work. It’s asking too much for the Light Attack people to try and do it all. We learned this lesson with the F4U Wings, and 10 years later, there were A-4s. 2 different A-3s, F8Us, and the F4H Phantom II , and the A-6 just starting to cast a shadow over the horizon, with a balanced air wing.

        We saw the post over at Sal’s, about Grumman putting thier best to work on a manned aircraft project. I hope that we will see a new Cat in the Fleet. The Hellcat II? Better that than the F-35 fiasco.

      • 6 RAy
        April 25, 2010 at 04:39

        I’m with you on the current skill sets AW1. Thoughts of a diesel near a choke point makes me shiver. Got to ride with Brit’s once in their Nimrod outta Sig. The stories they told about the Falklands got my attention. I wish those stories held the attention of a few folks today.

        Hoovers were great, but there were a couple of times I’d have traded the Cat and trap for that galley:)

        story I was told about S-3’s going away goes back to the initial purchase. Higher ups decided to initally buy “all we need”, park the extras in the desert, then gradually use them as the others wore out. Too expensive to keep the production line open (they reasoned at the time). By the time the higher ups figured out how useful Hoovers were, and that things wear out quicker than planned, the cost to re-open production was a whole lot more than than anybody was willing to spend.

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