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.