Here’s a Sea Story. It was a long time ago, but I still remember it pretty well. If there’s a small detail here or there out of kilter, the mistakes are on me, and 30+ years of distance. I tell it to those folks who are of the opinion that a military career is no different from a civilian career. I tell it because there are folks in Congress, and elsewhere, who would walk back promises made to veterans, who would add extra costs and burdens to those the veterans endured in order to keep their part of the bargain. I tell it because a Federal Budget should not be balanced on the backs of veterans and the military. I tell it too, because it’s an all too familiar story to any Navy Aircrewman, Aviator, NFO, and similar to those experienced by anyone who ever went to sea.
My crew had been tasked out from Lajes Field, in the Azores, to track a Soviet Boomer (ballistic missile sub). About halfway through the mission, the flight crew determined that the fuel management system was acting up, and we couldn’t draw from the center fuel tank.
Well, we quickly determined that we had sufficient fuel (barely) to get back to Lajes, but not to divert anywhere else. We declared an emergency and headed home.
While enroute, a thunderstorm developed over the Island, and we began to encounter headwinds that slowed us down and increased our fuel consumption. It was already after dark, going on about 2100 hours when we hit the storm, about 10 miles out from Lajes.
Now, the thing about Lajes Field is that the only place they could build the runway was down the middle of this long valley, with nice rocky hills along each side. It’s also perpendicular to the prevailing winds, so you ALWAYS have a crosswind. Then, the runway ends just before you reach a 200 foot cliff that drops off into the ocean. Lajes is like the world’s largest aircraft carrier, except that it doesn’t move, unless an earthquake hits, which they do. Fairly often. But I digress…
We had to come in over the water and over the cliffs, and the wind was really picking up, with lightening nearby and rain going sideways. The air also was burbling up over the cliff causing some good chop on the approach, as we quickly discovered. Sitting back in the tube, (the tactical crew faces aft for takeoff and landing), I could see some of the others doing the same thing as me. Cinching every strap just as tight as I could, and my helmet as well. Gloves on, visors down, etc. Just in case something went flying around.
That first aproach was a doozy, and we balooned up on a rise of air as we came over the edge of the cliff, then rocked back and forth with the gusts. The P-3 Orion has non-flexing wings, so every bump and burble is felt. We blew off that aproach, and went around.
Our situation was dire, inthat we were going to land. Somewhere, and right soon. Either we got her into Lajes, or we were going to have to ditch. Our flight crew asked the tower to alert the SAR crew in case we had to ditch. See, what’s fun in back, is that you are plugged into the ICS and can hear everything in your headset, but all you get to do is sit there and enjoy the ride.
We shot 5 more aproaches in that storm, each time burning more gas and getting tossed around like a darned leaf in the wind. CDR JC Wells, our pilot, finally noted that we had gas for one more try, then we’d have to prepare to ditch and head over the water. That wasn’t something we wanted to hear.
On approach #7, we started to bounce some more, JC called for power, and I can clearly remember him hollering out loud “You’re not gonna kill ME you son of a b!tch!” over the sound of the A/C and the ICS. Next thing we knew, the wheels hit runway, and we bounced just slightly, then settled down. The most wonderful sound in the world was those 4 big props going into reverse to slow us down.
I sat in my chair, strapped in tightly, for a few minutes after we shut down, then grabbed my gear, the box of mission tapes, and headed to debrief. CDR Wells cut the debrief short and we all headed over to the NCO club for several rounds of “decompression”.
I was never really afraid when flying with the Navy, except for that mission. When JC informed us it was one more shot or ditch, it all hit home. The reality of ditching a plane in high seas, at night, in a storm was enough to put ice into your soul, especially with the water temps the way they were.
Happily, everything worked out for us, but from that point on, I NEVER took any emergency procedures lightly again.