Athough I’ve seen the movie at least a half a dozen times I never get tired of “The Hunt for Red October”. It always brings back memories of my service in the Navy during the Cold War. To me, the Cold War was a war that we never hear about and could easily be forgotten but there are stories out there from sailors like me that will hopefully let it live on. -Jim Farmer
I believe the year was 1984 and at the time I had about 2 years in the Navy under my belt and I was assigned to Strike Fighter Squadron Three Zero Three, an F/A-18 Strike Fighter Squadron stationed at NAS Lemoore, smack in the middle of the rich farming community of the San Joaquin Valley of California. We were the Golden Hawks and our claim to fame was that we were one of the first active duty squadrons to receive the new F/A-18A Hornet aircraft and we were all eager to flex our muscles with our new formed squadron of a couple hundred active duty and reserve maintenance and aircrew. A fully formed squadron generally consisted of 12 aircraft and on the average 8-10 of those aircraft were usually available for our pilots to fly. In a tail hook squadron you work long hours with very little time off and there is always something going on that makes every minute very important. A squadron plans it’s calendar a year in advance and there are requirements for the pilots to meet to keep current in their qualifications with the aircraft such as shooting missiles, dropping ordinance such as bombs and mines, shooting rockets, Aircraft Countermeasures or ACM (dog fighting adversary aircraft) and a minimum of 20 aircraft take-offs or “cats” and 20 landings or “traps” on the aircraft carrier.
Our squadron had been to the Nevada desert a few times earlier in the year, as well as a few other trips to different areas of the country but we were planning a 2 week detachment to the USS Ranger (CV 61) for carrier qualifications. This was going to be a detachment designed to qualify all of our pilots on the carrier as well as qualifying the maintenance crews for certain job details that could only be done on the carrier. The plan was to fly the squadron personnel from the base to NAS North Island, a small air base on Coronado Island just south of San Diego and board the Ranger to head out to sea. A small detail of squadron personnel would stay behind to launch the squadron F/A-18’s and send them down to North Island in lieu of flying out to the carrier once it left port. My job was going to be to stay behind and make sure every jet we had available made it to North Island then I would hop on a Navy DC9 flight to North Island and jump on a Navy Sea Knight helicopter to fly out to meet the carrier somewhere in the pacific. My job on the aircraft was an electrician. Our shop consisted of about 8 other electricians besides myself and we ran 2 shifts when we were at home and on the road. As an electrician on the F/A-18 we were responsible for just about everything electrical. We took care of scheduled and unscheduled maintenance on a daily basis and there was always something to do. For a maintenance man on the aircraft the work never stopped. Generally speaking every shop always had something to do, it was just a matter of prioritizing the maintenance effort with a goal of meeting the demands of the next days flight schedule. Every day there was a flight schedule which required just about every available aircraft the maintenance team could ready for the day. There were always flight hour requirements for the pilots and each squadron was graded on the years total flight hours as well as how well the squadron completed all their assigned tasks for the year. Each year each squadron competed with other squadrons in our Carrier Air Group for awards like the Meritorious Unit Commendation award or “MUC”, the Battle Efficiency Award or the “Battle E” and the Safety “S” award. It was a big competition for us and it was always an honor to receive the award. The Battle E award meant that we got another ribbon or hashmark on our uniform as well a big “E” to display on the side of our jets. Going to the carrier was just another test for the squadron in the year long competition.
The time finally came and the main body of squadron personnel were gone to North Island and myself and a hand full of other maintenance personnel were launching the aircraft to head to North Island. The launch went without a hitch and spent the next 2 days waiting on a DC9 to take me to North Island. In the mean time I worked on the remaining few aircraft we had in the hanger that were broken and didn’t get to go to the carrier. Out of 12 aircraft assigned to the squadron we always had a couple of what we called “hanger queens”. Hanger queens were aircraft that were in some kind of scheduled maintenance cycle and while receiving the annual scheduled maintenance we robbed parts off of them for the aircraft that were flying. Sometimes parts were hard to come by so we would take parts off the hanger queens to use to meet flight schedule needs.
I finally got a ride down to North Island on a DC9 transport aircraft and soon there-after I met a Sea Knight helicopter on the tarmac at North Island for a ride out to the Ranger. This was my first ride on a helicopter so it was kind of a big deal to me. This wasn’t some ordinary helicopter ride, we were going to be flying out over the pacific for a 2 hour flight and meeting the Ranger somewhere off the coast of Mexico in international waters. When I boarded the Sea Knight I was greeted by a couple of aircrew guys that were assigned to the helicopter and took care of the passengers and cargo. There were about 8 other personnel on the flight that were headed out to the Ranger, plus a few boxes, bags, mail and our personal baggage. There were jump seats along the wall inside the helicopter and I’ll never forget what the aircrew instructed us to do before the flight began. They asked everyone to remove their hats and hold them in our hands. Any bolts, nut, screws or any other hardware that fell from the ceiling of the aircraft were to be picked up, placed in our hats and given to the aircrew personnel after we landed safely on the carrier deck….if we landed safely. That was very comforting information for my first helicopter flight. Here’s a picture of a Sea Knight helicopter:
When the helicopter started the engines and the rotors started spinning I realized why there would be nuts and bolts falling from the ceiling. That thing vibrated worse than anything I’d ever rode in before. Things were shaking and banging around and when it lifted off I was white knuckling my seat for sure. I couldn’t see much out the port hole windows but I could definitely see the blue of the ocean as we headed out to the southwest. I tried to sleep for a while but I was looking forward to getting out to the carrier and getting to work. I had been on 1 other carrier before so I was pretty familiar with what it was going to be like. A year earlier while I was still in school at my training squadron or “RAG” outfit, I was offered the opportunity to board the USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) for a 2 week detachment out of North Island and worked for 2 weeks as a Plane Captain or what’s referred to as a “Turd Shirt”, mainly because of the brown shirt that the plane captains wore on the ship. The primary job of a Plane Captain was to take care of the aircrafts servicing needs and launch and recover the aircraft on the flight deck during flight operations. It was a dirty job and you were always covered in grease, oil, fuel, hydraulic fluid and anything else that you could collect on your body and clothing. The aircraft required chaining down anytime it was on the flight deck of the carrier and one of the jobs of a Plane captain was to chain the aircraft when it wasn’t moving. The aircraft required a minimum of about 9 chains and each chain weighed about 15lbs. The plane captains always had a load of chains thrown over their shoulders waiting for their assigned planes to come in to be chained down after a flight. The job of a plane captain was a hard tiring job but it was good training for me and it got me familiar with life on the carrier. The Carl Vinson was a big Carrier, much bigger than the little Ranger I was going to be working on this time around. Here’s a picture of the Carl Vinson and the Ranger:
You really can’t tell the difference in the two until you step out onto the flight deck but the Carl Vison was much newer, larger and nuclear powered carrier and the Ranger was an older, smaller non-nuclear powered carrier.
While on my ride out to the carrier I looked around the inside of the helicopter. Everything was exposed and along the ceiling there were hydraulic lines, fuel lines, oil lines and actuators everywhere. The jump seats we were sitting in were old and if you’ve never ridden in a military jump seat, the first time you ride in one you realize very quickly they were not designed for comfort. The bar across the front of the seat aids in putting your legs to sleep very quickly and the vibration from the helicopter eventually will put your butt to sleep also. It is very uncomfortable to say the least. The noise is deafening and ear plugs are a must. There were 2 aircrew guys that were sitting in jump seats also and they were wearing giant bulbous white helmets with boom mics to talk to teach other and the pilots during the flight. As we approached the carrier the helicopters engine pitch changed and we started circling the carrier below. The carrier flight deck sat about 70 feet above the waterline and we circling at a few hundred feet. I watched out the porthole window next to me and I could see aircraft taking off from the flight deck of the carrier. We were told by the aircrew that as soon as all the aircraft were off the deck we would land. Behind the carrier and to the starboard side there was a smaller Navy ship, a Fast Frigate, and it was there to guard the carrier from any unwanted guests in the area. At the time we were in a Cold War with the Russians and it wasn’t uncommon to run into Russian trawlers or Russian Navy warships that were out in the ocean spying on our operations. The frigate usually had loaded guns and missiles ready to go in case another ship got to close. Here’s a picture of our Fast Frigate escort. Notice the gun and missile launchers on the bow of the ship:
We hovered off the starboard side of the carrier for 15-20 minutes and I could see the never-ending trail of prop wash from the carrier that went on for miles. Finally we rolled the helicopter and headed for the flight deck. The helicopter pitched and banged around lining up for the landing. The carrier was still traveling at 20-30 knots of speed into the wind which was normal for a carrier during aircraft take-offs and landings. Finally the Sea Knight hit the deck right in front of the super structure of the carrier and we were instructed to get up and depart at the rear ramp. I jumped up and immediately got some feeling back in my legs and got the heck out of that flying coffin. I thought to myself that I hoped I never had to do that again. Once we got out of the helicopter I was met by some squadron mates who immediately took me and my sea bag to berthing. Berthing was where we slept and it was always tight quarters. Here’s a couple of pics of what carrier berthing looks like. If you were lucky you could find some blue curtains for privacy:
Once I found my sleeping arrangement and got my gear stowed it was time for me to got to work. One of my electrical shop mates showed me around the carrier and I found my workcenter as well as the galleys and a few other areas I would need to know about. On the carrier the galley is where we ate. There were at least 2 operating most of the day and into the night. They were small but efficient. They fed up to 3000 sailors a day and the food wasn’t bad. Food was very important on the carrier because of the work. You were constantly going up and down stairs and if you worked on the flight deck you were moving around all the time. The average sailor on the carrier burned a lot of calories in a day. On most modern day carriers there were 4 galleys, 2 main galleys somewhere near mid ship where the main hot meals would be served 3 times a day and 2 forward galleys that were almost always open and served sliders and dog or hamburgers and hot dogs. If you went to the forward galleys on the ship, as an enlisted man you had to stay out of officers country unless you were an officer. Officers country was just forward of mid ship and was only on certain decks. You could tell officers country by blue tile on the floor. The enlisted areas used green tile and officers used blue. We avoided officers country like the plaque. If you were enlisted and got caught there, there would be hell to pay.
During this detachment on the ship I was working as a green shirt which meant I was maintenance crew. I was working as an electrician and mainly working on aircraft in the hangar bay area during the day shift. I would also be working part time with other electricians as a troubleshooter on the flight deck during launches and recoveries. The way it worked was when we launched our aircraft each work center had at least one troubleshooter on the flight deck at all times during flight operations. There were a hand full of work centers such as the airframers which took care of any airframe or hydraulic problems as well as engine guys or “mechs” that took care of any engine or fuel issues, electricians like myself and a few other folks that took care of seats and environmental control issues like the heating and air conditioning in the cockpit of the jets. We all wore green shirts and we had special codes on our shirts and head gear to identify us and our job descriptions. On the carrier you fall into a routine. Everything is regimented and you can easily forget what day it is. Basically you work, eat, rest, rinse and repeat. That’s what I did on this detachment. There wasn’t much to write home about, it was just the same thing day after day. We just cruised around the pacific for a week or so without incident, pilots flying off and on all day and into the night with us maintenance guys fixing problems with the jets as they arose. If a jet had a problem that kept it from flying it would be hauled down the massive flight deck elevators to the hangar where it would be strategically parked and repaired as quickly as possible so it could get back onto the flight deck and ready for flight. The hangar bay on the carriers are massive and at times filled wall to wall with aircraft to be repaired. Some aircraft would be down in the hanger overnight and the night shift guys would work all night just to get it fixed for the first launch in the morning. Here’s a picture of a carrier hangar bay:
For the first week everything went as planned with flight operations and the maintenance effort. On the flight deck during flight operations it’s a very dangerous job. I think working on the flight deck of a carrier is one of the top 5 most dangerous jobs in the world. As long as everything is going good it’s fine but it only takes one little thing to happen for it all to go bad. There are crashes, fires, people caught in the wrong places at the wrong time and any number of things that could happen….and they do. On this detachment it was all good. About the only excitement we had after the first week was the fact that we were operating in an area where the pacific was very rough with huge swells tossing the Ranger back and forth. These big waves in this area were called the “Troughs” and they were big, some reaching heights as high as the carrier and it really made the carrier roll back and forth and up and down. There were a lot of first timers that were getting sea sick during the period we were operating in the troughs and a lot of sailors were walking at odd angles down the passageways and anything that wasn’t tied down would fall off shelves. Our plates and glasses in the galley would slide back and forth. It was an interesting ride for a few days.
The Commanding officer of the ship was very nice to the crew and very personable. He talked to the ships crew every night over the 1MC which was a loudspeaker system throughout the ship and could be heard from anywhere and everywhere. He would talk to us about current events and let us know about the next days goals. On the first Sunday aboard the ship he hosted an Ice Cream social in the galley and anyone could come to the galley and have ice cream and meet the “skipper” or Commanding officer.
During the start of the second week the carrier spent the majority of a morning taking on supplies and fuel from a supply ship. This isn’t an uncommon event and it happens all the time on a carrier. Flight operations stop during this period and it’s quit a show for the first timer on the carrier. Fuel hoses are strung from one ship to the other and both ships move through the water, side by side in close quarters for miles.
This is where it got interesting. Once the supply ship finished the replenishment and broke away from the carrier to sail off into the sunset, our Fast Frigate escort departed with the supply ship and the carrier was on it’s own. Sometimes it happens but as a rule the carrier always has some kind of escort within a few miles. The next morning when we looked out into the ocean from the hangar bay doors we saw that we had a new visitor. It was a strange looking ship off the starboard side of the carrier and it was very close to us. I could see some strange looking numbers on the side of the bow and there were some folks on the ship looking, waving and some were taking pictures. The ship looked something like some kind of large fishing trawler but it had some strange looking electronics and antennas on the masts. Here’s a picture of what it looked like:
As we were standing in the hangar bay looking at the ship along side of us a hangar bay worker from the ships company walked over to us. The ships company guys generally wore purple shirts and were in the Navy just like us but were stationed on the ship full time. We just borrowed the ship to qualify our squadron crew but the ships company were there full time and had usually seen it all. The ships company guy looked at us and our puzzlement and said “welcome to the Cold War”. He told us it was a disguised Russian spy ship and they were interested in taking pictures of the new F/A-18’s on the flight deck. The rumor was that our escort had left to escort the supply ship back to American waters because there were Russian Navy ships in the area and the supply ship had no way to defend herself. Our carrier had more than enough firepower to fend for ourselves so the decision was made to leave us on our own. We watched for a while longer as the crew of the Russian ship continued to take pictures from very close by.
As soon as we started flight operations for the morning the Russian ship disappeared but then reappeared again as soon as all of our aircraft were back on the flight deck after the first launch and recovery. The Russians again came in close to snap photographs and wave as if they were our friends. This went on for 2 days with the same thing, if the jets were off the deck the Russians would disappear and reappear as soon as all the F/A-18’s were back on the deck. They were very interested in the jets and flight operations and had no fear of getting close to us. After 2 days of this little game with the Russians we had finally had enough. On the third morning the Russians were still hanging with us so we went about our business as if it were just another day. The Russian trawler was once again off our starboard side but on this morning we left one F/A-18 hidden from view from the Trawler behind the super structure of the carrier. It was out of view of the Russians and they just assumed all of our jets had left the area to fly the mornings missions. The Russians kept their distance until they assumed every jet was back on the deck before they made their move to get in close but during the recovery of all of the aircraft we snuck the extra F/A-18 off the catapults and the Russians just assumed that every one of our aircraft were back on deck. They were making their move in close and the skipper came over the 1MC to tell everyone who was interested and available to gather on the starboard side of the flight deck and hanger bay for a little mini air show. He said that if the Russians want to get a look at our aircraft we’d give them a up close and personal look at the jet and it’s capabilities. Keep in mind we had snuck a jet out into the area for our little surprise. It went off just as planned. When the Russians thought the jets were all on deck they made there move to get in close. We were all watching as the trawler got closer and closer. The skipper called out on the 1MC, “off the fantail aircraft 303 incoming for a mach run” which basically meant our aircraft #303 was coming from the back of the ship and was going to break the sound barrier very close to us. If you’ve never seen a fighter jet break the sound barrier it is a sight to behold. The aircraft is basically hauling ass at over 700 mph and when it breaks through the sound barrier or the speed of sound the concussion is enormous, especially if your are close by. This is what it looks like at the moment the sound barrier is broken:
In this case the jet came in fast and low and was only about 100 feet off the water and bearing down on the trawler. It was amazing as the jet dropped down from high in the sky and leveled out on the Russians. We all knew what came next. As the jet got closer to the trawler the vapor cloud started building around the jet and just as it reached the trawler there was a eardrum shattering BOOOOM that shook the carrier to it’s core but what was even more interesting is that the trawler actually squatted down in the water and we actually saw pieces of the trawler like maybe windows and radar parts go flying. The trawlers smoke stake bellowed black smoke from the diesel engine and it started shifting it course away from the carrier. We all cheered and yelled with some jumping up and down and giving the Russians the bird. The F/A-18 made a vertical climb and disappeared in front of the carrier. Within a minute or so we heard the 1MC go off again and the skipper said “from the bow aircraft # 303 incoming for mach run # 2”. We all cheered wildly as the jet dropped back down out of the sky and leveled off on the fleeing trawler. We could see the jet put the hammer down in full afterburner as it approached the trawler and we knew it was going to be good. The jet once again approached mach and the vapor built up around the jet. Just as it closed in on the trawler BOOOM very near the trawler and once again the trawler squatted deep into the water with more pieces of the trawler flying everywhere. More smoke poured from the stack and the trawler turned away even sharper than before. We all cheered wildly and some flipped the trawler off again as some grabbed their crotches at the Russians as they limped away never to be seen again. It was something I’ll never forget about the cold war. We spent some of our time messing with the Russians at sea and up in the northern reaches of Canada but a lot of the times we played with the Russians it was just that, play. They knew as well as we did that someday we might be fighting each other for real but a lot of what we did was designed for us to test their capabilities as well as them to test ours. Shortly after the end to the cold war one of the Russian Navy warships pulled into San Diego bay and they docked in San Diego for a few days and we got to meet our counterparts. We drank together, swapped stories, traded cigarettes, Levi jeans and the old Walkman cassette players for pieces of their uniforms and personal items from Russia. They were no different than we were, just a bunch of sailors looking for a good time.