It was the twilight of the Cold War and both Kevin Noonan and his S-3 Viking were maturing into more potent and wise weapons of war.
Fighting World War III In A Fjord And Chasing Soviet Submarines In The S-3 Viking
It was the twilight of the Cold War and both Kevin Noonan and his S-3 Viking were maturing into more potent and wise weapons of war.
BY KEVIN NOONAN AND TYLER ROGOWAYAPRIL 22, 2020
It was a time of peak naval aviation of sorts, with President Reagan's military buildup having drastically expanded the Navy's fleet, the movie Top Gun having become a pop culture sensation, and the Soviet Union sputtering towards its eventual collapse. To call it a colorful time in military and world history would be a vast understatement. It was here, during the twilight of the Cold War, that Kevin Noonan found himself hunting submarines from the cabin of a carrier-based S-3 Viking.
We followed Noonan through the trials and tribulations of training and learning the shadowy art of chasing submarines from the sky. Then went along with him on his first cruise aboard an aircraft carrier where we got a full understanding of how he plied his deadly sub-hunting trade. Now, in this the third part of our four-part exclusive series, we strap-in beside Kevin to see not only him, but also his beloved mount, the S-3 Viking, mature into wiser and more potent weapons of war.
Back To The Boat
After a major deployment, a carrier and its air wing tended to get a solid month of rest—rest being a relative term. At the squadron, during the first days at home, our sister squadrons would stand our hangar and Squadron Duty Officer (SDO) watches. But even for the first month, we operated with a skeleton crew with many of the squadron members on leave and a good portion more being transferred to their next duty station. Some, after a Mediterranean (Med) cruise, were more than happy to get out of the Navy if their enlistment was up.
We did very little flying during the first month back home at NAS Cecil Field. In fact, a returning squadron sometimes gave up their best birds to the squadron that was in line to deploy next. Other aircraft, particularly the notoriously broken ‘hangar queens,’ might be sent for major repair at a high-level maintenance station. My impression of this time around was that I had somehow rejoined the Naval Reserves! It was so quiet, but neither squadron nor aircraft carrier rests for long.
Oh, wait, we no longer had an aircraft carrier, at least for the time being.
S-3 Vikings based at NAS Cecil Field flying over Jacksonville, Flordia in 1988.
It was one hell of an interesting culture shock when we arrived aboard the then-latest Nimitz class aircraft carrier, the USS Theodore Roosevelt(CVN-71) in February of 1988. She was to be Air Wing Eight’s (CAG-8) new home.
One might think that one Nimitz class carrier is the same as any other Nimitz class carrier. They, however, would be wrong. Granted, the various decks remain the same and to the untrained eye, the ship's outward appearance seems the same, but the personality of the ship, her crew, and the ship’s 'soul' are entirely different.
My fellow enlisted Naval Aircrewmen (AWs) and I of Sea Control Squadron 24 (VS-24) “Scouts” were excited to be aboard a brand-new boat. That is, until we discovered we did not have a special aircrew berthing or a space for our aircrew shop.
Misery quickly set in.
No one from CAG-8 had bothered to think about the needs of VS-24 other than the acquisition of Ready Room Four that occupied the same deck and spaces we had aboard Nimitz, as well as the maintenance shops required to allow our squadron to function. If memory serves, they failed to provide us with a place for our Personnel Department as well. As a result, that misery quickly transformed into being pissed off
A squadron ready room aboard a Nimitz class carrier circa 1988.
For our aircrew shop, we ended up getting a paint storage space…that had no air conditioning and no heat. We’d be in the Caribbean in a few days and above the Arctic Circle in a few months. Worse still, we ended up sharing sleeping spaces on the O-3 level that berthed over a hundred other sailors in the stern or in the bow. We moved back and forth between these two locales several times over the next two years.
The space in the bow was the most difficult to adjust too. That berthing lay just beneath the bow catapults. Every time an aircraft would be launched, we’d be entertained with resonating sound of the shuttle running the length of catapult track ending with a powerful ‘THUMP!' as it stopped at the water brake.
If we slept, it was a fitful, angry sleep.
It may sound like I’m whining, but aircrew sleeping habits were dictated by NATOPS (Naval Air Training and Operating Procedures Standardization) and we actually needed a small, isolated space like we had on Nimitz that allowed us to sleep around the clock since we flew around that clock. Granted, we couldn’t avoid the bow catapult sounds and the Air Wing’s ‘Officer Country’ sleeping area was also in the bow on the 0-3 level, so us enlisted guys weren’t subject to that issue alone. What we could have avoided was the noise made by a whole bunch of sailors coming and going throughout the day and night slamming stand-up and coffin lockers, laughing, and doing the things tired sailors do.
Yes, this is me…still whining some 30 years later!
Otherwise, “TR” was a really great ship. Over the months ahead we adjusted to the black shoe crew (those that ran the ship), and they to us, and learned to commune with the spirit of this brand new, mighty aircraft carrier.
The culture shocks kept coming, however. On the flight deck, an airplane that looked suspiciously like a lawn dart had replaced that lovable, combat-proven Short Little Ugly Fucker, or SLUF, that was also known as the A-7 Corsair II. No longer did we share the flight deck with the Marauders of VA-82 and Sidewinders of VA-86.
F/A-18 Hornet taking to the catapult aboard the 'TR.'
After a week or so of carrier qualifications for all the air wing aircraft, including the hybrid fighter-attack squadrons VFA-15 'Valions' and VFA-87 'Golden Warriors' and their shiny, new, low-viz grey F/A-18 Hornets, we headed to the Gitmo Op Area (just off Guantanamo Bay, Cuba) for a shakedown cruise. Although it took time, ship and air wing began to find a mutual rhythm.
Oh, here’s something you all may not have considered: every time an Atlantic Fleet aircraft carrier pulled out of Norfolk or Mayport requiring its Air Wing to embark, the poor VAQ bastards (electronic attack squadrons) had to fly their EA-6B Prowlers and their squadron all the way across the length of the United States and meet their particular ship. And us Florida-based squadrons bitched and moaned…constantly…about our comparatively very short trek off our coast to the ship.
Since I had joined the Nimitz back in ’86, a month prior to her last Med deployment from the East Coast, I missed all the fun of the work-up cycle, which found a carrier and her squadrons going to sea very often. Sometimes, it lasted just a couple of weeks while at other times we’d be at sea for a month or two. The process of going back and forth made going to the boat a genuine pain-in-the-ass. Looking back, of course, I’d gladly haul cruise boxes up and down narrow ladders and through endless numbers of knee-knockers just for the chance to serve aboard today!
Sometimes, the ship pulled out of Norfolk without us. Consider this brief, interesting at sea period described in the Roosevelt’s official Command History:
Standardization and deceleration trials were conducted with David W. Taylor Naval Ship Research and Development Center observers at HECTOR RANGE on 23 and 24 April. Resulting data determined maximum speed for CVN-71 and filled in tactical data for NIMITZ class carriers.
Now that had to be fun!
The TR underway during training.
As is the nature of an aircraft carrier’s flight deck, tragedy is just one distraction away, no matter how well the crew gels. On the morning of March 13th, we happily welcomed the arrival of a C-2 Greyhound COD. After she unloaded her mail and supplies and reloaded passengers who were leaving the boat, the E-2 squadron maintenance personnel started her up for taxiing to the cat where she would launch with the next cycle.
I was in our ready room and for some reason my eyes were glued to the PLAT TV screen, which was filled with the COD getting in position for launch. Then, to my horror, a young VAW-124 plane captain…mesmerized…walked into one of the C-2’s spinning propellers.
I just couldn’t understand what I just saw.
I do not remember much more of that day except the haunting sound of the call for a FOD (foreign object debris) walk-down on the flight deck after TR lost her first crew member.
Despite our tragic loss, we successfully completed a period of operations that had us learning how to work as an air wing again. The Rooseveltthen sailed north out of the Caribbean and dropped anchor off of Fort Lauderdale, Florida on March 31st. Some of the aircraft and most of the CAG-8 personnel disembarked to make room for an oddly-timed Tiger Cruise that saw over 1,500 dependents join the Navy’s newest aircraft carrier.
At the end of the following month, we once again joined the TR for ops off of Virginia, Jacksonville, and in the Caribbean to accommodate the Reactor Department’s major readiness inspection known as the ORSE (or Operational Reactor Safeguards Examination). This at-sea period lasted from the 23rd of May to the 28th of June.
Once again, tragedy struck the flight deck. This time it was a member of my own squadron and a friend. William Berry, a young airman, was working to become an Aviation Electrician (AE), if memory serves. He was one of the most promising, gentle, professional, and kind individuals I had ever had the pleasure of meeting.
Despite the admonishment to keep your head on a swivel on the flight deck to see what is going on all around you at all times, you can’t account for everything, including not seeing a Tomcat turning its two powerful engines toward you. Berry was lifted off his feet by an F-14 and blown over the side of the flight deck, falling 90 feet into the ocean, the surface of which acts as essentially concrete from such a high fall.
Some said they witnessed him struggling, while others stated he didn’t move after impact. As the ship mustered for the man overboard, the plane guard helicopter searched and searched for him. Sadly, everyone quickly lost sight of him.
An SH-3 with rescue swimmer aboard circa the late 1980s.
Once the ship-wide muster was complete—confirming he was the only soul missing—I went out onto the starboard aft sponson in what daylight remained…and stood there…willing my eyes to see him... just over there…
His body was never recovered.
It is a genuinely precious thing, when serving in the military and watching people die, to be forced to face the full weight of what it means to be human…particularly at that young age when you are certain you are not only infallible and indestructible, but also eternal.
From Russia With Love
An interesting at-sea period took place without us having to embark on the 7th of July, 1988. Again, the ship’s official Command History describes what was a truly historic event:
The top Soviet military officer, First Minister of Defense and Marshal of the Soviet Union Sergei F. Akhromeyev, and a dozen top-ranking Soviet military officers embarked. The Marshal's visit was the first time a Soviet military leader had been aboard one of America's sophisticated nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. Guests of the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral William J. Crowe, the Soviets were given a tour of TR, from galley to the bridge. Ship operations were explained by TR crew members. On the flight deck they observed aircraft being launched and recovered and Carrier Air Wing EIGHT'S air power demonstration.
USN VIA KEVIN NOONAN
First Minister of Defense and Marshal of the Soviet Union Sergei F. Akhromeyev aboard the TR, S-3 Viking looming in the background.
A month later, President Reagan was giving a speech for the 70th Annual National Convention of the American Legion and described what took place aboard TR during the Soviet visit. His words still give me the chills:
“We took Marshal Akhromeyev to visit our newest supercarrier, USS Theodore Roosevelt. We thought it would be a valuable education for him. And so he saw that magnificent ship go through its paces. He watched our superb aircraft perform. All in all, he spent a day on one of the technological wonders of the world, a floating airfield his Navy had nothing to equal; and yet, you know what he said he was most impressed with when he was through with the visit? Our enlisted men and women. I was told that he couldn't get over the fact that we had them doing work that the Soviets would reserve exclusively for officers, in many cases, very superior officers. And he couldn't believe that our enlisted people were so self-assured in speaking up when asked a question, so articulate in giving their replies, and so ready to add their opinions.”
It was a great time to be an American sailor and a great, great time to be an AW.
Then, on August 25th, the USS Theodore Roosevelt joined up with her full battlegroup for the first time and set sail toward the North Atlantic on one of the most realistic exercises I had ever been on or would be a part of. Teamwork ’88 most closely resembled what we would do in a war with the Soviet Union.