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Sea Stories: The Loss of Sundowner 201


Gunboat1
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Sea Stories: The Loss of Sundowner 201

 

Naval service is inherently hazardous.  Warships are complex machines with lots of moving, hot, sharp, electrically charged, explosive, radioactive or toxic things in them.  And to top that off, the ocean environment will kill you given half a chance. 

I remember thinking about this one night on deployment to the Western Pacific.  My ship was Air Defense Coordinator for a Carrier Battle Group.  One of the primary weapons the Battle Group had for its defense was two squadrons of F-14 Tomcat fighters.  These planes and the men who flew in them were incredibly impressive.  They were formidable instruments of war, made even more deadly by an unheralded assistant, the Air Intercept Controller.

Air Controllers were relatively senior enlisted Operations Specialists.  They were trained and tasked to assist the air crews in finding their assigned targets in the middle of an enormous sky, and getting the plane into position to kill it if necessary.  A fighter aircraft’s radar is contained in the nose of the plane, and it looks at a very limited cone of space in front of the aircraft.  It is also limited in range and power. It just can’t see very much.   An Air Controller, seated aboard a ship or surveillance aircraft with a much larger radar, could see the enemy further away, and could calculate what heading and speed the fighter needed to use to make a successful intercept of the target, given its own heading and speed.  The Controller would then verbally and electronically give the pilot heading and speed vectors to make intercept.  Controllers were issued individual radio call signs and talked directly to the pilots.  It was a close and successful partnership. (The best controller I ever knew was an E-6 Operations Specialist, issued call sign “Shogun”.  He was promoted to Chief Petty Officer and later went on to become an officer.  I learned a great deal about a lot of things from this guy.)

One night watch circa mid-1984, another Controller on my ship was working with an F-14 from Fighter Squadron 111, the “Sundowners”.  Their aircraft wore distinctive tail markings of a setting sun, and used identifying nose numbers in the 200 series.   This particular aircraft was Sundowner 201.  All was normal, a simple, routine Combat Air Patrol (CAP) mission was going smoothly.  Suddenly, the aircraft had an unrecoverable mechanical problem.  The pilot declared a “mayday” emergency, indicating that loss of life was possible.  The plane basically stopped flying, and the crew had to eject into the Pacific Ocean before it crashed, literally a thousand miles from land.  They were over a hundred miles from the nearest ship of the battle group.  The Air Controller marked the last known position of the plane, reported the mayday and our ship turned towards the site at maximum speed.  The carrier launched a Search and Rescue helicopter which proceeded at best speed to the crash site.

Fortunately, everything worked out well this time.  Neither of the aviators had been significantly injured on the ejection.  The  Pacific Ocean was relatively calm and relatively warm.  The aircrew found each other in the water and joined up.  And the Rescue Helicopter found them using the accurate position provided by the Air Controller.  Both men were rescued and returned to the carrier safely.  We were fortunate.  But Mother Ocean never sleeps.

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Edited by Gunboat1
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There are dangers inherent in military service even in peacetime or non-combat operations. This sea story was a good example with a happy ending, excepting the loss of a high dollar aircraft. The recent fatal accident with the amtrac off the California coast was another... with an entirely different, sadder result. Bottom line: the never ending quest for combat readiness is achieved only through tough, realistic training. As hard as we try to do things safely, there will always be risks... every time you take off in a plane or get underway from a pier. God bless all who wear/ have worn the nation’s cloth.

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I was stationed at NAS North Island in the 1980's and had a roommate who was stationed with HS-14 as a rescue swimmer.  His squadron was assigned to accompany a carrier conducting night training operations. His helo was flying plane guard when it disappeared from radar.  A search found only floating debris.  There were no survivors.  Neither helicopter or crew were recovered.  An officer from his squadron asked if I would be willing to have his family come to our barracks room to see where he lived and to meet me.  Of course I said yes.  It was the least I could do for my friend.  And it was the hardest thing I ever did in my navy career.   

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