The Life and Times of an S-3A Viking Sensor Operator, Part Three: What Goes Up, Must Come Down

Former S-3 Viking SENSO tells the story of an unusual encounter with a Soviet Submarine

By Dario Leone
May 25 2020
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The S-3 Viking operated day and night from big-deck carriers to track Soviet submarines during the Cold War.

The last carrier-based aircraft designed for anti-submarine warfare, the Lockheed S-3A Viking was introduced into fleet service on Feb. 20, 1974. The Viking boasted the latest in radar, sonar, and magnetic anomaly detection (MAD) gear as well as torpedoes and sonobuoys.

With a pilot and three sensor operators (SENSOs), it was known to fleet crews as the “Hoover,” owing to the vacuum sound of its engines.

As recalled by former S-3 SENSO Dave Barak on Quora, the Viking operated day and night from US Navy big-deck carriers to track Soviet submarines during the Cold War.

‘One of the routine missions we flew in Vikings were Sea Surface Control (SSC) missions,’ He explains. ‘This was where aircraft would be assigned an area some distance out from the carrier, tasked with finding and reporting on any surface ships that were found. During the day we’d use radar to find the ship and then switch to eyeballs to ID the ship. At night we’d use radar but then do a “radar to FLIR handoff,” which meant our infrared camera would automatically point to the location the radar was looking at. Our radar only would display a blip that gave no indication of size or detail, and the FLIR system’s level of detail was pretty poor since it picked up heat, and since heat radiates it tends to blur any details.

‘One night while on deployment in the North Arabian Sea we were flying a SSC (“double ess see”) mission. We had a radar contact and as with all contacts using that radar, it was just a blip with no indication of size or detail. We flew towards it and X number of miles out (I can’t remember at what range it made sense to use FLIR) I switched to FLIR and saw something like this (remember, FLIR was kind of blurry):

Former S-3 Viking SENSO tells the story of an unusual encounter with a Soviet Submarine

‘What? There aren’t any carriers out here. Just ours, USS Carl Vinson, and it’s behind us.

‘As we got closer, the detail got a bit better, and it’s then that I realize it was this:

Former S-3 Viking SENSO tells the story of an unusual encounter with a Soviet Submarine

‘It was a Soviet Foxtrot diesel-electric submarine on the surface. Cool. We flew to it and flew the standard non-threatening pattern around it at 400 feet, our minimum nighttime altitude. (Crossing in front of a ship is a no-no so a specific flight path is used to avoid that while still seeing as much of the ship as possible.)

‘The FLIR system in the -A Vikings had a 16mm movie camera embedded somewhere, pointed at a small CRT monitor. We could use it to record what we saw, but ours malfunctioned and we got no footage. But we did drop a sonobuoy and I got some real-world Soviet contact time. It wasn’t a high value contact, believe it or not, so we didn’t spend a lot of time with it.

‘That was my only contact with a Soviet sub.’

Barak concludes:

‘ I should point out that the FLIR image of the Foxtrot, when I first saw it on the screen, was maybe an inch across. The two blurry images [I posted here] don’t do justice to the poor quality of what I first saw – basically a fuzzy horizontal bar with a fuzzy box on top, much worse than what I posted.’

S-3 Print
This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. S-3B Viking VS-41 Shamrocks, NJ741 / 160136 / 2006

Photo credit: US Navy


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Dario Leone

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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