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

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

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

Today, a new generation of AWs carry on the tradition set forth by men like Bules and Worth, but aboard different aircraft, leaving little doubt the S-3A Sensor Operators were indeed a class all their own.

In this week’s edition of The Life and Times of an S-3A Viking Sensor Operator, we conclude the story of AWs Greg Bules and Michael Worth. Join them once last time as they take part in operations against Iran, fight a one-day war, confront the risks of their profession, and discover what life has in store for them beyond the Navy.

But first…

About Those Callsigns…

Unlike their officer counterparts, AWs were “hung” callsigns on an unofficial basis. Some squadrons did it, many did not. Greg “Ferris” Bules and Michael “Cheeseburger” Worth were fortunate (or unfortunate, depending on the person) to be assigned to squadrons that hung callsigns on their enlisted aircrewmen.

“Ferris” is a play on the title of the 1986 film classic starring Matthew Broderick, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The story behind it also serves as a reminder of how different a world the ‘80s were; a time of no Internet and little connectivity.

A VS-21 S-3 overflies a Soviet-built Kilo-class diesel-electric attack submarine.
USS Constellation (CV-64) underway with CVW-14 embarked, July 1987. Credit: U.S. Navy

“I was practically self-incarcerated at North Island, due to the sheer amount of schooling we were receiving, so I had little time for anything else. When I arrived at VS-21, I heard my aircrew shop supervisor was looking for me during my in-processing. As the story goes, one of my fellow AWs said, ‘Hey where’s the new kid, Bules… Bueller… anyone, anyone.’ I had no I idea why they started calling me ‘Ferris’ when they finally found me. I said, ‘My first name is Greg!’ I think that they thought I was stupid and probably wondered how I made it through VS-41 to earn my wings. The fact was, I hadn’t seen the movie or any others in the past year.”

As for “Cheeseburger?” It started with a trip from San Diego to Six Flags Magic Mountain. Responsible as ever, Worth served as designated driver, while his buddies drank early and often during the trip.”

“Lunch came along, and I ordered an overpriced cheeseburger. The drunks were hungry and rowdy,” explains Worth. “Before trying to steal my lunch, they were hitting on the girlfriend of a very large guy. At some point I was pissed off enough to throw my cheeseburger at one of them, which was also a distraction tactic to save them from a brutal beatdown from a very large and angry guy.”

For his heroic efforts, Worth sacrificed his expensive meal for a callsign. “At that point the drunks labeled me ‘Cheeseburger,’ and it stuck. Like glue. Forever. But that’s how callsigns work. You rarely like the one you get.”

Michael Worth’s first deployment was also his most memorable. His squadron was part of Carrier Air Wing Fourteen (CVW-14) and embarked aboard USS Constellation (CV-64), the centerpiece of Battle Group Delta. Together, they departed San Diego on Apr. 11, 1987, for a Western Pacific (WESTPAC) deployment, returning October 13 the same year.

Earnest Will

The plan was for “Connie” and company to deploy to “Gonzo Station,” an area in the Gulf of Oman/North Arabian Sea that U.S. carriers had been deploying to since the Iran hostage crisis of 1979 – ’81. What was supposed to be a routine deployment with plenty of interesting ports-of-call along the way changed drastically after May 17, when the Oliver Hazard Perry-class guided missile frigate USS Stark (FFG-31) was mistakenly struck by two French-supplied AM39 Exocet anti-ship missiles launched from a then-non-hostile Iraqi aircraft. The Persian Gulf had already become a shooting gallery due to the indiscriminate targeting of merchant shipping by both Iran and Iraq amid their brutal grudge match, which had lasted seven years by that point.

The Life and Times of an S-3A Viking Sensor Operator, Part Three: What Goes Up, Must Come Down
Iranian Silkworm missile being fired during a military exercise. Credit: Fars News Agency

Having been asked by the Kuwaiti government months earlier to escort its tankers through the dangerous Strait of Hormuz, the Reagan administration fully committed to the protection operation, codenamed Earnest Will, in the wake of the Stark tragedy. It was both the start of a long and enduring American military commitment to the region and, for Worth, a brush with war. He has searing memories of Earnest Will, along with the dramatic fashion in which the character of his deployment changed.

“We were at Diego Garcia and I was having breakfast ashore when we heard the news, so I knew we were leaving soon. Next thing I know, I was awoken in my rack by the heaving of the anchor. And a few hours later being awoken to go fly. And already being in the Persian Gulf when that happened. It blew my mind how fast the ship got from Diego Garcia to the Gulf.”

Once on-station, Battle Group Delta provided air cover and surface support for the escort operation. VS-37 was specifically tasked with Surface Surveillance and Control (SSC), which, as Worth explained, was not too different from their day-to-day support of the carrier group.

“SSC meant that we were assigned a specific geographic location to identify all of the surface targets in that sector. We’d find them on radar, then fly out and take a picture of them and report back. Occasionally the boat would direct us to a target as a higher priority, but generally, we just handled them according to the SENSO’s order of preference, which made it easier to keep track of. The SENSO was the primary radar operator on those missions, with the TACCO backing up on radar and plotting the contacts. We weren’t looking for any specific threats, just any threats. And threats were a very rare thing. It was easy to be complacent on this type of mission.”

The Life and Times of an S-3A Viking Sensor Operator, Part Three: What Goes Up, Must Come Down
Special patches commemorating USS Enterprise’s 1988 WESTPAC/Indian Ocean deployment. Credit: Col. Greg Bules, USAF

Aside from some murmurings about Connie being used as part of military strikes against Iran and an air-to-air engagement between two of its F-14s and what appeared to be Iranian F-4 Phantom II fighters that remains shrouded in mystery, the Iran-Iraq War blazed on without the battle group’s direct intervention. But there were, occasionally, disturbing reminders of the ever-present danger surrounding them in the Gulf.

“I remember one night being tired and complacent doing a standard SSC. The TACCO had mapped out the coastline and locations of the Silkworm missile sites along the coast. It was quiet, very little sea traffic to identify at the time. I think everyone was feeling quite relaxed, if not as bored as I was. Towards the end of the mission, three of the Silkworm sites that we had mapped out on our computer ‘lit up’ simultaneously. These are anti-ship missiles, so no immediate threat to us, specifically. But the way the display works is that three lines originated from the Silkworm sites and intersected with our aircraft. In my relaxed state, this got my attention immediately. Needless to say, everyone was energized and alive again. And it haunted me for a very long time. I don’t think I was ever that complacent again.”

In October, USS Ranger arrived at Gonzo Station to relieve Constellation. After a few days on-station together, the former took charge and the latter headed east. After a few port-of-calls, including an enjoyable stop at Perth, Australia, Worth, VS-37, and Constellation eventually found themselves back at beautiful North Island.

A One-Day War

Greg Bules’ first deployment was also his most memorable. Only a few days after joining VS-21 on the first day of the new year, he found himself aboard nuclear-powered USS Enterprise (CVN-65), departing NAS Alameda on Jan. 5, 1988, as it set off for a six-month WESTPAC of its own with CVW-11 embarked. It was also during Enterprise’s time in the Gulf that the shadowy war against Iran would shift into the open.

The Life and Times of an S-3A Viking Sensor Operator, Part Three: What Goes Up, Must Come Down
A VS-21 S-3 launching off the deck of Enterprise, late-1980s. Credit: Unknown

Due to escalating hostilities between the U.S. and Iran, Enterprise and Battle Group Foxtrot wasted little time heading to the Indian Ocean, relieving USS Midway and her battle group on Feb. 15. VS-21 and CVW-11 went to work immediately providing air cover for the tankers transiting the strait, an operation that was now almost a year old.

“Our daily duties constituted low-altitude (500 ft.) air cover for Earnest Will, usually early in the morning, typically 4 am,” recalled Bules. “We specifically looked for Boghammers during Praying Mantis but were largely discouraged from engaging due to the lack of defensive systems aboard the S-3A, though we were armed with Mk.20 Rockeye II cluster bombs. The Boghammers were the major threat we looked for, as Iran posed little to no underwater threat, at least nothing that would be deployed effectively in-theater.”

The Boghammers which Bules references are Swedish-built speedboats used by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in its guerrilla war-at-sea strategy to assault and harass merchant shipping in the Persian Gulf during the “Tanker War” phase of the Iran-Iraq War. Praying Mantis, of course, refers to the one-day war between the U.S. and Iran that took place on Apr. 18, 1988, the climax of Earnest Will and, to this day, the only time U.S. and Iranian forces have engaged in combat.

The clash was written in the stars by Iran’s use of sea mines in the Gulf. After the first Earnest Will convoy in July 1987 encountered a minefield, the U.S. placed great emphasis on combating this threat and appeared to be doing so effectively. But on Apr. 14, 1988, the USS Samuel B. Roberts struck a mine, causing extensive damage and placing the guided-missile frigate at the risk of sinking. But, thanks to the heroic and resolute efforts of “Sammy B’s” crew, not a single sailor perished, and the ship was saved as well.

The Life and Times of an S-3A Viking Sensor Operator, Part Three: What Goes Up, Must Come Down
IRGC Boghammer during the 1980s. Source: Inside the Danger Zone by Harold Wise

“Seeing Roberts limp past us was a surreal experience,” said Bules. “It was the moment the war was brought home to me and the realization we were all in deadly territory.” For better or for worse, however, he did not have a lot of time for self-reflection – within hours of Roberts striking the mine, policymakers in Washington were talking retaliation.

Four days after the incident, the U.S. struck back with Operation Praying Mantis. In what historians have called the largest air-sea battle since World War II, the U.S. destroyed two IRGC-manned oil rigs, sank an Iranian frigate, severely damaged another, and destroyed a missile boat plus many of the Boghammers Bules and VS-21 were tasked with surveilling. Per ROE, the Vikings continued to fly armed with cluster bombs during the one-day war, but it was the air wing’s A-6 Intruder and A-7 Corsair attack aircraft that stole the show, inflicting devastation on Iran’s naval forces, with F-14 Tomcats providing fighter cover from high above. Praying Mantis may not have been the kind of war the S-3 had been designed for, but the entire air wing excelled nonetheless, with CVW-11 receiving a Joint Meritorious Unit Award for its efforts.

Reality Check

The summer of ’88 was, at least for Bules, the high point of his career as an AW. He was excelling, enjoying every moment of it, and had earned the privilege of being assigned to the crew led by VS-21’s Executive Officer (XO), Commander Glenn Main. Unfortunately, the unpleasant realities of the job would soon catch up to him that same summer and bring him back down to Earth.

The first reminder of the perils of the job came towards the end of his ’88 deployment off the coast of the Philippines. During a flight with the XO, an engine fire indicator light kept coming on, forcing a return to Enterprise. Though the plane landed safely, the pilot had a difficult time making it back aboard, raising the anxiety level of young Bules. It was a moment troubling enough to give the entire squadron pause, reminding everyone the deployment was not over and to guard against complacency.

Then, on Jun. 5, 1988, a wake-up call was delivered in the cruelest way imaginable. A VS-21 S-3 taking off from Enterprise rolled to port uncontrollably after launch and was headed into the sea. All four crewmembers ejected, but only one, TACCO Lieutenant Junior Grade William Henderson, survived. Pilot Lieutenant Junior Grade Charles Roy, COTAC and VS-21 Commanding Officer (CO) Commander Robert Anderson, and SENSO AW2 David Stenstrom – Bules’ good friend – all perished in the crash.

The Life and Times of an S-3A Viking Sensor Operator, Part Three: What Goes Up, Must Come Down
Joint Meritorious Unit Award earned by CVW-11 for their actions during Operation Praying Mantis. Credit: Col. Greg Bules, USAF

For the now-20-year-old Ohio-native, two years into serving his country, and making a living on the edge every day, it was a devastating loss, a gut-punch of a reminder that he, like all who flew military aircraft, were living on borrowed time.

“Dave wasn’t just a great AW; he was a good guy, a better man than I, and had so much going for him,” says Bules. “His death is something I and others who knew him had a tough time getting over. We miss him every day and the memories are difficult and weigh heavily on my mind, even thirty years later,” Bules says, wistfully.

It is for this reason now-Air Force Colonel Bules still wears his gold Navy aircrew wings on his uniform. Though certainly authorized by regulation, it is not merely out of pride in his past profession – it is in honor of David Stenstrom.

Despite the loss of his friend, Bules tried to stay strong and carry on, as was expected of those in such a deadly serious line of work. But if he thought things could not get any worse, they did. During a training flight out of North Island in August the same year, another in-flight emergency occurred which nearly sapped any enthusiasm he had remaining for the job.

“We suffered a compressor stall off the coast of San Diego. Everything went to shit, and the master caution panel lit up like a Christmas tree,” he recalled. “We then lost an engine and were headed out to sea. I was convinced we were going down when the pilot warned us to prepare to eject. Somehow, some way, he brought us back to North Island safely for an emergency landing, but it was a jarring experience, especially with everything that had occurred the past few months.”

The Life and Times of an S-3A Viking Sensor Operator, Part Three: What Goes Up, Must Come Down
Commander Robert Anderson, USN, Lieutenant Junior Grade Charles Roy, USN, Aviation Anti-Submarine Warfare Operator Second Class David Stenstrom, USN. Photo credit: U.S. Navy

The compressor stall was the final straw for “Ferris” – momentarily, at least.

“I went to my Chief [Larry Anderson] and told him ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’ I’d re-volunteered for flying duty following the June 5 incident, but the most recent in-flight emergency gave me second thoughts. Losing Dave and nearly losing my own life not once, but twice, had me thinking my luck would run out soon if I kept flying. Fortunately, Chief empathized with me and arranged for me to take some time off from flying to clear my head.”

Based on his recollection, Bules took, at most, a week or two off from flying. During that time, he learned a valuable lesson that he would draw upon time and again in the years to come.

“During those few weeks away from flying, I went up into the mountains, tried to sort out all the emotions and thoughts running through my head, and decided relatively quickly, looking back on it, I wanted to continue being an AW. I learned a little something about resiliency and how to bounce back, even when you feel like you have no control over things. It taught me, in the hardest way imaginable, that life’s about riding those ups and downs. Lessons like that would really come in handy later on down the road, in ways I could’ve never anticipated nor imagined. It certainly helped having the steady leadership and example provided by mentors like Chief Anderson [who unfortunately passed away in 1998] to encourage me to get back in the saddle and do what I loved most – fly.”

Neither was Michael Worth a stranger to in-flight emergencies. He vividly remembers one in particular that took place over land.

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“I remember the loss of an engine en route to the bombing range near NAS Fallon, NV. As I recall, we had a Mk. 83 1,000-lb. bomb on the right wing and the right engine failed. We may have started the day with one on the left as well, but I don’t remember that. I only remember losing the engine on the right and being unable to jettison the bomb because we were currently over residential areas, and the bombing range was now behind us. We declared an emergency and returned to Fallon. The aircraft was rolled distinctly to the right for the return flight, and we landed right side first, then left, then front. I later learned in the airline industry that this was known as ‘landing in the crab.’ I don’t know if that was a term that the Navy used, or not.”

Without downplaying the seriousness of such incidents, “Cheeseburger” admitted emergencies occurred more often than publicized, but, ironically, not all were memorable.

“I had many other emergencies along the way, I just don’t remember them anymore. They eventually became routine, and therefore not noteworthy. A few them even required returning to land and not landing on the ship per the manual, but they also occurred during blue water flight operations, making land out of reach, so we landed on the boat anyway.”

Dangerous as these instances were, they also served as moments of contemplation – particularly on the matter of what they wanted to do with the rest of their lives.

“I loved being an AW, but I hated being an enlisted man,” was the refrain shared by both Bules and Worth. After a world cruise aboard Enterprise from September 1989 to March 1990, a confluence of events brought Ferris home to Ohio as his Navy enlistment ended in 1993. He continued his military flying career in the Air Force Reserve, serving as a Lockheed C-141 Starlifter loadmaster for a few years, amassing a grand total of over 1,500 hours of flight time across the two services. His next big stepping-stone came in March 1998; after graduating from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University the year prior, Bules was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Air Force Reserve, where he has remained since.

Hong Kong Standard newspaper article describing the June 5, 1988 tragedy. Credit: Col. Greg Bules, USAF

Michael Worth also made one more deployment, again aboard Constellation, from December 1988 to June 1989. Shortly after, he decided one enlistment was enough and transitioned back into civilian life, pursuing several different careers in the almost-three decades since he left service, working as a firefighter, flight attendant, and a motor officer for a private company. But none came close to the satisfaction of flying combat aircraft off a carrier.

“Being a SENSO was an incredible opportunity that I didn’t fully appreciate at the time,” he laments. “And now, there’s nothing left like it.”

I Hope You Had the Time of Your Life…

For those who wore the aircrew wings of gold and sat in that left rear seat, it was a privilege worth every ounce of energy, sweat, and time it took to get there and stay there, a journey where the highest of highs was worth all of the lows combined. For no matter what odd bounces life threw their way in the years to come, their time as SENSOs not only offered the ultimate thrill, but critical experiences and skills that would prove invaluable going forward.

“It was the best job I ever had,” says Col. Bules, who, today, continues to serve on active duty at the Pentagon as Reserve Advisor to the Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Integration, splitting his time between Virginia and his native Ohio. “At 19 years old, I was flying aboard a $32-million jet off a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. The job, while difficult, was incredibly rewarding – it prepared me for the array of personal and professional challenges that lay ahead in my life.”

Official portrait of Col. Greg Bules, USAF. Notice his gold aircrew wings pinned above the ribbons on the left side of his uniform. Credit: U.S. Air Force

Michael Worth, currently residing in Idaho with his family, feels little different and wonders what would have been had he stuck around longer. “Sometimes I regret leaving, or not applying for SEALs instead. But had I done any of that I wouldn’t have what I have now, either. At the end of the day, I just think that was the path I was supposed to take.”

It has been 21 years since the last AW flew aboard an S-3 and 11 years since the S-3 last flew in operational service. Today, the C-2 Greyhound is the only carrier-borne fixed-wing aircraft crewed with AWs. Airborne ASW is now a mission conducted entirely by the land-based P-8 Poseidon and helicopters based aboard ship as well as land. Though the U.S. has not faced a significant undersea threat in decades, that could soon change as China, Russia, and even regional threats like Iran fortify their submarine fleets.

Today, a new generation of AWs carry on the tradition set forth by men like Bules and Worth, but aboard different aircraft, leaving little doubt the S-3 Sensor Operators were indeed a class all their own.

Michael Worth today. Credit: Michael Worth

“Back in the day, one guy did it all, and that was pretty special,” says Worth, when asked to sum up his time as a SENSO.

“I couldn’t ask for more; it was good times. And one hell of a ride!”

The author would like to thank Col. Greg Bules and Michael Worth for so generously spending their time and sharing their memories to make this work possible. This piece is dedicated to all the men and women who flew, maintained, or otherwise made the S-3 Viking mission possible, especially those who are gone, but never forgotten.

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