“So many things that you have no control of have to go absolutely right for you. Becoming an S-3A SENSO, out of a population of the entire U.S., has similar odds to that of winning the PowerBall,” Michael “Cheeseburger” Worth, former S-3 SENSO
In this week’s installment of The Life and Times of an S-3A Viking Sensor Operator, we pick up where we left off in Part One – upon the conclusion of Naval Aircrew Candidate School (NACCS) at Naval Air Station Pensacola. Though the completion of NACCS marks a major accomplishment, determined trainees Greg Bules and Michael Worth know the real tests have yet to come.
Bringing the ‘A’ Game to ‘A’ School
Upon completion of NACCS, the trainees attended the 10-day Enlisted Basic Aviation Training (EBAT) course at NAS Millington, Tennessee. It was introductory-level training required of all enlistees holding aviation ratings and taught basic aviation safety, skills, and theory. Afterwards, it was time for ‘A’ School, also in Millington. The school, which lasted 11-and-a-half weeks, was divided into two phases, acoustic and non-acoustic. As the name indicates, the acoustic phase taught the fundamentals of underwater detection, sonogram analysis, and anti-submarine warfare. The non-acoustic phase taught the basics of radar, MAD, FLIR, and electronic warfare on a theoretical level. It was here in ‘A’ school the challenge for the prospective AWs became more mental than physical.
“Wow, what have I bitten off here?” Worth recalled thinking. “It was tough. And so much math.” For some trainees, it was in Millington their journey to become AWs abruptly ended. The tough curriculum demanded not only hard work and lots of studying, but aptitude as well and not every trainee possessed it. Intensifying the challenge was the fact much of their curriculum involved classified information – it could not leave the secure spaces, meaning all learning and studying had to be done in the classroom during teaching hours.
“It was nice not having homework, but you had to learn and retain large quantities of classified information with only so many hours each day to do it. This is where your individual study skills and qualities shined through or were found to be lacking,” Bules said. “It reflected what would be demanded of the SENSO on the job, which was like putting your head underwater, having a car drive by, and identify particular characteristics about it based on just that one distorted sound without ever seeing the car.”
“Extensive memorization was required,” said Worth. “There was nothing related to finding or identifying subs that could be looked up in-flight, even though we had to memorize a similar level of information as contained in a Jane’s All the World’s Fighting Ships-type reference, plus more.”
Eventually, however, there was a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. Those who made it that far found out what platform they would be assigned to towards the end of ‘A’ School and whether their hard work would be rewarded with their dream assignment. For Bules, whatever disappointment he felt after being denied an opportunity to become a rescue swimmer was assuaged by the fact, he would, indeed, be flying off the flight deck of an aircraft carrier. Meanwhile, Worth got exactly what he had fought tooth and nail for since the day he walked into the recruiting office.
Receiving top choices was an exciting, yet humbling, moment – countless individuals aspired to fly, but many fell outside the narrow physical and psychological requirements that must be met for the dream to become reality.
“Aviation is a tough nut to crack,” Worth reflected. “So many things that you have no control of have to go absolutely right for you. Becoming an S-3A SENSO, out of a population of the entire U.S., has similar odds to that of winning the PowerBall.”
It very much was a lottery – final decisions regarding aircraft assignment primarily come down to the needs of the Navy. Therefore, getting both a rating and platform of choice was the result of a combination of hard work and a considerable amount of good fortune.
Headed Out West…
What luck could not change was the pressure; in fact, it intensified following ‘A’ school. After each chose and were granted their pick of a West Coast assignment, Bules and Worth, the latter many months earlier than the former, each went to NAS North Island, California and Air Anti-Submarine Squadron Forty-One (VS-41) “Shamrocks,” the Replacement Air Group (RAG) unit of the S-3 community and the arena of some their most demanding training to come. But before that, there was also Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) school, of which the classroom portion took place at North Island, while the mock prisoner-of-war camp portion took place at Warner Springs. It was also on the way to North Island Bules first caught a glimpse of what would be his ride.
“I was driving past NAS El Centro in eastern San Diego County when I saw it – an S-3 performing touch and go landings! I couldn’t believe it wouldn’t be long before I was flying on that thing, one of those surreal moments where you’re hit with the realization of what an incredible journey you’ve been blessed with, that it’s real, and that it’s going to get better!”
After SERE, it was back to North Island for Fleet Aviation Specialized Operational (FASO) – Common Core, which was four weeks of advanced acoustics analysis training, along with ejection seat training at NAS Miramar, better-known then as the home of TOPGUN. There was also the “Dilbert Dunker,” which trained pilots and aircrew how to extricate themselves from a submerged aircraft cockpit, more water-survival training in full flight gear, and learning to breathe with oxygen masks underwater. Finally, it was time for five to six months of SENSO Training at VS-41. Like much of the curriculum thus far, the schooling with the “Shamrocks” was and remains largely classified. What is not classified is that VS-41 was where the rubber met the road.
“It was where we applied all of the skills that we had learned of the past year-plus and learned about the specifics of the S-3A,” Worth described. The sensors, our role, how to integrate with the crew, even the basic maneuvers of the S-3 and its various configurations. It was the hardest, most advanced training to date. Near the end of my time at 41 I actually ‘flew’ a training mission in the simulator with what would be my fleet squadron XO [Executive Officer] as TACCO. Kind of nerve-racking, but also so impressive. The real world functioned at yet another level that I hadn’t yet been exposed to. It was a huge taste of what was to come.”
The days at VS-41 started at 7 am and typically ended at 3 pm, coupled with an occasional extra-long day. There was, of course, heavy doses of studying, but there was also flying as well, posing new challenges but also a sense of an impending pay-off. It was a long tough road, but for those who reached the end, it was worth it. After nearly two years of constant, non-stop training, some of the toughest they would individually encounter during their lives, the candidates were officially AWs and qualified S-3 SENSOs. Like much of the training pipeline to date, the final graduation ceremony was another low-key affair, perhaps with more family and friends in attendance than ever before. It was here they received their gold aircrew wings, signifying their acceptance into a select group of enlisted men who flew aboard Navy aircraft. But as both Bules and Worth recalled, the urge to release their emotions and enjoy themselves had to be tempered.
“It was the thing that we had been pursuing for a very long time, so there was certainly a sense of accomplishment and pride, but also excitement,” Worth reminisced. “We’d be in the fleet doing it for real the very next day, so not much time for celebration.”
“But to be certain,” as Worth was careful to point out, without being too specific, “there was much celebration that ensued! After all, this was San Diego in the ‘80s! The celebration was also the goodbye party for many of us as we’d be going separate ways in the morning.”
Worth received his wings in February 1987 and reported to VS-37 “Sawbucks” the day after graduation. Bules successfully completed VS-41 and received his wings in October 1987. He would be assigned to VS-21 “Fighting Red Tails,” the first squadron to ever operate the S-3, in December that year.
Living in the Real World
Most Navy veterans who have deployed aboard a warship will tell you the experience is something akin to “Groundhog Day,” as exemplified by the popular 1993 movie in which the main character, played by Bill Murray, re-lives the same day repeatedly. Even for those with more fashionable gigs, such as AWs, the experience was little different.
For those serving aboard aircraft carriers, the agenda was driven by the flight schedule. Sometimes, the schedule was predictable, but, as is the case in all things military, things could change at a moment’s notice. Both Bules and Worth recalled, on more than one occasion, going to bed at 10:30 pm, only to be awoken at 3:30 or 4:30 am to fly.
On days they were not awoken early, the S-3’s AWs would muster at their respective shop located at the very stern of the carrier at 7:30 am to learn the flight schedule and their individual assignments for the day. The shop was supervised by a Chief Petty Officer, the senior-most AW in the squadron. From there, the AWs would break for breakfast and begin their day. Those without a specific assignment would have the opportunity to work out, catch up on training, or perform collateral duties.
Those assigned to fly would report to the squadron ready room to receive an air wing-wide brief. On some carriers during the era, such as the USS Enterprise, the briefing was conducted via video over the ship’s internal broadcasting system. Lasting usually ten minutes, the air wing briefing covered, among many topics intelligence, weather, and, specifically relevant to the S-3, sectors for surface surveillance.
Afterwards, briefings would be conducted on a squadron-level basis. Here, roles and responsibilities were assigned, and mission planning conducted. The individual aircrews would further break down to go over crew duties, safety-of-flight, ejection plans, and emergency procedures. By the time briefings concluded, it was now an hour prior to mission commencement. The aircrews would next head over to the maintenance shop located adjacent to the ready room to check the status of the aircraft. The SENSO was specifically looking for issues related to the submarine detection equipment, radar, and FLIR. Once that was done, aircrews would head over to the safety shop and don harnesses, helmets, and air masks.
Once geared up, the SENSO went to the ship’s ASW Module (ASMOD) to grab two sets of classified material – the Tape Transport Cartridge (TTC) and a large analog magnetic tape reel. The TTC was a “floppy disk drive” of sorts, as characterized by Bules, used to “boot up” the S-3’s computer, while the tape reel would record acoustic and MAD data, and even sonobuoy commands via Analog Tape Recorders. After a mission, both would be returned to the ASMOD and the data tapes analyzed. It was often here that a submarine detection would be confirmed, or something missed by the S-3 crew pointed out by the ASMOD’s dedicated specialists.
Finally, it was time to head up to the flight deck and commence pre-flight. Though the plane captains and maintenance crews have combed over every square inch of the aircraft by this point, all aircrews were responsible for checks as well. The SENSO, of course, focused on mission-specific systems, such as the FLIR and radar, in addition to the acoustic detection systems. The crew put the TTC and tape reel into place, ensured all boxes were secure, checked that breakers were appropriately in or tagged out, and verified the computer’s functionality.
Finally, it was time to fly. The S-3 would follow the direction of the yellow-shirted flight deck personnel known as “handlers,” who in turn followed the program set forth in the launch sequence determined ahead of time. Vikings often took off later in the launch sequence and were also typically last to land. The aircraft would taxi to a steam catapult, line up, and have its nose gear hooked up to the catapult. After a blazingly fast rundown of various checklists and safety checks, the pilot would move the throttles to full power, conduct a final flight control functionality check referred to as a “wipeout,” signal readiness for launch with a confident salute, and the S-3 crew braced itself. The pressure built up by the steam catapult was released and the Viking would be shot down the flight deck runway, generating enough velocity to allow it to fly.
Launch and recovery were both primarily the purview of the pilot and co-pilot, with the SENSO and TACCO largely passengers during this phase. “Other than to speak up if I should notice something out of the ordinary, just enjoy the ride and be ready to eject if it’s a cold shot,” was how Worth characterized the SENSO’s responsibilities during launch. It also took on something of a spiritual character for the young aircrewman, at least initially.
“It’s a special thing, for sure, but it’s a sensation that’s also extremely difficult to explain,” said Worth. “The first time, for both launch and recovery, is very emotional. You don’t know if you’re scared or excited, probably both. That first one is a real punch in the chest. But somewhere on the way to 100, it becomes routine. And even becomes a game. Leaning into a ‘cat’ shot would allow you the freedom to move while traveling down the cat. If you get caught leaning into the back of the seat when the shot happens, you’ll be stuck there until you leave the deck.”
Launches could also be no fun. “I always dreaded the cat when we were heavy, like over fifty-thousand pounds. They actually kind of hurt!”
“Mad Man, Mad Man!!! Torpedo Away!!!”
Once in the air, the Viking would head to its designated patrol sector, often to relieve an S-3 or land-based P-3 already on-station. Typically, radar work was first on the agenda, detecting and plotting contacts en route. Once on-station, the S-3 would take over tracking any contacts handed off to them, in addition to any new contacts they came across. At the TACCO’s direction, sonobuoys would be dropped, with the SENSO monitoring up to 16 at a time. A closer look at all surface contacts within their sector was obtained, both visually and via the FLIR. During peacetime operations, “track and identify, report back, respond to new orders, repeat” was the order of the day.
Ironically, the S-3 never got to do what it was designed to do – hunt and kill submarines, instead spending much of its service life listening underwater and conducting surface surveillance, often without being armed with torpedoes. Bules and Worth both reported they never once flew with armed torpedoes on the aircraft. But what if a war broke out and the S-3 ran into a sub?
“The Rules of Engagement (ROE) would specify any and all actions in a very detailed manner,” explained Worth. In a war scenario, we would probably be armed for that mission, track, identify and destroy. But in my experience, they want a lot of eyes on it before the trigger is pulled. So, we might have to take the tape back to the boat and let another S-3 track and eventually destroy after the ASMOD analyzed the data had their say in the matter.”
Once the decision was made to prosecute a hostile underwater contact, the SENSO, together with the TACCO, would work to achieve a fix on the contact’s precise location using multiple sonobuoys. Availability and time permitting, the S-3 could also call upon the support of a helicopter, such as an SH-2 Seasprite, SH-3 Sea King, or SH-60 Seahawk of the era, or even a land-based P-3 Orion. Together, they would “beat the hell out” of the contact with sonobuoys, as Bules characterized it, to ensure it could not get away.
“After TACCO and I [SENSO] had a good idea where the submarine was, we’d descend to lower altitudes, typically less than 1,000 feet, and extend the MAD boom to confirm for certain we had the guy,” said Bules. “If we passed over the contact and the MAD detected an anomaly, whomever was monitoring it would call ‘Mad Man, Mad Man!’ Afterwards, the pilot would maneuver and position the S-3 for a torpedo attack, and the SENSO counted down the release by calling ‘Now, now, now!’ After the third ‘now,’ the pilot would release the weapon and say, ‘Torpedo away!’ The SENSO would then listen for impact or we’d all look for physical indications on the water that the torpedo found its target and report the kill back to the battle group. It took a lot of coordination, practice, and knowledge to be able to detect, track, and attack a single submarine, because you’re attempting to hit something you can’t physically see.”
Again, none of the above ever happened for real. But crews spent countless hours practicing for the day they hoped their skills would never be put to use. Meanwhile, observing, reporting, and acting as another set of eyes and ears for the battle group constituted the lion’s share of the S-3 squadron’s day-to-day operations throughout its service life.
After a flight of anywhere from one to two-and-a-quarter hours, the S-3 would be relieved of duty and return to the carrier. As with launch, recovery was a phase of the flight where the SENSO was a safety observer, enjoying the ride, and ready to eject at a moment’s notice. It was often at the beginning and end of a flight the enlisted AW realized how much faith he placed into the men flying and navigating the Viking.
“What no one talks about is the question mark in the back of your head about cold cats, bolters and/or equipment failures,” Worth confessed. “That moment of pause is always there. And when you’re in the back you’re blind to a lot of that, for the most part. Multiple bolters can have you losing confidence in your pilot, too.”
The term “bolter” refers to an aircraft’s tailhook failing to snag any of the flight deck’s arresting gear wires upon touch-down. Each wire is individually capable of stopping a landing aircraft; when successful, it is not only referred to as a “trap,” but also characterized as a “controlled-collision,” due to the sheer, violent physics involved.
As Worth describes, “It’s like slamming on the brakes and getting pulled against your seatbelt. Only times about ten! We locked our harnesses for both [launch and recovery], of course. And the ‘trap’ always throws you against those straps hard. The arms would usually fly forward with everything else. Sustained G’s for about 1.8 seconds. Then a slight rollback to release the hook from the wire.”
Once back aboard, the TTC and tape reel were returned to ASMOD, maintenance issues reported to the shop, flight gear stowed, debriefs conducted as necessary, and crews could take meals. It did not necessarily mean the end of the day, however – AWs, like the NAs and NFOs, had ground jobs. Bules, for instance, was a Department Administrative Petty Officer; one of his many accomplishments was developing and managing a software program intended to track aircrew training requirements. There was always also an AW in the ready room as Assistant Squadron Duty Officer. As for the training, it was never-ending. From the first day in the squadron to the last was a constant stream of qualifying and testing related to squadron-level requirements, Naval Air Training and Operating Procedures Standardization (NATOPS), tactics, and threats. It is safe to say that, in additional to being professional flyers, AWs were professional studiers, as well.
Low Man on the Totem Pole
Being the lone enlisted crewmember on an aircraft full of officers is certain bring unique professional challenges which all S-3 SENSOs had to navigate to be successful. But even when he had earned the respect and trust of the squadron’s pilots, COTACs, and TACCOs, Greg “Ferris” Bules learned that not every officer appreciated the SENSO speaking when not spoken to.
“Once, our pilot landed well-left of centerline, fairly close to the edge of the deck. The plane still caught a wire and came to a stop, but looking out my porthole, I saw only water. I made a remark about how close we were to the edge and the pilot, who was a ‘nugget’ (a rookie), took offense to his enlisted crewmember speaking up and retorted something to the extent of, ‘Who asked you?’ I replied, ‘I might be a backseater, but my ass is on the line too!’”
Michael “Cheeseburger” Worth also encountered difficult officers, some of whom never found the word of the SENSO good enough and made a point to emphasize how right they were – even when they were wrong
“Being the only enlisted crewmember aboard an S-3 made it difficult to stand your ground when someone else on the crew had a different idea about where a particular sub was, for example. Some crews would take your word as gospel, while others would maybe question your solution if they had different ideas. Once, during an exercise with a U.S. submarine, the sub decided to hide underneath a nearby surface ship, a standard tactic. And I found it there.”
“But when I gave the [sonobuoy] pointer to the crew, the pilot immediately rejected it and insisted I look elsewhere. I explained that I saw both, that I knew that the surface ship was there and that the sub was too – but nothing doing. The pilot rejected my location and the sub sailed away. We flew around for several more hours looking at empty water all while I’m getting a lecture about looking for a submarine that I know got away. The pilot raced to the ASMOD when we got back onboard the boat as if he had something to prove. But I was vindicated. The ASMOD put the sub under the boat and the pilot later apologized. Looking back at it now, I realize how difficult it must have been for the pilot to make that gesture. But all I felt at the time was disappointment.”
Among the majority enlisted crew aboard ship, however, being an AW was a point of pride. “If the ship were a giant high school, being an AW was like being on the varsity team,” Bules alluded. “You stood out when you wore your flight suit and there were only a handful of you. There was glory that came with being AWs, but we did the same dirty work all enlisted men were required to do.”
That dirty work included “Field Days,” which amounted to extensive sanitary activities and upkeep, including stripping and waxing the decks of the squadron ready rooms. This was typically an all-day affair, as large amounts of furniture had to be moved and the room cleared before stripping-and-waxing could take place. Sometimes, Field Days took on an air of hazing, especially when they occurred on back-to-back days, serving as a reminder that, flight suit or not, the enlisted were still the enlisted.
Coming up next week – the final chapter. Join us one last time as Greg Bules and Michael Worth deploy to the Persian Gulf and enter the danger zone, experience tragedy, and come to terms with the dangerous realities of their chosen profession. Finally, find out where they are now and more as we close out this memorable journey!