Reflecting on the price of freedom

Published 10:04 am Friday, April 12, 2013

by James D. “Archie” Howell

Morning muster Is somber; none of the normal, active chatter surrounds our formation. Reports are muted, barely audible, but no one complains. We face the fact that one of our crews did not return from patrol last night. We are now well past the time when all fuel would be exhausted. The aircraft and all on board will not be returning.

Our squadron plus the Coast Guard have launched search flights to the last known area of our lost aircraft. Each patrol is required to transmit, via radio, a position every hour. This position report is encoded in the encryption of the day and is deciphered by a controlling authority on the mainland. We have a last known position and a projected route from the designated patrol flight path. Both the Coast Guard and our planes will search an area either side of the projected path from their last known position.

Weather, while not particularly worrying, is a factor in the search. A wind around twenty knots blows off the occasional whitecap and makes it much more difficult to see or identify anything on the surface. The aircraft is projected to be about three hundred and fifty miles to the northeast; it was on the furthest, easternmost segment of the patrol. It’s a big ocean; it’s easy to not be seen from an aircraft, assuming there are survivors. We make no assumptions.

Night patrols are especially challenging. Most flights are conducted at two thousand feet altitude and below. That’s the optimal altitude for radar detection of surface vessels. Russian submarines are World War II vintage and must surface (or at least come to snorkel depth) to recharge their batteries. Nuclear powered submarines have only recently been introduced by the United States; it promises to be only a short delay until nuclear subs are launched by the USSR. For now, Russian subs are vulnerable to detection when they surface or snorkel. Night patrols seek to exploit this vulnerability.

If a radar target is detected along the patrol area, our aircraft can maneuver to the spot, drop sonobouys in a prescribed pattern, conduct a localized search, and, hopefully, detect a submarines position. No weapons are fired or dropped. This is a detection and tracking operation. Somewhere in the bowels of a vast intelligence service, this information can be correlated with other data to keep track of potential enemy submarines.

The tactics involve flying a circle of about fifteen hundred yards and listening to the sonobouys. The circle is flown at four hundred feet altitude minimum at night; daytime minimums are one hundred feet. Every pilot knows that the closer to the water, the greater the depth of detection and the temptation is great to get as low as possible. Most night flying is done without reference to a horizon; skies are mostly cloudy or murky and the standard is all instrument flight. Loss of attention to instrumentation, an engine failure, or other aircraft structural failure is a very real danger. A momentary departure from established procedures increases risk.

On our particular aircraft, it is rumored that more than one crew has momentarily touched a wing float to the water’s surface. I have no personal knowledge or experience with that. I only know that night flying has a higher level of risk than day flying.

At some point, all search operations are called off, and the aftermath is begun. No survivors, aircraft debris, or any trace of any materials associated with the aircraft are found. Operationally, we have lost an aircraft, three officers and seven crewmen. The aircraft will be replaced in time, as will the crew.

The crewmen have families, some local on the island, most at a distance on the mainland. The days of grief counseling have not yet started in the military organization. We remember, we grieve silently, we cry a little in the dark. We go to our jobs with a somber dignity. All of us knew most of those lost. We continue our patrols and tactics, perhaps with a little more caution. All of us know that it could have been any of us.

Words of comfort are found in the latest version of the Reverends Whiting and Dykes Navy Hymn. “Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee, For those in peril on the sea!” The sea is indeed perilous, and unforgiving of error.

Days follow days and the routine of cold war operations mixed with social life drive the loss event to the back burner. We recognize that our mission, while generally benign, is inherently dangerous.

We toast the missing and turn to the future, a little sadder and a little wiser.

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at