Nuclear madmen

Published 9:27 am Wednesday, May 1, 2013

by James D. Howell

“Madman!” The call from our electronics technician is loud and clear through the headset and is followed by a “Smoke away!” call from the ordnanceman. Immediately we level the wings from their left wing down position , fly straight ahead for 30 seconds and make a standard 270-degree turn to the left (All tactical turns are to the left.). This maneuver will return the aircraft (theoretically) to the position of the “Madman” call, in position to attack.

We level the wings approaching the smoke marker, ejected with the last “Madman” call, and open the bomb bay doors. “Madman!” The call is followed closely by “Bombs away” from the pilot. Two depth charges are released.

“Madman” is the call when onboard magnetic anomaly detection equipment senses a sharp change in earth’s magnetic pattern. For us, the anomaly means a submarine. Smoke signals are ejected by onboard launchers in a backward direction to closely mark the aircraft’s position at the moment of release.

A pattern of 360-degree turns is followed afterward to continue to track the submarine, now about 40 miles south of Bermuda. We’re involved in a training exercise with U.S. and Canadian forces. Several surface vessels and the nuclear submarine Seawolf are practicing the art of war. The tactics are for tracking conventional-powered Russian submarines, so the Seawolf is staying fairly close to the surface and maintaining a relatively slow speed. The second of America’s nuclear submarine fleet is capable of much, much more. Our depth charges are actually practice bombs with a small explosive charge, designed to mark the position but not do damage.

We work with surface ships and other aircraft, practicing communications and tactical coordination, for tracking and attacking submarines. It’s our primary purpose as a part of the Atlantic fleet defense forces. The exercise runs for several days.

When the war games are ended, the Seawolf berths at the naval station Bermuda for a few days liberty for the crew and operational support. Aviation participants in the recent exercise are invited on board for a learning experience. I willingly accept the invitation. This is only the second nuclear submarine in the world. I can’t miss the opportunity.

Official visitors are permitted access to most of the vessel. I enter via a deck hatch and ladder and am immediately struck by the close quarters. There is room, but no excess. Everything, including crew, has a place, and if everything, including crew, is not in its place, movement becomes impaired. The operations center is the heart of on board activity, with steering, communications, and weapons control all sharing a central location. It’s all the control elements of a surface ship squeezed into one fairly small space. This particular submarine has a newer, smaller, but more powerful power plant than the first of the nuclear series, but I certainly can’t tell the difference.

I am escorted to the “abyss” and am permitted to look into the core of the reactor. It glows faintly, with a blue color. I am aware that I’m looking at the very building blocks of matter coming apart in some kind of controlled environment. I don’t know how thick the glass is; I stare, more with reverence than awe. I’ve been through atomic weapons training, both for delivery and defense, and what I’m looking at bears no resemblance to the destructive power of the weaponry that I’ve studied. Yet, my academic side knows the two are related. I try to compare the nuclear power to gasoline. The same substance can be used to power my car or to blow up an enemy. Somehow it doesn’t seem to be the same, but I can understand it a little better. Energy is energy, just stored in different forms. Matter is matter, just stored in different forms. At least that helps me a little.

This submarine has demonstrated that it can operate submerged for extended periods. Her last trial was for over 60 days in the Atlantic Ocean. I can’t imagine day-to-day living in that confined space for that period of time. I know it takes a special breed of seaman to endure that lifestyle. Those that I know love it and would have life no other way. It’s not what I would choose for mine.

The new nuclear-powered submarines and surface ships give the US an edge in the Cold War. Even with the modern technology, the most important search equipment is still the human eye.

Visual contact remains the standard by which enemy engagement is measured; newer electronic equipment, including satellites, is rapidly changing that requirement.

Remote control war is still in the future.

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