Seeing the world

Published 12:46 pm Saturday, December 6, 2014

by James D. Howell

It’s been an active year for my squadron. We’ve tracked almost a dozen tropical storms and hurricanes, from Barbados to Norfolk. At one point, we had three active storms off the east coast, from Hatteras out to southeast of Bermuda. It’s time to stand down and put our aircraft into maintenance schedules and deliver other aircraft to electronics companies for upgrades and new equipment installations.

One of the newest electronic gadgets is an onboard satellite communications link that can send data to the National Hurricane Center in real time. Imagine that.

It’s also training time for our crews, both pilot and aircrew. We take the time to set up ground schools and send people off for specialized equipment and procedures training. The hangar bay is filled with aircraft undergoing postponed inspections.

Operationally, we return to the control of the U.S. Navy, Atlantic Fleet. I think, for the most part, they have not missed us while we worked for the Hurricane Center, and they don’t quite know what to do with us when we return. Communications are rapidly moving to satellites, and the requirements for our specialization to be an airborne command center is rapidly diminishing. We do provide some command and control support for a few fleet exercises, but I and others realize that new is better than old for military preparations. We plan for different things.

We send detachments to Argentia, Newfoundland, to Barbados, to Bermuda, and to any other port that we can convince the Environmental Science and Services Administration (ESSA) to send us. We’ll collect weather data or just continue goodwill and carry the flag.

My crew is part of a two-plane detachment that will visit Lages in the Azores, Portugal; Rota, Spain; Rome, Italy; and Athens, Greece. It’s a two-week trip, and I feel very fortunate to be a part of it. We will split our time, operationally, between weather data and electronic surveillance of whoever needs surveilling.

For me, this is a wonderful opportunity to be a tourist.

I walk Spanish streets and marvel at the decorative ironworks. The bull ring is not active, but I visit anyway; it’s a large spectator sport in Spain. I don’t understand the interest or the challenge of being a matador; I’m content to let others participate. The wine is good and goes well with Spanish paella. The tastes of foods prepared in other countries are a well-remembered delight long after the event itself.

I ride the train from Naples to Rome; I walk the streets where time has almost stood still for centuries. I do tours of Rome’s showplaces: the Coliseum, St Peters Square, the Vatican and its museum, several cathedrals and a place that I don’t think would be too interesting. But it is: Some of the catacombs, where much of Christianity survived the Dark Ages. Here, far underground, people buried their dead, enshrined their God and saints and evaded death. I throw a coin into the Fontana di Trevi and sit on the Spanish steps alongside Rome’s unwashed youth.

Cold blue Grecian skies greet me every day of our visit. I learn to love Grecian bread and cheeses. A tour guide facilitates and narrates our visit to the Parthenon and other temples and structures of the Acropolis. Here, a half century B.C., workers (mostly slaves) started construction on the most famous and most recognizable example of ancient Greek architecture. The Parthenon is a temple to the goddess Athena; other temples are scattered about on the hilltop.

At varying times in the past, plunderers and serious archeologists alike have removed portions of these buildings to museums and private collections throughout the world. Much of the carved stone has been removed by local citizens and incorporated into their houses. This place has not always been protected from destruction.

We do manage some real Navy work during our visit to the Mediterranean. Our aircraft is, after all, equipped for major electronic surveillance, and we spend time on patrol, following directions sent by navy communications. Russian submarines operate in the Mediterranean Sea. The other aircraft in our detachment discovers and photographs one such vessel while it’s on the surface. They paint a small submarine silhouette on their nose gear door for bragging rights.

Essentially, I drive the airplane and the specialized crew does their thing. Skies are brilliant blue and far overhead, I see contrails. Via the electronics, I know it’s a jetliner on its way to Beirut. I am envious of that airplane, far above our low altitude aircraft and its crew in sweaty,smelly flightsuits.

We return to Jacksonville, laden with delicious Portugese rolls, Mateus wine and enough memories to last through pedantic, necessary, routine operations.

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