The Value of a Box Lunch
by Harry Paul Mann, Jr.
Back when I was a TACCO (Tactical Coordinator), during our 1987-1988 Adak deployment, VP-6 had the opportunity to fly some Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) flights on a US Navy fast attack submarine (SSN) that was transiting from the Northern Pacific to Hawaii. We were told that there was a crew member on board the sub who had appendicitis and they needed to get him to the hospital back in Pearl ASAP. Our squadron would be using the high speed transit as an opportunity to obtain ASW training qualifications (NIBEX, Not to Interfere Basis Exercise). At the time, things were kind of slow Soviet ASW-wise in Adak, so it was very important that our crews obtain these qualifications to maintain their currency.
The sub was running fast, I think it was in the 25-28 knot range, and was making plenty of prop noise. Since it was so loud (relatively, for a US SSN), and doubtless would not change course very often, we expected that it would be no problem maintaining contact as long we stayed ahead of the sub. But, It just so happened that on this flight, we experienced intermittent problems with our OTPI (On Top Position Indicator) receiver.
A little background information: The OTPI was a type of radio direction finding system that we used to locate our sonobuoys in the water. For a short time after a P-3 drops a sonobuoy, the crew knows where the sonobuoy is located because its drop position is recorded automatically at the time of drop by the onboard computer (the ASN-124 our 64 kilobyte wonder!). But almost everywhere in the oceans of the world, there are currents and winds which can quickly move a sonobuoy from its original drop position and in the Northern Pacific, the winds and currents can be quite severe. Therefore, an important part of aerial ASW is obtaining current location information for the sonobuoy field. To accomplish this, our pilots would dial-up the frequency channel of the sonobuoy that we wanted to find the location of (each sonobuoy transmitted information via radio, channels 1-31 in the P-3B Mod), and the OTPI indicator in the cockpit would point to the direction of the sonobuoy of interest. The pilots would then fly the aircraft in the direction of the buoy. As the plane approached the buoy position, the needle on the OTPI indicator would fall off of the nose of the aircraft to a heading 90 degrees from the aircraft heading and then eventually behind. This was the indication that our aircraft was "on top" of the buoy and the pilots would press a "mark on top button" which would correct the location of the buoy field in the computer to the aircraft position. Marking on top of sonobuoys while in an ASW prosecution (called "plot stabilization") was a continuous process and the better and more tactically proficient pilots like our PPC LCDR Mark Crouter, and PP3P Brad Margeson, did not need to be told which buoys to mark on top of.
Anyway, our OTPI receiver was working intermittently and this was reported to our In-flight Technician (IFT). Thoughts started running through my mind of lost contact and a "cold swap" with our relief crew. Lost contact for us, would likely prevent us from obtaining the ASW qualification that we needed, and the crew relieving us, unless they got lucky and regained contact, would more than likely not be able to obtain a qual. So our IFT went back to the electronics bay which held our OTPI to check on the receiver. Not surprisingly, he reported that it was overheating. The overheating problem was not uncommon for our OTPIs. Our IFT uninstalled the device and put it in the galley freezer. Although warned by our squadron ground pounders that this type of remedy would cause temperature extremes that were not good for the long term life of the electronics, all I was worried about was maintaining contact with the sub. Hey, ya gotta' do what ya' gotta' do. The problem was, with the OTPI in the freezer, we were now without an OTPI altogether, and therefore had no way of marking on top of buoys. Without the ability to mark our buoys, our plot stab would quickly become inaccurate, and there would be a good chance of losing contact. So we reverted to a classic plot stab procedure known by all crews in our squadron....lunch boxes!
During most flights our enlisted crew members would be issued lunches by the NAS Adak mess hall. The lunches came in boxes that had a bright white finish and were about 9 inches long and about 6 inches deep. Not too large to drop out of the freefall sonobuoy chute, not too small to be seen with the naked eye from the aircraft, and they floated (at least for awhile)! So with some of our sonobuoy drops, our Ordnanceman dropped an empty lunch box. While our OTPI was in the freezer cooling, our pilots scanned the ocean surface looking for lunch boxes and they updated our sonobuoy locations visually. But the boxes did not float forever, and our supply of boxes was limited, so we had to be judicious in their use. After about 20-30 minutes in the freezer, the IFT pulled the OTPI receiver and reinstalled it in the electronics bay and we were back in business using rf mark on tops. Eventually the receiver overheated again and as I recall, the OTPI failure-freezer cool-down process was repeated a few times. We never lost contact, but on a couple of occasions I recall being anxious to get the receiver back up because contact was getting weak and we didn't know where our buoys were. The solution was not as simple as updating our buoy position by dropping a new buoy down course and regaining contact that way. The currents and winds were very strong, the sub was at high speed, and detection range was not all that great. Thankfully, however, we did maintain contact, and we were able to pass a hot swap to our relief.
A very interesting postscript to this story. In 1997, I was working in the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railroad train yard tower in Temple, Texas as a Terminal Operations Officer (Trainmaster). Our company had recently hired some new employees into train crew positions and one of the new employees, a Conductor, was in the tower with me for a briefing. Knowing that this individual was a new employee, and since he appeared middle-aged, I inquired about his previous employment. He informed me that he had just retired from the Navy as a Chief in the Submarine Force. Interested, I informed him about my background in P-3s and after trading notes, we both discovered that we had something in common: he had been one of the crew members on that SSN that made the fast transit from the Northern Pacific to Pearl carrying the sailor with the appendicitis emergency. It IS a small world!