from C-C-Cold War Syndrome
Somewhere south of Iceland — 4:17 a.m.
“Mark on top,” said Lieutenant Paul D’angelo from the left seat of the P-3C that circled busily at 12,000 feet over the frigid North Atlantic. Further aft, Lieutenant Rhonda “Little Mac” McIntyre, the crew’s tactical coordinator, pushed a button on her computer console to update the relative position of a sonobuoy bobbing on the surface of the frothy sea more than two miles below.
The sonobuoy was a radio transmitter. For the next two hours, it would continue relaying acoustic data received by its underwater microphone, called a hydrophone, dangling hundreds of feet beneath it in the cold, ebony sea. Computers aboard the P-3 Orion would process the data and display it on screens for tactical crewmembers to decipher. There were at the moment nine sonobuoys in the water, each of them collecting and, via its own unique frequency, sending information for on-board processing. Their signals conveyed a variety of sounds—the hum of distant commercial shipping, the bellow of an occasional whale, the chattering of a swarm of snapping shrimp and the persistent pitch of a Soviet nuclear-powered Delta-class submarine.
The Delta was on patrol, moving stealthily southward. Over 450 feet in length, it carried 16 SS-N-8 submarine-launched ballistic missiles, each with a range of 4,200 miles and each outfitted with a cluster of nuclear warheads aimed independently at targets in the United States. More than 100 American targets now lay within the Delta’s striking range.
Operating from Keflavik, Iceland, the P-3 had been tracking the Delta covertly for more than three hours. It would continue doing so for nearly three more before a relieving aircraft was scheduled to arrive from Kef.
D’angelo, known affectionately as “Dangerous Dan” to the rest of his eleven-man, one-woman crew, guided the plane smoothly in the direction of the next buoy in the pattern. Blind to it in the darkness, he followed the point of a needle on his instrument panel that was slaved to the buoy’s radio frequency. “Mark on top,” he reported to “Little Mac” when the needle flipped over a moment later.
Suddenly, the tranquility of the cockpit was broken by the nerve-jarring blare of a warning claxon. At the same time, a red light on the instrument panel above the gages for the number three engine illuminated, bathing the darkened flight station in a brilliant scarlet glow.
Petty Officer First-Class Roger Kyle, the flight engineer occupying the middle seat, reacted first. His “Oh shit!” spoke for the two pilots who flanked him.
In the copilot’s seat, LTJG Matt Philips twisted his head to the right to visually check the number three engine, located just inboard of number four on the starboard wing. The warning indicators hadn’t lied. The engine was burning!
“We got fire!” shouted Philips. The entire nacelle was engulfed in flames, which streamed back over the wing.
“E-handle, number three!” D’angelo commanded, extending his arm and pointing emphatically at the emergency shut-down handle he wanted Kyle to pull. There were four of them—one for each of the Orion’s 4600 horsepower turbo-prop engines—and it was not unusual for an excited flight engineer to yank out the wrong one. Kyle got it right.
With the E-handle pulled out to the limit of its travel, everything flammable that flowed to the burning engine—jet fuel, oil, hydraulic fluid, air and electrical current—was physically cut off. The blaze should have gone out.
“Still got fire!” Philips reported anxiously.
“Okay, hit the button,” D’angelo directing Kyle to discharge the fire extinguisher system installed in the number three engine compartment. The flames burned even hotter.
Completion of the remaining items on the Emergency Shutdown Checklist proved as futile.
D’angelo tried everything in the book, then everything else he could think of, all without effect. Finally, with the integrity of the right wing in imminent jeopardy, he was left with no choice. He would have to ditch the plane in the sea.
A controlled crash landing in the water is never easy. But the chances of successfully ditching a disabled aircraft in the wind-whipped, freezing North Atlantic, particularly with the waves and swells invisible in the dark, were infinitesimally small.
Under the circumstances, “Dangerous Dan” D’angelo’s was nothing short of spectacular, the result of a fateful combination of skill and good luck. The aircraft broke apart, of course. And while three crewmembers, “Little Mac” among them, suffered critical injuries, everyone on board survived the 115-mile-per-hour impact with the water. Two of the plane’s three life rafts were successfully deployed and inflated and those who were able helped the injured into them.
By sunrise, all three of the injured had died from loss of blood, mostly the result of internal hemorrhaging. Four of the remaining nine had succumbed to exposure to the wet and a wind-chill factor that ranged well below zero. The rest were barely alive.
(Author’s note: Far from the end of this story, this is just the beginning. However, the rest of it would constitute an entire book. I am forced by the limitations of space to condense it to a few summary paragraphs. Please bear with me.)
The nearest vessel of any kind to the crash site is the Soviet submarine, which diverts from its assigned patrol track to investigate.
Aware that those still alive in the rafts cannot possibly survive the elements, the sub’s commanding officer decides in a moment of compassion to take them aboard. He surfaces his ship and begins the arduous task, howling winds and heavy seas making the work extremely dangerous for the Soviets.
While another man expires before he can be rescued, LT D’angelo, LTJG Philips, Petty Officer Kyle and Seaman Cuthberson, the crew ordnanceman, are pulled into the sub. They are taken to the enlisted mess deck, where they are provided mattresses and blankets and kept under constant armed guard.
The Soviet political officer assigned for the duration of the Delta’s patrol admonishes the skipper for taking the American Navy men aboard his ship, thereby exposing sensitive national secrets to them. The political officer demands that he report his actions to Moscow and return to port, where he will face certain imprisonment for treason.
An argument between the two men degenerates into a fight in which the political officer is killed. Realizing that his fate is sealed, the sub commander decides what he must do. He will defect with his ship to the United States, where he is certain he will be welcomed as a hero for his courageous act of humanitarianism.
Based on evidence found at the P-3 crash site by a friendly sub, American intelligence learns there are surviving crewmembers aboard the Soviet submarine. A lone intelligence analyst reaches the same conclusion that the sub commander did—that he has no choice but to defect. Ultimately, he convinces his superiors that his analysis is correct.
However, the U.S. Government, fearing that the Soviet Union might resort to nuclear war if one of its super secret strategic submarines is allowed to enter an American port, decides to assist Moscow in intercepting and reclaiming its ship. In return, the four surviving P-3 crewmembers are to be released.
The wary Soviets, burned in the past by attempted defections by their navy crews, hedge on the agreement. Unbeknownst to either American intelligence or the sub commander, a remotely-controlled explosive scuttling device was installed in the bowels of the ship prior to its leaving on patrol. When it surfaces 100 miles east of the U.S. coast in order to transit the shallow waters above the Continental Shelf, a Russian TU-95 Bear aircraft passes overhead. Its pilot depresses a switch in his cockpit that sets off the explosive scuttling device. The powerful blast demolishes the sub and kills everyone on board.
The Navy then issues a press release announcing the loss of one of its P-3C Orions along with its entire crew in a tragic crash at sea during a routine flight from Keflavik, Iceland.
(Second author’s note: “Now, hold on just a minute,” you’re probably thinking about now. “I never heard about this. No way in hell this can be a true story.”)
Well, I assure that it is...in a sense. It’s absolutely true that the whole thing took place, just as I have described it—in my mind. It came to me early one morning in Keflavik, Iceland. At the time, about 2:00 a.m., I was walking in the dark to the Navy P-3 hangar before an operational launch against a transiting Soviet ballistic missile submarine. I thought it would make a good plot for a novel that I might write some day.
After returning from the flight, I outlined my hurriedly conceived plot. Then, over the next several days, I related my fictional tale to anyone who would listen. There were many who did. Although they winced at the dark ending of the story, everyone said it would make a good movie.
And in the event you think parts of it sound vaguely familiar, let me give you the punch line. All of this occurred two years before the publication of Tom Clancy’s book The Hunt for Red October.
True. I still have that outline.
P-3C Orion from Patrol Squadron 23 (VP-23) in Brunswick, ME. Nicknamed the "Seahawks," the squadron of nine P-3s and twelve flight crews deployed to Iceland, Bermuda, the Azores and Sicily, from where these aircraft routinely tracked Soviet nuclear-powered ballistic missile and attack submarines.
Submarines were tracked by means of sonobuoys, small radio transmitters dropped from the belly of the plane. Floating on the ocean's surface, sonobuoys spooled out underwater microphones to depths of 1,000 feet where they could detect submarines over 100 miles away.
Depicted here is the launch of a Harpoon missile, used to attack surface targets.
And now available in Kindle format...