KADENA AIR BASE, OKINAWA
1 April 2001, 0430 Hours
I stood on the handstand, staring up at the big gray-and-white airplane. The wings and four turboprop engines of the EP-3E ARIES II reconnaissance aircraft were outlined sharply in the portable floodlights the maintenance people had used in the night to prepare for today's mission. But above the lights, the cold predawn darkness was full of stars. After several days of thunderstorms, during which we'd had to scrub one mission, it looked like we were going to have a perfect day to fly.
By the traditions of the Naval Aviation, the final walk-around inspection of the plane was the responsibility of the Aircraft Commander. I took this task very seriously, even though third pilot Lieutenant Junior Grade Jeffrey Vignery and flight engineer Senior Chief Nick Mellos had already conducted their rigorous walk-around inspections while I had been getting my pre-mission briefing from the intelligence people supporting Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron VQ-1.
As I ran my hand across the fiberglass skin of the forward weather radome in the nose, Senior Chief Mellos emerged from the shadows. He'd been smoking an old sailor's "hot butt" safely away from the fueled aircraft.
"Hey Senior," I kidded him, "getting in the last precious hit of nicotine?"
"Roger that, sir," he said, returning my grin. "Never know where the next one's coming from."
With his shaved head and graying mustache, Senior Mellos looked like a middle-aged pirate. But his green Navy flight suit covered muscular shoulders and a barrel chest. He'd been in the Navy for twenty-eight years, most of that time flying on one variant or another of the P-3 Orion maritime patrol plane. That was two more years than I'd been alive. Back at VQ-1's home base at Naval Air Station, Whidbey Island, Washington, Senior Mellos and I rode our Harleys on off-duty hours. On overseas departments, we partied with the rest of the crew. But on missions, our relationship was strictly professional. It was also based on mutual respect. I relied heavily on Senior Mellos's long experience as a flight engineer to keep me up to speed on the condition of airborne emergency. So when he pronounced this aircraft a solid airplane, with only minor maintenance problems, I felt certain we could make our takeoff time.
We flew our planes hard in VQ-1. Even though we were based along Puget Sound, our operational work was overseas. At any given time, the squadron had planes and crews detached--on "Dets"--in the Western Pacific, in Bahrain flying missions along the Arabian Gulf or over Kuwait for Operation Southern Watch, which enforced the no-fly zone in Iraq, or conducting counternarcotic surveillance in South America. I had flown from all those sites since joining VQ-1 in April 1999. But this Det to the Far East, which had begun in early March, was my first as a mission commander, a job that required the flying skills of an Electronic Warfare Aircraft Commander (EWAC) with the in-depth knowledge of the squadron's complex surveillance mission.
Using my flashlight, I inspected the nose wheel for tire wear and the shock-absorbing gear strut for leaking hydraulic fluid. I walked under the left wing and repeated the process with the main landing gear on that side, then peered up inside the dark wheel to check the pressures in the two engine fire extinguisher bottles. Next, I stepped forward and reached up to grab the red-striped tips of the heavy gray alloy propeller blades of the number one and number two engines, checking for obvious nicks or wobble. The four big Allison engines could each produce 4,600 shaft horsepower. It was essential the props were smooth and perfectly balanced or their runaway vibration could damage the aircraft.
The Big Look radar dome, a bloated gray doughnut beneath the plane's forward belly that we called the "M&M," and a narrower canoe-shaped antenna cover farther aft, were both solidly attached. Smaller antenna mounts beneath the wings near the tail were also intact and undamaged. All told, the EP-3E bulged and bristled with sensor pods, disrupting the original airframe's streamlined exterior and producing a lumpy appearance that some aviators found ugly. But I've never seen a bad-looking airplane.
This array of external equipment revealed the plane and the squadron's mission: The acronym ARIES II stood for Airborne Reconnaissance Integrated Electronic Systems II. EP-3E's were one of America's most capable platforms for collecting signals intelligence (SIGINT). With our sensitive receivers and antennas we could look over the horizon from international airspace in support of the ships and aircraft of the Fleet to pinpoint a wide range of radar and radio emissions. This was required to develop an accurate picture of what's been called the "electronic order of battle," which might include the electromagnetic activity of surface-to-air or surface-to-surface missile systems. We also were capable of providing direct real time tactical electronic reconnaissance during combat operations to our fighters and strike aircraft so that they could better avoid threats and locate targets.
To conduct this mission successfully, the EP-3E had a crew of twenty-four, the largest of any U.S. military aircraft. Because our missions routinely last over ten hours, we carried three pilots and two flight engineers. On this Det, I was both EWAC and Mission Commander. The second pilot, or 2-P, was Lieutenant Patrick Honeck, with Jeff Vignery, the 3-P, flying his first Det to the Western Pacific. Senior Chief Nick Mellos, with over 8,000 flying hours, was one of the most veteran flight engineers in the Navy, but the other FE, Petty Officer Second Class Wendy Westbrook, was a cool hand a fast study. I knew from experience I could trust her in the seat between the two pilots. Our navigator was Lieutenant Junior Grade Regina Kauffman, who had not yet officially qualified for her position.
The "guys in the back" were the electronic warfare operators (EWOPS), cryptologic technicians, reconnaissance equipment specialists, and the special operators supervised by special evaluator Lieutenant Marcia Sonon. Lieutenant Junior Grade Johnny Comerford, the senior evaluator (SEVAL), had overall responsibility for these reconnaissance personnel. In total, eighteen people worked at in-line computerized consoles set along the sides of the cabin, the long, narrow "tube" that was broken up by the head (toilet), the small galley and its cramped booth that looked like something out of a 1950's diner, and a stacked pair of curtained bunks for the off-duty pilot and FE who could grab some sleep on long missions.
Adequate rest was actually a critical safety factor for our flight crews. Once the reconnaissance crew had checked out their sensors after takeoff, they could lean back in their seats and nod off on the long, slow cruise to our reconnaissance track. But even on autopilot, two pilots and one FE had to stay awake and alert for hours on end because we flew Visual Flight Rules-Due Regard, which meant that unlike civilian airliners, we had to rely on ourselves, not on ground controllers, for our safe separation from other aircraft.
I climbed the folding ladder to the main cabin entrance on the portside aft, and Senior Mellos secured the hatch. Now I was engulfed in the familiar scent of the airplane: warm electronics, a slight whiff of jet exhaust from the Auxiliary Power Unit in the nose, and hot coffee in the insulated mugs some of the crew carried on board. A few of the people looked sleepy. Today had been a "three-for-five", and 0300 for an 0500 takeoff, which meant most of us had gotten up at two, rushed through the shower, and managed to grab a quick breakfast in our rooms before heading off for separate briefings depending on our specialities.
Now we had all reassembled in the cabin so that I could give the final "planeside" brief. Even though we'd all been through this together as a crew a dozen times on this Det alone, I again reviewed the procedures for ground and air emergencies, which might include the need to bail out or ditch the plane at sea. On entering the cabin, the crew members had taken a grease pencil and printed their names on their position line of the plastic ditching placard on the head door. Each line marked the number and storage rack of that position's parachute. Also stowed aboard the aircraft were our SV-2's, a one-piece combination survival vest-Life Preserver Unit (LPU), and custom-fitted flight helmets. We all carried our own Nomex fir-resistant aviator gloves.
I completed briefing the ditching procedures by pointing to the two big life rafts stowed in the orange rubber soft packs near each over-wing emergency exit hatch. Now Johnny Comerford, the SEVAL, briefed the crew on bailout procedures. He was the jump master who would supervise the distribution of parachutes, make sure everyone was lined up correctly, holding the overhead grab rail, and then see them out the hatch of the main cabin door at one-second intervals.
We could all practically recite these instructions by rote, but this was a U.S. Navy aircraft on a demanding mission, and we followed the book in everything we did. In our case , that book was the Naval Air-Training and Operational Procedures Standardization (NATOPS). Everything the flight crew did aboard the EP-3E was covered in that black three-hole binder thick with checklists, schematics of instrument layouts, and wiring diagrams.
After Johnny had reviewed bailout procedure, I briefed the crew on the weather.
"It looks like good weather en route to the track orbit and back to Kadena. Excellent visibility and no reported turbulence at our assigned altitudes. Briefed mission time is just over nine hours today."
We were headed down the coast of Asia to the South China Sea. Once on track, we would fly our reconnaissance track in international air space south of China's Hainan Island and north of the Philippines. Our squadron had been flying such missions in this area in one kind o aircraft or another for decades. Signals intelligence planes from a number of countries, including China, fly similar reconnaissance missions. With the increased military dependency on sophisticated radars and data links, airborne SIGINT forms a vital part of a military commander's resources. So we were not overly apprehensive about the mission, even though someone had joked that it was April Fool's Day.