VW-13 1956 – 1957 DEPLOYMENTS
VW-11 was established a bit before VW-13 with VW-15 coming on more slowly. The wing commander was an Admiral named Bing. When I reported to VW-13 in April of 1956 – fresh out of flight training - we were still receiving our planes. We had an R7V for logistics support and training, which had just come out of repair. While doing touch-and-goes at NAS Norfolk a month or so earlier, the flight crew had gotten "gear up" and "gear down" out of cycle and put her down on her belly. The damage was relatively light: work on the engine nacelles, belly skin and new props.
NAS Patuxent was still growing rapidly. The Navy Test Center had gotten crowded out of Anacostia by real estate development and had come down to the isolated pine forests of southern Maryland – and now three big Early Warning squadrons were setting up shop. Little Lexington Park – "the frontier town of the East" - was pretty basic; the hotel was a converted "E-type" barracks. The night clerk was kinda spooky looking and the lock on our room door didn’t work, so I jammed a chair under the knob. One guy came into town, looked around and put his wife on the next Greyhound home to mom. Civilian housing prospects were that grim, but we were able to get an apartment in enlisted housing. A few months later we got to move to officers housing – unfurnished. We bought and scrounged some essentials, and my wife got some stuff from Special Services. Our wooden dresser had seen service as a high security filing cabinet; the front had been fitted with a locking rod!
The officers fell roughly into two groups. There were CDRs and LCDRs who had been in during WWII; many had gotten out, then been recalled for Korea and when faced with the Cold War - decided to make a career of it. They were the Plane Commander and first pilots, but most of them had been flying desks until the barriers were set up. Thankfully the Flight Engineers were an experienced and competent bunch. Us young, enthusiastic guys just out of Corpus and Hutchinson ended up as pilot/navigators. The radar officers also were all ENSs and LTJGs; I think there were only two LTs in the whole squadron.
So we transitioned to the Connie, formed crews and trained. Good plane commanders like our CDR Len Smith shared the take-offs and landings, but with four pilots it took time to build experience. The test units were usually happy to have someone fly right seat and free up one of their pilots. My logbook has a number of flights in P5Ms, P2Vs and even the R4D. The A4 and F8U were in test and VX-6 was next door, so there was a weird and wonderful mix of aircraft at Patuxent in those days. We saw the Martin-Baker ejection seat demonstrated at zero altitude – hoot down the runway, eject, ‘chute opens, test subject makes half a swing and he’s on the deck!
Training was helped immensely by one of the first "real" aircraft simulators. Sure we had had Link Trainers at Pensacola, but anyone who was ever in one knows those cranky boxes bore little relation to an aircraft on instruments. At Corpus they had this full-size mockup of a PBM – it was pneumatic and it was a lot like being inside an organ. With great honestly, it was only called a procedures trainer. The R7V simulator was an exact clone of the flight station. The windscreen didn’t have the fancy visuals we have today, but it would turn a convincing, flashing red when you "crashed". It was a lot safer to crash a two-engine-out, failed-approach, go-around in a simulator. It was fiendishly realistic. Just try to taxi out for take-off: hard-to-start engine, maybe a fuel fire, nose-wheel steering failure while turning, brake failure and switch to emergency hydraulic, then someone mistakenly tries to retract the wheels, and the windscreen goes red! You were in a shaking sweat and you hadn’t even gone 100 yards out of the chocks. We loved it; haven’t seen a computer game to compare.
The first crews that flew ten-hour practice barrier flights off the East Coast came back looking as if they hadn’t slept for a week. But a few months later we were flying actual 15-hour barriers at all hours of the day and night with no real strain. Of course the Wing had a decent crew rest policy, but the guys who had it worst were the Electronics Techs. There just weren’t enough of them, and they worked 12 on and 12 off – which gets old real quick.
VW-11 deployed to NAS Argentia in the summer, and VW-13 relieved them in October of 1956. From the looks of my logbook we were up there till February 1957. The Bachelor OfficersQuarters was a converted Married Officers Quarters which was comfortable in a rustic sort of way. Four men shared a two-room and kitchenette apartment, and usually made one room a bunk room and the other a living room. The nice thing was that at any hour someone was up somewhere, so there was always someone to shoot the breeze with. By our second tour in the summer of 1957, the "Argentia Hilton", a modern high-rise BOQ, was complete. It looked elegant, but the (one-man) rooms were like monastery cells: bunk, desk, lamp, chair and sink – I think. The only place to find company was in the bar, so there was a lot more alcohol consumed. Remember that this was the 1950s and not many people had figured out that too much drinking was not that clever. Only Marines really believed exercise was actually good for you.
The backbone of the Distant Early Warning Extension was probably really those radar picket ships, the DERs. There were four of them strung out between Newfoundland and the Azores with their big top-heavy tripod radar masts. They were assigned to steam within a ten-mile square box looking up for any USSR bombers trying an end run on the DEW Line. The Willy Victors launched every four hours to look down for any bogeys trying to sneak between two pickets. The Navy brought a statistician in to look at the whole lash-up. He calculated that there was about an 80 percent chance of catching anyone trying to come through.
I did a summer cruise on a DDR, and we would roll 45 degrees in moderate Caribbean swell. Imagine those guys in the North Atlantic. The Coast Guard radio beacon ship, Ocean Station Delta, was as far north as was considered practical – and two of the pickets were north of Delta! How they kept station is beyond me. They were usually overcast and there was one Loran line at most. We heard that they routinely had work parties hammering the ice off their topsides and masts, and they occasionally went two weeks on cold sandwiches because they were rolling so badly they couldn't keep a fire in the galley.
The Willy Victors were to fly southeast along a line about 50 miles abeam the DERs, staying within five miles of that line. Near the Azores, they made a 90 degree turn to the left, flew about 100 miles, turned again and flew up the other side. Those of you that have done this will remember that we were to fly at altitudes between 3000 and 6000 feet, that being the best for radar. That also put one in the worst of the weather. It was amazing that we actually did manage to stay plus or minus five miles of course most of the time. It was done by mixing every navigation technique that existed. With today’s GPS it wouldn’t even be a challenge, let alone a job.
If we weren’t overcast, there was celestial. In multi-engine training, we had stood under a dome and used an aviation octant. Star identification was a snap as you could look around and see the constellations. However, our Constellation-based WVs were designed to be pressurized, and since blowing navigators out through failed domes was considered poor form, we were blessed with the Kollsmann periscopic sextant. It had a one-inch barrel that went up though an airlock – and a little bitty 15-degree field of view. You were supposed to use your (known?) position to pre-calculate the azimuth and elevation of a chosen star. If there wasn’t a cloud in the way, that single dot of light was supposed to be your star. It was a good idea if you knew where you were, but we weren’t always so fortunate.
The drift meter was a good piece of gear – if you weren’t undercast. Make couple of brief heading changes and use the E6B hand plotter to get wind speed and direction and then dead reckon to your heart's content. We could also estimate the wind from radar plotting of land targets and the pickets when in range. Of course, the wind varied continuously so this was a continual task. We got beautifully hand colored weather charts at the pre-launch briefing, and if the observed wind didn’t match the chart, we’d see where on the chart it did. Then we’d make a mental overlay shift and see what wind we could expect next. It worked well around low centers and for frontal crossings.
There was one Loran line at times. And we could take radio direction bearings from land and ship stations when in range, and of course apply the huge corrections necessary. Inertial navigation was the latest and greatest, but it usually drifted too much to be trustworthy. The rate gyros in those early versions still had too much friction in their bearings. One trick was to stabilize the inertial navigator on a group of surface targets (assuming and hoping their motions all averaged out to a stationary reference) and then calculate the wind and continue dead reckoning! There’s a little label on nautical charts that warns, "The prudent navigator will not rely solely on any single aid to navigation." We lived that, but the glory of it came when B-57 Canberra medium bombers on their way to Europe learned our tactical channel frequency and called to ask where they were! From 30,000 feet in brilliantly clear skies, they asked us - down in the murk and ice!
After about a month, several of us who didn’t have children brought our wives to Newfoundland – to "live on the beach". We rented houses from locals in Freshwater, the nearest little settlement to Argentia. Typical construction was to beat four holes into the stony ground with an iron bar and stick sections of telephone pole in the holes. These were connected with beams that became the crawl-under foundation – very practical for ground that freezes and thaws a lot. The standard ceiling height was seven feet (vs. our eight), which is what gives the houses that out-of-proportion look. We heated the two rooms downstairs (kitchen and living room) with two kerosene stoves. Holes were cut in the ceiling so that heat could percolate into the bedrooms upstairs. Over the years, the floors around the stoves had become sodden with spilled kerosene, so we didn’t leave the stoves on at night. It made you glad you had an electric blanket, I’ll tell you.
The kitchen cabinets were made of plywood scrounged from packing materials; you could tell by the "Ship to: NAS Argentia" stencils on the inside. We cooked with a hot plate and an electric skillet. The water heater was electric, and if you happened to open the hot water tap while using both the hot plate and the skillet – the lights would go out! Blown another fuse! Previous inhabitants had resorted to pennies behind the fuses to avoid the darkness, and that was probably why the electric lines coming into the house were bare in spots, with insulation hanging down. The electricity went out frequently in the frequent bad weather, but since our kerosene stoves didn’t depend on fickle electricity, we could remove the cover, and heat stew or such in a pan set right on the combustion chamber. Our house was popular on stormy nights.
A local gentleman, Mr. Thorn, ran a yellow school bus back and forth to the base. We fondly called it "the wayward bus" and paid 25 cents for a ride. We had to keep a room in the BOQ for when we were on standby status. That was convenient as my wife could keep her little black dress and high heels there. We would bundle up in foul weather gear and boots, hike up the street and wait for Mr. Thorn. I’d shoo out my erstwhile roommates while Nancie changed and put on her heels, then two of us would make a four-handed "king seat" and carry her across the slush and ice rutted street to the club for dinner and that Navy staple, a "B" movie. And you thought the British were good at keeping up appearances.
Of course the wayward bus didn’t run all night. A 0200 brief for a 0400 launch meant stay in the BOQ, or leave home at 0100 and walk in – which was okay once or twice. I also walked home once when the Base was closed to auto traffic in a blizzard. Two of the more senior officers had an old automobile. On the winter deployment, they just took the battery inside at night to keep it warm for a better chance at being able to start the car in the morning.
I don’t imagine the barrier flights were that much different over the years. The crew that was out on Christmas Eve got to report Santa Claus to NORAD – "small, friendly eight-engine target". We were less certain about the friendliness of a Soviet trawler right in the middle of the barrier, 300 miles east of the Grand Banks fishing grounds, in water too deep for any self-respecting cod. The Navy had a submarine watching them watch us, and we saw pictures taken by P2Vs showing women aboard. Big, burly babuska types. We got a start when the countermeasures guys announced that we being tracked by a gun fire control radar. Then we realized it was confiscated German radar, which was all they had. When the Hungarian crisis occurred we wondered what we should do if they did fire at us. One wag suggested that we could stabilize the radar dead ahead, turn it up to max, come in at masthead level and sterilize everyone on board!
Usually though, it was just try to find a decent altitude to avoid ice, be able to navigate, etc. Our XO CDR Davis said he’d spent his whole career wallowing around just above stalling speed. It wasn’t demanding flying; the autopilot didn’t need much help. But doctrine said one pilot had to be in the left seat at all times, and we junior guys wanted to log pilot time – not just navigate, so we didn’t sack out as much as we could have. The Navy said you couldn’t read on watch, so we’d fiddle with the autopilot – but we could never get the WV to fly exactly straight – it would always flop off one or two degrees to either side. The Flight Engineers had their charts and logs and manuals, but it was hard for a pilot to stay awake just watching the static discharges on the windscreen. If you did start to nod, the FE would sneak a hand over to the pedestal and crimp the hose on the autopilot, which was pneumatic. The plane would ever so gradually drift off heading and then the rascal would release it. The re-energized autopilot would jerk the plane back to its heading, the FE would grin, and you would be wide-awake for at least half an hour.
Flying in light snow at night we’d get St. Elmo’s Fire. It would run back and forth along the leading edge of the wing, maybe even circle around the prop tips. Once a fireball seemed to come into the flight station. There was a very loud crack and the alternators and generators were kicked off line. I had been in a bunk asleep; I bolted out of the rack like that fireball had hit me. The FE reset everything and that’s all there was to it.
Getting back into Argentia was, I’m sure, always a challenge for everyone who flew the barrier: high winds, snow and ice in the winter and fog in the summer. There was about a one in four chance of ending up at an alternate: usually Gander, but it could be Stephenville, Halifax or Moncton. One crew ended up at Goose Bay, Labrador. They said it was so cold there that when the Air Force opened the hanger doors, it took 24 hours to get the hanger back up to freezing. Flight suits weren’t fitted as they are now, and they couldn’t be worn off the flight line – or at least not to the Mess. Forget to take along a uniform, and if you had to go to an alternate, you might find yourself sitting in transient quarters, hoping one of your more foresighted crew members would bring you something to eat.
The GCA was, of course, excellent and it was routine to go to 100 feet, ˝ mile minimums. One crew actually made a zero – zero landing. LCDR Walt Constance was probably the smoothest pilot in the squadron; he came from a single engine background for what that’s worth. Shooting a GCA in the fog, they got down to 100 feet - completely in the soup, and he reportedly said, "Let’s ease down to 75." Still nothing, "better get outta’ here." Pushed the throttles up, but of course the plane was still sinking before the RPM came up. Bump, bump. " Ha, we’re home" and yanked the throttles into reverse! I think they had to send a truck out to lead them in.
The toughest challenge though was getting airborne in the first place. Freezing rain could ice up an airplane sitting on the ramp, or maybe even as it taxied out. More than once, we put a plane in a hanger and had men with swabs and buckets walking on the wings to coat it with de-icing fluid. No motorized spray trucks in those early days. Then we’d start the engines while still in the hanger (generally a poor idea) and taxi as rapidly as possible, without sliding off a taxiway, to try to launch before we iced up again. Speaking of sliding off of a taxiway: the Coast Guard was still using B-17s to fly their Ice Patrol and rescue missions. Their hangers were down by the seaplane ramps, and getting up the hill to the runways after snow or freezing rain could be next to impossible. So when bad weather was expected, they would borrow space in the VW hangers. They could park a Flying Fortress under each wing of a Connie!
But weather wasn’t the greatest obstacle. That was getting the engines to check out on pre-take-of run-up. BuAer had spec’d the 3350 engine with the "cold plugs" that had been used when the engine was required to run ten hours at max power to qualify. And that was that – no switching to hotter plugs. Wallowing along just above stalling speed, burning high lead 115/145 av gas, the most carefully leaned engines would still load up. This wasn’t a problem in the air, but for the next launch at the next mag check run-up, those lead crystals would melt, shorting out some of the sparkplugs, and the engines would cough and sputter and shake. Then it was back to the hanger, open the nacelles and change the offending plugs. The Flight Engineer had a "Chinese Television" (an engine analyzer oscilloscope) in his desk and could see which plugs were doing what. Sometimes we changed all 144 sparkplugs! With a launch scheduled every four hours, this was not a relaxed drill.
Full power "burn-outs" were a partial help, but we made lots of take-offs with coughing engines, and the engineer fixed to his "TV", switching like mad though the plugs, and saying, "Keep going sir. Keep goin’, I think she’ll make it" - just as the co-pilot called "V1" (take-off refusal decision speed). Maybe there’d be another rumble or snort, then the engines would settle down, we’d finally get the steady 265 BMEP of full power on the torque gauges, and at "V2" we’d rotate and start the climb-out. We changed Engineering Officers about as often as we changed plugs; then it became CDR Smith’s turn. He, or someone, got the brilliant idea that the engines should be run at METO (max except take-off) power for that last 45 minutes or so between the end of the barrier and Argentia. That did it. That prolonged high power run got the sparkplugs hot enough to thoroughly clean them, and that was the end of the problem.
Robert Fraser, 19 November, 2002