Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Corpsman Chronicles XXXII: Super RBOC, I think I love you

What's the difference between a fairy tale and a sea-story? A fairy tale begins, "Once upon a time..." A sea story begins, "This is no shit!"

Because interwebs, I try to be careful to change names, but to the best of my recollection the events and locations are substantially correct. Of course I can only describe events from my perspective, so there's that. Readers who were present will doubtless have different recollections of any particular event. At the end of the day I hope to share a flavor of what it was like to serve in my tiny slice of the U.S. Navy between the late 1970's and early 1990's. It really was an adventure.

That said, 

This is no shit!


Before we start though, I need to do some serious upkeep on this here blog. I have the Corpsman Chronicles numbering scheme all messed up, some posts that should be labeled as such aren't, and I've never bothered to do the whole keyword tag thing. I plan to be working on that. Hopefully it's not gonna be all that hard.


Very late summer, 1986. USS Boat and the Boat Battle Group are operating in Vestfjorden, Norway. Confined waters by definition, Vestfjorden is a risky place for a carrier battle group to be charging around. But we are there, and we are charging. Our purpose is to annoy the Soviets, and more importantly, to practice destroying the Soviets while executing an exercise called Northern Wedding.
Quick picture I snapped from about 5,000' MSL. The "pin" is located bang in the middle of Vestfjorden. And I do mean bang in the middle. The big white thingy is Greenland, which was called Vinland during the Medieval Warm Period and was at the time substantially not white. Which the planet and her burden of life survived (unfortunately including the Norskgores and the Norskmoores and the Norskmanns and the Norsknyes and all like that).
We're way up north, above the Arctic Circle. Way north of Trondheim, north of Bodø even. West of Narvik. Being a history nerd, I've studied the 1940 Battles of Narvik. Operating in this part of the Norwegian Sea gives me a personal appreciation for the conditions those Destroyermen must have faced. It's peacetime though, and there's no way I can channel the desperate brutality of those brawls.
Look at the depiction of sea floor contours. The "worry free" navigation area is less than a third of the total fjord area. For a Boat Battle Group doing Boat Battle Group stuff it's pretty tight.
As north as we are, we're still south of Andøya, which I understand is a good thing.
According to OldNFO, Andøya ain't nuffin' but .50 BMG's and snow on the Glorious Fourth.
Today we're operating zip-lip, with no voice coms. The scenario has us launching fixed-wing strikes ashore against Warsaw Pact invasion forces while (simulated) Soviet Naval Aviation presses us from above and (simulated) Soviet submarines press us from below. Not far away a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) is putting Jarheads over the beach.

There are NATO air assets playing Orange Air and standing in for the Real Rooskies. Just to make it interesting, the Soviets have actual Red Air out looking for us in the form of Mays,
and Badgers,
and Bears,
Oh My!

There are also NATO subsurface assets playing the part of Soviet Redboats. We know the players include U.S. 637 and 688 class boats as well as a handful of Kobben-class Norwegian boats. We don't, of course, know where they are or what they will do.

I'm flying with the Helo Bubbas, and we're doing hardcore ASW. There are five of us in the Sikorsky SH-3H Sea King.
Sikorsky SH-3H Sea King, HS-9, 1985.
The HAC and 2P (pilot and copilot) are up front driving. Myself, the Crew Chief, and the Second Crewman are in back. Those guys are AW's -- Aviation Warfare Systems Operators -- and they're firetrucking pros. There are two sensor stations in the cabin behind the flight deck, and from there the AW's choreograph the helo's participation in the mind-boggling and intoxicating game of multi-dimensional chess called anti-submarine warfare, or ASW. I'm just along for the ride, doing the few odd jobs I can to earn my keep and stay in the good graces of my Helo Bubba shipmates. I monitor the dipping sonar reel when we dip, provide an extra pair of eyes outside, and listen to the ICS (intercom) chatter, which, as the ASW picture develops, is absolutely fascinating.

From time to time I pause near the AW's, looking over their shoulders, listening, and marveling. Today we've got U.S. Navy shore based P-3C's
P-3C of VP-24 dropping snake.

-- possibly operating out of Andøya (?) -- and S-3A's
S-3A Viking from VS-24.
from our own airwing working the outer ASW problem in conjunction with 963-class 
Sprucance Class Destroyer USS Hayler, DD-997
 and FFG-7-class Perrys.
Oliver Hazard Perry Class Guided Missile Frigate USS Carr, FFG-52
We're the close-in ASW asset, operating near-ish to the carrier, generally to starboard of the big bird farm, between the ASW ships and USS Boat and her Anti-Air escort of CGN's and DDG's. There is another Sea King doing the same on the other side of the formation.

Things are getting tense. An "enemy" submarine has broken contact while generally closing the formation and is thought to be very close to within visual range of the battle group. At any moment we could face inbound torpedoes or SLCM's. The "scary scenario" is that one or more of the 637's are pretending to be Soviet Project 949 boats, the dreaded Oscar class.
Soviet Navy Project 949 Granit. NATO Designation Oscar I
For those who didn't serve in the you ess navy back in the stone age, the Project 949 гранит (Granit) boats we feared were nuclear powered cruise missile submarines, or SSGN's. In 1986 there were only a pair of them serving in the Soviet Navy, Minskiy Komsomolets (K-525) and Murmansk (K-206). No one on this side of the Iron Curtain (few on that side either, I imagine) knew much about them. Word on the street was that they were very bad news; quick, quiet and packing a wallop. At the time the NATO designation was Oscar, and the Oscar's main battery was the P-700 гранит (Granit),*
Soviet Navy P-700 Granit. Nato designation SS-N-19 Shipwreck
which NATO called the 
SS-N-19 Shipwreck. An apt name for a missile designed to kill U.S. Supercarriers. If it came to war with the Soviets, and Боевой Иван got in a fair shot, the 30 foot, eight ton conventional version of the missile would smash into the side of the boat at north of 1,000 mph.
A Russian Navy crew prepares to load an SS-N-19 Shipwreck into an Oscar II, perhaps K-141 Kursk.
At that velocity whether the 1,650 lb high explosive warhead detonated would be a moot point. If it was the magenta version of the missile, well, you know.

A few years later when the slightly longer and upgraded project 949A Антей (Antaeus) class came on line, NATO called them Oscar II, and thereafter the first two Oscars became Oscar I's. But that hadn't happened yet.

So when a 637 has gone missing and is thought to be not far over the horizon from USS Boat, it's bad business for the good guys as far as the exercise goes. But wait, there's more! From out of nowhere what appears to be an actual, no-shit, Soviet Diesel-Electric submarine has popped up. We're zip-lip, but the fancy new data-link system ties everyone including our helo together without using voice coms. And lemme tellya, what the AW's are seeing is exciting -- even worrying -- as hell.
Source: Percy Olson. This is the ASW station of a 1990's Canadian Sea King, but it's quite similar (nearly identical as far as I can tell) to the set up we had in 1986 in the SH-3H.
An S-3 has just put sonabuoys in the water about 20 NM out and has classified a pop up contact as a possible no-shit Roosky. The AW's are pointing and stabbing light pens at their displays and jabbering away in ASW-ese, a language I can only habla poco and then only if spoken very slowly.
This one comes from whackomaedia and depicts the ASW rig in a late-1970's D-model.
If I understand the ongoing discussion, the ASW Commander's tentative ID is Tango,
Tango, 1986
while the AW's are convinced it's a Kilo.
Kilo, 2018
Either could be a serious threat, but the Kilo is alleged to have a new and secret anti-ship cruise missile fit (which seems to have eventually morphed into the 3M-54 Kalibr, NATO designation SS-N-27 Sizzler). The AW's are jabbering on about all that "Hunt for Red October" shit, Hertz lines and blade counts, and all like that. As I mentioned, fascinating but worrying. What the hell is this guy doing here? Almost certainly gathering intel, practicing his craft, and fucking with us. On the other hand...

It gets better though. We're down to 500 pounds of gas. We've tried a couple of times to refuel aboard Mom (the carrier) but keep getting waved off as the launch/land cycle devolves into a snarled state of flux, a not uncommon occurrence during hardball exercises. Throw in an actual Soviet submarine and we're suddenly in the middle of some interesting shit indeed. We need gas very soon, and if we're gonna keep our hand usefully in the game soon means now. And now doesn't involve the carrier at all.

Fortunately, USS Kidd (DDG-993) is steaming along with a bone in her teeth only two miles away, and with a big honking (for certain values of big honking) Spruance-class flight deck, hangar, and helo capability, she's already in the air plan as our fuel alternative.
USS Kidd, DDG-993. Note the big(ish) flight deck.

For my money (keep in mind I'm an airdale who can't always tell the difference between a BB and a CV), the Kidd Class are the greatest destroyers of all time. Built for the Shah of Iran (just before Ayatollah of Rock and Rolla took over) on the Spruance Hull but fitted with the Virginia Class weapons and sensor suite (MK-26 missile launchers instead of Armored Box Launchers), they're sleek, fast, and carry a powerful punch.

Anyway, we need fuel. (As I recall the main bags held about 1,000 gallons or about 7,000 pounds of JP-5. We burn about 1,100 pounds per hour, so at 500 pounds remaining were not quite critical but we're less than 30 minutes to splash.) As we approach Kidd I open the cargo door and prepare for a normal deck refueling while the AW's keep working the ASW problem. Ruh-roh, they're waving us off; the flight deck is clobbered with a broke-dick SH-60B they're having trouble stuffing in the hangar. This would be a big problem if we didn't have an alternative. But we do, and it's my chance to really contribute to the mission.

Our alternative is HIFR, or Hover (some say Helicopter) In Flight Refueling. All we have to do is hover in close to the flight deck of the Kidd, winch up the fuel hose with HIFR adapter attached, plug in and take on fuel. Easy to say, quite challenging to do.

The HIFR rig is pretty simple. It snaps on to the destroyer's regular fueling hose (more or less) with a breakaway fitting. If we're hooked up to it and either helo or ship pull on the hose too hard the fitting breaks, and that way the helo doesn't lift the ship up into the air, which always freaks the ship's crew out. The hose part of the HIFR rig is a dozen feet long with a suspension armature right in the middle. The armature is like a metal yoke that has several holes designed for the hook on the helo's rescue hoist to snap into. At the business end of the rig is a standard pressure refueling nozzle which will fit into the fuel port on the helo, located just below the big cargo door on the right or starboard side of the aircraft. You just push it in and give it a twist clockwise to lock it in place.
Our friends the Aussies. D-model Sea King I believe.

During the HIFR process the helo hovers over the flight deck and lowers the rescue hook. A crewman on the ship grounds the cable with a grounding wand, then another crewman hooks the suspension armature onto the hook, and you hoist the whole rig up to the helo. From there a crewman grabs the nozzle, plugs it into the helo's fueling port, and gives it a twist. With the connection made fuel flows into the helo while it motors alongside the ship. The video I posted the other day shows the process in some detail. Those Aussies were the shit back in the day.

Anyway, the Kidd is waving us off and in the front office of the Sea King they're starting to shit a brick.

"Let's HIFR," I say, as I begin to give hand signals to the Kidd's LSE. Drinking sign with closed fist and extended thumb, followed by a gesture very like "pull chocks," only in the vertical and with both thumbs pointing up, miming stretching a hose. Big thumbs up and "two minutes" from the LSE.

"Are you guys qualled?", the HAC asks the Crew Chief and Second Crewman.

"Ahh...," begins the Crew Chief, but I step all over him.

"I'M QUALLED!", I say, "I fucking HIFR'd with these guys twenty times in May with Deliverance!" Deliverance is the NASO SAR call sign. And it's true. At Oceana we did a lot of HIFR training with small-boys, and we'd worked extensively with Kidd as she prepared for deployment with the Boat Battle Group. I yank my Apache sling out of my SAR bag, and as I do so the Kidd's crew is dragging out the HIFR rig.

"Okay Doc," says the HAC, "you're it." The LSE (Landing Signalman Enlisted) begins to wave us in from our standby perch and I begin my positioning patter over the ICS as I energize and unlock the hoist. "Easy right, hold. Easy down five feet. Easy down two feet. Hold whatcha got babe, perfect, hook going down..."

Below me on the Destroyer's flight deck the grapes (refueling crew) have the HIFR rig deployed. A blue-shirt grounds the hook with his magic wand and in a second they've got it snapped securely in place.

"Steady hover, hold whatcha got, hook coming up, a little weight on the aircraft. Steady hover, steady hover, rig's in the door."

At this point I'm expecting to be joined by one of the AW's, but they're working the ASW problem with both helmets smoking. When the HAC said I'm it, he was serious! It's no factor for me though, because I'm used to practicing single-crewman HIFR.

I grab my Apache sling, which is a 10-foot length of 1-inch flat nylon tubing with a shot bag attached to one end. I make a quick loop through the hook and armature, then tie the special Apache knot that makes it an Apache sling. I make sure the loop will hold without slipping, then un-clip the armature from the hook and let it hang by the sling. It's perfectly secure as the sling tubing isn't nylon at all, but Kevlar and Dacron, designed for mountain climbing. It's actually almost as strong as the hoist cable. The Apache knot is a form of slip knot. With one yank on the tag end -- which is attached to the shot bag -- the knot will release and drop the HIFR rig into the sea below. This is an extremely non-standard procedure, invented so far as I know by my mentor Jim at Oceana. It provides an extra level of safety should the breakaway fitting fail to break away. One yank and you're free. It also allows an expedited departure from the Destroyer if needed. One yank and you don't have to go through the process of lowering and raising the hook. Although it's much more politer if you do.

I come back up ICS after setting my rig. "Steady hover, steady hover, looking great. How much gas you want?"

"Six grand," says the HAC.

"Roger, six grand," I say, " steady hover, looking great. I'm gonna be off ICS during fueling. Hold whatcha got, looking great."

I un-clip the refueling nozzle and go belly down on the deck. The nozzle has two handles which make it easy to manipulate, but I'm above the fueling receptacle instead of in front of it, so I have to hold it with my thumbs toward the hose instead of toward the receptacle (see picture above). I also have to turn the handles counter-clockwise instead of clockwise, given my position. And finally, I don't have much leverage at all, so I cant just ram the nozzle home with brute force. It takes finesse. Which I've managed to develop through many repetitions. Before I proceed I give the fueling crew the drinking sign followed by the horizontal index finger for 6,000 pounds of fuel. The head grape repeats my gestures and gives a thumbs up. I ease the nozzle in and twist. The head grape signals fuel flow.I smile a huge smile and nod vigorously.

I'm the king of the firetrucking helo world! I got this shit! There ain't nothing I can't firetrucking



Thoughts tumble through my head at a zillion miles per hour. Are we hit? Are we going in? I'm firetrucked if we go in, laying here like this, I'll get tangled in the gunner's belt and all this fueling hose for sure. Is it the Russians? Who's shooting? Why aren't those dumb firetrucks down there taking cover? They ducked, but now they're just looking at me. Are we on fire or something? We don't seem to be going in, seem to be in a steady hover in fact...

"Just chaff, Doc," I hear on my ICS,
SRBOC round firing.

"I guess somebody threw a missile (exercise) in the mix."

Now I see the clouds of chaff. The Kid has fired four Super RBOC chaff rockets in two pairs, port and starboard. Firetruck!
Chaff clouds bloom over some kind of Star Trek ship-thingy.

The head grape down below gives me the six grand complete signal. I twist the nozzle free and let it hang. We should politely lower the rig with the hoist. I'm not feeling polite. I give the head grape a thumbs up, then savagely yank on my Apache sling and watch the HIFR rig splash into the sea below us. They'll have no trouble reeling it in, but it'll be a pain in the ass for them. Breaks of naval air.

I scramble to my feet and grab the ICS switch. "Fueling complete, six grand, HIFR away, clear to depart," I say. "Aft door coming closed."

As you may have guessed, the Kidd shouldn't have fired the chaff while doing HIFR with us. It was a snafu, with the anti-air crew not understanding the HIFR situation and the bridge crew never imagining what might happen if an air attack developed. As it turned out, it wasn't really a danger. It was just, well, close. And unexpected. At the end of the day, though, it was good firetrucking training, and that's a fact.

The rest of the mission was great, if something of an anti-climax after getting shot in the face with chaff. As it turned out, it was a no-shit real live Soviet sub, and it was a Tango. The image of the Tango above is the very same one, taken by a photo-puke riding along in the other Sea King. It was a hell of a good day.

And that's pretty much the end of part one. Part two is, in my opinion, a good bit more thrilling. It'll be a surprise, and you'll never guess where the story takes us.

*An obvious question is whether both missile and sub were named "Granite" by the Soviets or there is a long-lived misunderstanding/mis-translation at play. I didn't research too hard, so I don't know. If any of you kind readers can point me in the right direction, throw me a bone in the comments and I'll make it right in the post.


  1. Edge of your seat stuff. Out-freaking-standing story and well told.

    Bravo Zulu Shaun!

    1. Thanks Sarge. Very kind words, much appreciated.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  2. Once again, I echo Chris.

    Thanks for the post.
    Paul L. Quandt

    1. Thanks Paul, glad you enjoyed.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  3. Good stuff, as always.
    Us small boys were always glad to help thirsty helos. None of my ships had the sexy SRBOC, so we're your friends!
    This story really helped understanding how stuff works on the other end of the HIFR hose, so it would be good reading for my Shoe, er, Professional Surface Warfare officer friends too.
    John Blackshoe

    1. Thanks John. It's always good to see things from the other side. The small boys were always awesome, even the Kidd on this day! Real sailor men.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  4. Concur about KIDDs, particularly DDG-995. KILOs are evil.

    1. Norman Scott was a Fighting Admiral by all accounts. Ironic that he got shot in the face by Callahagn's Flagship. And of course Dan Callaghan got his shit scattered shortly thereafter.

      The sub threat is real. Good thing we (U.S. Navy) have pissed away all our ASW assets and expertise.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

    2. Callaghan had no business where he was. FDR put him there.
      Thank goodness we have LCSes to sweep the seas clear of our foes!

    3. Yup, bad guys will exhaust all their ordnance sinking those fire trucking things.

  5. Always interesting stories, thanks for posting another one.

    1. Glad you enjoyed, Brig.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  6. Yep, that's a TANGO... At least they weren't shooting the RBOCs AT you... LOL

    1. It was always thrilling to see the wild roosky in its native habitat. And yeah, it was all cool with the chaff. Superb training actually. The front office was just as startled as I and never wavered from a solid steady hover.

  7. Interesting reading and my admiration for sailors increases. Still, happy I decided to walk to work.

    1. There are upsides and downsides to both. Soldiers and sailors are usually mutually horrified at each other's job description.

  8. My first ship in 1994 was “pre-com” DDG 55. (pre-com = pre-commisioning...i was assigned to a ship that had not yet been commissioned into service)

    Any-who...the “flight-quarters” detail had not yet been finalized, and one of the attractions was the extra “flight deck pay” there were more volunteers that available spots...(and at least one of you might be thinking...wait...what ever happened to “Never Again Volunteer Yourself”)

    So at first i was a little disappointed to not be selected, until one “Sunday at Sea” (basically the one day off to sleep in when not standing watch) and there goes the 1mc...FLIGHT QUARTERS FLIGHT QUARTERS. NOW MAN ALL FLIGHT QUATERS STATIONS! etc. etc.etc. etc.

    I blinked my eyes once or twice, stretched, and rolled over in my bunk... a few feet away, i could hear someone beginning to curse like a sailor!

    1. Be careful what you wish for, you might get it!

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting cT.