Air & Space Power Journal, Fall 2004
Adak: The Rescue of Alfa Foxtrot 586by Andrew C. A. Jampoler
In the tradition of great tales of men against the sea, this story offers a compelling look at courage and commitment in the face of certain tragedy. It is a powerful blend of human drama and real-life naval operations, but unlike most books in the genre, its heroes are airmen not seamen, and most survived their ordeal. Published on the twenty-fifth anniversary of
In the tradition of great tales of men against the sea, this story offers a compelling look at courage and commitment in the face of certain tragedy. It is a powerful blend of human drama and real-life naval operations, but unlike most books in the genre, its heroes are airmen not seamen, and most survived their ordeal. Published on the twenty-fifth anniversary of Alfa Foxtrot 586's fatal mission as a tribute to those lost, the account was written by a naval aviator who has flown the same aircraft on the same mission from the same air base. The aircraft is a P-3 Orion on station during a sensitive mission off the Kamchatka Peninsula in the north Pacific. The time is mid-day on 26 October 1978. Andy Jampoler takes readers into the cockpit of the turboprop as a propeller malfunction turns into an engine fire, eventually forcing Jerry Grigsby to ditch his patrol plane into the empty, mountainous seas west of the Aleutian Islands. His fourteen crewmembers, strapped in their seats, expect the worst-and get it. The aircraft goes down in just ninety seconds, taking one of the three rafts with it. A second raft, terribly overcrowded, soon begins to leak.
The flight crew's desperate battle to survive is told with the authority, drama, and sensitivity that only someone with the author's background could provide. He draws on interviews with survivors, searchers, and even the master of the Soviet fishing trawler that saved the living and recovered the bodies of the dead. He also draws on recordings of radio communications, messages in the files of the state and defense departments, and the patrol squadron's own investigation of the ditching. Everyone who likes survival epics and enjoys reading sea and air adventures will be entertained by this engrossing true story.
About the Author
Andrew C. A. Jampoler is a retired naval aviator and former commanding officer of Patrol Squadron 19 and of Naval Air Station Moffett Field. Since retirement he has worked for the aerospace industry. His articles and essays have appeared in Proceedings magazine and elsewhere. He lives in Leesburg, Virginia.
Air & Space Power Journal, Fall 2004
- Naval Institute Press
- Publication date:
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- 6.42(w) x 9.12(h) x 0.92(d)
Read an Excerpt
ADAKThe Rescue of Alfa Foxtrot 586
By Andrew C. A. Jampoler
NAVAL INSTITUTE PRESSCopyright © 2003 Andrew C. A. Jampoler
All right reserved.
In late October 1978, Patrol Squadron 9's Crew 6, Lt. Cdr. Jerry Grigsby's crew, flew from Naval Air Station Moffett Field, California, to Naval Station Adak, Alaska, for what everyone aboard the aircraft assumed would be the second and last six-week deployment to their parent squadron's detachment in the Aleutian Islands. Their route of flight was north up the jet airways along the Pacific Coast, then across the Gulf of Alaska, passing abeam distant Anchorage, and, finally, generally west out along the long, drooping arc of islands that formed the Aleutian archipelago to Adak. With the usual headwinds en route and at the cruising speed of their P-3 Orion turboprop, Moffett to Adak was an eight-hour flight.
Eight hours were enough to transport them to a different world. In those few hours, Grigsby's crew would be exchanging a mild autumn in California's Santa Clara Valley (dubbed Silicon Valley; during the next twenty years it would become the technology capital of the world) and the benign San Francisco Bay for early winter at a rocky and spare outpost, little changed since the end of World War II, on the stormy Bering Sea: Adak Island, "the birthplace of the winds."
Adak, about 280 inhospitable square miles shaped like a Rorschach blot, is one of the larger Andreanof Islands of the Aleutian Islands chain. It lies roughly halfway between Seattle and Japan, at approximately 51°45' north latitude, 176°40' west longitude, close to the great circle navigation routes between the American Pacific Northwest and East Asia. The island is very near to the midpoint of the track from one continent to the other. From Adak it is thirteen hundred miles to Anchorage, fourteen hundred miles to Sakhalin Island, and closer still to the Kamchatka Peninsula and the infamous gateway to the Siberian Gulag, Magadan.
In an earlier era, a full squadron of twelve crews and nine aircraft would have deployed to Adak from its home station in California or Hawaii and hunted submarines from this base in the Aleutians for five or six months until relieved by another squadron. The cycle took squadrons away from their home stations for one-third of the time, leaving to the other two-thirds a heavy load of training and local area operations. This wearying peacetime operational tempo, months away from family and friends followed by long hours at work while at home, was one of the reasons that Navy junior officer and enlisted personnel retention was at near-permanent crisis levels.
At its peak, Naval Station Adak supported six thousand Navy people and their families, including civilian employees of the station and its tenant organizations. Also included in that number were the 350 or so officers and enlisted men of the rotating patrol squadron, who would deploy to the island while their families remained behind. Adak's maximum population gave it the status of a very large town in Alaska. By the late 1970s, down to just over three thousand residents, Adak was still the eleventh largest community in the state.
At the end of the 1970s, the level of Soviet Navy activity in the North Pacific was such that a full squadron at Misawa Air Base on northern Honshu, Japan, and a three-plane detachment at Adak were sufficient to meet U.S. Seventh and Third Fleet requirements in the region. The days when huge Soviet submarines would come speeding submerged out of Petropavlovsk or from the Bering Sea through the Amukta Pass to take up missile patrol stations in the Pacific had not yet passed, but Soviet naval activity in the Indian Ocean, where the U.S. Navy had no fleet permanently assigned, had compelled the Americans to redistribute assets to those remote and unfamiliar waters.
Under the 1978 deployment schedule, Grigsby's Crew 6 would miss Thanksgiving at home but would be back in California in time for Christmas. Another squadron would relieve Patrol Squadron 9, the Golden Eagles, at Adak early in December. Five months later, the process would repeat itself. The exchange of one squadron for another would keep the Adak detachment's complement at the prescribed four crews and three aircraft indefinitely, until strength reductions and more urgent operational requirements eventually siphoned the small force off into other waters.
Once back from Adak, Patrol Squadron 9 would be at home until early summer, when it would leave California with all its crews and aircraft for six months in Japan. In 1979, the wing's deployment schedule would make up for its generosity in 1978. The squadron would spend a lonely Christmas at Misawa Air Base on Japan's big island, Honshu.
In the few days immediately following Crew 6's arrival on Adak, the pilots and flight engineer flew the obligatory airspace familiarization flights and the standard instrument departures and approaches they would follow to get away from and back to the field during Adak's famously bad weather, when pilots said the clouds were stuffed with granite. From overhead, they could see again how the naval station's two short runways were shoehorned in between Kuluk Bay, Mount Moffett, and Tacan Hill on the island's northeast corner, five miles south of the abandoned World War II airfield on Clam Lagoon.
Together on the ground, everyone on the crew had trekked from the detachment's hangar to the adjacent Tactical Support Center (TSC) and listened to the required area familiarization brief. With that briefing, their reindoctrination to U.S. Third Fleet maritime patrol operations in the North Pacific was complete, and Crew 6 found itself once again in the hopper, eligible to be put into the crew rotation by the detachment schedules officer.
During the next six weeks, the crew's officers and enlisted sensor operators could expect to go into the Tactical Support Center, a complex of interconnected, windowless vans that resembled a small and claustrophobic trailer park, thirty or forty times, perhaps even more often. The vans contained several compact briefing theaters, rooms full of mission replay and acoustic analysis equipment, and what amounted to a large closet crammed with powerful communications transceivers with near-hemispheric reach. Yet another room was filled with tall computers standing shoulder to shoulder next to drives mutely spinning large rolls of half-inch magnetic tape from reel to reel behind glass doors, like men twiddling their thumbs.
All operational flights would begin and end at the TSC, as would every fourth day, when the crew stood one-hour alert duty. At Adak, the days of the week had no particular meaning. Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays were just like any other working day, and time off was snatched in packets of a few hours at a time, but each triangular trip between sleeping quarters, the TSC, and their assigned aircraft would become part of the rhythm of a crew's deployment by marking a step closer to California and home.
The first step would be today, 26 October. Crew 6 was scheduled to meet at the TSC a few hours before sunrise, to be briefed on Event Alfa Kilo 262, their first operational flight since returning to Adak.
Adak is at about the latitude of London. At the end of October, the sun rises late over the island and sets early. The days are short and cold, and the weather is often violent. Thursday, 26 October, would not be especially bad by the standards of the Aleutians. The island would spend the day under decks of clouds layered almost five miles high, in and out of snow showers, and with up to thirty-three knots (nearly forty miles per hour) of wind blowing fitfully out of the southwest. Not balmy, but not bad. The next few days were expected to be much worse, thanks to a weather system sweeping in from the Bering Sea and headed for the Gulf of Alaska down a familiar storm track over the Aleutians.
AK 262 was a special mission, a PARPRO flight. The acronym stood for Peacetime Airborne Reconnaissance Program, a collective term for carefully coordinated reconnaissance events around the periphery of the Soviet Union. Every month an elaborate politico-military planning process in Washington, D.C., ground out the PARPRO schedule, codifying a balance between what the intelligence officers said they needed to stay abreast of the Soviets' electronic warfare order of battle, what operators said the available ships, submarines, and aircraft could do, and what diplomats said the international political situation would tolerate. Event AK 262-a round trip, Adak to Adak in nine hours-was a single line on the October schedule, where it was identified as Beggar Heritage mission 50V3J8, flying on track 5J2571.
Later, in public statements to the news media after the plane went down, the flight would be described blandly as a "routine ocean surveillance air patrol." That is the phrase White House Press Secretary Jody Powell used in early November to characterize it. But it was not routine.
Grigsby's mission was to take his aircraft and crew west from their base in the Aleutian Islands, past Attu and nearly to the Kamchatka coast of Siberia, home to some of the Soviet Union's most sensitive military installations in the Far East. Once there, specialists in the Pentagon and at the National Security Agency hoped the flight would excite the Soviet air defense system into energizing its search radars and exercising its tactical communications. American intelligence collection units in the air and on the ground, focused intently on the aircraft and on the response its flight was expected to stimulate, would record everything the Russians radiated for later analysis. The whole process was watched over from afar by a command entity called Sky King. The call sign of Sky King's radio voice, Burning Bush, suggested an origin more divine than regal.
Maritime patrol aircrews disliked PARPRO missions. The flights were boring, long, and elaborate communications and navigation drills, with no upside but plenty of opportunity for conspicuous and embarrassing procedural errors, nothing like the airborne chess games pitting aircraft against submarine that crews relished. Patrol Squadron 9 crews had committed some of these comm errors in the past, most recently in mid-August, when Crew 5 had reported an incorrect position-one just inside of the standoff boundary to the Soviet landmass-during a PARPRO event. The crew's new tactical coordinator, or tacco, Lt. (jg) Matt Gibbons, had been admonished in writing for his uncharacteristic error-failing to supervise outgoing radio transmissions. Lt. Rory Fisher, the pilot flying in command of his first tactical mission, had been embarrassed, too. Now the squadron's policy was to have an extra navigator/communicator aboard, a "PARPRO rider," to assist the crew nav/comm as necessary.
Event AK 262 was not exactly chum-the Russians were not expected to bite; they had not in many years of watching PARPRO flights troll provocatively past-but it clearly was a lure with a special purpose. And who could really tell what the Soviets might do?
Five years later, in September 1983, Lt. Col. Gennadi Osipovich would take his SU-15 fighter up from Dolinsk-Sokol Air Base, on Sakhalin Island, and obediently put two missiles into Korean Air Lines flight 007. He would do that despite the certain knowledge that the big Boeing transport in front of him was not a U.S. Air Force RC-135 intelligence collection aircraft. The shoot down would kill 269 innocent people, en route from Anchorage to Seoul in a B-747 and miles off course. (Retired years earlier, Osipovich would still be defiantly unrepentant during a 1996 interview, happy that his act had moved him to the head of the waiting list for a telephone in his quarters on base but bitter that his cash performance bonus for the attack had been only two hundred rubles. He had expected four hundred, about one month's pay.)
Five men, taking turns in the three flight station seats, two pilots' and one flight engineer's, would take the aircraft out and bring it home. Ten others would be riding in the "tube," the tactical compartment, crammed with sub-hunting electronics equipment. Most of that equipment would lie fallow during this flight.
Finding of Fact. Lieutenant Commander Jerry Carson Grigsby, USN, 445-384123/1310, was a designated Naval Aviator fully qualified to act as Patrol Plane Commander/Mission Commander aboard aircraft Buno 159892 on 26 October 1978.
It must have been 3:45 A.M. or so, and very dark outside, when Jerry Grigsby got up from his bed in the squadron's wing of the two-story Bachelor Officers' Quarters at Naval Station Adak, Alaska. He had agreed to meet some members of his crew at 4:15, and half an hour would have been more than enough time for him to clean up, get into flight gear and walk to the lobby of the BOQ. In daylight, the view from the officers' quarters took in the airfield and many of the naval station's buildings. At this early hour, the lights of the airfield would have been lit: white outlining the active runway and cobalt blue marking the taxiways; a bright green slash signaled the runway threshold. Almost everything else beneath the station's distinguishing rotating beacon would have been dark under the first deck of overhanging clouds.
Like most members of the crew, today Grigsby would be wearing the Navy's standard summer-weight flight suit, a shapeless pair of dark green, fire-retardant coveralls festooned with twelve zippers and eight pockets, a pair of laced, high-top leather boots, and the Navy's glamorous brown goatskin flight jacket with knit cuffs and fur collar.
The lightweight leather jacket evoked the famous naval aces of World War II, gimlet-eyed gunfighters flying bent-winged Corsairs or pudgy Hellcats. These heroes wore their jackets with a white silk scarf, while carving flaming reputations through the skies over the Pacific. Their bright, embroidered squadron patches-cheap knockoffs would become a civilian fashion favorite "look" years later-lent some style to what otherwise was drab and utilitarian garb, but Jerry Grigsby was not flashy by nature. If he were in civilian clothes, it would have been difficult to guess that this soft-spoken man with a dark red moustache (the detritus of last deployment's full beard) was heir to the legendary Black Cat, Catalina flying boat patrol squadrons of that colossal conflict.
Lieutenant Commander Grigsby, thirty-six, was the senior officer and by far the most experienced member of the crew that would be flying with him today. All of the other air crewmembers but one-PO 2d Class Ed Flow, a flight engineer from the mill town of Monroe, North Carolina-were on their first tours of duty in a maritime patrol squadron. Only Grigsby and Flow were on their second.
Grigsby's first squadron tour had been in Patrol Squadron 50 in the late 1960s, where at first he flew the ponderous, boat-hulled Martin P-5M2 Marlin seaplane.
Excerpted from ADAK by Andrew C. A. Jampoler Copyright © 2003 by Andrew C. A. Jampoler
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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