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Naval Stories: A Long Way to the Indian Ocean…

Photo courtesy of David Loft

By Keith Kaniut

Typically in the 1980’s, a student Naval Aviator could earn his wings, learn to fly his assigned aircraft and join a squadron in about 2-2 ½ years. (18 months to earn Wings; 6 to 8 months learning to fly assigned aircraft). Ideally, he’d report to a squadron that had just returned from deployment, replacing pilots who were leaving. The “nugget” would be in the squadron when it began training for the next deployment and by the time the carrier deployed for parts unknown, they’d be fully up to speed.

My path from student aviator to A-7 squadron pilot was longer. It included an extra 15 months as a flight instructor. I wasn’t unique. At the time I was earning my wings, many Navy pilots were leaving after completing their initial commitment to the Navy to become airline pilots. That created an instructor shortage in the Training Command where student aviators earned their wings.

Photo courtesy of David Loft

As a temporary fix, the Navy implemented the “Selectively Retain (graduates)” (SERGRAD) program – taking new Naval aviators and making them instructor pilots for 15-18 months after getting their wings and before reporting to their first squadron. The selling point for the new aviator was that they were theoretically “guaranteed” their first choice of Fleet airplane and that was a big deal because otherwise you were placed in squadrons based on where they needed bodies, as long as you met the training requirements. Of course, the “needs of the Navy” could always trump those guarantees but they were better than nothing. Otherwise, if you happened to get your wings on a week with no available A-6 Intruder slots, you wouldn’t get orders to an A-6 squadron. You were going to fly something else.

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SERGRADs qualified as instructors to teach student aviators how to fly instruments and land the TA-4J Skyhawk while the more experienced pilots, returning from their first tours flying off carriers or with the Marines (yes, we had a lot of Marine pilots as instructors), could fly the advanced phases like gunnery, air-to-air combat, and carrier landings.

The week that I earned my wings, there was only one fleet squadron slot available: for F-14’s in Virginia Beach. The Tomcat was an air-to-air fighter with amazing power, maneuverability and weapons. The other student getting his wings badly wanted to fly Tomcats so I agreed that he could take that slot and I would become a SERGRAD and wait to fly the A-7 Corsair II. It seemed like a win-win to me.

I liked the “attack” mission of the A-7. It dropped bombs to break things and to avoid detection, could fly very fast at low altitude! (I really liked that part.) And it had an awesome Heads-Up-Display with an Inertial Navigation System (self-contained; based on gyros and accelerometers instead of radio or satellite receivers). That was high tech for its day. With my guaranteed choice of fleet aircraft I eagerly accepted the SERGRAD offer and would continue flying the Skyhawk for another 15 months.

I gained a lot of basic flight experience and grew comfortable flying the Skyhawk during that year. But I did not learn anything more about flying around a carrier. That would come when I reported to my first fleet squadron at the end of my SERGRAD tour.

In May 1980 I reported to VA-174. the A-7E transition squadron in Jacksonville, Florida and after ground school and simulators, flew my first real A-7 that August. By mid-December I was completing the final phase of training – carrier landings. The standard number to qualify was 6 day traps and 4 night traps. I received two extra day traps because a deployed squadron needed an immediate replacement – a “Must-Pump” – someone who could join the squadron in the middle of the deployment and hit the ground running without the benefit of going through the normal six-month work-up cycle that preceded every squadron deployment aboard ship. I had done well enough at VA-174 to be considered for one of these slots as long as my carrier landings were up to standards. 

As I said, usually a “Nugget” would join a squadron as it returned from deployment. That way he would be learning from and with the squadron as it trained for the next deployment. But a “Must-Pump” didn’t have that advantage. If you were joining a squadron already deployed, you knew that the least-experienced pilot there had a minimum of six months more practice flying with the squadron and air wing than you did. They knew their way around the ship and you knew it mostly as “theory”. 

An aerial view of Naval Air Station Cubi Point.
Diego Garcia, British Indian Ocean Territory

That was my first challenge. My second challenge: The carrier was already in the Indian Ocean, on the opposite side of the globe. My trip to join the squadron would take over ten days as I traveled through Hawaii to Cubi Point in the Philippines, leaving Christmas Eve and celebrating 3 hours of Christmas before hitting the international dateline and jumping into December 26th. I spent 5 days at Cubi Point waiting for the Air Force C-5A Galaxy that would carry me from Clark AFB in the Philippines to Diego Garcia, a coral atoll 1,116 miles south-southwest of India in the Indian Ocean, owned by the UK where the US built a large airfield and military base in the late 1960’s.

I stayed there overnight with a couple dozen others in a temporary-looking military-barracks style permanent tent.

Early the next morning after a quick breakfast, a bus returned us to the airfield where a C-141 Starlifter waited to take us the rest of the way to Masirah Oman, an island off the coast of Oman where their government allowed the US to offload persons and things, provided they were removed from the island before nightfall.

Several helicopters waited to transfer the people and cargo out to the waiting ships. My ride was a SH-3 Sea King helicopter and my destination, a US destroyer that was part of the Independence’s Carrier group. 

SH-3 Sea King

I spent the night aboard the destroyer as it steamed southeast to rejoin the Carrier Air Group a few hundred miles away. By 0600 the next morning we were close enough and the same helo ferried me over to my final destination, the USS Independence (CV62). 

That morning when I’d stepped onto the destroyer’s helo deck, the heat and high humidity were already building. A half hour later when we landed on the Indy’s flight deck at 0700, it was worse. I would soon grow accustomed to these typical Indian Ocean mornings.

My sea bag contained my flight gear and whatever small personal items would fit. That’s all I carried and it would be sufficient for the next five months of deployment. I look back at that now with amazement – that I needed so little! 

I asked directions to the squadron Ready Room. They told me the frame number, a code that told me its location. This was my first time on the Indy. I arrived at the VA-87 Ready Room before the Duty Officer that day (the junior officer designated to run the flight schedule). One of the Maintenance officers walked through to grab coffee, gave me a curious look and cursory nod before leaving. 

Finally, twenty minutes later the Duty Officer arrived, LT. “Juice” (as I would learn; one of the veterans with one deployment under his belt). He asked who I was. We quickly sorted out that I was the replacement for “Barf”, one of their LSOs (Landing Safety Officers) who was leaving. “Juice” advised that I wait for the Skipper to arrive with the rest of the squadron, so I sat down and finally relaxed a little after what had been a very long trip!

I arrived January 1 or 2nd, 1981. A lot had been happening while I was learning to fly the A-7. Two months earlier President Reagan won the election. The Iranians were still holding 52 American hostages. The Independence was in the Indian Ocean specifically to show US resolve and that the status quo was changing. Ten days after my arrival on January 15, 1981, the 52 American hostages in Iran were released. 

I realize that correlation isn’t necessarily causation, but that’s quite a coincidence. Did the Iranians know that a new game piece was on the board and that the balance of power had shifted? Did word of the arrival of a particular SERGRAD Lieutenant Junior Grade convince them to cut their losses? Frankly, I don’t think we can rule that out… ☺  

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