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Naval Stories: “Another Day On Gonzo Station”

by Keith Kaniut

“Gonzo” is the U.S. Navy acronym for the patrol area in the Arabian Sea east of Oman (“Gulf of Oman Naval Zone of Operations”). Iran and Pakistan border this sea to the north. (That it is also the name of a Sesame Street character is an amusing coincidence…)

When I joined Light Attack Squadron VA-87 on the USS Independence (CV-62) in January 1981, the “Indy” had been patrolling Gonzo Station for two months. The Indy Task Force’s arrival coincided with final negotiations to release the 52 US embassy personnel held hostage by Iranian student militants in Iran since the storming of our Embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979. On January 20, 1981 less than two weeks after President Reagan’s inauguration, the Ayatollah Khomeini ordered the hostage release in exchange for the U.S. releasing $8 billion in frozen Iranian assets. By late February tensions had cooled sufficiently that the Pentagon thought it safe for the carrier to go “off-station” for a one-week port call in Perth, Australia. (Which produced a remarkable dozen or so new marriages to Aussie ladies by week’s end! But that’s another story…)

My awareness of international politics was patchy then. I had been preoccupied with learning to fly the A-7 since the previous June, and scrambling to join my new squadron. Our daily Intelligence briefings revealed few details about the negotiations, background and other classified information. We were told the likelihood of the Iranians conducting operations against our Task Force was low but to remain alert when flying near their territorial waters. (As a rule, we conducted our operations in International waters unless we’d received prior permission from the country involved.) There was an air of routine sameness in our daily lives on Gonzo station. Frankly, we liked it that way because it appeared that our presence was having the desired effect: Peace through projected power. 

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Like most carrier air wings in the 1980s the Indy’s Carrier Air Wing Six (CVW6) had a mix of six aircraft in nine squadrons: (2) F-4 fighter squadrons; (2) A-7E Light Attack squadrons, (1) A-6 All-Weather bomber squadron; (1) EA-6B Prowler Tactical Electronic Warfare squadron, (1) S-3 Viking Air Anti-submarine squadron; (1) E-2C Hawkeye Airborne Early Warning squadron and the SH3 Sea King Antisubmarine helicopter squadron. (A list of the CVW6 squadrons in 1983 is here.)

This is about a typical first launch of the day – one which passed predictably and without notable problems. It is a snapshot of one of many routine flights where the primary dangers were those associated with the mechanics of launching and recovering from an aircraft carrier. 

(A disclaimer: My experience as a junior Navy pilot in the early 80s was very different from those who served 4 to 8 years earlier during Vietnam. Our squadron Commanding Officers and Air Wing commanders were junior pilots during that conflict. Deployments during conflicts are frequently described by a variation of the phrase “days of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror!” The day described was not. It is a snapshot of a Navy carrier pilot’s life between conflicts.) 

Today was a routine Flight Operations day on the Indy. About a dozen planes launched shortly after dawn to identify and photograph surface contacts (ships) detected by the airborne E-2C Hawkeye’s radar – the daily “get to know your neighbors” mission. The A-7’s fuel endurance and speed at low altitude were useful because we could quickly reach and identify targets within a 200 – 300 nautical mile radius from the ship within the limits of the 1-hour and 15-minute first launch cycle. 

These flights were an enjoyable change from practice bombing and 2-plane training flights. You flew without a wingman, below the clouds and following vectors from the radar operator to the targets (“Your contact is 035 at 20 miles”). The A-7’s radar was poorly-suited to this task. Its narrow aperture (like looking through a toilet paper roll) was designed for close-in bombing accuracy rather than wide area search. If it was working perfectly you could use it inside of 20 miles to help find the target but for long range detection we depended on the Hawkeye’s 360-degree radar picture. 

Once you spotted the ship your goal was to maneuver to cross its stern for a photograph to confirm its name and country of origin and then up one side of the ship taking additional pictures, close enough for the Intel guys back aboard to determine the ship’s purpose and cargo. We still used hand-held 35-mm cameras with the film developed after each flight.

Squadron Ready Room

In a single-pilot jet like the A-7, taking pictures and flying the airplane at low altitude kept you busy. I flew at 300 knots for maneuverability, 300-400 feet above the water for the best pictures. You could not use the autopilot at that altitude so everyone’s technique was to add a little extra “up-trim” so if you relaxed pressure on the stick, the jet would climb instead of descend. 

The weather briefing sounded familiar: Air temperature in the 90s with high humidity, low clouds and heavy haze dissipating by late morning. Visibility would improve but humidity-induced haze would limit it to 4 or 5 miles. I finished my brief and coffee and made the mandatory pit stop enroute to the paraloft for my flight gear.

Typical aircraft mix in the 1980’s; Shown post-recovery before the aricraft were relocated for the next launch.

At the paraloft I donned my g-suit and survival vest with its integrated parachute harness and attached inflatable life vest, grabbed my helmet and headed for the flight deck.

The flight deck was three decks above our Ready Room. I was sweating when I stepped into the hot humid air over the steel deck. The sun poked through the thinning clouds and the sea was calm. Another beautiful day to be alive! According to the logbook I’d signed in the Squadron Maintenance office, my bird was number 405, parked just behind another A-7 on catapult #1, the right-hand (starboard) cat on the bow. I’d be #2 to launch. Just as I finished inspecting my jet they announced over the speakers “All hands to the bow for FOD* walkdown!” *(Foreign Object Damage)

Everyone on the flight deck not actively fixing, refueling or moving a plane, formed two lines across the bow and walked side-by-side down the flight deck to the stern looking for loose bolts, scraps of tires, or anything else that might be picked up by a jet intake and damage an engine. With no aircraft engines running yet it was a quiet stroll back to the fantail picking up whatever loose items one came across. 

Aircraft taxiing into position on catapult

I returned to my jet, finished the preflight and climbed in. After start-up and completion of checklists, I waited my turn to launch. The plane on the cat launched and the jet blast deflector fence behind the catapult retracted. Now things happened quickly and with the flight deck director’s guidance, the deck crew and I moved my jet into position and properly attached it to the catapult. The Cat Officer signaled me to select full throttle and retract the launch bar. 

The catapult crewman behind my nose wheel confirmed that the launch bar remained properly seated, signaled thumbs up, and scrambled away down the wing line to avoid intake suction and clear the aircraft. The Catapult Officer checked his settings while I made my final cockpit and flight controls checks. 

Cat Officer signals – Launch!

At full throttle, with the throttle friction full-on, I locked my left elbow and wrapped my fingers around the throttle and the catapult grip (to ensure the throttle didn’t get pulled to idle during the violent catapult acceleration). 

With my right hand I moved the stick full left/right, forward and back, twice while checking in my mirrors that ailerons and elevator deflected properly. After one last scan for any Emergency lights – clear – I leaned my helmet firmly back into the headrest and saluted the Cat Officer. He saluted back, double-checked that everything was good to launch, and bent over to touch the deck in that gesture familiar to anyone who’s seen a carrier movie (or Top Gun). 

One second later the catapult “fired” and as the end of the catapult passed under me, I confirmed my airspeed at 200 knots and set my nose 10-degrees above the horizon. Continuing to accelerate and climb I retracted my landing gear and the ½-flaps used for launch and made a 30-degree clearing turn to the right and continued climbing.

When level at about 5,000 feet just above the clouds I checked in with the Hawkeye for my first vector to a contact. “405, your contact is 330 for 40 miles.” “405 – Roger.” Turning to that heading I settled in, scanning my gauges and confirming that my fuel was transferring from the drop tank into my main internal tank. At 300 knots I’d be at the contact in a little over six minutes. I was now able to relax a little. The catapult shot adrenalin slowly subsided.

My sector was north-northwest of the carrier, towards Iran and the shipping lanes that ran into the Persian Gulf. That sector was busy this morning. Ten miles out I prepped my camera and dropped down below the clouds. According to the radar operator, the contact was steaming southeast so I swung around to cross behind it. I spotted a ship through the haze about 5 miles out. At 3 miles I could tell it was a cargo ship. Crossing the stern to fly up its port side I took several pictures as I flew past. The Intel guys would be able to blow up the high resolution photos for the country of origin and name. Bottom line: it was a “neutral” – not an Iranian warship. I popped back up above the clouds and radio’d my ID. “405 has a neutral cargo. Ready for next vector.” There were no surprises the rest of that flight. I identified a half-dozen or so ships during that hour; all tankers and conventional cargo ships.

With five minutes remaining before the recovery (landings), I returned overhead the ship at my squadron’s assigned altitude of 3,000 feet and rendezvoused with the other two squadron aircraft into a 3-plane formation. Our sister squadron A-7s were in the counter-clockwise oval-shaped holding pattern about 90-degrees behind us. Four Phantoms in two separate two-plane formations circled below us at 2,000 feet. The remaining aircraft were stacked at 1,000-foot intervals above us.

As the last aircraft in the next cycle launched, we followed the Phantoms down into the pattern. It was halfway through the deployment. Everyone knew the routine for “Zip Lip” operations. No radio calls were permitted except for emergencies. Within the next three to four minutes, I and my squadron mates landed, cleared the landing area and taxied to our parking on the bow.

My memory is admittedly vague on this point but my landing was probably near perfect since by then I had become comfortable flying day missions. After my wheels were chocked and at least four chains connected my A-7 to the flight deck, I shut down, climbed out, did a quick post-flight inspection and then left the flight deck headed for the Intel Office to drop off the film so they could develop and analyze the photos. The next stop was the Maintenance office to sign off the logbook. It was nice to report “No gripes!” to the Maintenance Chief. 

A few short steps to the paraloft to drop off my sweat-sodden flight gear and then I finally entered the Ready Room to enjoy a long drink of water, a little air-conditioning and another coffee. Beyond running the flight schedule, the most important responsibility of each day’s Duty Officer was keeping the coffee pot fully charged! Nobody wanted the Skipper to find an empty pot! In a good squadron, everyone helped out. If you used the last cup you made a new pot. The coffee was awful. To describe it as black sludge inadequately captures its foul essence. But we liked the caffeine! (All junior officers below the rank of Lieutenant Commander stood Squadron Duty Officer shifts.) 

Flying was only one of your jobs in a Navy squadron. Junior officers were responsible for one or more groups of Maintenance folks organized by specialty such as Aviation Machinist Mates (Engines, hydraulics, structural), Electronics Technicians (radios, nav equipment, radar), Electrical (systems), and Ordnancemen (bombs & ammunition). I was the Avionics Division Officer. After checking my mailbox for anything from the Skipper I headed to my shop for a daily update. 

This was my first exposure to being a “leader of men” and was critical to my professional Naval Officer development. By the end of this squadron tour (3 years) I learned to enjoy the small ways that I was able to make my team’s jobs and lives easier or better. Most officers will admit they owe most of what they learned about leadership from the senior petty officers and chiefs in their chain-of-command. The Commanding Officer’s job was to ensure the officer’s overall professional development in both his specialty (aviation) and as a Naval Officer. But the senior petty officers also trained the junior officers to understand the interdependencies and the big picture. 

The remainder of the day included professional reading, administrative duties, working out in one of the makeshift weight training areas, lunch and dinner, and sometimes a movie after dinner in the squadron Ready Room. 

The Duty Officer tried to pick a good movie (or the “least awful” available choice!) from the temporary stock that arrived with each supply ship. The 16mm movies were within six to nine months of their release back in the States. “Top Gun” was popular primarily for its sound track and the initial flight deck launch scenes, though it was universally agreed that the aerial combat scenes were “totally bogus”! 

My days ended with reading or letter-writing in my stateroom with “lights-out” determined by whoever needed to be up first in the morning. By mutual agreement, guitar practice was restricted to times when my roommate was busy elsewhere!

Each morning you’d awaken to another day that closely matched the previous one in activities and excitement. Everyone eagerly anticipated the port calls every six to eight weeks for a welcome break in the routine. I know I did!

My next post will describe the intricate process and many steps required to get a jet airborne off the carrier and safely back aboard. The pilot is a small part of that process. It still amazes me all these years later, how few times something went badly and resulted in an accident. Even in peacetime, we lost shipmates to accidents, but you didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. You learned whatever lessons could be learned to avoid making the same mistake yourself. It was an imperfect system but worked remarkably well as my presence on these pages almost 30 years later attests.

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