I have avoided writing about much of my military life as many things contained within those memories are not pleasant to remember. I do not glory in the taking of human life, nor do I feel that our way is the only way. Sometimes, choice is taken from you.
It was a warm time of year in 1984 and I was in the U.S. Navy stationed aboard the U.S.S. America CV-66, which is, or should I say was, an aircraft carrier. The ship no longer exists.
This particular incident happened along the coast of Israel, at the east end of the Mediterranean Sea. We had been operating there for several weeks and it was time for a port visit.
We were nearing the city of Haifa, which was our intended port of call and liberty stop. Due to the proximity of land our battle group escort of ships was stationed on the seaward side. This left us exposed to the shoreline, but guarded from attack by submarines, etc., from the sea.
All of our aircraft were aboard and secured with the exception of the helicopters. Those were necessary for shuttle runs to the shore, as well as rescue should anyone fall overboard. Due to the lack of flight operations most of our radar positions were unmanned. There was only myself in the CATCC (Carrier Air Traffic Control Center), one fellow in the CIC (Combat Information Center), and one lone gunner’s mate second class in Fire Control. Fire Control or the Weapons Control Center (WCC) was the nerve center of the ship’s defenses.
In CATCC the Officer in Charge was sitting in his usual command chair so he didn’t have to get up to answer the telephone, but mostly because it was the best seat to see the television. The rest of the controller crew was hanging around the coffee pot, in bed, or up on the catwalk getting some air, which is where I would have been if I didn’t have the watch. As it turns out it was a good thing for all of us that I did have duty.
I had gotten into the habit of pointing my radar antenna at the most likely spot (elevation mostly) for aircraft to appear. It was something that I was taught at the FAA Approach Control in Columbus, Georgia where we worked a lot of low flying aircraft. It was true that I wasn’t working any at that particular time as the helicopters were on deck being refueled. My old habits had served me well in the past, so that’s what I did.
Where would you look for aircraft within ten miles of a shore line? Between the surface and about one thousand feet, right? That was my opinion anyway.
So I tilted the antenna down until I could see ships on the water. That would then allow me to see helicopters coming and going with greater definition. Plus being in the proximity of continued hostilities, this would allow me to watch for low flyers along the coastline.
I guess that the years that I spent in the U.S. Army made me always prepare a defensible position. Or just call me paranoid. That’s what the duty officer said when he asked me why I was moving the antenna and I told him my reasons. “Petty Officer Wright, you are paranoid” he said, “You see problems where there aren’t any. You should relax.”
We were approaching the channel which leads to the port of Haifa when I spotted the target northbound along the coast, but still south of Haifa itself. I checked with my counterpart next door in CIC and got him to contact the ATC (Air Traffic Control) folks in Haifa to verify the aircraft was under their control. Then I placed another call, this one to Fire Control, and alerted the GM2 down there to bring his attention to the target.
By this time the "O" in the chair started paying attention to what I was doing, but still hadn’t said anything. I didn’t really care; I was getting a nasty gut feeling and was going with it on my own.
The guy in CIC patched me through to the Haifa ATC so that we could establish radar identification. We needed to be sure that we were talking about the same aircraft. The Israeli controller and I used more than the required number of reference points and there was no doubt we were on the same bird.
The aircraft not only wasn’t under their control, but was ignoring all calls on all frequencies to identify itself.
NOW, I turned to the Duty Officer in the chair and said,”We have an unidentified aircraft inbound, not responding to Air Traffic Control. I strongly recommend that you alert the chain of command, sir.”
With a typical pilot wise-guy attitude he says, “Do you AC’s (controllers) always want to bust every pilot who’s too busy to talk to you on the first try?”
My answer was a bit abrupt “Do you know the word Kamikaze?” Turning around to my radar screen again I said, “Dumb ass” under my breath, I thought.
The Lieutenant turned a sickly shade of white and stared at the telephone. “Who do I call?” he said. He wasn’t completely useless, just scared that he would screw up something.
I grabbed the binder hanging on the wall behind him and threw it in his lap. Then he started calling his way up the chain. He started with our Commander, then on up until the Admiral himself was in on it. On each call the Lieutenant was asked a question, and answered “Petty Officer Wright, Sir.” It was all I could do not to laugh.
I had somewhat of a reputation of being contrary, and less than respectful towards those who got by on their rank alone. I was un-phased by what rank or title someone had, it just didn’t matter to me. It might sound cocky to some, but I was also the guy that every pilot wanted controlling them in the Hellish dark of an open ocean night with no moon. It was my voice reaching out through the night that got them back to the safety of the ship. I had proven my worth many times over. My job, as I saw it, was to keep every one of them alive and I took that seriously and to heart. The rest of the stuff was just window dressing and BS to me.
So as the word went up the chain that it was Petty Officer Wright in CATCC who made the call, we got the necessary responses that put us in the proper state of readiness. Fire control brought all weapons systems on line, CIC started tracking the target, and I continued to work with Haifa ATC to identify and attempt to warn the still approaching small target.
The Admiral got on the “God Phone” (a slang term because that phone had the power of life and death connected to it) and reported the intrusion to Naval High Command. If there was a chance of an international incident, we didn’t want it to be a surprise to either SecNav or the State Department.
We would have looked pretty silly if this episode had been tourists out sight-seeing, but I’d rather explain why, than why not. My bet was that it wasn’t wandering lookie-loos.
Haifa ATC had been busy and obtained a visual report on the suspect plane from another aircraft. It was a single engine Cessna with one person aboard and apparently laboring to keep airborne. The reporting pilot said that the side windows were obscured. The Israeli controllers continued to call to the aircraft in multiple languages, even though the International language of aviation is English. The call letters/numbers of the Cessna were painted over to prevent identification.
The Admiral, (getting off of the “God phone” with his bosses), ordered Fire Control to lock onto the suspect aircraft. By now it turned towards us from just south of the port of Haifa, probably following the shipping channel outbound. The aircraft was at ten miles from us at that point.
The Captain ordered the ship to Battle Stations and had me advise Haifa to issue “Use of Deadly Force” warnings through all frequencies and means. Ten miles equals about five minutes flying time in that aircraft.
Our Flight Deck cameras had really good zoom lenses enabling us to see the airplane coming towards us, still not heeding any warnings to veer off.
The ship’s Navigator on the bridge went to the signal lights and sent warning signals via that means. The Marine Detachment NCOIC fired a red flare in the direction of the aircraft. We had done everything possible to warn the pilot away. The only conclusion was that he was on a mission to die, and we were the target.
The Admiral ordered the Phalanx CIWS locked on and if the aircraft approached to two miles, the standing order was to destroy it.
We called the Phalanx CIWS, “R2D2” because that’s what it looks like. We had several of them stationed around the perimeter of the aircraft carrier to protect us. The gunners claimed that it could hit a baseball at two miles. With the computers and the lasers, etc., that guided this fancy Gatling gun, I had no reason to doubt that.
At five miles the Admiral had me tell Haifa ATC to give it their best and final shot to warn them off via all radio frequencies. They did so and got no response.
When the aircraft reached two miles from the U.S.S. America the Admiral no longer had a choice and said, “Smoke ‘em, and may God have mercy on the fool.”
R2D2 spoke and within seconds there was the most incredible explosion and subsequent blast as the shock wave rolled across the water to us. Watching on the TV we could see a tremendous column of water rise up and fall where the plane was hit. When we launched the helicopters to scan the scene, there was nothing but an oil slick from the residue. Everything else was vaporized.
Our EOD guys were sent to the scene in their dive gear to search for any clues but there was nothing to be found.
The ordinance experts figured that the amount of explosives that the little plane was carrying was the reason it had so much trouble flying and why there was nothing left. Had it been delivered we would certainly have had a substantial loss of life and tremendous damage to the carrier.
The Israeli TV news called it an aviation accident, probably involving smugglers bound for Gaza. The United States had no official opinion or statement on the explosion.
The Captain of our ship personally came to my work station to thank me for my attentiveness and knowledge of procedures. He had been an aviator himself (before he became a boat driver) and knew me fairly well.
The Admiral was heard to call me a “wise ass that knows his game” at dinner that night. That was as good as it got from him. (See my story “I’m not throwing them away” for more about him.)
And the capper to a long crazy shift, I got chewed out by our division Chief Petty Officer for calling the Lieutenant (Duty Officer) a “dumb ass.” I guess I didn’t say it as quietly as I thought.
Some old habits are good, and some still get me into trouble even today.