We had a 0400 brief a 0600 takeoff, a 0700 vertrep, a 0930 recovery, and a 1500 pier-side–for three days. We were one month into a six-month cruise, open ocean, and in the groove. Everything was as it should’ve been, or so we thought.
We launched to starboard, into the darkness of a moonless morning. We flew straight from the ship for five miles before turning, so the ship could bring the SPY radar to full power. The after-takeoff checklist was in progress.
As I waited for the airborne-tactical officer to finish the after takeoff, I checked to see what our crewman was looking at on radar. Something didn’t look right. A large return was six miles off the nose. Probably clouds, I thought. Out the windscreen, however, I saw nothing but stars. The ship was two relics astern; we had three miles to go. We contacted the ASTAC over HAWKLINK and asked if any islands were in the vicinity. Here’s the conversation:
Pilot: “ASTAC, where’s the nearest land?”
ASTAC: “Sixty three miles to the northeast.”
Pilot: “There’s nothing off our nose for four miles?”
ASTAC: “No sir. it looks like clouds.”
Pilot (over ICS): “Does that look like clouds to you guys?”
Crewman (over ICS): “It’s not real big, but it is blocking out the returns on the other side. Looks like land to me.”
Pilot: “Arc you sure there’s not land right off our nose?”
ASTAC: “Yes, sir. The large-screen display shows nearest land at 62 miles.”
We decided to turn early. If it were land, we would have seen it at that range. But, we saw stars all around, so it wasn’t clouds. Something wasn’t right. We didn’t know how important the decision to turn tire aircraft would be. We put a manual track on the closest return to see if it was moving. As far as we could tell, it wasn’t.
We had another radar return 10 miles southwest of the ship. The ship was heading northwest, right between the two returns. We could pick up the USNS ship our ship was rendezvousing with, farther to the northwest. We opened five miles astern from our ship and began to orbit in a loose racetrack pattern, as we waited for the sunrise vertrep. Still not comfortable with the cloud theory, we asked again about the land.
Pilot: “ASTAC, are you sure there’s not land out here’? There’s not a cloud in the sky, as far as we can tell.”
ASTAC: “Let me check with the TAO, but I don’t show any land in the vicinity. (pause) No sir. TAO said nearest land 60 miles to the northeast.”
Pilot: “Would you please check the charts to make sure?”
ASTAC: “Standby, sir.” (one minute later) “Sir, there is land 030, six miles, 230, 10 miles. Highest elevation 1,200 feet.”
This about floored us. The entire, conversation took about four minutes. Had we not checked radar as early as we did, the ASTAC never would have warned us of the peaks 700 feet above us”. As the sun rose, we could make out the near vertical cliffs rising out of the ocean and the ship steaming right between them.
Where did everything break down? Let’s start with the brief. As aircraft commander, it was my responsibility to check the charts to see where we were going. Just because we had been in open ocean for the previous month didn’t mean it would stay that way for the rest of cruise. I was too comfortable with the mission and didn’t go to the charts. Neither did the ASTAC or TAO.
We lacked situational awareness. We launched six miles From an island and had no idea it was there. Fortunately, we remained assertive and kept analyzing the situation until it made sense. This was a huge wake-up call.
Lt. Greiner flies with HSL-48.
COPYRIGHT 2002 U.S. Naval Safety Center
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group