Daily Flight Stories
Historic Wings is pleased to present our daily story celebrating what happened today in aviation history.
Published on September 14, 2012
September 14, 1976, was an unlucky day for the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy. Approximately 100 miles northwest of Scapa Flow, Scotland, the ship was involved in a 100 ship naval exercise with NATO called Teamwork 76. It was Press Day and the assembled photographers of the US and Europe watched as an F-14A Tomcat from VF-32 taxied toward Catapult #3 for launch. The pilot, Lt. J. L. Kosich, and his radar intercept officer, Lt. (jg) L. E. Seymour, prepared for launch. Suddenly, the engines inexplicably roared to full power. Lt. Kosich checked the throttle, but found it was still set at idle. He stomped the brakes, but the plane began to skid forward despite the locked tires.
Ahead, a line of aircraft loomed as long black streaks of tire rubber scarred the deck. Steering left, he ran the plane toward the flight deck crew as they dived to the side. One crewman’s ankle was crushed when run over by the errant plane, the rest dodged out of the way. Then F-14A’s right wing rammed into two adjacent planes, causing significant damage — yet Lt. Kosich had saved a catastrophic crash into the full line of fueled and armed jets. Still, there was no stopping the F-14A still as it dragged the locked tires toward the edge of the deck. Finally, Lts. Kosich and Seymour ejected as the plane rolled off the deck into the waters below.
As the plane sank beneath the waves, a Soviet Navy cruiser that had been shadowing the fleet sailed close to log the position. The ramifications were clear — on board the F-14A Tomcat was America’s new and top secret AIM-54 Phoenix missile as well as its revolutionary fire control radar system, the AN/AWG-9. Knowing the Soviet Union’s deep sea recovery capabilities, it was apparent that it would be race to achieve a recovery before the sensitive technologies fell into their hands.
The F-14 Tomcat and its Missile Systems
The US Navy’s F-14 Tomcat was deadly for one key reason — it was equipped with a revolutionary pair of combat systems, the AIM-54 Phoenix air-to-air missile and the AN/AWG-9 radar system. Managed by the radar intercept officer in the Tomcat’s back seat, the AIM-54 and AN/AWG-9 systems could track six targets simultaneously, redirect the missile in flight to alternate targets, and perform a lock-on in track-while-scan mode. It had an extraordinary range — 100+ nm — and a speed of Mach 5. The missile had a maximum operating altitude of approximately 100,000 feet, which it incorporated into its attack profile, popping up and then descending on its targets from above. The US Military feared that the Soviets would recover the aircraft and its missiles. Through reverse engineering, the technology could help the Soviet make a dramatic leap forward in their missile quality. The US Navy would spare no effort in a veritable race against the Soviets.
The aircraft had sunk into waters that were 1,850 feet deep — and recovering the plane and its single AIM-54 Phoenix missile would be no easy matter. As the Teamwork 76 fleet sailed away, they were pleased that the Soviet shadowing ships followed. The concern was, however, that the Soviets would quickly attempt a recovery with a deep net dragged by a trawler. The US Navy ordered a 24 hour watch on the site by air. Soon a rotation of P-3C Orions out of Keflavik, Iceland, were airborne over the site.
To facilitate fast recovery before the winter season set in, a contract was put in place with Seaward, Inc., a Falls Church, Virginia, company that served the Navy’s special requirements. A Norwegian salvage ship called “Constructor” was also subcontracted, as was a side-scan sonar provider, Hydro Surveys of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The Navy itself would provide an Abnaki class fleet tug called the USS Shakori (ATF-162), then under the command of Lieutenant Commander David Sargent, and several other vessels. As it turned out, the ocean would not give up the F-14A Tomcat and its secret hardware so easily.
The USS Shakori deployed the side-scan sonar gear from Hydro Surveys and searched for the lost plane. Massive seas of the increasingly cold North Atlantic popped rivers and threatened to wash crewmen overboard. Day after day for ten days, the print outs of the sonar scans showed nothing. On October 3, the sonar showed a promising target — carefully charting the location, which was a distance from where the plane was supposed to have been, the USS Shakori returned to port for repairs and supplies. After a week the ship set out once again to the spot, but on arrival, discovered that the sonar came up empty. Had the plane moved? Had it been recovered by the Soviets? Had it been dragged by a quick moving Soviet trawler. Whatever they had seen before was gone. As Naval analysts stressed that the Soviets might have undertaken a quick snatch and grab of their own, despite the wide ranging P-3C Orions, the USS Shakori commenced a new search, battered by even more violent seas.
Deploying the NR-1
As this was unfolding a Sperry engineer named Roger Sherman walked into the headquarters of Submarine Squadron Two at Holy Loch, Scotland, with an idea — why not send the Navy’s top secret NR-1 submarine to recover the plane? The answer he received was shocking — the officers in the unit had no idea what the NR-1 was, nor that it was already within close reach of the crash site. It seemed that the Navy’s top secret “research” submarine was so secret that even the senior officers on the base didn’t know of its existence or capabilities. Once convinced of the NR-1′s unique strengths, a message was sent up the chain to COMSUBLANT in Washington, DC. Shortly afterward, the Navy’s surface fleet responded — the submariners were not needed — stay out of the recovery effort.
For Roger Sherman, this was a travesty. First the NR-1 was so secret that nobody in the Navy even knew that it was perfect for the recovery. Second, the recovery effort had touched off an inadvertent turf war between the surface Navy and submariners. From experience, Sherman knew that the real clout rested with the surface side of the show — yet the submariners still had a few cards to play. He called a friend at the Pentagon who had a direct line to Admiral Rickover, the Navy’s famously ornery submarine chief. Adm. Rickover would fight the battle and, as usual, would win. In just a few hours, the word came back that the NR-1 mission was on.
The Search Succeeds
With the NR-1 proceeding to the area, the US Navy and Royal Navy deployed ships to clear the area of any Soviet vessels. Beneath the waves, the Navy ordered an attack submarine, the USS Batfish, to “sanitize” the area of any non-allied vessels. Loaded with torpedoes, the submarine cruised into the area, very aware that the unspecific nature of the term, “sanitize” had potentially profound consequences. On the surface, the HMS Blue Rover likewise cruised with its weapons systems on a hair trigger. Soviet involvement was clearly being discouraged in the most raw terms — yet even so, the Soviets sent a fleet of recovery ships backed by the Soviet Navy. As the US and Royal Navies watched, the Soviets were making their way toward the site, undeterred by the threat and intending to defend their right of recovery with arms if necessary.
Days passed in additional searching before the sonar target was once again revealed on board the USS Shakori. The NR-1 was ordered to proceed to the location but found that the bottom was instead littered with boulders, each of which returned signals at varying strengths based on the angles and sizes. Finding the sonar useless, the NR-1 began a laborious box search pattern, seeking the target by eyes alone. Then, quite suddenly, the NR-1 spotted a massive tangle of numerous trawler nets ahead. The submarine reversed but was seemingly too slow — it nearly hit the nets, stopping just 20 feet from getting tangled. Backing away, the NR-1′s skipper took the submarine carefully downward to the bottom on the assumption that the nets had caught on something.
At the base of the nets, the F-14 was lying on its back, one wing crushed, apparently having been dragged by the trawler nets for miles. Someone had snagged it — was it just a deep sea fishing trawler, or was it the Soviets? Nobody knew, but it seemed obvious that there were few fish that deep to interest a commercial fisherman. Photographs of the nets and buoy floats revealed a variety of origins — French numbers, UK fleet numbers and, ominously, Cyrillic writing. It appeared that the Russians had tried to drag the plane off after all during the week while the USS Shakori back in Scotland. Most likely, the Soviets had almost gotten there first. The plane was too heavy, however, and they had failed. At least now the US NAvy had the aircraft in sight.
Yet there was one problem — the AIM-54 Phoenix missile was missing.
Recovery and Missile Search
The task before the NR-1 was challenging. The plane was snagged in multiple nets, which floated in the current and threatened to snag and trap the submarine on the bottom. The NR-1 would creep up and, keeping its stern screws away from the wreck and nuts, attempt to tie a cable around the plane with its remotely operated arm. Further complicating the task was a newly discovered deep sea phenomenon, christened on the spot as Nolter’s Maelstrom, a sudden blast of current that was the equivalent of a straight line wind, except that it raked the ocean floor. Nolter’s Maelstrom was something previously unknown to science, for which, even to this day, there are few explanations. Throughout the effort, as often as twice a day, the NR-1 would be hit by the powerful deep current wave, each time nearly tipping over the submarine.
Meanwhile, on the waves above, the Soviet Navy was nearing with its own recovery fleet. The Royal Navy did its best to shepherd away the vessels, but they closed the distance relentlessly, day after day working their way toward the site until they finally arrived. By then, a small fleet of Naval and contract vessels were on the scene. Indeed, it seemed that the Soviets had known exactly where they were heading. Yet the recovery was nearly done — or so they hoped. The Soviets arrived and a tense stand off ensued. The US Navy proceeded with its efforts at recovery while the Soviets stood by, hoping that they failed. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the Soviets, deep below and hidden from sight, recovery lines were set by the NR-1.
Amidst yet another storm, a ship above connected to lift the aircraft. With seas of 20 feet, the lift began. The Soviets recognized that something was up and one of their ships made a run toward the US Navy ship. It was intercepted and ushered away, but the Soviets crept closer, watching or whatever evidence they could spot. The lift proceeded slowly as the ships rocketed and tossed in the heavy seas. Each wave put stress on the lift cables — and finally, the stresses were too much. Lifted nearly halfway, the line suddenly snapped and the plane fell to the bottom once more. This time it landed right side up.
The Soviets Await as the Missile is Found
The Soviets seemed pleased. They continued to wait as the US Navy adjusted their position and began the days long task of relocating the plane, setting new cables and trying another lift. Again, the NR-1 connected the lines and again the ships were connected. The cables tightened and the lift began. Yet again the plane was lifted and yet again it fell back to the sea floor when the heavy seas forced the line to part. Taking their cue from the Soviets, the US decided on a brute force solution — the plane would be roped and dragged to shallow waters by deep sea trawlers hired for the job.
Meanwhile, far below, the NR-1 abandoned the delicate recovery and instead went in search of the missing AIM-54 Phoenix missile. Once more, it cruised slowly in a search pattern, eyeballing the bottom of the ocean until the missile was spotted. It rested on the bottom with only slight damage suffered. Up above, the Soviets and Americans eyed one another, the Soviets expecting that another lift attempt would soon be made.
Whereas the plane had been too large for the NR-1, the missile was an ideal size. The only problem was that nobody knew really if the warhead was armed and might explode during the recovery. After discussions, the NR-1 proceeded despite the risk. Positioning itself overhead, it opened its keel claw and slowly lowered itself atop the missile. Then, once certain that the missile was in the claw, it clamped gently closed. With the missile securely in hand, the NR-1 then rose to the surface, slowly rising to time its arrival on top with the darkness of midnight. The Soviets could not get a good image of the submarine in the darkness. As the NR-1 bobbed in the heavy seas, the missile was connected to cables from another surface ship. Once released from the NR-1′s keel claw, it fell away and was easily winched aboard one of the surface ships.
Recovering the F-14 Tomcat
Finally, a pair of German heavy trawlers were leased, including the “Taurus”. By dragging a heavy cable along the seabed, the two ships snagged the plane and then, as one waited, the other ran circles around the F-14 until it was virtually crushed securely into place amidst a knot of cable. Then the plane was lifted nearly to the surface and towed to shallow water, where it was properly recovered with more traditional shallow water recovery methods. Although the plane was wrecked and twisted, the key components were still there. Despite the odds, the US Navy had saved the plane and its top secret hardware from falling into Soviet hands.
The recovery was extraordinary — and even if its cost exceeded $2.4 million, the secrets preserved were far more valuable than the cost and time. The Soviets too were impressed, though not positively. In addition to losing out on an excellent opportunity to steal modern US technology, they realized that they had a new and different problem. The US Navy’s press office issued a release that described how the missile had been recovered by vessel they had never heard of before, the NR-1 — reportedly a “five man research submersible”. The existence of the NR-1 would dog Soviet intelligence officers for years to come — just what was that little submarine that had surfaced in the darkness of night and gotten the job done? How deep could it dive? What was it really doing?
The F-14 Tomcat and its secrets were most likely uncovered by the Soviets some years later anyway. The Tomcat and its super secret Phoenix missiles were sold to America’s key Gulf Region ally, Iran, during the 1970s. With the revolution of 1979, the Iranian Air Force would suddenly find itself in the opposition. An embargo on spare parts and systems would hamper the Iranian’s ability to support the planes and systems, but could not stop the Soviets from paying to have a look. As a result, the Soviets no doubt were finally able to get a closer look at the AIM-54 and AN/AWG-9 systems. Yet by the time the Soviet Union would be ready to deploy a new generation of air-to-air missiles, the US Navy would retire the AWG-9 and AIM-54 in favor of a new generation of more sophisticated missiles and systems coming into deployment. The Phoenix missile was an obsolete system, replaced by the AMRAAM. Perhaps the NR-1′s mission allowed the Navy ten years of security, but ultimately, the world and the pace of technological advance would march on.
Throughout its service life, how many AIM-54 missiles were fired in combat and what was their score?