Published on September 14, 2012
By Thomas Van Hare
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 taking part in a 100 ship NATO exercise called “Teamwork 76”. It was Press Day and the assembled photographers of the United States and Europe watched as one of the ship’s F-14A Tomcat fighters — from VF-32 — taxied toward Catapult #3 for launch. The pilot, Lt. John 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 that he had locked tires, the combined thrust from the jet’s two, very powerful TF30-P-414A engines was just too much.
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Ahead, a line of aircraft loomed. Long black streaks of tire rubber scarred the deck. Steering left, Lt. Kosich ran the plane away from the other aircraft. The flight deck crew dived out of the way to the side. One crewman wasn’t fast enough and his ankle was caught under the tires and crushed. The rest made it safely away. Then F-14A’s right wing hit two adjacent planes, causing significant damage. By his fast thinking and actions, Lt. Kosich had prevented a catastrophic crash, one that would have likely caused a massive fire. The planes parked ahead were fully fueled and armed. Still, there was no stopping the F-14A. It dragged its way forward, despite the locked tires and headed toward the edge of the deck. As the plane rolled off the deck and started to fall toward the water below, Lts. Kosich and Seymour ejected.
The two men were safe and Tomcat sank beneath the waves. The plane was valued at just over $14 million, which in modern terms equates to $57 million when corrected for inflation for the 2012 year. The value of the plane, however, was far more than the cost of manufacturing — it featured the newest, best technologies in the US Navy’s air arsenal and if those secrets fell into Soviet hands, it would be costly beyond measure to US national security.
Nearby, a Soviet Navy cruiser was shadowing the fleet. It sailed close by and everyone instantly knew that the Soviets had logged the position of the accident. The ramifications were clear — the F-14A Tomcat carried America’s newest, top secret AIM-54 Phoenix missile system, as well as its revolutionary fire control radar, the AN/AWG-9. Knowing the Soviet Union’s deep sea recovery capabilities, it was apparent that the two superpowers were in a race to recover the plane before some of America’s most sensitive technologies fell into Soviet hands.
The F-14 Tomcat and its Missile Systems
The US Navy’s F-14A 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 the Phoenix missiles flew at 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 if the Soviets recovered the aircraft and its missiles, they would reverse engineer the technology for their own use. That would be a dramatic leap forward in Soviet missile and radar technologies.
The US Navy would spare no effort in the recovery. It was a race against the Soviets.
The aircraft had sunk into waters that were 1,850 feet deep. Recovering the plane and the single AIM-54 Phoenix missile that it had carried would be no easy matter. As the other ships in the NATO exercise Teamwork 76 sailed away, they were pleased to watch as 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. Therefore, 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 flying in airborne shifts over the site.
To facilitate fast recovery before the winter season set in, a contract was put in place with Seaward, Inc., a company in Falls Church, Virginia, that served the Navy’s special requirements. As Norway is a strong NATO ally, one of its salvage ships, called “Constructor”, was subcontracted to assist. The US Navy loaded on board an unmanned, radio-controlled submersible called “CURV-III”, the third generation of the Navy’s “Cable-controlled Undersea Recovery Vehicle”, which had been flown out to the site from California specifically for the operation. The Norwegians, with their extensive experience in deep seabed operations for its oil industry, were a critical part of the team.
The British sent the ship, Oil Harrier, which featured large winches that were capable of lifting the plane, which had an estimated weight of 72,000 lbs (32,000 kg) when fully loaded. The side-scan sonar provider, Hydro Surveys, from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, was tasked to bring its equipment to the scene. The US Navy provided the Abnaki class fleet tug, USS Shakori (ATF-162), then under the command of Lieutenant Commander David Sargent, and several other vessels to the effort.
As it turned out, the ocean would not give up the F-14A Tomcat and its secret hardware so easily.
The first step in the recovery involved USS Shakori, which deployed the side-scan sonar gear that Hydro Surveys had quickly dispatched for the job. The ship searched for the lost plane. The cold North Atlantic, however, seemed to be conspiring against the effort. Massive waves popped rivets and threatened to wash crewmen overboard. Conditions were terrible.
Day after day for ten days, the sonar scans showed nothing. Finally, on October 3, the sonar showed a promising target. After carefully charting the location, which was a distance from where the plane was supposed to have been, USS Shakori returned to port for repairs and supplies. A week later, the ship set out once again to return to the spot.
On its arrival, the crew were shocked to discover that the sonar came up empty. The seabed where they had previously spotted what was possibly the plane was somehow bare. Had the plane moved? Had it been somehow covertly recovered by the Soviets? Had it been dragged by a quick moving Soviet trawler. Whatever they had seen before was gone.
Navy analysts stressed that the Soviets might have undertaken a quick snatch and grab of their own. How they could have done that was a mystery. The watchful eyes of the Iceland-based P-3C Orions were still monitoring the area.
USS Shakori commenced a new search. Conditions worsened, however, and the ship and crew were battered by 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.
Soon convinced of the NR-1’s unique potential to recover the aircraft, a coded message asking for authority to deploy the sub was sent up the chain to COMSUBLANT in Washington, DC. The Navy’s surface fleet responded: the submarine was not needed and they should stay out of the recovery effort.
For Sherman, this seemed a travesty. First, the NR-1 was so secret that nobody in the Navy recognized that it was perfect for the recovery. Second, it seemed that the recovery effort had touched off a turf war between the surface Navy and submariners, reigniting long simmering intra-service competition.
From experience, Sherman knew that the real clout rested with the surface side of the Navy. Still, the submariners had a few cards to play. He called a friend, Capt. Art Francis, who was heading up nuclear reactor programs at the Groton, Connecticut, US Navy field office supporting Electric Boat (one of the Navy’s primary nuclear submarine builders). As one of those submarine nuclear officers who had been hand-picked for engineering in the submarine service, Capt. Francis had a direct line to Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, the Navy’s famously ornery submarine chief. He hoped that Adm. Rickover would take up the fight. If so, he would almost certainly win. In just a few hours, Rickover had been informed, made a decision, and the operation was a go. Word came back that the NR-1 mission was on — the code name for the operation was “Big Daddy”.
Capt. Toby Warson, USN, was put in charge of the recovery effort by the US Navy’s head of submarine operations in the Atlantic, COMSUBLANT, Admiral Joe Williams, USN. Capt. Warson was assigned at the time as commanding officer of the Blue Crew on USS George Washington Carver (SSBN-), one of the Navy’s most powerful ballistic missile submarines. Three years earlier, he had been the skipper of NR-1.
On board NR-1 was the sub’s current skipper, CDR Allison J. “Al” Holifield, USN, who was to have been reassigned but stayed on with the boat when the mission was assigned, and the man who was supposed to have relieved him in command, CDR Mike McQuown, USN. As well, the Executive Officer, Joe Nolter, who was also the one at the helm and their engineering officer, Mike Riegel, filled out the along with at least one other individual whose name is yet to be identified. The normal complement of the NR-1 for deep sea operations was once described as being 3 officers, 8 crewmen, and 2 scientists.
The Search Succeeds
The NR-1 was towed to the site by the Navy vessel, USS Sunbird (ASR-15), under the command of CDR Edward Craig, USN. USS Sunbird was a Chanticleer-class submarine rescue ship. The US Navy and Royal Navy were tasked together to keep the area clear of any Soviet vessels. Thus, the US Navy ordered an attack submarine, USS Batfish, to “sanitize” the area to ensure that no non-allied vessels were present as the NR-1 did its work. 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 Royal Navy provided HMS Blue Rover to keep an eye out.
Soviet involvement was clearly being discouraged in the most raw terms. It was a message that the Soviets could not have missed. Nonetheless, the Soviets sent a fleet of recovery ships backed by the Soviet Navy, undeterred by the threat. The Soviets were intent on defending the international right of salvage, giving all nations the legitimate right to recover any ship or asset that was lost at sea. It seemed that the Soviets were willing to resort to arms if necessary.
Days passed in additional searching before USS Shakori relocated what they thought might have been the sonar target. Immediately upon its arrival on October 21, 1976, the NR-1 dove to the seabed and found that the area littered with large, irregular boulders, each of which returned signals at varying strengths based on the angles of the sonar pulse and the varying sizes of the boulders. This was why the surface ships with their side-scan sonar systems were having difficulty finding the wreck.
The NR-1 was uniquelly equipped for the job at hand. It had four external, electrical thrusters and advanced navigation systems that enabled it to remain motionless in the ocean, despite the current, or move with precision in any direction. It could even crawl on the seabed with a set of tracks that lined its keel. In the nose of the submarine was an observation compartment, in which up to two men would lie down prone and peer out of one of three thick glass portholes at the seafloor as it was illuminated by a bank of thallium lighting. The NR-1 began a laborious box search pattern of a roughly square mile area of the seabed, seeking to find the lost Tomcat by eyes alone. It was the only way.
The search proceeded without incident. The NR-1, however, found that the Tomcat was simply not where it should have been. The NR-1 then proceeded to investigate a sonar reflection that it was getting a few miles distant. As it neared the site, quite suddenly, the NR-1 spotted a massive tangle of numerous trawler nets directly ahead on its course about 100 feet over the seabed. The skipper ordered the submarine to reverse at full emergency power. If the sub couldn’t stop in time, it would possibly get tangled in the nets, with catastrophic results. The sub stopped just 20 feet from the first nets. It was a very close call. Backing away, the NR-1’s skipper took the submarine deeper to look at the seabed on the assumption that the nets had caught on something.
At the base of the nets, the NR-1’s crew spotted the F-14A. It was lying on its back, upside-down, with one wing crushed. Apparently, it had been dragged by a trawler’s nets a few miles away from where it had originally fallen into the sea. Clearly, it was either a trawler operated by the Soviets or just a deep sea commercial fishing trawler. Nobody knew which it was, but there were few fish to be found that deep in the ocean. Further, commercial fishermen were unlikely to fish that deep. All evidence pointed to the Soviets — they had gotten there first and quite nearly gotten away with the plane and its missile.
Photographs of the nets and buoy floats revealed a variety of origins — French numbers, UK fleet numbers, and, most ominously, Cyrillic writing. It appeared that the Russians had tried to drag the plane off after all. Most probably, they had done it during the week when USS Shakori had headed back in Scotland. The plane was too heavy for the nets, however. The Soviets had failed, but only based on the thickness of the net ropes. The tables had turned and US Navy had the aircraft in sight.
Yet the NR-1 reported back with another problem — the AIM-54 Phoenix missile was missing. Perhaps it had detached when the plane was dragged or perhaps the Soviets had managed to recover at least that. Nobody knew.
Recovery and Missile Search
The task of recovering the plane with the NR-1 was challenging. The plane was snagged in multiple nets and they floated in the current, waving back and forth. The nets threatened to snag and trap the submarine on the bottom. The NR-1 had to creep up, keeping its stern screws away from the wreck and nets, and attempt to tie a cable around the plane with its remotely operated arm. If the current shifted or the nets started to move toward the submarine, they would have to back away.
Further complicating the task was a newly discovered deep sea phenomenon that the sub crew christened as Nolter’s Maelstrom. This was 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. To this day, there is explanation as to why such ocean currents shift. Throughout the effort, as often as twice a day, the NR-1 would be hit by this newly discovered powerful deep current wave, each time nearly tipping over the submarine. Likewise, when the current suddenly picked up, the submarine was at risk of being snagged in the trawler nets.
Meanwhile on the surface, the Soviet Navy’s recovery fleet was arriving in the area. The Royal Navy did its best to shepherd away the vessels, but they closed the distance relentlessly. Day after day, they were working their way toward the site, ignoring warnings from the RN ships. Finally, they too had arrived. By then, a small fleet of US Navy and contract vessels were on the scene.
The Soviets had arrived in record time, as if they knew exactly where the wreck was — which was likely if they had earlier snagged the vessel with the trawler. Yet the recovery was nearly completed — or so the US Navy hoped.
A tense standoff ensued. The US Navy proceeded with its efforts at recovery while the Soviets stood by, hoping that they would fail. Nothing was apparent on the surface and the Soviets assumed that the US Navy wasn’t yet able to work at the site. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the Soviets on the scene, deep below and hidden from sight, the recovery lines were set into place by the NR-1.
Another storm rolled in even as one of the American ships took the lines and prepared to lift the aircraft. The seas swelled to 20 feet wave heights as the lift began.
Nearby, the Soviets recognized that something was up. They could see lines being attached and the winches starting to move. The Soviets ordered one of their ships to make a run toward the US Navy ship that was lifting the plane, hoping to disrupt the recovery. The Soviet vessel was intercepted and blocked, however, then ushered away.
The Soviets refused to give up and crept closer, watching for whatever evidence they could see. The lift proceeded slowly because the ships were rocking and getting tossed in the heavy seas. Each wave put stress on the lift cables, risking that they would break and the wreck of the F-14A would fall back to the seabed.
Finally, the stresses were too much and halfway up, the lines suddenly snapped. Just as everyone had feared, the plane fell to the bottom once again. This time it landed right side up. The NR-1 would have to locate the precise position of the plane once again, though this time they knew where to find, if only generally, within a much smaller area.
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. The NR-1 set new capbles and another lift was attempted. As the winches rotated, the cables tightened. The lift had begun. Yet again the plane was brought closer to the surface, and then, just as before, heavy seas put too much stress on the cables — they snapped. The Tomcat fell back to the sea floor.
Taking their cue from the Soviets, the US Navy decided on a brute force solution. The new plan was that the Tomcat would be lassoed once again by the NR-1 and then, rather than lifting it, it would dragged to shallower waters. The Navy quietly hired a pair of deep sea trawlers for the job.
The Search for the Missing Phoenix Missile
Far below, the NR-1 was ordered to abandon the recovery and go in search of the missing AIM-54 Phoenix missile. Once more, it cruised slowly in a search pattern, eyeballing the bottom of the ocean for the missing Phoenix missile. Finally, they spotted it resting on the bottom and only slightly damaged. Up above, the Soviets and Americans eyed one another, the Soviets were unaware of the new plan and expected that another lift attempt would soon be made.
Whereas the plane had been too large for the NR-1 to recover on its own, the missile was an ideal size. The only problem was that nobody knew really if the warhead was armed. There was a possibility that the missile might explode during the recovery, which would likely destroy the submarine, killing everyone on board.
After a series of discussions, it was decided to order the NR-1 to proceed despite the risk. Positioning itself overhead, the submarine deployed its keel claw and slowly lowered itself atop the missile. Once certain that the missile was directly underneath, the claw was clamped gently closed. With the missile securely in hand, the NR-1 then rose to the surface, rising slowly to time its surfacing with the darkness of midnight. That way, the Soviets would be unable to get a good image of the submarine in the darkness or know exactly what it was doing.
Once it was the surface, the NR-1 bobbed in the heavy seas. With care, the missile was connected to cables from another surface ship. Everyone held their breath, hoping that when the NR-1’s keel claw was released, that the missile wouldn’t fall back to the seabed. The cables attached to the missile held and once the NR-1 released its hold on the missile, it was easily winched aboard one of the surface ships.
Recovering the F-14 Tomcat
Finally, the pair of German heavy trawlers that the Navy had hired arrived on the scene. One was the “Taurus”. The two trawlers dragged a heavy cable along the seabed and snagged the plane. Then, as one waited, the other ran circles around the F-14 until it was securely trapped amidst a knot of cable. Then the plane was lifted nearly to the surface. The two trawlers towed the Tomcat wreck to shallower water, where it was finally recovered. Traditional shallow water recovery methods were easily applied.
Although the plane was wrecked and twisted, a US Navy team quickly determined that all of 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 of the Tomcat from the seabed was extraordinary. So was the cost — ultimately, the US Navy had expended more than $2.4 million on the effort, however, America’s technology secrets were far more valuable than that. 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 issued a press release that described how the missile had been recovered by a vessel they had never heard of before — the NR-1. The press release simply referred to a “five man research submersible”, leaving the Soviets perplexed. The existence of the NR-1 would dog Soviet intelligence officers for years to come. They wondered just what the little submarine could do. It had surfaced in the darkness of night and they had been unable to take photographs. How had it gotten the job done? How deep could it dive? What was it really doing? How could it snag and recover the Phoenix missile?
One More Bit of Aviation History
It took another ten years for the Soviets to finally acquire the F-14 Tomcat and learn its secrets. The Tomcat and its top secret Phoenix missiles had been sold to America’s key Gulf Region ally, Iran, during the 1970s. With the revolution of 1979, the Iranian Air Force found itself on the other side. An embargo on spare parts and systems soon hampered the Iran’s ability to support the planes and its complex systems. Hard up for cash, the Iranians allowed the Soviets to pay to have a close look at the AIM-54 and AN/AWG-9 systems. By the time the Soviet Union reverse engineered the missile, however, the US Navy had deployed a new generation of air-to-air missiles. The AN/AWG-9 radar and AIM-54 Phoenix missile were retired in favor of a new generation of yet more sophisticated missiles and systems — the AMRAAM. Still, the NR-1 had given the US Navy another ten years of technological superiority.
Today’s Aviation History Question
Throughout its service life, how many AIM-54 missiles were ever fired in combat and what was their score?