NAVAL AIR STATION JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (NNS) — As Patrol Squadron Six Two (VP-62) begins the first ever mobilization of a Reserve P-3 squadron, one of the Reservists heading to Japan is also one of the last Cold War anti-submarine warfare operators still serving in the Navy.
Before getting on the plane, Master Chief Naval Aircrewman (NAC/AW) Spence Cunningham took a moment to look back on his 32 years of Naval Aviation experience.
I joined the Navy via the Delayed Entry Program in February 1981 and left for Boot Camp in Orlando in August of 1981. I completed the Anti-Submarine Warfare Operator pipeline (Non-Acoustic) in August 1982 and received orders to the Pelicans of VP-45. I completed three deployments between 1982 and 1986. I was screened and selected for instructor duty at VP-30, where I taught the Update 2, 2.5 and 3 versions of the Orion.
I completed the shore tour at VP-30 and an opportunity to work on the P-7 program was a good one, so I separated in August of 1990 and received orders to the Broadarrows of VP-62. I left active duty as an AW1. When I joined the squadron, the annual training periods consisted of the squadron setting up shop in Bermuda and we covered that ASW sector until all the Reservists completed their two-week requirements. The squadron was the last Reserve VP squadron to operate fully out of NAS Bermuda in 1991. After that, operations moved to a detachment form of annual training, where crew and maintenance formed small units and went forward to various sites like Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico; Sigonella, Sicily; Manta, Ecuador; Keflavik, Iceland and Comolapa, El Salvador, to name a few.
While I have been attached to VP-62, I have held many positions from NATOPS ‘Bluecard’ instructor to detachment CPO (chief petty officer) and up to Command Master Chief. All the while, maintaining combat aircrew qualifications to answer the call if needed.
I reached the 30-year high year tenure mark for Master Chief in February 2011, and I decided to transfer to the Volunteer Training Unit versus retirement. I decided to continue to serve, because I love what I do in the P-3 and I want to give the benefit of my experience to those junior operators that are the future of maritime patrol.
I have been very fortunate that the civilian positions I have held had a direct relationship to my Navy Reserve job. I have held positions with several local Jacksonville defense contractors that have supported the training efforts of the P-3 force that have included curriculum development, specifically the Block Mod Update and ASUW Improvement Programs for the P-3. I was also an initial member of, and later managed the Revision and Maintenance effort for the P-3 Fleet Replacement Squadron, VP-30.
Presently, I am the lead instructor for the Acoustic Track Contract Instructor cadre at VP-30. I lead ten civilian instructors in executing the initial P-3C Acoustic Operator curriculum for acoustic AWO trainees. We are responsible for completing all ground phase requirements that include classroom instruction, aircraft demonstrations, part-task trainer periods and Tactical Operational Readiness Trainers (TORT) which are full tactical crew scenarios.
I have been a sensor operator from the beginning. Actually, I completed my pipeline training as a SS-3 operator, but the needs of my first squadron dictated (by my Shop Chief) my On-The-Job (OJT) conversion to operating the acoustic sensor. I got a two-week course on acoustic analysis and departed on my first deployment to Sigonella, Sicily. I am the last AW to earn a 7821 NEC by OJT before the instruction changed that required completion of a formal curriculum to earn NECs.
All of my efforts overseas have had their moments. My first deployment had an erupting Mt. Etna that covered NAS Sig in a 1-inch layer of ash. That affected the Engine Driven Compressors (air conditioning) on the aircraft which meant many a flight was conducted in a minimalist fashion when it came to being comfortable.
That same deployment, Mummar Qadaffi set his line of death and we were flying armed patrols in support of Sixth Fleet carriers crossing the line. The Marines were car-bombed in Lebanon during that deployment, and once again we were flying armed patrols. VP-45 flew on multiple Soviet submarines from Victors and Charlies, to Tangos and Foxtrots. The squadron set a record for the most submerged contact time to date during that 1983 deployment.
My second deployment was my first as a newly minted Sensor One. I cut my chops on the challenging Soviet Echo II that entered the Mediterranean Sea through the Straits of Gibraltar. That was a first class ASW challenge considering the sensors we were using back then. I was successful by turning over hot contact to the following crew, but to say I was nervous was an understatement.
My appreciation for the job was not fully realized until my third deployment to the island of Bermuda. The Soviets consistently deployed the “Yankee” class submarines between Bermuda and the east coast of the United States. Our job was to stay “on-top” around the clock while they were present. One submarine decided to test the theory by straying further west. We were on-top and were given authorization to let them know we were there. We did this by going active and after a few hours of relentless pinging, the Yankee moved back. During debrief, the crew was told that an entire B-52 wing had moved inland during that excursion. I was stunned at the information. Here it was that a lowly Naval Aircrewman 2nd Class’s efforts in running his sensor was standing between a Yankee and its missiles and the East Coast. Doing this job was just “fun” up until then. It still is, but I never considered the broader implications of what I do on the aircraft and I have never forgotten that since.
This is my first mobilization as a Reservist. I have been in a hardware unit the entire time. Since I was tied to Combat Aircrew Readiness, performing an Individual Augmentee position was possible, but not encouraged given the limited number of Sensor One operators VP-62 has.
My expectations on this deployment are what any acoustic operator worth his or her salt should be, tracking submarines. Being primarily an Atlantic Fleet operator, I look forward to working in the western Pacific against some very challenging submarines found in that area of the world. I relish the challenge and look forward to sharing my experience with some young fleet operators out there, not to mention getting to experience liberty in the exotic countries of the Western Pacific.
I am the last of the Cold Warriors that are still actively flying in the P-3. I have acoustic sensor experience that runs the gamut from AN/AQA-7 paper grams to the current AN-USQ-78B Acoustic Processor Technical Refresh (APTR). I have hours upon hours of on-top time of a multitude of submarines in many of the world’s oceans. This is what I have spent the last 30 years of my life doing and I cannot think of any other job I’d rather perform. I have certainly had an exceptional run and I have to give a lion share of credit to the Reserves to enable me to enjoy the best of both my worlds. It is time for me to hang my flight suit up after this deployment and I will miss the flying. But most of all I will miss those Sailors in VP-62. I am grateful to serve among such a group of dedicated professionals. I am humbled and appreciative of the privilege.
For more news from Patrol Squadron 62, and the WESTPAC deployment visit www.navy.mil/local/vp62/.