A 38.1-Knot Submerged Object and a French Flight Crew

Lisbon, Portugal has some interesting history and culture.

It was the late summer of 1987. An opportunity came my way to go to Montijo, Portugal (metropolitan area of Lisbon across the Tagus River and about five miles from downtown) to work with the Portuguese, French, and American antisubmarine warfare forces in a two-week exercise in the Atlantic Ocean.

I had left flight status and VP-94 in Belle Chase, Louisiana in 1986. I went from being a ‘paid Reservist’ to becoming an ‘unpaid’ Reservist. Getting a two-week funded set of orders was welcome.
I was assigned the responsibility of Senior Watch Officer for a mobile Anti-submarine Warfare Operations Center (ASWOC). We arrived, set up and checked the equipment, tested all the planned communications frequencies, checked security, started briefing and debriefing sheets, and got a feel for operating at a foreign base amid American, French, and Portuguese flight crews.

I had stood watches my entire military career. Most of the watches were a standard eight hours on and sixteen hours off. I’ve had other watch regimens that I won’t comment on any further. Since it was my decision, I went with 24 hours on and 48 hours off. Why?

We were briefing and debriefing flight crews every four hours. By the time you got the debrief done and filed, it was time to begin preparations for the next brief. There was never a down or dull moment. It was constant attention to flight crews, ad hoc communications, reports, and filings. Everyone stood five watches in two weeks. Everyone had eight or nine days off.

I stood the first watch and enjoyed my 48 hours off. United States P3s were willing to take ‘off duty’ personnel to Rota, Spain for R&R. Having an extra day off made all the difference in being able to enjoy Portugal and Spain. I went to Rota for a RON (Remain Over Night), and to Lisbon, Estoril, and Cascais. Yes, part of the incentive while operating in a foreign port is the ability to visit, see the culture, eat, drink, and be happy.

On my second watch, a crew returned with the usual contacts. There were French and US submarines participating in the exercise. The Americans were flying the P3 Orion. The French were flying the Breguet Br. 1150 Atlantic. We didn’t brief or debrief the Portuguese. I know they were transitioning to the P3 and I don’t know if they flew the P2 or P3 during this exercise.

Antisubmarine warfare aircraft drop sonobuoys to detect submarines. The crew monitors each sonobuoy and tactics are determined by what information is obtained from the underwater sensor. Each sonobuoy has a unique radio frequency and the ability to be set at different depths. The length of time the buoy is of service is also selectable on some models. All information reviewed live in the aircraft is recorded.

As a practice, the ASWOC will replay every tape from a mission to determine if there was something there that might not have been seen by the operators. It happens some time that they are homing in on a particular set of specs and something else is happening at the same time, but not in the area of interest the crew member is monitoring.

On this flight, an anomaly was found. It was a submerged object doing 38.1 knots. We pulled up the portion of the tape in question and listened to the recording of the submerged object. We knew it was submerged based on other criteria. We knew it passed, nearly hit, one of the sonobuoys, but was not detected on the sonobuoy closest to it.

It had a rather unusual signature – something I’ve never seen in over sixteen years of flying antisubmarine missions on many types of submarines. We knew which direction it was heading in based on underwater physics. What was unusual was the number of harmonics and the absolute scarcity of other frequencies.

I wrote the after-flight report and sent it out to the world telling them that we detected a 38.1-knot submerged object. We (all of us with many years of ASW expertise) could not identify what we saw and heard. It didn’t take long for a call from the Admiral’s office questioning our call. He was bringing his ASW Senior Chief over for a look.

They came much faster than I thought we would see them. They did the same review we did and concluded the same thing we did. The Admiral had already called other Commands to verify if another country’s submarine might have been participating in his exercise. The answer came back – negative – no other submarines from any of the forces in our exercise or neighboring country’s submarines had been in our operations area.

This evaluation went on for about a week. No one could identify this submerged object. It didn’t act like a submarine in many ways. It wasn’t a torpedo, again the acoustic signatures were no match for anything we had ever seen. An alien underwater craft? Maybe some naval research special project? Who knows? It is an anomaly to this day. I have asked many submariners that I’ve known over the years and it baffles them also.

Going off this rousing 24 hours on Watch, I was given permission and the opportunity to fly with one of the French crews on a training mission. I got a few hours sleep and met up with the crew the next morning. I borrowed flight equipment from them and off we went. A very interesting aircraft!

I was given permission to sit in the front glass dome during flight. It was perfectively clear – no indications of any imperfections in the glass. I moved the chair forward and received a clear view of everything in front of the airplane. Simply amazing! I got permission to join the pilots in the cockpit. I was invited to sit in the left-seat and manually try to fly.  I heard groans from the tube when people were getting sick from my flying. I’m a Naval Flight Officer, not a pilot. But I got not quite an hour of flight time logged in the left seat.

We landed and the Plane Commander asked if I could join him for a birthday celebration with his crew. I had mentioned that it was my birthday earlier in the flight. We met at the Enlisted Barracks on base. I thought we were going to a club or something. They brought out of couple long tables, tubs of ice, beer, bottles of booze, and wine. We had drinks and a few toasts were made.

I was asked if I would like to join them for dinner. They had made reservations and an extra one was no problem. I accepted and was in the first taxi to leave for dinner. I arrived with a couple of  French crew members. We were escorted to a large table in the back of the restaurant. There were four bottles of wine on the table when I walked in. I asked the waitress to bring five more bottles of wine and paid for them.

We ate, played a few games, drank, had dessert and made plans to go to another club after dinner. I was taken aside by the Plane Commander and told that it was their treat to me and that I should not buy any more wine (or other alcohol) that night. I was their guest!

I was not in the first taxi, but the last. We arrived late that night and found a couple of French guys on stage pretending to shed their clothes to the audience. Lots of yelps and laughter. I looked at my watch and informed my party that I had to leave about four am to get ready for my watch that morning.

We always arrived 30 minutes early to relieve the watch. It gave us time to read what we needed to read, talk to the outgoing watch, and officially assume the watch. I was told there would be no worry. Someone was assigned to get me to where I needed to go at the appointed time.

I was escorted to the far side of the club. They had two tables pushed together and several bottles of different booze and wines were available to the party to help themselves. At this time, I switched to the non-alcoholic options because I had duty in the morning.

The time came for me to depart. My duty driver (taxi driver with my French escort) drove me back to the base and dropped me in front of my quarters. I thanked everyone before I left for a great birthday and a superb evening. One that I will never forget. Yes, I left a few scenes out to protect the innocent. I have partied with Canadians, New Zealanders, Aussies, Brits, and more, and the day and evening with the French are some of the happiest memories of my life.

I arrived at my watch on time. Thirty minutes later I assumed the watch knowing that the next 24 hours were going to be busy. They were, and I slept the following day and night away to catch up for my last time off.

Live Longer & Enjoy Life! – Red O’Laughlin – https://RedOLaughlin.com


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