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Crews hunt 'enemy' subs in latest patrol airplane

Apr. 19, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Royal Air Force pilots and squadron leaders Andy Bull, right, and Mark Faulds work the cockpit controls of a Navy P-8 during the Fleet Challenge competition. The British pilots serve as instructors in the U.S.; the U.K. doesn't fly maritime patrol aircraft.
Royal Air Force pilots and squadron leaders Andy Bull, right, and Mark Faulds work the cockpit controls of a Navy P-8 during the Fleet Challenge competition. The British pilots serve as instructors in the U.S.; the U.K. doesn't fly maritime patrol aircraft. (Mark D. Faram/Staff)
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ABOARD NAVY P-8A 431 — Flying at less than 500 feet over the Atlantic Ocean, the Navy P-8A Poseidon took a hard 180-degree turn to starboard, nearly standing the aircraft on it’s wing as it doubled back along the search track.

The aircrew had spotted a submarine periscope on radar — operating close to the surface and sending messages.

It was early in the April 7 search and the P-8 crew was coming around fast, looking to get a kill.

Fighting the G-forces in the turn, the crew reloaded and prepared to drop more sonobuoys — portable sonar listening devices that transmit data back to the P-8.

The “enemy” submarine was actually the attack submarine Springfield, then playing the opposing force off the Florida coastline for the 2014 Fleet Challenge exercise.

The newest maritime patrol aircraft in the Navy, the Poseidon is a born sub-hunter built into the body of a Boeing 737 — the same airframe operated by many airlines.

The competition, held since 2007, brings the best patrol and reconnaissance crews from around the Navy to Jacksonville, Fla., to compete for top honors in the chess game of sub-chasing. But it’s been two years since a champion was crowned: Budget cuts last year prevented the competition from being held.

'Nailed it'

Each crew flew a simulator scenario and a live flight against the Springfield. Instructors graded them on mission planning, tactics and crew training, as well as implementation of lessons learned.

P-8A 431 might be a U.S. Navy airplane, but on the April 7 flight, the crew was from elsewhere.

Two Royal Air Force officers sat at the controls, and their British crew of six warfare operators — four airmen and two officers — worked the stations in the back, dropping sonobuoys and listening for the churning of a submarine.

The April 7 flight wasn’t their first attempt to take part in the competition. A flight the day before ended abruptly when smoke was smelled in the cockpit.

“It was quite frustrating to have to just turn around and land,” said Royal Air Force Squadron Leader Mark Faulds, one of the pilots.

Their luck turned 180 degrees the next day, when they spotted the periscope and tracked the submerged sub for a couple of hours, launching four simulated attacks.

“We really felt like we nailed it,” said Faulds, whose crew serves as instructors at Patrol Squadron 30. “We don’t get to operate as a crew much these days, so it’s nice to get out there and actually do the mission we’re here teaching others to do — nice to know we’ve still got it.”

Faulds couldn’t elaborate on what the submarine did to evade his crew’s methodical tracking, saying only that it was obvious to his operators the sub was working hard to shake them.

'Seed corn'

Though stationed at the Jacksonville-based VP-30 and spending most of their time teaching new U.S. P-8 crews how to fly and fight, the reason Faulds and his compatriots are stationed here is to help the Royal Air Force maintain its maritime patrol tactics.

The RAF has maritime patrol crews but no maritime patrol aircraft to fly. Their last patrol platform — the Hawker Siddeley Nimrod — left service in 2010.

Since then, they’ve farmed out many of their crews overseas, to the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

“We’re being called ‘seed corn,’ ” said Sgt. Steve Dixon, one of the crew’s enlisted warfare operators and a 24-year RAF veteran. “It’s wonderful that our leadership sees the value in retaining our skills, because it’s the kind of thing that’s very perishable.”

None of the crew could say what kind of aircraft the RAF might buy — or when.

American patrol pilots and operators train up and progress in their careers as individuals. But in the RAF, these crews train and stay together for much longer periods of time — a model that may have borne out in the results.

“It’s really a fantastic honor for us to even compete in the competition, let alone win,” said Faulds, whose rank is equivalent to a U.S. Navy O-4, after his crew received top honors. “It’s not like we ran away with it — from what I understand, the scoring was very close.”

For his part, Faulds credited their success to the state-of-the-art systems on the P-8. He and his team will be in the U.S. until 2016. They plan to be back next year to defend their title.

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