Some of my memories as plane commander of Combat Air Crew 12, flying a P2V7 Neptune, Anti-Submarine Warfare patrol aircraft, are as vivid today as they were 55 years ago.
The closest I came to aggressive engagement with the enemy occurred when our unarmed aircraft was jumped by two Soviet MiGs during the Cuban Missile Crisis. They were poised to swoop down and do some very bad things to our airplane. That’s when two U.S. jet Phantoms came to our rescue, joined up on each wing tip, letting the Russkies know the playing field had just been leveled. The Soviets turned tail and ran. Thank you, Maverick.
Many of my memorable flying highlights are emotionally stirring. I recall the tranquility of late night, fourteen-hour patrols over the north Atlantic and watching spectacular displays of the Northern Lights.
On night patrols, with my 10 crew members quietly at their tasks, I found the glow of my instrument panel with all of its gauges in the green and the comforting drone of those 3,700 horsepower engines, a very satisfying experience.
How proud I was that time to return to our home base after a successful patrol bringing a Soviet submarine to the surface and being greeted by our Commanding Officer who met me with hand extended and an enthusiastic “Well Done, Lieutenant Stark.”
How pleasing it was to execute a landing after dealing with 30-knot, 90-degree crosswinds and to hear the landing gear make their “chirp, chirp” as we settled precisely on the center line of the runway. My flight engineer’s soft tap on my shoulder, silently saying, “Good job, Skipper,” brought a smug smile to my face every time.
Taking off from icy, snow-covered runways in Maine was not a big deal unless one of those full-throttled engines decided to hiccup. Finally reaching altitude and leveling off above the clouds was always a welcome moment to exhale deeply and enjoy a cigarette and cup of coffee. I haven’t smoked now for over 50-years but still recall the satisfaction it brought.
I never got over the pleasure of punching through solid clouds at 10,000 feet, and emerging into a glorious sunlit, clear blue sky. It was almost, but not quite as good as dropping through the overcast at 200-feet above the ground and seeing those runway lights welcoming us home.
Returning to our base after a six-month overseas deployment, taxiing to the ramp, and seeing family and friends gathered by the hanger waving and cheering was always an emotional high.
Four crossings of the Atlantic Ocean became almost routine until you realize it was the 1960s and we put our trust in celestial navigation and the dead-reconning of a young navigator.
Most of my squadron’s twelve flight crews had 3rd tour Lieutenant Commanders as their PPCs (Patrol Plane Commanders). These PPCs had Chief Petty Officers as their plane captains (flight engineers). I was only a Lieutenant, but kept my nose clean and just found myself in the right place at the right time. My plane captain was an ADR3, Aviation Mate 3rd Class, Ray Wells. So as the junior crew in the squadron, who do you think got the Christmas Eve patrol and all other less desirable assignments? You bet we did! And my crew accepted that challenge. We never aborted a flight, even when critical equipment failed that we had to fix it with chewing gum and paperclips. Gad. What a great bunch!
How proud I was to realize I had ten resourceful “Can Do” crew members who trusted me to fly them through challenging weather conditions, into potentially hostile combat situations, and to deal with occasional engine malfunctions. I felt very fortunate the Navy gave me the skill and opportunity to serve my country.
- Stark, kneeling far right