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HistoryVAH-21 HistoryHistory

Circa 1998

HistoryA BIT OF HISTORY: "...VAH-21 P2 BUNO: 147957 - Pima Air and Space Museum Air Museum in Tuscon AZ 1998..." Contributed by Wayne Mutza wmutza@wi.rr.com (Author of Lockheed P2V Neptune An Illustrated History) [04OCT2005]

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Circa 1969

HistoryA BIT OF HISTORY: P2 ThumbnailCameraVAH-21 AP-2H "...NAF Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam - 00FEB69..." Contributed by Wayne Mutza wmutza@wi.rr.com (Author of Lockheed P2V Neptune An Illustrated History) [04OCT2005]

HistoryA BIT OF HISTORY: VAH-21 ThumbnailVAH-21 History "...Circa 1969 - Sensors on the AP2H-1 (Left side is FWD looking Infrared) (Right side is Lowlight level TV)..." Contributed by TRIPP, ATCS Jerry Retired trippg748@roadrunner.com [31MAR2004]

HistoryA BIT OF HISTORY: VAH-21 ThumbnailVAH-21 History "...Circa 1969 - Grenade Launchers in the Bomb Bay of the AP2H-1..." Contributed by TRIPP, ATCS Jerry Retired trippg748@roadrunner.com [31MAR2004]

Circa 1968

HistoryA BIT OF HISTORY: "01AUG68--Between 09/01/1968 and 06/16/1969 the four aircraft flew over 200 missions with VAH-21 from NAF Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam against road and river traffic in the Mekong Delta area. Some missions were flown against the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and inside Laos and Cambodia. They returned back to ConUS in 1969 and were placed in storage at Davis-Monthan AFB, after being demodified. All but one (displayed at the Pima AFB Museum) were scrapped. BuAerNos: 135620 ('SL 1'), 148353 ('SL 2'), 148337 ('SL 3') _Napalm_Nellie_, and another ('SL 4') _Iron_Butterfly_..." http://www.umcc.umich.edu/~schnars/texte/gunships.htm

Circa 1967 - 1969

HistoryA BIT OF HISTORY: "...Wings of Gold History Point of View - Alternative Acquisition Approaches - Looking Back to Move Ahead - A Vote for the Voice of the Operator! By Captain V. P. Merz, USN Retired - Wings of Gold Winter 2008..." Association of Naval Aviation http://www.anahq.org/ [24JAN2009]

Each day brings new revelations of some weapon systems acquisition programs in the military intended to put greater capability into the hands of the war fighter, or address an emerging mission need, falling short of meeting performance criteria, and/or exceeding delivery schedule and established budgets. News articles continue to highlight the shortcomings and many attempt to address the causes. Perhaps a fruitful tact would be to study some history to better understand these issues. Revisiting a period of time when things, comparatively, seemed to get done more quickly, and served the intended purpose, might prove insightful. "Pearls of wisdom" from these instances may be gleaned and help us move more effectively forward in today's environment.

For the sake of this article an area of familiarity was chosen - the 1960s through 1980s and the Navy's land based Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) community. Four efforts were chosen for review: (1) Project ANEW/P-3C; (2) Project TRIM/VAH-21; (3) P-3B TACNAVMOD/Super Bee; and (4) the P-3 Survivability Enhancement. Specific details relevant to presenting concepts, approaches, types of participants, roles and activities are highlighted.

Project A-NEW/P-3C (1960s)

The A-NEW (not an acronym, the term was used to present a new concept) project grew from the need to integrate a technical system, and was a pioneering effort to use a "systems approach." Airborne Antisubmarine Warfare (ASW) developed during the 1950s according to the "additive approach," whereby each new sensor or capability added a new box the airplane crew had to monitor. A-NEW began as an attempt to digitally integrate a dozen or more sensors into one ASW system. In this project, the Naval Air Development Center's (NADC) ASW Laboratory (ASWL) at Johnsville, PA began engineering an entire airplane using a Univac 901 computer as the heart of the new system. The first ASW avionic system (A-NEW MOD I), the YP-3A prototype, BuNo 148883, first flew on October 28, 1963, four years after the project was initiated. A-NEW was approved in December 1965 and delivery to the fleet occurred with introduction of the P-3C.

A-NEW heavily focused on in-house analysis and hardware development at NADC. Software and hardware development consisted of software at Johnsville; hardware and software at Univac in St. Paul, MN; and the aircraft and other components at Lockheed California Company in Burbank, CA. Further development and flight testing were held at Naval Air Test Center (NATC), NAS Patuxent River, Maryland.

The A-NEW MOD III avionics system was installed by NADC in July through December 1965. The system was designed to be the P-3C engineering prototype. The MOD III avionics system was accepted by NATC as being ready for flight evaluation in February 1966. Operationally relevant data were the focus of the testing from the time of initiation. Operator software functionality and usability in operational settings, tactical navigation capability, and sensor interface and integration were at the forefront of each flight. The term "operational engineering" was coined to represent the approach of exposing the system to its intended use at the earliest opportunity, as a means of not only determining what worked and didn't, but to assess consequences of failures and deficiencies on mission accomplishment. Then priority attention could be directed to the crucial issues.

The first flight of the YP-3C prototype, a modified P-3B modified, fitted with the A-NEW integrated ASW, took place on September 18th, 1968. The most dramatic improvement of the P-3C over previous versions of the Orion was that the P-3C integrated the sensor and tactical data, using a Univac CP-901 digital computer, permitting operations as a "system." The P-3C's computer system dramatically improved the efficiency of the aircraft's tactical crew, as well as eliminated the radio operator crew position. P-3C updates and variants were developed throughout the years and remain the mainstay for the MPA forces today.

Project TRIM VAH-21 (1967-69)

The only attack squadron to fly the Neptune in combat during the Vietnam War was VAH-21, which started out as Project TRIM (Trails, Roads, Interdiction, Multisensor) in 1967, and was ultimately established as a squadron in September 1968, then disestablished in June 1969. Initially, the TRIM project was to establish a detachment at NATC "Pax," accepting for the Navy four P2Vs which were being modified with the newest night-oriented technology at Lockheed in Burbank. This was to be followed with an exhaustive and comprehensive test program on the heavily modified P2s, and upon completion, deployment of the four, redesignated AP2Hs, and their detachment to Vietnam for a "Limited Combat Operational Evaluation". The term "limited" turned out to be "full" early on and resulted in the establishing of VAH-21.

Its mission was low level, night attack. This Navy gunship program had the highest national priority and was classified at the secret level, Key to the test program's ability to perform detached operations were top-notch, dedicated professionals who were creative, experienced and totally project focused. These included a NATC LCDR project officer, a lead systems engineer, an electro-optical specialist; NAVAIR headquarters on site liaison; and two operationally savvy bombardier navigators (BN), both with RA-5C background.

Equipment issues that had to be positively addressed early on were air conditioning for the "equipment" and a tail turret to protect the airplane's backside. Also, reluctance by the labor union at Burbank had to be overcome to permit the detachment members the opportunity to assist with the installation and learn the ropes of maintenance of the turret.

A challenge for the NATC project officer was to gain familiarity with the terrain following/terrain avoidance radar, a system adopted from the A -7 Corsair. An A-7 was flown on several flights through the Shenandoah Mountains to gain insights and experience that was then shared with the other pilots.

The first aircraft arrived at Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, on January 14, 1968. Early on in-theater sorties quickly showed that significant alterations to operating procedures were necessary to effectively conduct assigned missions.

Project TRIM/VAH-21 operations proved technology concepts under combat conditions. There were no combat casualties, while inflicting many on the enemy. The stage was set for future advancements in infrared and LLLTV technologies for the Navy, as well as installation on carrier based aircraft, including the A-6C forward looking infrared capability.

P-3B TACNAVMOD/Super Bee (1973-1976)

While the P-3C Orion was being introduced to the fleet in early 70s, the fate of the older A and B models was of concern. They were still quite airworthy, but their avionics systems were not advanced and had reliability problems. In 1971, the ASW Branch Chief Engineer at the NATC wrote a "white paper" for Naval officials suggesting the older planes could be rehabilitated with new avionics. When the idea took hold, the P-3 Tactical Navigation Modification (TACNAVMOD) Program was born, and began development by 1973. In June 1977 VP-6 became the first of five squadrons at Barbers Point, Hawaii to operationally deploy with the TACNAVMOD. Eventually, all VP Reserve Squadrons were outfitted and the suite was operated into the 90s.

The P-3A TACNA V MOD included installation of a central computer, new tactical displays, infrared detecting set (IRDS) and improved navigation systems. Although this suite was "new" to the platform, in general most of the components had already been proven on other aircraft. The upgrade was also applied to the P-3B and became known as the "Super Bee." With time, other major modifications were also added, including data recording, advanced acoustic processing and electronic support measures. The hallmark of the design and development effort was the close, hands-on working relationship between the Lear Sigler/prime contractor hardware and software designers/engineers and those with operational experience and platform familiarity resident on the NATC project team. A key to the rapid development progress was the prime's sincere interest in understanding what was important to the operator - the "what" and the "how." The user community was permitted to influence design and was a valued partner that appreciated the opportunity to share their insights.

With the P-3B Super Bee in the fleet, time between avionics equipment breakdowns increased by more than 500 percent. Repair times for the new equipment were reduced significantly. Many service checks could be performed by aircraft crew, rather than by ground technicians. Operational effectiveness was likewise greatly enhanced through the integrated, state-of-the-art equipment, and the operator-centric software that permitted rapid communication, and control and display of key functions aboard the Super Bee. The TACNAVMOD basically extended the service life and operational value of out dated platforms a decade and a half longer.

P-3 Survivability Enhancement (Oct 1987- Jan 1988)

In early October 1987 the situation in the Persian Gulf prompted consideration of survivability enhancements to P-3 aircraft operating in that theater. By the end of October the P-3 Class Desk Officer and a NATC Navy LT Project Officer had settled on a suite of four components: (1) low infrared (IR) paint; (2) ALQ-157 IR jammers; (3) explosion suppression foam for fuel tanks; and (4) ALE-37 flare/chaff pods. Verbal tasking arrived in mid-November for NATC to do prototype installation and appropriate tests for this suite of survivability enhancements, followed by retrofitting into five fleet airplanes. The last of the five modified aircraft was to depart NATC January 17th, 1988, just over two months away, which included the holiday season.

Methodology for accomplishing this task in two months was crucial to on-time delivery. The effort was viewed as four separate projects, using two NATC Force Warfare Aircraft Test Directorate (FWATD) test platforms, and one fleet bird. NATC's P-3B became the foam bird, while a P-3C got the flare dispensers and its internal controls. The fleet aircraft was assigned for installation of the IR jammers. Simultaneously, these three distinct installations occurred on the three platforms. The "core" NATC project team consisted of a project officer/pilot, project NFO, loaned Test Pilot School pilot, three engineers, two technicians, test article preparation machine shop and wiring shop personnel, two draftsman and FWATD maintenance personnel. As the project progressed this group was augmented by fleet maintenance personnel from NAS Brunswick, Maine VP squadrons plus Intermediate Maintenance folks from the base and a Marine Corps officer knowledgeable of the IR jammer operation. Many others at NATC provided heroic acts when their special talent was deemed necessary.

Inevitably, obstacles were encountered. A particular one in this case was "manage to payroll," a cost control technique in vogue at the time, resulting in the inability to pay for any overtime labor. Still, the team members didn't let that be a reason for not getting the job done! On the plus side, the short time frame required innovative techniques to safely and effectively accomplish the tasking, on time.

Common Themes - What appears to have been keys to success

  • Focused and dedicated to a purpose
  • Interdisciplinary vice multidisciplinary approach
  • Involving operators and maintainers in the acquisition process during earliest stages
  • Small teams with no over-specialization
  • Builders and Users working together with mutual respect and appreciation
  • New platforms are not always a necessity for new capability
  • Prototypes as a way of learning
  • Accepting that everything would not go right the first time
  • Empirical data vice simulation output
  • Not attempting to predict final configuration or operating technique at outset, rather observe performance and prepare to adjust and adapt.
  • Ability to deal with real risks
  • Willingness to accept accountability
  • Exposing the platform to the real world operational settings at earliest opportunity

How does what appears to have be the basis for success in the past compare with what prevails in today's weapons system acquisition environment? Are these hallmarks worthy of consideration for improving the ability to expeditiously deliver valued capability to the war fighter? What should be the next step and by whom? I encourage those in leadership roles, and those that influence them, to thoroughly review the characteristics of the success stories from the past that are listed above. There may be merit in emphasizing these past approaches. What worked well once may well work again.

One last "pearl" is singled out for special emphasis. Never underestimate the creativity of the operators to obtain utility from a system in a manner never envisioned. A Wing Commander once offered this advice:

"Give us the systems as early as possible; I've got smart kids that will make it work, so don't hold back in putting things in my hands.".

Editor s note: CAPT Merz, an NFO from the MPA Community, has over 1,000 hours in P2 Neptunes and more than 2,500 hours in numerous versions of P-3 A/B/C Orion. A graduate of U.S. Naval Test Pilot School he had three subsequent tours at NATC. He was Project NFO for P-3B Super Bee, and later commanded VP-22, flying the Super Bee. He also became Director, Force Warfare Aircraft Test Directorate at the time of the P-3 Survivability Enhancement project. At present he is a T&E consultant. CAPT Merz thanks the following for their assistance with this article: CAPT Arvid Forsman, USN (Ret.), first CO of VAH-21, CAPT J.B. Hollyer, USN (Ret.), and former NATC Project Officer for P-3 Survivability Enhancement.

Circa 1967

HistoryA BIT OF HISTORY: VP History ThumbnailCameraVAH-21 BUNO: 145902 Fuselage and Turret Operation "...Part of fuselage panel from P2V-7 BUNO: 145902 redesignated AP-2H. "Iron Butterfly" of VAH-21 1967 and Turret Operation Plate..." Contributed by Wayne Mutza wmutza@wi.rr.com wmutza@wi.rr.com (Author of Lockheed P2V Neptune An Illustrated History) [30SEP2005]

Circa 1966


The "Trim" Gunships of VAH-21

The directive issued to the Navy during 1966 to form a special air unit, called for it not only to place sensors along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, but to attack it as well. Navy planners decided the dual mission was excessive for one aircraft model, so VO-67 was formed for the sensor mission. That left the Navy with the task of fulfilling the "Attack" portion of the order.

Meanwhile, Navy Task Force 116, a river patrol force responsible for denying the enemy use of South Vietnam's vaterways, stated a need for a specialized airplane to augment its patrol boats. Soon after it began operations during December 1965, TF-116 (Code named GAME WARDEN) quickly discovered the enemies' uncanny ability to exploit the cover of darkness to infiltrate troops and supplies over water as well as land. The Navy then realized it required an aircraft capable of detecting and attacking enemy forces at night on two fronts: the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Cambodia and Laos, and south Vietnam's Mekong Delta region. In their search for the right airplane for a specific mission, the Navy, once again, prudently selected Lockheed's Neptune. Not only were Neptunes available, since they were being phased out, but he Navy, aware of Air Force success with gunships, was anxious to adopt the concept to their proven P-2s.

Four stock SP-2H Neptunes were obtained from fleet units: Bureau Numbers 135620, 145902, 148337 and 148353. Under Navy contract, they went to Lockheed for airframe modifications and LT/ E-Systems for equipment installation and systems integration. A vast number of alterations was necessary inside and out to transform the ASW Neptunes into night reconnaissance and interdiction aircraft. They were stripped of all ASW systems and avionics gear which made room for a complex array of sensors....

The revitalized Neptunes emerged from their extensive modifications to form the Project TRIM Detachment at the Naval Air Test Center, Weapons System Test Division, NAS Patuxent River, Maryland, All Navy flight tests, plus initial flight and maintenance training, was conducted at Burbank by Lockheed. Project TRIM was officially described as a "Combat operational test and evaluation of advanced multi-sensor, night attack and electronic search, acquisition, and strike equipment." In simpler terms, it was time to put the AP-2Hs to the test.

During mid summer 1968, the four AP-2Hs were ferried to Naval Air Facility Cam Ranh Bay, South Vietnam by TRIM personnel, who remained with the aircraft. They flew the initial combat sorties as a special detachment, along with civilian technical representatives in some electronic equipment positions. The Project TRIM Detachment was disestablished on 31 August 1968 and commissioned Heavy Attack Squadron 21 (VAH-21) the next day to perform the TRIM mission. The squadron's home port was NS Sangley Point, Philippines with a detachment at NAF Cam Ranh Bay. VAH-21 started a new page in Naval aviation history as the first multi-sensor night interdiction squadron, whose mission was to interdict logistics moving over land or sea....

VAH-21 shared the ramp space at Cam Ranh Bay with the Army's 1st Radio Research Company, which also flew an unusual mission with their own brand of Neptunes. A close relationship developed between the two units. The fact that both were involved in unique and dangerous missions with a specialized airplane was not lost on each. Like their Navy counterparts, Army Neptunes were also rotated through NS Sangley Point, Philippines. It was there that VAH-21 gained a reputation for low, high-speed "We're back" passes down the runway. Personnel at NS Sangley Point, Philippines came to expect the passes, which became lower and faster, until an Admiral put a stop to them.

Even though they were a hard-working, dedicated combat unit, VAH-21 was not without its lighter moments. At Cam Ranh Bay, Air Force F-4 "Phantom" jets flew around the clock. When they landed, they deployed drag chutes, then taxied to a drop area where the chutes were released and picked up by a crew with a pickup truck. That gave some AP-2H crew members the idea it would be nice if they had drag chutes. So, on landing, they began throwing a small yellow "Gibson Girl" parachute out of the waist window on a long rope. That went on for a long time until one night, when a crew landed and saw a "Real" drag chute laying near the runway. The chute was retrieved and packed; then they waited until the next trip back to NS Sangley Point, Philippines. When the Neptune landed, the chute, which had been tied at several places in the aft fuselage, was shoved through the bottom hatch and opened. The airplane nearly stood on its nose, the tie-downs broke or bent, and the unsuspecting pilot yelled, "What the hell did we hit?!" He stopped on the runway while the crew in the back frantically tried to pull the huge parachute back through the hatch - with no success. In desperation, the chute was cut loose and blew down the runway. The escapade was not repeated except in "You should have been there " stories told in the crew lounge...

The squadron was informed during early June 1969 that they were being decommissioned, the low passes resumed at NS Sangley Point, Philippines, topped off by one flown by all four gunships....VAH-21 was disestablished on 16 June 1969 and all five Neptunes were returned to the U. S.

UPDATE The book has an entire chapter devoted to Project Trim. I attempted to provide the "flavor" but by no means the entire story (which by the way, is full of pictures!).

BooksBOOKs: Title: Lockheed P2V Neptune An Illustrated History by Wayne Mutza wmutza@wi.rr.com...A Schiffer Military History Book...ISBN: 0-7643-0151-9...286 pages full of pictures and history!

Circa Unknown
Can you identify the Month and or Year?

HistoryA BIT OF HISTORY: "...The U.S. Navy/U.S. Coast Guard Vietnam Unit Memorial Monument, will be located on the Council International Sport Military Field on the US Naval Amphibious Base, Coronado, CA. This monument will be a personal detailed, and heart-felt tribute to all Naval & Coast Guard personnel who died serving their country in the South East Asia Theater of the Vietnam War from 1960-1975. A few of the military squadrons represented are: VP-1, VP-2, VP-4, VP-6, VP-17, VP-26, VP-40, VP-42, VP-48, VP-50, VAH-21, VAP-61, and VO-67. WebSite: Vietnam Unit Memorial Monument..." Contributed by BAILEY, AO3 Bob flynavy10@comcast.net [Updated 21DEC2000 | Updated 02JUL2000 | Updated 14APR2000 | 03APR2000]

HistoryA BIT OF HISTORY: "AH-1 SL-4 Iron Butterfly is 145902. SL-3 145353 was Dueces Wild..." Contributed by John R. Kerr ACFT1JOHNK@aol.com

HistoryA BIT OF HISTORY: "Dictionary of American Naval Aviation Squadrons CD-ROM: Dictionary of American Naval Aviation Squadrons Vol. 2 Stock No. 008-046-00195-2 The History of VP, VPB, VP(HL), and VP(AM) Naval Historical Center, Department Of The Navy, Washington, D. C...." [17JUN2000]
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