Tomcat Down!

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Just off the coast of Scotland, a large naval exercise was underway. “Teamwork 76” included hundreds of ships, from a dozen NATO countries, in which staged (joint) maneuvers were underway. Among those watching the maneuvers were dozens of news reporters, all of whom were invited to photograph and report on the exercise. (And thanks to a previous collision that had occurred between an American navy frigate and a disguised Soviet sub, all knew that Soviets were also in the area.)

At the center of the exercise was the USS John F. Kennedy, an aircraft carrier that was carrying planes that were performing “realistic strike operations.” NATO was counting on the press to show the world, and especially the Soviets, that it was prepared. A standout of the exercise was a twin-tailed Grumman F-14 Tomcat, the newest and “hottest thing in the sky”. The Tomcat was aggressive to the eye in the sky and a picture of it would send a hell of a message.

While the Tomcat itself presented a threatening profile, it was heightened by the exchange of the usual Sidewinder missile for a more aggressive, powerful Phoenix missile. The Phoenix was a “solid-propellant rocket designed to be deadly at long distances…” and it was slated to be the navy’s primary air defense weapon. The Phoenix riding on the back of the mighty Tomcat was indeed an ominous sight and NATO was ready to show it off, both to the press and the world.

The weather surrounding the exercises had begun to turn ugly, with gusting winds and rough seas settling in. The F-14 taxied to the number three catapult and awaited instructions for take-off. Lt John Kosich ran through his final checks when the engines suddenly roared and the plane began moving. He “stomped on the brakes and checked the throttles, which were still in idle,” but the engines had somehow malfunctioned and “producing full power pushed the F-14 forward on the deck.” It ran over a crew member in its path and clipped the wings of two nearby planes as Kosich fought to control the runaway plane. He “tried to shut down the throttles, but they did not respond…it continued on its path, roaring towards the edge of the deck.” Kosich and his “backseater” continued to try to stop it, but were forced to eject from the plane. Before the press and the world, the $14 Million Tomcat and its prized Phoenix missile rushed over the side and plummeted into the ocean.

It wasn’t bad enough that the US Navy had just lost a $14 Million Tomcat with its newest missile, but it had done so in International Waters. Under laws that governed these waters, the plane and missile were no longer the sole property of the US Navy, both plane and missile were now open to be salvaged by whoever got to them first. Navy personnel rushed to note the navigational mark of where the plane went over, but so too did the Soviets.

The Navy had no other choice but to put everything they had into reclaiming the wreckage. Under the supervision of the Navy Supervisor of Salvage, the task of recovery set underway. The Constructor, a Norwegian salvage vessel loaded with an unmanned, radio-controlled CURV submersible; the Oil Harrier, a British vessel equipped with powerful winches capable of pulling up the heavy plane; and the US Navy’s tug USS Shakori outfitted with powerful sonar, were sent out to try to find and raise the Tomcat and the Phoenix missile.

The Tomcat went overboard on 14 September and the salvage team worked tirelessly for a month to no avail. The conditions were not conducive to successful salvage attempts. Roger Sherman, a Sperry Engineer wondered why they weren’t using the NR-1, since this is what she did and she was “parked” not far from the site, in Holy Loch. He shared his thoughts with the powers-that-be at Submarine Squadron Two, but they merely looked at him and said, “What’s the NR-1?” Sherman was incredulous and realized that the NR-1 – the navy’s secret boat- had been kept a bit too secret. After being briefed, and after some strong-arming by ADM Rickover COMSUBLANT finally, though reluctantly agreed to send the NR-1 to search for the Tomcat and Phoenix missile.

Not wanting just anyone in charge of the NR-1 and its momentous task, it was determined that Al Holifield would remain on the NR-1 and his relief, Mike McQuown, would stay to assist. Holifield was “a little worried about parking alongside a live missile with an explosive warhead.” He was assured that the missile was not threat since it was “solidly attached to the plane”…or so they hoped.
NR-1 set off on its task and on 21 October it loosed its tow from the Sunbird and settled on the ocean floor, some 1800 feet down. It used its side-scan sonar, hovering 100 feet above the seabed and searched for the wreckage using the typical box-grid search pattern. After a detailed exploration of a mile surrounding where a signal transponder and been dropped by the salvage crew, they found nothing that looked remotely like the plane. Holifield directed engineering officer, Mike Riegel to investigate a possible strong mark that the sonar had picked up. The NR-1, guided by its thallium iodide lights and its cameras and screens came across a shadowy-moving presence, however it was neither marine life, nor the plane, it was a tangled wall of fishing nets. “All Back Emergency!” Holifield yelled. The engines thrust into reverse and the boat came to a stop a mere 20 feet from the nets. The NR-1 gingerly pulled back from the nets and made its way to the bottom to see what was anchoring the nets down. As if out of a mist, the F-14 came in to view, tangled in the bottom netting. The plane, with one wing damaged, was upside down (completely opposite to what the engineers had predicted it to be.) Somehow the F-14 had tumbled and flipped along the ocean floor. It was speculated that a trawler had likely snagged the plane and being unable to lift it, was forced to cut it free.

The crew was thrilled to have found the Tomcat, but that excitement was short-lived when it was discovered that the plane was empty, devoid of the Phoenix missile. With its wheels down, the NR-1 crawled near the buried plane to see what they were dealing with, being careful to stay away from the nets. As it made its way around the plane, it was suddenly caught up in a large underwater wave. The rogue wave picked up the NR-1 “bouncing it sideways like a ball, pushing it closer to the nets.” Executive Officer, Joe Nolter, who was driving the boat, managed to keep the boat from being thrown into the nets, but just barely. (This wave, nicknamed Nolter’s Maelstrom by the crew, would occur twice a day for the remainder of the mission, and every time the NR-1 and its crew would successfully manage to ride it out.)

The task of hooking the Tomcat fell to Holifield and his ability to precisely operate and control NR-1’s manipulator arm – not an easy thing to do considering it was essentially a “big pair of pliers on a stick.” Using it to snag the F-14 would be, as one crew member stated, “…like wrapping a Christmas present, in a cupboard with one hand, while wearing a boxing glove.” But if anyone could do it, Holifield could.

The plan was that Holifield would use the manipulator arm, rigged with a rope pendant, to lasso one of the plane’s main wheels. The NR-1 would then back off, cinching the rope tight. A shackle tied to the other end of the rope would then be hooked to a lifting line attached to the Constructor on the surface….well that was the plan. Deteriorating weather conditions on the surface made the process of hooking the lift-line to the shackle difficult. After a number of days and multiple attempts, the line was grabbed and the Tomcat was finally in the possession of the Constructor. The Constructor passed the line to the Oil Harrier which would use its winch to slowly raise the plane out of the ocean mud. Unfortunately, the weather was not cooperating. It kicked up waves that relentlessly pounded the Harrier and with the plane acting as an anchor, the constant tension placed on the towline finally caused it to snap. The plane plummeted back to the ocean floor, wheels down and embedded deeper in the mud. The whole operation would be performed two more times (unsuccessfully) before it was decided by the navy to leave the plane, 1400 feet below.

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With the plane barely forgotten, the NR-1 set out to locate the missing missile. Going back to the initial location of the F-14, another box-grid was laid out and the new search began. The boat would “hover 25 feet above the bottom and with two men laying prone in the viewing port area, it would methodically move over the mud- “mowing the lawn” – eyes and sonar searching.

NR-1, 1800 feet down and intently searching for the Phoenix, was unaware of the worsening surface conditions. Finally, with few options, the call was sent down to end the search, but Holifield begged for a bit more time. But even he knew that their final end date of 01 November was nearing – a mere two days away.

With time running out, NR-1 continued it search, methodically patrolling every area of the search grid, with nothing coming close to resembling the missile. Defeated, Holifield knew he would have to call off the search and report to his superiors that they hadn’t found the missile. He swung the NR-1 around to head back on its final leg of the sweep, when suddenly a voice bellowed from one of the view ports, “I see it….I see the missile!”

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Holifield was ecstatic! They had found the Phoenix! It was relatively intact, but now he had to get it to the surface without endangering his ship and crew. Unfortunately, NR-1 could not simply “grab the missile and go” as there were many factors they had to address – the uncertainty of the missile’s stability, the continuous barrage of Nolter’s Maelstrom waves, as well as a number of obstacles on the surface. With its prize in view, NR-1 would once again have to wait.

After what seemed to be an eternity, the time was finally right. The surface vessels were readied and NR-1 was “carefully maneuvered over the missile, both facing the same direction. The massive tines in the belly of the boat were opened and the boat settled deeper, inch by inch. The open fingers cradled the missile and the crew gently secured it to the boat.” The NR-1 slowly made its way up to the surface. Boat and missile broke the surface on 30 October, just before midnight. NR-1 and her crew had once again done the impossible, likely conserving National security as well.

NR-1 and her crews served its nation proudly and bravely during her run. She now continues to serve her Navy as a permanent exhibit here at the Submarine Force Library and Museum.

Information in this article was garnered from the book Dark Waters, by Lee Vyborny and Don Davis. The book is available to purchase in our museum store and on our store website.