The last combat cruise of the
Lockheed S‑3 Viking
By Stephan de Bruijn2 July 2019
It wasn't as sexy as the Tomcat, nor a beast like the Super Hornet or as endearlingly ugly as a C‑2 Greyhound. Yet the Lockheed S‑3 Viking, nicknamed 'War Hoover', fulfilled a significant role in the US Navy's aircraft carrier wings. The last carrier cruise of the Viking under combat circumstances took place in 2007. Stephan de Bruijn takes you back to the last days of Sea Control Squadron 32 'Maulers', then deployed in the Persian Gulf on board of the super carrier USS Enterprise.
The history of the Lockheed S‑3 Viking goes back to the mid-1960s, when the US Navy issued its so-called VSX requirement for a new carrier-based anti-submarine warfare (ASW) aircraft to replace the venerable Grumman S‑2 Tracker. In the summer of '69, Lockheed beat a Convair-Grumman team and received a Navy contract for the realisation of its S‑3. Lockheed had succesfully teamed up with Ling-Temco-Vought as they were much more experienced in building carrier-borne aircraft. LTV had considerable influence on the S-3 design.
The first YS‑3A prototype made its maiden flight on 21 January 1972. The aircraft looked almost cartoonish, with a fat fuselage and two outsized turbofans hanging on pylons from a large wing. The General Electric TF34 engines were the same as used on the A‑10. In the roomy cockpit, a crew of four could be seated. The pilots sat side by side behind plenty of jazzy dark glass, but the two backseaters had only a small side window to peek outside. Finally, the high tail was also striking. The large vertical stabilo could be folded to the left over the horizontal tail to make the plane fit under the low ceiling of an aircraft carrier's hangar deck. Naturally the S‑3's wings could also be folded.
In April 1972, the Navy awarded Lockheed a contract for the first S‑3A production batch. Carrier qualifications took place on the USS Forrestal from 26 November 1973. These CQs led to initial service with Anti-Submarine Squadron VS‑41 'Shamrocks', then a training unit, at NAS North Island, California from 20 February 1974. Operational fleet service started with VS‑29 'Dragonfires' in September 1974. The first operational deployment, with a small detachment of VS-29, took place aboard the USS John F. Kennedy during its 1975-1976 cruise. The first full squadron deployment, again by VS‑29, took place on the USS Enterprise during its 1976-1977 cruise in the Western Pacific.
The last of 188 S‑3s built was delivered to the type's sole operator, the US Navy, in 1979. By this time, some limitations of the S‑3A were becoming apparent. The ASW mission became ever more complex as the Soviet submarine fleet became more advanced. From 1981, some 119 S‑3As were therefore modified and redesignated as S-3B models under a Weapons Systems Improvement Program.
The S‑3, nicknamed War Hoover after the 'vacuum cleaner' sound of its turbofan engines, was initially used only as a submarine hunter, but through the years, other roles were added to the Viking's portfolio, including surface attack, surface reconnaissance and surveillance, and minelaying. Sixteen S‑3As were rebuilt to ES‑3A electronic surveillance and electronic warfare aircraft, and for a short period, eight modified US‑2As even undertook the Carrier On-board Delivery (COD) mission.
In total, nineteen US Navy squadrons operated the Viking. These comprised sixteen VS (Anti-Submarine Warfare, later redesignated Sea Control) squadons; two VQ (Air Reconnaissance) squadrons flying the ES‑3As; one VRC (Fleet Logistic Support) squadron with the US‑3As; plus two test squadrons.
From 2004, the Viking community commenced execution of the 'S‑3 Sundown plan', a retirement scheme which envisaged withdrawal of the S‑3 from active service by 2009. The Viking squadrons were removed from the carrier air wings as part of a restructuring and standardisation which equipped them with two complete F/A‑18E/F Super Hornet squadrons.
Our host squadron, VS‑32 'Maulers', was normally home-based at Naval Air Station Norfolk, Virginia. On 7 July 2007, VS‑32 personnel embarked on the USS Enterprise (CVN‑65) at the Norfolk naval base as part of Carrier Air Wing 1 (CVW‑1) and, once the ship was at sea, six of their S-3Bs were flown in. These Vikings were BuNo 160147 coded 700, 160581/701, 159746/702, 160583/703, 160134/704 and 159744/705.
The super carrier sailed through the Atlantic Ocean, the Strait of Gibraltar, the Mediterranean, the Suez Canal, the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, the North Arabian Sea, and the Street of Hurmuz to arrive in the Persian Gulf. During this final cruise into a potentially hostile area – therefore considered a combat cruise – the VS‑32 crews flew some seven to nine times a week, said our host officer, Lt John 'Chachi’ Hillburn, a VS‑32 pilot who flew the War Hoover from 2003 to 2008, collecting some 800 flight hours and some 200 carrier 'traps' on the type.
The main task of the carrier air wing's six S‑3Bs by this time were are aerial refuelling and Surface Search/Surveillance and Classification (SSC). Accordingly, VS‑32 flew from the Enterprise in two configurations. As a dedicated tanker, the S‑3B carried an aerial refuelling pod, the so-called Hose Drum Unit (HDU) under one wing and a cross-feeding fuel tank of 300 US gallon (1136 litres) under the opposite wing pylon. In the SSC role, the Viking would still carry the HDU in combination with a AN/AAQ-13 Lantirn (Low Altitude Navigation Targeting Infrared for Night) pod under the other wing.
There were two types of tanking missions flown, known as mission tanking and recovery tanking. When mission tanking, the Viking would be flying with a formation of aircraft in the direction of the area of operations and act as a dedicated tanker. The Viking would not go inside the area of operations, but usually loiter outside that zone and wait for the formation to return.
The crew of the Viking normally counted three, but two was also possible when flying the recovery tanking mission only. The recovery tanking roles and Surface Search/Surveillance and Classification missions roles were often combined within a sortie, however, and this is why the HDU buddy-buddy refuelling pod would be carried together with the Lantirn infrared pod.
Persian Gulf patrols
An average SSC mission would take some three hours, usually flown at some 3,000 ft. During SSC over the Persian Gulf, the VS‑32 crews would search the surface for shipping, ranging from regular tankers and fishermen to illegal oil transports and Iranian military speedboats that could cause a threat to the mothership Enterprise, 'the big E'. A basic photo camera was included in the equipment for the SCC mission, Lt Hillburn explained:
When a ship needs identification, the Viking drops down to some 400 or 500 ft, one of the crew takes the photo camera for a good picture and tries to read the name of the ship. When something is shady about the contact, we'll try to make radio contact with the surface contact itself for further identification and ask its route and destination. It's also possible that we contact a coalition ship which is directed to the surface contact for a closer look or even a boarding. During night-time missions, the Lantirn pod is used intensively for identification. Our long flights sometimes are a little boring, but we have a lot of fun up among ourselves in the air, especially when we do the SSC mission: the low level identification flights are pretty entertaining.
During the SSC the Viking crew would be ready to switch to aerial refuelling immediately, whenever necessary, and would then be quickly be directed to an aircraft that needed fuel.
The S-3Bs of the 'Maulers' could be still be equipped with weapons too: the AGM-65 Maverick air-to-surface missile, the AGM-84 Stand-off Land Attack Missile (SLAM), or even basic Mk.20 and Mk.84 bombs. But by 2007 cruise higher command had decided that the old Viking was no longer allowed to fly true combat missions, so no armament was carried during the last cruise of the 'Maulers'.
The Viking was also used as a logistic support plane. During the cruise, an CVW-1 aircraft developed a technical problem over Iraq and had to divert to a land base. A Viking, carrying a maintenance crew and spare parts, was dispatched from the carrier, and the broken bird was repaired an recovered to the carrier in no time.
During this last combat cruise of the S‑3, VS‑32 flew 960 sorties, totalling over 2,200 flight hours. The squadron was disbanded in September 2008. As in all the other carrier air wings, the the aerial refuelling task was assumed by the F-18E/F Super Hornet, while the SSC role was more or less taken over by the MH‑60R/S Seahawk helicopters which, supported by land-based P‑8 Poseidons, have also taken care of the Viking's old ASW role.
The last operational S‑3 squadron was VS-22 'Checkmates', also the last Viking squadron deployed for a longer period at sea. The unit embarked the USS George Washington (CVN‑73) during an 'around the Horn’ cruise that brought the ship from its then homeport Norfolk around South America to San Diego, California, between 7 April and 27 May 2008.
Less than a week after saying goodbye to the carrier, surprisingly, VS-22 was ordered to deploy to central Iraq as a land-based squadron. The unit operated from Al Asad air base to do something the S‑3 had never done before – patrolling over the desert, using the Lantirn pod to locate improvised explosive devices, conduct border surveillance and provide video footage to commanders on the ground. After some 1,600 accident-free flight hours over Iraq, the squadron returned to NAS Jacksonville, Florida on 15 December 2008, only to be disbanded on 29 January 2009.
Most S‑3 Vikings have been transferred to the famous AMARG boneyard at Davis-Monthan, Arizona. Many S‑3Bs spent only 50 percent of their planned lifespan in terms of flight hours. The US Navy and Lockheed Martin natually tried to sell the Vikings, but without success. South Korea, Brazil, Japan, and the US Coast Guard showed some interest, but no deal was struck. Lockheed even revamped the idea of a Carrier On-board Delivery (COD) Viking for the US Navy, but the airframe really had too little capacity for this job. Three aircraft were eventually transferred to VX-30 at NAS Point Mugu, California, for range clearance and surveillance flights near the Point Mugu shooting range until 2016, and that was the swansong of the S‑3 Viking.
The author would like to thank CAG Capt Mark E Wralstad; then Pubic Affairs Officer of the US 5th Fleet, Lt Denise Garcia; then PAOs of CVN-65 Lt Mark Jones and Renée Martinez, and their staff: plus VS-32’s commander Doug Carpenter, Lt John Hillburn and Lt Helen Watson, for their great support. The article was originally written and published with travel buddy Frank Crébas for Combat Aircraft magazine, and has been revised and updated for AirHistory.net.