'Fighting Redtails' Viking squadron folds up its wings
November 6, 2004
Thirteen years ago, the S-3B Viking aircraft was called the most advanced anti-submarine warfare and sea control platform in history.
Now, it’s history.
The former cornerstone of all carrier operations and strike capabilities is defunct. As a result, Chester, Finch, Whip and the rest of Sea Control Squadron 21, the Fighting Redtails, who flew Vikings from the USS Kitty Hawk’s deck, are out of work.
The squadron — formed in 1945 and based at Atsugi Naval Air Facility since 1991, when it joined Carrier Air Wing 5 — is being disestablished. Only ships are decommissioned, but it amounts to the same thing.
“There is a little loss,” said Cmdr. Paul “Chester” Foster, squadron executive officer. “But you have to understand, if you look at the history of the Navy, the Navy’s not tied to airplanes.… I’m not really sad because the Navy is moving in the right direction. It’s time for our airplane to go away.”
Conceived in the 1950s and built in the 1970s during the Cold War’s height, the Vikings’ foremost mission was to destroy submarines. Later, they were reconfigured for surface warfare and surveillance, search-and-rescue and refueling.
And it was in a Viking that President Bush landed on the USS Abraham Lincoln off California’s coast, to deliver his “mission accomplished” speech announcing the end of major combat in the 2003 Iraq invasion. The four-seater was chosen because, according to CNN, it has the safest flight record in the Navy’s jet fleet.
The Viking’s glamour — never even approaching the F-14 Tomcat — dimmed even more as the planes became primarily aerial gas stations.
But, Foster said, “It’s a beautiful airplane if you look at it long enough and hard enough. It’s a very functional airplane.”
A ceremony to mark the squadron’s end was held Thursday at Atsugi. Now its 249 people will begin heading to new jobs.
Lt. Cmdr. John Bernard, Kitty Hawk strike group spokesman, said in September that a new squadron of former Hornet fliers retrained to fly Super Hornets would assume the Vikings’ refueling mission.
All 225 of the squadron’s enlisted people got jobs in other commands — “ship, shore … a couple of guys are retiring,” Foster said. Of the pilots, one will learn to fly the Super Hornet; two are learning to fly Prowlers, electronic warfare aircraft; several others are going to shore duty as flight instructors. “About two years into shore duty, I’d say most of our officers will transition to a different airplane,” Foster said.
Six of the squadron’s nine airplanes already are gone. In spring, two were flown to San Diego. Three others were flown to Guam and aboard the USS Stennis for a money-saving cruise back to San Diego.
And after four Stennis aviators were killed when their S-3B Viking crashed onto Kita Io Jima in August, the Redtails sent their best plane to the Stennis in tribute.
The three remaining Vikings, the plane known affectionately as “the Hoover,” for its vacuum-cleaneresque noise (“You get a big whoop-whoop sound,” Foster said) will be flown to the United States later this month.
Four of the squadron’s nine Vikings will be mothballed at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Ariz.; the other five will return to the fleet.
So will Foster, who’s been flying Vikings since 1989. He’s headed for three more years at a Viking squadron in San Diego. “It’s a great deal and I’m very fortunate,” he said. The S-3B Viking is expected to be retired Navywide within the next five years.
Lt. Jonathan “Finch” Welsh said, “Japan has been fun but it’s time to go home. Flying on the boat is fun; living on the boat is not.” Like a half-dozen others in the squadron, he’s to be a flight instructor in Pensacola, Fla.
Lt. Cmdr. Steve “Whip” Blasch, a naval flight officer, is to attend the Naval War College in Rhode Island. “Coming off sea duty, it’s the perfect place to go and kind of see where your career goes from there,” he said.
Still, he said, the S-3 community was special — a kinder and gentler one. “The flight instructors I had really helped you along. Some of the fighter community — when I was a student, the saying was ‘They eat their young’ — they really hammer their guys.”
In a way, Blasch said, right now is a golden time. Almost everyone has known their next assignment since June and has had time to unwind and prepare. And numerous social occasions have been scheduled, the traditional events such as changes of command and retirements that they often missed in the past.
“We’re just riding it out,” he said. “Things don’t end. … Careers don’t end. Life goes on. It is the closing of an era but it’s also an extremely exciting time.”