Neil Jones looks at the latest upgrade to the venerable Grumman S-3B Viking - with only around three years of service left, the US Navy still has plans for the 'Hoover'. Photography by the author and Gary Parsons
The saying goes "You can't teach an old dog new tricks", yet try telling that to the US Navy. The 'Maulers' of Sea Control Squadron 32 (VS-32) have just completed a six month cruise, where four months were spent in the Northern Arabian Gulf supporting the global war on terrorism and conducting maritime security operations (MSO) in the region. Part of Carrier Air Wing 1 (CVW-1) onboard the USS Enterprise, VS-32 is the first Viking squadron to be cleared to carry the AN/AAQ-14 LANTIRN forward looking infra-red pod.
Mounted on the starboard wing station and operated by the Naval Flight Officer (NFO) in the right hand seat, LANTIRN is used for standard maritime reconnaissance for vessels close to the Enterprise and, more importantly, the 'Maulers' conducted road reconnaissance sorties deep in Iraq in order to try and find road-side Implemented Explosive Devices (IEDs) and the insurgents who were placing them.
Lt 'Tilly' Tilden, a NFO with VS-32 over the past year explained: "My official title is COTAC (Co-Pilot Tactical co-ordinator), which means assisting the Pilot, controlling most of the navigation and operating the new LANTIRN system. We were flying over Iraq up to four times a day, doing road side recce where we would loiter within a designated controlled box at a fairly low altitude (low enough for the insurgents to know that we're looking for them). The amount of detail I can see with the LANTIRN is phenomenal and it's a big asset for ground forces in the region as we've got the capability for a live video feedback back to the ship in near real-time. So, if we spot any type of threat down on the ground, the information can be relayed to ground commanders in a very short space of time."
All six S-3B Vikings onboard the USS Enterprise have been upgraded to carry the LANTIRN but the bread-and-butter duty of the squadron during the cruise was still air-to-air refuelling for the air wing. Lt Cdr Rosales explained - "It's a great aircraft for air refuelling as we've got such a huge loiter time that if any of the air wing's aircraft get in trouble, we're always up there to offload some gas for them. We carry roughly around 17,000lbs of gas, where nearly 8,000lbs of that is for refuelling, and if we haven't offloaded that much during an AAR sortie we can bring back more gas than what the AAR-configured Super Hornet can bring back."
This current cruise for the 'Maulers' onboard the USS Enterprise will probably be their last combat cruise as the S-3B Viking is being retired in three years time, yet for all intent and purposes it's like the Tomcat, maturing into a very capable aircraft in the twilight of its career.
As Lt 'Tilly' Tilden pointed out, "We're doing AAR for the air wing, we're saving lives over Iraq by finding insurgents and when the Navy gives us the clearance to self-designate the laser guided AGM-65 Mavericks that we can carry, the Maulers will be the Swiss army knife of the Air Wing!'
The author would like to thank 5th Fleet PAO, Lt. Denise Garcia, USS Enterprise PAO, LCDR David Nunnally and the crews of VS-32 for taking the time to be interviewed.