In 1966, when he was a commander, John T. Coughlin became executive officer of Patrol Squadron 22 (VP-22), based at Barbers Point Naval Air Station in Hawaii. The squadron was scheduled to deploy to Adak, Alaska, later that year. What follows is an edited excerpt from his Naval Institute oral history interview with Paul Stillwell on 27 April 1999.
I went to see the squadron CO, Commander Jack Fuller, and suggested that we needed to start thinking about cold-weather training, which he had never had as a seaplane pilot. Things are different when you get snow almost year ’round and frost is common. You had to warm your airplanes, and you had to worry about different things. I recommended that we start with the pilots practicing crosswind landings.
The techniques depended on the airplane. Now, in the P-2, we would drop the downwind wing a bit and walk it in with rudder. The P-3, however, was different. We used cross power—that is, more power on the downwind side, and then kicked the rudder to align with the runway. To prepare for deployment, I suggested that we take some maintenance people up. We stopped at Adak first and let the shop chiefs off, especially to understand about the cold-weather operating differences. Even a simple thing like preflighting an airplane would take you twice as long in that cold weather than it did at Barbers Point. We had auxiliary power units in the P-3, so we didn’t need ground equipment for starting the engines. But still it took more time.
One thing that operations in the cold required was that you had to defrost airplanes very often, which you’ve seen at commercial airports. When the airplanes get a good coat of ice, you spray with de-icing fluid to get rid of it. You don’t want to take off with snow on your wings. If you have freezing rain, which was fairly common in Adak, or your temperature is 32 degrees, it was either just at the verge of turning into snow but very often was freezing rain, which was deadly for us. You had to defrost airplanes, and that was normally done by the maintenance crew.
The P-3A was really a good airplane for us as far as handling on ice and on the ground. You had a wider spread in your engines, so we’d normally pull the two inboards to idle and manipulate the two outboard engines when you were taxiing, because that was almost an instant response. In the P-3 you put power to the outboard, say, on the starboard side, and you almost immediately started to swing, which wasn’t true in the P-2s. In the P-2s we taxied with the reciprocating engines, and they were fairly close to the fuselage, compared, say, to the outboards in the P-3s. But it was that kind of stuff that we had to show our people.
I set up the Alaska orientation trips. We went to Adak, to Shemya, and to Elmendorf, which was in Anchorage, where the Alaskan Air Force headquarters was located, and then to Kodiak. I went with each of the 12 crews—took my own crew, and then I went with the other 11 crews and spent three days.
We were scheduled to deploy on the 1st of December, and so we were going to be there for the most deadly time of the year, weather-wise. The summers weren’t a great deal better, but the weather wasn’t quite as cold, nor was the wind quite as bad as during the winter.
We had 12 crews but only nine airplanes. This gives you some indication that the P-3 had already proven itself well as far as maintenance requirements. A detachment from Kodiak with only nine P-3A airplanes would have been much more difficult to maintain. When the Adak-Midway barrier closed down, Patrol Wings Pacific sent a group to Adak and recommended that the entire squadron deploy to Adak.
Interestingly enough, the island of Maui in 1966 had just built a new airport, with the intent to lure some of the commercial traffic that terminated in Honolulu. What we wanted was to use the off-duty runway for crosswind landing practice. Maui had a little more wind than we had at Barbers Point, which was sheltered by a slight hill. The general manager said: “One of the problems you have on these startup airfields until you get some traffic is training for the controllers. We’ll be glad to have you, and you’re cleared to land.”
We also had P-3 simulators, and I talked to the petty officers who were running them. They would crank in a crosswind. Instead of having the wind down runway nine, they’d have it coming from 060, which would be a 30-degree crosswind. That helped too. But there’s nothing like having an airplane to do it in once or twice, anyhow. So we set up a schedule, and I took a couple of pilots on the airplane. We had two superb pilots, and I took them first until I was satisfied that they were safe for instructing crosswind landings, and then we got all of the pilots and copilots trained. It was an interesting deployment. We got a lot of submarine time, and sometimes we ran our own exercises. We got a lot of crew qualifications out of the way, a lot of coordination flights with Naval Air Facility Adak, and so we ended the deployment with a well-trained organization.