Aircraft mechanics on a mission: Get S-3s skyward

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on November 20, 2009.

The S-3 Vikings used to be a common sight in the skies over Jacksonville, a city they called home for decades.

That all ended in January, it seemed, when the Navy deactivated the last squadron to fly the plane and retired the aircraft from the fleet.

Now a few of the rugged little jets are back in Jacksonville, at least for a while. Contractors and workers with the Fleet Readiness Center Southeast are refurbishing the planes for a new mission, one that will see at least a few of the aircraft returning to the skies.

"It's great to know they'll have a second life, " said Phil Voss, former commodore of the S-3 air wing and now a Jacksonville businessman.

Workers are preparing three of the aircraft to handle surveillance for the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division in Point Mugu, Calif., patrolling its Pacific missile test range to keep ships and aircraft away.

"I certainly never thought I'd be flying them again, " said Cmdr. John Rousseau, chief test pilot for VX-30, the squadron that will be flying the S-3s. The Viking's radar setup and long dwell time makes it a good fit for the mission, he said, as it did for a variety of tasks - from hunting submarines to searching for ships to patrolling the desert - over the years.

To get the planes airworthy, a crew of mechanics will be spending the next several months performing high-level maintenance: Checking the planes for cracks, stripping them for painting, removing the flaps and spoilers and other pieces of the aircraft to find anything that needs fixing.

"We're taking off everything that can come off, " said James Hines, who's supervising the work.

When they're done, the planes will be able to stay in business for another five or six years before having to come back to the depot.

Most of the contractors on the team have experience working with S-3s, adding a sort of nostalgia to the process.

"It's good to get back on them, " Hines said.

About 14 men are handling the work, spending about 12,000 hours on the first plane. They plan on working that down to just under 9,000 by the end of the project.

Getting the job brought back memories for many of the retired chiefs and petty officers first class who dealt with the planes years ago.

"I was glad to get the job, " said Howard Tarvit, one of the structural engineers on the project. "I hated to see them go."

Engineer Karl Muse has worked on everything from 747s to biplanes over the years, and he agreed. "It brings back a lot of memories from when I was in, " he said.

Even with that wealth of experience, standing up the line was anything but easy.

"It was a challenge, " said Tony Pudoff, the project manager. "I lost sleep over this. It took a lot of long hours."

Working on a decades-old aircraft - one that, to make things more complicated, the Navy thought it was getting rid of - requires a lot of starting from scratch, with the team having to make supports and specialized tools and dig around for technical manuals.

"When it went away, everybody started getting rid of everything, " Hines said.

While Hines was getting people and tools together, Pudoff was scrounging for hangar space, finding somewhere at Jacksonville Naval Air Station he could house the workers and three planes.

The first aircraft, which the team started on in March, should be delivered to California early next year.

It will be a new mission for the S-3, which has seen a variety of changes during the almost 40 years it was in service. It's transitioned from hunting for submarines to refueling other planes, handling electronic warfare and - in its last mission - searching for enemies in the deserts of Iraq.

The new mission is a great fit for the aircraft, said Bob Buehn, the city's chief of military affairs and a former S-3 pilot.

"It's a great airframe with a lot of life in it, " he said. "It makes me feel good to think there'll still be some flying out there over the Pacific.

"I just wish they'd keep flying them around Northeast Florida."

1969: Developing of the aircraft begins
1972: First flight
1974: First operational S-3 unit receives its aircraft
1975: First deploys on a carrier, the USS John F. Kennedy
1990s: Mission changed to anti-surface warfare
1991: An S-3 shoots missile at Saddam Hussein's yacht
2003: An S-3 carries President George W. Bush to the USS Abraham Lincoln
2006: Planes equipped with new targeting systems
2008: NASA begins using an S-3 to study icing on aircraft
January 2009: Final carrier-based S-3 squadron decommissioned, last planes retired


This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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