Excerpt for The Lost Intruder, the Search for a Missing Navy Jet by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


The Lost Intruder

Peter M. Hunt


Praise for The Lost Intruder

“The author’s prose is always crystal-clear and sometimes moving, particularly when he discusses the ways in which his quest revitalized his life in the face of physical decline. An inspiriting story related with journalistic rigor and disarming frankness.”

- Kirkus Reviews

“Peter Hunt has written a touching, well-crafted book that navigates geographical and human landscapes in his quest to find a lost military aircraft underwater while also dealing with the devastating challenges and uncertainties of his battle with Parkinson’s disease.”

- Bernie Chowdhury, Author of The Last Dive

“Candor combines with a dry sense of humor to create a motivational and inspirational message that causes the reader to think about their own commitments to life while looking forward to every page. The Lost Intruder is a lesson for all of us.”

- Ken Waidelich, Editor of The Windscreen, Journal of the Intruder Association

“It is the fascinating ‘story within the story’ that makes this unique tale a must-read and a testament to the capacity of the human spirit. As the pilot of 510 on that fateful day in November 1989, I thought I knew the whole story, but The Lost Intruder brings the account to its true conclusion.”

- Denby Starling, Vice Admiral (USN, retired) and former 510 pilot.

“Ejecting from 510 inspired me to take up scuba diving with the unrequited romantic notion that I might one day stumble across my old jet’s wreckage. Pete Hunt has turned that dream into reality. From studying the Navy’s failed search through the adversity of a debilitating disease, Pete demonstrates that he is a contender in every sense of the word.”

- Chris Eagle, Author/Professor of Computer Science at the Naval Post-Graduate School and former 510 bombardier/navigator.


The Lost Intruder

The Search for a Missing Navy Jet

Peter M. Hunt

Copyright ©2017 by Peter M. Hunt

Smashwords Edition

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. Please do not participate in or encourage the piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.

Cover A-6 photo courtesy of David F. Brown


Sources, terms, and acknowledgments

General A-6 history and descriptions of aircraft carrier and squadron operations come primarily from personal knowledge and Internet research. Medical explanations of Parkinson’s disease and Deep Brain Stimulation surgery come almost entirely from my own experience. Although I am not a medical professional, this is an accurate account of what I believed to be true about Parkinson’s disease at the time. The descriptions of technical aspects of the disease and treatment are a layperson’s best understanding of how often complex neurologic interactions work.

Certain Navy terms have been renamed for ease in remembering them, such as Flight Mishap Report instead of Mishap Incident Report. Use of the terms “Salvor” and “Salvor report” are not meant to single out the Captain or crew of the Salvor as entirely responsible for the Navy’s search effort. The Salvor did not even arrive in Washington waters until the search was almost over. Salvor’s commanding officer, however, was the ranking member of the active search, and as such was responsible for the post-search report and its conclusions.

A great many friends and family reviewed the manuscript in various stages of completion and made valuable suggestions. I am sincerely grateful; you know who you are. My deep appreciation to my wife, Laurie, daughter, Emily, and son Jared who once again put up with another of my hare-brained schemes. As I imagine the three of you rolling collective eyes in amused tolerance, I am filled with love and an appreciation for the Hunt sense of humor.


In memory of Ron Akeson, Captain John Ayedelotte, and Eileen Brown.

Dedicated to Parkinson’s warriors everywhere.

Peter Hunt

May 2017

Whidbey Island


Helpful definitions/abbreviations:

Synchronicity: According to psychoanalyst Carl Jung, coincidences with no causal relationship that are meaningfully related; “meaningful coincidences.”

Dyskinesia: Impairment of voluntary movements resulting in fragmented or jerky motions (as in Parkinson’s disease). Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online.

Fluid, rhythmic swaying of the torso, writhing of limbs, strained facial expressions, and an inability to speak articulately brought on by an overdose of Levodopa. The author’s personal definition.

Dystonia: Any of various conditions (as Parkinson’s disease and torticollis) characterized by abnormalities of movement and muscle tone. Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online.

Painful, continuous muscle contractions of the right shoulder, wrist, and ankle due to insufficient Dopamine; brought on by an undermedication of Levodopa. The author’s personal definition.

AIS: Automatic Identification System

DBS: Deep Brain Stimulation

FOIA: Freedom of Information Act

JAG: Judge Advocate General

MDS: Maritime Documentation Society

NATOPS: _Naval Air Training and Operating Procedures Standardization

ROV: Remotely Operated Vehicle

TACAN: Tactical Air Navigation

VTS: Vessel Traffic Service



Contents

Introduction

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17
Chapter 18
Chapter 19

Afterword

Author



Introduction

Parkinson’s disease is at best a constant chore. It can also be a life-changing event for the positive. It is the human equivalent of a run-on sentence, following a meandering and listless course across unknown terrain, always searching for continuity and focus. Parkinson’s is an existential challenge virtually every waking moment, and not just physically. The psychological impacts of the disease transcend the physical, both good and bad: the search for identity, the attempts to explain without advocating victimhood, the intrinsic confusion of waking at one in the morning unable to walk and then working out like a machine at the gym three hours later.

Learning to eat and drink with head carefully bowed to avoid aspirating food and water. The constant concern of wondering if the rest of the world thinks you are drunk, and then not caring as you shake and sway through the daily routine of work, chores, shopping, the kids’ sporting events. Driving home utilizing every skill and ounce of discipline garnered over five decades to satisfy your conscience that you are still maneuvering safely, stone-cold sober but in a rhythm of repeated flow that focuses the mind, but threatens to allow the car to stray if inattentive.

And then appearing before some of the same bewildered onlookers ninety minutes later, apparently “normal,” but with a spine-deep fatigue from the day’s earlier battles. It’s a constant drag that requires tremendous energy and imagination to adapt to utterly different physical states multiple times a day. It’s hard. It can also be satisfying and even fun in a distorted way. I have always enjoyed laughter. Parkinson’s demands laughter. How can that be all bad?


Washington State waters from the Pacific Ocean to the San Juan Islands (NOAA chart adapted by the author).


One

Dawn’s patiently eager specter

August 14, 2014

The fog moves with inevitability, not with the weakness of a human trait like confidence, but with the known outcome of the preordained. Slithering into the boat’s joints, the fog slowly fills each void until it can no longer be seen. But it is there. Only visible to the mind’s eye, it tickles at my ankles with the cold distance of a scythe, sending an icy squirm to the pit of my stomach.

My legs start to tremble, then shake. The legs are still mine, I remind the shapeless cloud, and not politely, as I kick my right foot violently into the emptiness adjacent the helm seat. Ben and Rod turn abruptly at the flash of movement before hastily adjusting their gazes elsewhere.

I can do this. The silent words beat back the fog, if only a little.

I can do this. Still unspoken, but louder in my mind this time. I breathe in deeply, expanding my chest in defiance with a twisted, painful smile.

“I can do this,” out loud now. My thoughts; my mouth; my words. I still control where my body goes and what my mind thinks. The mist claws at the back of my head, trying to bend me forward in a bow of submission before entering my ears with a faint ringing that envelopes the brain. I force my neck straight until my eyes finally reach the instrument displays eighteen inches above the boat’s dash. My right-hand edges forward, toward the autopilot controls, and with a determined double push of a button, the autopilot turns the boat starboard two degrees.

Effort is measured in inches and feet and miles, but success is only determined by the will to keep trying. I welcome the fog; it is now a part of me. It is best to keep my enemies close.

The thick outside fog, some would call it the “real” fog, defies depth perception. It is the sort of trick the disease loves to play, giving no hint to where an ambivalent nature surrenders to the persistent malady. Ben and Rod can’t see my personal fog inside the cabin, but they must know something has arrived. They can’t see the misty tendrils pull at the hooks in my body. All they perceive is my dance of resistance, the effects of the Parkinson’s disease: the near-constant writhing and rhythmic sways of dyskinesia, interrupted by dystonia’s sudden, spasmodic jolts and tortuous twisting of limbs and spine. I look forward, past the boat’s white fiberglass bow, straining eyes for an outside reference point. Nothing.

The curling mist surrounding the boat confuses the senses with nature’s subtle perfection, filling each gap to uniformity until the horizon is lost in a rolling sea of gray. Without a skyline, the human eye loses its intuitive perception of physical position; nothing is certain in fog’s fake vista. Trying to pierce the veiled obscurity is as if combing a vast, empty asphalt parking lot looking for a penny that is not there. With eyes cast down, straining to see what is impossibly missing, the image becomes increasingly confusing without context.

Accomplished mariners, those who regularly venture out to sea, are wary of fog. They put their trust in navigation instruments, radar and chart plotters, manmade tools that provide substitute realities for the senses. But only the eye’s glimpse of a turning ship, the sound of an approaching horn, and the feel of the balancing horizon underfoot can blend seamlessly into a shared awareness. Not even the finest of navigation instruments can compete with the fluid speed of the senses. Instruments do, however, trump the senses in one critical respect: they don’t lie. Confused senses don’t stop relaying questionable information; instead, they give incorrect information.

The saying of record, whether in the air or on the water, is to “trust your instruments.” But there is a corollary to this saying, one I remember well from the steady handedness of a past life as a Naval Aviator: “A peek is worth a thousand instrument scans.”

The vibrating rumble of the boat’s two diesel engines is loud inside the cabin, but it is even worse on the aft deck where Rod stands between a large winch and a wildly vibrating portable gas engine. Rod visibly strains to hear the horns of approaching vessels. We make brief eye contact, but no message is passed. In the mild claustrophobia of the disease, I fight the urge to read too much into this. Sometimes nothing means nothing.

Ben, the third man aboard, sits at the settee table with open laptop, scrutinizing the imagery transmitted from the sonar’s towed array, trailing underwater 700-feet behind the boat. I look left to a computer monitor, its base crudely duct-taped for stability to the fixed galley end table. The track lines of earlier runs still marked on the display define the course I steer. The boat offsets the previous run in a gradually tightening circle, spiraling inward like a snail’s shell.

Our search is at the edge of Washington State’s San Juan Islands, fifty miles to the northwest of Seattle. There are three main landmasses in the San Juans: Lopez, San Juan, and Orcas Islands. Many smaller isles and semi-submerged rocks dot the charted depths. Despite being well removed from the open Ocean, broad expanses of water in the San Juans allow for surprisingly heavy seas.

Massive oil tankers ply the deep waters, transiting between the open Pacific seventy miles to the west and the nearby Anacortes oil refinery. Freighters and ocean-going tugboats pulling formidable barges also travel these waters, hauling cargo between Vancouver, British Columbia, and Seattle. Our search today is at the confluence of this varied commercial traffic, in a stretch of water known as Rosario Strait.

Shipping lanes and Rosario Strait (NOAA chart adapted by the author).

Mixing scores of recreational boats with commercial shipping is always cause for concern. Add bad visibility to the mix, and it can be a recipe for disaster. Summer boaters weave seemingly random paths across Rosario Strait’s busy commercial shipping highways, darting between vessels so large that it can take miles for them to turn. Directional traffic lanes separate the opposing shipping in Rosario Strait by a quarter mile, but few rules are uniformly practiced for de-conflicting the myriad pleasure boats that work the fishing grounds. Puget Sound’s relatively narrow entrance at the open-ocean complicates matters further, creating a tidal current so swift that, at times, it is impossible to overcome for a slow-moving vessel.

Operating in Rosario Strait in the fog can be a challenge, but most boats merely transit the area and are gone. We are different. Our reason for cruising in the Strait has nothing to do with shipping or fishing or simple pleasure boating. We are searching the ocean bottom for what does not belong. We are looking for a Navy jet.

I’ve made my share of boating mistakes over the years, many of them on our search vessel, the “Sea Hunt.” What’s troubling is the uncertainty that I’ve learned a damn thing from such past errors. One lesson believed to be ingrained decades earlier was to only enter fog if given no choice. It isn’t enough to responsibly operate a recreational vessel in poor visibility; fog forces a Captain to trust in the knowledge and ability of every surrounding boater as well.

These lessons were learned through experience’s harsh litany of hard-to-swallow mistakes and close calls. Pride can lead a mariner to disaster in the blink of an eye, and it is pride that has put us in a precarious position. Sea Hunt operates in the narrow shipping lanes with less than fifty feet of visibility, restricted in movement due to the sonar cable strung out behind us, constrained to moving deathly slow. We are vulnerable to fast moving fishing boats and large ships alike, constantly tempting every Captain’s worse nightmare—collision at sea.

Sea Hunt’s navigation instruments are not acting normally, and the display images match the tremor in my hand with a jitter of their own. The instruments have been acting up with troubling inconsistency all morning, becoming nearly useless the moment Sea Hunt entered the fog. So much for trusting my instruments, I think.

Radar is the only sure way to spot other vessels when maneuvering in bad visibility. Much like an above the waterline version of sonar, a radar emits energy pulses that are reflected off hard materials, such as land or a ship. This returned energy is translated by a receiver into a visual image. The time it takes for an energy pulse to make the round trip to a target and back is converted to the distance from the radar. As Sea Hunt creeps along its racetrack pattern, Ben searches the ocean bottom with the sonar, while I scan the water’s obscured surface with the radar, looking for ships, boats, and buoys. Rod’s responsibilities straddle both endeavors, as he operates the sonar tether’s winch while looking and listening for danger.

The chart plotter uses global positioning system satellite data to build a map of a boat’s progress across the water. To have both radar and chart plotter act so strangely is unprecedented for me; it is confusing as hell. My ability to maintain a mental plot of our position relative to the surrounding vessels is eroding. Situational awareness is slipping from my grasp.

It takes hours before I conclude that the radar and chart plotter are generally accurate. It appears that the swift currents are causing the gyrations of our snail-paced vessel: I’ve never traveled this slowly for so long in a boat. Sea Hunt is restricted to a speed of between 1½ and 3 nautical miles per hour. Any faster and the image being sent up from the “towfish” at the end of its long cable leash will become distorted and unusable. Any slower and the entire cable will droop, and then drop, risking a scrape of the expensive transducer array and its attached communication cable on the sea bottom. Sonar scanning in a strong current makes for a stressful, nearly impossible, workload for me. It zeroes in like a dive bomber on my disease-induced vulnerabilities.

Turning my head, I struggle to raise my voice, “Coming left!”

The words are softly muffled, barely audible. Like trying to play a wind instrument with a severe chest cold, there just isn’t enough air in my lungs to make my voice heard. Ben and Rod look forward, their faces blank. I raise a shaking hand and point left until they both nod in acknowledgment. We turn.

I leave most of the critical lookout duties to Rod on the aft deck, a job he takes seriously. He sticks his head in the cabin with a shouted update. Reaching into a small cupboard to the right of the helm, I motion for him to wait, and hand him a portable air horn. Rod is an experienced mariner; an Alaskan charter boat Captain for many years, I trust his judgment. He listens intently from the aft deck, focusing his gaze into the thick blanket of fog, trying to discern the real from the imagined. He shares my concern with the radar blip that was behind us moments ago but is now approaching from the left within a mile and closing fast.

“Pete!” Rod steps through the open sliding glass door leading to the aft deck to speak. “Can I try listening at the bow, get further from the engine noise?”

I weigh the risks. Although the seas are calm, if Rod loses his grip on the side rail and falls, we would be hard pressed to find him. One slip could mean a hypothermic death in the fifty-degree Fahrenheit water in less than two hours. Assuming, that is, that he is not run over by a ship first.

I turn to Rod, “No, let’s not chance you falling in. Try the flying bridge instead.”

Rod nods in the affirmative, and I appreciate his calm professionalism. Despite having more experience on the water than me, he knows that there can only be one Captain. Argument is not just inappropriate; it can be a deadly distraction. Rod climbs the flybridge ladder, only to return a minute later, shaking his head in the negative. He leaves the cabin door open.

The throttles are in continuous motion trying to keep up with the always changing current, caused by the more than one cubic mile of water that is exchanged between Puget Sound and the Pacific Ocean with each of four daily tides. I take a quick peek out the forward windscreen, straining to see a couple of extra feet. Nothing. I steal another glance aft. Rod points the air horn left of Sea Hunt’s course, letting out a long blast. Cocking his head to the side, he listens. Nothing.

Turning back to the radar screen, I wait impatiently for the arcing sweep to light up the mystery vessel. The radar blip appears again, this time closer to Sea Hunt. The display screen’s gyrations finally settle down as Sea Hunt steadies up into the current.

“This guy’s going to try to pass us,” I say to Ben, not expecting a response.

At 38, Ben has proven himself an accomplished explorer as a diver and, now, as a side-scan sonar expert. He is a perfectionist with little tolerance for error. In some ways, he reminds me of myself before my Parkinson’s diagnosis, which might explain the tense atmosphere in the boat’s cabin: perhaps we each see something familiar in the other that we would rather not. Ben does not say a thing or break from his intent study of the ocean bottom.

Lately, due to my difficulty articulating words, I am frequently ignored. These one-sided conversations are particularly frustrating, cloaking me in a bubble of isolated invisibility. Those who can acclimate to my fidgeting soon reach their threshold of patience trying to understand my softly garbled speech. By afternoon, I am treated by most as a child, and the exchange of invisibility for condescension is the toughest pill of my medication regimen to swallow.

“I’m showing him within a quarter mile and closing,” I say, twisting uncomfortably back toward Ben to make eye contact. “Ben, I strongly recommend that you start reeling in the towfish.”

Ben glances up, hesitates, and then looks back to the laptop without comment. A few seconds later, he stands to go out onto the aft deck. I have no idea if he understood me. This is the standard communication process for us lately, but I am out of ideas and too damn exhausted to care. I struggle to focus on the radar while fighting through painful contortions that swirl in tight circles on the vertebrae in my lower back. The radar sweep paints the mystery vessel in a blossoming point of light, and again, it is closer.

“This guy is definitely overtaking us,” I can barely hear my own voice.

The unknown boat is getting dangerously near. If the vessel had maintained the predictable course and speed of the previous mile and a half, then Sea Hunt would have crossed the shipping lanes well ahead of its projected path. But that’s now impossible. Why are there so many small boats in the area, I ask myself, each moving erratically? There is no time to dwell on the question. It is only after returning to port that we learn it is opening day for the King Salmon fishing season. This explains the unusual changes in speed, as barely moving fishing boats troll for salmon, and then abruptly sprint for the next fishing spot after the lines are reeled in.

The radar sweep illuminates the mystery vessel again. I bolt upright, eyes glued to the radar screen. The fast-moving radar return is overtaking us in a tight, right turn, moving towards Sea Hunt’s bow. With the mystery boat now pointing directly perpendicular to our course, our two vessels risk colliding. It makes no sense; does the boat’s captain even know that Sea Hunt is in his path? We are getting boxed in, unable to turn left with the unknown vessel veering into us. To the right are the shallows of Lawson Reef. I steady up the helm on our original search pattern heading. Rod must share my concern; he lets out another long blast on the air horn.

“He’s crossing our bow, less than 200 feet—can you see him?” I try to yell to Rod.

Rod scans the fog intently before shouting back, “Nothing Pete, I can’t see a thing!”

The mystery vessel is almost directly in front of us when its radar return merges with ours, getting too close to be depicted on the smallest scale of the display. I sit indecisively for a second, trying to think clearly as my entire body shakes. A loud noise breaks my stasis. The gong of a large bell reverberates from the open window to my right: it is the sound of the Lawson’s Reef marker buoy, surprisingly near. That cinches it. I pull the throttles back to idle and put the engines in neutral. The walls close in as the bow wake from the still unseen radar contact begins to reach Sea Hunt. I stumble out of the helm seat, reaching for the inflatable life vest on the floor behind me, convinced we are about to collide.

The unknown vessel, whether it was a mid-sized fishing boat or a larger commercial ship, never comes into view. A second later, Ben storms through the open cabin door after seeing slack in the tow line and the shift levers in neutral.

“What are you doing?” He yells, “The towfish is dragging on the bottom. Get us moving!”

Ben rushes back on deck to reel in the sonar array as the wake from the passing vessel pitches Sea Hunt’s bow in a sweeping arc. I start to speak, promptly think better of it, and push the throttles forward, too much at first. I drop the life vest, slow, and try to get my act together. My eyes scan for a reference, a piece of the horizon, anything to ground my senses: nothing but fog. The afternoon exhaustion overwhelms. Acute anxiety shoots through me, causing my shoulders and legs to spasm violently. I struggle to breathe. It feels like I’m drowning.

Finally, ten minutes later, the last of the tether cable is wrapped around the winch spool that dominates the aft deck. I see with relief that the towfish is still attached. We are clear to maneuver. Ben looks over the cylindrical towfish carefully, occasionally pointing out the damage to Rod. I take a couple of deep breaths, trying to shut out Ben’s anger, but my mind’s a jumble. We are not out of the woods yet—there are other boats still in the immediate area. I know through my two decades as a Navy and airline pilot that this is the most vulnerable time in any high-stress situation, that it is critical not to respond to distractions. Still, I can’t shake it.

Ben is right to be angry. It stings, but it wasn’t my $16,000 towfish dragging along the bottom. At the end of the day, even if my interpretation of the unfolding radar events was entirely accurate—which is by no means certain—I allowed circumstance to box us in, leaving no way out. Responsibility lies with the captain. In an epiphany, it is evident that the root cause of the incident is my inability to accept my new limitations. I can no longer handle the complex task loading of low visibility towing, certainly not while crisscrossing the shipping lanes. It was hubris to think that I could. This is my foul up.

Rod is listening and tries to take some of the bite out of Ben’s criticism. “Pete, I know a few radar techniques that might be helpful.”

I appreciate Rod’s attempt to smooth things over, but this is not the time. We are still in the fog, near Lawson Reef, in the shipping lanes. I turn to both men, struggling for composure.

“Okay, listen up—that’s enough. We can talk about this back at the dock. Right now, we need to run the boat.” It takes all my strength to muster a commanding voice, but it must be done. Embarrassed, exhausted, and nearly beaten, I wonder what the hell I’m doing here. For the first time, it honestly hits home that Parkinson’s is going to win.

Ben sits quietly for a few minutes with an intense look on his face: Anger? Hatred? Disbelief? All three? I can’t tell. I don’t ask. Finally, he speaks.

“We have one small area left to scan. Are you up for it?”

I look at the computer monitor. We have covered the entire day’s sector except for a small portion in the middle of the screen. It should take about fifteen minutes to cover the tract.

“What are the chances, Ben, really?” I just want to get the hell back to port.

“Pete, I’ll tell you, it might sound like a good idea to leave now, but I’ve done this before. You’ll wake up in the middle of the night and just know that the airplane is in that spot. If we don’t cover the area now, we’ll have to make a special trip later.”

Ben’s right. I muster my energy. “Okay, let’s finish it up.”

The cabin falls into an uncomfortable silence. Rod loiters uncomfortably by the aft door before going back on deck. The towfish shows some scratches, and there is a multitude of cuts along the tether cable that will eventually require repair, but as the winch spool unwinds it appears that the sonar unit is still functioning.

“Hold on, what’s this?” There is now excitement in Ben’s voice. “Look at this!”

A sizeable contact comes into view on the same monitor that has shown nothing longer than three feet on the flat bottom after days of searching. By comparison, this thing is huge.

“The target is definitely man-made,” Ben says confidently. “This might be it!”

“It’s in the correct area, that’s for sure.” I glance over to Ben’s laptop. “I don’t know; I’ll have to take a hard look at it, check some measurements.”

After eight months of research and over fifty hours of surveying the ocean bottom, had we finally found the lost Intruder?


Two

Cruel with well-honed diversion

August 2014

I turn left off Washington State Route 20, just beyond a barely visible runway threshold and a series of hand-painted billboards. Each homemade sign sports a stenciled silhouette of a military jet with four words at the bottom written in bold red, “The sound of freedom.” The morning calm is abruptly shattered by the high-pitched scream of jet engines as a sleek E/A-18G Growler, just 400 feet overhead, makes a shallow turn toward the runway. There is a slight hesitation before the jet’s invisible wake erupts in a deafening roar, forcing hands to ears and physically shaking my Ford Expedition. The whine of jet turbines slowly recedes. In a past life, a much younger me had flown an older, uglier aircraft to the same runway, startling drivers and spooking the cows grazing in the expansive field alongside the road.

The air becomes still and, slowly, the sound of chirping birds returns. I pull into the driveway, get out of the car, and walk through the downstairs entrance to my home office. The door has not yet shut behind me when my eyes are drawn to a sheet of paper lying on the desk. The print out of the underwater sonar image is oddly comforting; it makes me feel grounded. I lean on the oak desktop to stop my body’s rhythmic swaying and stare hard at the picture. At first, it doesn’t look like a jet. Still, I know that it’s the old warbird. My old warbird. Piece after piece of the mystery are falling into place.

Thirty years earlier, I had joined the Navy to fly. There are few occupations as well defined and rigidly understood as that of a pilot; it can be a disconcertingly comfortable identity. After Navy flight school, I had been assigned to fly the A-6 Intruder. The “A” stood for the “Attack” mission, the job of bringing the fight to the enemy as a low-level bomber. Many former A-6 aviators opted to stay on Whidbey Island after they either left the Navy or retired, but none of these men were obsessed with the lost Intruder. What made me different? What possessed me to turn a past association with an old aircraft into an arduous, even a dangerous, quest?

The missing A-6, set apart from hundreds of other Grumman-built Intruders by the permanent numerical designation of 159572 painted on the tail—the bureau number—had been in our squadron for about a year and a half when it crashed. This was more than long enough to develop a black-cloud reputation for mechanical problems. Every Navy jet has two independent identification numbers: the unique six-digit bureau number on the tail, and the more practical, three-digit squadron identification number painted on the nose. The lost Intruder had 510 painted on its nose when it crashed. While the bureau number was a more precise identification, I had come to think of the lost Intruder as simply “five-ten.”

After coming off the Grumman manufacturing line, 510 was initially assigned to the Marine Corps in 1978 as a part of the first deployment of attack squadrons to Iwakuni, Japan. In 1981, 510 transferred to the Navy. She then flew from the deck of the Japan-based U.S.S. Midway for half a dozen years before returning state-side to Attack Squadron 145 at Naval Air Station (N.A.S.) Whidbey Island. Attack Squadron 145 was my old squadron. Five-ten was one of twelve Attack Squadron 145 Intruders when I checked in for duty, fresh from A-6 flight training, in September of 1988.

According to my Navy log books, I had flown 510 four times: three flights from the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Ranger, and one from N.A.S. Whidbey Island. Three of the sorties had been training exercises, and the fourth was as an aerial refueling tanker, one of the Intruder’s supplementary missions, from Ranger in the Indian Ocean. I had also been witness to the unfolding drama of 510’s demise. Standing in the ready room, the squadron’s central meeting space, I listened as 510’s aircrew first reported a problem over the Squadron Duty Officer’s radio. The bombardier/navigator of the Intruder, Lieutenant Chris Eagle, was one of my closest friends. The pilot, Commander Denby Starling, was the squadron’s Executive Officer, the second in command. He would be our Commanding Officer a year later during Operation Desert Storm. Denby Starling would go on to have a distinguished Naval career, eventually retiring as a Vice Admiral. Neither man suffered any permanent ill effects from the ejection, a violent, hazardous last-ditch procedure that got them out of the uncontrollable aircraft before automatically deploying their parachutes. The ability to safely eject was the only thing that saved the two from certain death.

A-6 bureau number 159572 in its original Marine Corps paint scheme (circa 1978, photographer unknown).

What fascinated me the most about the lost Intruder, from the day it crashed on November 6, 1989, was intensely personal. Most of my compelling life experiences have come from flying Navy jets and a life-long hobby of scuba diving. To have a submerged A-6 within miles of my home, one directly linked to personal history, was not just an interesting fact: it demanded action. Just not necessarily urgent action. For 25 years, I would occasionally daydream of randomly running across the missing A-6 while diving, but wasn’t so delusional as to think that there was a realistic chance this could happen. Far more qualified experts had conducted an active search for the jet, only to walk away empty-handed.

Attack Squadron 145 nose number 510, bureau number 159572, visiting Andrews Air Force Base in July of 1988 (photo courtesy of David F. Brown).

Attack Squadron 145 nose number 510, bureau number 159572, visiting Andrews Air Force Base in July of 1988 (photo courtesy of David F. Brown).

Soon after 510 plunged into Puget Sound, a search effort involving four Navy ships lasting two full months ended in frustration. The Navy blamed the failure to find the $30 million aircraft on swift tidal currents, deep water, poor underwater visibility, and inclement weather. Tidal currents, caused by the moon’s gravitational force, are pushed to extremes in the greater Puget Sound. The tidal ebb and flow of massive volumes of water move through the Strait of Juan de Fuca between the Pacific Ocean and a vast network of relatively narrow, long waterways, creating currents that can exceed eight knots in certain spots. The chance that I would stumble across the jet resided somewhere between extremely slim and zero percent. All the same, it was still conceivable, and it is the possible that often gives our lives purpose.

It was not until late 2013 that I finally decided to look for the missing jet. The lost Intruder began to represent a neat and tidy wrap-up of my past that I could no longer deny. It had taken nearly 25 years to develop the nerve to entertain the notion that I might succeed where the U.S. Navy had failed. But it wasn’t just the clock ticking behind me that got the project moving forward; it was also the countdown of those hands into the future. Parkinson’s disease was eroding my capabilities with each sweep of the second hand. The search for the lost Intruder had turned into a now or never proposition. I chose now.

I was working as an airline pilot, having just turned 43 years old, when diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson’s disease in 2005. Being a pilot did not make the transition from “normal” to “something other than normal” any easier for me. After ten years of walking into the United Airlines Flight Operations Office in Seattle feeling steady as a rock, early one morning my hand started to shake uncontrollably. There was no warning, no identifiable foreshadowing clues. It was just me—coincidentally speaking with my boss, the Chief Pilot for Seattle—when my right hand decided to suddenly disobey a lifetime of neurological commands. It was like turning on a switch, and in an instant, my life changed forever.

At first, I didn’t know what to do about the tremor. I hid my hand in my jacket pocket and tried to figure it out on my own for a month. I got nowhere. I called a friend who is a medical doctor. I called the pilot’s union. They both advised, “Get thee to a neurologist.” (The union attorney said those exact words.) And just like that, my twenty-year flying career was over. The change was abrupt, but I adjusted as the Navy had trained me to adapt to new situations. I accepted the facts as they were, even though in retrospect, I had little understanding of what those facts ultimately meant. I prioritized. I did my best to put on a good face to insulate my wife and two children from the coming sea change.

By Christmas 2013, I needed to act if the Intruder search was to move from the “someday” category of dreams to the “at least I gave it a shot” column. The debilitating effects of the progressive, neurological disease were becoming too severe to wait any longer. Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) surgery was scheduled for the fall of 2014, a final effort to slow, and maybe reverse, the disease’s progress. This gave me ten months to find the missing jet before my underwater adventures would be severely curtailed. A successful DBS procedure meant a scuba diving limit of 33 feet. If the DBS surgery didn’t work, then my condition would not allow further exploration anyway. In any case, having run out of 25 years of reasons not to look, I did all that was left—I started to search.

In many ways, looking for the lost Intruder offered a substitute for a closure that I fully realized would never exist in real life. Discovered truths tend to branch out in unexpected directions, creating multiple new questions. My battle with Parkinson’s did more than instill in me a hope of finding the jet, it fostered a profound belief that anything was possible if I honestly gave it my best effort. And if the lost Intruder couldn’t be found in the end, however that “end” might be defined, then I would know for certain that it was unfindable, at least by me.

I had dived many sunken ships in my life, but had never searched for an undiscovered wreck and had no idea how to start. Diving has been an important part of my life for over 35 years. It has affected my personality in ways both subtle and considered and is nearly always running in the background clutter of my thoughts. Diving inspired the name of my boat, a play on words with my last name and the popular 1950s TV show “Sea Hunt,” where Lloyd Bridges thrilled viewers with weekly underwater adventures. Before joining the Navy at age 23, I had been an accomplished wreck diver, making 13 dives to the Mount Everest of shipwrecks, the Andrea Doria. These were not gentle sight-seeing dives. These were among the first deep penetrations of the Andrea Doria’s interior by anyone on scuba, hazardous dives that would become synonymous with deadly accidents in the decades to come.


Purchase this book or download sample versions for your ebook reader.
(Pages 1-18 show above.)