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The 'last Cold Warrior' shares sub-hunt stories

Retired master chief tracked Soviets from P-3s

Mar. 30, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
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When Master Chief Naval Aircrewman (NAC/AW) Spence Cunningham hung up his poopie suit late last year, he was one of the last sailors to have spent his career chasing Soviet submarines across the ocean in a P-3 Orion aircraft.

In fact, his command dubbed him “the last Cold Warrior,” but Cunningham isn’t sure that’s totally accurate.

“I’m really confident in saying I’m probably the last AWCM that has ever held a crew, flying from that era,” he said. “Most of the guys are in pretty senior managerial or leadership positions in the Navy, if not [command master chief].”

Cunningham, 50, retired Dec. 7, five days after he returned from his last deployment, a six-month trip to Japan with the “Broadarrows” of Patrol Squadron 62. It was part of the Navy’s first mobilization of a P-3C Reserve squadron, an aircraft Cunningham has been working on his entire career.

“I can say that what’s different about Spence is how long he has stuck around,” Cmdr. Jon Townsend, VP-62’s commanding officer, told Navy Times. “It’s been such a long time since anybody on this installation has logged any significant time on Russian submarines.”

Cunningham racked up 6,000 flight hours during his 32-year career, the Navy said in a news release.

'On top of Russian submarines'

Cunningham enlisted in 1981, back when his rating was called aviation anti-submarine warfare operator. He spent his active-duty career on sea duty with Patrol Squadron 45 and then as an instructor with Patrol Squadron 30, both based at Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Fla.

He deployed three times — twice to Europe, and then a stay in Bermuda that opened his eyes to the seriousness of his job.

It was 1986, and Cunningham was assigned to cover a “Yankee Patrol Box” — locations in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean where a Soviet Yankee-class ballistic-missile sub would set up shop for a month at a time.

“They called it the Yankee Box for a reason ... the western boundary of the box was basically calculated based on missile flight time,” he said.

If a sub crossed that boundary, it came within a missile’s half-hour flight time to the East Coast, Cunningham explained.

“Up until this point, this was a fun job for me,” he said. “I was just on top of Russian submarines, just having a great old time, never really contemplating or understanding the big picture, if you will.”

It was Cunningham’s job to let the nearby destroyer Moosbrugger know whether the sub had crossed the line. One day, the Soviet vessel started to test the boundary, so he got orders to activate his sonobuoys and ping the Soviets, to let them know they were being tracked.

“We kept that up for — oh, I don’t know — three or four hours at least, until they basically had enough and went back into the box,” he said.

When the crew landed, the debriefing officer let them know that a B-52 wing at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C., had moved inland to protect the bombers in anticipation of a missile launch.

“That’s when it really hit home to me, that this had a lot more big-picture connotations than me just having a good time sitting on top of submarines and doing my thing,” he said.

Cunningham left active duty for the Reserve in 1990, taking a civilian job as a contracted instructor at Jacksonville. Today, he helps train the next generation of naval aircrewmen on the P-3 Orion.

Once the Cold War ended, the P-3 Orion’s mission expanded to overland surveillance, supporting conflicts from Desert Storm to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sensor and armament upgrades allowed it to provide combat support.

Cunningham helped develop some of the adapted training for pilots flying the P-3 over land.

Townsend, the VP-62 CO, said there was a lull in anti-submarine warfare following the Cold War, but it’s back on the priority list for 7th Fleet, and Cunningham played a key role in keeping the squadron trained.

“To see him ... take us out the door and get us back into it, is very comforting, in that he accomplished that mission and he’s leaving our folks trained and ready to follow in his stead,” he said.

Today, the Navy is phasing in the P-8 Poseidon, a new maritime surveillance aircraft. Townsend said his squadron will see the “sundown” of the P-3.

Cunningham hasn’t flown in one yet, but he’s helped develop some of the equipment it uses.

“I’m hoping to make that change, just more out of curiosity than anything,” he said. “If I ever had to transition, I don’t think it’d be that hard.”

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