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Lockheed S-3 Viking: America’s Submarine Hunting Plane

During the Cold War, one aircraft made such a lasting impact with its adaptability, reliability and respect from those who operated her, that there are still calls, albeit unanswered ones, for its return to service today. This is an aircraft that has been held in the highest esteem, and to this day, the various crucial roles it has played in many a conflict have yet to be surpassed, or in some cases, have yet to be replaced at all.

In an ever-changing world comes ever-changing threats, and when the Soviets began rolling out nuclear submarines, the United States quickly realised that their out-of-date tracking technology would need replacing by something that had the ability to hunt down submarines that could now stay submerged for weeks or even months at a time.

First conceived in the 1960’s, the Lockheed S-3 Viking was more than just a submarine hunter, in fact in its time the S-3 Viking also performed the roles of cargo plane, spy craft, aerial refueller and attack jet, making this all-rounder a champion of the skies, and of the seas. In the event of nuclear war, the S-3 Viking could be utilised to attack submarines, preventing either nuclear or more conventional means of attack. However, before its conception even began, the Lockheed S-3 Viking already had some big shoes to fill.

Construction

For years the king of the submarine hunters was the Grumman S-2 Tracker. Operational from 1954, the American produced propeller-driven aircraft used twin radial engines, a tri-wheel undercarriage and a high wing for storage aboard aircraft carriers. It carried two lightweight torpedoes and had storage for up to four more, amongst other radar and tracking technology that had made the S-2 Tracker such an incredibly efficient hunter. However as technology began to change and Soviet weaponry became more and more advanced, the Grumman S-2 Tracker quickly became obsolete, and so in the mid 1960’s it was decided that a suitable replacement would be needed so the United States could maintain its maritime superiority. Eventually in 1976 the United States retired the Tracker for all but training purposes, bringing an end to its exemplary military service.

Its replacement would have to be the most technologically advanced of its kind as well as leading the way in antisubmarine warfare, or ASW for short. The United States needed to develop an aircraft that could help keep the upper hand during the last years of the Cold War. Chosen for this most important of challenges was the company Lockheed Martin – long time partner of the United States military and trusted contractor during the Second World War, despite the fact they had not produced a carrier-based aircraft since 1957. With this in mind, Lockheed teamed up with LTV, or as they were then known Vought, so they could utilise the experience LTV had from producing the A-7 and F-8 carrier-based jets and together develop the most advanced aircraft of its kind, ready to take on the new emerging threats of the Cold War.

A four-man crew would operate the aircraft, adopting a two-by-two seating position. Crew included of course the pilot, the co-pilot, a tactical coordinator also known as a TACCO, and an enlisted aviation antisubmarine warfare operator, or SENSO.

This was to be the first carrier-based aircraft to have an all computerised hunt and kill system, and in order to accomplish this Lockheed and LTV enlisted the help of other manufacturers in a united effort to develop an aircraft that would out-class, and out-perform its predecessor. And so, Sperry Univac were brought on board to provide the General Purpose Digital Computer, or GPDC, Texas Instruments produced the radar, infrared and magnetic anomaly detector system, and even IBM contributed to the momentous task by providing state-of-the-art electronic support measures, or ESM for short. Lockheed and LTV were not alone in the challenge of developing this next generation submarine hunter; LTV developed their own designs for submission, as did other aircraft manufacturers McDonnell Douglas and Grumman. Grumman also aligned themselves with General Dynamics, in a joint venture they hoped would snag the lucrative and much sought after contract. It was in December 1968 that the final entries were submitted for consideration and in August of 1969, not surprisingly considering the very nature of this video, Lockheed’s design would be victorious and the S-3A Viking was born. The United States ordered delivery of two static-test prototypes, and eight flight prototypes, the first of which would be tested in early 1972.

It is difficult for us to completely understand the sheer significance of this impressive piece of technology at this stage, but for some context, the S-3A Viking was the first to achieve a great many feats, and it did this despite being an entirely new aircraft with technology far advanced of anything preceding it. Its 20 meter wingspan and 16 meter length, or 65 feet by 50 feet, made the S-3A Viking marginally bigger than the S-2 Tracker, while taking only 8% more deck space. It outperformed the Tracker in every way, with a vastly superior avionics suite, the ability to cover three times the search area, and space for double the payload. It featured two General Electric TF34 twin-shaft high-bypass turbofan engines with over 9,065 pounds of thrust which could carry the S-3A Viking over 2000 miles during missions, and with the unmistakable sounds of the infamous TF34 engines, the S-3 Viking would soon earn the nickname of “War Hoover.” Just for good measure, a mid-air refuelling rod was installed in the event that the S-3A Viking’s flight time needed to be extended. Travelling at a maximum speed of around 800 kilometers per hour, or 500 miles per hour, the Viking was fast, but at only about the speed of an average passenger plane, the Viking certainly didn’t fly at breakneck speed. However as this was conceived as a submarine hunter, speed was not the most essential characteristic.

Testing commenced on January 21st, 1972, in the hands of John Christiansen and Lyle Schaefer, Lockheed’s experienced test pilot and co-pilot, and after an incredibly successful testing stage the aircraft was handed to the military on time and well within budget, something that is still almost as unheard of today as it was then. The Navy immediately ordered production of the aircraft and Lockheed’s Burbank facility began rolling out the Lockheed S-3A, now officially named the Viking, with the first three entering into service on 20th February, 1974, which was an outstandingly quick nine years from development to operational service.

Service

The brand new Lockheed S-3A Viking joined the Air Antisubmarine Warfare Squadron 41, or VS-41 Shamrocks, a training squadron which had been operational in the United States Navy since 1960. The Shamrocks had originally been conceived to train the S-2 Tracker crews, so it seemed only natural that the S-3A Viking would be integrated into the Shamrocks squadron, who would preside over training the future S-3A Viking pilots of the United States Navy.

It was in 1975 that the S-3A Viking performed its first operational cruise aboard the illustrious USS John F Kennedy, alongside the VS-21 Fighting Redtails. Within a few years over one hundred and eighty Viking’s had joined the United States Navy with every carrier featuring the newest addition to the fleet, and in 1976 the S-3A Viking began its first full squadron deployment in the Western Pacific on one of the Navy’s most fearsome warships, the mighty USS Enterprise.

As the last of the S3-A Viking’s left the production line for delivery it was becoming increasingly apparent that improvements would be required in order for the United States to keep up with the advancing technology of the Soviet submarine fleet and their two hundred plus vessels. So by the mid 1980’s the Navy decided to upgrade the Viking, creating the S3-B, now equipped with high-resolution APS-137 synthetic aperture radars that were capable of identifying individual classes of ships, along with a whole host of other state-of-the-art updates that included a new sonorbouy system, improved acoustic processing, and an upgrade to the radar. By 1984 every S3-A had been upgraded to an S-3B. With these upgrades began a roster of expanded duties that the Viking would become so revered for today. Half a dozen Viking’s were converted to US-3A cargo planes, performing a number of missions delivering crucial supplies and passengers. New reconnaissance missions were undertaken with the ES-3 Sea Shadow, sixteen newly converted Viking’s, where they served in the Yugoslavian and Iraq conflicts until 1998 when they were officially retired.

The fall of the Soviet Union and discontinuation of the Warsaw Pact meant the role of the S-3B Viking evolved and drifted away from anti-submarine warfare, focusing on land and surface missions on a more permanent basis. During this time it was decided that the Viking aircraft would be redesignated from Anti Submarine Warfare Squadrons to Sea Control Squadrons, a more fitting designation for the evolving role the Viking played in naval operations. One of its most pivotal roles began in the mid 1990’s where it replaced the retired KA-6 Intruder refuelling aircraft, and then served notably during the American Taliban intervention of 2001, refuelling the United States short-ranged fighters. The Viking continued its refuelling missions as the only carrier-based tanker aircraft until it was eventually replaced in 2002 by the Super Hornet Fighter Jet.

Perhaps the most iconic and public appearance of the Lockheed S-3 Viking was during the “Mission Accomplished” speech delivered by President G.W. Bush in 2003 onboard the USS Abraham Lincoln. In the spirit of the President’s personal aircraft Air Force One, the S-3B Viking aptly adopted the call sign “Navy One” during the short but spectacular flight delivering the President from land to deck. The use of the Lockheed Viking was perhaps a propaganda manoeuver by the United States due both to the significance of the aircraft used and the fact that the short distance travelled by air could easily have been covered by a helicopter. It would appear that this was not just a speech by the President of the United States; it was in fact a statement.

It was shortly after this that the Navy sought to retire the iconic aircraft, due to budgetary restraints. To put it very simply, the Viking would have cost too much to upgrade, and in January of 2009 the last of the S-3B Viking squadrons were retired, with three of the aircraft being reactivated shortly after for use in the experimental Air Test and Evaluation Squadron Thirty, also known as VX-30, until they were once again retired in 2016. From 2005 to 2021, NASA had been successfully using the S-3B Viking in a variety of groundbreaking research missions that have improved the studies of environmental data, geo-referencing, navigation and communication, all while managing to cover every terrain in national airspace. NASA even saved the tax payer millions of dollars by buying the decommissioned S-3B Viking directly from the Navy, instead of investing in a new and more expensive aircraft.

Meanwhile Lockheed were pitching the S-3B Viking as suitable for a Carrier Onboard Delivery role, where they would act as replacements for the soon to be retired C-2 Greyhound that had been successfully supplying the United States Navy for many years. Despite the obvious advantages of using the Viking, the CMV-22B Osprey was chosen as the C-2’s replacement, leaving hope of continued service dashed by a far inferior aircraft, with the Osprey’s only advantage being that it had the function of resupplying non carrier-based ships, which the Viking could not do, making deliveries to the fleet much easier.

During its operational years, ‘America’s Submarine Hunter’ never actually got to perform its submarine hunting capabilities to the fullest, as there had simply been no requirement for them. Records did show that the S-3 Viking would have excelled at this task should a conflict have arose. Despite this, the other catalogue of duties the S-3 Viking performed to a staggeringly high level, made this multi-functional wonder of aviation a vital part of the United States Navy during the Cold War, and beyond. Spanning decades of exemplary service, the Lockheed S-3 Viking has left a lasting legacy of excellence that few other aircraft have yet to surpass.

Retirement

Even after the retirement of one the Navy’s most versatile aircraft, the furore for the Viking continues. It seems the Viking has left a lasting gap in the capabilities of the United States, and therefore leaves a gap in the superiority of the naval forces, that ironically would be difficult to fill by just one aircraft, despite the fact that the Viking alone managed to perform all of these roles on a daily basis.

South Korea expressed interest in purchasing thirty six refurbished S-3 Viking aircraft, which would join the existing South Korean fleet of sixteen Orion’s in helping to discover the whereabouts of the North Korean submarine fleet. By 2017 it was reported that South Korea had closed negotiations and had opted for an entirely different aircraft altogether to augment their naval capabilities.

The last operational S-3 Viking left service at NASA in June of 2021, due to the expense of maintenance and difficulty securing the unique parts needed for repair. From there it flew off into the sunset to the San Diego Air and Space Museum, where its rich history in both the United States Navy and NASA will be used to educate museumgoers from all over the world.

Ultimately, the S-3B Viking was a victim of budget cuts that have been challenging the military for many years. Its service proved to be invaluable not only to the United States Navy but also to NASA, and admirers dream of the day a newer more versatile Viking will take to the skies, but unfortunately it seems this wonder of the aviation world will remain a piece of history, if albeit an important part of it.

I’m really hoping you enjoyed today’s video, if you did then please hit that thumbs up button on the screen, don’t forget to subscribe, and thank you very much for watching.

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