Aviation crash makes stirring adventure tale

Posted: Thursday, August 21, 2003

The Aleutians, haunts of legendary storms, are notoriously hard on planes, ships and human survival. "Adak: The Rescue of Alfa Foxtrot 586" brings those hardships vividly to life on the printed page.

The book tells the true and harrowing tale of a naval surveillance plane that went down 25 years ago in the inhospitable and remote sea between Shemya and Kamchatka. Fifteen men were aboard when a massive engine failure forced them to abort their Cold War spy mission and ditch. Making a bad situation worse, it was late autumn, a powerful storm was moving into the area, and they lost much of their emergency gear.

The author, Andrew Jampoler, is a retired naval aviation officer who knows his material inside and out. Although he was not directly involved in the incident, he served contemporaneously on the same types of missions, flying the same planes out of the same bases. Subsequently he commanded the Naval Air Station at Moffett Field in California, the home base for the ill-fated plane's squadron. This is his first book.

His descriptions of life and work in the service are full of telling details from the humorous to the horrific. When he talks about life at the Adak Naval Air Station, he takes the reader right there:

"On Adak, things were not easy for station personnel unless they were hermits, hunters or fishermen or for the deployed squadron detachments. The isolation was numbing. The weather was frequently hellish on the ground and in the air. The physical plant suffered from the weather, and from a combination of neglect, inadequate funding and abuse found in public housing but nowhere else."

Jampoler employs so many details that they bog down the introductory chapters. He delves into the backgrounds of all the crew members, the geography, the genesis of the aircraft, a vast cast of minor characters and even the specifications of the hydraulic fluid.

But once Alfa Foxtrot 586 takes off, so does his story.

On Oct. 26, 1978, the Lockheed P-3C Orion patrol plane left Adak's air strip on a secretive mission. The goal was to bait the Russian "bear": to skim the edge of forbidden airspace, try to elicit a reaction, then electronically eavesdrop on Soviet radio transmissions to learn about the USSR's Pacific deployments.

When one engine began acting up, the routine mission deteriorated over several hours into a nightmarish ordeal.

As the tension ratchets up, it becomes impossible to put the book down. Jampoler uses transcripts of the actual radio transmissions and eyewitness accounts from the survivors to set the white-knuckle scenes, such as this one a moment after the plane hit the water:

"(Co-pilot) Ed Caylor glanced quickly down the length of the cabin as he stepped out of the water and onto a circuit breaker panel pedestal, heading out the overhead hatch. The tube was dark and full of smoke, and the groans of metal flexing and breaking carried forward to him from out of the shadows beyond the cockpit."

The crew members' actions and fates are both inspirational and heartbreaking. Random luck; excellent equipment and malfunctioning equipment; human skill, courage and error all played roles. As the lethal minutes ticked by, they buffeted the men back and forth in the ever-narrowing margin between death and survival.

In an ironic climax, the survivors salvation was a Soviet fishing trawler. The book's hindsight look at the Cold War mentality is interesting. The Russians braved mountainous waves and howling winds to pluck the dying Americans from their leaking rafts. But the rescued airmen feared their saviors would turn captors and send them to a worse fate.

Jampoler also provides details of the incident's aftermath. He praises many involved for their expertise and humanity, but he also criticizes the Navy bureaucracy. For example, he notes that survivors found their subsequent paychecks docked on the grounds that they were ineligible for routine per diem allowances while they were lost at sea and in Soviet custody. By including and commenting on findings of the official investigation, he provides satisfying closure to the tale.

More aggressive editing would have improved the book's writing style. In addition to military jargon and the author's compulsion to include every bit of information, he has the annoying habit of skipping around in time and place, sometimes undercutting the element of surprise.

But those flaws don't get in the way of a fascinating story, told with accuracy and passion.

At one point, Jampoler says that some planes seem to "want" to fly and leap into the sky when asked. "Adak: The Rescue of Alfa Foxtrot 586" is a story like that. Even though the author freights it with a lot of extra baggage, it leaps off the page and grabs you.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Peninsula Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.

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