We are fast approaching the end of the yearlong celebration of the 100th Anniversary of US Naval Aviation – and what a year it has been. Between the Heritage paint schemes, celebratory conventions, special programming and dedicated ceremonies, much ground has been covered. The outside observer may be forgiven, however, if they are led to believe carrier aviation is the whole sum of Naval Aviation – based on a casual review of said observances. (Fret not friends, YHS is a Life Member of tailhook and well beholden to carrier aviation, so no heresy will be found here, so put down the pitchforks – SJS). They would be missing out on how Naval Aviation set cargo records during the Berlin Airlift. Flew and fought hardscrabble, close quarters battles with Huey’s staged from LST’s in the Mekong Delta. How, in concert with small DER’s, it formed a critical piece of our long-range, early warning barrier prior to the ballistic missile age with WVs and specially configured blimps. Patrolled vast, hostile reaches of the northern Atlantic and Pacific oceans searching for Soviet attack and ballistic missile subs.

They would also miss how it was part of the mission to probe deep into hostile territory with a battery of electronic gear that at times was a cross between Radio Shack and Star Wars, searching for the ever elusive signals that would indicate a new threat or change in defenses for targets on hidden lists for a war no one wanted to go hot. It is perhaps this group, shore and carrier-based, that has at once remained the most obscure subset of Naval Aviation while performing one of the most critical missions of the Cold War – intelligence collection.

The gap between what we know with certainty and what we conjecture (guess) is in constant flux and through time immemorial, efforts have been expended on almost infinite means to close that gap. Indeed, the driving impetus for bringing the airplane (which itself was more of a curiosity than accomplished fact in its early days) into the military were the possibilities implicit in gaining the ultimate “high ground” for scouting and reconnaissance supporting ground and naval forces. Indeed, Naval Aviation was born with the patrol/scout mission in mind.

Information collected was binned as actionable (useful in an immediate or near term sense — i.e., troop movements along the trenches, battleships seeking their opposite numbers for decisive engagements, etc.) or cataloged for longer-range/big picture use – “strategic” information if you will (and yes, we know this is a vast oversimplification). In the beginning, most of the information collected was visual — recorded observations by pilots passed at post-mission debriefs that evolved into still photography with either handheld or airframe mounted cameras.

Early Efforts

The latter part of WW2 raised the curtain on entirely new forms of warfare that dealt with the invisible portions of the electromagnetic spectrum. Radar, ground-based surveillance or shorter-range airborne intercept, became a decisive factor – first during the Battle of Britain and later in the Pacific as the enormous task forces organized around fast carriers and fleet amphibs came under relentless air attack. A shadowy, lethal game of cat-and-mouse evolved in the Battle of the Atlantic between German submarines and the Allied convoys they sought to send to the bottom before reaching destinations in Russia and England. Coded communications, encrypted by cipher machines floated through the ether, providing intelligence on convoy locations and directing coordinated attacks. Intercepted and de-encrypted, those same messages provided intelligence for the hunters, armed with radar and electronic surveillance equipment to sweep the spectrum, looking for telltale signs of the enemy subs still relying on the dark of night; jaeger and gejagt reversed.

The Navy in particular had evolved a number of capabilities in this new field of electronic warfare. The American Navy’s efforts at employing radar more fully in warfighting, whether in surface engagements or through land- and carrier-based aircraft was bearing fruit after the first, halting failures. As that effectiveness grew, the inevitable drive to counter-measures by the hunted came into play. Subs became equipped with radar to acquire convoys and avoid air attack – patrol aircraft added ESM equipment to locate the subs by the radar they were using; invasion forces added signals and communications intelligence (today we call this ELINT and COMINT which together today we call SIGINT) collection to aerial photography (again, part of what we call imagery intelligence, or IMINT today) as part of the preparation of the battle space. The aircraft used in SIGINT were almost the reverse of the photo birds. The latter, because they often had to overfly the target directly, relied on speed and altitude to stave off defenders and as such, tended to be fighters stripped of armor and guns in an effort to lighten the airframe. SIGINT birds, on the other hand, could position themselves at a distance from defenses while collecting their intel. In an age of vacuum tubes though, this meant the necessary gear was bulky and when combined with the need for long dwell times (think of it as staring at an object waiting for something to happen), a premium was placed on size and endurance, hence patrol bombers like the PB4Y Privateer (the Navy’s version of the venerable Consolidated B-24 Liberator) and the carrier-based TBF/TBM Avenger were the preferred assets. The aircraft, mission and personnel involved, while deployed imbedded in “vanilla” patrol squadrons, were nonetheless rolled up in what at first was called (by Navy) the Special Electronic Search Program (SESP) and later came to be known as the Peacetime Aerial Reconnaissance PROgram or PARPRO.

Like many other aspects of the armed forces post-WW2, the intelligence collection mission languished through fits and starts in the period leading up to two seminal events – the Soviet’s first atomic bomb in 1949 and the invasion of South Korea by North Korea in 1950. These successive events (accompanied by the fall of China and the appearance of MiG-15 fighters in the skies over Korea) subjected the US to a number of strategic shocks that drove changes across the spectrum of acquisition, operations and strategic planning. At the nexus of the ongoing gap analysis over just what it was we didn’t know were the shadow warriors from naval aviation and the newly independent air force and each would have an important part of the solution set.

The First Trials by Fire

For the first few years after the war, Navy aircraft flying off the coast of China and the Manchurian region of the Soviet Union in the far east, and the Baltic in the west (areas of interest owing to location of Soviet subs and access to monitoring Soviet air defense radars and fighters) were generally left unmolested unless by accident or intent they overflew Russian or communist Chinese airspace. That ended on 8 April 1950:

  • Soviet La-11 Fangs, shot down a VP-26 PB4Y-2 Privateer (BuNo 59645 – “Turbulent Turtle”). Based at Port Lyautey, French Morocco, the Privateer was on a patrol mission launched from Wiesbaden, West Germany. According the to the American account, this incident happened over the Baltic Sea off the coast of Lepija Latvia. The Soviets claimed the aircraft was intercepted over Latvia and fired on the Soviet fighters during the interception. After the fighters engaged the Privateer, the Soviets report that it descended sharply before crashing into the sea 5-10 kilometers off the coast. Wreckage was recovered, and although the Soviet pilots noted 10 parachutes, and the US mounted a search effort that eventually counted over 25 aircraft, the crew went missing and were presumed lost at sea.

Not long after, A VP-6 P2V was downed over the Sea of Japan, near Vladivostok while conducting a SIGINT mission (later claimed to be a “weather reconnaissance mission” – which became the operating cover for a wide range of recce activities over and around “denied territory”). P2V-3W (BuNo 124283) was intercepted by a flight of La-11’s about 7-8 nm off the coast in the area of Cape Ostrvnoy and shot down around 18 miles off the coast. The crew of 10 was reported missing.

Towards the end of the 1940s, US concern over the size of the Soviet bomber force grew, especially over possible deployments in the Arctic and Pacific regions of Siberia. Built around the Tu-4 Bull, a reverse-engineered copy of the B-29. , Soviet bomber forces deployed on the Chukotskiy Peninsula (for example) placed the Tu-4 closer to the US, offering opportunities for deeper penetration of the continental landmass on one-way missions. Similar concerns were in place for Murmansk on the Kola Peninsula, Dikson Island in the Karla Sea in western Siberia, and even the Franz Josef Islands archipelago. In an attempt to baseline the real status of forces, President Truman authorized a very limited number of overflights using camera-equipped B-47Es and RB-50s, but the territory to be covered was vast, overflight opportunities limited and weather dependent and target location questionable at best. Additionally, since our bombers would be flying over the pole and entering Soviet airspace through the Arctic, it was reasonable to believe that the Soviets were building air defenses in that region. These bases and their supporting networks of radar and communications needed to be ferreted out, plotted and monitored for operational patterns that might provide insight for penetration by SACs bombers.

Beginning in 1952, the Air Force and Navy undertook a series of joint flights along the Siberian coast with these missions in mind. The Navy deployed specially configured P2V-3W Neptune’s with ESM gear that would act as pathfinders for camera equipped Air Force RB-50s which would photograph installations and capture radarscope imagery. The latter was especially important for aircrew who in an age without the benefit of modern simulations supported by satellite imagery, were forced to imagine what the approach to the target might look like from interpretation of charts and topographic maps – of questionable veracity.

Flying ahead of and below the pressurized RB-50s, the SIGINT-equipped Neptunes would scan wide swaths of the electromagnetic spectrum looking for the telltale signs of surveillance and GCI radars, pinpoint their location and give a steer to the higher flying RB-50. These flights ranged the Pacific coast of the Soviet Union, from below Vladivostok to the Bering Sea and included penetration as far as 15-20 miles from the coast. The Navy aircraft were intercepted twice by MiG-15s, including one instance overland. Surprisingly, given the earlier shootdowns in the Baltic and Sea of Japan, the MiGs broke off the intercept leaving the Neptune’s unmolested. These flights continued for a total of 9 missions before being terminated in June 1952.

While Navy SIGINT aircraft were probing the Pacific and Baltic approaches to the Soviet Union, there was still a war (“police action”) underway in Korea, which by mid-1952 had stalemated between UN forces and those of North Korea/Communist China. Navy airborne recce missions continued apace off the coast of China in the Yellow Sea and Formosa Straits with a variety of platforms that included Privateers (gradually being replaced by Neptunes and Mercators) and Marlin seaplanes. The latter were particularly useful for collecting on coastal traffic – but not without consequence. From mid-1952 through the 27 July 1953 ceasefire, 9 Navy recce missions in those areas were attacked with various effect by PLA(AF) fighters:

  • 31 July 1952: While conducting a patrol mission, a US Navy PBM-5S2 Mariner (BuNo 59277), of VP-731, based from Iwakuni Japan, was attacked by two People’s Republic of China MiG-15 Fagots over the Yellow Sea. Two crewmembers were killed and two were seriously wounded. The PBM suffered extensive damage, but was able to make it safely to Paengyong-do Korea.
  • 20 September 1952: Two PLA(AF) MiG-15s attack a VP-28 PB4Y-2S Privateer off the coast of the People’s Republic of China. The Privateer was able to safely return to Naha, Okinawa.
  • 23 November 1952 : A VP-28 PB4Y-2S Privateer, was attacked, but not damaged, by a PLA(AF) MiG-15 off of Shanghai, People’s Republic of China.
  • 18 January 1953: A VP-22 P2V-5 Neptune (BuNo 127744), based out of Atsugi Japan, was damaged by Chinese anti-aircraft fire near Swatow People’s Republic of China, but was able to ditch in the Formosa Strait. Eleven of thirteen crewmen were rescued by a USCG PBM-5 Mariner while under fire from Chinese shore batteries on Nan Ao Tao island, but it crashed while attempting to takeoff in 8-12 foot swells. USS Halsey Powell (DD-686) managed to rescue 10 of the combined crash survivors – 6 of the original P2V crew were lost. Another PBM-5 from VP-40 and USS Gregory (DD-802) were fired upon by Chinese batteries during the rescue effort.
  • 23 April 1953: A US Navy P4M-1Q Mercator (BuNo 124369) piloted by Dick Renner and Mel Davidow, was attacked by two PLA(AF) MiG-15s off the coast near Shanghai. The MiGs made several firing runs with the Mercator crew returning fire. The P4M wasn’t damaged nor could the crew determine if the MiGs were hit.
  • 19 June 1953: A VP-46 PBM-5S2 Mariner was fired on by Chinese ships in the Formosa Strait. No damage was inflicted.
  • 28 June 1953: A VP-1 P2V-5 Neptune was fired on by Chinese ships in the Formosa Strait. No damage was inflicted.
  • 8 July 1953: A VP-1 P2V-5 Neptune was fired on by antiaircraft artillery near Amoy Island in the Formosa Strait. No damage inflicted.
  • 21 July 1953: A VP-1 P2V-5 Neptune was fired on by antiaircraft artillery near Amoy Island in the Formosa Strait. No damage inflicted.

As this part of the Cold War began to heat up and both sides got increasingly aggressive in their pursuit, the casualties began to mount for Air Force and Navy recce missions. Sometimes, aircraft not on a PARPRO mission, but rather on a standard maritime patrol ended up being attacked and shot down given their visual similarities to their recce counterparts (oft times deployed with the same squadron). Consider the case of a VP-9 P2V-5 Neptune (BuNo 131515):

  • On 22 Jun 55, CB 3 was patrolling the Bering Strait, about 40 miles southwest of St. Lawrence island. Operating at 8,000 ft., it was roughly 100 ft. above the cloud layer on a heading of 160 degrees, when a Soviet MiG swept in from the northwest and fired on the P2V, striking the aircraft in the port engine, port wing and fuselage. The port engine caught fire and three of the crew were also hit and injured. The pilot, LT R. H. Fischer, turned the Neptune towards St. Lawrence and dove into the undercast. Left wing on fire and with the fuselage having sustained heavy damage, the plane broke out at 1500, headed for the beach. With wounded crewmembers and unable to extinguish the fire, the pilot elected a wheels-up landing on St. Lawrence. During the landing, the bomb bay fuel tank exploded, consuming the center section of the aircraft in fire. The crew exited the aircraft, some sustaining additional injuries in the process and sought nearby refuge while CB 3 burned. Nearby natives saw the smoke from the fire and launched a rescue effort that brought CB 3’s crew back to the village for first aid treatment. An Air Force C-47 arrived a short time later to complete the evacuation of the crew to Anchorage. Seven crewmembers ended up being hospitalized in Anchorage for a variety of burn and fracture injuries.

As the 1950s passed, the toll mounted – quietly, known only to a handful of briefed-in uniformed and civilian personnel in Washington and SAC HQ. For all the families knew, their father, son or brother was lost in any one of a number of “training” accidents in the Far North, or were claimed by some mechanical failure over the vast ocean deep. Given the mishap rates in the Air Force and Navy at the time, the losses were not particularly noteworthy in numbers and on the opposition’s side, there was just as much interest in keeping things quiet so as not to highlight their shortcomings – or identify potential intelligence coups from recovered wreckage or POWs who may have been “disappeared” into the Gulag. One thing though was changing, and that was that as the overflight missions became more dangerous, specialized aircraft (e.g., the U-2) were evolved to take the place of the converted bombers, transports and patrol aircraft previously used. On the Navy’s side, the P2V Neptune and to a lesser extent, the P4M Mercator would serve for the remainder of the decade as the primary strategic SIGINT reconnaissance platforms. Entering the 1960s, they would be replaced by variants of the WV/EC-121 Warning Star and later, the P-3 Orion. On the tactical side, the advent of the Forrestal-class CVA and improved Midway-class CVA offered additional opportunities with variants of the A3D Whale. Tactical photo reconnaissance continued however, to evolve along original lines with the use of specially configured fighters or attack aircraft, reaching its zenith with the RF-8 Crusader which gained fame during the Cuban Missile crisis (with VFP-62) and later, the RA5C Vigilante, both of which saw extensive service (and sustained significant losses – 21 alone for the RA5C) over Vietnam.

“Modern” Times

On 28 October 1952, a dark-blue, swept wing aircraft took to the air on its first flight. Stemming from a 1948 CNO requirement for a long-range, carrier-based attack plane capable of delivering a 10,000lb bomb load of conventional or nuclear weapons, the A3D Skywarrior dramatically expanded the Navy’s carrier-based strike capability and was at once, the largest, heaviest aircraft designed for carrier operations. Significant problems with its engines delayed fleet introduction until 1956 though, and by 1961, barely five years later, the SIOP-directed nuclear strike/retaliation mission was assigned to the new Polaris-equipped fleet ballistic missile submarines. As combat action in Vietnam heated up and carrier aviation became heavily involved in strikes on both sides of the DMZ, the Whale did provide some conventional bombing and minelaying missions, but was soon supplanted by more modern attack aircraft that were able to operate in the hostile skies over North Vietnam. Still, the Whale’s (as it came to be called with widely varying degrees of fondness by air- and flightdeck crews) sheer volume offered a number of possibilities – one of which was to modify the bomb bay to add three crew positions to operate a variety of ELINT and COMINT equipment. Configured this way (or, with a refueling/ECM package) the Whale provided vital intelligence and countermeasures capabilities to commanders afloat and ashore. The EKA-3B was particularly useful, providing escort recce and jamming of the North Vietnamese radar stations for carrier-based strike packages and then serving as a “wet-wing” tanker for battle damaged aircraft returning to the carrier. Again, specialized aircraft came to replace the Whale in some mission areas (tanker configured A-4s, A-6s and A-7s, and ECM configured A-6s for the strike escort missions), but for the dedicated ELINT/COMINT mission launching form the carrier, the EA-3B was still favored. Assigned to two fleet reconnaissance squadrons – VQ-1 (Pacific) and VQ-2 (Atlantic/Mediterranean) the Whale would deploy in dets of 1 or 2 aircraft with embarked CVWs or operate ashore. Assigned as an “ESM” mission on the airplan, the Whale would be one of the first launched (along with the E-2 – handlers and Air Bosses have a natural bias against big planes clogging their decks). Disappearing over the horizon, they would fly long patrols off Libya, Syria, China, Iran, North Korea and other areas labeled “denied territory.” Little contact was made except with the ship on special, secure circuits and occasionally with the airborne E-2 or an EP-3 (also assigned to VQ-1 or VQ-2) if there was something of immediate, tactical importance. At the end of the double cycle, it would show up in the overhead and along with the rest of the “cats and dogs” (i.e., all of the non-pointy nose aircraft that included the E-2, S-3 and recovery tanker) trap towards the end of the cycle.

With the advent of satellite reconnaissance, much of the impetus for overflight of denied territory was removed and with notable exceptions, the practice of shooting down recce aircraft operating off shore and in international waters pretty much abated during the 1960s. The notable exception is that of North Korea. Following its earlier piracy of the USS Pueblo, North Korean fighters shot down a VQ-1 EC-121 over the Sea of Japan on 15 Apr 1969 (see the full story here) with the loss of all 31 crew onboard. No explanation, much less apology or reparation has ever been offered by North Korea.

Still, even though hostile action against PARPRO aircraft dropped, losses continued, especially in the VQ community owing in no small part to the challenges presented by continued operation of the EA-3B from the ship. A quick survey of the list of A-3 losses found at Skywarrior Association’s site post Vietnam shows 13 losses – some mechanical, others during CV ops while some just never returned and the cause is listed as “unknown.” Among those losses is that of Ranger 12 (VQ-2 EA-3B BuNo 144850) on 25 Jan 1987:

  • During a night recovery, Ranger 12, a VQ-2 EA-3B was attempting to land on USS Nimitz (CVN-68), which was underway conducting bluewater operations in support of National Week ’87. A “varsity night” (no moon/visible horizon) led to 5 passes, each being a bolter, during one of which, Ranger 12 dropped out of sight below flightdeck level. After regaining altitude and determining refueling was required (less than 800lbs remained) the aircraft was vectored to the recovery tanker, an A-7 with a buddy store. On join-up, they determined the tanker package was no good. A bingo to the beach was not in order because of the distance and low fuel state. A backup tanker, a KA-6D, was positioned on the bow, but was blocked by another aircraft and could not be launched in time. Given the conditions (night & winter temps), a controlled bailout by the ship was ruled out and a decision was made to barricade the aircraft. While rigging the barricade, it was discovered that a big wrench used to tighten up the barricade was missing, leaving the barricade with an 8-foot catenary (drop from vertical). A high approach and the sag at the top of the barricade proved to be a fatal combination as Ranger 12 caught the top of the barricade on its nose gear, slammed into the deck and slid off the angle deck in a shower sparks into the dark water below. Although the rescue helo was quickly on the scene, noting a lack of movement inside the aircraft and the threat of its imminent sinking, the SAR swimmers were not permitted to enter the aircraft. After 13 minutes of floating the EA-3B sank with its 7 men crew to the bottom of the sea.

The EA-3B was removed from CVOPS shortly thereafter, but even then; the Whale still contributed by flying missions from shore bases and was part of Operation Desert Storm, its last combat operations. In 1993, the EA-3B was replaced by a highly modified version of the S-3, the ES-3A Shadow. The ES-3A was intended to provide a CVBG-organic “Indications and Warning” mission using its extensive SIGINT suite, but owing to speed limitations (the aircraft was a flying nest of antennas and sensor bulges, drawing unflattering comparisons to porcupines and hedgehogs) it would not accompany strike packages but remain in a stand-off role. Like the EKA-3B, it would reprise the role of airborne tanker eventually earning a preferred place as the recovery tanker given the stability of the platform. The downside was that the time placed on the airframes (themselves conversions of extant S-3As) put the aircraft in jeopardy when the post-Cold War budget cuts came and “quick and easy” targets had to be found. In an era of “jointness” and the availability of “national technical means” the necessity for organic ISR was discounted (mostly for fiscal needs) and several platforms whose operations or replacement were very costly were instead, marked for the axe (included in this group were the SR-71 and ES-3A – the U-2 almost got caught up as well). The Navy was left with the aging EP-3 platform that, with the equally aged RC-135 variants and a re-engined U-2, provided the brunt of SIGINT missions in the post-Cold War environment.

Today and for the foreseeable future, airborne recce will be provided by a mix of manned and unmanned platforms operating to fill the gaps that overhead systems are unable to meet. In company with the aforementioned EP-3 and the upcoming P-8, there will be UAVs ranging from U-2 sized Global Hawks to miniature aircraft whose form factor replicates a hummingbird, and eventually carrier-based UCAV-Ns to combine the reconnaissance with attack. The means may change, but airborne reconnaissance very much figures in the modern battlefield and in the esoteric world of non-kinetic operations to disrupt kill-chains. It is indeed, a long ways removed from the lumbering blue bombers carrying their payload of vacuum tube-based receivers and aircrew alternately freezing and sweating in unpressurized ops over and off hostile territory. But without those early pioneers and those who followed, in the shadows providing the raw intelligence to be parsed, analyzed, debated and considered by national security decision makers, history may well have played out over a very different, and unfavorable plot. Unheralded – yes, but not immaterial. And Naval Aviation was there from the start – and still is today.

Epilogue

I have a personal interest in this facet of Naval Aviation on a number of fronts. Coming from another community that doesn’t get much in the way of publicity as those with an “F” or “A” in their designator, those of us with “E”, “S” or “P” tend to stick together and travel in the same company. The fact that many times our missions overlapped or were in support of one or the other helped. My association with the recce community began in earnest during my 1986-87 deployment as part of VAW-126 (CVW-3/JFK) when our CO made an out-of-the-box decision that our squadron would host the VQ-2 det. Until then, VQ dets had usually been hosted by one of the jet squadrons (typically a VF), but this time through they were “disinclined” to do so. Instead, figuring that there would be goodness from bringing together our AEW/battle management mission with the Whale’s ESM, he offered his plan to CAG who quickly accepted (note – our CAG was also the last of the O-5 air wing commanders and given to thinking out of the box – like designating VAW NFOs as strike leads for missions like war-at-sea). As unorthodox as it may have seemed to the folks on the ground, after a little bit of standoffishness on both parts, our squadron and the VQ det quickly bonded and we began integrating – where we could, our two missions. Time together in the Ready Room begat improved SA in the air and opened doors that might not always have been considered – like a certain dissimilar ACM exercise hosted by a NATO partner nation where the E-2 was expressly forbidden to participate, as it would give our fighters an edge. We developed a workaround that integrated the best of our two capabilities and until discovered three days into the exercise, our fighters were resoundingly smacking down the bad guys. There’s more to this story — catch me for a cold one sometime and I’ll expound… Always the flight hour hound, I also managed some flight time in the belly of the Whale – including night traps. It therefore hit me particularly hard when I was at AIRLANT in the CVW Training and Readiness office, to learn of Ranger 12’s crash on Nimitz. Part of the crew had been with us on JFK and were considered friends and shipmates. Years later, my first joint penance job revolved around air-breather recce platforms and as the Cold War ended, US News & World published “America’s Top-Secret Spy War” in its March 15, 1993 edition. The net effect for me was a requirement to comb the highly classified archives of the Joint Reconnaissance Center and compile the “real” list of incidents for senior leadership and later, serve on a small group that examined whether to continue PARPRO missions or not (we said “yes”). Along the way, both in shore and operational tours I’ve had the honor to make friends with many from that community and even today, count several longtime readers here from that era. As the incident with the EP-3 off Hainan in 2001 demonstrated (and also was an issue to be dealt with in my then-new job on the Navy staff), the Cold War may be over, but there remain risks just the same. Nations with secrets to hide will continue to push, shove and otherwise frustrate legitimate reconnaissance operations undertaken in international airspace over international waters. Those who fly these missions will always have my deepest respect and admiration – for what they do and the long line of those who went before –In the shadows.

— SJS

Sources:

Crossposted at Steeljawscribe.com




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  • http://www.eaglespeak.us Eagle1

    BZ for reminding us of this important aspect of Navy Air.

    Thanks!

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