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Down at sea in the Cold War

by Daniel Ford (Wall Street Journal, May 16, 2003)

In November 1978, a P-3 spy plane -- like the one forced down by China two years ago -- suffered a runaway engine over the Bering Sea, halfway between American and Russian territory. In the manner of aircraft disasters, bad quickly became worst. Soon Alfa Foxtrot 586 was in the water, the crew was in inflatable rafts and the nearest vessel was a Russian trawler with one English-speaking crew member.

[Book] From this material, Andrew Jampoler -- himself a former P-3 pilot, based at the Aleutian Island that gives his book its title -- has spun a memorable tale. As a rule it's easier to teach a writer to fly than to make a writer out of a flier, but Mr. Jampoler has a gift for narrative and homely metaphor. We're told that four knots is the speed of "a short man jogging" and that, to the fleet commander, dispatching aircraft from California to Adak is "like shifting change from one pocket to another." The squadron's executive officer is "wolfishly handsome, tirelessly ambitious, and famously lusty."

The pace flags a bit when the survivors (a crewman died in the crash, the pilot drowned soon after and three men died of exposure on the rafts) are safe aboard the trawler. But overall "Adak" (Naval Institute Press, 240 pages, $26.95) is an adventure story to rival the best you've ever read. Especially sobering is Mr. Jampoler's observation that the P-3 was derived from an airliner and that the "water landing" of your preflight briefing is a euphemism for a controlled crash into the waves -- of the sort that sank Alfa Foxtrot 586 in less than two minutes.

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