US Naval Reserve: its job is growing up, up, and away

If you live near a naval air station anywhere in the United States, you know the Naval Reserve does lots of flying on weekends. And there's one unit, based in South Weymouth, Mass., that wants to make sure local residents know why.

On a recent Saturday, Naval Reserve Antisubmarine Patrol Squadron 92 (VP-92) invited members of the news media to fly aboard two planes to see how they operate.

With President Reagan's stress on military preparedness and the threat posed by Soviet military might, reconnaissance units like this one take on more importance. Using just 2 percent of the Navy's budget, reservists carry a considerable workload, says Comdr. Stephen T. Keith, VP-92's active-duty officer in charge. ''They are no longer a luxury, they are a necessity,'' he adds.

The Naval Reserve has become more effective and efficient in the last five years, says William E. Legg, assistant for legislation for the Navy at the Pentagon. It's no longer just a matter of numbers. Everyone in the ready reserves now has a specific assignment.

The Navy has just embarked on a five-year plan to update reserve equipment and to bring its forces from 87,000, where they were frozen for several years, up to more than 100,000 by 1987, says Mr. Legg. Updating means newer ships, aircraft, and more compatible equipment, he adds.

Squadrons like VP-92 are receiving modifications to their planes and gear that will enhance their value to the fleet, he says. He hopes the new military budget, now being debated in Washington, will allow this modernization to continue.

Lt. Comdr. Thomas P. Stanton is one of small nucleus of the active duty personnel in VP-92, and its current operations officer. Smiling broadly and looking relaxed in his olive-drab flight suit, he stands by the door of the Navy patrol plane he is about to pilot as the press group climbs the ladder. Nearby, a second pilot holds a preflight briefing. Shortly, both aircraft, P-3A Orion patrol planes, their four turboprops roaring, would head skyward.

But first Mr. Stanton familiarizes his passengers with the plane. The interior of an Orion, covered by Navy gray padding, is all business. Survival pouches must be worn. This is no commercial flight, although many of the squadron's weekend pilots work for airlines. (Comdr. Horst Kleinbauer, the squadron's commanding officer, flies for Delta.)

With civilian passengers properly outfitted, Commander Stanton orders seat belts fastened. There are just six small portholes for viewing, but the rumble of the turboprop engines starting up is unmistakable.

Once airborne everyone is free to scramble about. The best view is looking over the pilots' shoulders out the cockpit windows.

Special clearance has been gained for a flyby of Boston's Logan International Airport. (Ordinarily Navy planes steer well clear of Boston airspace, a crew member volunteers.) But on this day both planes, one slightly to the side and behind the other, roar right over the main runway at about 500 feet -- some good footage for the TV cameraman aboard. Then both Orions fly over the city as residents crane their necks to watch these long-tailed Navy planes move slowly overhead at several thousand feet.

Moments later both planes head south, playing tag along the coast, switching positions so that cameras on both planes will have good shots. Then it's over the Cape Cod Canal, and out to sea again.

Radar pinpoints a surface target. Both Orions track it and take turns making low-level passes over what turns out to be a cargo ship. After leaving the ship far astern, Commander Stanton's plane lines up to drop two smoke markers, as it might on an actual mission.

Both Orions then roar homeward. When on station for 10 or 12 hours at a time, often one and even two engines are shut down to save fuel. As a matter of fact, the aircraft is so overpowered that it can take off on two engines. Pilots, vying for the prize for the best mileage, often turn off an engine, says Ordnanceman 1st Class John F. Friree, who in civilian life is a long-haul driver for a Waltham, Mass., trucking firm.

The Navy now spends $400,000 to train a pilot, says Commander Keith. Being able to use that expertise for 10 to 15 years in the reserves, after an active-duty tour, makes that expense much more cost effective, he adds.

VP-92 is a ready reserve unit that can be called up for service in an emergency on 72-hour notice. Its 75 officers and 325 enlisted men are all specialists. Its 12 aircraft are designed primarily for antisubmarine warfare. Its durable P3A Orions can operate from almost any airfield.

For one weekend a month and two weeks every summer, reservists take their places beside the Navy regulars. Their planes may not be as new as those in the active-duty fleet, but these reservists are ready.

Should the Navy be mobilized in an emergency, 12 percent would be reservists who would be integrated into units throughout its structure. Only the Navy's nuclear-powered submarines are manned entirely by active-duty personnel. One hundred percent of the Navy's air transports are in the reserve, and 86 percent of Navy minesweepers.

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