THE 3 DAY ENCOUNTER BETWEEN
THE BALZAM CLASS AGI CCB-493 (SSV-493)
AND USS LEAHY IN 1984
As Re-Counted By LCDR. Oleg Rykov, Russian Navy, Retired
The Leahy combat group left San Diego that Friday morning bound westward to conduct an
air-defense exercise. It spent half of the day to transit to SNI (San Nicolas Island in the Bay
of California, housing the Pacific Missile Test Center) area to perfect techniques in group
communications and to check weaponry status. We closed up to visually monitor those procedures
and take some photos of surface-to-air missiles gleaming on their launchers. The personnel on
board the US ships almost surely dreamt of conducting a missile firing in a good Navy manner
and returning to home port the same day, thus they paid no real attention to a strange looking
ship in the vicinity, hardly recognizable by its silhouette and name - CCB-493.
I regret to believe that commanding officers of the group were not briefed about the presence
of the Soviet Intelligence ship in the California area, as we knew how tough the monitoring and
tracking of our each and every step, by the US Third Fleet, wherever we tried to sneak in.
The Test Center itself was involved in survey of our activities by sending its "Bloodhounds"--
P-3C Orion planes and "Sea Knight" choppers from the Point Mugu support squadrons to track
us visually or by radar to refresh the "Charlie's posit" (position of CCB-493) every 30 minutes
or scrutinize us with video cameras installed beneath "Bloodhounds - 14 and 17" - "Sea Knight"
helicopters, hovering hours and hours on top of us and relaying live video images of a "Russian
Beeper Bell" to Plead Control.(1)
That day Plead Control did not violate the routine, moreover it notified all friendly forces
establishing communications with inbound Leahy group by a message that "Charlie Zero India"
is in the area. Gosh, I liked that new name for us! One had to be a wacko not to understand that
"Charlie Zero India" stands for COI - Collector Of Intelligence. I had to strain myself not to
rush to the bridge and confirm via international maritime channel 16 that "Charlie Zero India"
reads Plead Control loud and clear. My expectation that they would change our call sign next
day was in vain. If you go Navy, forget about imagination.
As the Leahy team reached the boundary of PMTC (Pacific Missile Test Center), it requested
permission of Plead Control to conduct the firing exercise in its designated operating area.
USS Leahy, mighty metal reincarnation of the Fleet Admiral William D.Leahy, Franklin D.
Roosevelt's confidant and Chief of Naval Operations, quoted in the Soviet Navy encyclopedia
as a person who had kept exaggerating the role of the USA in WWII, was a capable defense
platform with a slim silhouette that makes a Navy soul think respectfully and show respect.
Having established radio comms with the range dispatcher and ship-to-ship UHF AW (air-
defense) network, the group leader called for a drone launch from Point Mugu that had to
simulate an anti-ship cruise missile attack. Within the next ten minutes the first drone
whooshed up from it's launch pad inland, and made its way towards the Leahy group with the
assigned range dispatcher Plead Alfa reporting initial bearing, range, speed and altitude,
until the bogey (drone) was within 70 miles north of the group defenses; at this point, all
further tracking was left in the capable hands of the guys on board the three ships by a voice
message "The bogey is all yours".
The whole procedure of that exercise was so easy looking, like small arms practice at a depot
range, whereas, I bet, it took a lot of effort by all hands that were manning the firing units.
We didn't monitor that event by all of our recon means, because there was not much new for us
to learn about tactics and missile effectiveness as the drone was flying at a relatively high
altitude above the water (over 1,000 feet) and at a speed of just about 350 mph. The Soviet
anti-ship cruise missiles of that period were designed to attack at a speed of 2.5 Mach and
altitude of 30 feet. Anyway, it all looked cute, like a Navy Day parade.
It recalls a case of the mid 80s that happened at the Soviet Pacific Fleet when a Tarantul class
corvette was sunk by a drone during an air defense exercise near Vladivostok. That tragic day,
she had to test her 6-barrel 30 mm AK gun in a duel fight with an incoming cruise missile, where
a real thing without combat payload had to close up with the corvette at sea level, and jump over
it if the gunner missed. But the gunner neither missed nor performed effectively - the gun's
projectiles jammed the level controls of the missile and it hit the 455 ton ship amidships leaving
only two hands of the whole ship's complement alive. Witnesses kept saying that the Tarantul
had not sunk but disappeared, evaporated.
When the third Navy drone was airborne we had enough information about current activities of
the US Navy ships, so I asked permission of my section chief to go to the bridge to have a look
at the fireworks around us, as it was coming to the end of the exercise. Together, with the other
officers standing on the bridgewing I evidenced two birds lifting away from the frigates to hunt
for invisible targets. An ever perfect view that mesmerized us, like a sci-fi movie. When the
missiles hit their targets, there were just speckles high above and away in the blue California
sky. All the drones used in that operation were not real targets but the target carriers. It means
that they carried small thermal charges bailing out its mother-drone on radio command, to then
slowly glide beneath their chutes and play a role of prey, for heat-seeking missiles. Ther drones
cruised in the area for around 90 minutes unless they consumed all fuel and they comfortably
splashed down under salvage chutes into the water. "Look, it is coming again", - the officer on
watch, a red-haired close pal of mine, named Nick, waved in the direction of the incoming chopper
sound. - "Must be a pony from Point Mugu to pick up the floating drone". "What do you mean,
bud?" - I really didn't know sitting in my lab that there is another life going on at the range
besides the Leahy exercises. "I mean, this helicopter is picking up used bogeys to carry them
back to the beach for future use." And it really was. As a drone goes wet, it spreads green
color paint in the water for better visual detection and starts transmitting VHF signal for
the range radio direction finders to pin-point its position. Then it is in the hands of the
helicopter that comes in, picks up the drone by its chute and carries it away from the drink.
"This is the second bogey to go back to Ventura for maintenance. This helo is doing really good.
Its pilot must be a good fisherman", - Nick always liked people doing good fishing. The pony
which slowed to a hovering over the floating cigar-shaped object and the jellyfish of its chute,
dipped the line with a hook, and snatched the snarl of its chute lines. All in 30 seconds! "Bloody
hell, that chap is convincing", - Nick's voice came back.
When the helicopter returned for final pick up of the third drone, I could allow myself to bet
that it was going to be a bingo run (another successful attempt).
But that was possibly the first and the last time, when my friend Nick, must have bewitched
somebody! This is when the "Leahy vs. Charlie" conflict started.
"Comrade lieutenant, there is a parachute on top of us!" That was the report of our signalman
that came like a siren, making the officer-on-watch rush to hit the ship's telegraph for engine
stop. Right in time, otherwise it could have been a direct "hit of a capitalist missile" and one
could imagine the lip-biting jokes of our squadron mates back in Vladivostok.
The big red-color drone hanging on the chute straps was making its way down to splash less
than a cable(2) off our ship's bow. We, still making slow ahead, had to start turning to avoid
the obstacle and its strap lines - this could prove dangerous for our propeller shafts.
Soon we came to a halt with the intact drone drifting just two cables to our portside. "Could
be a good trophy for us," I thought picking up an engine sound of incoming pony bound for
What happened afterwards is still the point of my astonishment towards the helo crew and the
range auxiliary forces. The aircraft, which had perfectly recovered two previous birds ashore,
hovered five minutes on top of the thing lowering its hook three times and trying to snatch it.
Having missed, it roared away for its base. "???", that was our real reaction to what had just
"The guy is short of fuel and needs refueling to make another run. Let's wait. I'm sure he is
coming back", said one of the watchstanders.
It never happened...most possibly due to Friday's end of working hours - 18:00 PDT. The Leahy
group steamed back to San Diego, Plead Control closed its radionet and the tired Sun was about
to switch off. So, the chopper never showed up again neither in 30 minutes nor in an hour.
Lt.Commander Butorov, the ship's executive officer (position called in the Soviet Navy as
"starpom") was a smart, quick thinking, hell of a guy, highly respected by the crew. He was
about to put his hands on everything going on onboard and around but kept doing it wisely and
respectfully towards men and officers. Yet, "starpom" was young enough not to stay away when
there was a chance for a good hunt.
"It's getting dark in an hour. Tell the engine room we are making slow ahead in five minutes.
Officer on deck, make signalman keep an eye on the drone as we are closing in". Butorov's plan
was to slowly rendezvous with the object of our interest, make photos and whatever.....Act of a
trover? I don't think that was his primary desire being aware of our Captain's attitude towards
such situations backed up by his share of experience of "inheriting the wind". Further to that
his every step was closely surveyed by the political officer who would have loved to find out
any act of ultra vires (acting beyond one's powers) and to thus justify his presence onboard,
not very appreciated by us.
The ship started circulation and soon stopped dead in the water covering the target from the
nearest island's radar and visual surveillance by her starboard.
"We have to take it out....We risked so much before to loose that chance....Americans don't
need it because they abandoned it...", that "voodoo spell" started whispering in our minds
making us look viciously at the "starpom".
"Recon section chief, report to bridge", the intercom voice message was a clear sign of what
Butorov was up to. Here in presence of other officers he staged brief meeting to make sure for
himself that the drone pickup was necessary yet risky.
"Do we need it and why?", - his direct question raised a hail of approval cheers.
"This is a sensitive piece of US hardware for its composite materials, electronics, engine.....
Jesus, look at it, it is almost a nasty cruise missile we are hunting for. I say let's do it",
- recon chief looked like he was praying.
"I'll have a word with captain", - Butorov said stepping out, face tense and doughy. His steps
on the ladder sounded like the gong at a boxing event.
It didn't take him long to reappear, face now red, eyes bewildered and concerned. He looked
exactly as a loser in round one. A knock down!
Looking at us as at problem kids, "starpom" x-rayed the bridge for recon chief.
"Chief, captain said "No way". The moment US Navy sniffs it out we are lame ducks. His
background tells him not to do it", - Butorov openly delivered the captain's decision in
the presence of junior officers, being so pissed off, as not to notice our presence".
"Officer on deck, have the exec and recon chief report to my quarters in five minutes", - the
captain's voice barked in the intercom.
Huh, the intrigue had just re-incarnated. We all took a break to have a smoke on the bridge-
wing, expecting Butorov to drink another pint of captain's steam-rolling temper in round two.
The two somehow came to a mutual understanding, having convinced Papa (the captain's nickname)
of the necessity of that step. Miracles do happen.
Two minutes later bos’nmates were running up and down the ship's quarter deck like they had
been organized by a German. The German was Butorov giving commands, swearing and holding a
triple hook with a line.
His first cast was useless, the second one snatched the target's chute lines and three sailors
towed it to the ship's transom. Then it required a help of other sailors to drag it up on deck
and ...there it was - the "baby" so much wanted by us! Her majesty, a BQM-74E, 12.9 feet long,
440 pounds in weight - simulator of anti-ship missile produced by Ventura division of Northrop
The whole procedure took a few minutes and was executed in a great rush, but a rush is a close
relative of a mess. And the mess it was: all ship's spaces cram-full to accommodate our guest,
ship's transom marked by green paint leaking from the drone and the missile's transmitter still
on-air. Yet all that struck our delirious minds later on to ooze away in the joy of the occasion.
But then a perfect fish with a shiny orange body of then sensationally new composite materials,
looking very much like a Harpoon cruise missile, laid helplessly before our eyes and our
schoolboyish notion was to touch it.
“Look at that plate over here. Something written in English.", - one of the officers waved for
The plate attached to the bogey's back carried a warning notice: "This US Navy drone is the
property of the US Government. Please, return it to the US authorities or any US ship. Reward
"That's cheap. Only three dollars per crew member. I'm not giving it back", - laughed the guy,
- “It’s damn 280K a piece!”
Meanwhile our engineers crowded over the thing working out how to disassemble it to parts. Hell
of a work as it had become dark and any light spotted in the vicinity of the drone could reveal
everything to the Point Mugu personnel.
Unexpectedly we all sensed the ship's deck vibration meaning that she had made slow ahead.
"Sir, we must stay dead in the water. We've found a VHF antenna. That thing must be still
transmitting its May Day to the test center. Americans will have a solid fix on us now",
-the chief engineer shouted towards the XO.
Soon "Charlie" was making 12 knots which most likely confused the personnel of the
PMTC direction finders maintaining the drone's position. But only for a while.....
"Guys, do the job as quickly as you can or the captain will order to cast it overboard",
-Butorov sounded very convincing.
We had no appropriate tools to undo the missile's high-tech and sophisticated bolts and
screws. What they do in car shops in such situations? They use a good hammer and a
chisel. Our engineers followed that practice. Within the next fifteen minutes the drone
was chopped down to three sections: the forward section with a plastic foam model of a
homing radar, the middle section comprising control electronics crowned by the digital
computer which appeared to be the main hero of the followed up "melodrama", and the
rear section hosting a small size turbofan engine (small enough to put it on a bike and
make it fly !).
As the main work was done, engineers put each section to the allocated free spaces for
further detailed examination and sampling. The crowd on the quarter deck dispersed by
itself satisfied with the good "fishing expedition" that was accomplished.
It was late, but before going to hit the pillow I checked with my unit if any activity had
been detected in the test center's radio-net.
"None, sir, except for Plead Control calling USS Leahy. But she is likely to be very close
to San Diego now. We expect Leahy to call San Diego Control for tug support shortly",
-reported a radioman on watch.
"Good, keep tracking the freq. I'll check it tomorrow morning. Report all emergencies to
the officer on deck".
Going to sleep after a day like that is nasty but necessary because ...the following two
days became sleepless to the most of us.
“All hands! This is a combat alert! Man combat stations!", - that roaring voice order
followed by combat bells forced us out of beds at around 06:00 a.m. making each and
every one onboard run like hell to the assigned combat stations.
"Combat station leaders report readiness to the bridge". I heard that message standing
at the left wing of the bridge - my assigned station- trying to make my mind about the
reason of combat alert. A duty officer's mistake? Hard to believe, as the captain was in
his seat dressed and looking to be awake a long time ago. What's then? That was the first
and the last time I ever heard combat bells onboard "Charlie".
A calm but misty morning. What is that to our bow? A ship's silhouette? Another one to
our portside....and another to starboard.....and a jet plane roared on top of us at a head-
breaking altitude. What the heck?
"It is the Leahy back with her group", the officer on deck made my waking up complete.
I realized then what Plead Control was up to calling that ship last night. There had to be
more message exchanges between them later on. I hit the button of intercom to get in touch
with my unit.
"Report all messages after 23:00 last night."
"We have only one recorded, sir. A short one".
And the message said: "USS Leahy, this is Plead Control. You are prohibited to enter San
Diego unless you have the drone onboard. Out".
CG-16 cutting the blue all night instead of having good time in the city now found us close to
Long Beach where we had steamed to look at a local yacht regatta promising to be a spect-
acular event for our tired crew. Instead of it we had an air parade of Intruder and Viking
planes on top of us and the USS Leahy laying adrift just 3 cables to our nose. The cruiser
looked really aggressive! I wish I could see Captain Bailey at this moment! Yet unable to
see him, I got a chance to hear him:
Charlie Charlie Bravo 493, this is USS Leahy. Please, respond on channel 16.
Leahy, this is Charlie. Go ahead, sir! – I replied after a permitting nod of my CO.
Charlie, this is the USS Leahy’s captain speaking. You were in the vicinity of missile firings.
Did you mention a drone floating close to you? – Bailey’s voice was tense but polite.
???, - I looked at my CO.
Tell him that we saw it drifting away. – Papa barked not willing to go into specifics and
Leahy, I confirm visual contact with the drone but it drifted away and possibly sank after
unsuccessful helo attempts to catch it.
Charlie, thank you for cooperation. Out. – Fred Bailey sounded as he hadn’t worked out a
punishment procedure for tovarishs (comrades). Any legal proof for that did not exist as
our transom densely marked by the drone’s green blood was concealed by thick mist covering
the area. So we stayed adrift scrutinizing each other like boys do, getting ready but not really
willing to fight. The flights of Viking planes from NAS North Island kept making deterrent
sorties over our ship. And then…our real adversary, the Sun, switched on, decamouflaging our
stern. And Captain Fred Bailey went ballistic:
Charlie, I have suspicion…I have evidence…I ask you…I demand to return the US property!
That tempered radio traffic made the bitch box installed on our bridge iron hot. My ship
surrounded by three angry men of war could do only one thing – steer into the direction
of Leahy’s port side in order to get out into clear waters, and answering with a snarl of
radio protests, and Leahy made slow ahead giving us a way..…all the way back to our
port of Vladivostok.
Officer on deck, take up course 270, full speed ahead! Comms officer, report to bridge! –
Papa looked calm but smiling menacingly. – Comms officer, establish radio communications
with the Pacific Fleet HQs in Vladivostok.
Having done that the CO reported details of the situation receiving the only “good” advice –
dump the damn missile, if this is not possible, stay calm and proceed to homeport. That was
what we had been doing for the last 3 hours now closing on SNI. Passing the island we could
almost truly hear the test center's coordinator curses and see him break his spyglass over
his knee. And we really could hear him nastily chattering to the Leahy’s captain:
We have a sensitive piece of equipment – a digital computer - onboard the drone which
should be returned by all means. I assign you to conduct a special operation against the
Russians at 12.00!
That PMTC Coordinator sounded like he had received a last warning call from his wife urging
him to reunite with his family that lovely Saturday morning otherwise she would use a lawn-
mower to cut his clothes that were thrown out into the backyard.
Having learned about Leahy’s plans to spoil our lunch time, Papa called general quarters:
20 sailors armed with AKM rifles took prone position at port and starboard as the Leahy
and the other frigates had started closing with us, our artillery guys kept vainly arming
our 30-mm AK gun which usually got jammed after a third burst. We simply never needed
that spooky thing before we met the cruiser. Having failed to arm it manually, they
aimed the gun’s empty barrels on the Leahy. That friendly gesture most possibly changed
Fred Bailey’s mind about firing at or boarding the Russian ship and he sheathed his cutlass.
Since now on the craziest bunch of Naval ships that ever met in the good-old times of Cold
War proceeded west just drilling holes in the water and not talking to each other. By the
end of the day, the US west coast sank in the horizon and the "divorced" test center’s
coordinator could be no longer heard on UHF. Joking over Plead Control we started
calling him -“Please, let us exist another day!” Spooky guy!
But more spooky guys got involved into that story: one got a call at his ranch in Santa
Barbara, another one peacefully snoring in his red brick castle in Moscow was awakened
by his top brass. That made their day promising to be a boring one. As Reagan called
Washington, the Soviet military attaché was politely invited to a five-cornered building
on the Potomac River. The guy looking for small talk and a glass of mountain dew with
colleagues, put on his parade uniform and jingling with his numerous medals stepped into
the Pentagon looking for the fifth corner, and he really found it, having got cornered by
unhappy US admirals, he called Moscow to be yelled at by the Big Red Chief. Having
yelled at the attaché, the Chief then called another chief – Commander –in – Chief of
the Soviet Navy, Fleet Admiral Gorshkov......
Comrade captain, CIC Gorshkov is on the phone and he wants to talk to you ASAP! –
Charlie’s comms officer appeared on the bridge sadly looking at Papa as though he had
brought in a death verdict.
Comrade Fleet Admiral, commanding officer of CCB-493 reporting! - Papa shouted into
the phone’s mike.
Captain, do you have the American missile onboard? – Gorshkov barked back and his
voice was repeated by a speaker.
Yes, Comrade Adm…
Return it to the US ship! Report to me when you do it!
I cannot execute your order right away, Admiral!
The drone was disassembled…
Assemble it and hand it over to the Americans!
Sorry, Admiral. I cannot do that…
We disassembled it with a chisel and hammer…
OK, son, I give you 3 hours to return it to the American side. Out! – the old Admiral who’s
time in office was coming to the end gave as a chance not to start a local combat that could
lead to a more gloomy outcome. Aye, aye, Admiral! Rest in peace!
Papa gazed at me and said:
OK, Lieut, go talk to your Leahy friend.
Charlie calling USS Leahy. Please, respond! – But the offended Captain Bailey did not reply.
His voice reappeared only after my third call when I left a message on his “answering machine”:
Leahy, I have the drone and I am ready to return it.
We then made a 180 degree turn and steamed back to SNI which was 200 miles away to get
covered by shore from swells and hand the missile to the cruiser. When we got there later,
Fred Bailey called us:
- Sir, what is your idea of the returning procedure? Shall we moor side to side?
That was a good idea missed by our crews – to get together and have some friendly booze but
principles of those days commanded to do it another way. We made a raft out of oil barrels,
put the remnants of the drone into a canvas and waved Alfa Mike Foxtrot to it as the Leahy’s
whaleboat soon snatched it and towed to the cruiser’s starboard. Then it was hoisted onboard
and we sighed with relief – the Leahy vs. Charlie conflict was over. But......
Charlie, this is Leahy. Thank you for your cooperation! Have a smooth sailing! – Captain
Bailey’s voice sounded for the last time addressed to us.
The same day reading the Associated Press daily release, we found a story of this agency
saying that the Soviet Navy vessel found a floating drone and returned it to a US Naval ship
on the FIRST REQUEST! US Navy spokesman reported that no accident had occurred.
When I posted my message on the USS Leahy site, I expected that no replies – good
or bad –
would ever come to me, but miracles happen, meaning that the iceberg of Cold War keeps
melting to make the ocean deeper – I received recollections from four ex-Leahy crewmembers
and I was surprised to read sincere and friendly words. After 19 years since that incident
happened, I want to say the following......Guys, I am sorry that we spoiled your week-end!
I am happy that this awful time is over but I will keep recollecting those three days, and
thanking our captains for not turning the story into a real mess!
Ahoy, brave Leahy sailors! Honored to sail with you, Captain Bailey! Sir!
Lcdr. Oleg Rykov (Russian Navy, Retired)
25 October 2003
(1)Naval Air Station at Point Mugu, CA......
A radar system called PLEAD control, which is used by the Naval
Air Warfare Center to scour an impressive 36,000 square miles of
ocean."We use this for testing our very sophisticated weapons
system," said Cora Fields, public affairs officer for Point Mugu.
"It's critical that you have extremely precise equipment to make
sure other aircraft or boats are in the air or the sea when we're
testing so no one is in harm's way."
(2)One Cable Length = 600 feet - 186 meters