Captain Earl Riffle, the commanding officer of Patrol Squadron 8 at Brunswick Naval Air Station in 1978 to 1979, tells stories of squadron missions Friday. (Darcie Moore / The Times Record)

Captain Earl Riffle serves as the grand marshal of the Topsham-Brunswick Memorial Day Parade Monday. (Darcie Moore / The Times Record)

BRUNSWICK — The P-3 Orion airplane had just left Brunswick Naval Air Station minutes earlier, bound for an air show in Ontario, Canada, when it exploded mid-air near Poland Spring on Sept. 22, 1978.

All eight men onboard were killed.

Capt. Earl Riffle was the commanding officer of Patrol Squadron Eight at BNAS that day.

Standing next to their memorial in the Memorial Gardens at Brunswick Naval Aviation Museum Friday, the former naval aviator said he still doesn’t know what caused the mishap. It was one of the squadron’s most dependable planes and had recently returned from Bermuda. The P-3 was the four-engine anti-submarine patrol aircraft of the day.

Considered sacred ground, the Memorial Gardens are home to several brass memorials placards, the only memorials for many stationed in Brunswick who lost their lives during service to their country. It’s a reminder that the work of the squadrons stationed there was a dangerous business.

Riffle, 79, served as the grand marshal of the Topsham-Brunswick Memorial Day Parade Monday.

Captain Earl Riffle kneels by the memorial of eight members of Patrol Squadron Eight who died in 1978 when their airplane exploded mid-air near Poland Spring. (Darcie Moore / The Times Record)

The 31st commanding officer of Patrol Squadron Eight from February 1978 to March 1979, Riffle was responsible for the squadron, including when something went wrong.

“You don’t stay up at night worrying about it but you take it to heart and you try to do things right and make sure you’re dotting the i’s, crossing the t’s,” he said.

It was up to him to write accurate fitness reports, and sometimes there were those who shouldn’t go any further with the squadron, “so you have to be willing to make that decision.”

It was a hardship that drew him away from home a lot.

During his time as commanding officer in Brunswick, the squadron conducted deployments in Bermuda and Lajes. At the time, the Navy didn’t broadcast what it was doing.

“At one time we had, what, five Soviet submarines around Bermuda,” he said.

Soviet submarines would travel from between Greenland and Iceland headed toward the Azores and either turn to the Mediterranean or go to Bermuda, taking station within missile range of the U.S. The military had secret underwater listening cables in places, “and from these various sources or visual sightings or foreign intelligence, you’d know when they were coming and you could tell by some of the detection gear even the name of the ship,” Riffle said.

It was a cat and mouse game, “and they were pretty good at it too,” he said. “Fortunately at the time we were still a little ahead as far as avionics in the airplane.”

The Norfolk headquarters were anxious to plot locations of the Soviet submarines, tracking them as they came into the area and then left.

The patrol squadrons flew reconnaissance missions but also performed shipping surveillance, getting low enough to get photos of the masts piercing the horizon. The squadron ran mine warfare missions, could drop bombs, depth-charges and had rockets. But primarily they’d drop sonobuoys and smoke floats when locating submarines. Eventually, the sonobuoys emitted their own sonar ping that would provide a range and bearing.

Riffle served with Patrol Squadron 23 at BNAS from 1972 to 1974 as a maintenance officer and operations officer. He deployed to Sigonella, Sicily and other various Mediterranean sites.

They’re old sea stories now. Riffle bounces between homes in Pennsylvania and Brunswick. He and a group of other veterans formerly stationed at BNAS still get together at Winners in Brunswick every Friday night to reminisce and keep memories alive from their days at the naval base.

Now instead of talking about airplanes and girls, “we talk doctors and the medicine we take,” he said, laughing. “It’s part of the graying, but it’s wonderful to remember.”

Riffle rode near the front of the parade Monday in his flight jacket. He wore it during an interview Friday and the leather, covered in weathered patches from his various stations, creaked as he moved.

That included a patch from his first assignment, a seaplane squadron, with the emblem of a whale with jet bottles taking off.

Captain Earl Riffle points to some favorite patches on his flight jacket, documenting some of his most meaningful stations while a naval aviator. (Darcie Moore / The Times Record)

He flew the P5M Martin Marlin seaplane while participating in the Cuban Quarantine in 1962. It’s still his favorite airplane to fly. He didn’t need a runway, he said. He flew the DeHaviland L20 “Beaver” and P-3 Orions. He estimated he logged more than 10,000 flight hours.

Riffle held other command posts, though is final assignment was as Dean of Students Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island for four years before retiring in July 1990.

After flight training, Riffle was designated a naval aviator in 1962. He was inspired by two uncles who served during World War II. One was a fighter pilot who flew P-51 mustangs. The other was a marine aviator who flew all through the Pacific and was in various flight squadrons.

“He was my hero and he took me on my first airplane ride when I was a senior in college and getting ready for flight training,” he said. “They were heroes. You looked up to them. In those days, they’d come home, low pass over the field, they’d land their airplane at a local place and you’d climb up into the airplane. That was a big deal.”

There are few professions where you have such a high level of camaraderie and respect.

“You’re counting on each other, you do what you do,” he said. “You just develop a great bond.”

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