Thursday, August 11, 2005

Life in the “Fat Ship” Navy – Part IV

Previously on "Life in the 'Fat Ship' Navy:" Part I Part II Part III Part V "Captain, request permission to set Flight Quarters." The CO looks my way, the sound powered telephone handset still held to his ear, as the NIMITZ’s CO and he catch up on how things are going over on the carrier. You know the old A-7 pilot would rather be there, but by being where he is, there is a high likelihood he will be a CV commanding officer, with all the prestige, and responsibility that goes along with it, once more able to be closely connected with the crews of aircraft, and the “sound of freedom” that the aircraft generate. "Granted" he says, as he gives a redundant thumbs up hand signal. I hike back into the Pilot House to tell the Boatswain Mate of the Watch to set flight quarters. He knows the drill. "On the MILWAUKEE, Flight Quarters, Flight Quarters. All hands man your Flight Quarters Stations to launch helicopters!" The preface is so as to not confuse the crew of the ships alongside, as the loudness of the 1MC is sufficient to be heard across the 160 and 120 ft to the ships alongside. I prop myself in the port bridge wing door, holding onto the upper knife edge of this watertight fitting. I lean against the frame, having been on watch for several hours before the unrep started, it will be a long haul before we’ve passed gas and supplies to the other ship for the task force. I can count on my chief petty officer to come up and check on me periodically. He comes equipped with an extra cup of coffee from the coffee mess that is an almost 24/7 operation one deck below on the starboard aft side of Combat Information Center. He comes up when it’s calmer, while the two ships alongside are settled in and there shouldn’t be any significant passing of tactical signals that he or I need to monitor, or act on. While I don’t comprehend it at the time, he scoping out how I’m handling things, and using the time to inject more "training" into my still developing mind. Across the generally 160 ft to the carrier, I’m not quite eye level with the flight deck, as we still have a good load of cargo fuel. At other times, we are at the same level as the flight deck, later on operations, when the cargo tanks are much less. The CV rig crews are staged at the level of the massive aircraft elevators. They are fully outfitted in the same personal safety gear as is our crew. Plastic hard hats and bulky orange kapok life vests, bell bottom trouser legs tucked into their socks to prevent them from being caught in a running line. Safety is paramount around the rigs on any ship. The span wire that trolleyed the massive fuel probe across the small expanse between us is tensioned to thousands of pounds per square inch of air and hydraulically generated pressure. If it comes loose while under tension, it’s highly likely there will be accident reports that include personnel casualties. In contrast to the rig area, there are men in PT gear, jogging on the dark grey non-skid painted surface that is one of the mobile airfields of the nation. They seem no more concerned with the going ons around them than if they were running the track at the local high school. Other people on the catwalks around the flight deck edge lean on the life rails and visually survey the operations in progress. At sea, most ships don’t require the wearing of hats, and for the most part, no one I can see on the carrier has them on. Gazing up to the bridge of the CV, there is a mass of khaki clad people on the small starboard bridge wing. It’s easy to pick out the CO, as he is in the large chair, his chair, the one no one else dares to sit in (except those who do it in port, when no one is around, or sometimes at night, just to say they have violated the seat of sanctuary of the commanding officer). In front of him is the officer who is conning the ship. I lift my binoculars from where they hang on my chest, a symbol of current authority as an officer on watch, as well as a very practical tool. I smirk as I get an enlarged view of the “gaggle” of aviators over there. There are plenty of oak leaves on the collars, and two sets of eagles. I don’t know if I’m looking at the CO and XO, or the CO and the operations officer, but I can almost conceive of the background conversations. Aviators, reluctantly or not, need their ticket punched, saying they have the skills to conn the ship alongside a replenishment vessel. They love to fly, but most see the development of seamanship skills as no more than a distasteful exercise in order to hopefully ascend to being the one sitting in the hallowed high backed, swiveling chair, kibitzing over the shoulder of some younger aviator one day. I consider the single silver bar on the open collar of my shirt and bask in a prideful moment, realizing I’m the Officer of the Deck, in control of a myriad of intricate operations, yet only 24 years old and just beginning my “adventure.” "Bunny on the hop, OBOE!" comes out of the 21MC box next to the XO’s chair inside the port bridge wing door, as I marvel at the pained and frantic looks of those steering the CV alongside. Not more than a second later, the brass tube at the rear of the pilot house announcing the impending arrival of an aluminum tube with leather gasketed ends with the rushing sound of compressed air. From three decks below, a naval message has begun it’s journey to the bridge. I walk back near the centerline near the helmsman, glancing as the "bunny" drops into the box below the pneumatic tube. The helm safety officer picks up the tube and opens it, then shakes the single sheet of paper out, handing it to me. My eyes scan the top line for the "OOO" in the header of the message, indicating an operationally immediate communications. First I look to see who is sending the message and note it’s the USS BIDDLE (CG-34). Next, I quickly review the many addressees, looking intently for any of the many "titles" that make this communiqué addressed to us. In the "To:" section, there we are, "CTU TWO FOUR PT SIX PT ONE." This means there is an action required of us as task unit commander. I focus my attention to the message classification line just below the multitude of "Info:" addees, then the subject line just below that. It’s a "RAS REQ" (replenishment request) change for one of the units in the task force. The cruiser needs us to change the amount of milk they want delivered from their original tasking request. I take the message to the starboard bridge wing and hand it off to the XO, who has a Motorola walkie-talkie on which he can contact the Supply Officer. Ask the XO how it’s going, and he tells me the SPRUANCE is having a little trouble seating the refueling probe at their after station. The seated "flags" are popping out of the body of the probe, even when it looks like it’s seated in the receiving coupling. I look aft and see the probe is being pulled back up the angled span wire by our winch operator, then see it released to freefall about 10 feet to the "basket" on SPRUANCE. The blue helmeted sailors on the destroyer, under the watchful eye and skilled guidance of a petty officer heave back on the messenger line hard to help the process of seating the large probe securely in the bell housing. The metal parts slam together and a cheer, muted only slightly by the relative wind, is heard as the experienced men on the rig see the three metal tabs extend from the outside of the bell of the receiver. The probe is seated properly. (to be continued) Thanks to Mudville Gazette for the Open Posts!

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