Friday, September 23, 2005

Across the ocean (more boats)

We pulled out of Jacksonville and met up with our group. An aircraft carrier is considered a ‘high value asset’ in military terminology, so does not usually venture out alone. Heaven forbid if the ‘enemy’ would catch us. So all carriers go out with a group.

There is always a small boat right behind us – used to be a small destroyer but now they use special boats – called a plane guard. The purpose of the plane guard is to stop and pick up anybody that falls over the side. They always have guys on watch looking at the water to see if anyone has fallen off of the carrier. A carrier is big. When they are landing airplanes it is going very fast. There are usually dozens of planes lined up to land, some might be out of fuel or damaged. Carriers cannot stop and turn around to pick up anybody that falls off, or any planes that miss and hit the water. They’ve got to keep going and land all of the planes. Trying to turn around something that is 1,000 feet long takes several miles anyway, and lots of time. With those big blowers moving around – figure that an F-4 Phantom weighs several tons and has engines that can push it to over 1,000 mph – there is a lot of forceful wind coming out the back of a jet plane. Usually one person a week, or more, are blown off the flight deck and over the side. With everything going on usually nobody notices this has happened. Yes, there are nets around the edges, but people still get blown over them. There are people posted on the sides and back of the carrier to look for people, but the plane guard is also there.

Getting blown over and falling 90 feet would usually knock you out. Never happened to me, but we got training in how to jump and land and inflate our life vests, or use our pants as life preservers if we had to. Being on a boat meant that you could sink at any time, especially on a warship. Not too much chance of that in the Med, but it happens to smaller ships once in a while. Out of the four or five that went over the side each month they usually couldn’t find one. I think we lost ten people while on our Med cruise. Imagine being a mom and getting that knock on the door; ‘your son was lost at sea’. And with all that water around, I’m sure that some people might have been accidentally ‘helped’ over the side.

There is always a submarine that goes along. Don’t know why on this one, never knew submarine guys. There is usually a tanker and supply ship. There are at times several other boats as well.

The people that worked on airplanes are called ‘brown shoe sailors’. For some reason aviation officers as part of their uniform wear brown dress shoes. Regular Navy officers wear black shoes. So the guys assigned as ship’s company, those whose job it is to take care of the boat, are ‘black shoe sailors’ and the aviation group, who only come on to keep the planes flying, and are really just guests on the ship, are ‘brown shoe sailors’. You can tell I’m a brown shoe because I call them boats. A ‘real’ sailor would only call them ships. Boats are small things that go on ships, such as lifeboats. Doesn’t make sense, as at over 1,000 feet almost any other Navy vessel will sit on the flight deck, so if that is the rule then only carriers are ships and the rest are boats.

So our group takes off, and it takes us ten days to cross the Atlantic from Florida to Spain. I don’t know why they picked ten days. (boy, sure don’t know why a lot, eh?) With straight sailing we could do it in five days. But I guess we have to confuse the ‘enemy’ and take some unexpected path, so that if spies see us leave port they can’t radio ahead and intercept us. First stop was Rota, Spain. Well, the ships stopped. We did not get to go ashore.

We then waited for a carrier to leave the Med. At that time the Navy kept two carriers floating in the Mediterranean. Don’t know what they do now. We had to wait for the ship we were replacing to clear the straights, and then we went in. I don’t remember the name of the other carrier that was also there while we were.

We had a regular schedule. Two weeks floating around followed by two weeks tied up at a port. The other carrier followed the opposite schedule, so one was in port while the other was floating. We received a printout at the start that showed where we would be. Kept to it mostly, until something happened in Lebanon that threw us off. We had to go off the coast and demonstrate our firepower, showing those Lebanese that we were there to support Israel. We floated off the coast for a month, with planes periodically dropping demonstration bombs and killing fish off the coast, to show our power. Ooooh – guess we intimidated them. After that our schedule was off. We didn’t know what port we would be at next, but the ‘hey Joes’ did.

When we were in port the ship was too big to tie up to a dock. We always anchored out a mile or so. There were a dozen or so small boats in the hanger bay that would be put in the water and taxi us from the carrier to the dock. There was room for about fifty people on one of these boats, with the officers having nicer boats than the enlisted. We were on ‘port’ and ‘starboard’ liberty schedules. This meant that we got every other day off. This left half the crew on board, to do maintenance and be available in emergencies (more on this to come later). Usually the first launch left around 9am and we had to be back at the dock by midnight. Boats shuttled all day, so you could come and go as desired.

When in port the ship would let local vendors on board. They would set up on tables in the front dining area and sell souvenirs and such. I bought some paintings myself from them. These guys were called ‘hey Joes’, out of their habit of calling out to a potential customer ‘hey Joe, come look at this’. They were also set up at the dock in port, to hit you up on your way off or back. B and I went on a Caribbean cruise a few years back and found that custom there also. After a few ports I noticed that the vendors were always the same. These guys made a living doing this, going from servicing one carrier for two weeks over to the next one at a different port, following the fleet. I was told that the prostitutes on shore did this too, but I didn’t know from experience with them. Since the hey Joes needed to know where to go they were always up to date on our schedule. We had a printout listing the next few ports of call, and I remember talking to a friend about one port. A hey Joe standing nearby said no, my schedule was wrong, we wouldn’t be there the, we would be in a different port. I figured that if the ship gave us the schedule it should be right, but it turned out the hey Joe was correct. We went to the port he said we would be at. Since they knew I figured that any ‘enemy’ (OK, Russian at that time) spies would know as well, they would just have to ask the hey Joes.

At sea we just moved around burning fuel. We usually always had planes aloft. One of the squadrons had those big planes that carried a dozen operators and had a big radar dome mounted on top. They would circle overhead and keep track of all ships and planes in the area. There would sometimes be other planes flying as well. And we would always have two fighters with pilots sitting in them on the front catapults, to launch if anything threatening showed up. We were on a 90 minute schedule; every 90 minutes we would turn into the wind, get up to speed, and launch some planes and recover the ones that were up and being replaced.

At times I worked on the deck, doing whatever maintenance was required on the weapons systems. Everybody up on the flight deck wore colored shirts, so that we could easily be identified. As maintenance I wore a green shirt. Weapons loaders wore red, plane captains were brown, and so on. In addition to the long sleeved colored pullover we also wore inflatable life vests, in case we went over the side.

to be continued (aven more)

No comments: