Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Back to the boat story

So there I was, learning how to fix airplanes out in the middle of nowhere, California. Sorry Lemoore, but it is nowhere. Might be bigger now, but back then it was not much.

I was an Aviation Fire Control Technician Attack Aircraft (designation AQA), learning about the radar and computer systems on the A-7 aircraft. After six months in school and training with VA-122, the training group there, I was transferred to VA-113, the squadron I would stay with for a while. We had thirteen planes and about a dozen AQ technicians. Ended up going on two cruises, on the Saratoga for a Med cruise (Mediterranean) and on the Ranger for a WestPac cruise (western Pacific). I’ll talk about the Med cruise, but not the other one, that one was not much fun. Lost too many friends there.

After a number of months putting together the group we got into bombing practice. The A-7 was an attack aircraft, not a fighter. It could carry about ten tons of bombs hanging from the wings. It also had a fancy 20mm cannon in the nose. We worked with the weapons crew, who had the responsibility of loading the bombs, putting bullets in the gun, and maintaining the bomb racks and pylons.

Flying from Lemoore we just used 25 pound blue practice bombs. These were about a foot long, and had a hollow tube down the middle where what looked like a long shotgun shell was loaded. When dropped this went off creating a big cloud of smoke, so that observers could see where it hit. Our pilots flew from Lemoore to Fallon, Nevada where the west coast Navy practice bombing range was located.

This was before GPS systems, but we could program the computers in the plane with assorted maps, and the pilots could set reference points. Along with the altitude radar, the pilots could then fly ‘ground hugging’ mode from Lemoore through the mountains over to Fallon and drop the bombs exactly where they selected. This was about an hour flight each way.

We did have some incidents of bombs dropping unexpectedly. Well, any computer and electronic system is subject to bugs once in a while, or maybe the pilots accidentally pressed some buttons while bored (probably the real reason, of course they would deny it). I remember one of the bombs going through the roof of a house, and once right into a car. The practice bomb did not explode, but imagine a twenty five pound chunk of metal hitting your roof. And the smoke shell would go off, filling the car or house with a cloud of smoke. Glad they didn’t use real bombs for these things.

We also had pilots that would take the plane off of automatic mode and try to do fancy flying. Reports of planes going under high bridges, and scaring cars on the freeway while flying low. But at least once one of the pilots was flying low and did not notice the slowly rising hill ahead of him, resulting in what is called ‘unexpected ground contact’, also known as a crash. We also had some crashes on base as pilots were landing. That’s why it’s hard to get insurance for pilots, especially with military guys, they take chances for a living.

After a while the whole squadron (about 250 people) packed up and went to Fallon for two weeks. This way it was only a five minute flight to the range, and we could use real bombs. The usual load was 500 pound bombs, six on each of the six pylons, for a total of 9 tons (if I can multiply and divide correctly). We also practiced with 250, 1,000 and 2,000 pound bombs, assorted rockets and the guns. The weapons techs were responsible for loading the bombs, but the AQs would help when things got busy. Bombs were loaded on little carts fitted with special holders and hydraulic jacks, one bomb per carts. The carts would be rolled under the plane and then jacked up. There were two eye loops on top of each bomb that matched corresponding hooks on the pylons. Usually the bomb was able to latch onto the hooks when cranked up, but sometimes we had to jiggle things to get them to latch. And we also had to practice loading by hand in case there weren’t any carts available. Long pipes would screw into the front and back of each bomb, and a group of guys would get on each pipe and lift. Not too bad for the 250 pounders, little harder on 500 and really bad for the 1,000 pound bombs. We never tried it with the 2,000 pound ones. The A-7 had high wings, so we were lifting these things up to about six feet high to the racks.

Wow, still haven’t gotten to the boat yet.

We went to Fallon twice, to be sure that we could do things fast and the pilots could drop those things on target. Then we were off to Jacksonville, Florida to get on the Saratoga. My first time seeing a boat that big. An aircraft carrier is 1,000 feet long, holds about a hundred planes and 4,000 guys. That was back when it was only guys, most ships have mixed sex crews now. Standing on the pier looking up, the flight deck was about 90 feet above our heads. It looked more like a huge building rather than a boat.

We loaded onto the ship. According to Navy tradition every room on the ship was mapped. You could find any spot based on a little numeric system of three numbers, such as 03-090-06. The 03 indicated what deck. The 00 level is the main deck on a ship. Since an aircraft carrier was originally based on building a wooden deck on top of a regular Navy ship. This evolved into the big blocks that carriers now look like. So the main deck is the hanger deck, where planes are parked inside for repair and holding. As you go up levels a zero is put in front of the number, so 03 is three floors up from the hanger. The flight deck is the 04 level. If you go up into the tower on top you can get up to the 012 level. If you go down there are a dozen floors below, so the engines are down about level 8. I don’t know about that, never went down there.

The second number indicates the ‘frame’ counting back from the front. A frame originally was the wooden beams used to form the ship. I think the carriers went from frame 1 back to frame 400 or so, can’t remember back that far. Smaller ships obviously did not have as many levels (floors) or frames as a carrier. The last number indicates how far out from a center line, odd numbers to the left even numbers to the right. So 03-090-06 would be up three floors from the flight deck, about a third of the way back, and probably about half way between the middle and the outside of the ship on the right side. (right when looking at the front, usually called ‘Starboard’ for some unknown historical reason, with ‘Port’ being the left side).

We took a few weeks to get settled in, then pulled out for a two week training exercise. Our planes flew into the Navy field and were hoisted on board, but the bigger ones flew out to join us after we were out on the water. An aircraft carrier can go as fast as 40 knots (little over 50 mph), and usually points into the wind and goes full speed when planes land and take off. Pretty impressive that something that big can go that fast. The nuclear powered ones can go faster, but the US does not publish the figures on ship speed (to keep the ‘enemy’ in the dark). The pilots practiced their carrier takeoffs and landings. I saw some movies, and it looks pretty scary – when landing the planes are doing about 150 mph approaching a boat doing 50 mph heading away from them. The boat looks like a little dot when first lining up, and not much bigger as you approach. I can see how hard it is to line up and land, with the waves causing the ship to roll and bounce up and down.

There were several different squadrons on board, most from the Virginia area. Usually west coast squadrons went on WestPac boats while east coast squadrons went on Atlantic and Med cruises. Several different types of planes. Us and another A-7 attack, two squadrons with A-6 attack planes, two squadrons of F-4 fighters, some larger cargo and refueling planes, and helicopters. The A-7 only carried the pilot, the A-6 planes had lots more radar, and a crew of 2 while our planes were single seaters. Some A-6 planes had a crew of 4 and lots of radars, computers, and electronics. These acted as controllers in usually looked at what was going on. The F-4s could carry bombs, but were usually used for shooting down other planes with guns and missiles. They had two seats, and I tried but never could get a back seat ride in one.

The squadron people all had bunks up high. I was on the 03 level, the one floor between the roof of the hanger deck and the flight deck. Enlisted were in big rooms, probably a hundred or so of us, with bunks layered three high. We worked two shifts, 12 hours on 12 hours off. The day crew in one room and the night crew in another. Officers were bunked two to a room, in fancier spaces than we were. The ship’s crew were down below water level. The eating spaces were located on the 1 level, just under the hanger deck. There were no windows or portholes, the only way to see outside was from the flight deck, some small decks that were off the hanger deck, or from the hanger deck when the big doors were open. There were some periods of bad weather when all the doors were closed, and we were kept off of the flight deck, and thus might not see the sky for quite a while. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be on a submarine, under water for weeks or months at a time. I like the sun too much for that.

We ended up off the coast of Virginia, and then President Nixon came on board. There were about forty ships in our group, and after our planes all took off he sat on the flight deck and watched a ‘firepower’ demonstration. Where the ships around us shot their guns, and our planes dropped bombs and missiles and killed fish. I was on deck – lots of us dressed in our dress whites looking nice. Now we would be the background for a presidential photo op, but back then just as background. A 2,000 pound bomb makes a pretty big bang, even from the mile away where we were.

I was responsible for the Bullpup controllers on our planes. A Bullpup was a radio controlled missile used back then, with a 250 pound warhead. They shot a few of them off for the demo, flying them in spirals to show the radio control. Of course, one of the four shot for some reason stopped talking to the radio controller, so the pilot could not guide it. The other three all flew down and blew up nicely, but the one out of control just kept on flying high and straight. I had visions of it going on for a few miles (don’t remember the range) and blowing up one of the ships around us. Fortunately for us it wasn’t one of the ones on a plane from our squadron. I was impressed at all the money being spent just on a show for one person. But then he had a hand in deciding how much money the military got, what new planes and ships would be built, and what we would do. So you have to make a good impression for the boss.

After the two week sea trial we were back in Jacksonville for a few weeks, final leave, and loading of everything before leaving for the Med for nine months. The day before we left we were told to be on board by 4 for final head count. I woke up about 2 in the morning by some noise, and went up on the flight deck to see what was going on. There were lights and lots of long trailer trucks on the pier. They were loading on the 100 or so nuclear bombs that we would take along, and hopefully not use. Australia used to ban US Navy ships that were carrying nuclear weapons from their harbors, but the Navy never admitted that there were such weapons on any of their ships. The carriers all had them, and the larger ships that carried missiles also did. I am sure that they still do.

Enough background for now, next chapter will be on the cruise.

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