Friday, September 30, 2005

Boat stuff continued: working conditions

For Tess – yes, there was a ‘pecking order’ on the ship among the aviation group. The main division was between the ship’s company, those assigned to the carrier as permanent duty, and the aviation group, that came on board just for a cruise. Each group thought they were more important – of course, the ship would not move without the permanent ship’s company there to keep things going, and of course there was no reason for a carrier if the planes were not there to fly.

Ship’s company involved jobs such as keeping the engines running, driving the boat, cooking the food, running the laundry, painting and maintaining all equipment on the boat, running the catapults and landing gear, and so on. The aviation group just worked the airplanes and kept them flying. Aviation got to go up on the roof and see the sun, the other guys were down below in the dark keeping things running. We called the engine guys ‘snipes’, don’t know why, but they were visible in the mess hall as the pale guys covered in grease. I don’t know what they called us – but I remember the term ‘airdales’. We were about evenly divided; about 2,500 guys in ship’s company and about 1,500 in the squadrons that came on board for cruises.

Now I was enlisted, so I am talking about the majority of the workers here. The officers were also divided, major between the brown shoes and the black shoes. Also between work - the guys driving the ship were higher up than the guys in charge of the laundry, and so on. Among the pilots the fighter pilots usually had a higher opinion of themselves than the attack aircraft crew, going on down to the guys that flew cargo planes. But all of the pilots were nice to the helicopter crews. Whenever we had flight ops there was a helicopter flying. It was there to pick up guys that fell over the side and to save any pilots that might go into the water, due to a catapult malfunction, landing error, or for any other reason. It was a tradition for a pliot rescued by the copter to give the copter crew a bottle of good booze. Makes you realize how often it happens if every pilot keeps a little stock of bottles 'just in case'.

Among the air crew there was another set of responsibilities. The guys in charge of the deck were at the top – I don’t remember all the colors, sorry, but these were the ship’s company guys that directed activity, showed planes where to go, ran the catapults, handled the landing wires and such (I think they had yellow). Next came the red shirts – the weapons handlers. They moved and loaded the bombs, rockets and bullets and were up there because it was so easy to be injured or blown up. Next were the green shirts (my color), we fixed the aircraft systems and kept the planes running. Then came the fuel crew, the engine mechanics, and down at the bottom were the brown shirts, the ‘plane guards’. Each plane had one person, the plane guard, assigned. He basically lived with the plane, kept it polished, helped the pilot get on and strapped in, and mainly just acted as if it was his plane (well, it was). But because they were not technical an any one area they were not looked upon as being highly educated because most of the time they washed the planes and kept them polished.

The reason for the colors is obvious when you are there. A flight deck during flight ops is a very busy, noisy, dangerous place. As I described, jet engines are capable of pushing those planes very fast. So they suck in a lot of air up front and push it all out the back. Everyone wears head protection – too easy to bang your head on low wings and bombs and stuff – goggles and ear protection. Either ear plugs or big ear covers or both. Almost everyone that worked in aviation comes away with tinnitus (ringing ears) because of all the high pitched loud sounds, even with protection. If a plane director is told of a problem with a plane he wants to be able to see who is around that can take care of it. If a plane needs fuel he can grab a member of the fuel crew, if the pilot has radio problems he grabs a green shirt, if a bomb looks funny he grabs a red shirt, and so on.

For the danger part, there are several aspects. First comes from the items being dealt with. Big planes being filled with aviation fuel. The fuel crew drag big hoses around the flight deck, plugging them in to planes up in the wind. And then there are the munitions being loaded on the planes. We all had to wear steel toe safety shoes, but even with those, it was all too easy to have a five hundred pound bomb drop while being loaded, and many toes were crushed. We never had any fuel fires or accidental weapons firing or explosions on our Med cruise.

Yes, accidental weapons firing. After a plane is loaded it is always checked again, and perhaps things are repaired or changed. There are safety pins and stuff, but if a weapons tech is testing the arming system and pulls the trigger on the flight stick it is possible to fire the guns. There were safety pins (big metal pins about a foot long) with large red streamers plugged into every bomb and rocket. These supposedly prevented the rocket from firing, or the bomb from being dropped accidentally. The red streamers made them easy to see, and they were pulled when moving to the cat before takeoff. But if something was broken then things did not work as expected. We did have bombs drop off racks during testing, even with safety pins installed.

Next is the fact that these planes are moving. When landing they are coming in at 150-200 miles per hour, hitting the deck to have the tailhook grab a wire. At times the planes might be a little off, and when hooked they veer off to the side. And the wires are known to break – these are cables about three inches in diameter that stretch across the deck. They are attached to big brakes on both sides, and do stream out for a ways to slow the plane (it’s not a sudden stop, but still takes just a second or two). If a cable breaks then you have a very big heavy wire whipping across the deck at knee height, and the plane is probably moving too slowly to fly and too fast to stop. So you probably have a plane that rolls off the angel deck into the water and the whipping cable smashing into whoever is out there and whatever planes might be parked on the side. After the plane stops one of the crew takes a crowbar and unhooks the cable and the plane taxis up to the front. At times if things are busy then some planes might also be taking off from the front catapults as planes are landing on the back. But usually they first launched a wave of planes to clear the deck then landed the ones coming back.

But usually the planes had to be made ready to go off again, rather quickly. After all, they don’t do their jobs when parked. So there are planes coming in, moving around the deck, while the crews are refueling, loading bombs, fixing problems and just checking things out. It’s pretty hectic and busy. Throw in night ops, working in the dark with the ship bouncing around and a fast wind across the deck. During night ops all lights are turned off, so the pilots are not blinded when landing. So the deck workers are moving around with just little flashlights. Too easy to get run over or bump into things. With all the noise and earplugs when concentrating on your job you might not hear a plane coming at you, or going by. Several of the planes, such as the A-7, have nice big round air intakes down at waist level. People have been sucked into the engines - only one on my Med cruise, painted the island and some other planes red. Most likely the jet blast behind turning planes would blow you over. I’ve slid down the deck a few times. People are blown over the side – about weekly in the Med, more often on WestPacs (more going on).

I worked several places. Mostly maintenance, checking out equipment when the planes come back. Testing the equipment, and going through the pilot problem reports, which discuss what was not working correctly. I also worked the cat crew – standing up by the catapults when planes took off. After attachment to the catapult the pilot would do a final equipment check, then turn his engine up to full before being fired off. If there were problems the cat manager would wave us over to see if we could quickly fix something, tighten up a connection or do something fast so the plane could go. If not it was taken off the cat and moved over to the side to be looked at. And we would help the munitions guys load bombs and rockets. The little carts would jack the bombs up to weapons pylons, but they still had to be shifted to make them lock on. Rockets had to be slid by hand onto launching racks. Manual labor there.

For part of the time I was assigned to the ship intermediate maintenance group. Guys in the squadron would just diagnose and replace boxes on the planes. There were about a dozen boxes involved in the radar and weapons control systems on the A-7. We had some diagnostic machines we could plug in, and would have to figure out what box was bad when there were problems. This was part of our six month training; what parts made up the systems on our plane, and how to figure out which box went bad if a specific problem happened. We needed to have planes available, and so tried to quickly fix problems so a plane could fly again. Usually we would work on planes down in the hanger bay. Planes rode big elevators up and down from the hanger bay to the flight deck. If a plane was about to take off and the pilot detected a problem we would try to fix it up there. If we could not, and it was a critical problem, the plane would be ‘scrubbed’, or cancelled from the flight, and brought down to be repaired, replaced with a different plane for the flight.

Broken boxes were sent to the intermediate maintenance group. We worked in a shop below decks with large diagnostic machines, and opened the boxes and tried to repair them. I was trained in the Bullpup missile controller. This was a two box radio controller that guided the missile based on a pilot’s joystick movement. I would get bad boxes and try to figure out what inside them was bad. I could replace parts down to the component level. Because of vibration problems most parts in these controllers were encased in little blocks of soft plastic. These were blocks about 1x1x2 inches in size, filled with transistors and other electronic parts. I would figure out what little block was bad and replace it, test the box, and put it back in stock. Other guys in the group worked on different boxes for each airplane.

When I first started in AIMD (Aircraft Intermediate Maintenance Department) I was the new guy, and at the bottom of the totem pole. (is that a ‘politically correct’ phrase any more?) As such I was given the job of keeping the coffee pot full. There’s another Navy tradition – the drinking of vast amounts of coffee. There is always a big coffee pot in every working area on a ship. If you watch movies, especially the old WW 2 movies, about navy ships you will always see a coffee cup in hand. It was my job to keep our AIMD crew in coffee during my shift.

Back then I didn’t drink coffee. Didn’t like the stuff. So I was very disturbed at having to keep making the coffee. And getting the complaints when it didn’t taste right. Making coffee wasn’t a simple task – you had to carry this large pot (65 cup size or?) up three flights of stairs to the nearest water outlet. Up on the bow where our shop was the nearest water was up in the head next to our sleeping space. And stairs on military ships are more like ladders than stairs. In fact that is what they are called, ladders. If you’ve seen movies you will notice that the vertical rise is much more than the horizontal distance. There are steps, but you basically have to pull yourself up with your hands and cannot just walk up the stairs. Very hard when carrying a big, hot pot that still has some old coffee in the bottom. Even harder going down with a hot pot now full of water, requiring two hands to hold, not being able to see the steps, the ship moving around, and going down almost vertically anyway.

With fifteen guys in our work area it would usually take about two hours to go through a pot of coffee. I would then have to make the trek up to the head and fill it up. Back down, put in the grounds, and plug it in. All this in addition to having to do my repair work. OK, work usually involved just sitting around ‘shooting the sh*t’, but at times there were boxes to fix.

One day I was at the tap filling up the pot and looked over to see another water faucet. Digression: ships at sea may have a lot of water around them, but it is salt water, not good to drink. Ships have distillation equipment, used to take salt water and make fresh water. But this equipment is limited in how much fresh water it could make. We were therefore very restricted in fresh water use. We had to take very short showers. Clothes were only infrequently washed. And salt water was used wherever possible. This meant that the toilets used salt water instead of fresh water. Well, you’re not drinking it, and it’s all being flushed out anyway, isn’t it?

So up in the head that other faucet gave out salt water. Looking at it, I thought to myself ‘Joe, if you make really bad coffee maybe they will ask somebody else to do it’. And since I didn’t drink the stuff I didn’t care how bad it tasted. So that day I put a little salt water into the pot. Nobody said anything. So the next time I put in a little more. And then a little more.

After a few weeks I was up to about a half pot of fresh water and a half pot of salt water. At that point they didn’t realize why the coffee tasted so bad, they just decided to have someone else make it. When I say ‘they’ I mean the second class in charge of our shop, who drank the most coffee. And the new guy, of course, used fresh water. So his coffee immediately tasted better than mine. Problem solved! I was never asked to make coffee again.

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