Friday, October 21, 2005

Next part of the boat story

OK, last installment on my boat story, at least until I forget what I posted and do it again. But this took a lot of writing, so I should remember. DM – feel free to ask questions.

Life on the boat in the Mediterranean was basically boring. The shifts were standard military – twelve on, twelve off. At the squadron level the on shifts were full of work. Had to keep the planes up, during flight ops the tech crew was on deck so that you could help with the planes, and if a problem arose hopefully you could fix it so the planes could take off. When not flying you were usually working on a plane. At least in the Med we weren’t also loading bombs on the planes. That work is fast, hard on the back and hard on the toes when you dropped things. That’s why we all wore steel toe boots.

But down in AIMD we just had to fix boxes. And if you were good you could keep ahead of the workload and then just sat around drinking coffee (if you were a coffee drinker). Lots of cribbage games going on – that is the popular card game in the Navy.

During off hours you mostly slept. But with a hundred guys in the room it was usually noisy. There were periods of lights out, but people kept coming in and going out, and somebody was always walking around. I had a bottom bunk, which was six inches off the floor, so got to watch feet walk past all night. The Saratoga was an older boat, for personal storage we had lockers inside of our bunk, just next to us. So the locker was basically two feet high, six feet long and about six inches deep. Inside of this you had to get all of your clothes and what was left over you could use for personal items. Guess this is why we spent so much time in boot camp learning to fold clothes and stuff everything into our sea bags. Those are the big green bags you can see sailors carrying over their shoulders in the WW2 war movies. On the Ranger the lockers were under each bunk, so you had to get out of bed, lift up the thin mattress pad and cover, and look down into the six inch deep space.

Stacked three high the bunks were only a two feet apart, so you did not even have enough room to sit up. Most of us put up curtains for a little privacy, and to keep out the light, but then it felt even more like a coffin. Each bunk did have a reading light, so you could lay there and see what you were doing. But with the curtain closed it was just a little bigger than a coffin, and much noisier.

Ships at sea are never quiet. It might be nice and calm on sailing ships, but for metal military vessels it is never quiet and calm. There are big engines running, lots of water going past the hull, and lots of other equipment - pumps, air moving equipment, fans and such. On aircraft carriers you also had the additional noise of the aircraft. Our boarding space was up near the front of the ship, just under the flight deck, under the front catapults.

Even though modern jets have engines that can push them along quite fast it still takes some distance to get up to enough speed where the air will hold up a multi ton metal aircraft. Back in WW2 planes were much lighter, and with a propeller pushing air over the wings there was enough space on a flight deck for them to just take off. Heavier jet planes with thin wings need to be up to at least 150 mph or so in order to fly, under that and they just fall. So aircraft carriers have steam-powered catapults that basically throw the planes into the air. Modern carriers have an angle at about the middle, so that planes can take off from both the front and the middle of the ship. There are two catapults at each location, side by side. The catapult is about two hundred feet long.

A plane taxis up to the start and a metal bar is used to attach it to the catapult while another bar holds it back. The hold back part is very important. After attaching to the catapult the cat operator adjusts his controls for the type of aircraft, it’s weight, how fast it has to go, and other parameters. Never learned that position so I’m not sure exactly what all is done. When ready the pilot pushes his throttle full on, bringing the engines up to full speed. Some fighter planes have afterburners to push then even faster, and these also are set on. Afterburners basically throw fuel at the end of the engine, creating a dramatic flame coming out the back. Takes a lot of fuel for this, so they aren’t used much. That’s why the plane has to be held back, so that it will not just roll off the front of the boat. The holdback is a small metal bar that looks kind of like a dumbbell. It’s about six inches long with a bulge at each end. The bulge fits into slots in the deck and on the plane front wheel. The middle part is different for each plane, bigger planes with stronger engines have heavier holdbacks. They are also different colors, designating the weight range of the plane it’s made for.

When the engines are full, and the pilot is satisfied that everything looks good he gives an OK to the cat operator, who then pushes a button which sets off the catapult. The initial force causes the holdback to break and throws the plane off the front of the ship. A plane basically goes from zero to 150 mph in two hundred feet and two seconds. With the engines on full hopefully the plane can then keep flying and keep going. Sometimes an engine might fail, or the catapult not operate properly, which results in the plane going off the front of the ship and just falling into the water. This is not a good thing. Planes are not made to fall into the water. Usually they sink. Hopefully the pilot gets out.

When we were in the Med the other carrier that was there kept having catapult problems. The cat would fire and break the holdback, but then stop pushing the plane. With just the engines pushing the planes did not get up enough speed to fly before they got to the end of the deck. I think they lost about a dozen planes at launch. This was not very good. Pilots do not like swimming when they should be flying, and at $20,000,000 or so per plane it was rather expensive. They also had A-7s, and found that if they used the whole length of the flight deck and had a good wind the A-7 could take off without the catapult. The COD (Carrier on board delivery) planes, which are big old propeller driven cargo planes, could also take off the same way. But the rest of the planes were too heavy, and could not do this. So most of the A-7s were flown off and over to our ship, and that carrier had to go back to wherever for repairs. The Navy usually does not advertise problems like this.

We saw some shots of the takeoffs (they film everything for reviews) and it got so bad that the pilots started putting one hand on the face curtain during takeoff. Military planes have ejection seats with parachutes built in. On Navy planes there were two ways to fire the ejection seat; a handle on the front of the seat between the pilot’s legs and a handle over your head which also pulled down a ‘face curtain’, which helped to keep your head back against the seat when the rocket fired. During cat launches pilots were supposed to keep their right hand on the flight stick in front of them, which is used to steer, and their left hand on the throttle, to keep it pushed forward at full. In the films we saw the pilots started putting their left hand on the ejection handle above their head, so they could pull it down and eject in case the cat didn’t fire properly. This left the throttle free – there was supposed to be a lock to hold the throttle on full, but sometimes the jerk of the cat launch would slide the throttle handle back from full. In one of the films a pilot had his left hand on the face curtain handle. The cat worked properly, but the jerk of the sudden pull evidently slid the throttle handle from full down to low. Without having his hand on the throttle to keep it at full the engine shut down, so even though the catapult threw the plane forward without the engine pushing it just glided down into the water anyway.

In order to throw a twenty ton airplane at 150 miles an hour a catapult has to be rather powerful. Steam driven, there is a BIG piston thrown forward suddenly. When planes are launching, they alternate between the two catapults launching one about every thirty seconds. The noise is a howling roar as the jet engines come to full speed, and sit like that for five seconds or so. Then a big whoosh as the catapult fires. A big BANG when the piston hits the stop. A huge howl as the steam from behind the piston roars down pipes back to the condenser. Then smaller roars as the next plane taxis over to hook up. Not quiet time during launches. They launch every ninety minutes. In the Med it’s usually only four planes or so. In a WestPac when things are being done it’s usually thirty planes at a time.

And the landings – at least being forward we didn’t hear much of the landings. But the squadron spaces are near the back, right under the number three wire. Carriers have four wires, cables stretched across the deck about twenty feet apart, to capture airplanes. These are cables about as thick as your arm, unless you have real skinny arms. When landing the planes are coming in at the same hundred and fifty miles an hour, more or less depending on the plane type. There is a big hook hanging from the back of the plane. The pilot is supposed to line the plane up with the middle of the deck and touch the hook down just before the number three wire. One and two are there if he is down short, four if he is down long. At first you hear the scream of the engines coming from behind. Then there is a big BANG of that twenty ton airplane hitting the deck. The bang-screeeech of the tailhook hitting and sliding. Then if the hook catches the scream of the cable playing out, and the screech of the breaks on each side slowing it down. If the hook does not catch then there is the decreasing roar as the plane takes off again. Either way, as the pilot hits he pushes his throttle to full power, just in case he misses and has to go around again. So you hear the huge ROAR and scream of the engines every time. Slowing quickly if he catches and turns things down, disappearing in the distance if he misses and goes around again. But the pilots are scored on how well they do, too many misses and he is sent off for remedial landing training again, bad marks on his record. We had several pilots that in hundreds of landings never had to go around. And a few that missed every three tries or so. Rob points to an interesting story in the comments a few posts back. And that was right off the California coast. (no, I’m not pointing to it here. Take some effort and go look for it)

And they have to land every plane that takes off. Or at least they hope to land them. In the Med ours always came back. On the WestPac quite often there were fewer landing than taking off. But that’s what they are paid for, unfortunately. So thirty planes launched in fifteen minutes is followed by thirty planes landing in twenty minutes. Then a pause for it to start all over again, load new bombs and ammunition, check out the planes that just came in, refuel and prep them to go off again.

I don’t know which is louder overall. But to me the landings were most annoying. Good that they were coming back, but you would just be dozing off after a hard shift. You might sleep through the slow buildup as the plane approaches, but you definitely did not sleep through the bang of it crashing on the deck. That’s what it is, a controlled crash of a twenty ton plane at a hundred fifty miles an hour.

Try laying in bed night after night listening to that. Every day at sea, unless you are traveling between places. But that’s the job, it’s not a vacation cruise.

There were places to lounge around. We had tv sets scattered in the rec areas, but usually only one channel with a movie. Now they get satellite TV. You could sit in a soft chair and watch or read or just sit. You could go down to the mess hall for coffee and something to eat. There were regular meal hours, but since everybody worked different jobs there had to be food available whenever people could get away. During flight ops that might be hard to do. On WestPacs they had flight ops every ninety minutes, every day for weeks.

There were stores where you could buy candy or a soda or treats, or books and fancies. Overseas there were big catalogs, and you could by things at really low prices – in the Med everyone came home with fancy cameras and stereo systems. In the Pacific it was motorcycles. Usually the last port on a WestPac was Yokasuka Japan. (pronounced Yo koos ka, at least by the sailors) People ordered motorcycles (at about a quarter the cost stateside, no shipping, tax or profit) and they were loaded on at the last call. So we would return with hundreds of motorcycles parked on the hanger deck.

When in port we would just basically sit around on our duty days. In the Med it was Port and Starboard liberty. You got off every other day. Sometimes duty day was spent on shore patrol. That’s the Navy equivalent of a policeman, only just keeping control of the military guys. I ended up with an armband patrolling Majorca, Spain on that stop, and some time doing the same in Naples, Italy. We had some good ports there – a carrier is a big ship. And letting off two thousand sailors at a time would be quite a hit for anything but a big city. Since we needed a deep port that meant big cities anyway. The destroyers that came with us got to hit the little towns, sometimes places that had not seen an American sailor in many years. We stopped at Barcelona, Majorca, Malta, Naples, Athens, Corfu, Rhodes – yes, a couple of small Greek islands. But deep water right off shore, and docks to put the launches in at.

OK, it was too big to put up all at once. Sorry to make you read all of this, but I guess if you got here you were semi-interested or else you would have clicked elsewhere. Next time, the sea stories, I promise.

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