Sunday, March 25, 2012

An Old Sea Story

Cross posted from "The Lexicans."

Just to help kick things off, I’ll share an old sea story. 

Even though I’m Army Guard now, I started my military career in Naval Aviation as an avionics technician (AT) working on the E-2B aircraft.  In 1976 I was attached to VAW-115 aboard the USS Midway.  We were home ported in Yokosuka, Japan, and spent most of our time at sea.  Working day shift was 0700 to 1900 every day and the normal routine was to keep an E-2 in the air continuously during flight ops.  The two years I was on the Midway there was never a day at sea we didn’t fly.  On a couple of occasions we attempted to have stand downs (no fly days) but it was not to be.
This particular day was unusual in that the CO decided that we had been working hard long enough, and declared a stand down.  Very unusual, kind of like a snow day in school.  The air wing was put at “Alert 30″ meaning that you needed to be able to launch on 30 minute notice. Alert 30 was the lowest alert status at sea.

We needed to daily our alert bird and move the air conditioning unit used for maintenance to the hanger deck, so I went up a little early to take care of the preflight.  As I walked past the island I saw a couple of “snipes” – engineering types looking around with wide eyes.  Being that a flight deck is a dangerous place during ops, no one except flight deck personnel were allowed on deck during flight ops.  This was a rare opportunity for these guys to sight see.  I stopped and chatted with them for a few, told them not to cross any yellow and red diagonal lines (danger areas) and not to touch the aircraft.  Even when they’re shut down they can bite.  Thus reassured they went off to explore, and I did my daily inspection.  Once this was done I went over to the air conditioner unit (on wheels, they were normally towed by tractors) and waited for some of the other guys from the shop to come up so we could push it to the elevator.   It was a beautiful morning, and looking out over the flight deck I could see a tech sitting on the wing of an A-6, leaning against the fuselage, resting his eyes, and the two snipes rubbernecking back on the angle deck looking at the F-4′s and A-7′s.  They were the only people in sight, and it was so quiet you could hear the steam hissing from the catapults.  This was one of those moments you remember.  A quiet morning at sea was a rare event.

Rare enough that apparently the Soviets noticed we weren’t doing flight ops as was normal, and decided to send a Tu-95 Bear out to see what was up.  Maybe we had an engineering casualty, i.e., the motor broke, or something.  Of course, our radar pickets noticed the Bear at extreme range – the Bear has a radar cross section roughly the size of Detroit – and warned the task force.
A word is in order here on that whole alert status thing.  As I mentioned, alert 30 was the default for everyone.  Alert 15 had crews suited up in the ready room.  Most often this was the duty KA-6 tanker.  The alert 5 was normally two F-4′s parked on the catapult, crews aboard and the air start unit plugged in and ready to go.  When we weren’t in flight quarters it was normal to have two F-4s on alert 5 and a tanker on alert 15.

So here we are in alert 30 with a Bear coming in.  I would like to know what was actually said on the bridge.  I think they meant to say “Set and launch the Alert 5!” which would have gotten a couple of interceptors up as quickly as possible.  What was said over the 1MC (PA system to non swabbies) was “Launch the Alert 30!”  Uh-Oh…  that translates to launch everything that will fly, as soon as you can.  I’m sure the bridge immediately realized what was going to happen, but what the heck, this ought to be interesting.

It was beautiful on the flight deck.  Remember that idyllic scene I described a moment ago? The first thing to happen was a single “huffer” (tractor and air start unit) comes out of it’s staging area at high speed with it’s turbine winding up.  People are now coming out of the woodwork, crews are manning up, aircraft are starting and it’s a race to see who could get the the catapult first.  As it turns out, that was the air conditioning unit we were pushing to the elevator.  Taxiing behind us is an A-7 who got started before anyone else.  As we get to the elevator the A-7 takes the starboard cat and I hear the Air Boss yelling “Get those snipes below deck!”  Those poor guys must have been terrified, and when you’re standing in the middle of the deck it’s not obvious where the exits are.

We cleared the deck in a little over 30 minutes, and I’m sure the Soviets were impressed.  Since we had gone to the trouble, we went ahead and flew the rest of day as well.  You know, that was kind of fun.

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