Potholes and Attitudes

Potholes and Attitudes 

We have all experienced a violent storm of some kind; torrential downpours, sandstorms, violent electrical storms both wet and dry, hurricanes, and even tornadoes. One thing that they all have in common is their humbling power. Humans are so puny in comparison. 

When I sailed to the North Atlantic Ocean aboard the USS America (CV-66) in 1982 for joint NATO exercises United Effort and Northern Wedding 82, I had already experienced all of these described storms. I would say that I was admittedly jaded in my opinions about what a storm in these waters would be able to show me.

I was comfortable with the rocking of the ship, which being 1,047 feet in length and a displacement of 89,000 tons wasn’t much, most of the time. Growing up I had bounced around the Florida coastal waters of the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico in every conceivable kind of small craft. Motion generally didn’t bother me, whether it was in a swaying tree, or an airplane, hanging from a parachute, or on the water.

My shipmates related tales of “big water” and violent storms that rattled the ship on previous deployments, but I had not experienced any of it, yet. I had heard many of their varied stories on a range of topics as we worked our way across the “pond.” It was hard to tell what was BS meant to rattle new guys, and what was just exaggeration. They were quite good at both.

The men (and now women) who serve on the “small boys” (which is naval slang for anything smaller than a battleship or aircraft carrier) are amazing. The crews on the guided missile cruisers, destroyers, destroyer escorts and supply ships are real seamen and deserve admiration for the service they give, under seriously scary conditions.

On the day that the storm began, I was working on our position plotting chart, which we updated every fifteen minutes. That chart was used for planning flight evolutions and airspace clearances. Airspace is not as simple as you might think. Some countries claim three miles from their shore line, some the international standard twelve miles, others a ridiculous two hundred miles. You have to know and abide by the rules of the area.
As we approached the west coast of Ireland, the Captain turned the ship to a heading of north by slightly northeast making for a passage to the east of Iceland, and west of the Faroe Islands. It was as we turned to that heading, that I got a message from the Navigator with heading updates and projected weather problems that didn’t look right.
I knew that I had to call him back, something which I rarely did as we worked well together as we plotted ship positions and headings for our flight operations. But, this had to be a mistake; his message said 70 mph winds and 40 ft seas expected. 

To be sure, I wasn’t the only one calling about that message, but the “Gator” was a great guy and gave me a minute of his time. He repeated the information and said that we had better tie everything down because it was going to get rough. That would prove to be one of the greatest understatements of my naval service. 

The original plan had been to conduct flight operations as soon as we got within range of Ireland (so there would be an alternate landing spot should we have a need for that) but this plan was quickly being modified. 

A helicopter was ordered to be launched to get an aerial perspective of conditions. That order was met with my unrequested and frowned up comment, “That’s a stupid idea!” Saying that got me into instant trouble with the Air Operations Boss, who turned to me and said, “It’s the Admiral’s idea!” Already in trouble for speaking up and unable to keep my mouth shut I added, “Stupid is stupid, wherever it comes from.”

That little tirade got me relieved from my chair as the enlisted guy directing operations in the tracking section of the CATCC (Carrier Air Traffic Control Center.) A chief petty officer assumed the chair to suck up to the boss and try to make it all better. I was sent back behind the status boards to write backwards on the board viewed via ship’s TV in all aviation offices. 

The H-3 helicopter was given the green light and lifted off the deck as we watched on the TV. It nearly crashed on the deck from the wind encountered immediately upon lifting. I really don’t know how the pilot held it together. They went out of sight below the flight deck momentarily and I found that I had been holding my breath until it reappeared on camera, going sideways and struggling to gain some altitude to get away from the raging ocean waves.

We were steaming directly into the storm and a violent rain was just ahead of us. I yelled out to one of the guys in the radar room to flatten the angle on his radar and look at the storm cell. These navy controllers didn’t even know that they could do that. I had learned to manipulate the equipment in the civilian world and knew the onboard equipment from conversing with our technicians every day.
One brave individual risked being fussed at by our boss and did as I suggested and saw that the cell was massive and very dense. I yelled out to the Air Ops Boss that he had better recall that helicopter, or we would lose them for sure. 

As he was about to yell at me for daring to speak up, we heard the pilot telling the Air Boss up in the small tower attached to the superstructure of the ship, that he had to land now or they were going to end up in the water. Permission was granted immediately and we witnessed one of the greatest feats of airmanship that I had ever seen. I am still not sure how that guy managed to get his helicopter back on our flight deck without crashing. 

Once on deck, the flight deck crew couldn’t move it from its landing spot and put 28 chains on the aircraft, each going to a separate tie down point for strength and security. The flight crewmen were each grabbed by other men with safety lines on them, as they exited the helicopter, as the wind was blowing them off their feet.

I had mentioned that we were on an 89,000 ton, 1,047 ft long aircraft carrier. Our flight deck was 63 feet above the surface of the water. The ship was a floating city of 5,000+ with its own airport. This was a very big vessel and under usual circumstances you felt kind of dominating, like you owned the sea. As we sailed north we felt less and less powerful and in control of our world. 

If you have been in a small boat in choppy water you know how you get bounced all around and go up and down, and side to side. I had never felt that on this big ship as we steamed around the oceans and seas encountering storms in the Caribbean and Atlantic, and definitely not in the Mediterranean where the weather is generally calm. 

I was feeling it now, as we bounced off of the wall and everything around us was dancing like during an earthquake. If you have ever ridden in the back of a pickup truck going fast down a gravel road full of potholes and had a driver that found all of the big ones, you would be there. A few times the ship shuddered like we hit something solid (like an island), but it was just big waves.

To stay in one spot I had to brace myself between the wall and the status boards as we waited for instructions and to see what the storm would bring. Sailors who had “seen it all” were headed for a toilet or a trashcan to lose their lunch. We could feel the mighty ship shudder repeatedly as the power of the storm met the steel made by man. 

The Aircraft Handler (responsible for the physical positioning of planes on deck) had a full crew tying down aircraft all over the ship. They did the flight deck first; putting extra chains on everything parked there, and then went to the hanger deck and put more chains on the stuff inside. If it could move, they secured it. Everyone required to work outside, had safety lines on them. Several were knocked off of their feet and would have gone over the side if not for those ropes.

The TV camera operator was on the job in the Flight Tower up on the island (superstructure) and kept the film rolling as we progressed. The room was silent as we watched waves breaking over the flight deck, some 63 feet above the surface of the water. The steel catwalks on either side of the bow were peeled back from the hull like they were so much rolled up paper, for about 20 feet before that stopped and the rivets and welds held. 

Remember those “small boys” described earlier? They were in the same water as we were and their size would be like a “big wheel” tricycle next to a semi with a 70 foot trailer, in comparison to the aircraft carrier. Those ships were in and out of visibility on the TV screen as the camera man attempted to track each one of them to make sure they were still with us and on the surface.

One of our submarine hunting sonar men next door said he could hear the ships “screaming” as they were twisted and tormented by the storm’s power.
I saw the smaller ships sliding down waves with their vertical axis horizontal and beyond. If you take a toy ship and turn it out its side and then tilt it even a bit more, that is what the sailors on those ships were dealing with. That is why they have hand rails on the ceilings and everything is fastened in place. Their operating position chairs have seatbelts and they use them.
Imagine trying to play “Angry Birds” while you are on a rollercoaster. And the ride keeps going on and on and you can’t quit playing for hours, even if you want to. 

Now just for giggles, consider the Vikings in their tiny craft facing these same waters. OMG indeed! 

We rode out the huge storm and didn’t lose any human life. There were four men injured on the small boys from getting thrown around inside their ships, and plenty of metal to repair, but everything remained fully functional.

Surviving the storm with all ships still combat ready, made our little rooster of an admiral strut around like the ridiculous person that he was and brag about what he could do with our battle group. 

The rest of us knew that we had faced Mother Nature’s fury and were lucky that she didn’t feel like drowning us all that day, because we felt her power and knew that she could have done so. I completely lost my cocky “seen it all” attitude towards the weather. This had truly been a storm to remember! 

For those who travel by sea, September is a month to avoid when you plan your trip to go around the British Isles if you happen to be in anything smaller than 89,000 tons… that wasn’t big enough.

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