Sunday, February 26, 2006

How I turned an Aircraft Carrier around.

I was all of 19 and I had been in the US Navy for 2 years before I boarded my first ship, the Aircraft Carrier USS Saratoga. The ship was home ported in Mayport, FL and I was a member of aircraft squadron VAQ 136 in Carrier Air Wing 5 and had been part of the squadron's forward team assigned to get our spaces ready for the rest of the squadron personnel.

The Saratoga was preparing for Mediterranean deployment scheduled for the fall of 1979 and it was now summer.

As part of the work-ups, the ship would regularly hold “man over board” drills where they would throw a dummy called “Oscar” over the side and wait for someone to spot it and call a drill.

Now, I don’t know if it was because I was goofing off a lot or coincidence but I happened to be around a lot when the sailors threw the dummy over the side.

The first time I warned the guys I was working with and before we could even get together the 1MC public address system would blare horns and messages about a “man over board" and same thing happened the second time.

We would gather in the Squadron's ready room, take a head count and report to the ships' bridge that we were all present and accounted for. In the mean time the sea and air rescue helicopters would start to turn on the flight deck as the search began for "Oscar".

The third time however, was a little different.

I was somewhere on the 03 level, just below the flight deck when I saw two guys throw “Oscar” through an opening to the blue Caribbean ocean.

I told the guys I was working with “I saw Oscar again” and they sort of laughed and we all headed to the squadron ready room to await the announcement. I got our 9 or 10 guys together and we are waiting, and waiting, and waiting.

Finally the officer in charge, tells me “You are going to have to call it in” and after some scrambling on procedure we decide that I have to call the bridge and the conversation goes like this:

Bridge: Bridge, USS Saratoga
Me: I saw you throw oscar over the side.
Bridge: What?
Me: I saw you throw Oscar over the side, you know the man overboard dummy.
Bridge: Get up here right away.

Now I should give a little background on what it takes to enter an operating US Navy ship bridge because it is a procedure long in tradition and short in sensibility.

You are to be in full working uniform including a cover or hat. You are to take three steps forward to a particular spot on the bridge and ask “Permission to enter the bridge, sir”. Sort of like “mother may I” but with costumes. The officer of the bridge then grants you permission to enter the bridge.

Needless to say, after 8 days on board the ship, this was a procedure I had only heard about from afar.

So now I have to:
  • Get my hat, since you don’t have a hat at sea.
  • Find the bridge.
  • Play “Mother may I’ and get on the bridge.
The horns blare and the 1MC comes to life: “Man Overboard, Man Overboard!” “This is not a drill”


I can’t find my hat. This is not uncommon if you know me. I regularly can’t find my keys, watch, employee badge, wallet etc. Now, finding something misplaced is normally stressful when you are in a hurry but when 17 billion dollars of US Government hardware is waiting for you to find your hat, it can become unbearable.

I report back to our LT (jg)  “I can’t find my hat”. He asks "who has a hat for him?"
Now given the randomness of the size of people's heads and all the available hat sizes, what is the chance that this hat will actually fit on my head?

The hat is too small.

The captain and the crew of the USS Saratoga are waiting.

I wear the tiny hat.

Next I have to navigate the passage ways of the Saratoga. Not only do I not really know where I am going but now the entire ship is scrambling to get counted. Now there are special traffic rules in place on a ship in an alarm like this. I can’t really remember it now but it is something like “Port forward and Starboard Aft” meaning to get to the stern of the ship, use the Starboard passage ways.

Complications to say the least.

I remember climbing a lot of ladders and the finally I find the bridge and proceed on to the bridge.

I take my three giant steps forward and on my right, out of the corner of my eye I see the captain, sitting in his big James T Kirk chair and behind him I see SH-3 helicopters rotors starting to turn on the flight deck.

Not good.

I mumble “Permission to enter the bridge sir”.

The captain doesn’t say anything, he just waves his hand motioning me forward. I’m thinking “That’s it? I don’t even get a Yes You May?”

The captain asks me “tell me exactly what you saw”.

I can now see that the giant ship is in a great turn.

I start into my story about how I saw the seamen throw Oscar over the side two times before etc etc.

I can see he is not really in story mood so I cut to today.
“I saw men throw Oscar over the side on the 03 level”.

He thinks about it for a minute or two and explains that no drill was planned for today and that perhaps I saw men throwing trash over the side instead of from the stern where they were supposed to.
My small hat and I were dismissed and I went back to the ready room

And that is how I turned an aircraft carrier around.

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