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Thursday, March 15, 2012

A Storm to Remember

Trying to write quickly brings odd mistakes and "phuny" spellings, which makes me have to backspace and correct like some kind of strange literary dance. My mouth works OK, but my fingers stutter.

The doctor awaits me this morning with sharpened needle and even sharper wit. The end result should be a repaired toe and a return to health in that small area. Time is short and I must endeavor to hurry.

Another round of overcast skies is in our forecast outlook for today in beautiful downtown Fallon. The high is predicted to be 65F and what rain there may be should end by noon. Winds are swinging the dial back and forth between SE and SW at 20mph.Tonight brings more rain and a warm low of 44F.

I wrote this last night and have not had a chance to proof read it so, here's hoping that I didn't make too many (or too obvious) blunders or the grammar police and the punctuation monitors will have my hide.

A Storm to Remember

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 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 experienced all of the described storms and was admittedly jaded in my opinions about what a storm in these waters would be like.

I was comfortable with the rocking of the ship, having sailed the Caribbean with friends in their 45' sailboat and bounced around the Florida coastal waters of the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico all my life. Motion didn't bother me whether it was in a swaying tree, an airplane, hanging from a parachute, or on the water. As I said I was jaded and disbelieving of what my shipmates related to me from their previous experiences as we worked our way across the "pond."

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 and 1,047 feet in length. That wasn't big enough.

I am truly in awe of the sailors on the "small boys", which is naval slang for anything smaller than a battleship or aircraft carrier. The guys on the guided missile cruisers, destroyers, destroyer escorts and supply ships are real seamen and deserve a continuous round of applause for the service they give, under seriously scary conditions. As I continue the story you will understand while I feel that way.

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. I had to call him back, which rarely happened, 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.

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

A helicopter was launched to get an aerial perspective, with my unrequested and frowned up comment, "That's a stupid idea!" getting 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 got me relieved from my chair as the enlisted guy directing operations in the tracking section of the CATCC (Carrier Air Traffic Control Center) and a chief petty officer assumed the chair to suck up to the boss. I was sent back behind the status boards to write backwards on the board viewed by all aviation offices.

The bird, an 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. 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 guys didn't even know that they could do that, but I had learned to manipulate the equipment in the civilian world and knew our equipment from conversing with our technicians every day. He did so and saw 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.

As he was about to reply to me 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 it was one of the greatest feats of airmanship that I ever witnessed for that guy to get that helicopter back on our flight deck without crashing. The flight deck crew couldn't move it from its landing spot and put 28 chains on the aircraft, each going to a separate tiedown point for strength and security.

If you remember, I had stated earlier we were on an 89,000 ton, 1,047 ft long aircraft carrier. Our flight deck is 63 feet above the surface of the water. We were a floating city of 5,000+ with its own airport. This is a big "bathtub" and you felt powerful under usual circumstances. As we sailed north we felt less and less powerful.

If you have been in a small boat in choppy water you know how you get bounced 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 calm.

I was feeling it now as we bounced off of the wall and everything was swinging. 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 as the power of the storm met the steel made by man.

The Aircraft Handler 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.

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, which as I told you, is 63 feet above the surface of the water. The 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 the "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. I saw them 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 storm and didn't lose any human life. There were four injured on the small ships from getting thrown around inside their ships and plenty of metal to repair but everything remained fully functional. That 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 lost my cocky "seen it all" attitude towards the weather. This had truly been a storm to remember!

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