Sunday, August 31, 2008

What a boat!

Alex and Christina rented a Jeep Commander for their drive down here because they needed to move her into a new apartment before they left Boston. Wisely they took my car to drive down to Philly to go to church and visit some friends this morning. So I just took their rental for a little spin to the Wawa to see how it feels and handles.

What a boat! No, I take that back. What a land ship!

Not wanting to scratch it I parked a reasonable seeming distance from the bollards at the Wawa based on the view over the hood. After I got out I saw that I was almost five feet away from those bollards.

Reminds me of driving the aircraft carrier. We had to remember that, from our position on the bridge, when a sailboat disappeared under the loom of the flight deck dead ahead it was almost 600 feet in front of the bow. Not that it mattered much. Sailboats and cabin cruisers and suchlike only disappeared dead ahead under the loom of the flight deck when we were going out of San Francisco in the deep channel just to the right of the center of the Golden Gate Bridge. We weren't going to maneuver to avoid them even if the bow lookout warned that one of them was about to be pulped.

None of them ever was pulped, at least when I was driving, but that used to be an interesting time. Most interesting was observing how slow the pleasure boats were actually going when they were torqued up to the max trying to keep up with us as we accelerated after going under the bridge. Twenty knots, and almost all of them were falling behind. Twenty five knots, and they were planing, the ones that could. Thirty knots, and all but the slim racing boats were lagging.

Most times we continued at thirty knots until we were a hundred miles or so off shore, all the racing boats having long since dropped away from lack of fuel. Then we would come around to whatever course and make whatever speed we needed to to maintain thirty knots of wind down the angle deck while we recovered our eighty or so aircraft, which would fly out from the shore base they went to before the ship pulled into port.

If the recovery operation went smoothly, within eighty minutes or so, all would be sweetness and light. If it went not so smooth the Captain's face would get redder and redder as the minutes passed and we would know that the next day would see a lot of drills for the flight deck crew and a round of visits to the bridge for quiet little chewing outs of the commanders of the offending squadrons. If there were too many exciting incidents, incidents like landing signal officers saying one too many times or a little too shrilly, "power, power, power!," or "left rudder, left rudder, left rudder!" or "wave off! wave off!" the Captain's head would look like it was about to explode with a bang louder than the bang of each of the aircraft as it hit the deck. The next week or so would be exhausting, drills at all hours of the day and night, practicing, practicing, practicing until he was satisfied - not that he was ever truly satisfied.

Every carrier landing is a potential disaster as a hundred thousand pound aircraft hits the deck at over a hundred miles an hour and is decelerated to a stop in a couple of hundred feet, especially once the bow is filled with parked aircraft. And don't even think about the possibilities when planes are landing one per minute while others are being refueled and armed with bombs and rockets and proceeding to the bow catapults one per minute to be launched.

On the port wing of the bridge we had a red control panel shaped like the flight deck with buttons, each of which could nearly instantly douse the part of the real flight deck near where they were on the toy flight deck with fire fighting foam and salt water. We had had a long lecture about the financial effects of such a dousing on the electronics and such of multi-million dollar aircraft when we were indoctrinated in the use of that system. Following that lecture the Captain had told us that we should not for a moment hesitate to push one, or as many of those buttons as he told us to, if he should ever tell us to. Further he told us that we shouldn't hesitate for a moment to push one or as many of those buttons as we thought necessary in the event we ever saw fire on the flight deck, even if he was occupied with other things and hadn't yet told us to.

Thirty knots was about as fast as we ever went when I was driving, or even when I was on the bridge and just observing before the Captain approved me to drive. I was aboard when we went faster, during the sea trials we went through just after coming out of the shipyard, but I wasn't on the bridge during that day. The bridge was packed with senior officers that day and I was a very raw Ensign then, still sometimes a bit unsure which way lead toward the pointy end of the ship and which way lead toward the blunt end of the ship in the interior passageways. Not that I ever let the sailors in my deck division ever know I wasn't utterly confident.

Admiral Rickover himself was aboard on the day of the sea trials. He was personally on the bridge when they tested the ship's acceleration from dead in the water to it's maximum attainable speed and then tested its maximum ability to decelerate by executing an all back emergency engine order. I was on the fantail during that test. It's probably the only way in life to get an appreciation of just how much force a team of 120,000 horses all pulling as hard as they can in one direction can exert. The fantail was bouncing, actually bouncing, under the strain - hard to believe thick steel can flex enough to allow that kind of bouncing. The whole of the hundred thousand ton ship was vibrating and shivering so much that you moved around on the deck like one of those little men on the vibrating football game board if you stood flatfooted.

Update - When I qualified as officer of the deck a few months later after a grilling about ship handling and safery procedures and such by the Captain and all the department heads in his sea cabin up behind the bridge the Captain congratulated me with some words he clearly relished. "Congratulations Mr. A. . ., You are now a qualified Officer of the Deck of the largest warship in the history of the world. Report to Mr. B on the bridge and relieve him of the watch." Reflecting on it later I became sure he was appointed to command of that ship with those same words. They were true at the time.

The Reagan class carriers outweigh the Enterprise by a few thousand tons nowadays. But they aren't faster! As the first nuclear powered carrier, built in the 1950's with cost no object, Enterprise was way overbuilt, especially the engineering plant with its eight reactors and four engine rooms.

For you non-Navy types, Officer of the Deck is Mr. Sulu's job in Starship Enterprise. I never fail to get a little thrill when Captain Kirk orders, "Warp Speed, Mr. Sulu." And I'm one of the few Star Trek watchers who always remember that Mr. Sulu is still up there on the bridge of Enterprise keeping a sharp watch in charge of the ship while Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock are back in the engine room or transporter room with Scotty, or playing tourist down on the planet with Bones and whatever crewman is going to be vaporized by the aliens.

No comments: