Saturday, February 10, 2018

Naval Station Norfolk

I never wondered how it feels to be shot out of a cannon. But now I know.

The C-2 Greyhound, a twin-engine, propeller-driven cargo/troop carrier, accelerates from 0 to 150 miles per hour in less than two seconds, driven by an aircraft carrier catapult. The Navy calls this plane a COD (Carrier Onboard Delivery). CODs have been in service about 40 years.

The takeoff culminated a four day tour of Naval Station Norfolk, the largest navy base in the world. Naval Air Force Atlantic Public Affairs sent invitations to various news media. When I saw the email, I jumped at the chance. (A Board of Inquiry is probably trying to figure out how I got invited.) I was the only newspaper representative. All other participants came from television stations, with camera crews. I took my own photos, unless otherwise indicated.

We were issued loaner uniforms. ABH2 Marque Graves helped me get fitted out. ABH indicates that he is an Aviation Boatswain's Mate Handler; the 2 signifies that he’s a 2nd Class Petty Officer. Graves is from Greensboro, a 2004 graduate of Dudley High School. Both his parents and grandparents served in the Army; he is the first in his family to join the Navy. He was attracted by educational opportunities, a chance to travel the world, and to experience better career alternatives than just working a job. He has been in the Navy nearly six years.

One of his duties is Crash and Salvage Specialist on the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77). This involves firefighting, pilot rescue, salvage, shutting down damaged aircraft, and clearing the deck in case of a mishap.

“The deck has to be cleared immediately,” he explains. “There might be 20 more birds in the air that need to land. We’re at sea. They have no place else to go. We hope we are never needed. In five and a half years, we have never had a crash, never had a fire. But we are always ready if something does happen. Everyone on my team knows how to shut down the engine, raise the canopy, get the pilot out, clear the landing deck. We all cross train. We have specialties, but all of us can do anyone else’s job.”

PHOTO: ABH2 Marque Graves, photo provided by Marque Graves

Most of Day 1 was devoted to orientation and safety training. We learned about aviation physiology and what appears to be the universal treatment: whatever goes wrong, breathe pure oxygen. Multiple presentations spanned the day, ending around 6:30. As one of the presenters remarked, “This visit is intended to show you what Navy life is like. One of the things you have to do if you’re in the Navy is sit through a lot of PowerPoint presentations.”

The other half of the day was devoted to Aviation Water Survival training. This is the same course, at the basic level, that pilots undergo, required for anyone who flies on a Navy helicopter. Training develops egress skills- how to get out of a helicopter that is sinking and how to survive in the water.

We learned a modified breast stroke and side stroke, then swam 25 yards using these techniques. Next, they taught the Navy way to tread water, followed by drown-proofing: breathe deeply, go face down in the water, slowly breathe out, raise your head out of the water, breathe in, then repeat, using your inflated lungs to keep you afloat. These techniques have been tailored to expend minimal energy while awaiting rescue.

Once instructors approved our performance, we emerged from the water, donned flight suits (full length coveralls, fire-retardant cloth), lace up boots, and helmet. The rest of the training was conducted while fully clothed in this equipment.

First, repeat the four techniques. Then, standing in water about chest deep, bend over and find a metal rod on the bottom, grab it with your left hand, pull hand-over-hand to the end of the rod, turn the upper and lower right hatch latch with your right hand, then change hands and open the upper and lower left latches. Push out the hatch, swim through, and float to the surface. After everyone completes the task, we all climb into a life raft (not easy- these things are big).

In the helicopter rescue simulation, huge nozzles spray an unbelievable quantity of water, driven by big fans. From a tower about 30 feet tall, a line with a harness is lowered. Wait until the line is in the water (to avoid a static electricity discharge through your body), grab the end, kick your feet so you rotate 360 degrees, latch the harness, fold your arms over your chest, and relax while you are hoisted to the top of the tower. Lie back, allow the harness to be released, roll over, find the bar, grab it, stand up, and climb down.

Then things start to be a lot of fun. Instructors strap you into a helicopter type seat with a five point harness (over the shoulders, around the waist, between the legs) with a window nearby. They flip the seat upside down. Wait until you are fully inverted (feet straight up in the air, head under the water), release the harness, find the window, swim through, and float to the surface.

In the final activity, everyone loads into a simulated helicopter cabin and straps in. The cabin rises about 15 feet, then drops into the water and rotates. (They explained that this is what usually happens when a helicopter crashes into the water). At the halfway point, I was completely under water, on my side, while other members of the crew were hanging above, face down. Then the cabin continues rotating until everyone is completely inverted. You have to have the discipline to sit still and orient yourself during the rotation process. After the cabin comes to a rest, upside down, you find the nearest hatch or window, open it, swim through, and float to the surface.

Instructors told me that I am the oldest person who has ever completed this training. More advanced levels repeat the same activities while blindfolded, and once more in pitch dark with huge speakers blaring thunder and strobe lights flashing to simulate lightning, in cold water and high winds. (We were not required to complete the advanced levels. OK by me!)

PHOTO: John Batchelor Experiencing Simulated Helicopter Rescue

With safety qualifications in hand, the second day was devoted to Navy aviation.

The first place we visited was Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 28, the “Dragon Whales.” We met helicopter pilots in the morning. Navy military helicopter missions include Search and Rescue (all helicopter flights carry one Sailor who is rescue swimmer qualified), Vertical Replenishment (carrying supplies to ships), Medical Evacuation/Transport, Casualty Evacuation (in combat), Special Operations Support, Maritime Interdiction (finding and catching smugglers and pirates), and Anti-Submarine and Surface Warfare (with rockets and other weapons systems attached).

Civil operations are important as well. During Hurricane Harvey in Texas, for example, helicopters from the squadron we visited rescued 142 people, 8 dogs, and 2 cats. Other squadrons are credited with more than 300 human rescues during that storm.

PHOTO: AWS2 Jansen Schamp, photo by AWS2 Johnson

Pilots from HSC-28 flew us about an hour over the base and uptown Norfolk, along Virginia Beach, and back around the docks at the base. My flight was uneventful, given the experience of sitting next to a large open door at 500-1000 feet. (We wore flight suits and helmets, strapped in.) But on the next flight, other members of the media group found their serenity interrupted by abrupt up/down figure 8 maneuvers as the pilot dodged a drone that some irresponsible idiot was flying at more than double the allowable altitude. (“We have frequent problems with drones and lasers,” one of the pilots remarked, tersely.) I cannot imagine how anyone could think endangering the lives of others is recreational.

While visiting the helicopter squadron, I met AMAN Anthony Wayne Collins of Asheboro, an Eastern Randolph graduate. His rank is Airman, and he works as an Aircraft Structural Mechanic. Collins was attracted to the Navy because he “got tired of working regular jobs and saw the Navy as a career.” He and his wife now live in Norfolk; he is in his first year of a four year enlistment.

Collins likes Navy life. “I have friends from just about every state. You go through fun times as well as difficulties together. In tough times you support each other, you support families. There’s a real sense of team work. We help each other do our jobs. Everybody is here for a reason- basically in the context of a bigger picture, but also to support each other.”

He has a special interest in food. He and family have always loved coming to Greensboro to eat at Ghassan’s on Battleground Avenue. “Those people are just super nice. Kahlil- every time we come in, he’s just, ’How are you, how’s the family?’” Paw Paw’s Place in Randleman is the other family favorite. “Just the best burgers ever.”

His summary comment, directed toward other people his age: “If you want to experience new things, learn new things, have a new adventure every single day, this [joining the Navy] is how you do it.”

PHOTO: AMAN Anthony Wayne Collins

From helicopters, we migrated to jet fighters. (They would not let media personnel fly on jet fighters, at least not on this trip. I put in a request.) The Navy flies several versions of the F/A-18, depending on their age. The F/A-18 is the primary strike fighter aircraft for the Navy. It is fully capable of air-to-air combat and supporting troops on the ground.

LT Mark Garcia, a weapons systems officer (WSO) explained that after a certain number of missions, your name is inscribed on a plane, but it’s not strictly “your” plane. Pilots and WSOs are assigned a “call sign,” or nickname, during training or early in their careers. “It’s based on recognizing that you’ve done something awesome, or more likely, something really stupid. It’s hardly ever something you like,” he explains.

A typical mission lasts 7-8 hours. “We fly off the carrier from somewhere in the Mediterranean. After about 1.5 hours, we refuel from an airborne tanker, then proceed to station where we provide air support to ground troops. We refuel again before returning to the carrier.”

PHOTO: LT Mark Garcia and an F18 at rest

On the third day, we flew out to USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) on the COD. Landing on a carrier requires a deck arresting line catch from a tail hook on the plane. I perceived the landing (150 mph to stop in about 2 seconds) to be even more jarring than the catapult assisted takeoff. Neither experience felt frightening. It happens too fast to get scared.

PHOTO: Grumman C2 Greyhound (COD) landing on carrier, defense media network photo

My first impression: standing on the flight deck, looking around- this thing is unbelievably big- over a thousand feet long and about 20 stories tall. Down a level, inside, it looks even bigger- the hangar is capable of holding about 70 aircraft. For most of our visit, we experienced 60+ knot winds over the bow and 8-10 foot waves, with moderate to heavy rain. The official top speed of the Lincoln is 30+ knots. I asked how fast it can really go. “Really fast,” was the reply. They don’t have to worry about running out of fuel. A nuclear powered aircraft carrier is scheduled to operate 50 years, with a refuel and refit after the first 25.

They can takeoff (launch) and land (recover) planes in any weather, day or night. One sailor termed the launch and recovery process “a beautiful symphony of chaos.” The coordination is so precise, the crew can launch a plane every 30 seconds and land an aircraft every 45 seconds.

PHOTO: FA-18, USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN72) flyover, Navy photo

For the next two days, we had full access to the ship. We were escorted everywhere we went, simply because it’s impossible to avoid getting lost. We were not, of course, allowed into secure areas. Members of the crew let Public Affairs know they were from areas where The [Greensboro, NC] News and Record circulates and volunteered for interviews, explaining what they do and how they fit into the ship’s operations.

LM1 Lucas Mabe, an Asheboro native, is a first-class Petty Officer who works as a legal assistant. He explained that as many as 4500-5000 personnel can be onboard a carrier, and with that many people, “It’s a small town. There is a legal department on board ship, with two attorneys. The Navy provides more advanced legal services on base, such as adoption papers, but we provide some lower level services, such as wills, power of attorney, and other documents before deployment. Most of our responsibility, however, involves prosecution of moderate violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, offenses that are not serious enough to go to Court Martial.” Offenses may or may not be criminal. For example, repeated failure to maintain physical fitness requirements will eventually result in mandatory separation from service.

LM1 Mabe started out as an electrician, but electricians were surplus when he came up for reenlistment. They gave him a list of jobs that were needed, and he picked legal assistant. He has been in the Navy for 15 years and credits military life for career opportunities, adventure, travel, camaraderie, as well as decent income. “Any young person who is not too sure about a career path should definitely look into the armed forces. The Navy has been good to me.”

PHOTO: LM1 Lucas Mabe

Commander Meghan Forehand Williams, a Naval Academy graduate, is the Lincoln’s Safety Officer. She spent her first 15 years in the Navy as a helicopter pilot. Originally from Vacaville, California, she has completed 20 years of service and is retiring this spring. She met her husband, Greg, who was in the Army Special Forces, in Germany. His family owns Rolling Acres dairy farm in Randolph County, and they are buying the family farm. They intend to raise bees and also build an event center.

On the ship, “We manage 23 programs to prevent injuries, enforcing anything from sight and hearing protection, monitoring hazardous materials, and off-duty safety, to environmental compliance. This is a war machine, but it’s also an industrial facility. We take death and destruction to the enemy, but the tools we use, handled incorrectly, can bring death and destruction to us. There’s a couple million gallons of jet fuel on board, for example. There are a lot of ways to trip and fall. Paint that was applied at home with no particular provisions can become volatile in an enclosed environment. So we make sure everyone on the ship is conscious of safety procedures and equipment.

“I have seen some amazing things in the Navy. Except for an Atlantic crossing and the Suez Canal, I think I’ve been everywhere on the planet, such as the absolutely insane experience of going around South America through the Straits of Magellan. I’ve had liberty all over the world- South American, Australia, Guam, Japan, all over Asia and Europe.”

PHOTO: Commander Meghan Forehand Williams

ABH1 Adam Brewer (Aviation Boatswain’s Mate Handler First Class) has been in the Navy 11 years. He joined right after graduation from Asheboro High School. He had been admitted to college, but decided the Navy was the best fit. Going into the Navy “was the best decision I’ve ever made. I would never have had the opportunity to meet these guys [gesturing to other maintenance personnel in the room]. I enjoy going to sea. There are just so many different people, from all walks of life. I’ve got friends from California, New Jersey, everywhere.” His team maintains equipment- everything from cranial helmets and float coats to toilets. He also directs the movement of aircraft on the flight deck and in the Hangar Bay. One tricky part of his job is parking and placement of jets on one of the ship’s four aircraft elevators.

PHOTO: ABH1 Adam Brewer

ABEAN (Aviation Boatswain's Mate (Equipment) Airman) Thomas Whaley grew up in Germantown, near Winston-Salem. He enlisted for five years straight out of South Stokes High School, after graduating in 2015. He lived on a farm and helped build race cars. His wrestling coach influenced him toward the military. Part of his duty involves tool control. “We issue tools, but we have to keep up with them and make sure we get them back. We know where every tool on this ship is located. We check inventory every day. If anything is missing, we find it.”

He also works with a lot of big machinery. “It’s pretty dangerous. A lot can go wrong. If an arresting cable breaks, for example, that’s going to be a really bad day. Steam from the catapult can cause bad burns. Can you imagine what a small screwdriver would do if it got inside the air intake on a jet? The Navy does a great job of teaching us how to do things safely.”

PHOTO: ABEAN Thomas Whaley

Gunner’s Mate First Class Nathan Coffey has been in the Navy almost twelve years. He “joined to see the world.” He grew up in Greensboro, but graduated from Reidsville High School. He was part of the delayed entry program, actually enlisting before he was old enough to go to boot camp. “I was ready to go. I was in Marine ROTC for four years, but then a Navy recruiter showed up and told us we could get pizza in boot camp, so I was sold.”

“Within eight years, I had been to fourteen countries and every state in the US. I’ve re-enlisted three times. I’ll be in for 20 years, maybe more. I am a weapons technician. I maintain everything from 9 millimeter pistols to five inch guns to vertical launch systems (missiles). I’ve shot just about every weapon that’s ever been designed.”

“If you want job security and the best potential to raise a family, the Navy provides it. Being out to sea is rough on the family, but when you’re back in port, family time is that much sweeter.” He and his wife have two children.

PHOTO: Gunner’s Mate First Class Nathan Coffey

I came away with several very positive impressions. Above all, the Navy setting exemplifies the concept of what America historically has been about, blending different races, ethnicities, and genders in roles based on dedication, hard work, effective training, and opportunities for advancement. Sailors’ perceptions of each other grow almost exclusively out of how well they do their jobs. Whether or not they like each other as individuals, they know how to interact with respect and cooperation. There is an obvious sense of rank. Institutional procedures are strictly followed, but I perceived mutual interdependence growing out of recognition that success at every level depends on solid performance from everyone else.

We met commanding officer Captain Putnam H. Browne and the Executive Officer (XO), Captain Amy Bauernschmidt (the first female carrier XO), both Naval Academy graduates, as well as Command Master Chief James W. Stedding (the highest ranking enlisted sailor on the ship). Captain Bauernschmidt flew helicopters in combat against Al Queda and the Taliban.

PHOTO: Captain Amy Bauernschmidt, Executive Officer

Every day, on every Navy ship, sailors clean. On the Lincoln, this time is called “XO’s Power Hour.” The XO inspects everything. One exchange illustrates the mutual respect I perceived.

“Female in the head,” the XO called out as we entered a male toilet area (head).

“Yes, Ma’am,” replied the sailors, snapping to attention.

“Sailor, the area you are working on looks great.”

“My mother taught me how to clean, XO, that’s why I’m so good at it.”

“Well, your mother and the Navy can both be proud of you this morning.”

I felt proud (and fortunate) to have met these Naval personnel and to have seen the operation of an aircraft carrier in person.

UPDATE March 6, 2018

This link goes to a shorter version of this story, as published in The News and Record:

These links are from WUNC (PBS- Chapel Hill) and WSLS (Roanoke) television stations. Their reporters/anchors and camera crews participated at the same time I did.


WSLS: "Getting Suited Up"

"Survival Training" is a hoot! I'm the one in the tan flight suit.

"Helos" In this clip, we fly around Norfolk and VA Beach in a Navy helicopter.

"Flight to the Carrier" We fly from the base in Norfolk to the carrier.

"Life on a Carrier" We spent the weekend on board USS Abraham Lincoln.

Other Recommended videos: (Abraham Lincoln (CVN72) performs high speed turns) (F18 landing on Abraham Lincoln) (F18 landings and takeoffs on Abraham Lincoln) (“In COD we trust”) (COD takeoff ) (COD landing/trap on carrier)

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