Vultures Row: March 1987

March 1987

March 1987

It was hot, not in the sense that it was uncomfortable, but hot and muggy in the sense that you know it’s only going to make your two month old case of athlete’s foot just another days worse.  Sweat was flowing form every pour and the blue long sleeve flight deck jersey was already off and tied around my waist.  My float coat was rubbing my skin raw, but it had to be on at night.  It was just after three in the morning and I was chewing on my whistle.  I was bored, tired and ready to start the FD SCRUBEX or as it would be explained to a friend months later, the nightly flight deck scrubbing exercise.  The SCRUBEX was the reason I had the foot fungus so bad that my feet bled daily.  

We were in the Gulf of Oman going on 80 days and I was on night check.  We came up an hour before the last recovery of the day’s flight schedule and helped day check put in the nightly maintenance spot.  After that we moved the birds around the flight deck as needed.   Every other day we would start the SCRUBEX, the days we didn’t scrub we would re-painted the VLA. Visual Landing Aids are the White, Yellow and Red lines painted all over the deck to let pilots and the deck crews know what was safe and what wasn’t.  After eighteen hours of flight ops a day too much rubber from the tiers, too much hydraulic fluid, and a few cups of coffee being spilled all took its toll on the VLAs and made the deck slippery so each night we painted or cleaned.  

As I said it was hot.  We were moving an F-14, 211 on the starboard finger for a low power turn.  This required tripling the number of tie down chains and a monster low power turn chain.  There were only a few spots that could hold the low power tie down so you had to get the plane in just the right spot.  I was getting annoyed because we had been jerking this tomcat off for ten minutes, back and forth, back and forth.  ABH3 Edwards just couldn’t get it on spot.  As soon as we got this in we would start the four hour scrubbing then we could start on the morning spot for the first launch of the day.

I chewed on the end of the whistle as I did when I was frustrated and couldn’t smoke.  I was on the port main mount carrying the old style aluminum chalk waiting for the signal to throw it and grab my two chains.  McFadden was on the Starboard side, he and I had an ongoing contest as to who could properly tie his half of the bird down fastest.  Blue shirts, plane handlers had to chalk the bird and put six chains on the bird; to on each main wheel and two on the nose.  The brown shirts, the plane captains would put on any other ones needed.  McFadden and I were the fastest on the deck , day or night check and we always raced each other to be the fastest, the key to winning was properly tie it down.  It was one of the little things that made the mind numbing nights tolerable.  I had arranged my three chains on the back of the tractor already, all I had to do was grab em and go, where as Terry would have to untangle his first. The bird shifted forward, again and I chomped on eh whistle then I smelled something burning.  We were over the galley (five decks below) and sometimes the smell of burning food would waft up from the vents.  There goes any home of a decent breakfast.

I look forward at Edwards when this wave of smoke billowed down the flight deck from the island aft to where we were.  At that instant, over the 5MC the bell started ringing widly “Fire, Fire, Fire. Fire on the Flight Deck,  Elevator Two, Away the Flying Squad” followed by the bells and a repeat of the announcement.  When the location was was given Edwards blew his whistle and rand forward, followed by Gates, the tractor driver.  I threw my chalk and grabbed my chains.  I don’t remember who was first to tie her down, but McFadden and I were headed forward when I stopped to let the plane captain out of 211.  

Chaos.  Impromptu hose teams formed to fight the fire, just like we practiced every couple of days, the Airwing and the ships company forming up to battle the blaze I saw. The fire reached up into the night sky. It was at least as tall as the bridge. The ordanence crews were rapidly moving the missiles and iron bombs aft, away from the bomb farm into the deck proper.  The Red shirts were setting land speed records for bomb skids that night.  The rest of my division and some of the Airwing guys were putting A-triple-F (Aqueous Foam Forming Film) onto the flames.  I looked forward seeing where I could help when I noticed that there were two A-6e Intruders tied two El-2.  The fire was just aft of elevator number 2.  Not good.  I hopped on a tractor and pulled it up to the 503.  The flames were licking the tail of the plane.  I was not an aircraft  director, I wasn’t even a tractor driver but I had seen “Trial by Fire” and knew that flames and loaded aircraft were not considered to be a good things to mix.  I saw a VA-165 Brownshirt and grabbed him, “Get in the cockpit” I told him. I a guy I knew from the Viking squadron. “You got a tractor license?” I asked.
“Um, for a land tractor”
“Get on it.” At that point I grabbed the nearest person I saw standing a round. “Hey Ensign, pull chalks and chains on that wheel” I looked around and found two more guys. We pulled the A-6 across the deck into the landing area where we tied it down.  We then went back and got the second one out of the way, me directing a very nervous mechanic driving tractor, one officer and two fuels guys walking wings.  

As we were tying it down I noticed that two more hose teams formed up. One was using the 12 foot applicator to form a water curtain around the other hose while they went into the catwalk to fight the fire.  ABHC John Immoreimportantthanyou came running up to me. “Who the hell moved these birds?” he demanded of me.
“I did Chief, the fla…”
“You puss-nutted, poop-for-brains stupid arse airman apprentice!  Do you know how much fracking trouble you just bought yourself?  You moved an air plane on your own?  Who told you? Your not qualified, you can’t do this, I’m writing you up, your going to see the old man!” He kept going for what seemed to me to be about three days, but was really about 10 minutes.  The Young officer walked up and tried to set the record straight but the Chief turned on him. “This don’t concern you, Sir” he told him.  I stood there, hearing the 5MC announce that the fire was out.  I noticed we were making circles keeping the smoke blowing off to the starboard side so it wouldn’t hamper the fire crews.  “Chief…” began the butter bar, but ABHC cut him off again.  “You get your supervisor and we will explaine to you that this is MY flight deck and I will run it MY way” The ensign looked at him a moment then at me.  He looked ABHC in the eyes. “O.K. Chief.” He disappeared down into the port catwalk. Chief continued to yell at me, and I was beginning to think that I did something wrong.  
     You see we drilled, and each person had a job to do. Being a lowly E-2 Airman Apprentice and not even a shellback yet, I was to be a runner. I was to stand in a line near the scene leader and run messages.  Other were to grab the stokes baskets and act as stretcher bearers. Some were to line up and relieve the hose team members, moving up one spot until they were the nozzle man then they would be relieved so no one would get fatigued. I did act out of turn, I didn’t follow the plan.
While ABHC was taking me to task, his protégé, ABH1 Hoover, came up and assumed his “Yes, Chief” operations.  The suction was so strong I reached out for the tie down I’d put on the nose wheel to steady myself.  Now I had two of them going off on me, threatening me with not just Captain’s Mast, but with a court martial.  I’d only been in the Navy 7 months and I was looking down the barrel of a court marshal. Man this sucked.  The chief stopped shouting at me and popped tall, I followed suite, I didn’t know who was there but when a chief comes to attention its not the worst of ideas to follow suite.  See I did learn a thing or two in those seven months.  
     “Yes Sir?”
     “Are you congratulating this young sailor for moving two aircraft across the deck and preventing them from catching fire, while your aircraft directors were playing fireman?”
     “No, sir. I was telling him why moving them was wro…”
     “I’m sorry Chief, perhaps you did not hear my question. Are you congratulating this young sailor for moving two aircraft across the deck and preventing them from catching fire, while your aircraft directors were playing fireman?”  ABHC got a subtle nudge from ABH1.
     “Wha… Oh.  Oh.  Yes sir I was.”
     “Good this fire could have been much worse if those two Intruders have burned up.  I’m glad you are training your men to take the initiative in drastic situations.  Carry on.”  With that the man whose name I didn’t know walked away.
“Go help night check clean up” ABHC barked at me.  I was only too happy to escape the curtain of khaki that had surrounded me.  I went over to the scene leader who he had me drain and roll up some of the hoses.  A little while later my Fly PO cam over and asked me why I was having a conference with the Chief and COMCRUDESGRU Two.  I said I didn’t know.  Inside I was thanking my lucky stars that for whatever reason that particular ensign was on the flight deck when he was.  


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