LeRoy Collins Commentary 86

Commentary #86
3 September 2007

labor Day Weekend 2007

Labor Day weekend has always been significant to me. It typically signifies the end of summer, and-back-to-school if you are a student or parent. It means a new start in many cases; and it means just a month to go until the end of the U.S. Government's Fiscal Year. But all these external factors pale in my case,...because it is my birthday. I was born on Labor Day 73 years ago, and my mother still remembers it like yesterday (she called to say that this morning), albeit she will be 96 on 9/11.

Birthdays are special, though at this age they pass by in a blurr without the hoopla of youth. But there is one of my birthdays that was quite unusual……my 50th, at sea aboard the nuclear aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower during Battle Group exercises in the Carribean in 1984...

The Battle Group Commander, Rear Admiral James Flatley (my Naval Academy '56 Classmate), was the senior officer embarked, and he had arranged for me to be aboard to serve my two weeks of Naval Reserve active duty for Fiscal Year ‘84. Being a Rear Admiral myself, the concurrence of an active duty Flag officer made it easy to get the orders I wanted, especially when they involved active Fleet participation at sea. I was given full access to all areas of the ship, but usually had an escort officer closeby to ensure I knew what was happening next during the comprehensive Fleet exercises involving offensive and defensive interaction of air, surface, and submarine threats. This was at the height of the Cold War, so the threat was well-known and real, i.e. mostly from the Soviet Bloc, so we knew they had a multi-dimensional and far larger Navy than the U.S.

I had been at sea with aircraft carriers before this, but most of my times with carriers were from a submarine stalking them from underwater, so I understood the Naval Aviator mindset to put flight operations above everything in the daily priority. If you ever observed flight operations on board you would understand why. When the tempo of fighter/attack aircraft launch-and-recovery is high, there is no room for a lapse in judgment, because many lives are at stake, i.e. those flying, and those on the Flight Deck keeping order among the planes and pilots being launched and recovered. The action is high-pitched, as is the NOISE. It was such an environment in which I found myself on 3 SEP 1984.

Aircraft carriers are quite huge being approximately 1100 feet long, displacing more than 100,000 tons, yet nimble enough to speed through the water at 40 miles per hour night and day, until the crew of 5500 eats all the food on board. Even back then such ships cost $5 billion to build, and their 90 high-performance aircraft cost almost as much. So the crews are highly trained to manage such a national asset, yet the ages of the sailors on board (both men and women today) average in the low 20s.

In the midst of all this organized chaos and controlled confusion, I came to observe and thereby enhance my professional U.S. Fleet education. When the Navy selects its Admirals, the Selection Board of senior peers tries to select those who will be broad in their outlook in support of the U.S. Department of Defense's mission, not just parochial to their own warfare "community" (aviation, surface, submarines), or even just the Navy. Today, that requirement is extended though all U.S. Armed Services including the requirement to have served in a Joint (interservice) tour of duty to be eligible for General or Flag rank. In my case, I had command of a Navy cell of highly-trained deployment specialists under the U.S. Readiness Command, headquartered at MacDill AFB in Tampa.

I had asked Admiral Flatley earlier how to best observe the airborne defense surrounding his Battle Group of several outlying cruisers and destroyers, plus auxiliary ships for fueling the "small boys," who provide the Battle Group's perimeter defense against intruding aircraft, surface ships, and submarines. In my earlier years as a junior officer, I had seen several aircraft carriers of various nationalities through my submarine's periscope, but such large ships put so much noise into the water they could commonly be tracked by passive sonar from many miles away without the hazard to exposing a periscope. He suggested since I had already had the hot "jet joyrides" boring supersonic holes in the air around the flight pattern. I now should launch with the E2 Tracker which has the large rotating radar on the roof, and climbs up high to extend the eyes of the Battle Group far beyond the range of any shipboard radar. I concurred.

Admiral Flatley made the arrangements with the Carrier Air Group Commander (CAG, the senior flying officer aboard with the embarked Air Group) to meet the senior E2 Tracker Squadron officer, a Lt. Commander based at Naval Air Station Norfolk. I was scheduled the next afternoon, my birthday, to launch with a host of F14 Tomcats to intercept some inbound practice "bogeys." Also airborne against us would be some electronic jammers trying to confuse the air controllers eyeballing the radar pictures in the back seats of our E2 Tracker.

After borrowing a flight suit from the squadron, plus helmet, oxygen mask, life jacket, boots, survival gear, etc. I sat in the Squadron's Ready Room for the pre-flight brief, which included assigned radio frequencies, a "bingo" airfield ashore in case we could not come back to the ship (because of a fire or crash on board), operational intelligence for the exercise, F14 Tomcats to be controlled, ship intentions while we were gone, etc. I was to sit in the co-pilot's seat up forward with the pilot...i.e. on the starboard side of the E2.

At the appointed time, my pilot and our 4-man crew of radar controllers went up to the Flight Deck to strap-in our E2 Tracker. While you can typically discern flight operations are underway while down below decks in the carrier (you can hear the catapult shots forward and the impact of landings aft), there is nothing that hits you in the face like the noise when you step out on the Flight Deck during flight operations. Everyone must wear some sort of ear protection; the Flight Deck is slippery from oil leaks in planes, and the catapult shots punctuate the mayhem with afterburner blasts far above the threshold of pain. Carrier landings are equally noteworthy; when an airplane touches the carrier deck, it goes to full throttle so if its tailhook misses one of the 4 arresting cables, it can continue forward, reattain flight speed, and go around the local flight pattern again for another try at landing. When it lands safely, it is promptly directed to taxi several hundred feet away from the active landing area to make space for the next plane to be recovered. The whole evolution is fun to watch, where the participants are so highly trained, and working with seconds and inches to spare, in order to avoid accidents in this highly dangerous environment.

We climbed up into the E2 from the Flight Deck, surrounded by all this coordinated confusion. Everyone knew exactly what they were doing EXCEPT ME! But they all understood that, so I had plenty of help. Once inside we all went for our respective stations, mine being the copilot's seat. I knew how to strap in the various harnesses; but I needed and received some hand gestures to find the oxygen outlet and hookup for my radio/intercom for my helmet. The visibility from my seat was great so I watched with great interest as my pilot began his pre-flight check of on-board systems; I alternated between my own familiarity with the instrumentation and what was going outside on that very busy Flight Deck with jets coming and going simultaneously…..just a few feet away! Back aft in the semi-darkness, our four air controllers were checking out their radar, their anti-jamming electronics, and their seat security in preparation for the "cat shot."

In a few minutes the pilot was satisfied we were ready to go, he hand-signaled to the Flight Deck handlers who returned a signal to start the E2's turbine engines...then the hand signal to taxi toward the starboard bow catapult. In front of us was one of our F14 Tomcats still at the idle, but then he started moving into position where his forward centerline landing gear would be attached to a shuttle on the catapult, which would take him up to a flight speed of almost 200 mph in just 100 ft. with both afterburners and basic engines at full thrust. Watching this up close was like a ringside seat in a prizefight. Everyone was working at peak speed, with every movement purposeful and measured.

The Tomcat taxied into position, we moved up to his standby position. The Tomcat's shuttle was attached to the nosegear. The deck-installed deflector was raised to protect us from the Tomcat's jet blast. As the Tomcat started throttling up, the blast on the deflector apparently dislodged a hose piping seawater through the deflector to take away the blast's heat on the deflector. The loose hose was waving in the air….and porting saltwater into the intake of our starboard engine's turbine compressor. I anxiously pointed to it, but my pilot seemed unconcerned. By now the Tomcat was at full thrust, got the launch signal from the Catapult Officer, and rolled forward accelerating rapidly toward the bow of the ship. The deflector was lowered, we taxied forward to the shuttle, which had already returned from the bow after releasing the Tomcat. It was our turn…..

In place, with the shuttle now attached to our nosewheel, the pilot signaled me to sit straight, look ahead with my head against the headrest; he saluted the Catapult Officer, the traditional "ready" signal. Within just barely a second, I felt that enormous push against my back with a simultaneous disappearance of the ship. At the end of the cat run we were airborne, and the decelleration was so marked that it seemed like we had stopped, but a quick glance at the airspeed indicator revealed we were passing 150 knots and increasing. Good so far. As we climbed up to our assigned altitude in the next few minutes, it was feeling quite normal now.

I looked aft and our 4 air controllers were tuning/peaking their radar and everything needed to direct the Tomcats. Soon, my pilot said I could safely unstrap and crawl aft to look over their shoulders. These four experts would be controlling our interceptors out to a radius of several hundred miles based upon our altitude. Before long, in came the electronic jamming which caused severe disjointed shapes on the radar monitors. The skill of the operators had to analyze the jamming signal(s), select the correct electronic "antidote," then try to reacquire the incoming bogeys the Tomcats would be sent to engage. This high-altitude/high-mach Fleet exercise went on for several hours during which bogeys in the exercise came our way from several directions. After our controllers and the ship's Combat Information Center assessed the threat, our controllers would vector the Tomcats in that defense sector at high speed. At FINEX, my pilot asked me to return to my co-pilot seat and prepare for our return to the carrier.

A carrier landing is never routine. The landing area is very small, the approach speeds are high, and the tailhook of the aircraft landing has to catch one of four cables stretched across the Flight Deck. All landings are videotaped and graded for a critique of airmanship. There is little margin of error tolerated, and the consequences are potentially fatal, especially at night...in bad weather, ...where the outside visual references are minimal. To aid all landings, the ship has installed a fresnell lens lighting system which visually defines a flight path to touchdown from perhaps a half-mile astern. When on the flight path a yellow image is centered between two green bars on either side of the yellow "meatball." The closer you get to the ship, the less chance you have to make corrections to flight attitude and air speed. But when you land on the deck, the throttles are "firewalled" for maximum thrust, in case the airplane landing misses an arresting cable, or …..the cable breaks. Ours held. When we came to a halt, a Flight Deck crewman helped disconnect the arresting cable from our tailhook, we taxied promptly out of the landing area, while retracting the tailhook back into the fuselage. Another Flight Deck senior petty officer directed us to the starboard side where they customarily park the E2s, and chain them to the deck so they do not become a bowling ball on the Flight Deck in rough weather.

And that was the highlight of my Labor Day weekend in 1984. Just another day at sea for the U.S. NAVY's Varsity Team, practicing to defend the Nation as required. We should get down on our knees and thank God that we have young American men and women willing to take on this noble cause to defend our county on the ramparts of liberty, wherever and whenever called upon.


/s/ LeRoy Collins, Jr.


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