Welcome to the Cold War

cwm-set-basic1Athough I’ve seen the movie at least a half a dozen times I never get tired of “The Hunt for Red October”. It always brings back memories of my service in the Navy during the Cold War. To me, the Cold War was a war that we never hear about and could easily be forgotten but there are stories out there from sailors like me that will hopefully let it live on. -Jim Farmer
I believe the year was 1984 and at the time I had about 2 years in the Navy under my belt and I was assigned to Strike Fighter Squadron Three Zero Three, an F/A-18 Strike Fighter Squadron stationed at NAS Lemoore, smack in the middle of the rich farming community of the San Joaquin Valley of California. We were the Golden Hawks and our claim to fame was that we were one of the first active duty squadrons to receive the new F/A-18A Hornet aircraft and we were all eager to flex our muscles with our new formed squadron of a couple hundred active duty and reserve maintenance and aircrew. A fully formed squadron generally consisted of 12 aircraft and on the average 8-10 of those aircraft were usually available for our pilots to fly. In a tail hook squadron you work long hours with very little time off and there is always something going on that makes every minute very important. A squadron plans it’s calendar a year in advance and there are requirements for the pilots to meet to keep current in their qualifications with the aircraft such as shooting missiles, dropping ordinance such as bombs and mines, shooting rockets, Aircraft Countermeasures or ACM (dog fighting adversary aircraft) and a minimum of 20 aircraft take-offs or “cats” and 20 landings or “traps” on the aircraft carrier.

Our squadron had been to the Nevada desert a few times earlier in the year, as well as a few other trips to different areas of the country but we were planning a 2 week detachment to the USS Ranger (CV 61) for carrier qualifications. This was going to be a detachment designed to qualify all of our pilots on the carrier as well as qualifying the maintenance crews for certain job details that could only be done on the carrier. The plan was to fly the squadron personnel from the base to NAS North Island, a small air base on Coronado Island just south of San Diego and board the Ranger to head out to sea. A small detail of squadron personnel would stay behind to launch the squadron F/A-18’s and send them down to North Island in lieu of flying out to the carrier once it left port. My job was going to be to stay behind and make sure every jet we had available made it to North Island then I would hop on a Navy DC9 flight to North Island and jump on a Navy Sea Knight helicopter to fly out to meet the carrier somewhere in the pacific. My job on the aircraft was an electrician. Our shop consisted of about 8 other electricians besides myself and we ran 2 shifts when we were at home and on the road. As an electrician on the F/A-18 we were responsible for just about everything electrical. We took care of scheduled and unscheduled maintenance on a daily basis and there was always something to do. For a maintenance man on the aircraft the work never stopped. Generally speaking every shop always had something to do, it was just a matter of prioritizing the maintenance effort with a goal of meeting the demands of the next days flight schedule. Every day there was a flight schedule which required just about every available aircraft the maintenance team could ready for the day. There were always flight hour requirements for the pilots and each squadron was graded on the years total flight hours as well as how well the squadron completed all their assigned tasks for the year. Each year each squadron competed with other squadrons in our Carrier Air Group for awards like the Meritorious Unit Commendation award or “MUC”, the Battle Efficiency Award or the “Battle E” and the Safety “S” award. It was a big competition for us and it was always an honor to receive the award. The Battle E award meant that we got another ribbon or hashmark on our uniform as well a big “E” to display on the side of our jets. Going to the carrier was just another test for the squadron in the year long competition.

The time finally came and the main body of squadron personnel were gone to North Island and myself and a hand full of other maintenance personnel were launching the aircraft to head to North Island. The launch went without a hitch and spent the next 2 days waiting on a DC9 to take me to North Island. In the mean time I worked on the remaining few aircraft we had in the hanger that were broken and didn’t get to go to the carrier. Out of 12 aircraft assigned to the squadron we always had a couple of what we called “hanger queens”. Hanger queens were aircraft that were in some kind of scheduled maintenance cycle and while receiving the annual scheduled maintenance we robbed parts off of them for the aircraft that were flying. Sometimes parts were hard to come by so we would take parts off the hanger queens to use to meet flight schedule needs.

I finally got a ride down to North Island on a DC9 transport aircraft and soon there-after I met a Sea Knight helicopter on the tarmac at North Island for a ride out to the Ranger. This was my first ride on a helicopter so it was kind of a big deal to me. This wasn’t some ordinary helicopter ride, we were going to be flying out over the pacific for a 2 hour flight and meeting the Ranger somewhere off the coast of Mexico in international waters. When I boarded the Sea Knight I was greeted by a couple of aircrew guys that were assigned to the helicopter and took care of the passengers and cargo. There were about 8 other personnel on the flight that were headed out to the Ranger, plus a few boxes, bags, mail and our personal baggage. There were jump seats along the wall inside the helicopter and I’ll never forget what the aircrew instructed us to do before the flight began. They asked everyone to remove their hats and hold them in our hands. Any bolts, nut, screws or any other hardware that fell from the ceiling of the aircraft were to be picked up, placed in our hats and given to the aircrew personnel after we landed safely on the carrier deck….if we landed safely. That was very comforting information for my first helicopter flight. Here’s a picture of a Sea Knight helicopter:

120910-N-KB563-242 PHILIPPINE SEA (Sept. 10, 2012) A CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter, assigned to the Flying Tigers of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron (HMM) 262 approaches the flight deck of the forward-deployed amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6) during flight operations. The Bonhomme Richard Amphibious Ready Group (ARG), along with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (31st MEU), is participating in a certification exercise. The evaluated event determines if the 31st MEU is capable of doing certain missions such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations or non-combatant evacuation operations with the ARG. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Michael Russell/Released)

When the helicopter started the engines and the rotors started spinning I realized why there would be nuts and bolts falling from the ceiling. That thing vibrated worse than anything I’d ever rode in before. Things were shaking and banging around and when it lifted off I was white knuckling my seat for sure. I couldn’t see much out the port hole windows but I could definitely see the blue of the ocean as we headed out to the southwest. I tried to sleep for a while but I was looking forward to getting out to the carrier and getting to work. I had been on 1 other carrier before so I was pretty familiar with what it was going to be like. A year earlier while I was still in school at my training squadron or “RAG” outfit, I was offered the opportunity to board the USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) for a 2 week detachment out of North Island and worked for 2 weeks as a Plane Captain or what’s referred to as a “Turd Shirt”, mainly because of the brown shirt that the plane captains wore on the ship. The primary job of a Plane Captain was to take care of the aircrafts servicing needs and launch and recover the aircraft on the flight deck during flight operations. It was a dirty job and you were always covered in grease, oil, fuel, hydraulic fluid and anything else that you could collect on your body and clothing. The aircraft required chaining down anytime it was on the flight deck of the carrier and one of the jobs of a Plane captain was to chain the aircraft when it wasn’t moving. The aircraft required a minimum of about 9 chains and each chain weighed about 15lbs. The plane captains always had a load of chains thrown over their shoulders waiting for their assigned planes to come in to be chained down after a flight. The job of a plane captain was a hard tiring job but it was good training for me and it got me familiar with life on the carrier. The Carl Vinson was a big Carrier, much bigger than the little Ranger I was going to be working on this time around. Here’s a picture of the Carl Vinson and the Ranger:

050315-N-3241H-001 USS Carl Vinson (March 15, 2005) -- Prior to the first launch, nuclear powered aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson or the "Gold Eagle", teamed up with Carrier Airwing 9, steams through the Indian Ocean at over 30 knots. The Carl Vinson Strike Group is currently on a six-month deployment to promote peace and stability and respond to emergent events overseas. USS Carl Vinson will end its deployment with a homeport shift to Norfolk, Va., in support of a three-year refuel and complex overhaul. U.S. Navy Photo by Photographer's Mate Third Class Dusty Howell

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You really can’t tell the difference in the two until you step out onto the flight deck but the Carl Vison was much newer, larger and nuclear powered carrier and the Ranger was an older, smaller non-nuclear powered carrier.

While on my ride out to the carrier I looked around the inside of the helicopter. Everything was exposed and along the ceiling there were hydraulic lines, fuel lines, oil lines and actuators everywhere. The jump seats we were sitting in were old and if you’ve never ridden in a military jump seat, the first time you ride in one you realize very quickly they were not designed for comfort. The bar across the front of the seat aids in putting your legs to sleep very quickly and the vibration from the helicopter eventually will put your butt to sleep also. It is very uncomfortable to say the least. The noise is deafening and ear plugs are a must. There were 2 aircrew guys that were sitting in jump seats also and they were wearing giant bulbous white helmets with boom mics to talk to teach other and the pilots during the flight. As we approached the carrier the helicopters engine pitch changed and we started circling the carrier below. The carrier flight deck sat about 70 feet above the waterline and we circling at a few hundred feet. I watched out the porthole window next to me and I could see aircraft taking off from the flight deck of the carrier. We were told by the aircrew that as soon as all the aircraft were off the deck we would land. Behind the carrier and to the starboard side there was a smaller Navy ship, a Fast Frigate, and it was there to guard the carrier from any unwanted guests in the area. At the time we were in a Cold War with the Russians and it wasn’t uncommon to run into Russian trawlers or Russian Navy warships that were out in the ocean spying on our operations. The frigate usually had loaded guns and missiles ready to go in case another ship got to close. Here’s a picture of our Fast Frigate escort. Notice the gun and missile launchers on the bow of the ship:55117

We hovered off the starboard side of the carrier for 15-20 minutes and I could see the never-ending trail of prop wash from the carrier that went on for miles. Finally we rolled the helicopter and headed for the flight deck. The helicopter pitched and banged around lining up for the landing. The carrier was still traveling at 20-30 knots of speed into the wind which was normal for a carrier during aircraft take-offs and landings. Finally the Sea Knight hit the deck right in front of the super structure of the carrier and we were instructed to get up and depart at the rear ramp. I jumped up and immediately got some feeling back in my legs and got the heck out of that flying coffin. I thought to myself that I hoped I never had to do that again. Once we got out of the helicopter I was met by some squadron mates who immediately took me and my sea bag to berthing. Berthing was where we slept and it was always tight quarters. Here’s a couple of pics of what carrier berthing looks like. If you were lucky you could find some blue curtains for privacy:

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Once I found my sleeping arrangement and got my gear stowed it was time for me to got to work. One of my electrical shop mates showed me around the carrier and I found my workcenter as well as the galleys and a few other areas I would need to know about. On the carrier the galley is where we ate. There were at least 2 operating most of the day and into the night. They were small but efficient. They fed up to 3000 sailors a day and the food wasn’t bad. Food was very important on the carrier because of the work. You were constantly going up and down stairs and if you worked on the flight deck you were moving around all the time. The average sailor on the carrier burned a lot of calories in a day. On most modern day carriers there were 4 galleys, 2 main galleys somewhere near mid ship where the main hot meals would be served 3 times a day and 2 forward galleys that were almost always open and served sliders and dog or hamburgers and hot dogs. If you went to the forward galleys on the ship, as an enlisted man you had to stay out of officers country unless you were an officer. Officers country was just forward of mid ship and was only on certain decks. You could tell officers country by blue tile on the floor. The enlisted areas used green tile and officers used blue. We avoided officers country like the plaque. If you were enlisted and got caught there, there would be hell to pay.

During this detachment on the ship I was working as a green shirt which meant I was maintenance crew. I was working as an electrician and mainly working on aircraft in the hangar bay area during the day shift. I would also be working part time with other electricians as a troubleshooter on the flight deck during launches and recoveries. The way it worked was when we launched our aircraft each work center had at least one troubleshooter on the flight deck at all times during flight operations. There were a hand full of work centers such as the airframers which took care of any airframe or hydraulic problems as well as engine guys or “mechs” that took care of any engine or fuel issues, electricians like myself and a few other folks that took care of seats and environmental control issues like the heating and air conditioning in the cockpit of the jets. We all wore green shirts and we had special codes on our shirts and head gear to identify us and our job descriptions. On the carrier you fall into a routine. Everything is regimented and you can easily forget what day it is. Basically you work, eat, rest, rinse and repeat. That’s what I did on this detachment. There wasn’t much to write home about, it was just the same thing day after day. We just cruised around the pacific for a week or so without incident, pilots flying off and on all day and into the night with us maintenance guys fixing problems with the jets as they arose. If a jet had a problem that kept it from flying it would be hauled down the massive flight deck elevators to the hangar where it would be strategically parked and repaired as quickly as possible so it could get back onto the flight deck and ready for flight. The hangar bay on the carriers are massive and at times filled wall to wall with aircraft to be repaired.  Some aircraft would be down in the hanger overnight and the night shift guys would work all night just to get it fixed for the first launch in the morning. Here’s a picture of a carrier hangar bay:

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For the first week everything went as planned with flight operations and the maintenance effort. On the flight deck during flight operations it’s a very dangerous job. I think working on the flight deck of a carrier is one of the top 5 most dangerous jobs in the world. As long as everything is going good it’s fine but it only takes one little thing to happen for it all to go bad. There are crashes, fires, people caught in the wrong places at the wrong time and any number of things that could happen….and they do. On this detachment it was all good. About the only excitement we had after the first week was the fact that we were operating in an area where the pacific was very rough with huge swells tossing the Ranger back and forth. These big waves in this area were called the “Troughs” and they were big, some reaching heights as high as the carrier and it really made the carrier roll back and forth and up and down. There were a lot of first timers that were getting sea sick during the period we were operating in the troughs and a lot of sailors were walking at odd angles down the passageways and anything that wasn’t tied down would fall off shelves. Our plates and glasses in the galley would slide back and forth. It was an interesting ride for a few days.

The Commanding officer of the ship was very nice to the crew and very personable. He talked to the ships crew every night over the 1MC which was a loudspeaker system throughout the ship and could be heard from anywhere and everywhere. He would talk to us about current events and let us know about the next days goals. On the first Sunday aboard the ship he hosted an Ice Cream social in the galley and anyone could come to the galley and have ice cream and meet the “skipper” or Commanding officer.

During the start of the second week the carrier spent the majority of a morning taking on supplies and fuel from a supply ship. This isn’t an uncommon event and it happens all the time on a carrier. Flight operations stop during this period and it’s quit a show for the first timer on the carrier. Fuel hoses are strung from one ship to the other and both ships move through the water, side by side in close quarters for miles.

The fast combat support ship USNS Arctic (T-AOE 8), left, conducts an underway replenishment with the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) Jan. 15, 2007. Eisenhower and embarked Carrier Air Wing 7 are on a regularly scheduled deployment in the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command area of responsibility in support of maritime security operations. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Miguel Angel Contreras) (Released)

This is where it got interesting. Once the supply ship finished the replenishment and broke away from the carrier to sail off into the sunset, our Fast Frigate escort departed with the supply ship and the carrier was on it’s own. Sometimes it happens but as a rule the carrier always has some kind of escort within a few miles. The next morning when we looked out into the ocean from the hangar bay doors we saw that we had a new visitor. It was a strange looking ship off the starboard side of the carrier and it was very close to us. I could see some strange looking numbers on the side of the bow and there were some folks on the ship looking, waving and some were taking pictures. The ship looked something like some kind of large fishing trawler but it had some strange looking electronics and antennas on the masts. Here’s a picture of what it looked like:trawler

As we were standing in the hangar bay looking at the ship along side of us a hangar bay worker from the ships company walked over to us. The ships company guys generally wore purple shirts and were in the Navy just like us but were stationed on the ship full time. We just borrowed the ship to qualify our squadron crew but the ships company were there full time and had usually seen it all. The ships company guy looked at us and our puzzlement and said “welcome to the Cold War”. He told us it was a disguised Russian spy ship and they were interested in taking pictures of the new F/A-18’s on the flight deck. The rumor was that our escort had left to escort the supply ship back to American waters because there were Russian Navy ships in the area and the supply ship had no way to defend herself. Our carrier had more than enough firepower to fend for ourselves so the decision was made to leave us on our own. We watched for a while longer as the crew of the Russian ship continued to take pictures from very close by.

As soon as we started flight operations for the morning the Russian ship disappeared but then reappeared again as soon as all of our aircraft were back on the flight deck after the first launch and recovery. The Russians again came in close to snap photographs and wave as if they were our friends. This went on for 2 days with the same thing, if the jets were off the deck the Russians would disappear and reappear as soon as all the F/A-18’s were back on the deck. They were very interested in the jets and flight operations and had no fear of getting close to us. After 2 days of this little game with the Russians we had finally had enough. On the third morning the Russians were still hanging with us so we went about our business as if it were just another day. The Russian trawler was once again off our starboard side but on this morning we left one F/A-18 hidden from view from the Trawler behind the super structure of the carrier. It was out of view of the Russians and they just assumed all of our jets had left the area to fly the mornings missions. The Russians kept their distance until they assumed every jet was back on the deck before they made their move to get in close but during the recovery of all of the aircraft we snuck the extra F/A-18 off the catapults and the Russians just assumed that every one of our aircraft were back on deck. They were making their move in close and the skipper came over the 1MC to tell everyone who was interested and available to gather on the starboard side of the flight deck and hanger bay for a little mini air show. He said that if the Russians want to get a look at our aircraft we’d give them a up close and personal look at the jet and it’s capabilities. Keep in mind we had snuck a jet out into the area for our little surprise. It went off just as planned. When the Russians thought the jets were all on deck they made there move to get in close. We were all watching as the trawler got closer and closer. The skipper called out on the 1MC, “off the fantail aircraft 303 incoming for a mach run” which basically meant our aircraft #303 was coming from the back of the ship and was going to break the sound barrier very close to us. If you’ve never seen a fighter jet break the sound barrier it is a sight to behold. The aircraft is basically hauling ass at over 700 mph and when it breaks through the sound barrier or the speed of sound the concussion is enormous, especially if your are close by. This is what it looks like at the moment the sound barrier is broken:

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In this case the jet came in fast and low and was only about 100 feet off the water and bearing down on the trawler. It was amazing as the jet dropped down from high in the sky and leveled out on the Russians. We all knew what came next. As the jet got closer to the trawler the vapor cloud started building around the jet and just as it reached the trawler there was a eardrum shattering BOOOOM that shook the carrier to it’s core but what was even more interesting is that the trawler actually squatted down in the water and we actually saw pieces of the trawler like maybe windows and radar parts go flying. The trawlers smoke stake bellowed black smoke from the diesel engine and it started shifting it course away from the carrier. We all cheered and yelled with some jumping up and down and giving the Russians the bird. The F/A-18 made a vertical climb and disappeared in front of the carrier. Within a minute or so we heard the 1MC go off again and the skipper said “from the bow aircraft # 303 incoming for mach run # 2”. We all cheered wildly as the jet dropped back down out of the sky and leveled off on the fleeing trawler. We could see the jet put the hammer down in full afterburner as it approached the trawler and we knew it was going to be good. The jet once again approached mach and the vapor built up around the jet. Just as it closed in on the trawler BOOOM very near the trawler and once again the trawler squatted deep into the water with more pieces of the trawler flying everywhere. More smoke poured from the stack and the trawler turned away even sharper than before. We all cheered wildly and some flipped the trawler off again as some grabbed their crotches at the Russians as they limped away never to be seen again. It was something I’ll never forget about the cold war. We spent some of our time messing with the Russians at sea and up in the northern reaches of Canada but a lot of the times we played with the Russians it was just that, play. They knew as well as we did that someday we might be fighting each other for real but a lot of what we did was designed for us to test their capabilities as well as them to test ours. Shortly after the end to the cold war one of the Russian Navy warships pulled into San Diego bay and they docked in San Diego for a few days and we got to meet our counterparts. We drank together, swapped stories, traded cigarettes, Levi jeans and the old Walkman cassette players for pieces of their uniforms and personal items from Russia. They were no different than we were, just a bunch of sailors looking for a good time.

 

 

 

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The Marching Party

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It would take me a lifetime to write about my Navy career but here’s a little peek at a small moment in my career that helped shape me into what I am today.  I wanted to put this in words before my withering memory wipes it away

Before you can understand the story I need to get you up to speed on what San Diego Navy boot camp was like in 1982. When I joined the Navy I had rarely been out of the Midwest except for a few family vacations as a kid so flying into San Diego, Ca. at 10:30 in the evening to report to boot camp was a big deal. I don’t care who you are, you’re going to be a little freaked out for the first 48 hours or so. You go through a series of fun events within the first few days but one of the first things that happens after a good haircut is you go through uniform issue. This is a time when you are issued all of your Navy uniforms and undergarments and you stencil your name just above the pocket on all of your “dungaree” shirts and trousers or working uniform as well as your “skivvies”, hat or “lid”, socks and personal belongings. By this time you have formed a “Company” which is a group of about 50-75 guys that you’ll be spending the next few months with, living in cramped quarters in a barrack without heat or air conditioning. Each person is referred to as a “recruit” for the duration of boot camp and we marched in formation everywhere we went.

While we stenciled our clothing our prospective “Company Commanders” were walking around watching us work on stenciling our gear. Company Commanders were the equivalent of a Drill Instructor in other branches of the service,more senior members in the Navy and could be recognized by a chest full of medals and ribbons, a lot of stripes on their uniform and these red ropes dangling in a loop from their shoulders. We referred to them as “red ropes” behind their back and “Sir” to their face. There would usually be 2 Company Commanders assigned to a Company and they were the boss, your mom, you dad, you’re best friend, your worst enemy and just like Sgt Hulka, they were our big toe. While stenciling my uniforms I could tell the Company Commanders were watching us to see who was paying attention to detail and doing a thorough job in a timely manner so I made sure I did everything to perfection when they walked behind me and looked over my shoulder. It paid off to perfection and a week later I was dubbed our new “Company Yeoman”. Our Company Commander, First Class Petty Officer Marlor took a liking to me and trusted me the responsibilities of a Yeoman which was taking care of the daily logistics of head counts and mail call. I was the liaison between the company and our Company Commander. I liked my job but our Company Commander was mean, I mean real mean. He was covered in tattoos from neck to toes and could out run, do more push-ups, set-ups or any number of exercises we did on a daily basis. This guy was covered in tattoos before that sort of thing was cool. He was intimidating to say the least but in the back of my mind a little part of me knew this was all part of the act. The act of shaping us all into young sailors before setting us out to start our real Navy careers.

I don’t think words can properly describe the feelings I went through in Boot Camp. Besides the obvious things like missing home, a girlfriend, mom and dad and all of those creature comforts, you learn very quickly to do without. There were challenges on an hourly basis and there was so much to learn in a short period of time. There were great things that got accomplished in boot camp and there were failures and consequences to be paid. A few weeks after the start of Boot Camp we were all settling into a routine and starting to feel a little cocky. Feeling a little cocky was something that was not advised during boot camp. Us recruits feeling a little cocky made the Company Commander feel a little cocky too. Their idea of feeling a little cocky was singling out any one person who thought he was better than the rest or maybe someone who made a mistake? This person would become the target of Company Commanders enjoyment. Sometimes the Company Commander would take matters into his own hands and sometimes he would send a hard case to a “Marching Party”. A marching party was something that took place after dark once a week, usually on Thursday and there was usually someone going from our unit every week. The ones that went never came back the same. They didn’t chat much about it, only saying it was 2 hours of hell and involved Navy SEALs. At the time about all I knew about the SEALs was that they were elite and mean. I only knew what I had read in our “Bluejacket” manual which is the sailors bible and has everything about everything in the Navy. In the manual they gave a brief job description of a Navy SEAL and I knew they had to be tough.

After about a 4 week period of being our company Yeoman I had things down to a science. I knew my job inside and out and I got complacent. One of my jobs was to do a head count of every recruit in our company prior to sitting down for a meal. For every meal I would report the number of recruits to our Company Commander and we would file into the chow hall for our meal. Sometimes a recruit would be sent to sick call or some other demand so the number of recruits going to a meal may vary from meal to meal. After 4 weeks on the job as the head counter before meals I just started winging it and throwing out a number thinking no one was checking my numbers. We went days with me reporting a headcount that went unchecked so I thought it was just a formality. Yea, I was dead wrong. One day our Company Commander call me into his office out of the blue. Up until this point I had been his “Go To” guy in the company and could do no wrong. On prior meetings with him in his office it was generally a pleasant experience but on this occasion it was all business. He informed me that from his best estimation somehow over night perhaps, a big rock had came in contact with my head and made me a dumbass. He had been watching me operate at the chow hall head counts and had been checking my numbers for the last week. Needless to say I was busted and for punishment I would be fired from my position and sent to the marching party on Thursday evening. He looked me in the eyes and in a stern  voice he said “You know Farmer, in the Navy complacency can get you killed, or even worse, you’ll get the people around you killed. I want you to remember that“. It was like my whole world just tanked. I was fired from my position and banished to the marching party. I wasn’t going alone as I soon found out that another recruit from our company had done something wrong and would be accompanying me to the party. His name was Powell and we were both trying to find out all we could about what went on at a marching party but the guys from our company who had went didn’t was to talk about it much siting a sworn secrecy.

Thursday night finally came after a long day of marching and classroom events. Everyone else was finishing their duties for the evening as Powell and I were donning our gear to go to the marching party at 10pm. Our gear included our working uniform with a watch cap or black stocking cap. We were told to march to a empty parking lot or “grinder” directly in front of the little store where we got our supplies. We would be greeted by our hosts for the night and they would give us our instructions for 2 hours off hell. Powell and I really didn’t know what we were in for so the mood was light as we marched to the grinder. When we got there the party was in full swing and we were immediately told to join ranks for a little chat before we got started. We were all in formation standing at attention while these big face painted gorillas walked through our ranks explaining to us how we had fucked up really bad and we were about to pay for it. They asked if anyone wanted to go home to momma before we got started but no one had the balls to go that route so without further ado we started doing different physical exercises while being yelled at by about 6-8 Navy SEALs. They got in your face, they got in your ear and tried in every way to make us break and cry. I won’t go into detail but some of the exercises were very extreme with names like “Hello Dollies” and “Eight count body builders” and one of my personal favorites, “The Superman”. We would do push-ups but you would have to stay in the down position with your nose and body 2 inches from the deck. It didn’t take long till the sweat started mixing with the dirt on the ground and everyone’s faces were black and dripping mud. My working uniform was covered in sweat and dripping, making a puddle of mud beneath me. They tested ever muscle in my body and I was in outstanding shape at the time. After the first hour my body trembled from exertion and my muscles were fading fast. If you were caught screwing up an exercise the SEAL’s were on you like a pack of wild dogs with 2 or 3 of these gorillas in you face screaming obscenities and just try to get you to break. I finally decided that these SEAL’s were probably betting big money and taking a head count on how many of us they could break before it was over so I made up my mind that wasn’t going to happen to me. They could break my body but they couldn’t break my spirit. Names were a form of enjoyment for these guys and they would make light of our names. When they saw my name was Farmer they had a little fun with me and my name designed to see if mocking my family name would break me. They never put a hand on us but it was degrading to say the least. Just before we were done, Powell, who was directly to my left finally broke and the tears started flowing. They showed no mercy and crying only gathered a crowd of these antagonizers.  That was the point in the evolution that I realized the reason that no one who had been there before me talked about it much. They didn’t break me and when it was over Powell and I marched back to the barracks with muscles either locked, cramping or in some kind of spasm.

When we got back to the barracks, everyone was asleep except for the 2 night watchmen. We were covered in dirt and told by the night watchmen in the barracks to get a quick show and hit the rack for the night. One of the night watchmen asked us how it was and neither myself or Powell wanted to discuss it much. I promised Powell on the way back that I wouldn’t say anything about what went down. I showered and hit the rack for the night. It seemed like I had just closed my eyes when the lights came on and it was morning. I had slept a total of 4 hours but it seemed like I hadn’t slept at all. When I tried to get out of my rack, my muscles were completely locked up. I have never felt like I felt that morning at any time in my life. I have competed in military and civilian marathons at a lightning pace and pushed my body to the brink of destruction but I have never ever felt like that since. Powell and I went on to graduate from boot camp and start our Navy careers but that little 2 hour snippet in time will never be forgotten by me and I’m sure, by Powell also.

Although that was just a small fragment of my life there was a lesson to be learned and our old Company Commander was right, during my career in the Navy I’ve witnessed more than one incident or accident where complacency was the culprit and the outcome wasn’t good. On the flight deck of an aircraft carrier there is an old saying “The moment you get complacent on the flight deck is the moment you jeopardize your life and the lives of everyone around you”.

 

F-18 Hornet High Power Nightmare

high-power

When I think back to some of the most dangerous moments I’ve had during my military career, the worst wasn’t about me or a situation I put myself in, but a situation I put my son in on a hot Louisiana summer night. At the time I was more than chest deep in my military career and stationed at a small air base south of New Orleans along the Mississippi river. Physically and mentally I was at the height of my game. I was strong and I had a hand in just about everything I could qualify for in our Fighter Attack squadron. I was a certified Physical Fitness Instructor for our squadron, I was an assistant to our squadrons Urinalysis Program Advisor and I was also a Drug and Alcohol Program Advisor and answered only to our squadrons Commanding Officer. As far as the jets went, I was qualified to do just about everything on the F-18 Hornet Fighter jet but fly it. I had worked my way into a Full System Quality Assurance job which basically meant that I could inspect and sign off on any maintenance done to the aircraft, some very critical maintenance that involved flight safety items. I was responsible for all the squadron audits and inspections and my job was to make sure the squadrons maintenance department followed the rules. There was a lot of responsibility that came with the job and I needed to be mentally focused at all times. One of the qualifications I held in the squadron, and probably the most dangerous was an engine high power operator, which meant that I was qualified to start and run the engines at a higher power settings from 80% to full afterburner. Sometimes our jets required engine testing before, during and after maintenance had been done or an engine had been changed out. There were only a couple of us that were qualified to do this engine testing and at high power engine settings as it was a very danger job. On this particular week night, my son Derek and I were home after a day of school and day care for him and a long days work for me. I was a single parent at the time and it was just Derek and I living in a little house just outside the main gate of the base. I could be at work in 10 minutes if necessary, and sometimes it was necessary. The phone rang around midnight and Derek and I were sound asleep at the time. It was the squadrons maintenance department and they were in a bind. It seemed the engine guys were troubleshooting a problem with an overheating engine compartment, most likely caused by a bleed air leak. Bleed air leaks were very tough to troubleshoot but it was a system that could cause the aircraft to wind up in a flaming heap so it was something that was very serious and dangerous. Bleed air is basically super heated, highly pressurized air that is bled from the combustion area of the engine to be cooled through heat exchangers and used for environmental systems like air conditioning and such. The bleed air lines were well insulated and ran along the inside of the engine compartment. There were joints and couplings in the lines and sometimes these joints would become unseated and spring a leak. The heat sensors in the engine compartment would warn the pilot that his engine compartment was getting hot and if it was not addressed quickly a fire could soon start. The pilots procedure was to shut the affected engine down and fly home on the remaining engine, declaring a single engine emergency. Needless to say, it was pretty serious to have a bleed air leak. Our squadron Maintenance personnel told me that they had no choice but to call because at the time I was the only guy holding a engine high power certification and they desperately needed the jet early in the morning for a mission. They thought they had the bleed air leak fixed, but needed to run the engines at high power to make sure. My job was to run the affected engine at high power settings and try to duplicate the discrepancy. If I couldn’t duplicate the discrepancy, my job was done. I would sign off the aircraft as fixed and safe for flight. The only wrinkle in the plan was my son Derek. I couldn’t leave him at home alone, as he was only around 10 years old at the time. I told the maintenance chief that I would drive out to the squadron and do it but only if Derek could come along. The chief agreed. I told the chief to have the guys get the jet ready for a high power engine run, which consisted of towing the aircraft out to a remote area, usually at the end of a runway, called a “high power pad”. It was generally well marked and had a big thick metal ring anchored down in the middle of an open circular area with a jet blast deflector along the edge to deflect and dissipate the very dangerous jet blast caused by the engines at high power settings. The jet had to be positioned perfectly, tied down with a very heavy chain, chalks and smaller chains to hold the aircraft back during testing. Once the aircraft was set up and ready, I would ride out to the high power pad in a work van with Derek and a hand full of maintenance guys. Derek would stay in the van with the windows up and hearing protection on while I ran the engine at higher power settings for a while and if all went well, we’d be back home in an hour. I woke Derek up and explained what we were doing. He was used to the military life and was familiar with what I did, our aircraft and our maintenance team. For him, it was like being awakened to a trip to Disneyland. He loved to see the jets and for a 10 year old kid to see his dad in a jet in full afterburner in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night was pretty crazy I’m sure. I got to the squadron and went into maintenance control to review the aircraft logbooks and familiarize myself with the aircraft. We had 12 aircraft total, and every one was different. They all had there little ghosts, hick ups and histories of years of maintenance. I chatted with the maintenance guys to find out what maintenance was done to the aircraft to fix the problem. Once we got all the formalities out of the way, we loaded up in the maintenance van and we were all on our way down the taxiway to test the aircraft that was waiting at the high power pad. When we pulled into the pad, there were several ground crew guys standing around waiting to assist in the evolution. The aircraft was chained and ready to go. We all exiting the van except for Derek who I instructed to stay in the van no matter what. I told him that it was very important that he DO NOT leave the van under any circumstances. The van was parked about 100 feet from the jet at the edge of the pad and we left the dome light on so I could se Derek at all times. I did a thorough walk around with my flashlight and scoured the aircraft and area for anything that might cause a problem. My plan was to start the right motor, which was the good motor, and then start the left motor which was the motor to test. Once I got all of the systems on line I would start running the left motor at higher settings and try to duplicate the problem. Sometimes I would really have to put the big GE 404 motors through their paces to figure out a problem so I warned the ground crew to keep on their toes. As I climbed into the cockpit ejection seat I looked over at the van and saw Derek staring out the passenger window with his oversized cranial and hearing protection on. The maintenance guys would all be scouring the engine compartment for leaks as I put the engine through it’s paces so I needed to keep a close eye on Derek as well as the instruments and engine parameters. I fired up the APU and cranked up the right engine and brought the big jet to life. Everything was good on the right engine so I started the left engine and got everything warmed up for some serious high power engine settings. The crew on the ground gave me the “all clear” and I made a quick check with Derek who was still looking out the passenger window. I pushed the left throttle up to the 80% stop and I could feel the thrust of the jet pulling the heavy chains and the aircraft lurched forward. The feel of the thrust from underneath me was a feeling like I’ve never experienced before. I’ve often wondered what would of happened if a jet were to get loose and snap the big chains while high powering. I gave the ground crew the signal that I was going to run the engine up to higher settings. This is where the most dangerous part comes in. The intake in the front of the aircraft becomes a giant vacuum at higher power settings and anyone within 15 feet of the intake during this time would be sucked up, chewed up and spit out the back of the engine in ragged pieces. Anyone around the back of the aircraft that wandered into the exhaust area would be blown into the jet blast deflector and thrown hundreds of feet from the area. All of our maintenance guys were well trained and know exactly where to be during any given time. I pushed the throttle to the 100% stop and scoured the instruments for anything abnormal. The aircraft lurched forward even more and I could feel the pressure on the holdback chain from the cockpit. The throttle was just a half inch away from busting the first zone of afterburner and I made one final check on Derek before really tearing into testing this engine. My thought was that I would rather find out if the jet was going to break on the ground than have it break in the air and crash it into a school house. I pushed the left throttle into afterburner and felt the extra thrust provided by the afterburner stage as the blue and white flame lit up the night all around the aircraft. I looked at Derek and I could see his eyes as wide as silver dollars as he looked back at the tailpipe flames reacting from my throttle motions. I pushed the throttle forward to full afterburner and left it there in order to heat the engine quickly. Each engine provided 22k lbs of thrust in full afterburner and the feel of the power underneath me was unbelievable. I quickly checked with the ground crew through hand signals to make sure everything was going well during full afterburner. I got a quick thumbs up and did a quick check on Derek who was still in the window watching intently. I jerked the throttle back to idle and then quickly pushed it back up to afterburner to simulate in flight conditions and hopefully duplicate the problem if it wasn’t fixed. I really put the engine through it’s paces and if it was going to heat up my job was to make sure it happened on the ground. After 10-15 minutes of running the engine at different power settings I had the engine in full afterburner and watched my ground plane captain walk to the rear of the aircraft, out of site of my view. It made me very nervous not to have a ground guy around within plain site. I pulled the throttle back to idle in order to get someone’s attention and the ground crew guy came running out of the dark, giving me the signal to run the engine back up. As I did he ran back into the darkness and I was left alone with the engine at high power. Out of nowhere my left “LH BLEED AIR” red flashing warning light comes on in the cockpit. Anything that is red and flashing in the cockpit means “warning”, and is a serious problem. Yellow flashing lights mean “caution” and is some thing that might be livable, but red means big trouble. Just to add to the dilemma, I also get an oral tone in my headset which is referred to as “Bitchin Betty” and she tells me I have a big bleed air problem in the left engine area. I did a quick check of the rest of the engine data to make sure the engine wasn’t overheating or operating out of perimeters. When I looked out of the canopy and on the ground for any sign of maintenance people it was dark and no one was around. I didn’t know if there was an actually fire back there in the engine bay but when I looked at the maintenance van, the door was wide open and Derek was gone. I can say this about that split second in my life; it was the most gut wrenching, uncontrollable situation I’ve ever been in. Only a parent could ever experience this feeling and it isn’t pretty. Just imagine that your child had just wandered onto a busy freeway of speeding traffic and you have no control of the outcome. To this day it’s hard for me to relive that moment in time. Within a split second I chopped that motor to the “OFF” position and raised the canopy to climb out of the jet as quickly as possible. I jumped down onto the ground from the canopy ledge which was a good 8-10 feet and ran to the back of the plane. There was a crowd under the jet and I could see Derek right there with the crew, under the engine area. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry but I nearly came unglued. I yelled at everyone including Derek who was looking up at me from a kneeling position. I asked Derek why he left the van and he said that the maintenance guys were waving him over to help. They were actually giving hand signals to each other because of the deafening sound and Derek mistook a maintenance hand signal for a “forget everything your dad said and come over here under the jet”. Basically the jet was still broken so it was back to the drawing board for the mechanics and it was back to bed for Derek and I. I told Derek that never again would I do such a stupid thing and he got a good grounding for not listening to his dad. I think I got a few grey hairs that night.