One warm night while conducting exercises in the Caribbean Sea, USS Arleigh Burke (DDG 51) became involved in a Search and Rescue operation conducted by the U.S. Coast Guard. All these years later I remember only that a small boat was missing, and the Coasties had air and sea assets looking for it.
Our role in the operation was relatively small: first, while carrying on with our orders we used our eyes and electronic sensors to look for the boat, and secondly, as we were handily located in the middle of the action, Burke served as a gas station for those searching helicopters.
The Navy lost some money on that deal, I can tell you.
* * * *
I was the ship’s Disbursing Officer, a position known throughout the Navy as “Disbo,” but one of my collateral duties was serving as a Helicopter Control Officer on the flight deck. Although it was standard for Navy combat ships to have an enclosed compartment, usually placed somewhere above the flight deck — and hence called a “tower” — for the HCO to operate from, the original design of Arleigh Burke went a different direction.
The HCO position on Burke was right on the flight deck (see photo below), with the controls for status lights and radios located in a (supposedly) watertight box mounted on a bulkhead. This decision was likely made because the first twenty-eight ships of the class had flight decks but not helicopter hangers — I believe the original thought was Burke class ships would routinely operate with other ships that had organic air, like aircraft carriers and cruisers, making a hanger unnecessary — and there was no logical spot to place a enclosed control station or tower.
I’m certainly not a naval engineer, but the first time I saw the setup in the shipyard where Burke was being built I knew the HCO position would be challenging. As mentioned above, water intrusion into the control box was an ongoing issue, but the biggest problem was noise. Helicopters, especially military variants, are very loud. The proposed solution was a fancy helmet with sound-dampening earphones and a microphone I needed to whisper into to be heard that cost more than my annual salary — so I had best not lose it or break it. “It” is correct … there was only the one ever built that I am aware of.
The helmet never worked properly. The earphones did dampen the sound, as did standard noise protection devices used by the rest of the flight crew, but the speakers in them often didn’t work or the microphone I only had to whisper into couldn’t pick up my voice. Salt water got into the radio in the supposedly watertight box so even if the helmet was working “good enough” I usually couldn’t hear either the helicopter or the ship’s combat information center (CIC).
On top of that, the placement of the HCO position meant I did not have direct visibility of the Landing Signalman (LSE), the enlisted Sailor who uses standardized hand signals to direct the helicopter pilots as they landed and took off from the flight deck. The LSE and HCO work together to ensure safe flight operations, and on Burke we developed our own hand signals to communicate back and forth, but that meant I often had to step far away from the HCO station so we could see each other.
Did I mention the cord connecting that high-cost, whiz-bang special HCO helmet to the control panel wasn’t all that long? Yep, it was quite a set-up, but like Sailors everywhere, we figured out how to make it work, safely and good enough. Of course, we also made a lot of official suggestions up the chain of command for how to improve the design, but in my time on the ship I never saw the problems fixed.
We could refuel helicopters two ways: with the bird sitting on the flight deck and HIFR (pronounced hi-fer) or Helicopter In Flight Refueling with the helicopter hovering above and to one side of the flight deck while taking on fuel. Quicker and tactically preferred in combat situations, HIFR was also used when the ship’s flight deck isn’t large enough to safely land the variety of helicopter needing fuel.
* * * *
On the night in question, the Coast Guard helicopters were refueled on deck; they probably could HIFR but as it was a night of firsts — our first experience with the HH-65 Dolphin and the pilots first look at the flight deck of the Navy’s newest class of guided-missile destroyer — there was no question on deck was the right course of action.
The supply department of Arleigh Burke, which I later led as department head, managed spare parts, food, paydays, haircuts and laundry, but not fuel; the ship’s engineers controlled the stores of both propulsion and aviation fuel. As we manned the flight deck in anticipation of landing the first Coast Guard helicopter for refueling, I felt a tap on the shoulder and turned to see the stern face of the Chief Engineer: “Whatever you do, make sure you get the paperwork from those guys! We have to account for every gallon.”
Seeing the rapidly approaching lights of the Coastie HH-65, I assured him it would be taken care of and would he please get off my flight deck? He glared at me and wagged a finger under my nose before disappearing into the ship.
A few minutes later the helicopter was on deck and fuel was flowing. The Dolphin wasn’t nearly as loud as a Navy helo, but communication was still difficult. Partway through the refueling a Sailor in a purple jersey and floatation vest — jobs on the flight deck are differentiated by color: HCO and LSE wear white and yellow respectively; deck crew wear blue; the fire party wears red; refuelers wear purple (and are called “grapes”) — handed me a multi-part (with carbons!) transfer form and pointed at the Dolphin.
I waved over one of the deck crew, pantomimed signing the form, pointed at the helicopter, and then handed him the form. He nodded and walked into the LSE’s field of vision; once the LSE acknowledged him, the crewman tapped his head and pointed at the helicopter. Granted permission by the LSE to approach the Dolphin, he walked to the helicopter and approached the Coast Guard flight crewman overseeing the fueling operation.
Its tough to recall what happened next without smiling, even all these years later. With plenty of gestures and shouted-but-barely-heard discussion at each point in the chain, that form was passed from to the helicopter crewman, who took it to one of the pilots, who then handed it back to the ship’s deckhand, who walked it back to me. Unsigned. Angrily tapping a finger into the now-crumpled form, I indicated to my Sailor that it had to be signed, and he dutifully retraced his steps to the pilot.
More gestures, more words shouted and lost to the wind of whirling blades. The fueling crew indicated they were nearly done, and CIC informed me on internal comms to stand by to launch, yet I didn’t have a signed transfer order. Finally, as the fuel hose was being pulled back across the flight deck and I was given a green deck for take-off, my crewman returned to me. Smiling, he handed me the unsigned form and a U.S. Coast Guard “for-official-use-only” credit card.
Huh. At the Navy’s Supply school we weren’t taught how to be cashiers, much less how to take plastic for payment.
Holding onto the credit card, I looked across at the helicopter and lifted both hands up in the universal gesture for “what the hell?” The two pilots looked back at me and one shrugged his shoulders and mouthed something that I suspect was along the lines of “That’s what we use. Take it or leave it.”
By this point, the folks in CIC and on the bridge were wondering just why it was we still had a helicopter on our flight deck and did I know there was a missing boat out there that needed finding? Handing the credit card back to my crewman, I indicated for him to take it back to the pilot and moments later the helicopter was rising into the night, full of free U.S. Navy fuel.
As soon as we secured from flight quarters the Chief Engineer was back, and he was none too happy to get the ripped, wrinkled and unsigned form I handed to him. I explained the situation and suggested an immediate message to our superiors to document the fuel transfer, but I’m not sure how much he heard in between chewing me out. The only thing that ended his tirade was the bridge informing us another Coast Guard helicopter in the search party had requested refueling.
The rest of that night was a blur of flight quarters and the smell of aviation fuel. I have no idea if the missing boat was ever found, but we had so many customers at our floating gas station that night that for months those of us on the flight deck crew joked at one point a drug smuggler snuck into the line to top off.
If he did, he got that gas for free, just like those Coasties.