The Persian Excursion

December, 1990:

Around this time in my career, I was a Second Class Machinist Mate assigned to Main Machinery Room Number 1. I had been onboard for just over a year after serving for two years on a Farragut Class Destroyer (USS Dahlgren DDG 43).  While we were getting ready for the holiday stand down, we had a lot of boiler maintenance in progress. My memory is a little fuzzy but I think we were planning for a February or March deployment. We were pier side NOB Norfolk when word came that either the America or the JFK would be deploying within the next two weeks to support Desert Shield. Based on current state of ongoing maintenance, JFK ‘volunteered’ to deploy to the Red Sea and would leave in less than two weeks! We, on the other hand, were given the rest of the month to put the pieces back together and prepare to deploy to the Red Sea in early January ’91.  We put all of the pieces back together and left NOB in early January and headed across the pond for our rendezvous with Sara and JFK in the Red Sea. Since we were ordered to be on station by the 16th, we ran at pretty much flank speed all the way. If you’ve never had the ‘pleasure’ of running a 25 year old steam plant at flank speed for two weeks, you don’t know what you’re missing. Anyhow, we ran the old girl at or around 35 knots across the pond with no major problems, that in itself shocked the hell out of us, and arrived just in time for the fun to start. Now, I am getting up there in the years, and my memory tends to fuzz up so if I get the actual dates wrong don’t chastise me! I think it was the 16th or 17th when we transitioned from Desert Shield to Desert Storm and unleashed the hounds of war onto Iraqi military. I had just gotten off of watch at midnight and as was normal routine, after mid-rats, I retired to a sponson for some fresh air and quiet conversation with my shipmates. What we didn’t know was that we were going to witness the first strike! We were hanging out joking around when the small boys launched their Tomahawks. There is no way to adequately describe how awe inspiring it was to see what seemed like a hundred missiles simultaneously launch at 0200! Our first day on station was uneventful as our birds were flying CAP (Carrier Air Protection) and not delivering arsenal. But that, of course, changed as the days drew on. My job during this was Throttleman on Number One Shaft (Starboard Outboard Shaft). When we were launching our attack aircraft, we began the ‘Dance of the Throttles’.  For those who are not already aware, to launch our aircraft we needed at least 40 knots of wind across the deck. However, if you’ve ever been at sea – particularly in the Red Sea – you’ll understand that you just don’t get 40 knots of wind from Mother Nature.  So, we had to make the wind by driving the ship fast and hard! Now, to get an 80,000 ton aircraft carrier going fast enough to make that much wind takes quite a bit of steam. Even running with six boilers up, it was a big drain on the system to drive the ship that fast. Here’s where the ‘Dance of the Throttles” kicks up – to launch an A-6, FA-18, or F-14 fully loaded with weapons, you need a lot of steam. Coincidentally, that is the same steam we are using to make the wind! So, we wing open the throttles to speed up the ship, the ‘Cat Snipes’ warn us of an impending cat launch by screaming “Cat Drag A-6/FA-18/F-14 Cat One” (Cat One was my catapult) over the sound powered circuit. When we hear ‘Cat Drag” we rapidly close the throttles to ‘give back steam’ so the catapults don’t drag the boilers off line. By knowing which bird was on deck, we knew how much steam to give back so we could successfully launch our birds while maintaining the right speed. Keep in mind, that while I was dancing with the Number One Shaft, I had three partners in crime doing the same on their respective shafts.  We did this on and eight hours on / eight hours off rotation. Ah, the ‘Dance of the Throttles’, how I miss it so! We did this for a few weeks until orders came reassigning America to the Persian Gulf to be part of a FOUR CARRIER BATTLE GROUP! Not since World War II had the US Navy fielded a four carrier battle group! Anyhow, here’s where the next bit of excitement begins. In order to meet our first scheduled launch from the Gulf, we needed to make best speed and head for the fun. However, on the first night of the transit we experienced just about the worst engineering casualty that didn’t involve fire – a loss of lube oil pressure to Number One Main Reduction Gear (my shaft for those who aren’t paying attention). Now, let’s set the stage for the next act. We were in the Red Sea headed south to Gasoline Alley for fuel, bombs, and food enroute to the Gulf. We had a couple of squadrons of A-6’s & FA-18’s returning from a ‘mail run’ to downtown Iraq as well as a couple of F-14’s flying CAP. In order to recover the attack aircraft we needed to maintain a steady speed. The flyboys liked it better when the flight deck didn’t wander around aimlessly (typical spoiled brats J ). So, here we are maintaining 25 knots on a steady course, a routine watch in the engineering world. Now, since we are maintaining a steady course and speed, the throttleman (not me this time) wasn’t paying a whole lot of attention to the gage boards and out of nowhere, the watch team hears the dreaded loss of lube oil pressure alarm. This alarm was quite distinctive in that is strongly resembled an older police siren – a noise we all just love to hear! Again for those of you who never plied the greasy underworld of a ship, I’ll try to explain what we had to do and just how much it angered the CO, CAG, and other big brass who like to keep the aircraft in flying order. When we get a loss of lube oil pressure on a Main Reduction Gear, the unaffected shafts immediately make turns for Emergency Standard (15 knots) and the affected shaft is immediately stopped by applying Astern Steam (basically stopping the shaft by trying to spin it in the opposite direction until it is stopped). Now, when you stop the shaft you turn the propeller into a brake, a 22 foot in diameter solid bronze brake. We have now stopped the Starboard Outboard Shaft, a maneuver that forces the ship to react faster than a rudder order! Imagine if you will, that you are a pilot on approach to an airstrip in the middle of the Red Sea, an airstrip that is plodding along at 25 knots and looks like a postage stamp from your altitude. Now, all of a sudden, that airstrip slows down drastically and veers off to the right! Oh by the way, it’s about 0300 and the CO isn’t fond of late night wake ups. So, here we are trying to make it to the Gulf on a tight schedule and our maximum speed available is now 20 knots with the Number One Shaft locked and dragging like an anchor. Let’s just say that a lot of people were eager for us to fix the problem! Now, since nobody was watching the gage boards closely, we had no clue as to what exactly had happened. Eventually, after about 12 -14 hours of fruitless troubleshooting – falling more and more behind schedule – we found the problem. We had sheared the drive shaft for the main lube oil pump. This pump was driven by the Main Reduction Gear and a necessity for operations at high speed since it provided a high capacity (flow) of lube oil. Here’s the dilemma, this is a part that is not supposed to fail and therefore is not easy to find. And, until we can fix the problem, we can’t kick up the speed and make it to the Gulf in time. Charlie Oscar is not a happy camper! So, in an effort to keep the CO out of hot water, we devise a plan that allows us to fix the problem yet still make our deadline. I dug into the tech manuals and determined just how much lube oil flow was needed for us to turn the reduction gears fast enough to make 35 knots (just over 800 GPM in case you are interested). Now, how do we get that much flow with the main oil pump toast!? We worked around the problem by using the Emergency Electric Lube Oil Pump (400 GPM) in conjunction with the Stand-by Steam Powered Lube Oil Pump (450 GPM on 120% overload). The only problem with this configuration was the fact that the longer the electric pump ran, the more it leaked – it was not designed for continuous use over 2 hours. And, oh by the way, since the steam pump was running at 120% overload, it was overheating – not a good thing when working with flammable fluids near a pump that is beginning to leak. However, it all worked out and we only needed to keep the Number One Shaft locked long enough to disassemble and blank off the attached main pump. Now we could bring the engines back up and turn on the speed. We were able to maintain around 35 knots and still made it to the Gulf in time to launch and not embarrass the CO and Admiral. Plus, we got lucky on the repair parts. As it turned out, General Electric – manufacturer of the reduction gear – didn’t have a shaft to replace the one that we broke but were in the process of making a new one, a two week turn-around for delivery. Meanwhile, one of my shipmates found out that in theory the part we needed may actually be onboard the ship in one of the store rooms (only about a billion store rooms on a carrier – easy to find!) Eventually, we finally located the spare parts and were able to restore the pump with little down time and no missed launches. After that, the rest of the Persian Excursion was pretty uneventful. When we weren’t bombing the bad guys, our EOD teams were disarming mines and our helicopters were harassing oil platforms. We even had an S-3 (sub hunter) register a kill on an Iraqi small boat by dropping an external fuel cell and making the small boat go BOOM! Ah good times, good times.

America served her country proud and without major loss from both the Red Sea and Persian Gulf – the only carrier to do so. In addition, she was part of a three and a four carrier battle group – again the only carrier to do so. She was a proud ship with a proud crew.

We who walked her decks will miss her.


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