Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Story of the Green Flare

This is no shit:

The Navy conducts exercises at sea from time to time, operations that civilians refer to as "war games." The goal is to train the ships' crews to deal with the operational tempo, lack of sleep and some of the stresses of being in fluid and uncertain situations at sea.

I was one of the OODs of one of the ships in the exercise. My ship had a modest AAW defensive capability. That was simulated by the firing of a green flare from a Very pistol. For the duration of the exercise, the OODs wore a holster with the Very pistol and several flares.

There was a recognition procedure to identify friendly and hostile aircraft. If I remember correctly, friendlies were to approach ships by flying a certain true course. No radio calls were to be made.

When the EWs detected a contact, the information was passed up to the Bridge over the JA phone circuit. The lookouts were also on the JA circuit, so they would look for something. Because of this, the bearings to any possible threats were sent up as relative bearings (0 degrees being "dead ahead").

So there I was, on watch. The call came up: "Hostile aircraft, bearing 080." The lookouts almost immediately reported "air contact, 3 o'clock". I looked, sure enough, a helicopter was flying directly at the ship.

I loaded the Very pistol, raised it, and fired the flare.

The problem, of course, was that when one added the ship's course to the relative bearing of the air contact, the helicopter was on the "safe course".

The pilots, understandably, were not amused. They broke radio silence and rained some abuse down upon the R/T operator in CIC.

The Captain, though, was more sanguine about it. He came up to the Bridge and asked me what happened. I told him and apologized for fucking up. He shrugged and asked me if I had ever heard the Simon & Garfunkel song "the Boxer". I said I had and I guess my puzzlement showed.

He told me that there is a line in the song that "a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest". He told me that I expected to see an enemy aircraft and that I saw what I thought I would see and that, in a hot war, people were always going to get killed that way. He told me the real trick was to be able to make fast decisions and yet be alert enough to question myself to make reasonably certain that I really knew what was going on.

I kept the shell casing from the Very flare for many years, eventually losing it in a move somewhere along the way.

Of course, what sparked this remembrance was the recent story about the crew of an Apache attack helicopter shooting at a Reuters news crew.


Frank Van Haste said...

Dear Miss Fit:

You had yourself a good Skipper there.

And, I take it in the current contretemps, you will not be among those casting the first stones. Good.

Best regards,


stephen said...

RE: Reuters

I have an uncle who was a Combat Controller for almost 30 years with 3 tours in Vietnam and 10 years in SEA.

Two of his sayings have stuck in my mind over the years:

"That SF patch does not mean you are immortal or invulnerable" I think that also applies to press credentials.

"Anything you do in a combat zone-including nothing-can get you killed" I think that also applies.

It is very difficult for pilots, no matter what they are flying, to correctly ID things on the ground.

My sorrow goes out to all concerned.

Anonymous said...

Ha! And done in the blink of an eye. Just another day in CIC. I agree with the Captain. Unfortunate, but so true.


chaoticsynapticactivity said...

Green flares, used in this case, have another meaning: Coming from a sub, indicating you'd swimming with the fishies, if it had been a real shooting match.

Good story about your day and a very good issue to think about: Both the fog of war, and how one can work to clear as much as possible in training, so it works to halt blue on blue in the real thing.

Comrade E.B. Misfit said...

I know about the other use of a green flare. I guess there weren't that many colors to choose from.

PhysioProf said...

It takes guts to publicly admit mistakes like that. Kudos, CEBM.