Wednesday, September 21, 2011

What Is an "Aircraft"?

If you are familiar with firearms, you know that there is a part that has a serial number. That part is normally the "frame" or the "receiver". You can replace every other part and it is still, by law, the same weapon. You may go to a match and see a tricked-out .45 race gun that started life as an off-the-shelf Government Model, but by law, it's still the same gun.

With airplanes, the "this is the airplane" part is the data plate. It is normally a piece of sheet metal, stamped with the maker's information. This is one from a Lockheed Vega.


You may, on occasion, have gone to an air show and seen airplanes from the early days of aviation. There, you might have sen a 1923 This or a 1934 That. It might be touted as a "restored original". What you probably don't know is the original parts may be a very small percentage of the airplane you saw and it is possible that the only original part was the data plate.

This is no shit:

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, flying naval aviation jets was a far more hazardous line of work than it is today. It was not unheard of for an fighter jet squadron to deploy for six months on a carrier and suffer a 20-25% attrition rate. In plain English, that meant that a quarter of the squadron's pilots were either seriously injured or killed. And this, mind you, was in peacetime.

Which meant that the Navy needed to buy lots of replacement airplanes. But money for replacement airplanes was difficult to come by; especially during the time that the spending on the Strategic Air Command consumed two-thirds of the military budget. Congress closely scrutinized the amount of money spent on new airplanes.

But Congress paid less attention to the repair budgets. So what some bright soul thought of was to take the data plates from the wrecked airplanes and send them to the manufacturers for "depot-level repairs".

Which meant that the manufacturers would build a new airplane on their production line, affix the old data plate to the new airplane and Voilà! The old airplane was "repaired" and returned to service.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Thirty Days Hath September

In my last post, I alluded to the fact that after the 1970s oil shocks, that Navy ships were limited to a transit speed of sixteen knots, absent operational urgencies.[1] Let me follow up on that a little.

You might have heard of the tragedy of the USS Indianapolis. That ship was torpedoed and sunk, very late in the war, by a Japanese submarine.[2] Because of a comedy of errors on behalf of a lot of officers, nobody realized that the ship was lost for four days. In that time, over half of the men who survived the sinking died from exposure or shark bite.

Out of that tragedy, the Navy developed the Movement Reporting System, or MOVREP. A MOVREP was a sailing plan, similar to an aircraft flight plan in concept. A MOVREP set out the time a ship was leaving port, the time it was going to arrive in port (or on station), the times the ship was to pass by certain positions (latitude and longitude) and the course and speed between positions. In essence, the position points were dictated by the need to change course and since a great-circle sailing plan had a lot of course changes, MOVREPs could be rather detailed. Ships were allowed to deviate a certain distance off the course line and there was a time window for the position points (plus or minus four hours, if I remember correctly).

The idea was that if a ship went out of contact, at least the Navy would know where to go looking for her.

This is no shit:

There was a ship that was supposed to go from a port visit in one nation to a port visit in another nation. Pursuant to the fleet commander's scheduling order, the ship was to get underway at 1200 local time on September 28th and arrive at 1000 local time on October 2nd. A few days before, the Navigator[3] and his Chief Quartermaster plotted out the courses and distances necessary to go from Port A to Port B. When they did that, the Navigator saw that they would have to transit at a speed of about 24 knots.

That was a puzzle, for the Navigator knew of no reason why they had to go so fast. The Navigator then added in twenty-four hours to the transit time and bingo: That resulted in a sixteen knot transit speed. It was clear to him, at least, that somebody in the Fleet staff had forgotten that September has only thirty days.

He drafted his MOVREP and took it to the Captain. In the "remarks" line, he had something snarky like "transit speed would be 16 knots if September had 31 days." The Captain read it over; he told the Navigator that there were no points awarded for being right if it embarrassed the staff of a three-star admiral. The Captain struck the remarks line, replaced it with "none" and had it sent out.[4]

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[1] This applied to nuclear-powered ships as well as oil-burning ships. The thinking was limiting the transit speeds of nucs would prolong the time between nuclear refuelings.
[2] W. Graham Claytor received the Medal of Honor for his rescue efforts.
[3] This was in the days before the XO was required to be the Navigator. After that time, the junior officer who actually did the work was designated the "Navigator's Assistant" or the "Navigation Officer" or something like that there.
[4] The ship sailed four hours before the MOVREP departure time and arrived four hours after the arrival time in order to save some fuel.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Twenty Knot Tommy

Back in the 1970s, after the Vietnam War was finished, the Navy regarded shore duty as a sort of paid vacation. The idea was something along the lines of since sailors spent a lot of time away from home when they were on sea duty, when they were on shore duty, they should work regular hours. It was highly frowned upon to require sailors on shore duty to work outside of normal hours.[1] It took damn near an act of Congress (or a C/M-4 CASREP) in order to get the shore establishment to work overtime.[2]

"20 Knot Tommy" was the skipper of a tin can that was homeported in Charleston, SC.[3] He got that nickname because his preferred speed during sea and anchor detail was 20 knots. The Charleston Naval Station was several miles up the Cooper River. A lot of recreational boaters[4] could be found in the Cooper River. The Coast Guard asked the Navy to limit the speed of its ships when they were transiting the Cooper River. That cut no ice with 20 Knot Tommy. The Coast Guard would complain to the Navy, the commander of the naval base would send a letter to 20 Knot Tommy, who would ignore the letter.[5]

This is no shit: 20 Knot Tommy and his ship were returning to port after a series of exercises. From the time the last exercise ended, a normal transit[6] would bring 20 Knot Tommy and his ship to the Cooper River sea buoy[7] at 0530 on Saturday.

The ship sent the normal logistics requirement message to NAVSTA Charleston, which said that the ship would require two tugs, linehandlers and the usual services early on Saturday morning. NAVSTA Charleston replied that the ship was to remain at sea until no earlier than 0900 on Monday.

Tommy was not going to keep his ship and his crew at sea for two extra days to accommodate the shore establishment. At 0600 on Saturday, his ship was sitting in the Cooper River off the naval base. Tommy got on the radio, called the naval base and asked for the tugs. The duty officer told him to go back out to sea and come back on Monday.

20 Knot Tommy wasn't having any of that. So he anchored his tin can right in the middle of the Cooper River, just offshore of the Bachelor Officers' Quarters (BOQ). What Tommy knew was that a number of senior officers had left their families in the DC area and those officers lived in the senior officers' section of the BOQ. Those rooms faced the river.

Tommy's next move was to hold early reveille on those officers. He did that by having the ship's whistle sound long (and very loud) blasts at short intervals.

One of those senor officers was the commander of one of the two destroyer squadrons in Charleston. He was Tommy's boss. Within 15 minutes, the Commodore was on the radio and the conversation went something like this:

"Good morning, Thomas. You're back early, I see."
"Yessir. Request permission to enter port."
"Permission granted. The tugs will be out to you shortly."

And they were. Someone on the Bridge spotted the smoke from two tugs as the duty crews started the tugs' diesels. The tugs got underway, Tommy ordered the anchor raised, and his ship was brought alongside the pier. Other ships at the pier sent over linehandlers to help moor the ship and a crane was waiting to lift a brow.

20 Knot Tommy was the hero of the waterfront for the next week or so.

But I imagine that his career went nowhere. For you didn't buck Big Navy and survive.
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[1] 0730-1600.
[2] The sailors on ships used to say that their main mission was to support the shore establishment.
[3] By "tin can", I mean a warship other than a cruiser or a minesweeper.
[4] Also known as "bubbas with boats".
[5] Supposedly he said that sailing in and out at 20 knots effectively halved the time his crew had to stand at Sea and Anchor Detail and if that made the Coasties unhappy, fuck `em.
[6] Warships were limited to a transit speed of 16 knots, unless authorized to go faster.
[7] The "sea buoy" is the last buoy in a marked channel before the open sea.