USS Nimitz is the lead ship of her class, and what is known in the vernacular as a “mature” ship, having been commissioned since 1975. The ship has already completed her mid-life reactor complex overhaul and refueling. The last of the Nimitz class is George H.W. Bush (CVN-77), delivered to the Navy only two weeks ago. Right now, the last CO of Nimitz is an unsuspecting, mid-grade lieutenant in a carrier squadron somewhere – perhaps even aboard Nimitz herself – while the final CO of Bush has not yet been born.
I didn’t go out there as a member of the INSURV board, but the ship seems to be in great material condition, considering all her use over the years, and especially in the last several years. The ship has made three extended deployments since 9/11, including a six and a half month deployment from April 2007 to September of that same year. After only a three month rest period in North Island, she deployed again to the Western Pacific for a surge deployment from January to June 2008, which is damned hard running. Our embark was during her final training period in preparation for yet another deployment this summer.
But there are things you can tell about a ship if you’ve been about them long enough. The way the bridge watch performs their duties is a good indicator of the leadership aboard, and I saw nothing even remotely objectionable. Although all that new clabber on the bridge had me in the drool cup for a bit: The helmsman runs the rudders from the ship’s wheel while also sending engine orders from a flat panel display on the same station, with the lee helmsman leaning over, watching. I spoke with the ship’s Navigator about the Voyage Management System, which is quite an update from the Electronic Chart Display System we had aboard Constellation, but was relieved to see that over on the starboard side of the bridge the quartermaster’s were keeping the ship’s position the old fashioned way, on charts. I know that the pressure is on to move towards a “paperless” bridge, but piloting and navigation are perishable skills, and someone needs to know how to reckon a ship’s position when all the gee whiz gear goes tango uniform, as it inevitably will. With Murphy always on the tiller, it’ll happen at the worst possible time, too.
Then there is way the flight deck is run: LCDR George Sharp is the Aircraft Handling Officer, and he’s the kind of Handler that thinks CNO puts four catapults on the deck for a reason. On a day when the air wing was launching and recovering a combined 30-32 aircraft per cycle, Nimitz was shooting all four catapults. With 19 and 20 year old ABs holding lives and equipment worth tens of millions of dollars. I never once saw a suspended cat shot, or foul deck wave-off attributable to the ship.
Admittedly, this was a small data sample. But I was watching closely.
But mostly you can tell about a ship’s morale – Skipper Nasty acknowledges his Title 10 responsibility for his crew’s morale and welfare – by the way she’s kept, and Nimitz was damn near spotless, with never a candy bar wrapper or soda can astray in any of the usual places. Which is a good thing, because having worked closely with RADM Fozzie Miller, the CSG-11 commander and embarked flag, I can tell you that anything else would get you a vigorous frowning, with harsh language to follow.
The naval standard of cleanliness can seem fussy and almost ritualistic to a landsman, accustomed to seeing a certain degree of chaos in normal life. But a warship is more than just 95,000 tons of go-where-it-will diplomacy, it’s also a home to 5000 people, and the way the ship is maintained says a great deal about the crew. There may be, I suppose, clean ships with decaying innards, but if you see a ship that is untidy on the surface, the odds are overwhelming that the rust runs deep in the running tackle too.
If the ship’s morale is a reflection of their leadership, it can’t hurt that both the CO and the admiral went flying on the same day, albeit on differing cycles. Nasty may have grown up flying the Tomcat, but he broke his Super Hornet at the fantail carrying a bag of knots, and landed on the three wire like it didn’t matter.
A skipper (and an admiral) in the air is a skipper out of your hair, and it was also good to hear Fozzie admit – after many, many lengthy and contrary discussions betweem hizzoner and your host on the bridge of the Connie boat back in the day – the manifold advantages of the FA-18F. I admit to the merest possibility that this was directed more to impress his other guests than to admit defeat in a long-running argument with his former Operations Officer.
Then there are the ship’s people themselves: The PAO crew were outstanding, as they usually must be, reflecting as they do the ship’s face to the non-naval public. We got a great flight deck brief by an E-2 pilot serving his disassociated sea tour as the Hangar Deck division officer and Catapult Officer. He was a bearish but humorous young man afflicted with the call sign of “Freak Show,” and as is so often the case in the E-2 community, he came to the Navy after having completed a career as a circus entertainer – in his particular case as a trapeeze artist. We also got a great brief from a second class Operations Specialist in the Combat Direction Center whose name I cannot instantly recall. Which is a shame, because – based at least on his facilty with briefing the complexities of the ship’s operational nerve center – the young man ought to be on his way to a commissioning program. He was sharp.
The Ordies were a hoot, and I got my first look both at the ship’s armory and magazines. In ordnance control I innocently (keeping my previous career something on the down low) asked the impressive first class ordnancemen briefing us what “IYAOYAS” meant, hoping to hear him explaining the acronym to the mixed company of civvies while dealing with that problematic “S” at the end. In the event, the young man showed no hesitation spelling it out for us front to back. I should’ve remembered, but that’s the thing about Ordies – they give it to you straight.
Truth be told, DV embarks are a huge PITA for the ship’s company. Wide-bodied civilians blocking all the passageways and ladder wells, stepping ever so carefully over the knee knockers, climbing the ladders like asthmatics and descending them like invalids. Asking silly questions, lingering over their coffee in the wardroom, hanging their tushes out of the ice cream locker for what seems like an eternity. Nimitz treated us as honored guests though, people were happy to oblige throughout the hull, whether it meant patiently waiting for the train to get moving, or whether it was engaging in pleasant conversation. It’s a good thing too, because it isn’t like the average American citizen can go down to the corner aircraft carrier and see how his tax dollars are being spent – the Navy does its best work at sea.
I think the bloggers were impressed by what they saw, which is not at all surprising. But I was impressed too, and very happy to be so. Even if I was homesick.
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.