Saturday, May 31, 2003

I've talked about firing the M60 and the .50 machine guns. As you can probably tell by the picture below, the .50 is about 12 times more powerful than the M60.

On the left is one of the spent shells from the M60, and the big guy to the right is one from the M2HB. But they both look positively sickly next to a spent shell from the 5"/54.

That's not all the gunpowder weapons that the McFaul has to defend herself with. There's also the Mk 15 Phalanx System. This is designed to shoot down missiles before they have a chance to hit the ship, and I once heard that they were even tested against ballistic 5" shells. Think about that for a minute, the gun can shoot down bullets before they hit.

The crew call the little pods "R2D2". Can't figure out why.

Looks more like one of those Daleks from the old Dr. Who TV show, except that the Mk 15 wouldn't be as handy to have around if the toilets on the McFaul should happen to clog.

I was present when they test fired the system but the angle was wrong for pictures. That gatling gun attached to the bottom of the dome is fed from an inner drum, and I did manage to get a picture of that when they started to disassemble the system for cleaning and maintenance.

Eventually they remove all of the moving parts, leaving the radar dome and the mounting frame.

Most of the people who visit here regularly are painfully aware that you have to clean your guns each and every time that they are fired. The Mk 15 is no different, but it takes 17 hours of maintenance to get it up and running again. That's due to all of the eletrical connections and aiming motors that have to be just right. If they're off by even the tiniest amount then the system can't do it's job. And I thought I had it tough cleaning everything in the gun safe every two months.

So why don't I have any spent 20mm shells for my collection? Because they fire depleted uranium rounds, and the public has the mistaken impression that DU is toxic. Even though it's just the shell that's left behind and not the sabot-jacketed round, the Navy disposes of the cases properly after every firing. This means that there's going to be a gap in my collection of spent shells for some time to come.

It used to be that the Captain of a ship would have a lockbox or a safe in his quarters. When the ship would dock into port he'd dole out a few coins to the crew so they could get gloriously drunk. On the McFaul it's done with an ATM.

It's not a bank ATM. Instead it draws on accounts through the ship's Bursar's Office. The crew can set it up so a portion of their pay is sent to an account on the ship. A special card is issued that will work in the ATM so they can get some cash when they're in port and (ahem) see the sights.

So what do they use their money for when they're at sea? To buy stuff in the Ship's Store.

Thursday, May 29, 2003

The shaft wasn't that high. It couldn't have been more than twenty feet to the bottom, maybe twenty-five. To get on the ladder all I would have to do was hold on to the edge of the door, stand on the bottom edge and step off to the ladder. Piece of cake.

"Don't touch the edge!" Kathryn said, carefully pointing without touching. "And don't step on the bottom edge. We have to make sure to maintain as perfect a seal in here as possible."

Suddenly all that empty space looked more daunting than it should have. Kathryn leaned out of the hatch, grabbed one of the rungs of the ladder with one hand, and swung herself out. She paused for a minute and looked at me, concerned that I might be afraid of the drop. "Are you okay with this?"

Even if I was I'd never admit to it in front of her. "You betcha! Good to go!" I waited until she had gone down the ladder far enough so I wouldn't step on her hands, already planning on how I would fall when I missed the ladder so my plunging body wouldn't hit her. Then I leaned out and grabbed a rung with one hand, made a biiiigggg step to get my foot on the ladder, and pulled myself out into the shaft.

Like I said, piece of cake.

The above description would make one think that we were up on one of the McFaul's masts, what with all this talk of heights. Instead we were deep inside the ship. The spaces that hold the sonar equipment are piled one on top of the other, and this is how access is provided. The lower part of the shaft is below the water line, which means that climbing around in there was as close as I got to being on a submarine that trip.

Here's a pic of the shaft. I was looking straight up while straddling the watertight hatch that led to the submerged sonar dome, careful not to stand on anything that I wasn't supposed to.

Way up at the top you can barely make out Kathryn, peering down as she wondered what was taking me so long to get my big behind up the damn ladder. Notice the netting strung across the shaft at each deck, placed to catch someone if they should be thrown off the ladder in high seas. I suppose that I wouldn't have fallen far if I had missed that first rung.

All of this space is needed to fit the sonar system on board the ship. Submarines are, as you proably already realize, the weapon that invented stealth. And they're still the best at it. If the McFaul is to carry out her core mission of protecting against aggression then she needs to find these silent killers before they get close enough to launch their torpedoes. The result is that she's equipped with what is probably the most sophisticated ASW system in the world. And the reason that it's so effective is that it has a towed array to dramatically increase the effectiveness of her already affective sonar.

So what's a towed array? It's a long line of high-tech microphones towed behind the ship. Below is a pic of me leaning on the array's spool, sucking in my gut and trying to look manly.

Doesn't look too impressive, does it? The towed array doesn't look like much, either. In fact it resembles one of those PVC pipes that you buried in the back yard to help drain the garden. But don't let appearances lead you astray, this thing is sensitive enough to hear an idling engine a thousand miles away (the towed array, that is. Not me. I can barely hear an idling engine a hundred miles away).

I couldn't get anyone to tell me how long the array is (classified, I suspect). Just judging by eye I'd have to say it's probably about a mile, maybe. It's heavier than water, so it can sink down below thermal layers and listen for subs that are trying to be sneaky by diving deep. If the sea is calm and the McFaul isn't moving then the tip of the array could dip down below 5,000 feet, down where it's always dark and below freezing.

So far they haven't found Atlantis, though. Seems to me that someone isn't listening hard enough.

Allow me to introduce you to Master Chief Kastler.

She's the top ranking NCO on board the USS McFaul. This means that she answers directly to the Captain, and one of her main jobs is to act as the enlisted crew member's advocate to the officers. She also tries to look out for the crew, and to help them achieve the most out of the time that they serve.

This would lead one to describe MDCM Kastler's job as being a den mother. This is a false analogy because she doesn't coddle anyone. Instead she tries to motivate them to get on out and take responsibility for their own actions.

Kastler and I talked for awhile. She's concerned about how the Navy's ships are aging.

"So how many new ships do we need to replace the ones that are due to retire? About three or four new ships need to be launched per year, and instead we're seeing only one or two. This means that many ships that reach the projected end of their service life are being kept around for longer than they should. The maintenance load is increasing, like the time they have to spend in port being repaired instead of being out in the ocean doing what they were built for. This should go on for awhile. What we should see is, in about twenty years things will get too much and there'll be about ten years of massive construction to replace most of the fleet."

We discussed her duties concerning motivating the crew. She stressed that support from the family is essential.

"The ones who have a lot of contact with their family are usually the ones that you want to have in the Navy. They're usually pretty motivated and want to get ahead, but they also have a lot of pressure to get out and come home. The ones who don't have that sort of support usually turn out to be the kind of people who you need to motivate more, and sometimes they really don't ever get it together."

Kastler has chosen the Navy as her career, and it's no surprise that her husband is also a lifer (I didn't meet the gentleman, so no pics). Both of them have worked out ways to use the skills they learned in the Navy in new and unique ways. One time it came in handy when it was atking some extra time to get the McFaul tied up to the dock, and Kathryn Woods was going to be late for a pistol competition.

"Until the phone and Internet lines are hooked up there's no real way to communicate with the shore. He (her husband.-Ed.) was sitting out in the parking lot, parked where I could see him from the Bridge. He started to blink his headlights in Morse, just saying Hello. I got on the signal lamp and told him what was going on. By the time the plank was in place and Woods went down it, he was waiting at the end of the pier right past the security checkpoint with his door open and a route already planned. He managed to get her there on time."

Talk about showing support for the crew!

Tuesday, May 27, 2003

Back in the days of the wooden hulls, water was carried around in wooden barrels. Unless someone wanted to go over the side and splash around in the ocean, bathing just didn't happen. (If someone DID bath in sea water they'd itch like crazy with all of the salt on their skin.)

When engines replaced sail power some of the heat from the ship's power plant could be used to boil water. The steam was collected and allowed to recondense, which resulted in fresh water for bathing or cooking.

Except that there wasn't enough. The old WWII ships had Water Hours, where people would be assigned a short period of time during the day when they could wash up. They didn't have showers like we do at home, either. They'd have really short shower times, and they'd have to turn the shower off while soaping up. From a civilian's standpoint it sucked but it was a great improvement over those wooden barrels.

The McFaul doesn't have to worry about that. There's certainly enough water to take a real shower, but the crew is encouraged to make it a short one. (Hey, there were over 60 people in my berthing and only 3 shower stalls!) The way they make all of this lovely water is through a reverse osmosis system. In the simplest possible terms it's a filter system that allows them to get fresh water from sea water.

It's not perfect. The water had an odd smell and taste to it. I was told it was due to the bromide that's present in sea water and that the RO system doesn't get rid of. Still, it was good enough. It was at least as good as some of that funky-tasting water you can get out of the water fountains at Rest Areas along America's highways, and it was better than most of them.

I suppose that's why the flavored fruit drinks were so popular in the Mess. Covered up the odd taste.

Getting on board the McFaul is easy if it's in port. But what about the times that there isn't a dock to tie up to, or when it would be more convenient to simple get on a boat and go somewhere? For that, there's the ship's launch.

The boat consists of a small rigid hull with a flexible kevlar skirt attached to the top. This provides better seaworthiness in high seas, as well as acting as a ready-made cushion for when the launch is next to another ship. The deisel engine is set low, at the bottom of the rigid hull. This increases stability but it means that the engine is always in sea water that sloshes over the side. As anyone who's been to sea can tell you, sea water is absolutely deadly to bare metal. It will rust in just a few days if you're not careful.

An officer I was talking to said it best. "Like anything else the Navy does, it works great just as long as you throw a lot of maintenance at it. Just as soon as you can't pay attention it all falls apart."

You wouldn't think that the pic below is anything out of the ordinary. Just two guys with a strong family resemblance standing on the deck of a ship.

What you're looking at is two generations of a family that went to war on the sea. The gentleman to the left is Ray Regenerus, who served during the Viet Nam War on the USS Hanson (DD-32). Standing next to him is Lt. Scott Regenerus, who is currently serving on board the USS McFaul (DDG-74). Scott also happens to be Ray's son.

I talked with Ray about his experiences while on board the Hanson. He noticed differences between his ship and modern destroyers.

"We had more room to live in, which makes sense considering that there were more engineers on board. The McFaul makes do with surprisingly few people to keep the engines running. But, then again, the Hanson had a steam power plant, so I suppose that they needed the extra hands."

"We had torpedoes, sure. We even had ASROC torpedos that they'd equip us with every so often. They were brand new at the time, real cutting edge stuff. They'd line armed Marine guards up on the dock and bring them in a covered truck. We had to keep real tight security, mark down everybody we saw with a camera or making notes. Whenever we came in to port we'd have people on the deck looking for people who were looking at us. Then we'd radio the Shore Patrol and they'd pick them up."

"Our main weapon at the time was the twin 5" guns. We'd go up and down the coast all day, shooting off our magazine inland to support ground operations, then we'd go back and pick up more ammo and stores at night. Then it was back out to sea and we'd do it again. It got sort of boring after awhile. But the one thing that never got boring was the night sky out at sea. I loved it! You could see forever, and you could see everything. When I gained some rank they told me that I didn't have to stand deck watches at night anymore. That was the one thing I wanted to do! I even volunteered to do it, but they wouldn't let me."

Ray's time on board the Hanson made a great impression on him, so much that he knows what happened to his old ship. It was sold to Taiwan and rechristened the Liao Yang (DD-921). The veterans who served on her are trying to raise money so they can buy her back and turn her into a floating museum. I wish them luck.

Ray's son Scott and I had a chance to talk for a few minutes. The conversation quickly turned to politics. Scott had a few things to say about the current situation.

"If you take a look at out capabilities, they're really not all that much greater than they were ten years ago. The reason the Europeans are getting so vocal is that they let their own militaries slip so that they're now absolutely pitiful. It would take years for them to build up enough so they could compete with us, decades even, and I don't think they're even going to start to try any time soon. The only option they really have is to try and convince us to do what they want through diplomacy, or public opinion, or something."

"Hey, that's their problem!" I said.

"Not really. Or at least not wholly. Our State Department's job is to get us the resources we need to get the job done. That's gotten harder in the last few years as other countries realize just what they can bring to the table. Which is not much. So it's natural that they're going to hold on to what they have and try to gain the greatest leverage they can. This doesn't mean that we can't do what we have to without their help, and the Europeans aren't being realistic if they think they can stop us from doing something that we consider vital, but it does mean that it will be harder or more expensive."

It seems to me that Scott has a pretty firm grasp on the situation. He's going to get a chance to put it to good use, since he'll soon be transferred to US Naval Intelligence in Washington, DC. I'm glad that the Navy isn't wasting any of the resources they have at hand, just like I'm glad that Scott is on our side.

So what is it about destroyers? Those tiny fighting ships, where young people are thrown together in extremely crowded conditions and asked to do things that the rest of us consider impossible? It seems to either burn away childishness or to reinforce it. At any rate, the people who serve on destroyers become the persons that they'll be for the rest of their lives while they're there, good or bad. It's a milestone that makes a really big impression.

Case in point is this web page that has links to many sites that were set up by veterans to honor the ships on which they served.
Every one of the Tigers was excited when they told us we could be there when they test-fired the 5"/54 gun.

When I saw this thing, sitting on the deck, I thought that it looked a little bit like one of those small Imperial Walkers that were in the Star Wars movies before they started to suck so bad, but without the legs, of course. The numbers that make up the 5"/54's name refers to the caliber of the shell (5"), and how many times that number the barrel length is (54 times the 5" diameter. I'll let you guys do the math).

The shell itself is fired electrically. The "primer" is a contact where the electrical connection is made.

The charge is carried along the entire length of the shell by a tube inside the case. This is to make sure that the maximum amount of powder is exposed to the charge, just in case some of it has gotten wet and doesn't want to explode like it should. Seems very practical to me, worrying about water getting inside of a shell that's stored on a ship that travels around all of the world's oceans.

The gun is an actual, real, honest-to-God artillery piece and it's automatically fed from a 20 round drum located under the deck. Realizing that the 5" will do different things if loaded with different ammunition the drum is usually only kept loaded with ten rounds. This way they can have instant ready firepower yet still be able to empty the magazine and be ready to reload with what's needed in about five seconds.

I was on the Bridge when the gun fired. Radar checks, sonar pings and visually scanning the ocean were all done to make sure that there was nothing out there. Then the gun was fired once to check range. It made a really loud noise that I felt deep in my chest and a cloud of white smoke blew over me. Smelled just like going to the shooting range, except a bit more concentrated. The PA came on. "Five seconds to impact. Five, four, three, two, one...Impact!" Waaay out on the horizon a gout of water lifted from the surface of the ocean. It took almost fifteen seconds before it finally settled back.

"Check fire! Check fire! There's something in the water, halfway between us and the impact point! Get some eyes on it!"

This put my heart in my throat. Someone was out here? But it turned out to be some balloons from a children's birthday party, rolling across the sea. Some bit of trash that the wind carried all the way out there. As soon as they figured out what it was the serious business of blowing up the ocean could continue.

They fired four rounds at a time, with one half second intervals between each round. Artillery crews in the land-based armed forces call this short burst of quick-fire a "stonk". I have no idea what the guys in the Navy call it. Something nautical, probably.

After each sequence of rounds the PA would come on and the same guy would count down the seconds before impact. Then we'd watch a few pillars of water grow from the surface and, slowly, fall back again.

It was very impressive, what with the noise and all. But, impressive or not, the deck guns are some of the least effective ship-to-ship weapons that the McFaul has in her on-board arsenal. Her most effective weapon against surface ships is probably her Harpoon missiles, and there's no doubt that the best thing for an enemy submarine are the Mk46 torpedos that she carries. So why do they still have a gun at all?

The Navy is just trying to save the taxpayers some money. Sure, the robot kamikaze missiles that she's equipped with could destroy any ship that attacked the McFaul, but the gun is certainly good enough to take care of smaller craft without wasting a million dollars a shot. The gun also has the bonus of being able to provide support to infantry units ashore, as long as they're within range.

After the shoot, spent shell casings were being offered to the Tigers as souvenirs.

And Now for the Rest of the Story
My sponsor, Kathryn, is assigned to Sonar. She was on duty while the 5" was being fired, and she was rather bored. When she heard the PA announce "Impact!", she'd start to count to herself. When the sound of the shell hitting the water reached the ship she marked bearing, and the seconds she had counted off allowed her to calculate range. All of this means that she knew where the shell hit to within a few yards, and she can also calculate the distance and bearing to another ship by the sound of the engines. If everything was going wrong, the radar was out and it was too dark to see, she could feed info to the Bridge that would allow them to aim and fire the gun.

Kathryn didn't think that this was all that interesting but I was certainly impressed. I asked her if she could tell where a golf ball splashed if someone hit it off of the Flight Deck. She hesitated, and then admitted that she could if the sea was calm and the engines weren't running. After all, ahe said, a golf ball doesn't make as much noise as an exploding artillery shell.

Considering that I've heard both when they hit something, I have to admit that she has a point.

Monday, May 26, 2003

Every member of the armed forces and veterans who have served in the past deserve our thanks. I'd like to present mine.

Thanks, guys. We owe you.

I've mentioned that living on board ship is rough. No privacy, your personal life put on hold, and nothing to do but perform maintenance and practice practice practice. This is an essential job, and we owe every one of the people who protect us by going to sea our thanks, but it's getting harder to find people willing to do it.

Seems that the Navy has noticed that keeping the ships on station for months results in lower new enlistments and a lower number of renewals. So they they're going to try something new.

According to, they're going to keep the carriers and all of their escort craft in port for longer periods of time. When trouble flares up they'll deploy more than one of the carriers at once. This strategy of keeping several carriers and their escorts ready to go is referred to as a "surge system". What the heck, it might just work.

The crews will approve, I think.

Sunday, May 25, 2003

An acquaintance at work asked me what the crew of the USS McFaul felt about the ruckus raised by some congressmen when Pres. Bush landed on the USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) for a speech. This puzzled me. I had heard that President Bush had given a speech on the flattop, mainly because most of the crew on the McFaul were somewhat envious, but I hadn't heard about any controversy.

The US Navy has a keen interest in the morale of their crews, and one of the ways that they try and keep it high is by allowing the guys on the ships access to the outside world. They do this through increased Email service and by trying to get their mail to the crews as fast as possible. But it's an imperfect world, and each ship out at sea doesn't have a T1 line connecting it to shore. InterNet access is spotty at best. Besides, there's more to worry about than some Congressmen trying to get their names in the paper.

So what was going on around the McFaul while Pres. Bush was on the Abraham Lincoln?

On the day that Bush delivered his speech, I was standing on the deck of the McFaul, watching something burning in the sea. The Ticonderoga class cruiser, the USS Gettysburg (CG-64) was racing around it at high speed. Two Coast Guard cutters passed us as they headed towards the Gettysburg as fast as they could, and we could see a helo orbiting the scene.

What the heck was going on?

Well, it seems that a boat out of Miami capsized in the night. 6 people clung to the hull for 12 hours until the Gettysburg's radar noticed the wreckage on the horizon. The Captain decided to turn the situation into a training excercise.

The survivors were picked up by helo, and the wreck was destroyed by naval gunfire so it would no longer be a menace to navigation. The McFaul asked more than once if assistance was required, but the Gettysburg kept insisting that they had everything well in hand.

So, six souls pulled from the hungry sea. No wonder I didn't hear about Waxman and Byrd's little appeal for attention. And no wonder that I couldn't care less.

Sorry for the lack of posts on Friday and Saturday. I had to study for a MidTerm in Ancient Mediterranian Warfare (aced the test, BTW). Then I had to recover from a mere 5 hours of sleep spread out over three days.

But I've rested up some, and I'll start blogging up a storm for the next few days.

Want to see the one thing on the ship that I just couldn't get used to while I was there?

That little manhole is over one of the ladders that lead from one deck to another. Notice that it's part of a larger hatch cover, one that can be opened to provide more room if large peices of equipment need to be moved from one deck to another. Sure, they could have opened all of the larger hatch covers to provide a little more room for my (shall we say) ample frame, but that would have comprimised the McFaul's ability to create watertight compartments by simply slamming a hatch cover and dogging it down. There might have been very little danger of any damage while she was on a Tiger Cruise, but we're still at war and the McFaul is a warship. She has to be ready, just in case.

The problem I had with these hatches is that there's nothing but sharp angles and armor plate around one of them. I kept seeing myself slipping and breaking something in a fall. ("Help, I've fallen and I can't get up!" Probably a sign of my advancing age.) It didn't help that I wasn't used to the motion of the waves.

The crew don't have this problem. They just go up and down the stairs without any hesitation at all.

I'm sure that I would have developed this skill with practice, I just didn't spend enough time on the ship to become comfortable. Instead I would lower myself gingerly through the hole, careful not to scrape my shoulders, and then go down the stairs like I was climbing a ladder. Lucky for my ego that none of the crew laughed at me while I was doing this.

Let me introduce you to GM3 Mallory.

When I heard that she was a Gunner's Mate like Peugh and Dadisman, I made the mistake of assuming that she was also involved in maintaining the small arms on board.

"I don't do any of that small fry stuff. Tomahawks! The really BIG guns!"

What Mallory was referring to were the Tomahawk cruise missiles that the USS McFaul are equipped with. They allow the ship to have an over-the-horizon strike capability that's far greater than any of it's other weapons, about the same as a WWII escort carrier with all of it's aircraft. It's amazing that they can pack all that firepower in such a tiny ship.

Mallory's jobs can be rather hazardous. The Tomahawks have to be loaded with some pretty volatile fuel to pack the greatest range into their limited gas tanks. One of the crew told me that the unofficial name of the fuel used is "Alien's Blood", becuase it's so toxic that it will cause some real problems if it ever leaks out of the Tomahawks special tanks. Apparently it will eat through several decks of the steel hull until it reaches the ocean.

I could use some of that stuff. There's some dandelions growing in my yard that I just can't get rid of. I didn't ask Mallory to help because she seemed rather enthusiastic about her job. I was afraid that she would simply target a Tomahawk to my front yard. This would probably take care of the dandelions, but it seemed a bit drastic to me at the time.

Take a look at the picture below.

The young woman on the right is GMSN Carrie Dadisman and the fellow on the left is GM2 Jason Peugh. (I wanted to get seperate pics, but Dadisman insisted on having her pic taken with her boss. This certainly seems to have made Dadisman more cheerful about getting her pic taken, but Peugh seems to be rather self-concious.)

These are two of the individuals that are resonsible for the small arms on board ship, the stuff that I was talking about here. I saw Peugh bolting down the mounts for the M60 and the .50's when we were approaching Norfolk on the last day of the Tiger Cruise. He and I talked for a bit, and it seems that another of his duties is to familiarize the members of the crew with the weapons that they're required to carry while on picket duty. He and I both agree that helping the new student overcome their fear of the weapons is the first (and hardest) part.

"It's a big problem, with men and women both. They've been watching too much TV, been taught that the guns will hurt them as soon as they fire them. I've had people drop, I mean actually drop, a gun when they shoot it for the first time. Some of them are so scared that they're closing their eyes and flinching with every shot.

"It takes some time to overcome it. You just have to let them know that they're not going to get hurt and let them get used to it. Then they can get really enthusiastic."

Like most shooters, Peugh constantly works to improve his own skills. He also finds that working with a handgun is one of the most rewarding and challenging types of arms to work with. I'm sure that most of my readers will be gratified to hear that he's also a fan of 1911-style handgun chambered for the .45 ACP cartridge.

"I've got a Springfield match-grade 1911, and let me tell you, it makes a big difference. When you see the way the pattern shrinks due to the gun, confidence really soars. I think that's one thing that can really make someone enthused."

I'm sure that most of my readers would agree with that, particularly with Peugh's comments about the 1911 and the .45 ACP.