Navy pilots, aircrews say wave danger all too common

By Meghann Myers and David Larter, Staff writers

Landing on a surface combatant’s one-spot helicopter pad is hazardous duty, where rolls from side to side and waves are all too common.

The Navy received at least 15 hazard reports on waves coming over the low-freeboard flight decks on frigates and destroyers from 1983 to 2014 and these are only a small portion of the close calls, according to current and former pilots and aircrewmen, who responded to a July 6 Navy Times special report on the issue. Some said they’d seen a wave crash over the flight deck after a hard turn — or knew someone else who had.

“When the aircraft got hit with the wave, we were doing counter-drug ops somewhere in the Eastern Pacific,” said retired Aviation Electrician’s Mate (SW/AW) Jeff Apol on June 30. “I heard the rotor pitch change, and I felt the aircraft shudder, and I looked up and there was big wall of water running down the left side of the aircraft.”

That was an SH-60 Seahawk aboard the frigate McInerney in 2004, during a deployment while he was assigned to Helicopter Anti-Submarine Light Squadron 48.

Waves and rolling, often caused by the maneuvering of the ship they’re landing on, are frequent hazards that pilots must endure. In addition, some said that time pressures and a lack of training can lead to dysfunction and even danger for air crews, factors in the 2013 William P. Lawrence tragedy that took two pilots’ lives.

One pilot recalled an incident when his SH-60B was chocked and chained to a frigate that began a turn to get “on station soonest,” causing the helo’s landing gear to jump several inches off the deck.

“This was not the first time in my career that the desire to meet a ‘deadline’ could have resulted in a tragedy,” said the active-duty pilot, who asked for anonymity out of fear of career repercussions. “I have never been more frightened in an aircraft than on that day. I could do nothing to influence the situation.”

Afterward, the pilot said, he began training bridge watchstanders.coordinating with the junior officers of the deck to do helicopter and familiarization training, visually explaining to them what happens during the helo ops and what can go wrong.

He also shared the terms that aviators use, so they would all be speaking the same language on the radio during flight ops.

It was successful, he said, because he worked with the ship’s captain to create a close relationship with the air department, integrating the pilots and aircrew into the ship’s operations as much as possible.

“The aviators owe it to themselves, and their future shipmates, to actively assist the [surface warfare officers] during their initial aviation training, while they work on their surface warfare pin, as the aviation aspect of their training may be less emphasized than their shipboard requirements,” he said.

Culture wars

In some situations, an us-versus-them culture clash can take hold on a ship.

This is in part an outgrowth of the occasionally diverging responsibilities of a ship CO and the air detachment officer in charge. This OIC typically overseas a couple of helicopters, and the pilots and aircrew who maintain and fly them. Known as the “air boss,” the OIC must ensure that the ship and pilots are operating safely and within rules of the Naval Air Training and Operating Procedure Standardization. Air boss has final say over if and when the helos can fly, but is typically junior to the ship’s CO, which sets up a sometimes contentious relationship.

Apol, the former aircrewman, said there was always a feeling that SWOs on the bridge had other priorities than the safety of the helicopter detachment.

“For the most part, from the hangar to the flight deck is a very safe evolution,” he said. “Everybody between the hangar and the flight deck knows what’s going on, knows what needs to be done.”

“It’s the people outside of that entity that typically have the most problems,” he added.

A friend of his from Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron Light 48, he added, was nearly washed off the back of the cruiser Philippine Sea in 2000.

Crews knew that waves could be a problem, he said, but that wasn’t the only result of hard maneuvering. There were a couple of times when the straps from the Recovery Assist Secure and Traverse system were the only things holding the helo on the flight deck.

“We didn’t have any chocks and chains on it at the time, they decided they needed to turn the ship, and it just started going over,” he recalled.

Apol said he didn’t know whether any of these incidents resulted in a hazard report, and as an enlisted sailor, it wasn’t his place to address it with the ship’s company.

In many HAZREPs, obtained by Navy Times, air bosses and squadron COs called for educating ship handlers on the risks of flight deck wave strikes and urged for maneuvering restrictions while helos and crews were on these decks, precariously close to the ocean. A destroyer’s flight deck is 13 feet over the water, and sinks lower in the water the faster the ship goes.

There have been cases of outright clashes between air bosses and ship COs, who are used to getting their way.

Three of the incidents reported in the July 6 Navy Times article occurred on the destroyer Winston S. Churchill within about 18 months of each other, two of which occurred during then-Cmdr. Holly Graf’s tour as CO.

Graf’s relationship with her air boss on the Churchill was so toxic that she went for days without speaking to him. At one point the air boss resorted to having to slip the daily flight schedule under the door of Graf’s cabin, because she refused to speak to him, according to the Navy’s subsequent investigation.

During one notorious tirade on the cruiser Cowpens, Graf unloaded after her air boss told her that the weather was too poor for flight operations.

“I thought you flew a f—ing all-weather aircraft,” said Captain Graf, according to the command report. “Now f— me to tears.”

One former skipper said Graf’s attitude was an outgrowth of the hard-driving ship captains who led the Navy when she joined in the 1980s.

“That attitude didn’t come out of nowhere,” said an active-duty former destroyer skipper who spoke on background. “Holly Graf learned that somewhere along the way.”

Navy leaders have sought to set aside the grievances and community differences and focus on the new safety procedures that have have been implemented.

Each ship has received Operator Polar Plots, a handy tool for watchstanders to assess the risk of flight deck wash-out based upon the ship’s speed and the height and direction of waves. Deck wetness concerns are now being taught at all levels of training for surface warfare officers in Newport, Rhode Island.

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