The Norfolk HUMEVAC

Lt. Long was the Navigator on the PCU Springfield (the designation before the ship is commissioned). One of his requests, before we ever got underway for the first time, was that we make up a primary chart for each of the ports we would expect to enter. This doesn’t seem unreasonable on the face of it, but in fact any chart made up months in advance would have to be done over, because of chart corrections, new editions, and so on. In addition, for piloting (surface navigation within sight of land) four copies of each chart were prepared: and since each port would have up to eight charts associated with it, this became a daunting prospect.

In the event, it wasn’t so bad: what he wanted was to have the track laid out, the navaids identified, all the notations and symbols we added to the chart to help us; that way, when we did visit the port we would have a plan already set and would just have to copy that onto the updated, corrected charts. That was sensible, and, as it turned out, a remarkable case of foresight.

Coming up the East Coast on some mission or other, we got notification of a HUMEVAC, a humanitarian evacuation; this is when some crewmember has a family crisis (death, injury, etc.) and is taken off the ship to be flown home. The nearest port was Norfolk; thanks to the Nav, we had the primary charts to copy. This didn’t make it too easy: Norfolk is one of those eight-chart ports, and four copies of each had to be corrected up-to-date and prepared: and only about 48 hours to do it in. QMC McLean, the Assistant Navigator, let me handle it. I took myself off the watch bill and commandeered a corner table on the mess decks; with the help of the off-watch QMs I corrected and prepared all the charts. I made sure the others in the division got their rest: we would all be up for the piloting party.

Curiously enough, I was the only member of the Navigation team that had ever been to Norfolk; I was there on the USS Kamehameha (SSBN 642), my first boat, when we pulled in for degaussing (removing the magnetism from the hull). Unfortunately, I was a seaman at the time, and kept the deck logs; I wasn’t actively participating in the piloting itself, but I had helped with the charts. Even so, navaid identification was an issue: at a distance, one water tank looks pretty much like any other, and church steeples are easy to confuse. The Nav and I planned to use GPS to compensate. GPS, the Global Positioning System, was still pretty new at the time, and (as it says on every chart) “The prudent navigator will not rely solely on any single aid to navigation…”. I set up our GPS waypoints and we used GPS fixes to validate our visual fixes: shoot the visual round, and identify new navaids by back-plotting their bearings from the GPS fix; by combining the two in this manner we were able to bridge the gaps where navaids were sparse. Crews experienced with Norfolk, naturally, knew their navaids by sight and didn’t have this problem.

As a last bit of planning, I got permission for one of the QMs to sleep through the piloting party and maneuvering watch, usually an all-hands evolution. I thoroughly briefed him on what we would be doing when we left Norfolk (I had to make up those charts, too) and sent him to bed. We piloted in all the way to the main Navy base, transferred the Sailor off to a tug, turned around, and headed back out. It was a long haul. Thanks to my foresight, when we secured the piloting party at last, there was the relief QM, up to speed on the plan, rested, and ready to take over. A job well done, that gives me a certain measure of satisfaction when I look back on it.

Impressing The New QMC

I’ve mentioned the QMC who relieved Chief McLean on the USS Springfield (SSN 761); I cannot recall his name. A friendly fellow, long-experienced. I impressed him on several occasions with my general ability.

Shortly after he reported aboard, he was in the control room while I was on watch, just looking around to get a feel for how I did business, I guess. We were at periscope depth for a routine communications check, and I was quietly chatting with the QMC and someone else. The QM stand, as it is called, on a 688-class is behind the two periscopes and the little raised platform that surrounds them: the conn, where the OOD stands. The helmsmen, diving officer, and Chief of the Watch are all forward and to port of the conn. There are two plotting tables, between which the QM stands, with the chart on the port plotter. Over the starboard plotter is a plasma display that has several modes; the QM usually will keep it showing heading and speed.

It was time to come down from periscope depth. The OOD ordered the radio antenna lowered, spent some time rubber-necking around on the scope waiting for permission to go down from the CO, and when he got it, ordered, “Ahead two-thirds. Make your depth XXX feet. Lowering number-two scope.” That was my cue to log the orders; the QM logs all course, speed, and depth changes, as well as antennas and masts raised and lowered. The OOD had messed up; the periscope depth excursion has its own litany of commands, one of which is “Lower all masts and antennas.” It’s a handy catch-all, and it triggers the Chief of the Watch to lower any raised masts and verify them down, and report such: “All masts and antennas indicate down.” I liked it because I could make one log entry rather than logging the lowering of each individual mast. The OOD, knowing that he had already lowered the radio mast, didn't bother with the extra command. But! I had logged that they “bumped” the ESM mast, a sort of fancy radar-detector. Not raising it fully dulled its senses, but all you need in that situation is a warning, not a detailed signal analysis. All masts are more fragile when they are being raised or lowered: they are not wedged firmly in their full up or down positions; and the ESM mast was more fragile than most: you could not exceed a certain speed or depth while raising or lowering it, or while it was bumped.

In less time than it takes to tell, I had realized the ESM mast was still bumped: in that position it indicates neither up nor down on the Chief of the Watch’s display, so he would not have a light shining on his panel saying “Up”. I spun around to the plasma display, punching up the mast schematic, to the amazement of the QMC: what was I doing? The display showed that they had not snuck the order to lower the mast by me: it was bumped. It was the Chief of the Watch’s responsibility, but of course the OOD needed to know right away before the mast was damaged.

“Chief of the Watch!” I said loudly, effectively to the OOD, standing between us about eight feet away. “The ESM mast is bumped!” The OOD immediately ordered all stop, and came shallow, and when we reached an acceptable speed and depth ordered the mast lowered. So fast had I reacted that we were still slow and shallow and there was no harm done; although I suppose the Chief of the Watch did not love me. There wasn’t time to discreetly tip him off, and after all it was his duty to check the masts automatically. That’s the way a sub has to operate: everyone needs to back each other up. The QMC was suitably impressed.

It must have been on the same run when we ended up in the Gulf of Mexico; again I was on watch, and again the QMC was hanging around: we were going to run some drills.

Submerged submarines navigate using inertial navigators (on 688s they are called ESGN) that sense the accelerations acting on the sub and apply that to the last known position to determine where the sub is now. Nowadays they are extremely accurate. Without them, you are limited to using dead reckoning in various forms: by hand, and electronically: both plotters (on either side of the QM stand) can run a DR and display latitude and longitude, and also run a little light (called a bug) under its glass surface that shines through the chart, marking where you are: provided the chart is aligned correctly, and the bug is accurately set to match the scale of the chart in use.

The first drill the CO (Commanding Officer; at this time CDR Paul Bloomfield) chose to run was a loss of inertial navigation drill. No more positions for me. I immediately got permission from the Nav to reset all DRs to the last known good inertial position, fired up the starboard plotter and started it running a DR, too, and quickly established a position-keeping logging routine that included the hand DR, both DRs off the plotters, and the position marked by the bug. Also, we had to shift steering to the backup gyrocompass, and I had to begin making compass checks using that. I also had to determine what to use for fix expansion, apply, and plot it. All told I had the position log, compass log, and deck log to enter all this in; and at the same time, the CO, bless his heart, began his next set of drills: crashbacks. This is where you go to flank speed, as fast as the engines will turn, and then immediately go into reverse, back full. It fulfills some engineering function, no doubt, but it is guaranteed to drive a QM whacko. A DR is based on course and speed: you are traveling at X speed, for Y amount of time in this direction, at time Z you will be here. But we were never at a steady speed: we kept speeding up and slowing down, turning to stay within our area, changing depth, and generally raising hell for a couple of hours. I was busy plotting and keeping the various logs and the deck log: my first instructor at QM “A” school had a phrase for it: “As busy as a cat covering shit on a marble floor.”

Finally the watch was over. The CO decided to keep the loss of inertial navigation drill going, for the benefit of the QMs. The Navigation ETs got a copy of the chart to use to track our position using the ESGN. I was allowed to plot one position: the QMC was watching to see how far off I was. On a chart that had about 5 miles to an inch, I was off by less than a mile. The bug was further off than that. The QMC, delighted and amazed, promised he would buy me a beer when we returned to port (I’m still waiting, Chief!).

Despicable Me

I have a few self-aggrandizing tales; nothing too dramatic. I was a good Quartermaster, and by the time I served on the USS Springfield (SSN 761) as a First Class Petty Officer (E-6), I was very experienced. For various reasons, I was standing Quartermaster of the Watch underway.

The Navigator while I was aboard (we transferred at about the same time) was LT (later LCDR) Jeffrey C. Long. He was a nice enough fellow, but very picky, very insistent on doing things correctly and on time. Frankly I needed someone to push me on occasion. I was the division Leading Petty Officer, with a Chief Petty Officer over me as Assistant Navigator (QMC/SS McLean). I was responsible for preparing the charts we used; they would be reviewed by Chief McLean, and then by the Navigator, before being submitted to the Commanding Officer (CDR R.K. Ford) for final approval.

The Nav frequently returned charts for corrections of what would seem the most niggling details; a favorite of his was the application of chart tape. A submarine in transit is given a particular path through the ocean to follow, a certain distance allowed to either side. This was coordinated by the area commanders to prevent two submarines from occupying the same area at the same time (this is technically known as a collision). I did this coordination for Submarine Group Two in New London as my last tour before I left the service. A quartermaster would plot this track on the open ocean charts, and the distance to either side laid out, so as to form a lane within which the sub was allowed to travel. To make the boundaries of the lane stand out, chart tape was applied; it is a thin tape with many different colors, patterns, and widths. It naturally enough stuck up above the smooth surface of the chart, so that it was possible to spread a pair of dividers and run them down the lane, touching the tape to either side and ensuring the width was correct.

The natural inclination of the person preparing the chart would be to lay the tape directly on the penciled line marking the boundary. This, however, meant that a part of the tape was inside the boundary, stealing precious available space. Depending on the scale of the chart, as much as a half-mile could be wasted, vanished beneath the tape. Lt. Long would set his dividers to the proper width, and run them down the track. Didn’t touch the tape on either side? Ran over the tape, instead of down the inner edge? Time to re-tape. After several repetitions, I learned to apply the tape properly. The difficulty was compounded by the fact that the open-ocean charts would cover several degrees of latitude using a Mercator projection; this meant that the length of a mile on the chart was noticeably different between the top and bottom of the chart (trust me on this). Therefore, on a north-south run, measurements had to be taken at several points to ensure the width of the lane was correctly plotted.

I began to take pleasure in outwitting the painstaking Nav. Yes, he was responsible for making me even more anal-retentive. The transit orders we got, detailing each point we had to pass through on the approved path, and the time we were to reach it, had to be plotted, along with ticks every so often representing where we had to be along the path. In other words, we were to leave point A at, say, 1200, and arrive at point B 9 hours and 43 minutes later, and then continue on to point C. On the line I’d draw between points A and B, with their chart-taped lane to either side, I would put ticks representing where we had to be at 1300, 1400, and so on. Because of the chart distortion, again, the length of these intervals varied as you moved north or south. It was a point of pride to have the last tick before point B at the exact distance required, 43 minutes of travel at the designated speed. I considered it cheating to plot back from the end point and meet in the middle, fudging the difference. Well do I remember when a new QMC arrived to take QMC McLean’s place, and he laid out a chart for himself and had me check it. I was saying, no, no, won’t work: look, the tape is on the line, and your last tick is just over a mile off. He waved me off, couldn’t believe it mattered, and indeed it was trivial. But he came back from the Nav with a new appreciation of what I was trying to tell him.

Another factor was chart overlap, or the lack thereof. The charts we used shared common borders along even degrees: you could tape all the charts together into one super-chart with no overlap. Because the points detailed in the transit order were well inside the boundaries of the charts instead of on the edges, that is exactly what I did: fold the chart borders so that the boundary was right on the edge, tape them together lined up exactly, and use a long straightedge to lay down the track between the points. There was a computer program we could run that would take the points we input, and provide a solution showing us the proper course of the track; and we could use that to determine the point at which the track would cross the borders of the charts. Some, including the QM1 that relieved me, used that program to lay the charts out. Once a simple mistake he made in entering the data threw him way off, and it took me hours to fix: I had to do it from scratch. I used the program, too, but I just used it to double-check what I had already plotted by hand.

Shortly after I went to shore duty, Sublant, who made up the open-ocean transit orders (in the Atlantic, of course), changed the computer program they used to generate them, and the new version politely put the intermediate points right on the even degrees that marked the boundaries of the charts, thus rendering the plotting ever so much easier, accurate, and less prone to error. One of the more common errors among QMs was to shift from one chart to another and be off by a degree or more. The OOD was supposed to double-check those positions, but the human factor was always there. I remember as a youngster coming on watch and discovering we had been a degree off for the two previous watches – the one had shifted charts, and his relief wasn’t paying attention to the degree labels when he assumed the watch; he just plotted his positions where the last guy was. This was on an SSBN, on patrol in a huge area in the middle of nowhere; no danger in that circumstance but still an egregious error.

Space Shuttle

(Cross-posted from

I was on the USS Kamehameha (SSBN 642), Gold crew.  We had completed our overhaul in Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, in Portsmouth, NH (actually, Kittery, ME) and had been doing post-overhaul workup out of Charleston, SC.  The Kamehameha was a Poseidon missile boat, and part of the workup was to test the missile system by launching an actual missile.  For this, we were sent to Port Canaveral, FL.

As the name suggests, Port Canaveral is the harbor at Cape Canaveral, and a portion of it is part of the Cape Canaveral Air Force Base. This base houses the Kennedy Space Center.  The approach is an easy one, coming up heading about 315°, and then turning left to 270°.  There are three basins to the north for the base, and the rest of the harbor is devoted to fishing boats, cruise ships, and pleasure craft.

The launching of a test missile is called DASO, Demonstration and Systems Operation, and several days are devoted to practicing for it.  We would go out in the morning, submerge, man Battle Stations Missile, and spend the day practicing for the launch.  It required so much practice not only to work up the crew, fresh out of overhaul, but because of all the monitoring and test equipment that would have to be operated.  A telemetry mast was stuck in the sail, a tall non-retractable pole designed to project out of the water while we were submerged at launch depth for the test.  This mast can be seen in many photos of missile launches, a red stick with various antennas hanging on to it.

One of the things this mast did was get fix data from a local Loran-A system set up for just that purpose.  Loran-A is a short-range version of Loran-C, which probably doesn't explain much in this GPS age.  In any event, fix data was plentiful, we didn't move around much, and we pulled back into an easy port every night with Cocoa Beach down the road and an Air Force club, the Greenhouse, right there at the piers.  Life was good for a Quartermaster.  In fact, since the local charts used an aerial photograph of the port on the chart, the Greenhouse was on the chart; occasionally Lt. Chuck Saunders, the Navigator, in a jovial mood, would use it as a navaid.

During our operations there, a space shuttle was scheduled to go up in a day launch.  When that happens, a prohibited zone is established to seaward of the Cape that is off-limits to all craft. This apparently didn't apply to us, because there we were.  We completed the day's run early, and surfaced early on the way in, so that the crew could come topside and see the launch.  The crew on watch of course had to miss it.

The navigation team was stationed, so technically we were all on watch, but part of the surfacing routine was to rig the bridge, and the Quartermasters did it: I took that duty this day.  I was a seaman at the time and so I would probably have been doing it in the normal course of things, but I made sure of it this time. The Quartermasters were also in charge of the binoculars; naturally every officer wanted to be on the bridge, and every officer wanted a set of binoculars.  I made sure I kept a pair for myself, and was up rigging the flying bridge, and dawdling at it, so as not to be sent below during the big event.  I was allowed to stay, even though it was getting a little crowded: the bridge on a 640-class submarine is about the size of a refrigerator-freezer on its back, with everyone standing inside it: three can fit fairly comfortably. The flying bridge is a set of stanchions or poles screwed into the top of the sail after surfacing and connected by chains or poles to provide some standing room with a degree of safety on top of the sail.  Men on the flying bridge still had to wear safety harnesses, though, to catch them if they fell.

Various small craft were about, despite the prohibited zone.  They seemed to be dividing their time between watching for the shuttle and staring at the submarine moving past.

Finally, the launch.  We were pretty close, and of course had an unobstructed view.  I do not think we were in sight of land, though, so we must have been maybe 15 miles offshore (my memory is pretty fuzzy on this).  What I do remember is watching it go up almost directly over us, and being able to see the solid rocket boosters separate; the shuttle was past the zenith when that happened.  I don't recall the sound, although we must have been able to hear it. After it was gone, we proceeded into port.

This was the launch where one of the SRBs sunk; the mission highlights page on the web states: Two solid rocket booster casings lost when main parachutes failed and they impacted water and sank.  I distinctly recall one being returned, since the recovery tugs brought it back to the same pier we were using.  I was standing topside watch observing the TV news crews busily filming where the SRB wasn't.

The date of the launch was April 4, 1983, and the shuttle was the Challenger, STS-6 (the Challenger's first launch).  Details of the mission are at the STS-6 Mission Page.

That was the closest I have been to a launch, although when stationed on shore duty at Orlando Naval Training Center I saw many over the course of two and a half years: they could be seen from the base.