By Vago Muradian - Staff writer
Posted : Monday Aug 6, 2007 5:36:26 EDT
ABOARD THE HMS ILLUSTRIOUS — What’s the definition of heaven if you’re a Marine Harrier pilot? Why, spending two weeks on one of Britain’s aircraft carriers, of course.
“What’s not to like? The flying’s awesome, the food and quarters are great, and you can get a drink at the end of the day,” said Maj. Stephan “Poppy” Bradicich, the executive officer of Marine Attack Squadron 542 who helped plan the unprecedented embarkation of 16 Harriers and 200 Marines aboard HMS Illustrious, known as “Lusty” to its crew.
Aboard the HMS Illustrious
The largest-ever embark of Marine personnel and aircraft aboard a foreign warship July 15-31 was part of Joint Task Force Exercise Operation Bold Step 07-02 that included the Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower strike groups, to prepare Truman for its upcoming deployment.
The accommodations and food drew high marks from the Marines. They enjoyed everything from curry night to such traditional Royal Navy dishes as “hammy eggy cheesy” — toast layered with shredded ham, an egg and covered with melted cheese — and kippered herrings along with eggs, bacon and beans for breakfast, or haggis and bashed neeps — mashed turnips — for dinner. The ship even features “Chips at Six” — fresh french fries served in the bar before dinner.
Other pluses? A roomy, teak quarterdeck aft to take a quiet break or take in a sunset, beautifully varnished wooden ladders and generous carpeting — which are stripped when the ship goes into battle — and Internet connectivity that works every time.
But one of the most satisfying things is that the ship is a strike carrier where Harriers, not helicopters, are the priority.
“This is the Royal Navy’s A team, and they live and breathe strike,” said Col. Eric “Beans” Van Camp, the commanding officer of Marine Aircraft Group 14, who also commanded the U.S. air group aboard Illustrious. “On a gator, the Harriers are secondary to the amphibious and helicopter mission.”
Then there is the piece de resistance, the 20-foot-long blond oak bar that is the centerpiece of a spacious lounge, part of the wardroom annex where off-duty officers can draw a pint, dram, cocktail, coffee or tea and reflect on the day and prepare for tomorrow.
“Everyone’s working really hard, but it’s also OK to relax afterward with a beer, within the rules we live by,” Van Camp said. “The challenge is maintaining that balance between mission and safety.”
If you’re flying the next day, you’re not drinking, nor are you staying up late, Bradicich said as he sipped a soft drink.
“It’s a great tool that we don’t have,” Bradicich said. “On our ships, there’s no place where you can really unwind, get to know your shipmates on a personal level, and solve disagreements. Our view is that if you have free time, you should be doing something other than hanging around. Here, everyone works just as hard, but they also know how to unwind. It’s a huge philosophical difference.”
That philosophical difference manifests in the relaxed atmosphere aboard the ship, including the relationship between officers and ratings — British for enlisted personnel.
Case in point? Expect a cheery “good morning” as you make your way down the passage or an offer for help if you look lost. And in a welcome relief for the American contingent, the 1MC system doesn’t crackle with announcements 24 hours a day, and the officers don’t carry radios to contact one another or the captain.
“When you have a third of the ship asleep at any given time, it doesn’t make much sense to be waking them by blaring unnecessary announcements every few minutes,” one British officer said.
In fact, the only announcement is from the operations center that details the day’s plan and tests important alarms. The only other time you hear the loudspeaker is when there’s a problem, such as a fire or engineering casualty.
And why don’t the officers carry radios like their American counterparts? “What the bloody hell do you need a radio for?” the British officer asked. “You know the plan, what the captain’s intentions and expectations are. As an officer, your job is to lead, and if you need to talk to the captain all the time, then you’re not doing your job or letting him do his.”
Another philosophical difference is that the British are open to ideas that to Americans seem goofy, but work, such as the 12-degree ramp at the bow of the ship that dramatically improves Harrier operations. Senior U.S. naval officers over the decades have vetoed the idea, saying they don’t like how it looks and that it takes up three helicopter landing spots. British and Marine officers say only one deck spot is lost to the “ski jump.”
To a man, Marine pilots want the ramps installed on their ships to improve operational flexibility and safety.
“We’re all in love with the ski ramp because when you come off that ramp, you’re flying,” Bradicich said. “From our ships, if you’re fully loaded, you need 750 feet, and even then you’ve got some sink once you clear the deck. Here, you can do the same thing in 450 feet and you’re climbing.”
But the ramp is intimidating at first sight, pilots said.
“I expected it to be violent, but when you take off, it’s almost a non-event,” said Maj. Grant “Postal” Pennington, a pilot with VMA-513 at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz. “Up you go, and you’re climbing. It’s a great experience.”
Equally important is the ship that’s bolted to the ramp, pilots said.
“Some of our younger guys who haven’t flown from our ships yet are in for a big surprise when they do,” Bradicich said. “This is probably the best ship you could possibly fly a Harrier from. It’s not very big, but it’s really stable, no roll, just a little pitch, not like the flat-bottom gators that roll so much. You’ve got the island moving 30 feet in each direction when you’re trying to land. That tends to get your attention.”
The combination of ski ramp, stability and dedicated crew contributed to a breakneck operational pace. The Marines proudly logged a ship record 79 takeoffs and landings in one day.
“These guys are great. We’ve qualed 28 guys in three days, most with eight landings and takeoffs, so even though we said that we were going to crawl, walk, run, our pace has been tremendous, even with different procedures,” Pennington said. “We like to approach the ship at 45 degrees and hit one of the spots, but they approach from dead astern, come to a hover abeam, slide over, then drop down to the deck. It’s different, but you get the hang of it.”
The only downside? “The thought that we’re going to have to get off,” Bradicich said.
A Royal Navy welcome
To welcome the Marines aboard, the ship’s company invited their American guests to an evening of traditional Royal Navy tomfoolery, Horse Racing Night. Outlandish costumes were encouraged, and the event, held in the ship’s hangar deck July 21 because of choppy weather, was hosted by an Elvis impersonator in full polyester regalia as the ship’s band played.
The next day, an athletic competition was held on Illustrious’ flight deck, pitting the Royal Navy against the Marine Corps in six events: rowing; weightlifting; tractor pull; the standard Royal Navy physical fitness, or “beep,” test; shuttle run with two 40-pound sandbag weights; and a tug of war.
To the Marines’ chagrin, the Brits won all the events except for weightlifting.
In a more military contest, the Marine aircraft dropped dummy bombs and fired 20mm rounds against a target towed by Illustrious that produces a geyser of water and serves as an aim point.
Sailors expressed confidence that the Marines wouldn’t hit the target, and despite several close calls — including a mock bomb attack by one of the youngest pilots, 1st Lt. Douglas “Rosie” Rosenstock — that lifted it out of the water, the target escaped unscathed.