The Ship-Air Wing Team: Match Game or the Odd Couple?

By Lieutenant Commander Frank Morley, U.S. Navy

The ship is here to serve me, and it is my God-given right to complain about the ship, because, well, it's the "boat, " and the "boat" is only good for traps. The chow is terrible. My room is either too hot or too cold. Half the lights don't work. Laundry—let's talk about laundry. My whites come back yellow or some other color, and my colors rarely come back at all. Our spaces are terrible, yet the ship guys are living and working in luxury. What is up with all of these power interruptions? My trouble calls seldom are answered either. The winds are rarely down the angle, the ship is always under the only rain cloud within 100 miles, and we can never get enough elevator runs or support to make our flight schedule. And what is with all this General Quarters stuff? I don't need to play these "shoe games. " I have more important work to accomplish. And things don't change when we are in port. They are always hassling us for something or another. What is up with all this boat officer duty? I don't understand why all this stuff is messed up. What do the ship guys do all day anyway, other than play GQ? They get up early, I think, but they go to bed early as well. I never see them at mid-rats or roaming the passageways while I'm still up. Yet, come 0600, after they have received their rest, all the lights come on, the IMC starts blaring, and I have cleaners banging up against my stateroom bulkheads while I'm finally trying to get my rest for my upcoming night flight.

A typical ship junior officer's perspective might go something like this:

I can't believe those air wing guys. What a life. They sleep until lunch, and then all they have to do during the day is fly once, occasionally twice, or maybe not at all. And I'm confident there is a nap in there somewhere. They stay up all night playing poker or talking to each other out in the passageways while I'm trying to get in my three hours of sleep. Mid-rats is a social event designed simply to pass time. And even with all that, all I ever hear from them are complaints. They don't support us in our training requirements (e.g., General Quarters), and they constantly are placing demands on us. When we require them to support us in port by being boat officers or duty officers, we have to lead them by the nose, because they just don't understand or seem to care. These guys have no idea what real work is.

I am, of course, embellishing a bit, but hey, this is naval aviation. Many of these comments probably at least ring a familiar tone. Given the above viewpoints, let me offer my perspective on both.

First, to the Air Wing

You are correct that the ship is here to support (albeit not "serve") you. The air wing is the weapon system of the carrier, and almost everything that is done is linked somehow to ensuring ordnance on target. Without the air wing, the ship would be useless. Remember, however, that without the ship, the air wing would just be the Air Force.

There are a lot of people working very hard to ensure that the support you require is available. But the ship is not a hotel—she was never designed to be a Marriott, or even a Navy bachelor officer quarters—and is subject to a tremendous amount of stress and strain. Things break, and as they get older, they break even more. I can promise you only that many sailors are running around trying to keep up with all these problems, and missing a lot of sleep in the process. These are folks you may never even see. The most important point I can make here is the need for understanding. Ship's company did not design the ship; they are only trying to operate and maintain her. They take pride in their ship the same way you take pride in your squadron. Constructive criticism is almost always welcome. General griping about conditions that are simply inherent to the ship or shipboard life gets old. For a large percentage of a ship's junior officers, the only interaction they have had with air wing officers is listening to them complain about issues or demand better service. This is not the impression you want to make.

As for operational issues, I think we all understand that there are good operators and not-so-good operators—like the air wing has stellar ball flyers and average ball flyers—and most can tell the difference. There may be some issues, however, that are not apparent to everyone in the air wing. Supporting the air wing is the number one priority, but in doing this, there are numerous compromises that have to be made. Take, for example, elevator runs. This is always a point of contention. Squadrons wish they could have unlimited access to elevator runs, and for good reason. It is frustrating to miss sorties when there is a perfectly good airplane sitting at the elevator door just waiting for a run. "Why can't they just get my airplane to the roof?" Well, on my ship, we cannot lower the elevator if we are doing more than 20 knots, if the seas are over 10 feet, winds are greater than 50 knots, or the ship is going to turn. Pretty restrictive. This is a design constraint. Often, we cannot run elevators when desired for numerous reasons, such as: we are trying to get to the appropriate area to make target and range times in the morning; we need to turn the ship to keep the gusty and variable winds down the angle during launch and recovery; we need to run at high speed between cycles to get away from restricted airspace; we need to make distance toward the rendezvous point for the night's underway replenishment; we are dodging other ships in congested waters and the commanding officer is not willing to sacrifice his ability to turn the ship while an elevator is down. The list goes on. Compromises such as these are being made every day.

Another example is weather. "Why is the ship heading toward that rain cloud just in time for my launch?" Running at 10 to 25 knots (the same speed as rain clouds) often requires you to drive toward and through a passing front, to find better weather later in the day, rather than running from, and getting caught in, and then remaining in, a moving front. Other factors such as crew fatigue, material wear and tear, and scheduling often conflict directly with air wing desires. Remember that many of the same people who work the flight deck, drive the ship, etc., also make the required repairs after flight operations, respot the flight deck, prepare for and conduct the 0400 underway replenishment, and then prepare for and support flight operations.

Just as the air wing and squadrons have their Naval Air Training and Operating Procedures Standardization (NATOPS) evaluations, command assessments, etc., the ship has required inspections to prepare for and go through. The ship's crew must prove her material condition, that they can do a number of evolutions such as anchoring, man-overboard recoveries, underway replenishments, and damage control, and that the manpower and procedures are in place to fight the ship effectively. The ship's crew are responsible for an extremely large number of areas during GQ-which is not just an inspection issue, but a survival of the ship issue, as well. And although it is everyone's responsibility to conduct damage control, it is not everyone's responsibility to fight the ship. The air wing practices its fighting every day. The ship only gets an opportunity to do this on occasion. That is why so much time is dedicated to these "annoying" drills. This makes work-ups a continuous scheduling challenge to meet all the air wing and ship needs, the two of which often are competing for the valuable commodity of time.

When the ship is in a foreign port, the logistical requirements do not go away. Rather, the workload goes up for many individuals. Everything from anchoring the ship, engineering logistics, reactor start-ups and shut-downs, needed maintenance, and supply onloads to getting the crew onto liberty, security, tours, fleet landing logistics, receptions, and dressing up the ship falls on ship personnel. Air wing personnel play a key role in many of these areas, but trust me, not to the same extent as many on the ship. This comes with the job, of course, but please keep it in mind when support is requested.

Bottom line—Everyone in the air wing should understand that:

  • Dedicated professionals who take pride in their product are trying very hard to provide the needed services under not-so-ideal conditions.
  • By the nature of our job descriptions, support often is a one-way street, with the air wing asking and the ship providing. Don't let the only impression that your fellow naval officers have of you be one of complaints and demands.
  • Realize that although supporting the air wing is the ship's number one priority, direct support sometimes is not the only priority, and compromises have to be made to accomplish all required tasks.
  • As for the ship's laundry, I can't help you there. I don't think anyone has the answer to that one.

Now, to the Ship

First, the air wing folks do more than fly. They have departments, divisions, troops, evaluations, awards, spaces, paperwork, and all the other fun stuff that you do. A squadron is the size of a small combatant, with several hundred enlisted personnel, and the majority of its people are focused on the maintenance of the squadron aircraft and their weapon systems. Being an independent command, however, it maintains all command functions that you are used to seeing: administration, safety, operations, and legal, as well as such collateral duties as Combined Federal Campaign coordinator, professional development boards, etc. The entire squadron is focused on the care and maintenance of its aircraft, people, and operational prowess, much the same way you are focused on the care of your ship, your crew, and your mission.

The air wing works a different schedule from many of you. Theirs revolves around the carrier flight schedule, which usually covers about a 12-hour period, and stretches from approximately 1000 to 2200, to allow for the appropriate proportion of day and night flights. During this fly day, there are watches to cover as well, such as tower representative and carrier air traffic control center representative. It is toward the end of the flight day that a lot of the planning and preparation for the next day's events occur within the air wing. It is not unusual for flight schedules to be finalized at 0200. That is why all the latenight activity. Afterward, they sleep. Do they sleep more than the average ship guy? Probably. Lack of sleep is not a tolerated condition within the aviation world, and flying aircraft off carriers in particular requires the body to have proper rest. The skills involved require pilots to be on top of their game. Rules are set up to ensure this, and they are there for good reason.

As for daily routine, flights take more than the 90 minutes for which they are scheduled on the air plan. Flights are briefed two to three hours prior to launch, and many require several hours of preparation prior to the brief. In addition, extensive debriefs are conducted afterward. One flight, on average, eats up approximately six hours. Make a pilot fly twice—well, you can do the math. Meanwhile, the in box continues to fill.

How many ship junior officers have visited the carrier intelligence center? This is where all the intelligence and planning are done. Try sticking your head in here some night and see where all the "sleeping" aviators are. Many, many hours are spent in this room planning missions, concept of operations, and actual operations.

With regard to spaces, the air wing often has a point. "Space creep" is a phenomenon that has been around since the first carrier. It is very easy—especially over the course of a yard period and six months in the bullpen as the local carrier qualifications carrier—for ship's personnel to spread out a bit among the available spaces. This is natural, as the ship truly is your home for several years, but you must fight it. The ship was designed for the air wing as well. Preserve these spaces and give the air wing's personnel good places to live. It does nothing for the team spirit if all the "good" spaces are kept for the ship.

You are right that the air wing can move on board and be awfully demanding. Keep in mind, however, that a carrier squadron is always on the move. On average, they are spending less time at home than you might be. While the carrier is tied to the pier, the squadrons are off on any number of required detachments away from home, conducting training for weeks as a time. Often they return just in time for a quick visit with family before preparing for and moving on to the ship for an at-sea period. Your average fleet squadron may pack up the entire operation and move more than ten times in one year. When they come on board, therefore, they are very dependent on the carrier for help and assistance.

Bottom line—All ship's personnel should understand that:

  • Aviators are naval officers, too. They do many of the same jobs that you do and face many of the same issues.
  • There is more to the air wing than simply executing the air plan. Thorough preparation and planning go into each flight. Constant training is required to stay on top of these complex weapon systems. Long hours of strike planning dominate many an aviator's day.
  • The air wing needs your support. A can-do attitude will go a long way with your air wing brethren, and may cut down on the complaints and negative comments.

The better we get to know and understand each other's job and challenges, the better we will be able to work together. In his book Wings and Warriors (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997), retired Vice Admiral Donald Engen describes his experiences growing up with carrier aviation, from being a naval aviation cadet flying off the USS Intrepid (CV-II) in World War II to commanding the USS America (CVA-66) during the Vietnam War. He makes several observations on ship-air wing relations. As commander of Air Group 11, preparing to begin workups on board the USS Kitty Hawk (CVA-63), he noted, "It was time to begin the integration process for the air group and the ship, and I was all too familiar with how important that can be. A thousand things have to be done, and if not tended to, they seem to cause ill will between the ship and air group." As commanding officer of the America, he observed that "it is very important that ship and air wing be one unit and that those in the air wing not feel like guests on board the carrier."

Many may have heard of "Midway Magic." This refers to the great performance by the USS Midway (CV-41) and Carrier Wing-5 while deployed in Japan. What was the source of this success? There was a large core of petty officers, chief petty officers, and limited duty officers who accepted whatever orders they could get to keep themselves and their families in Japan. This in turn resulted in a large core of people who had served as part of the air wing, the ship, the base, and back again. This group of people, who understood each other's perspectives, made an amazingly efficient team.

It is essential that the air wing and ship strive to get to know each other, understand each other, and accept each other's perspectives. Do whatever you can to promote this. Visit the bridge and talk to the watchstanders. They will be more than happy to tell you about their jobs. If you have never been in the carrier intelligence center, talk to your ship's company intelligence officer and get a tour. You will develop a better appreciation for how much planning goes on for everyday operations.

On our ship, we held an open house during early workups. For one day, both the air wing and the ship opened their spaces and toys for tours. Appropriate people were standing by to answer questions. This was a positive first step in encouraging acceptance and understanding. We also have avoided designating a "dirty shirt" and a "clean shirt" wardroom, which anyone serving on a carrier knows essentially turns into an "air wing" and a "ship" wardroom. Instead, any working uniform is allowed in either wardroom, which leads to further interaction between ship and air wing personnel.

The better we understand each other, the better we communicate. The better we communicate, the better we are able to work together, to anticipate the needs of the other, and most important, to accomplish our mission efficiently. Only when the air wing and ship fully understand each other can they work together to oppose the people on whom they really should be focusing all frustrations and aggressions—the staff! (Just kidding.)

Commander Morley was a fleet Hornet pilot and an F/A-18E/F test pilot. He currently is serving as assistant navigator on board the USS Enterprise (CVN-65), before returning to a fleet Hornet squadron.



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