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Flight Quarters

by D. Forest Sanchez-Sweet

The train rolled through the town of Hawthorne, south of Los Angeles, and I slouched in my seat, wearing my favorite navy blue suit, topped off by a brown fedora and a camel’s hair polo coat. I was returning home from the sleepy coastal town of El Segundo, after yet another disappointing law firm job interview. Gazing out the rail car window, I noticed a sheriff’s department helicopter slowly descending in the gray and rainy sky toward a rooftop landing pad.

I adjusted my grip upon my key chain, to which was attached a small photograph of myself as a Navy midshipman. I contemplated the picture with a wistfulness for the wonder of my younger days, when dreams seemed easier to attain, opportunities more abundant. I glanced back up at the helicopter as it continued to approach its landing pad. Staring at churning rotor blades, in my mind I heard roiling ocean waves and the distant thump of a helicopter. The sound of crashing surf and a roaring helicopter’s engine grew louder, until it reached an overwhelming pitch, and my vision reverted to an earlier day.

I sat on the deck with my shipmates at our general quarters station, located next to our ship’s ammunition magazine. The USS Wadsworth, a guided-missile frigate, was underway, headed to San Diego on a routine mission. The ship’s crew, all 180 of us, had been conducting battle station drills. We were taking a break after a few hours of practicing our responses to every sort of emergency or threat, happy just to be sitting down. With amusement, I listened to my shipmates talk about the recent cold weather and trade funny one-liners.

Amid this light-hearted banter, a voice came over the ship’s intercom, what we called the 1MC, and calmly stated, “Ship’s medical officer to the engine room. Ship’s medical officer to the engine room.”  No one commented upon the broadcast, and I continued listening to the guys’ loud and often hilarious exchanges. A minute later, the intercom delivered the same order, and I thought I detected a trace of anxiety in the broadcaster’s voice. Lowering my red steel helmet over my eyes, I stole several quick glances at the guys sitting near me; judging by their chatter and laughter, I concluded that nobody had detected the anxious tone I thought I had heard.

The group’s chatter continued until the intercom again summoned the medical officer. My shipmates fell silent. My heart beat faster as I realized with dread that something bad had occurred—and was still happening at that very moment.  In the sudden quiet, I tightened my jaw and looked down at the deck, sorting through the many perilous scenarios that our ship and its sailors could be facing. Was there a fire? Had someone been electrocuted, or wounded by a firearm? Had a steam pipe burst and scalded….

The ship’s loud klaxon flight quarters alarm sounded, jolting me from my contemplation. Upon hearing the first note, everyone in the compartment rose instantly and began sprinting, running like hell, really, to their respective flight-quarters station, with the 1MC coolly repeating, “All hands, man emergency flight quarters. All hands, man emergency flight quarters.” I arrived at my station on the flight deck and approached Lieutenant Goldman, who was shouting orders into a walkie-talkie.

“What should I do, sir?” I asked.

“Help those guys release the deck netting!” he replied.

True to US Navy wartime and emergency-conditions tradition, the ship’s radio transmissions were being broadcasted on the loudspeaker throughout the ship. A medical evacuation helicopter had been summoned to transport a casualty, and I could hear its thumping engines in the background each time its pilot radioed to our ship.

 

With the other sailors, I released the canvas-netted steel railing that ringed our flight deck to create sufficient space for the helicopter to land. Trying to loosen a jammed section of railing, I laid down on my stomach, with more than half of my body dangling over the port-side edge of the flight deck. The Pacific Ocean slipped past far beneath me. As I worked at the railing, my left index finger became stuck—wedged, guillotine-fashion, inside of the slot between the steel hinges of the rail section, and the metal catch I was trying to release.

Four sailors standing beside me, all big and strong, were pushing the rail with all their strength, at times kicking it as well, yet still it would not budge. Out of the corner of my right eye I saw a fifth sailor charging towards the rail like a football lineman. The instant before he hit the rail, I slid my finger out of the slot. In later years this scene would play in a recurring nightmare in which the steel hinge slams down on my finger. I hear and feel my bone crunch. In slow-motion, a stream of bright-red blood spurts, and I watch my left finger fall, end over end, tumbling into the sea.

We mustered inside the starboard-side aircraft hangar to await the helicopter. Several sailors manned a fire hose, standing by with mechanical foam if a crash occurred. Two more men held CO2 fire extinguishers. The enormous Sikorsky Sea King helicopter announced its arrival with thundering engines that vibrated our ship’s bulkheads and made my stomach tingle. Several of the taller guys looked through a tiny porthole on the hangar hatch that separated us from the flight deck. I glanced out the small porthole, and saw a dramatic and dangerous scene. The helicopter tried several times to land upon our small and pitching flight deck. I could see the foreboding leaden sky, an occasional glimpse of the rolling sea, and a momentary view of the helicopter’s side panel, less than 10 feet above the flight deck. The helicopter hovered and dipped in every direction, above the  flight deck that tilted sideways, up, down and sideways again. On the other side of the hatch and directly under the helicopter, Chief Petty Officer Jones carried out one of the most dangerous jobs in the U.S. Navy: landing signal officer. Many men have been decapitated or disemboweled by helicopter rotor blades, or crushed to death by unsteady hovering airships. Jones guided the pilot, and after several more minutes and many landing attempts, the Sea King was at last safely upon the deck. The casualty, a 2nd class petty officer assigned to the engine room, had fallen down during our general quarters drill, struck his head upon a steel abutment, and gone into full cardiac arrest. The ship’s medical officer successfully resuscitated him. Less than five minutes after the helicopter landed it was aloft with our injured shipmate, speeding eastward to a naval hospital.

The helicopter pilot, we were told, was a freshly commissioned officer who had, just now upon our little flight deck, completed his first underway shipboard landing, a revelation that rendered all hands incredulous. Chief Jones entered the hangar, and we watched him to see if he would say anything.  “Weren’t you afraid?” someone asked. The chief looked down, shook his head. “Nah,” he said, and slowly walked away.

 

The screech of grinding steel and an anonymous voice repeating, “Norwalk Station, last stop,” summoned me from my reminiscence. My eyes refocused upon the treasured picture in which I’m wearing midshipman’s khakis. I was happy and satisfied that my naval service, while brief and undistinguished, had brought with it a sense of both wonder and excitement. I was thankful that I was able to serve in dangerous conditions and witness courage, desperation, peril, and perseverance, raw human emotions in a small world that few Americans ever see. Standing up, I breathed in deeply. I looked forward to returning home to the happy greeting of my two dogs, the warmth and comfort of my study, and the company of my books; civilian life too had its moments. Stepping off the train and onto the platform, I climbed the stairs two at a time – I had a bus to catch.