Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Radio Days and Nights...

09 June 2011
I’d like to begin this posting with some (possibly apocryphal) stories from the past…
Classic Tale No.1
The diminutive Navy A-4 attack plane was taxiing toward its assigned runway when the pilot spotted an enormous MAC (Military Airlift Command) cargo plane approaching the same taxiway from the opposite direction. Keying his radio, he called the ground controller; “Tower, this is Skyhawk 13, Interrogative the intentions of the C-54 on my taxiway. Over.”
Before the tower could respond, the intruding cargo aircraft came to a halt. The giant clam-shell doors in its nose began to open as a sepulchral voice came over the Skyhawk pilot’s headset; “I am going to eat you!”
Classic Tale No.2
The USN battleship/aircraft carrier/destroyer (it seems to depend on who is telling the story) was headed for a port visit in the Baltic/Pacific/Mediterranean Sea, and her Officer of the Deck was alert to other shipping “traffic” in the coastal approaches. Raising the VHF mike, he transmitted “Vessel in position such-and-such this is U.S. Navy Warship umpty-squnch, bearing two-three-zero, twelve nautical miles from your position. Request you alter course to starboard for a port-to-port passage. Over.”
Immediately the radio squawked, “Negative, Navy Ship, you must alter course to starboard to leave me on your port side. Over.”
“This is U.S. Navy Warship umpty-squnch. Negative! This is a U.S. Navy Warship. You are required by the international rules of the road to alter course to avoid risk of collision. Alter course immediately! Over!”
After a few seconds, the VHF again piped up. “This is a lighthouse. Out.”
Classic Tale No.3
These naval aviators were practicing air combat maneuvering (ACM), rehearsing actions that might save their lives during actual battle. After one mock engagement the voice of a pilot came loud and clear over the radio; “Man, I really fouled that up! I am so fouled-up today!”.
In the carrier CVIC a watch officer heard this blatant violation of proper Navy radio etiquette and keyed his mike: “Aircraft making unauthorized transmission, Identify yourself. Over!”
From the offending aircraft high above the fleet; “Brother, I am not that fouled-up!”
These three stories have been around for decades—probably as long as there have been radios in aircraft and on the bridges of ships—and there is no way to tell if any of them are true, or perhaps just jokes that have been told so many times they have acquired the veneer of legend. Certainly the second one, of warship vs. lighthouse, has the most fame—even a beer commercial has been made using this gag—but the others also ring true as samples of the shenanigans that can result from picking up that ‘mike’ and engaging mouth before brain.
Some technical background for those who haven’t spent years in the cockpit or the wheelhouse (take a nap for a few minutes, Shipmates!); every aircraft and ship on or above the planet uses what is called a “Very High Frequency” (VHF for short) radio for routine and emergency communications with other planes or ships—these radio sets, variously called “Talk Between Ships” or “Bridge to Bridge” by operators afloat, look like old-fashioned CB radios, and like those units have long “whip” antennae mounted atop a ship’s bridge structure. They have fairly short designed ranges—meant for close-range communications after all—but layering of warm and cool air in Earth’s atmosphere can cause a signal to bounce a very long distance (this is called “ducting”).
These radios have many channels available, but the most vital is Channel 16, the “Hailing and Distress” channel. This particular channel is monitored (or at least it should be) by every vessel on the seas, and has saved innumerable lives when things have gone terribly wrong aboard ship, fishing vessel, or yacht. In addition to using it for “mayday” calls, ships call other vessels, agree to switch to an unused channel, and carry on their discussion (either negotiation to avoid collision or where the good fishing is today) on that “working” channel. Along with Ch.16 there are specific channels assigned for traffic on rivers, inland waterways, harbors and ocean “traffic separation schemes”, again, to arrange safe passage and pass vital information for those waterways. Without this important piece of communications gear and the assigned channels I have no doubt that life would be a lot more difficult at sea!
Okay; enough technical talk about the wonders of modern radio and how things should be. Now let’s get to the fun part—how things really are worse @ Sea!
Tales From The Other Gulf
I worked in the Gulf of Mexico offshore oil and natural gas industry for nearly four years before being called-up to serve in Operation Enduring Freedom and subsequently Iraqi Freedom. During most of that time I sailed in small vessels servicing the enormous population of drilling and production platforms that cluster off the coasts of Louisiana and Texas, transporting supplies, equipment and personnel from such ports as Sabine, Fourchon, Galveston and Venice, which lies not in Italia but on a tributary of the Muddy Mississippi.
It was while sailing in these small craft, and learning the ins and outs of seamanship, that I was first exposed to the discipline (or lack thereof) to be found on VHF circuits amongst the thousands of small craft encountered on the Gulf of Mexico...
One of the great misconceptions about the fishing industry in that body of water is the idea that all of those fishing boats--be they pogie boats or shrimpers--are manned and operated by Cajun crews and captains. The reality is that the fishing down there is done in very large part by Vietnamese immigrants, and most of the fishing boats carry "eyes" painted on their stems (to ward off evil) and names like Quang Tra or Nai Lin. The boats are manned by extended families, usually captained by Father or Grandfather--meaning that for the most part, the days of Forrest Gump and 'Lieutenant Dan' are over.
What does this mean for our discussion of VHF follies? It means that, for much of the day, Ch.16 and many of the working channels are dominated by a constant stream of chatter in Vietnamese! Hardly what one would expect off the shores of Texas, I know. The Coast Guard, whose personnel monitor and regulate traffic on these circuits, are overwhelmed and would certainly have trouble exacting a fine for abuse of VHF radio when most of the "traffic" is in a very foreign language spoken at full speed!
As a helmsman and lookout in the supply boat Wave Tide, working out of Port Fourchon (Louisiana) at the time, I was so used to the continuous chatter in Vietnamese over Ch.16 that I nearly fell out of my seat when, during a momentary pause in the stream of alien verbiage, a voice broke in angrilly; "Hey, man--you in America now! Speak Spanish!"
Every weekday around 0900 the boats working out of Sabine, Texas are treated to the pleasant voice of a woman over Ch.16; "Good morning, this is the Jesus Saves with your Word of the Day." There follows a long  reading from Psalms or Gospel, and then our lady friend aboard that particular vessel closes with a blessing on all the boats and mariners aboard them.
Oddly, I have never heard anyone complain about this blatant violation of VHF procedure despite the fact that Jesus Saves is blocking an emergency radio circuit for ten minutes. I guess the Coast Guard personnel enjoy the sermon too.
Filipino Monkey?  Do What with a Camel?!
One of the biggest lapses in regulatory judgement, in my opinion, is the requirement that all vessels carry VHF radio,  I'm joking, of course--this type of gear has saved the lives of countless mariners and fishermen--but I could wish that standards of training and discipline in their usage were better!  Wherever you are in the world the international hailing and distress channels are choked with traffic, most of it having nothing to do with safe navigation or survival on the high seas.  Fishermen gossip about their catches or each other's wives, bored watch officers chatter about union dues and play "DJ" by playing their favorite music over Channel 16 (in the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman this is usually Arab music, which has earned the practice the appellation "Radio Baghdad").
But the going gets really interesting when, usually during the "midwatch" from midnight to 0400, so-called qualified radio operators begin exchanging insults over the air.  It usually begins with a pretty lightweight "f-bomb" or two, followed by some imaginative and in most cases impossible suggestions of sexual relations with other operators and/or relatives, and then things get weird.  Perhaps the most bizarre insults to be heard are those relating  to nationality...every country and ethnic background gets slandered in remarkably short order, with favorite targets (at least in this region) being Indians, Filipinos and Italians.  Oddly, in all my years of sailing these waters I have never heard any insults directed at the U.S. Navy or other Coalition ships in the region--perhaps because we are often all that stands between them and the pirate vessels?
The Voice of the Devil
It begins the same way every time, day or night; an urgent call for assistance over Channel 16.  The Master of a tanker, container ship or bulk carrier reports the sighting of several small craft closing rapidly with his ship. Immediately all superfluous chatter on the VHF halts as every operator within listening range becomes a vicarious participant in the drama of a pirate attack on the Gulf of Aden or Arabian Sea.  If the targeted ship is close enough, we aboard Arctic will prepare to launch our “Crusaders” armed with medium machine guns and grenade launchers to assist, and immediately we will begin coordinating our actions with whatever warship is closest to the stricken vessel.  They are already making turns for “flank speed” on an intercept course as they launch their “birds” and gather as much information from the Master as the merchant ship maneuvers as best they can to avoid the pirate skiffs, which are far faster and more agile than any full-sized ship.
The Battle is really a race.  The pirates know that once they get boarders aboard the merchant ship and take at least one of the crew hostage they will have leverage ; they can then threaten action against the crew-member if  the Navy units do not withdraw.  The task of the interdiction force is to get to the scene of action and prevent the raiders from boarding.  There are usually only two possible outcomes to this kind of race; the pirates are driven off or the ship is taken, the crew made hostage.  This is the way piracy has worked for centuries—the tools are more advanced but the tactics and goals are the same.
We on the bridge spend hours listening to the engagement proceed; the calls for help, offers of assistance from other ships, the play-by-play of gunfire exchanges between our helos and the pirate skiffs and motherships, and then, all too often, the voice of the pirate leader as he declares victory in this battle.  Unlike the Hollywood-version of a Somali or Yemeni pirate he is neither hysterical nor overtly threatening; his voice is the French-accented sing-song of the ex-colonial countries, but he sounds cool and collected as he dictates terms of the Coalitions forces’ withdrawal.  He allows the ship’s Master to speak on the radio and confirm that the pirates do indeed control the ship, and then calmly advises local traffic of his intentions.  He is in charge, and in his tones we hear the voice of our predatory enemy, the voice of the Devil.
Our helos withdraw, one warship is assigned to escort the captured merchant ship as it makes it’s way to whatever port the pirates’ bosses have directed her to anchor as the long bargaining process begins in Dubai and Paris.  As we return to our normal duties and prepare to recover “Crusader” 00 and 17, we try to relax, discuss the action and how we might do it a little bit faster next time.  We lost this particular battle, but the war goes on.

Tom Epps
Able Seaman
USNS Arctic
Gulf of Aden

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