Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Tom Epps' Fun With Flags!

That's me in the orange shirt!  Photo by Mike Springer.
On my last voyage aboard USNS Leroy Grumman I had an unusual assignment; I had to become an expert in "visual signaling".  In other words, unlike previous ships where I would communicate with other ships and shore stations via radio circuits and secure Chat, my orders were to take a page from the history books and talk to other units the same way Admiral Nelson did--using signal flags!
NOT having been a Signalman in my previous (active duty Navy) career, I had a lot to learn about my new duties.  Thankfully, I was given plenty of time to learn them; I had nearly an entire WEEK to hit the "pubs" and pick up the ins-and-outs of naval flags and their uses!  Good thing I work well under pressure...
The concept is pretty simple, actually.  Each distinctive flag and pennant in the Signals "alphabet" represents a letter, number, or specific message type to be conveyed to the ships within visual range
of Grumman.  The message is encoded using special "signal books" like the one shown below...
Sorry!  Most of this stuff is classified and since I don't feel like going to prison this week you'll just have to imagine the kind of book I'm referring to.  Lots of pages, plenty of fine print and unintelligible instructional text, and page after page after page of "encode" and "decode" guff.  Yep, you've got it!

Once the message to be sent is "prepped" the team on Grumman's signal bridge--perched atop the wheelhouse--swing into action.  The proper flags and pennants are selected from the "Flag Bags" and bent-on to the halyards to spell-out the signal.  You begin with an outboard halyard on whichever side and work your way inboard, always careful to keep the "hoist" in proper order so the receiving
unit will know you are altering course to starboard and NOT ordering #14 with eggrolls!

The signal completed and checked, you run it up smartly!  The final result is colorful AND informative,; the receiving ship(s) will respond by hoisting the same signal in reply.  This is useful in two ways; firstly it allows you to check that they did indeed receive the proper message, and secondly they are repeating the message to other ships that might not be able to see the signal hoists.
The photo above was taken on my first day as Grumman's "Flag Boss", about a month ago.  At that time I was pretty nervous that I'd get it wrong somehow, and I'll admit that I made a few mistakes along the way.  Now that I feel confident that I can communicate smoothly and accurately with other ships using the flags and pennants, it's time to add to my repertoire as a signalman...
How's your Morse Code?


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