Thursday, June 30, 2016

Ship Out Of Water

USNS Leroy Grumman in drydock, Boston
Sailors are used to seeing their ships afloat, as I suspect are most people.  When a "landlubber" sees a vessel entering harbor or at anchor there is a tendency to think of what the eye can see as the ship, entire.  From the Sailor's perspective things are a bit different, as we normally live and work within the three-dimensional space of the hull and superstructure; we think in terms of internal spaces and fittings, engines and pumps and staterooms.  So we, as members of the crew, ought to be used to the idea of what the complete mass of an ocean-going vessel is like...

Not really.

This is 'Leroy Grumman' in dry-dock. Two months ago I assisted in bringing her in to Boston and placing her hull in the dock; I watched the water being pumped from the huge basin and the hull being revealed, inch by inch.  Now, as we labor to make our ship ready for return to the sea, one might be excused for thinking that I'd have grown used to the idea of 'Grumman' as a three-dimensional object, but it isn't really true.

Whenever I go ashore or come back aboard I simply must pause to look at my ship in this unfamiliar position.  To see the screws and rudders, bilge-keels and forefoot exposed to my sight seems somehow wrong; even indecent.  Removed from the sea there is a vulnerability to my ship's appearance, a kind of betrayed innocence, and I find myself looking forward to the day when this dock will once more fill with water, 'Grumman's keel will lift from the blocks, and she will become once again a thing of the sea, powered and powerful and ready to set out upon great waters with purpose.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

"Skywatch"--ing At Northwest River Park

I was just about to write-up last night's BBAA event in Northwest River Park when Leigh Anne Lagoe's post on the subject popped up on Facebook.  She's the Vice President of the BBAA and with her permission I present her report on the event...

What a beautiful night last night at Skywatch in Northwest River Park. I don't know if we ever got an official count, but I overheard that there were over 20 telescopes set up, and possibly over 100 guests that came out. I'll let someone that's better at reports go ahead and give the details.

I arrived at sunset and by then, telescope row was already packed with members as well as new faces. A wide variety of telescopes were prepared for the night ahead.

Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn dazzled everyone. Once it was dark enough, those telescopes started to swing to some deep space objects like M13 (The Great Hercules Cluster), M57 (The Ring Nebula), M27 (The Dumbbell Nebula), some galaxies, double stars, open clusters, and more. 

The bright planets stayed within view, offering a variety of objects for us to ogle all night. The Milky Way became more and more prevalent as the night grew darker, and M20 was easily spotted naked eye.

The air cooled down, and despite some humidity, the mosquitoes left me alone for the night (A thick layer of bug spray helped). Lightning bugs all around--twinkling in the trees--as the stars twinkled above. I counted four meteors (that doesn't include the false-alarms that were actually lightning bugs in my peripheral vision).

There was an Iridium flare at 10:48, that showed up on time, as expected, but with the build-up of the crowd, the -1 magnitude brief flare seemed to disappoint. Though, the surprise bright spot in the sky just prior to that flare was far more exciting! Since we don't know what it was, I think the term UFO will fit for now. ;)

Overall, a fantastic outreach event. Thanks to all that made it out.

"A night under the stars...rewards the bug bites, the cloudy nights, the next-day fuzzies, and the thousand other frustrations with priceless moments of sublime beauty."--Richard Berry

Friday, June 24, 2016

Open Letter to United Airlines...

United Airlines Boeing 767-300 (Stock Photo)
24 June 2016

Sir or Madame,
I find myself compelled to write regarding a recent travel experience with your airline.  While not precisely a letter of complaint, I hope to stress herein a few points on the subject of aircraft and passenger safety while detailing both the positive and negative aspects of the narrative.

One initial point I would like to make clear is that I am not an aviation professional but a 36-year Sailor and Merchant Mariner; while not knowledgeable on the minutiae of aircraft systems and procedures I am experienced enough to recognize professional conduct by transportation personnel and the exercise of safe practice in the event of unforeseen incidents.

On 19 June 2016, while returning from U.S. Government business in Crete, I boarded Flight UA125 from Athens to Newark NJ.  Within twenty minutes of departure the Captain made the announcement that there was a problem with the 767-300's flaps (they were jammed in the retracted position) and that the aircraft would be returning to Athens.  Upon completion of a partial fuel dump (which necessitated orbit over the Aegean Sea) we recovered at Athens, landing at higher-than-normal speed to compensate for the decreased flap capability of the aircraft.  Landing was bumpy but not excessively so, and within a few minutes all passengers were safely deplaned.

At this point I would like to recognize the professional performance of the flight crew;  Captain Constantino (I believe this was her name--it is possible that my spelling is incorrect) and her team handled the incident with skill, also keeping the passengers informed of our progress with frequent informative and calming announcements.  Once on the ground the cabin crew especially distinguished themselves by ably managing our exit from the aircraft.
Dumping Fuel over the Aegean Sea
After some delay at Athens Airport the passengers of UA125 were put on buses and transported to the Metropolitan Hotel in the city.  There adequate lodgings and meal service were provided despite the short notice involved, and all involved were provided a pleasant environment to relax in after the day's events.

On the following morning (20 June 2016) the passengers boarded the same aircraft; as I boarded I noted that mechanics (wearing KLM jumpsuits) were working on the underside of the port (left) wing on a hydraulic lift platform.  There was some delay while final inspections took place and paperwork was signed (this announcement was made by the cabin crew), and finally we took off on our interrupted flight to Newark.
Work in Progress--AS we Board!
Unfortunately the 767's flaps were not properly repaired after all; immediately after takeoff the air-crew found that they could not retract the extended control surfaces.  For the second time, after dumping fuel we recovered at Athens Airport to meet the familiar escort of emergency vehicles flashing red lights, deplaned and waited for buses to carry the passengers back to the Metropolitan.

Again, kudos to Captain Constantino and her fine crew; they handled this near-clone of our previous emergency very well.  Unfortunately I cannot say the same for several members of the passenger contingent.  General frustration and anger were quite evident amongst my companions and in three cases that I am aware of verbal abuse was directed at the cabin crew and even the Captain when she walked aft to talk to us.  One passenger that I know of was escorted from the aircraft by Greek police; this man had apparently directed verbal threats at the Captain.
Captain Constantino deals with dissent in the ranks
Finally, on the morning of 21 June, a new aircraft was delivered from Chicago; Captain Constantino and her team took charge of this airliner and the remaining passengers of our group boarded and departed Athens that morning.  This particular flight went off flawlessly and ten hours later we were deplaning in Newark.

Now, for my critique on a safety issue.  On 20 June it was obvious to boarding passengers that the mechanics were still working on the left wing of our 767-300, and our departure was delayed further while paperwork was completed and signed.  The subsequent flap failure and our return to Athens make clear to me that there was no attempt to confirm the success of repairs before embarking passengers and taking off.  This failure to complete a "check flight" to verify the status of the aircraft as adequate for a transcontinental flight was, in my opinion, a significant error.  

Had the aircraft been flown without passengers--with a fuel load sufficient to that purpose--prior to our coming back aboard, it seems clear that this would have negated the possibility of risking the safety of 200+ passengers AND of dumping a second long-range load of fuel into the Aegean Sea.  Surely United spent more money on that wasted av-gas than it would have spent on a quick check-flight, and I for one would not have objected to an additional delay of a few hours while this seemingly obvious test was performed.

Thus, my single complaint to register on the subject of this three-day tale is that, effectively, the airline saw fit to risk the safety of 200+ persons (including myself) on an un-tested aircraft on 20 June 2016.  As a transportation professional I find this unacceptable; it amounts to the use of passengers as experimental "guinea pigs".

This completes my account of the events of 19-21 June 2016 in the environs of Athens, Greece; of course this represents a passenger's eye view and I do not claim to have all details.   I welcome any feedback you might offer in reference to my complaint, and look forward to your response to my concerns.

Thank You,

Thomas L. Epps

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Morning Lights

"I became an astronomer not to learn the facts about
the sky but to feel its majesty."- David Levy

Terrific night! I awoke at 0300, looked outside at
the beautiful, clear sky, and decided I didn't need
THAT much sleep. A few minutes later I was on the
bridge-wing enjoying the view of Mars, Saturn and
Antares low in the west, Perseus rising in the east,
and the broad, bifurcated stream of the Milky Way
forming a river of starlight seeming to connect them.

I am fortunate whilst at sea to have access to some
of the darkest night skies on Earth; the downside to
this is that telescopes don't work well aboard ship
(too much ocean motion). So the irony here is that my
"observatory" has amazing skies but that I'm limited
to binocular and naked-eye observation of the wonders
thus presented. It's been this way for me since I
first went to sea (36 years ago), and only
occasionally do I feel that particular pain...

Like this morning, with skies so transparent and
seeing so good that my observing journal entry reads
"Outstanding!!!" in both respects. Standing on the
slowly-moving deck, feeling the diesels throbbing a
hundred feet below, hearing the rush of water along
the hull and the lookout making a report to the watch
officer a few yards away in the wheelhouse, I stood
transfixed by the sight of the Triangulum Galaxy
(M33), the great Globular Cluster in Hercules (M13)
and Galaxy M81 in Ursa Major revealed to my
unassisted eyes. I could clearly discern the North
American Nebula near Deneb as well as the jumble of
clotted starlight running down the course of the
Milky Way toward Sagittarius, each knot a cluster or

I think that had I had binoculars or a small
telescope with me this morning I would have been
wrong to utilize them; a sky this rare, this
fantastic would lose something precious under

I must have stood out there for nearly an hour--it
seemed only a few minutes--for suddenly I realized
that the light of dawn was beginning to overcome the
blaze of Capella, newly arrived on the stage. Shaking
off the chill that had settled unknown upon me, I
found the spell of the perfect sky already broken by
the glow of coming day. I found that Mars had
vanished into the southwest and that Saturn was
fading in turn.

The enchantment dispelled, my last sight before
laying below to prepare for the new day was a flash
of white light in Andromeda; a bright meteor leaving
a persistent trail behind it as it headed northwest
into Ursa Minor. A lovely finale, indeed--and perhaps
a promise for tomorrow morning?

Monday, June 13, 2016

Rocket Gibraltar

We have transited the Strait of Gibraltar eastbound,
passing between the Pillars of Hercules into the
Mediterranean Sea. The Pillars, of course, represent
the high peaks of the Spanish coast on the northern
side of the Strait and the amazing, rugged highlands
on the Moroccan coast to the South. Gibraltar itself
dominates the transit, becoming visible as you
complete a long turn northeast and head into the
Alboran. Always an impressive sight.

Geography lesson aside, let me venture a few personal
observations and perhaps pedantic thoughts. To me
this waterway has long been symbolic of my travels
and adventures over the past thirty years, and of the
thousands of years of sea-faring history that made
Europe what it is. The Minoans, Phoenicians,
Egyptians, Greeks, etc…all made voyages of trade and
exploration on these waters, and empires rose and
fell on the outcomes of the many naval battles that
shattered ships and men. Trafalgar, Cape St. Vincent,
the Malta Convoys, Operation Torch, all echo across
time as we cruise into the Strait. I hear the crash
of broadsides, imagine the "feathers" of U-Boat
periscopes in the dark waters of the Approaches, and
feel the trepidation and fear of Columbus' crews as
his small fleet began it's momentous, world-altering

I first made this passage in late 1981 as a fresh
Seaman Apprentice aboard a small, under-armed
frigate; I remember standing my station as lookout
and wondering what the big deal was, why this
particular piece of water was any more significant
than any other. Over the years and cruises that
followed I became familiar with names like Nelson and
Cunningham, places such as Casablanca and Rota, and
my appreciation for this busy waterway increased. By
the time I actually visited Gibraltar in 1988 (on my
fourth deployment) and climbed the famous Rock, the
arrival at the Bay of Cadiz and the Strait had become
an important personal event. Today I cannot even
count the number of times I've transited the safety
fairway, east- and west-bound, but the total must be
in the hundreds.

So, after a bit of nattering-on, a few hours of
close-quarters sailing amongst the many merchantmen
steaming through with us, and the thrill, once more,
of seeing the stark beauty of the peaks of Morocco,
the lofty heights of Fortress Gibraltar, moving from
the Atlantic to the Mediterranean and all the
adventures that lie ahead, I close this entry with an
image in my mind of a tremendous fleet of phantom
ships manned by ghostly mariners from across the
millennia. Not a Flying Dutchman, not mariners
condemned for sins real or imagined, but the souls of
thousands upon thousands of Sailors whose joy in the
doing, and dreams of the voyage ahead, match mine as
we sail together into the future as kindred spirits
of the sea.

Monday, June 6, 2016

"A Big Fish"...USS Dwight D. Eisenhower

I've been sailing with aircraft carriers for most of
my adult life; either in escort vessels, there to
protect the "high value unit" from enemy submarine or
air attack, or in ammunition ships and oilers,
accompanying the Battle Group (in modern parlance;
Strike Group)to provide material support for their
missions. The common factor in all these voyages has
been that distinctive silhouette on the horizon or
the imposing bulk alongside, the "Voice Of God" (or
at least the Admiral commanding the formation) coming
over the radio speakers on the bridge and the scream
of high-performance jet aircraft overhead as the
"bird farm" exercises her planes and pilots.

As an Operations Specialist coming up through the
ranks in frigates and destroyers I often saw these
behemoths in negative terms. The carrier at the
center of the disposition was alternately a source of
frustration as they issued maneuvering instructions
to the Group in seemingly whimsical fashion ("March
and Counter-March" all day and every day for weeks or
even months on end) or paranoia as that 100,000-ton
ship could suddenly and unexpectedly turn toward us,
closing the distance with terrifying speed--and we
all knew who would win in a collision. There was a
reason for that uncomplimentary nickname bestowed
upon carriers by destroyer sailors; "Can-Opener".

As I and my tactical abilities matured I came to be
familiar with the particular methods and madness of
these sea-going airfields. Understanding their
apparently berserker behavior had to come with
experience; knowing how to anticipate that blade and
dodge its thrusts was a function of situational
awareness and judgement in seeing the threat before
it WAS a threat and taking avoiding action promptly
to avoid an abruptly raised pucker-factor.

When I was actually working in Naval Aviation I began
to better understand the aircraft carrier; learning
its capabilities and limitations. Today, working to
provide them with parts, fuel and personnel on the
high seas, my perspective continues to broaden; I see
these massive ships not as sources of frustration or
fear but as the complicated weapons-systems that they
are; wielding enormous firepower and impressive
technology over vast distances, managed and commanded
by mere human beings who can rise to glory or fall
from grace based entirely upon the qualities that
make them human.

Friday, June 3, 2016

USS Roosevelt (DDG-80) Alongside USNS Big Horn (T-AO 198)

USS Roosevelt--named for both Franklin and
Eleanor--alongside USNS Big Horn, rolling easily in
the rising seas as she tops-off her bunkers through
the thick hoses slung between their hulls. The
destroyer appeared out of the dawn mists an hour ago
and soon, sated, she'll break away to vanish again,
racing across the swells to the horizon.

As providers of fuel and supplies to the Fleet we
aren't usually privy to the missions our charges are
embarked upon; our task is simply to be at the
appointed rendezvous and to pump the fuel, high-line
the cargo, and transfer the personnel they need to
carry out their assigned tasks.

When the great carriers and their Strike Groups
depart Mayport, San Diego and Norfolk on their
voyages of "national interest" on the great waters of
the world, our ships--the oilers, refrigerated cargo
ships, and ammo ships--go along with them. Rarely
are we mentioned in media coverage of the Group's
departure; we don't get massive send-offs or even
"Welcome Home" celebrations as the men 'o' war do.
And this is fitting; the Carriers, Cruisers and
Destroyers go forth to carry out their missions and
possibly to risk all in the effort; we simply go
along to make that journey possible.