Flight operations are some of the most extensive and complex naval evolutions. The Navy flies aircraft not only from military bases on land, but also from virtually every type of ship in service while at sea. Just like civilian flight operations, the Navy has air traffic controllers, maintenance crews and ground crews to manage all aspects of flight operations around the globe.
During aviation-related emergencies at sea, however, ship crews rely on crash and salvage teams to serve as first responders on the scene. Unlike civilian airports, the Navy cannot clear a runway, isolate an aircraft or call 911 for assistance. Ships’ crash and salvage teams, like the one aboard Pre-commissioning Unit (PCU) America (LHA 6), are ultimately responsible for effectively responding to any flight deck emergency.
“On the flight deck, there is no fire department to call for help,” said Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Handling) 1st Class (AW/SW) Nnamdi Emenogu, America’s crash and salvage division leading petty officer. “On the flight deck we are the fire department. No one is coming to bail us out during emergency situations. Aviation is a dangerous business, and we have to be prepared for anything.”
Over the past year, Emenogu and his chain of command have been working diligently to prepare and train America’s first crash and salvage crew.
The America crew took possession of the ship, April 10, and continues to certify in all facets of shipboard operations before its commissioning in late 2014.
America’s crash and salvage team was selected from the ABHs assigned to the ship. Their first goal, once established, was to complete the certification process at the Aircraft Firefighting Shipboard Team Trainer (AFSTT) at the Naval Air Technical Training Center (NATTC) in Pensacola, Fla.
The crew began to take shape in March 2013 as America’s Air Department began placing Sailors in various divisions according to rate, experience and qualifications. At that time, the ship was under construction in Pascagoula, Miss., and the crash and salvage crew was stationed at America’s detachment in San Diego, where the ship will eventually be homeported. There, the crew began their training. Unlike other crash and salvage teams around the fleet, the America team had little equipment and began with a group of Sailors who possessed limited or no practical experience.
“We spent a lot of time in classrooms studying and learning procedures,” said Emenogu. “We put a lot of effort into training and getting ourselves ready, but it was very challenging. When you’re holding training in classrooms as much as we had to, you have to find ways to keep the team motivated and make them understand how important their job is.“
Soon after learning the basics within the classrooms, the crew began to embark on other ships around the fleet to gain practical experience.
“More than 90 percent of our crash crew are brand new Sailors,” said Chief Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Handling) (SW/AW) Andre Lilly, crash and salvage division’s leading chief petty officer. “Beyond the classroom training, we sent all of our Sailors to various ships in San Diego, such as the USS Boxer (LHD 4), USS Makin Island (LHD 8) and USS Peleliu (LHA 5), that offered their flight deck so we could conduct training. We also took them to several squadrons for familiarization on aircraft we will be landing on the ship.”
Several months later, the team traveled to NATTC for the evaluation they had been training for. The crash crew trained for one week, practicing on aviation equipment and honing their techniques before a final evaluation on the last day.
Over the weeklong course, the team used a mobile aircraft fire fighting training device (MAFTD) and completed a variety of training exercises, including personnel rescue, fire fighting, and aircraft rescue and salvage scenarios.
The team was put to the test during the final evolution process as they responded to an aircraft crash on the flight deck as it broke out in flames. The team immediately responded to the casualty utilizing the mobile fire-fighting vehicle (MFFV) P-25 fire truck.
“As the P-25 is approaching the aircraft, the crash and salvage team is shooting aqueous film forming foam (AFFF) at the aircraft cockpit to help establish a rescue path,” said Lilly. “Once they are within a safe and effective distance, the crash crew members will come off the back of the unit to man a single hand line and begin cooling ordnance.”
Within minutes, the remaining members of the crash team responded to the scene, manning fire fighting hoses. Once the fire was out and the aircraft was safe to approach, the team performed an emergency shutdown of the aircraft and began rescue procedures for the flight crew. With the fire out and the crew to safety, the team then flawlessly shifted their focus to moving the aircraft out of the landing area. Throughout the complex evolution, the team’s scene leader, a position usually filled by a second class petty officer, was manned by an airman.
“As a scene leader, you are responsible for the safety and actions of everyone on scene,” said Aviation Boatswain’s Mate Airman Robert Holland. “When you respond to a casualty you have to know that you can step up and lead no matter what the situation is. There are a lot of moving parts in a fire fighting evolution or a salvage operation. You have to have your head on a swivel and be able to see all of it and control it at the same time.”
After completing all the drills and requirements, the team waited patiently to hear the final score of their evaluation from the instructors. The overall course completion score Navy-wide is a stellar 96.8 percent. Before long, the instructors relayed to the team that they had achieved a perfect score of 100 percent.
“The crew performed in outstanding fashion,” said Aviation Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class (AW/SW) Gregory L. Scott, a team trainer instructor at NATTC. “They completed each task with precision and are definitely one of the best crews I’ve ever seen. If I hadn’t known already that they were a brand new crew, there is no way I would have guessed that was the case.”
In a message to the America from NATTC Pensacola, the crash team was recognized for their outstanding performance: “The America team displayed outstanding teamwork and enthusiasm throughout the week... Bravo Zulu to the America crash and salvage crew.”
“This was a first test to see where we are and how far we have come along,” said Emenogu. “I’ve been to that team trainer six times over the course of my career, and this is the first time I’ve been a part of team that scored 100. Being able to train a crew from scratch and ending up having the highest score in the fleet has been incredible and is a major accomplishment for our team and crew.”
The team’s performance was also noticed by Lilly.
“I’ve been doing this for a long time. At my last assignment, I was an evaluator for Afloat Training Group San Diego,” said Lilly. “This group did the best job I’ve ever seen out of any crash crew. [Their stellar performance] was evident because the instructors at NATTC thought the same, and it was reflected in the score. For me, receiving a perfect score in this evolution was one of my proudest moments as a chief petty officer.”
As the first crash and salvage team on America, Emenogu and his crew believe achieving the perfect score was the perfect beginning for the new ship.
“I’m very proud of my crash crewmen. It feels great to be able to say that we are the first crash crewmen on board this great ship and know we have set a standard of excellence.”