It was the first day of a typical underway for Sailors aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6), as the ship departed Sasebo, Japan and headed for the open sea in preparations for unit-level training with Afloat Training Group Western Pacific (ATGWP).
As the ship itself became a floating city with its own infrastructure and environment, the day was winding down and most of the crew had already entered that mental state where the outside world and all of its problems becomes a distant memory.
After night fell and as the day crew exchanged duties with the night check, the “city” was suddenly enveloped in total darkness and almost deafening silence. There were only the sounds of various machines, alarmed by the loss of their power source, and the guiding lights of the battle lanterns navigating Sailors through the passageways. Even the ship’s voice, the 1MC went silent. The entire crew sprung into action – general quarters, all lockers manned - our floating home lay dead in the water.
After the initial rush, most of the crew manned their stations, ready for any contingency, but far below decks, engineers, like the immune system of a giant living organism, tackled the problem at hand.
Engineers are the moving force behind the ship; they keep the warship afloat and maintain all of the comforts for the crew from electricity to hot water. One of their most important jobs is to maintain the fire within the boilers, which heat up the water and in turn creates steam. The fire is maintained within certain parameters, in balance between supplied air and fuel. To achieve that balance, the engineers utilize an automatic, computerized system that regulates valves, injecting the required amount of each element.
That night there was a scheduled test of the system, called “flexing the boilers” - a high-risk evolution, but a required test to make sure the system operates properly. Engineers, working in the forward main machinery room, were making a boiler load change from 70 percent to full power when the fire went out. The first step was to cross-connect with the aft plant for support, but instead both plants went down.
Engineering casualty, engineering casualty…
“That night, we seem to have run out of luck, something went wrong during the evolution and the fire went out,” said Machinist’s Mate 3rd Class Renz Mauleon, from Saint Pablo, Calif., who was on watch the night BHR’s heart went silent.
“We were literally dead in the water,” recalled Senior Chief Machinist’s Mate Angel Garza, from Houston. “The rest of the ship just looked at it as ‘engineering lost the plant.’ How I see it is that I had a group of young Engineers who had to endure a perfect storm, and then fight repeatedly to save the ship.”
There was no easy button, no calling for help or simply giving up. Without steam, without power, there was no steering in rough winter waters, and the ship was drifting toward land, while the engineers received one blow after another.
It was dark, steam enveloped the engineering spaces, the ventilation had stopped, and in an already hot environment, six decks below the hangar bay, the temperatures were rising. According to Machinist’s Mate 1st Class Francisco Ceja, from Richmond, Calif., the thermometer in the machinery room read as high as 160 degrees and personnel had to utilize self contained breathing apparatuses (SCBA).
Enduring the darkness, heat and stress, the engineers’ first solution was to switch to diesel as a backup. Diesel is used in such times that the boilers’ steam cannot provide power to the ship. But even here the team had hit a snag – the forward diesel would not come online as it was designed.
To add insult to injury, there was smoke rising in the vicinity of the diesel-regulating switchboard, a potential class charlie (electrical) fire. Engineers could not restart the diesels until they knew the cause of the smoke. And, like the Murphy’s Law where everything that can go wrong does go wrong, aft diesel had issues too - the fuel pump failed.
With both diesels unresponsive, the only option left was to light off manually.
“Because the system and computers are automatic, doing light off manually is practically impossible; you have to regulate the fuel and air, and coordinate a lot of people, adjusting minute changes to start and keep the fire going,” said Mauleon. “My Senior Chief said, ‘we are lighting off manually’ and all I could think of was ‘What?! This is crazy!’ But we had to do it, we had to get the power back… In two-and-a-half years that I have been aboard, we have never done this before, nor, I think, any of the other Sailors.”
Even Senior Chief Garza, in his 17-year career never had to resort to manual light off. But he had technical knowledge, instructions and confidence in his crew to save the ship.
“Everything turned to being ‘old school’ - shuffling coal into the engines; at least 20 people were on station for the job that would normally be done automatically,” said Ceja. “We had to man up every single watch station, everyone had to take control of something locally and communicate with each other: ‘give me more fuel,’ ‘give me more air’ or ‘give me more water,’ ‘open up on this or that.’ Everything that was done electronically had to be done manually – something that has not been done before on an LHD. In my 12 years, I have never seen it done.”
The ship’s heart beats once more.
Miraculously, the team was able to restore the power and supply some vital services to the ship: lighting, ventilation, some basic “comforts” for the watchstanders and enough power for basic equipment, but the plants had to be maintained manually through the night, while the work continued on restoring to full automatic operations.
“We had to fight to secure the plant safely, endure severe heat stress climate and then light off and restore the ship simply off of will and engineering experience and knowledge,” explained Garza. “It was hell! But seeing the guys push through that, and do it safely and successfully, I don't see it as they failed; I see it as they won and earned more than they or anyone else realizes.”
Not only were the engineers able to reignite BHR’s heart, but they maintained ship’s operations for the rest of the underway, all the while conducting daily and nightly ATG training evolutions. They excelled in anything and everything that was thrown at them.
“We started the float with two inexperienced watch teams for engineering spaces, 11 people per team, and for some of them it was their first watch,” said Ceja. “We went from zero-experience watchstanders, not being able to pass one evolution or drill, to meeting the numbers required by ATG in two weeks. Stateside, ships get five to six months to train in order to certify. We did it in two weeks.”
An engineer’s hard work is never done. They maintain a schedule that is physically and mentally tasking. They are awake at any and every hour of the day and night, walk more miles, and climb more stairs in one day aboard the ship than an average person would in a week, and still keep on pushing through.
“Some days are tougher than the others. Unlike ships stateside, we are always deployed, always operational, with only short breaks in between,” explained Ceja. “So, I remind my guys that this ship is a just a big piece of metal without you [engineers]. You generate electricity, provide water and propel the ship through the water, give the crew comforts – without you, none of this is possible.”
BHR engineers have also tackled problems and developed unorthodox solutions that go beyond the ship’s operations, benefiting the entire fleet.
Test it hot.
Another one of the engineering tasks is maintaining the chemistry of the boilers. Certain chemicals are injected into the boilers to preserve the inside surfaces. Thus, a daily chemical test is necessary to ensure proper chemical balance, which prevents deterioration and corrosion inside the boilers, and prolongs their longevity.
The chemical problem arose from inconsistencies in the amount of chemicals present in the samples. The test results indicated a very low dosage of chemical present, which meant that the entire 5,100 gallon boiler had to be drained, filled back up and injected with a fresh batch of chemicals – a time-consuming (up to 15 hours) and expensive evolution. Expensive being the key word, considering not only the cost of the chemicals used but also the shipping costs to overseas commands.
“Erroneous readings were happening throughout the fleet, on any boiler-operated ship stateside and overseas,” explained Garza. “The solution that my engineers came up with was as simple and as ingenious as it could possibly be. They started heating the sample water to the same temperature as the water when the boilers are operational, and the results came back satisfactory.”
Conducting the tests with the water heated led to solid, consistent results. As a next step, engineering department’s personnel contacted the chemical manufacturer asking about the difference between using heated and cool water for sample tests. The manufacturer advised heating up the water. However, none of the books or instructions specified the fact leading to inconsistent results and, therefore, led to wasted man-hours and chemicals throughout the fleet.
“With our results and backing from the manufacturer, I contacted NAVSEA (Naval Sea Systems Command),” said Garza. “NAVSEA, in turn, ran their own tests and consulted chemists, confirming what our engineers were doing. Now, the instruction is being rewritten to reflect the proper testing techniques. As a result, the BHR team’s problem solving attitude affected not only this ship, but also any ship in the fleet that uses this testing system. All of the LHD ships in the fleet will be changing to the procedure that was developed here on BHR.”
But the engineering team’s strive to excellence did not stop there.
Making RBO history.
Every two years, an inspection team working for NAVSEA visits the ship for inspection, which includes taking almost 50 percent of the boiler apart, looking for any problems, checking the chemistry, verifying oil lab proper operations and testing, and verifying overall boiler functionality and propulsion systems. The inspection team provides feedback and solutions or mitigations for any issues that are found. This is followed by a major TYCOM (Type Commander) led inspection, which takes place every five years.
The equipment is evaluated by a point system or Repair Before Operate (RBO) – a designation for equipment (boilers) found to be unsafe to operate during the assessment, as outlined in the Navy instruction COMNAVSURFORINST 3540.2.
The engineering team put time and effort into preparing for the inspection and verifying that every part of the system was up to if not above the standard. As a result, during the evaluation on the number one boiler, they received only 7.3 RBOs.
“There has never been an LHD platform that received so few RBOs in the history of LHD inspections,” said Garza. “It is normal, on a routine inspection, to receive 20 to 30 RBOs, and while I am not happy to receive any RBOs, in my 17-year career I have never seen a ship receive so few. It is a testament to our hard work and dedication.”
The fact that the ship is forward deployed; spending more time at sea than in port, and operating overseas, where manpower and supply are limited, the team has outdone its stateside counterparts.
“Stateside, a five-year inspection is done within 15 months, our team accomplished it in 60 days; a routine inspection stateside takes five to nine months, we completed it in 30 days,” explained Garza. “You have to also consider that we do not have the same access to resources, finances and availability as ships back in the states, but we are still able to meet the objective, correct any issues and surpass our counterparts without resources or manning.”
“I'd like to be able to tell the story that no one hears about,” said Garza. “You always read about and see pictures of the flight ops, the bridge ops, well deck ops, Marines.... But very few know about those who sail below. I challenge my Sailors to be perfect, because if I don't, people get hurt. I was proud of how they performed and I think others should know about it too.”
Forward-deployed: the cycle begins anew.
Engineering can be a thankless job, unrecognized by many for it is invisible to even most of the ship’s own crew, hidden from sight far below decks, enveloped in the steam and heat of daily operations. Yet, without engineers, we would still sail by the power of the wind or row our way through the waters.
Today, after overcoming the impossible odds, succeeding and setting new LHD standard in inspections, and making history in fleet’s instructions, the BHR engineers embody teamwork, professionalism and integrity, continuing their work side-by-side from one deployment into another, keeping this mighty warship always forward, always on its mission.
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