Kirk Harbolt, crewman on the SeaHawk MH-53, leans out the starboard hatch, after checking my seatbelt and giving the thumbs up to the pilot. This Navy Helicopter is their big one and can carry 25 Marines and our crew of 6. This day it is carrying me out to a spot in the Atlantic off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, USA. Flying vertical and then at a great clip forward, the chopper is filled with some press and photographers, Naval Officers, several “distinguished visitors”, and me. The Navy Department welcomes the chance to greet and educate visitors to sailors’ life aboard ship in the fleet.
A City on the Sea The USS WASP ( LHD-1) is not a speck on the sea. This 843 foot naval amphibious assault ship is a carrier for vertical aircraft and a vessel that will deploy assault landing craft by sea. The Seahawk 53 hovers smoothly and the rear hatch ramp is lowered to the deck. The Aircraft Deck Boatswain’s Mate crew scurry to secure the landing gear and we are on board. Off with the helmet and the horse-collar life vest, across the flight deck and into the WASP‘s hatch on the Sail. Crisp Whites and Scrambled Eggs on naval officer brims greet me. Very stylish Blue and Gray Cammo Jump-Suits are on the decked out enlisted crew as they move through the motions to their next task. The 1200 crew and the compliment of 200 Marines all have the mission to steam to Boston for Navy Week 2012 and join in the War of 1812 bicentennial and celebrate Fourth of July. Several days, city by city, vessels of the US Navy visit ports and open their decks to hundreds of thousands of visitors. Boston coincides with the holiday and OpSail, a Boston Tall Ships sail-in event. The USS WASP is the jewel of the Gray Hulls arriving in port. The ship is 40 nautical miles off the coast of Chatham, Mass. The Flight Deck rises 78 feet above the sea and allows for 18 miles vision to the horizon. Little is in view off the deck, but then, I am heading down to the 1st Deck and the hanger bay, replete with a colorful canopy, high above, of all the flags and banners of the armed forces and the States. Marines are practicing drills. Two decks below down narrow gangways is the crew’s mess hall. It is lunchtime on the ship and the crew, as they say, crawls on its belly. The food is good, filling and the mess hall is very organized. Protocol on the WASP between officers and enlisted is also clear. Female seaman make up a large portion of the crew. Harmony prevails. The maze of ladders and hatchways gets me to the flight deck. Helicopters and vertical lift aircraft are displayed. Osprey, Harrier, Cobra, Blackhawk and service vehicles are assembled for viewing. Marine Corps pilots and weapons officers surround their pride and joy. The cockpits are tight and the assembly of gauges and switches and joystick bunch together. Firepower of each show the power and might of this fighting machine.
Humanitarian Missions and Support High above the flight deck is the Bridge and “Vultures Row” where Captain Boardman, the Top Officer of the WASP, and the specialists man the helm and electronics of navigation. We are coming about into the wind, ready to accept another Seahawk MH-53. The Massachusetts Governor, The Honorable Duval Patrick, an Admiral of the Atlantic Fleet and other dignataries and handlers manuever effortlessly to the deck below. Several decks below a unique advantage to the WASP is explored. The Well Deck is at sea level and at the stern to allow naval transport vessels to enter or depart from deep inside the ship. Beach-head landing capabilities allow for transport of victims of disasters or humanitarian conflicts and provide medical care and supplies, as in events like the Haitian earthquake, Southeast Asian tsunami, or the Somali civil war evacuations. The 14,000 HP Hellcat Hovercraft, capable of 50 knots and able to deploy 70 tons of Marines and assault vehicles, is stationed here. The Marines are also aware that the WASP maintains the largest floating medical facilities next to a hospital ship with a 600-bed hospital, with five operating rooms, a 15-bed intensive care unit, triage area, X-ray capabilities, blood bank, nurses, doctors and surgeons.
Pride of the Fleet Lt. Commander Brian Stranahan, Communication Officer, prepares for the thousands of Boston visitors. It is a daunting task to coordinate but his team of officers are ready. The arrival to port as the sun is setting is dramatic. Hundreds of Sailors and Marines, in Dress Whites and Kahkis ” Man-the-Rails”, and line the flight deck perimeter to salute at attention. The Aircraft on deck are poised for viewing. The shore facilities are set for the visitors. The Navy has completed an important part of the mission. I’m safely back on the pier, though a transport in a Cobra would not have been rejected! Http://www.wasp.navy.mil .