Cast in Steel

I am your good old flight deck – the naval aviator’s home away from home. Out there where the ship meets her wake, above the quarterdeck where my sailors puff away their worries. My designers decided this is where I can go about my business without getting in everyone’s way.

Spaces forward and midship are reserved for the ship’s fangs – sensors and weapon systems that require the best arcs – leaving me sniffing the ship’s hot gases in the lee of hangar & superstructure. But I am not complaining. We are one big happy family called ‘warship’, bolted and welded together. Neither death nor torpedo can do us part. There is much jousting and grumbling. But we eat, sleep and fight together.

All for One, One for All (Picture courtesy: Indian Navy)

Conceived in a ‘Boardroom’

I was conceived in the air-conditioned cabin of a naval architect who first decided of what form and size I should be so I could meet the demands of iron birds who would one day thunder off my deck. During the initial parleys between my designers and future users, there were many differences on how I should look and feel. I was the object of everyone’s envy and undesired attention. I am, after all, hundreds of square yards of sovereign real estate on a warship where people & equipment compete for every inch of space. I can be used in more ways than one. You will find me hosting morning PT, fleet parties, International Yoga Day and Ceremonial Divisions with the same elegance.

Yoga at Sea (Photo courtesy www.indiannavy.nic.in)

Baptised by Fire

I was born in a building dock where the rest of the ship was forged in a hail of metal and flames. To twist a line out of my Dire Straits’ favourite

“Through these fields of construction, baptisms of fire
I’ve witnessed your suffering
as the battle raged higher”

People with all kinds of fiery tools and fierier tempers ground my fine lines. They trooped over me night and day with tapes and measures to see if I was turning out to be what they wanted. I was resolute in taking a certain shape that would allow me to mate seamlessly with my ultimate partner – that incredibly smart pilot from the flight with the swirling rotors and firm caress. Oh, how I longed to be his!

Sibling Rivalry

All through my growing years in the dock, I longed for him to come and see how I was evolving. He did come once with some dockyard officials to size me up. I was disappointed as he did not seem to approve the way I was shaping up.

The growing up years

There was the constant pressure to be more accommodating and adjust with my large, diverse family. I grew up with the thundering gunners with their missile launchers and saluting guns, the crafty signalers and ‘sparks’ with their SATCOM antennae and whip aerials, and my fosters, the red-eyed navigators who, caught up with their own part-of-ship issues, found little time to attend to my tantrums. Oh, how I missed the aviators who having conceived me had gone on to better things than watching my birth chart.

The Difficult Months

To be fair, everyone did their best under the circumstances. I was like an awkward teen, unsure of the changes happening around me. I often pondered about my future. Where are the flight crew? When will I ever come of age? While I fought these inner battles, my well-wishers were silently working behind the scenes. The outfitting dock became a beehive of activity as D-day approached. Just when I thought I was all ‘left behind’, I got some new accessories and a few dollops of technology.

Lights! Action! Camera!

In my last month in the docks, I really came of age. They squared me up real good, laid out my markings, dressed me up with flags and pennants, gave me a real nice scrub and adorned me with ceremonial awnings. It was the ship’s birthday party – commissioning ceremony as they called it. The red carpet was out for senior dignitaries. Glasses & highballs clinked in the evening. I got a taste of the high life I was longing for so long. But my real family was nowhere in sight. The actual business, I heard, was still a while away with some test pilot soon slated to visit me. Wow! My first real test!

An Alouette undertakes trial landings on the Indian Navy’s Floating Dock

No Love at First Sight

The meeting was a complete disaster. He went through the ship’s aviation facilities with a fine-tooth comb. Everything had to pass the triple-test of certification, calibration and ‘fitness for purpose’ Many boxes were crossed out, starting with the innocuous ship’s wind and weather measuring system.

Every inch counts – a ‘Tester’ @ work!

He felt there were too many deviations and encroachments – as per his view, ‘non-compliant’. I needed much re-work, standardization and ground tests before I could launch the iron birds. He had his eye on the big challenges of sea. But my fosters and dockyard authorities were in no mood to comprehend and grumbled for weeks. Tempers flew. But what could I do? Once the ship is commissioned, nobody wants to hear bad news. You should’ve been around to hear my cries when I was in the docks. I am steel, not putty. Some things just can’t be undone without burning money & metal.

Back to Basics

They went to work on me with vengeance – grinders, metal cutters, welding machines and all. Next few days and nights, I was cut open, re-sized and reworked. I was dejected and groaned with aches and pains. Then the deck-certification experts were called in once again. After due diligence, the authorities approved the changes. Slowly, a method seemed to emerge out of all the madness.

Test to enable, test to enhance!

After a long outing with many trial landings, I could join the fleet at sea with an ‘interim’ envelope! Exciting times lay ahead!

The Long Road to Full Capability

When I started my life at sea, I soon realized that full operational capability was a long road. It’s a slow, painstaking creep from the known to unknown, from day to night, from calm sea to the storm. Shortcuts are paid for in blood. I struggled under the relentless onslaught of sea trials and SHOL teams who put me through my paces, testing every aspect of integration so that ‘happy landings’ follow. The testers undertook hundreds of landings, collected reams of data, analyzed it, plotted graphs & made recommendations.

Best Friends Forever!

Ultimately, time, tide and fleet deployments wait for none! Some last minute corrections, a little touch-up here and a little weld there, and I was cleared for the first embarkation by a fleet squadron. I am free of the troublesome testers for now!

The embarking squadron arrives!

That’s when I finally found my BFF 🙂 It was that guy whom the navy had all but forgotten. The unsung flight crew with his team who nurtured my dreams each day. COs changed, XOs changed, Fleet Commanders changed; he remained my Rock of Gibraltar. He cared for me, kept me in prime condition and held at bay other departments who sought to violate my space. He had thousands of hours but kept his counsel while ‘domain experts’ waxed eloquent. Once in a while, I found him brooding when the annual lists of promotions and greener pastures arrived (only to pass him by). But that’s a small price to pay for safety. Slowly we made peace with each other. I was there for him in his darkest days and moonless nights. We bonded intimately through many brushes with the vagaries of brass, sea and weather.

I am your flight deck. I am the womb. You have to deserve me before you desire me. I will put you through the test. If you win me over, I’ll never let you down.

And that’s a promise cast in steel.

The Unsung Heroes

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(This post owes a huge debt of gratitude to the Indian Navy who provided people like me with a rich and diverse experience. We have a world-class, indigenous arsenal comparable to the best in the world. A ship is domicile to various disciplines. She is more than the sum of her parts and every department counts. Cheers & Shan No Varuna (May the Lord of the seas be auspicious unto us))

©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2018. All rights reserved. I can be reached at kipsake1@gmail.com. Views are personal.

 

4 thoughts on “Cast in Steel

  1. SHOL….The marriage of the ship with an aircraft…..With the test pilot as a Panditji….Starts from the janam patri and leaves with blessings…Nice one sir

  2. Very nicely articulated sir. Having spent my time as a SWO it was interesting to read about the views from the other side. Sadly the Era of ‘shipborne flights’ seems to be ending. I am sure that this will perhaps leave your friend, who is cast in steel, worse for wear! I also remember an occasion whence I was told by my CO to remember it as a red letter day – we had two SK in hangar and another on deck! Happy days!

    1. Thanks, Sanket. It will be a sad day when all shipborne flights are disbanded and my friend is left an orphan. I hope we never come to that pass.

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