While serving on the USS Eisenhower, I was privileged with standing the helmsman watch, which means that my primary duty was to steer the ship on a course given to me by the Conning Officer. The Conning Officer was really the one driving, but only via giving orders. It was my hands on the helm, and if I flipped it hard left or hard right, everybody better hang on, because the aircraft carrier was about to lean like “nobody’s business.” I remember trying to work or sleep on different occasions and I could feel the ship take a sudden lean and think, “I bet the new guy is driving.” Either way, being a helmsman is one of my favorite Navy past-times, and I am going to share one of my favorite stories.
It was a clear day in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and we were in our first week or so of running Flight Ops with the Jolly Roger air unit. I had about 3 months of helmsman experience, which is the highest level watch a Deck Seaman can stand before getting into more supervisory roles. The level of responsibility was fun, and intoxicating. As I was driving, I got to witness F-14s and F-18s take off and land, knowing that they were able to do so because I was doing a good job steering the massive warship. Just like in Top Gun, the incoming pilots make a final check for landing and looked for the “ball” which is a digital readout of the planes position with regard to where they want to be in order to hit the 3rd wire with their tail-hook.
The ship was tough to drive, but I picked it up quickly. When I turned to a new heading, all I had to do was get the ship moving left or right and then I kinda let it float to the new bearing, and gave a small counter-steer to stop it and maintain the new direction. A qualified driver was expected to keep the ship within 1/2 degree of the given heading and a master helmsman could keep it within 1/3 of a degree. In other words, the more accurate the driving, the better. I have seen people get kicked off the helm in non-operating conditions for consistently being off by more than what is outlined above. I hadn’t known why, I just knew the expectations and I was proud to be a consistent deliverer. It was a badge of honor among my fellow sailors, especially those that shared in the responsibility of taking the helm, or those that taught me and taught others.
Suddenly, the ship starts to pull really hard. It was like my alignment was suddenly out of whack. I was used the helm feeling sort of “slow” and having a feeling of “inertia,” but this was something different. For the first time since standing the watch, I could feel the ship veering as much as a full degree, and it was everything I could do to keep it in that range. I watched jet after jet touch-and-go on the deck. After about 15 minutes of fighting it, I spoke up and asked, “Conning Officer, how is my helm?” He responded, “Just keep driving, son.” The tension on the Bridge was thick. Everyone, myself included, was wondering why I wasn’t being fired for failing to do my job. This carried on for what seemed like a small eternity.
Finally, we heard a small celebration come from the officers, and I could tell that all the enlisted members on the Bridge thought it was strange. The officers were usually extremely stoic and “down to business.” There was an exchange of some whispers and sporadic laughter. The Conning Officer came over to me, and said, “Excellent job, Wagen.” Puzzled, I asked, “What did I do?” He looked around with a look of internal debate, and said, “We were driving into 100mph headwinds, and we had 4 jets at bingo (little to no fuel, just like the opening scene of Top Gun.) Each of the novice pilots had made many attempts to land, and were unsuccessful. Normally, we would put the rescue chopper on alert and be prepared to pick them up if they had to ditch, but the headwinds wouldn’t allow it. Those pilots had to land, or we would lose them and their plane. The real difficulty, is that the ball is set on the heading that you are supposed to drive, but you and the pilots were fighting the headwind. They had to bring them in without much help from the ball. All four jets are safely on the deck. We have all witnessed a miracle.”
I felt really proud. In fact, I cried. I was glad to know that they pilots were able to make it back safely, and that I unknowingly steered the course as close as possible in inclement weather allowing them to land. As the ship continued to pull, they let me drive and the ship swang like we used to swing our cars back on the block in Houston. It was almost a mark of celebration. We had endured the perils of the sea and survived, and brought our boys home safely. In the years since, I have wondered why the situation existed. Why did they let four jets get so low on fuel? Why didn’t the meterologist(s) warn them of hazardous wind? Oh well. That’s life. Things don’t always go as planned, but as long as we are still alive and breathing, we should be thankful for the graciousness of the Lord in our lives. I am thankful to be out of the military, but I cannot lie, if I ever get the chance to drive a ship again, I’m taking it!
I saw many jets #BuzzUs while at sea. It was really cool.