Sailors act as "prop safeties" as a C-2A Greyhound from the "Providers" of Fleet Logistics Support Squadron 30 performs pre-flight checks on the flight deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier John C. Stennis. Stennis is conducting fleet replacement squadron carrier qualifications off the coast of California. (MC3 JOSUE L. ESCOBOSA / NAVY)
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NORFOLK, Va. — The death of a sailor on the Dwight D. Eisenhower flight deck the night of Oct. 4 was a tragic yet thankfully rare event.
With thousands of launches and recoveries from U.S. aircraft carriers around the clock and around the globe, Navy records show the loss of Aviation Boatswain's Mate (Aircraft Handling) 2nd Class (AW) Robert Lemar Robinson at sea off Cherry Point, N.C., is one of few to have occurred in the incredibly hostile work environment.
The investigation of his death is ongoing, and no details have been released except that he was hit by an F/A-18F Super Hornet during a catapult strike during night flight operations. The Eisenhower returned to Norfolk on Oct. 9.
Robinson, 31, joined the Navy in 1998, is from Detroit and leaves behind three children. He previously served on the carrier Enterprise.
Sailors who work on flight decks say the job demands constant vigilance — for good reason.
"I've got 19 years of flight deck experience, and I'm never comfortable on the flight deck," said a senior chief ABH, who now works at Naval Air Forces Atlantic and asked not to be named because of the sensitivity in the community of the Eisenhower mishap.
That lack of comfort saves lives.
Robinson is the 35th sailor to die during aircraft carrier flight deck operations since 1980, according to data provided by the Naval Safety Center. That's two more than the number of sailors who died in motorcycle accidents in fiscal 2008 alone. Another seven flight deck sailors have suffered "permanent total disability" since 1980.
The records cover only "Class A" mishaps, which involve loss of life or permanent disability involving sailors who are physically on the flight deck. So the data doesn't cover personnel killed or injured in plane crashes, nor do they cover mishaps in which sailors are injured but are able to recover.
Most injuries or deaths have occurred when sailors have been hit by maneuvering aircraft, pulled into jet intakes, struck by launching aircraft or turning propellers, or blown overboard by jet exhaust. Those dangers come with the everyday work of flight deck crews.
Knowing, facing the risks
The senior chief ABH who spent almost his entire career on flight decks said sailors fresh to the carrier aren't allowed on the flight deck their first two or three weeks. They must prove they are qualified to be there and must watch flight operations from Vulture's Row on the island for three full days and nights.
"That's how that safety record is maintained," he said.
A limited-duty officer lieutenant commander with 25 years in the fleet who also works at Naval Air Forces Atlantic and also asked not to be named said new sailors are also provided with a mentor, or "sponsor," of higher rank. "They are paired up with someone who has been onboard much longer," he said.
"The flight deck is not a place to play around," he added.
A third person with carrier experience, this one a former first class aviation boatswain's mate (launching and recovery equipment) who did three carrier tours, said the new sailors must get accustomed to life on the flight deck, and the more senior sailors are constantly ensuring safe operations.
"When you first come to the ship, [flight deck leading petty officers] show you where you can go and where you can't," he said. "Everybody is responsible for everybody else. You have to work as a team and take care of each other."
There are a few cardinal rules, he said. The main one: Never be in the wrong place, whether that's on the wrong side of a line or too close to moving aircraft.
"Never walk between a scupper and a plane. You never put yourself in a position where you can't get away from a bird," he said. "You don't take unnecessary risks. ... No one goes up there thinking they're Iron Man."
The ABE1, who worked around the catapults, said a lot of safety relies on the practiced orchestration of the flight crew and the muscle memory that comes with repetition. Luckily, he said he never saw any mishaps in his three tours. But danger was always close.
"You know an accident can happen at any time, you just don't know when," he said. "When you put a bird on a cat, a lot can happen."