Making Steam: The Life And Times Of A U.S. Navy Chief Engineer

LCDR David Taylor gives us an unprecedented insight into what it took to keep America’s Navy steaming full speed ahead, and what it would take to bring old ships back from the dead.

byTyler Rogoway|
People photo


David Taylor spent 22 years in the Navy, serving from 1969 to 1991. During that time he rose in rank from an enlisted Seaman Recruit to becoming an officer, and eventually retired as a Lieutenant Commander. The majority of his career was spent in one of the most thankless and hidden but absolutely critical jobs in the US Navy—making the steam that propelled the vast majority of the Navy's fleet through the high seas. 

After retiring from the Navy, Taylor worked at Philadelphia Naval Yard, breathing new life into tired old ships and helping to develop the new technologies the Navy set its sights on—for better or worse. 

In the first of this two part in depth expose, Taylor gives us an incredibly rare insight into what it took to run the Navy's mightiest vessels during the height of the Cold War, and what it is like to be Chief Engineer, responsible for more than most would care to imagine, aboard a US Navy surface combatant. We will also learn what it takes to refit a supercarrier, and Taylor will deconstruct the feasibility of returning mothballed ships to the fleet, which is a hot topic as of late.

David Taylor aboard the USS England while on cruise in 1985. , Courtesy of LCDR(R) David Taylor

Arriving as a fresh Engineering Officer aboard the supercarrier USS Kitty Hawk

An extended yard period is the most difficult time in the career of any Navy man, officer or enlisted. The yards are seldom in the ship's home port and frequently the move is not designated a change of home port, so funding is not available to move families. If moves are authorized, housing near the yards are usually substandard and expensive if available at all. It is usually better to adopt geographic bachelorhood anyway because working 12 hour days, seven days a week, with the only holiday observed being Christmas, does not leave much time for momma and the kiddies. 

Even unaccompanied, off duty life is lousy. You can't stay on the ship, even if habitability services are available, the industrial clamor is nerve wracking. Did you know that at 0300 a needle gun being used to remove paint on the foreword flight deck can jerk you awake while sleeping in a berthing compartment 900 feet and six decks away?

USS KITTY HAWK (CV-63) moored at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard., USN

There is no time for watchstation or in rate training. There is no equipment to train on. If the Department has enough funds, some sailors may be sent away for advanced technical training, but there is never much money for that, and the candidates for that training are usually your better people, so you end up in that uncomfortable position between a rock and a very hard place.

I came aboard as an Ensign. Because of my enlisted background, my degree and a significant lack of more senior officers, I was given a LT billet, P-1 Division, responsible for 1 and 4 MMR: 4 boilers and two main engines on the outboard shafts, two ship’s service turbine generators (SSTGs) and two evaporators, not mention 50 Boiler Technicians and Machinist Mates. I held that position through the yard period.

There is tremendous pressure. Workload pressure. Schedule pressure. Sometimes ship’s force milestones and yard milestones are mutually exclusive of each other. Then the big milestone looms on the horizon. The Propulsion Evaluation Board (PEB) is coming to conduct a Light Off Exam (LOE) to determine if a main machinery space is safe to steam. They will be checking training records to ensure that you can field a qualified watch team. They will be conducting review boards and administering written exams to determine if your designated watchstanders are as qualified as records say they are. They will be reviewing admin programs like Electrical Safety and Lube Oil Quality Management. They will  inspecting for material readiness, including system integrity, cleanliness and valve and piping labeling. They are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and they are coming in ten days!

The space to be scrutinized is a madhouse. There is no room for one more body. Laggers are lagging, barely keeping ahead of the painters, who are being pushed by someone with stencils and can of black striping putting identification signs on the pipes. The Main Propulsion Assistant, a Lieutenant Commander, is in his office, assisted by a Warrant and an Ensign as they sort through a shipping crate of stamped metal disks, used for identifying valves, looking for the tag for MS-3. You will never make it on time. And then you run out of time, and miraculously, you are ready.

After lighting the boiler, gauges are monitored by a Boilerman Technician in the No. 4 main machinery room aboard the aircraft carrier USS KITTY HAWK, USN

So you put a plate of doughnuts on the wardroom table (I do not know if this works, but I have never dared to risk not doing it), put a smile on your face, and welcome the jack booted monsters who are going to ruin your day, your week and maybe your career. 

After a few canned remarks, they  depart to do their damnedest and you make sure your quick reaction teams and the yard personnel are standing by to quickly rectify any discovered discrepancies. You hope the Ensign in charge of the Electrical Safety Program doesn't make an ass of himself and you pray that BT3 Smedley, who you really, really need for your Burnerman does not relapse into his idiot mode. 

And then you wait.

Then the inspectors sequester themselves in the wardroom and collate their findings. They finally announce that they are ready to submit their report, first in private to the Commanding Officer (CO) and Chief Engineer (CHENG), and then to the world, all gathered in the wardroom. No one smiles. The senior member reads an almost endless list of discrepancies. Your life flashes before your eyes. Then he says, still not smiling, "the board finds #1 MMR safe to steam," cracks a small smile and departs.

But you can't afford to celebrate too much. They will be back in six weeks for 4 Main, then 2 and then 3. But you have learned lessons. You get better and more confident. It is still a lot of work, but the anxiety level is lower. 

Burnerman ignites a boiler aboard USS KITTY HAWK (CV-63)., USN

But the tempo is increasing, and steam testing is beginning. That means real steaming, but with different yard shops demanding your attention to support their protocols. Things get more and more hectic and the hours get longer the closer you get to the end of the overhaul. There are not enough bodies to go around. On one occasion we needed to get 2A boiler up to provide steam to support testing aft. We did not have anyone to spare because the day shift had not come on yet. My Boiler Technician Chief and I went down to the space, I stuck the torch in, he took the Control Board and we almost had it up to pressure by the time the day crew took over. Yes, not in accordance with procedures, but remember that “can do!” spirit that is both the sterling quality and the greatest shortcoming of a Naval Officer.

Finally the day arrives, you are done, you are going back to San Diego. The flight deck is covered with the personal autos of the crew. That was a blast, up a ramp to a lowered aircraft elevator, ride the elevator to the flight deck, follow the signals of an Aviation Boatswain's Mate to your parking spot, set the brake and head below to your Sea Detail Station.

Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. Motor vehicles are parked on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS KITTY HAWK (CV-63) as preparations are made to transport them to San Diego, California, USN

Back in San Diego, there was no time to rest. We had to begin our work up for deployment. Carrier quals, Third Fleet exercises, refresher training, and the most terrifying of all, our Operational Propulsion Plant Exam (OPPE).  

The jack booted villains were coming back, this time to see if we could safely operate the plant. They were going to recheck everything plus observe us conduct Casualty Control drills, a full power run and a crash back (all ahead flank to all astern full). No conventional aircraft carrier had ever passed an OPPE the first time through. They cut us no slack. They went over our admin and our spaces with a fine tooth comb. They figured we had four spaces, so why not impose four casualties at the same time. By the time my turn was over as Engineering Officer of the Watch, I felt like had had been dragged through the mud, then run over by a Greyhound bus. 

The debrief was the same, but perhaps a bit more somber. After a dead pan recitation of our extensive list of discrepancies, the senior member said, "the board has assigned a grade of satisfactory.” The only possible findings were satisfactory and unsatisfactory. Then, instead of leaving, he said, "I have one initial comment. In terms of overall plant knowledge, understanding of procedures and ability to take quick and correct actions, I have never seen anyone as proficient as Ensign Taylor.” As my head began to swell, from the back of the room came a retort from Lt George Wolfe, an old Limited Duty Officer who was retiring as soon as we got back to port, "and you know, Captain, he's not even the best we have!"

The Engineering Officer of the Watch monitors the ship's engineering plants in the damage control center aboard the aircraft carrier USS KITTY HAWK (CV-63)., USN

Finally, all tests and trials behind us, we settled into the routine of making steam. It was a blissful, low pressure, predictable time, doing what we had been trained to do and doing it well. We headed to the Western Pacific.

Then the war broke out. 

The undeclared war between the Engineering Department and the Air Wing that is. The beauty of it was that the “Airdales" did not even know we were the enemy. We hated those guys. We hated their nicknames—Ripper and Killer etc. We even had a Crash Nash because of a minor mid-air collision—and the way they flew their airplane hands in conversation. You know, "there I was at ten thousand feet..." 

Before we deployed, we would mock them at social gatherings. I would be "Tubes" Taylor and another engineer "Chloride Corkum.”  We would stand within earshot of them and say things like, "there I was on the Upper Level of #1 Main…"

We ratcheted it up after we deployed. We probably would not have done it, but as soon as we were outside of territorial waters, they broke out the "shit hots.” The greatest compliment that could be given a Naval Aviator was that he was "shit hot" in the air. For the uninitiated, "shit hots" are also non regulation casual flightsuits, made of polyester, in vibrant blue and gold festooned with more badges and decorations than a single glance could encompass. They looked like a professional basketball team's warm ups. If they were not wearing their real flight suits, they were wearing their shit hots. We were pissed. Truth be told, we were a bit jealous, all we had were flame resistant khaki boiler suits.

A Boilerman Technician opens the discharge valve to the main feed booster pump in the No. 4 main machinery room aboard the aircraft carrier USS KITTY HAWK (CV-63)., USN

Our first plan was to get the aardvark. One of the F-14 squadrons had the anteater from the old "B.C. " comic strip painted on their vertical stabilizer. They kept a stuffed aardvark in a glass case in their ready room. There was always a junior enlisted man from the squadron on watch in the ready room to protect it. Our plan was simple. We scheduled a fire drill in the passageway outside their ready room. As part of firefighting procedures, a team with a fire hose must set fire boundaries on the opposite side of all bulkheads affected by the fire. Try as hard as they might, our hose team could not get the aardvark watchman to vacate the space.

Back to the drawing board. Our machine shop had the only engraving machine aboard. We made up less than complimentary adhesive backed brass label plates and affixed them to the squadron plaques in the lounge outside the wardroom. When noticed by a member of the affected squadron, indignation would ensue, the plaque would be replaced, and we would victimize another squadron.  

VF-114 "Aardvarks" F-4 landing aboard the USS KITTY HAWK., USN

In port, the air wing would put up a wooden partition just inboard of the officer's brow that displayed all of the squadron plaques. I would come aboard after a night on whatever town we were in, surreptitiously remove one of the plaques (a squadron, never the air wing), stick it under my shirt, walk across the hangar deck to the other sponson, throw the plaque in the drink, climb down the ladder and head to my stateroom to sleep.

Soon, we did not have to do anything. Each squadron thought another squadron was the culprit and a virtual prank war broke out. It got so bad that senior officers took notice. I was Officer of the Deck the afternoon when the CO and the CAG (carrier air group commander) had every squadron commander standing tall, braced, being informed that this shit was going to stop now! I had to retreat to the far side of the bridge and gnaw on my knuckles to keep from laughing out loud. 

We decided we had won and quietly declared peace, just as we had quietly declared war.

USS KITTY HAWK underway in 1977., USN

We got a good overhaul from Puget Sound. Other than the "20 Khaki Emergency" I discuss later on, we had few mechanical issues, very few sailors returned by the shore patrol and we only lost one plane and no pilots during cruise. After getting six officers qualified for Engineering Officer On The Watch, I went into a watch rotation topside alternating with my watches in Main Control, in affect a four and eight rotation while the rest of the officers were on a six section rotation (4 hours on 20 hours off). 

I gained qualification as an Officer Of The Deck (OOD) and then Surface Warfare Officer (first ever to get both SWO and EOOW on a carrier). I asked for and received a split tour to a small surface combatant and shortly after returning from WESTPAC in 1977, I left for a seemingly endless series of schools intended to transform a Hole Snipe into an operations puke, then on to the USS David R. Ray—once again in the yards!

Life as Chief Engineer aboard the USS Henry B. Wilson (DDG-7) and USS England (CG-22)

Perhaps a bit of compare and contrast would be enlightening. On the surface it would seem that there would be a great similarity between the two classes of ships, at least from the standpoint of a Chief Engineer. Two engine rooms, two fire rooms, all similar auxiliaries. But there was a world of difference between the two.

I received orders to the Henry B. Wilson in early 1983 after Department Head School, chiefly because of the direct intervention of my previous CO at Surface Warfare Officers School. I think it was because he thought I was up to the job and because he wanted to challenge me (I hope it was not because he wanted to consign me to two years on a mankiller). One of the benefits of the job was that it was a Lieutenant Commander billet that was normally filled by a Lieutenant, which triggered a fairly obscure regulation—a spot promotion that was permanent as long as I completed the tour successfully.

The Charles F. Adams class guided missile destroyer USS HENRY B. WILSON (DDG-7)., USN

The Chief Engineer is responsible for the operation and maintenance of the propulsion boilers, turbines and shafting, 60 Hz electrical generation and distribution, potable water distillation and distribution, air condition and ventilation, chill water for electronics, and interior communications systems. These included telephones, sound powered phones, announcing systems, wind speed and direction sensors, ship's speed sensors and indicators, alarm systems and 400 Hz generation and distribution. Systems from the keel to the masthead, bow to stern. Also included was responsibility for the engines of the small boats, anchor windlass and hydraulic underway replenishment gear. The Chief Engineer was also the Damage Control Officer, with responsibility for training all damage control parties, maintaining fire and flushing pumps and piping, sewage disposal systems and ships welders. But bottom line, the primary responsibility of the Chief Engineer was to ensure that, when the Captain said  "...I intend to go in harms' way" he could.

The Charles F. Adams class was quite a ship for its time. It had 5”/54 caliber guns forward and aft, dual armed Tartar missile launcher aft (a hydraulic nightmare, our Fire Control Technicians called it “Christine” after Stephen King's eponymous novel), ASROC, even a rudimentary range finding sonar, using a passive dome about a third of the way aft. The propulsion plant was the second generation of 1200 psi, uncontrolled superheat boilers put in service. A truly beautiful ship, it looked like a warship, as opposed to, say, today’s DDG-1000 stealth destroyer. But it was no longer its time. They were old and worn out. 

Pacific Fleet destroyers were in constant demand because of their double 5 inch mounts for Naval Gunfire Support in Vietnam. Born before the disastrous incident on the Buchanan, which led eventually to the birth of the Propulsion Examining Board, they were poorly maintained, manned by second tier crew and "rode hard and put away wet.” Designers had not quite figured out how to effectively contain the beast that lay at the heart of the propulsion boilers. It seemed that every drain line had at least one low spot which accumulated water and rotted through, revealing itself only when it started spray steam upon the next light off.  

These problems were exacerbated on Wilson because while participating in an operation to extract the SS Mayaguez from Vietnamese possession, (well before I was aboard) she took a hit from a shore based battery at the base of the after stack. The only damage that could not be repaired was warping of the deck on the upper level of the aft fireroom—right where the main feed pumps were located. The end result was that, no matter how hard we, SRF Yokusuka, SRF Guam, SRF Subic, Pacific Northwest Iron Works (Portland OR) or SUPSHIPS San Diego tried, we could never keep 2A Main Feed Pump from leaking around the shaft seals.

I assumed the duties of Chief Engineer as the ship was finishing up a long overhaul at the aforementioned Willamette River yard in early Spring 1983. I took her through work up to deployment, including a successful Ongoing Professional Practice Evaluation (OPPE) and a six month deployment. 

My chiefs had just made chief. My E-6s had just sewn on the third chevron. My Limited Duty Officer (LDO) maintenance officer had just come from "Knife and Fork" school. My officers, without exception were Officer Candidate School grads on their first tours. The Navy had a real hard time attracting young officers at that time and standards had been lowered. When I was teaching at Surface Warfare Officers School (SWOS), my students included theatre arts majors and a graduate of a seminary, who was not going to become a chaplain. The Navy was also suffering an acute shortage of Boiler Technicians (BT). The only way I was able to man a three section watch underway was for every single BT to be qualified in at least three watches, and that was only by the end of the deployment.

I came to the position much better prepared than my peers. Not only did I have my experience on Kitty Hawk, but I had a degree in Electrical Engineering, and had also profited from my year amongst the Nukes—the only major difference being the way water was boiled. I had also taken leave on two occasions while an instructor at SWOS to complete courses that were pre-requisites for the Steam Generating Plant Inspector (SGPI) course. After receiving orders to Wilson near the end of Department Head School, I sent a letter to my prospective CO, outlining that I had completed all prereqs for the Steam Generating Plant Inspectors (SGPI) course that was convening at the same time as a firefighting school to which all prospective Chief Engineers were ordered. I noted in my letter that attendance at firefighting might be redundant because I taught the course as part of my duties at SWOS. He sent a letter to Bureau Of Navy Personnel and I received an orders modification for me to attend SGPI in San Diego (where I had a home and family) rather that firefighting school in Great Lakes. Did I mention it was in February and that in firefighting school one got doused in cold firefighting water quite regularly?

I made a good early impression on my snipes. The first time we got underway, enroute to Hood Canal to pick up missiles after completing overhaul, we had a problem with excessive water usage. One feed tank would be lined up to receive water from the evaporators, and then quickly overflow from the sounding tube to indicate it was full. When it would be lined up to make up feed levels as determined by sounding, the tank began to immediately drop. No one could figure out why. I told the chief in charge of the space that as soon as we shut down in port, I wanted the tank pumped out, gas freed and inspected by someone wearing khaki. The chief looked at me rather skeptically, but accustomed to dealing with young officers who thought that the billet imparted wisdom, said "aye, aye" and complied.  


Sure enough, they found a rag blocking a vent, which prevented air from escaping as the tank filled, giving the impression the tank was topped off. It did not take long for the story to filter through the Chiefs' Mess to the First Class Mess to the berthing compartments.  They were my snipes from that point on, although the Boiler Inspector qualification and the fact that I was an E-6 before I was an O-1, didn't hurt either.

True confession time. I had encountered a similar situation while conducting steam testing on Kitty Hawk while in Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. The Main Propulsion Assistant, who lived across the street from me and I beat our brains out trying to determine the cause of massive feed water usage. We talked about it in the car to and from work, we crawled through the uptakes looking for leaks—a six story hot, dark labyrinth. We went hand over hand over all of the piping systems. We were nearing the end of our rope, and sanity, when one morning as we were walking through the passageway on the way to our offices, we were accosted by an irate first class Dental Technician, who upon ascertaining that we were snipes, ranted that he got so tired of mopping up the water that gushed from the pipe on the bulkhead that he drove a damage control plug into it. Mystery solved. 

Evidently the Boiler Technicians had been filling till it flooded, rather than sounding it as it filled. Perhaps it was cheating to use that experience to impress my new snipes, but what is wisdom but applied experience?

I alluded to the opinion that these ships were man killers—or at least Chief Engineer killers. One of my classmates at Department Head School had a nervous breakdown not long after assuming the duties of Chief Engineer on an East Coast DDG. Every time we shut down and the plant went cold, we knew we would have to fix something the next time we had to light off to get underway. It was always arranged to have a tender on alert for emergency repairs two days before underway for this class of ships. 

Failing to get underway on time is the most shameful event in a Chief Engineer’s (CHENG) career. For a Monday morning sortie, we would start the light off process on Friday night, because we knew that something would go wrong. On one memorable occasion, one of the tachometers on a forced draft blower (forced combustion air through the outer casing and through the burner vortexes ) was inoperable. Upon investigation, we determined that the shaft on a magnetic rotating element within the tach had bent. Because this particular part never fails, it was not carried in the supply system, nor were there any drawings available.  

We tore down a tac from another blower and we hustled it over to the tender for them to fabricate a duplicate. As it was going to take a few hours, after they took measurements and determined the particular alloy of which it was made, we brought the example back and re-installed it. When the tender called and told us the part was ready I sent my Main Propulsion Assistant (MPA) over to get it as I wanted the most reliable person possible to retrieve it. About 30 minutes later, I got a phone call. It was my MPA. He said, "I dropped it. I was leaving the tender and it fell out of my hands and into the water.” After another hour and a very unpleasant phone call from the Repair Officer on the tender, we had the tach back together and continued with light off.  Underway on time, too. And this was not even an unusual light off. 

Boiler Technician reassembles the upper ball valve into the fire safe fuel oil strainer aboard a destroyer., USN

I remember another occasion when the packing on an unisolable high pressure drain valve failed. The only way to safely repair it was to cool down the boiler so there was absolutely no pressure and then commence repairs. We did not have that much time. I kicked everyone but the Boiler Technician Senior Chief Petty Officers out of the space and using welding gloves and a welding jacket to cover the valve. We repacked it, violating more than a few safety regulations. If I had caught one of my officers doing that, I would have had their buns for breakfast, but we got underway on time. 

That Navy can do spirit, right?

My relief met the ship in Pearl Harbor as we were coming home from deployment. I chose to ride the ship home to allow for a more thorough turnover rather that a quick "you're it, I quit" and a flight home. That allowed for a nice orderly transition, but it was a mistake from a personal standpoint. 

Halfway between Pearl Harbor and San Diego, with the letter signed, I had to sit back and watch him undo all of the innovations and procedures that I had instituted. The department went from a semi-unorthodox group that worked extremely well to a standard Navy organization that might also have worked, but left a bunch of sailors thoroughly confused and disgruntled.

The Leahy class cruisers (CGs), born destroyers (DLGs), were an example of forward looking bureaucrats stumbling over reality. When authorized, the strategic thinkers knew that missiles had superseded guns, so they did not give the class any guns. Then Vietnam happened and suddenly expensive guided missile cruisers were vulnerable to junks with 40mm Bofors cannons mounted on their forecastle. 

The solution was to go into the mothball fleet, salvage some open mount 3 inch/50 caliber anti-aircraft guns, bolt them on the 01 level aft port and starboard areas of the ship and pop rivet a woefully small ready-service magazine on the bulkhead behind them. The Gunner's Mates called them "boom, boom, click" which should give you an idea of how well they performed. 

The Leahy class guided missile cruiser USS ENGLAD (CG-22)., USN

Notwithstanding the gun question, the difference between the Wilson and England was astounding. Although Wilson was designed only about ten years earlier, many hard lessons learned had been applied to England's propulsion plant. The cruisers had not been used as hard as the gun ships and it was evident in the material condition of England that greater investments in maintenance had been made. This was especially obvious because she had not just come out of overhaul as had Wilson.  

Technological maintenance improvements had started to show benefits, also. Anti-corrosion flame spray treatment of valves, carbon ribbon packing and the removal of "bar stock" valves greatly decreased hours formerly dedicated to valve maintenance. Improved calibration and on line "flexing" of boiler controls through a On Line Verification (OLV) increased reliability, fuel economy and performance. A gradual evolution away from time-based to condition-based maintenance was also having a positive impact. Tearing down a piece of equipment to inspect and then replace a perfectly good bearing never made sense to me, even as an Electrician’s Mate Fireman earlier in my career. 

The effects of huge recruitment and retention bonuses and advanced maintenance training offered to Boiler Technicians was also beginning to be felt. I now had almost as many BTs as the Ship's Manning Document said I was supposed to have and they were, in the main, good techs, even the young 6YO (six year obligation) sailors coming out of the beefed up training pipeline.

My officers were more experienced, and frankly, better. I had two salty Warrant Machinist's instead of one green Limited Duty Officer. The line officers were more motivated and had a better handle on the technical and leadership/management issues. My Main Propulsion Assistant (MPA) was dedicated, tireless and took an aggressive attitude of ownership of the plant. I may have been the Chief Engineer, but they were his boilers, turbines and reduction gears. 

I thought I had died and gone to heaven.

Another pleasant surprise was the recent re-organization of warships, moving from the traditional Weapons/Operations/Engineering arrangement to a Combat Systems/Operations/Engineering setup. There was a little shuffling of the top side divisions, but the one that meant the most to me was that Interior Communications Electricians (IC) now worked for the Combat Systems Officer. IC problems had been the things that caused me the greatest lack of sleep on Wilson, so when in my first meeting with the Combat Systems Officer, he made it clear that the only way I was going to take the IC gang away from him was to jerk them from his cold, dead fingers, I felt like Br'er Rabbit, wanting to shout "throw me in that briar patch!"

All in all, it was a bit of a culture shock to me. The first time the MPA brought light off orders to me to approve I almost snorted a mouthful of coffee. With an underway time of 0800 on Monday morning, his intention was to stick the first torch in at 2300 Sunday night. This instigated a somewhat heated discussion along the lines of "no way in hell" from me to "but we have had no problems before" from him. We reached a compromise. We would start light-off at noon on Sunday and if we got underway on time without me suffering a heart attack or nervous breakdown or both, I would allow him to delay light off one hour after each success in the future. 

As our work up to deployment progressed, we quickly made it back to 2300. In fact, I was so confident in his plant and his people, that by the time we got to Pearl Harbor enroute to a WESTPAC deployment, I shut down and put the snipes on liberty the whole time in Pearl, something I could not have conceived of while assigned to Wilson.

USS ENGLAND (CG-22) at rest in the Persian Gulf. , USN

My MPA and I gradually established a great working relationship. I noted above, his attitude of total ownership of the plant. I am equally obsessive about getting underway on time. On Sundays, prior to Monday underway, he would be onboard getting ready and I would be at home, pacing and worrying and driving my wife crazy. I would regularly call him for status, not being the type to assume that no news is good news. Of course this was decades before cell phones, so every time I called, he would have to drop what he was doing and come to the quarterdeck to answer. I realized that none of us (including my wife) was happy about the situation. 

In a stroke of inspiration, I found a solution. I told the Senior Watch Officer that I would be Command Duty Officer one day before we were ordered underway, making the other departments heads and their wives and kids happy, my wife able to retain her sanity, my MPA less irritated and I could sit in the wardroom or my stateroom, doing Command Duty Officer or Chief Engineer things, and able to know what was going on by monitoring space comms and listening to changes in machinery noise. 

I mentioned in passing some things that I had done that were a bit unorthodox on Wilson, only to see them undone in the space of half a transit of the Eastern Pacific. While I have never been one to change things just to change things, unwilling to fix what ain't broke, I gradually applied the methods and procedures that worked on Wilson to England

In port emergency firefighting teams were generally made up of the hull technicians, damage control men and engineering ratings, with a few of the topsiders mixed in. This was problematic when steaming in port, because a great number of the team's core members were either on watch in the plant on a port and starboard rotation, or sleeping before going on watch. A drill or actual emergency was at very least annoying to off-watch team members and at the very worst disastrous if the whole team could not form quickly enough.  

With the authority inherent in my other title as Damage Control Officer, I instituted an aggressive watch section training program that eventually lead to three duty section teams fully manned without a single hole snipe. The Captain helped with this effort by a adding an additional requirement for an Enlisted Surface Warfare Specialists in at least one of the firefighting team positions.

When most ships are steaming in a liberty port, they relieve the duty section—composed of two or three, if they were lucky, watch standing teams—at 0800. This led to the frequent occurrence of sailors coming back from a night on the town at about 0700, grabbing breakfast and relieving the watch at 0745. Hung over and tired operators standing watch on a high pressure steam plant was not my conception of a good idea. 

I made a minor schedule change that benefitted both the ship and crew. By relieving the duty section at noon instead of 0800, the liberty party had a chance to get some sleep, recover from whatever noxious fluids they had ingested and maybe even take care of some personal housekeeping tasks. This change, although greeted with initial skepticism by the Goat Locker, proved to be greatly appreciated by all.

Crewmen on the bridge of the guided missile cruiser USS ENGLAND (CG-22) perform their duties during a transit from Sasebo, Japan, to Hong Kong., USN

No crew member of a steam ship works harder or longer than the guys in M and B division. They come in early for light off, go home well after everybody else upon returning to port, and by the nature and location of their work, have a tougher time than any sailor on the ship. They are generally under appreciated for their contributions. 

Within the structure of the Navy, there is very little an officer can do to recognize their efforts and contributions besides words of praise, and those tend to ring hollow after going six and six for three weeks on the doorstep to Hades. Promotions are determined by the calendar and an exam, pay is determined by Congress. The only reward a CHENG can offer is the gift of time. Time off. Liberty.

After I had a chance to take the measure of my khaki subordinates, and liking what I saw, I established an unofficial liberty policy on England. As long as scheduled and corrective maintenance was up to date, personal watch qualification goals accomplished and spaces and berthing areas clean (as determined by khaki inspection), liberty was in effect. There were long periods of time after we returned from WESTPAC that the only time I saw the Boiler Technicians, other than the duty section, was at quarters in the morning, or when a small group would come in at night to light off, bring the boiler up to pressure and shut down just to renew the steam blanket.

I left the USS England in the Spring of 1986 with orders to Naval Postgraduate School Monterey as part of my transition to the Engineering Duty Officer community. It was the last time I went to sea. 

I miss it every damn day.

The differences between keeping a surface combatant and supercarrier running

It is a question of scale. More people to fill the watch bill. More storerooms to hold spares. More redundancy in systems and equipment. We had a Boiler Repair Chief, an almost mythical creature, and a workshop for him to direct depot level repairs. We even had a yeoman for each division rather that just one for the whole department, which was a gift from above, considering the mountain of paperwork associated with a 50 man division. More money for parts and fuel, because the squadrons have to fly and trap and launch and fly at night to keep their quals (qualifications). So you went to sea a lot, for longer periods of time. 

After two or three weeks at sea, keeping the "airdales" happy, we used to speculate about how nice it would be to be on a destroyer, conducting weekly ops, steaming Monday through Friday, and getting home every weekend. Then I went to one; arriving late Friday night, in Sunday for underway on Monday, duty Saturday or Sunday. The grass was not as green as it appeared from the flight deck of a carrier.

There is a saying, source unknown to me, that "quantity has a quality all of its own.” That certainly applies to an aircraft carrier.

A-7E Corsair II launched from the USS KITTY HAWK's waist catapult. , USN

The CO of a carrier, as mandated by law, must be a Naval Aviator. Even though they may have gone through the Senior Officer Ships' Material Readiness Course (SOSMRC)—a very rigorous syllabus of propulsion engineering (I think nuclear carrier skippers attend a watered down Nuke school). It is a rare carrier CO that understands the plant and appreciates what it takes to keep 32 knots over the flight deck.  

Most of the department heads are aviators and the CHENG and the rest of the Engineering  Department play second fiddle, almost being treated like second class citizens. As an example, upon returning from WESTPAC, the ship would not provide a working party to rig shore power cables to let us shut down (wives and kids were on the pier) until the working party that was unloading the air wing's WESTPAC goodies—they were stacked on the hangar deck in such a great quantity that it looked like a warehouse—were done. 

Another example: There were two wardrooms on Kitty Hawk. The large one on the main deck was primary, where all normal rules of etiquette applied, with normal meal hours. At midrats (midnight rations), each item chosen was paid for out of pocket, rather than included in our mess bill. The other was up forward, just under the bow catapults. It was a "dirty shirt" wardroom, serving round the clock to accommodate the flight plan. Midrats were not charged extra. Only aviators and the Grumman tech reps onboard to support the initiation of the S-3 into the Fleet were allowed, yet, all officers were charged the same amount in their monthly mess bill.

Another great difference between a carrier and a smaller combatant was the way information was shared. On the destroyer, every officer, through briefings and wardroom conversation, was kept abreast of what was going on. The carrier was much more compartmentalized. In a wardroom that could seat almost 100 officers at a time, you usually sat with your fellows, so there was not a lot of interchange.

The hangar bay aboard the USS KITTY HAWK (CV-63) after dark., USN

Other than the boiler configuration required for flight ops, we were not really affected by aircraft evolutions. We had a video monitor from cameras on the flight deck in Main Control, so we could monitor launches  and we obviously did not "blow tubes" (cleaning soot off of the fireside of boiler tubes with steam from installed soot blowers) during flight ops. One exception—there were restrictions on moving aircraft on the flight deck if there was too great a degree of list on the ship (we are talking one to two degrees of list). The Flight Deck Officer would be constantly calling Damage Control Central demanding that we flood or pump out floodable voids to restore the ship to even keel, unaware or perhaps uncaring that it would take eight or nine people at least an hour of lining up and pumping to move the list a half of degree. Finally the Engineer had his fill and got the CO to let him demonstrate to the Air Boss and the Flight Deck Officer that moving one aircraft to the opposite side of the flight deck could change list two degrees in about ten minutes.

One time, while engaged in the big training battle problem during Refresher Training (REFTRA), the final wicket for certification as ready to deploy, with Condition Zebra set throughout the ship and fires and missile strikes being fought by damage control teams, one of the fighter pilots was seen jogging on the flight deck. When brought to the bridge, to face an angry CO and even an angry CAG, still wearing his Nikes and tank top, his explanation was "but I have already seen the movie being shown in the ready room!"

Aircraft carriers usually were assigned second or third tier blackshoe officers. No one at Service Selection Day at Annapolis put carrier engineering at the top of their wish list. The Navy recognized the problem and established the Carrier Readiness Improvement Program, which, among other things, brought hot running Lieutenant (junior grade) and Lieutenants who had achieved their Surface Warfare Officer quals into conventional carrier engineering departments. As an incentive, they were granted follow on orders of their choice. Their arrival had an almost immediate impact.

In my defense, I did not consider myself second or third tier. When I was in college, I doubled up my course work to graduate almost a year early. I went from being evaluated by the sophomore class advisor to being evaluated by the senior class advisor a week before pre-commissioning ratings were due for submission. He did not know me and did not take the time to find out. He rated me last in my class and sent it off.

A crew member monitors boiler activity in the control booth of the No. 4 main machinery room aboard the aircraft carrier USS KITTY HAWK (CV-63)., USN

I was, frankly, devastated. I yearned to be on one of the "Greyhounds of the Pacific" that I had worked on when I was serving on the tender as an enlisted man. But, in the end, it was for the best. The officers in the Engineering Department formed a tight knit group. We worked hard together and we played hard together. We respected each other and helped each other out. Although most of the Ensigns were from that second or third tier, daily interaction with the outstanding engineering crews led to a significant improvement in their performance. 

Department cohesion aboard the Kitty Hawk was enhanced by the CHENG, a Limited Duty Officer Commander, laid back and approachable, with a marvelously dry sense of humor. Prior to assuming duties as CHENG he was the AIRPAC Maintenance Officer, so he knew how things worked at the shipyard and we benefitted greatly from his connections. As an aside, he was also the one who discovered the semi-mythical lost machine shop on USS Enterprise

Both my wife and I agreed that from the standpoint of the people I worked with, and their wives, it was the best tour we had.

 , USN

Returning to gut and refit the supercarrier Kitty Hawk

The intent of the CV Service Life Extension Program (SLEP) was to ensure we had enough big deck carriers to meet the Navy's strategic and tactical mission goals until enough nuclear powered carriers came on-line to replace them. It was absolutely necessary because, like the Adams class DDG and the Leahy class CG, they were becoming extremely expensive to maintain and their combat systems outdated to the point of obsolescence—in Navy terms, obsolescence means no more parts are available and no one plans on making any more. 

The CV SLEP program accomplished that goal, and even though there were schedule slippages and cost overruns, each iteration was cheaper and faster as the yard applied lessons learned from previous hulls. In the end, the ships came out quicker and cost less money to refurb than to build a new construction nuclear powered carrier (CVN). Only the government's desire to reap the "peace dividend" kept them from fulfilling their planned operating lifetime.

The carriers were brought to Philadelphia Naval Shipyard principally due to dry dock capacity and a projected lack of work in the yard without them. When they left, they were essentially a new ship, with the obvious exception of the hull and most of the tanks and voids.  

Video thumbnail

Electronic systems throughout the ship were replaced or upgraded. New computer networks were installed. Point defense systems were improved. Berthing and other habitability spaces were renovated—actually they were gutted and re-installed. The capacity of air conditioning and chill water systems was increased. I think they even fixed the escalator from the hangar deck to the bridge. One of the perks of Officer Of the Deck quals was that you got to use it, otherwise it was a 12 deck marathon to get to the bridge.

These upgrades paled in comparison to two other areas—propulsion and the flight deck. All eight boilers were completely rebuilt. This included 100% re-tubing, new fire brick, new casings, and new burners. Force draft blowers were replaced. The most advanced combustion controls were installed. All valves  1 1/2" or larger were completely replaced or reworked. All steam driven pumps were replaced or renovated at both the turbine and pump end. Electric motors were rewound or replaced and the pumps they drove refurbished. In effect the ship got a brand new plant.

Safety aside, the intent of any mods to the flight deck is to decrease cycle time—the time delay between launches from an individual catapult. To accomplish that in SLEP, virtually all of the flight deck systems were upgraded. Flight deck lighting and communications systems were upgraded from the ‘60s era. Landing aids were improved. The rotary retract engines (the device that returns the catapult shuttle to the starting position) we redesigned to bring the shuttle back as fast as it went out. The catapult troughs were replaced with a harder, tougher alloy that decreased warping and was aligned using lasers.  

USS KITTY HAWK (CV-63) pulls out of Philadelphia Naval Shipyard after going through its SLEP in 1991., USN

New arresting gear engines were installed that had a higher stopping capacity, less of a jerk when setting the tail hook and faster recovery. Catapult receivers—the reservoirs that held steam pressure before the launch valve opened to admit steam to the rear of the shuttles— were redesigned to spray water into the receiver after launch which flashed to steam and increased pressure quicker than admitting steam alone. A new, longer lasting non-skid compound was applied to the flight deck itself.  

It was a tremendous effort. As I watched the Kitty Hawk leave Philly for the final time, my mind returned to the last time I experienced that ship leave the yards. It was kind of sad to not be leaving with her, but the last time I was in Main Control, at least the view was much better this time.

The tough transition from sea to shore

What makes going out to the sea in ships so special to me is the unity of purpose—the cohesion of officers and crew that occurs on a good ship with good leaders. You have a mission, the work is hard, the environment dangerous, the family separation sometimes tortuous. There is always the possibility lurking in the back of your mind that suddenly, without warning, you may face a very hazardous situation—combat, weather or rocks and shoals. But the rewards, although seldom concrete, either in recognition or financially, are tremendous. 

The feeling of working together, as a division, a department or as a whole ship's crew to accomplish a difficult task, especially one that is in defense of your nation, is hard to describe—just as hard as describing to someone who has never faced the rigors of Navy life at sea the meaning of the word “shipmate.”

Taylor also served aboard the USS TALYOR R. RAY (CG-871) a Spruance class destroyer during the late 1970s., USN

There were no shipmates in the shipyard. There was no wardroom, only a boardroom. There was no real sense of working together for a goal. The only goals that were stressed were cost and schedule, but it seemed that that was only a gauze mask over the real goal—get a star for one of the four Captains assigned to the yard.  

Although quality was stressed as propaganda (the yard had adopted Deming's Total Quality Management for the SLEP program), the definition of quality was the cost of rework, not making sure that the ship left with the best possible overhaul. The mission was so nebulous and the goals so poorly defined, that it was hard to commit to them.

I confess that I am fond of sailors. The courser, more profane, the dirtier the better. During my time of service, our recruit training did a marvelous job of breaking down a disparate group of individuals to the lowest common denominator and building them back up into members of a team. If you could get them to a ship fast enough that spirit remained and they melding into the crew. Sailors are resourceful, show dogged determination and have a genius for problem solving—as long as you keep them informed and motivated, and let them know they are appreciated.  

Other than those assigned to the ship, there were very few sailors at the shipyard. The Engineering Duty Officers assigned there generally had only a tour or two at sea and were not interested in going back. I felt, the entire time I was in Philly that I really was not in the Navy anymore. 

It was time to retire.

The feasibility of returning Kitty Hawk to service as part of the Navy's 355 ship, 12 aircraft carrier goal

Author's note, you can read background on this issue here.

I am certain, regardless of the quality of layup upon decommissioning and the maintenance since, that the Kitty Hawk’s propulsion system can be brought back up. There may be an issue of repair parts, one that will dog the ship for however long her re-incarnation lasts, but there is enough expertise left in the Boiler Code at NAVSEA Philadelphia that the system can be restored. But this won’t last for long as funding and retirements have taken their toll. Foster Wheeler (boiler OEM) is still in business, although owned by foreign concerns now, and some remnants of General Regulator (combustion controls) and Hagan (feed pump controls) must exist as well.

I am certain that communications and computers can be upgraded and A/C and chill water systems can be beefed up to support the new electronics. I am certain that the flight deck can be re-certified. I am certain that berthing compartments can be rehabbed and altered to accommodate a mixed crew. I am certain that all of this can be accomplished in less time and for a lower cost than building a new big deck aircraft carrier.

USS KITTY HAWK (CV-63) stored in reserve in Bremerton, Washington. , Quillc/wikicommons

I am equally certain that, if this all happens, the ship will never be able to operate safely for any period of time. There are no Boiler Technicians left. There are no Automatic Combustion Control Operator and Maintenance courses established and factory courses may suffice for a while, but they are very expensive. There are no 1200 PSI Maintenance Courses left either, and the associated training equipment has probably been cannibalized or salvaged. 

There are at least seven Boiler Technician watch stations per fire room, even with a port and starboard watch rotation, that requires 56 watch standers from grades E-3 to E-6. That does not account for maintenance and supervisory personnel, or the Oil & Fuel lab or the Catapult Shop. Finding and training and qualifying, either by recall, rate conversion or recruitment, that many BTs is a nearly impossible task. And, ironically, although it is a large number of techs to find to support this one ship, it is not nearly enough of a trainee load to justify the cost of standing up the aforementioned schools. Oh, yeah, you need BTs for instructors there too.

Nothing is impossible with enough time, money and effort. But I submit that there are better solutions to the "carrier gap" than throwing money at a 56 year old carrier. The first thing that comes to mind is to rethink our policies regarding the necessities for, and use of, an aircraft carrier. Let capabilities drive our operations for a while, rather than the other way around. It is time for long term sustainability planning vice short term strategic thinking.

Regenerating other ships in the Navy's mothball fleet

The out of service

Ticonderoga class cruisers have been hanger queens for NAVSEA Philadelphia for so long that I don't think there is much left of their propulsion systems. They were always overloaded and had very little excess buoyancy remaining. Remember how old they are. They are based on the Spruance class hull (hence the buoyancy problem) and their technology is very old.  

Even if you could upgrade their Aegis combat system to current levels, you would still have to install new propulsion and electrical generating turbines. Then you would have to completely overhaul the missile handling and launching system or find a way to install a Vertical Launch System. None of this is going to address the buoyancy issue. In a word, I do not think it’s feasible.

The sorry state of the USS TICONDEROGA (CG-47) at the naval yards in Philadelphia., BIGBIRD78/Wikicommons

If you are looking to boost ship numbers quickly, the Perry class might make you look twice, but they are also old. They are a mélange of foreign systems—NATO frigate, remember. That Otto Melara gun mounted on the O-4 level midships is a popgun and the fire control system (of Dutch origin) is not much better. Same missile launcher issues as the Ticos, they are about the same age, but the FFGs did not have Aegis. Probably have to severely upgrade the A/C and chill water systems to handle the electronics heat load if the combat systems were upgraded. The sonar is pitiful, in either mode. They do have the capacity to house two ASW helicopters, but we never had enough helicopters to give them two—the other hangar made a great gym and weight room—and I don't think we do now.

Here's at least one barrier to bringing the battleships back and one barrier to operate them. As far as bringing them back, boiler makers are almost extinct. Navy and civilian shipyards no longer maintain boiler repair shops. As far as operating them, they have very few automated systems, and those they have were kludged from the first time we brought the ships back under Reagan, or the second time in the case of the USS New Jersey.  

USS NEW JERSEY (BB-62) before her retirement. Today the Iowa class battleships all serve as museums, but the possibility of bringing them back into service is always a hotly debated, if not far-fetched topic. , USN

Anybody still living who remembers how to operate their boilers, or their guns for that matter, is too old to get down the ladders. Frankly, with the improvement of the accuracy of air or missile delivered munitions, I can find no rationale for trying to resurrect a ship whose sole purpose in life was to hurl a shell the size of a VW Bug halfway to China.

The retirement of the USS Enterprise and the Navy's seemingly non-existent plan on how to dispose of it

Author's note, you can read background on this issue here.

No matter what the official word was, that ship was unsafe to steam. It was designed in the ’50s and has been worked hard ever since being commissioned in the early ’60s. Through my contacts in the last company for whom I worked before retirement, I have some fairly intimate knowledge of the material condition of that ship. Without going into specifics, or revealing anything classified, I cannot say any more other than the fact it was a major accident, but not a nuclear one, waiting to happen.

There is no bigger picture. Any carrier gap would have only gotten bigger, quite suddenly, if the Big E wasn't tied up.

As far as dismantling the ship, the cores and irradiated structural and mechanical components in the reactor compartments are an issue. The Navy used to operate an Expended Core Facility in Idaho Falls which was just a big swimming pool keeping exhausted cores cool until all the fissionable material had fissioned to non-existence—half life of radioactive Cesium anyone? I am sure it is still there, but I do not know how much room is left. 

We would not have that problem—or the one with the waste from municipal reactors—if Jimmy Carter had not, by executive order, prohibited the construction and use of breeder reactors to turn the expended fuel cells into useable reactor fuel. His argument was that he wanted to keep radioactive cobalt out of the hands of rogue states. He was a Nuclear trained man, too.

Decommissioned USS ENTERPRISE (CVN-65) is in limbo as the Navy isn't sure how to dispose of its first nuclear supercarrier., USN

There is a certain unwarranted paranoia about all things nuclear. I had the distinct honor of having lunch with Dr. Edward Teller after he had addressed the assembled staff and faculty at NPGS Monterey. He asserted that that paranoia had its roots in the terrible destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and that we should have just dropped a demonstration weapon on one of the outlying islands. Great physicist but lousy historian. 

Regardless, the precautionary measures that are federally mandated for handling of irradiated materials make it too expensive for maritime salvage operators, who work on a very thin margin which is very vulnerable to market fluctuations, to make any money on salvaging Enterprise. I have no knowledge of what they did with Long Beach.  

In the mid ‘90s, I led a team that did an analysis of the possibility of scrapping former Soviet warships at the recently closed Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. One of the roadblocks we encountered was an Environmental Protection Agency advisory that we would have to keep the ships on blocks above the 100 year tide mark for at least ten years because of the PCBs in the paint! If there is that much of a reaction to a rather mundane organic compound, I can only guess at the panic that nuclear waste might cause at a shipyard in the tidewater region.  

As part of our study, I sent one of my engineers, a former Soviet Navy warrant officer, with a Congressional delegation to look at some of the possible victims for dismemberment in Philly.  You do not want to know how they are caring for their mothballed nuclear surface ships.

Getting more service life out of the ships the Navy already has

Author's note, you can read background on this issue here.

One word. Maintenance. Budgets have shrunk funds available for maintenance at all levels, at O (organizational, I (intermediate) and D (depot). Yard worthy items are deferred and deferred and deferred. Operational tempo has impacted proper maintenance and training does not support the execution of O level maintenance, either preventive or corrective.  

The DDGs (Arleigh Burke class destroyers) are well designed, mature weapons systems. Regular good maintenance and regular tech refreshes can keep them going for a long time. We have enough of them that our sailors can gain experience at all levels in the command structure as they progress through their careers, ensuring a robust corporate knowledge. One of the greatest dangers to older ships is tank and void corrosion and hull thinning, but NAVSEA has taken some rigorous steps recently to handle those problems.

It is, I think, a better idea to spend the little money available on maintaining the goods ships you have rather than the billions sunk into R&D, design and procurement of a new class of ships.

The second and final part of our series with LCDR(R) Taylor features recollections of his most memorable moments steaming the high seas during the height of the Cold War, as well as bold commentary on the Navy's highest-profile weapons programs, some of which Taylor worked on directly, and on the service's most controversial operational and strategic decisions. We truly saved the best for last.

Contact the editor: