A U.S. Navy supercarrier’s 5,500-plus person crew exists to do one thing: to consistently put aircraft into the air and safely recover them after they launch. In order to make this happen, there exists a small army of flight deck facilitators, and each individual has their own role primarily designated by the color of the shirt they wear.
Life on the flight deck is dangerous and taxing. Piercing sounds, walls of hot exhaust, spinning propellers and guzzling jet air intakes, grease everywhere, and a stiff sea wind that never stops are just a few of the things that must be endured for many hours at at a time. The night and bad weather throw a whole other set of problems into the mix. To put it simply, this job is not for the faint of heart.
But what seems like near total chaos is actually a ballet of steel, explosives, gas and flesh, orchestrated by the Handler and their team, as well as Primary Flight Operations, both located inside the safety of the carrier’s island super-structure.
The Handler uses the Ouija Board to visualize every movement of each aircraft on the carrier’s deck and hangar as well as its situational state.
The Handler’s moves, and subsequently those of the deck crew, are also coordinated with Primary Flight Control (“Pri-Fly”) which works as the carrier’s tower, orchestrating launches and recoveries while keeping a watchful eye on the deck from their perch high atop the carrier’s island.
With this organizational structure in mind, you can see that the deck crew is really the nexus between the carrier’s internal command and control, and actually making those orders come to life. Here are what each shirt color seen on the flight deck means:
Yellow shirts are worn by aircraft handlers and aircraft directors that shuttle aircraft around the carrier’s tight and chaotic deck. Catapult Officers and Arresting Gear Officers also wear yellow shirts. Because yellow shirts are so involved with taxiing aircraft, they are often featured prominently in dramatic photos depicting carrier deck operations.
Green shirts are worn by some of the hardest-working sailors on the deck, including ones who run and maintain the ship’s catapults and arresting gear. Hook Runners who make sure the ship’s cross-deck pendants (wires) make it back into position to trap another aircraft by coercing them with a five-foot steel bar wear green shirts. This is one of the most dangerous positions on the flight deck as the wires can snap across the deck at high speed, slicing through whatever or whoever they come in contact with.
Air wing maintenance personnel, those who work on the aircraft directly, also wear green shirts, as do cargo handling personnel, ground support equipment troubleshooters, enlisted helicopter landing signal personnel and photographer’s mates.
Plane Handlers, who work under the direction of the yellow shirt wearing aircraft handlers, assist in moving aircraft around the deck. They also can operate the carrier’s massive aircraft elevators, drive tractors and work as messengers and verbal liaisons.
Purple shirts, better known as “Grapes,” are all about aviation fuels. They fuel and de-fuel the carrier’s aircraft, often on very tight schedules. Obviously, pumping fuel at high-pressure into jets loaded with explosives and full of hot electronics and mechanical devices is not exactly a low-risk proposition. One spark, caused by grounding issue or one of many other possibilities, could cause a real disaster.
Grapes are masters of pumping the air wing’s go-juice under the most challenging of conditions.
The red color is no mistake as the crewmen that wear this color are usually near very hazardous things or situations. Ordnancemen deal with building, moving and mounting weapons and arming the air wing’s aircraft. They use their own hardened elevators to move live bombs and missiles up to the deck before loading them on the aircraft, which can including literally lining up and heaving a 500 pound missile over their shoulders to get it attached to the aircraft’s weapons station.
Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) crews also wear red shirts along with crash and salvage crews. Crash teams have their own mini tug-sized fire fighting vehicles and are ready at a moment’s notice to respond to mishap on the deck.
Brown shirts are worn most notably by Plane Captains. Loosely equivalent to a Crew Chief in the Air Force, Plane Captains are responsible for overseeing the maintenance, launch and recovery and general well-being of their aircraft as well as the others in their squadron. The old adage is the plane captain is the one who truly “owns the jet,” and the pilot just borrows it for a couple hours at a time.
Air wing line leading Petty Officers, the hands-on leadership of the air wing and its enlisted personnel, also wear brown shirts.
White shirts are worn by a fairly wide mix of deck crew. These include many quality and safety observers such as air wing quality control personnel, individual squadron plane inspectors, and safety observers. Yet probably most well known white shirt wearers are Landing Signal Officers (LSOs) who help talk down approaching aircraft while also making sure the deck is clear for their arrival. The LSOs are sourced from each squadron in the air wing and are usually pilots with historically high landing scores themselves.
White shirts are also worn by Air Transfer Officers who are responsible for the handling and conveyance of all mail, cargo and passengers arriving via C-2 Greyhound Carrier Onboard Delivery (COD) aircraft and helicopters. When VIPs or media are being escorted on the deck they also wear white. Crews who provide liquid oxygen to aircraft and medical personnel are also assigned white tops.
The methods used today by deck crews have been honed over a century of naval aviation and the U.S. is not alone with using many of them. In fact, things like shirt colors and direction methods used by the U.S. are standardized among its allies.
A Super Hornet could land on France’s nuclear aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle, and its pilot would be able to understand how to operate on it inherently—something both the French and the U.S. actually do from time to time.
Operating aircraft from carriers around the clock is a labor intensive proposition, but the human element is really what makes it all work. In doing so they also make life in a haze-gray universe a little more colorful, in more ways than one.
Contact the author at Tyler@jalopnik.com.
Photos via U.S. Navy