An aviator’s take on the Navy’s 1st joint high-speed vessel

 

Navy Cmdr. Gregory “Pugs” Byers became director of current operations for Military Sealift Command Europe and Africa/Commander, Task Force 63, during the summer of 2013. Prior to starting this job, Military Sealift Command and the civilian side of the U.S. Navy were foreign concepts to Byers, an aviator who last served as commanding officer of Electronic Attack Squadron One Three Four at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Wash. Now Byers’ daily vernacular includes terms such as “JHSV,” “USNS” and “CIVMAR.” Below, Byers describes his experiences embarking the Navy’s first joint high-speed vessel USNS Spearhead (JHSV 1) off West Africa during the ship’s maiden voyage in support of Africa Partnership Station 2014.

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I suspect most Americans don’t know what to expect during their first journey to the continent of Africa. I experienced this feeling twice over when I recently traveled to Dakar, Senegal, to meet up with USNS Spearhead (JHSV 1). This was not only my first trip to Africa, it was my first experience embarking one of the U.S. Navy’s noncombatant ships, which are crewed by civilians known as “CIVMARs” who work for the Navy’s Military Sealift Command. As an aviator who spent my career flying from the decks of aircraft carriers, I certainly did not know what to expect when we got underway for my first at-sea-period on the Navy’s first-in-class, joint high-speed vessel. As someone accustomed to flying at speeds of more than 400 knots, part of me thought “how impressive could this ship capable of just 35 knots be?” After stepping aboard a bridge with a complexity and layout equivalent to most modern airliners, I can say I am quite impressed.

Spearhead’s civil service master, Capt. Doug Casavant, graciously let me observe ship operations from the starboard bridge wing as we got underway from the port of Dakar in mid-March after the ship finished multi-national exercise Saharan Express. Without the use of port tugs, he maneuvered the 2,000-ton vessel away from the pier with a deftness more characteristic of a helicopter than a ship as big as a football field. I was also impressed by the coordination and fluid movement of the crew during such evolutions. This coordination is challenging but vital for the movement of a ship capable of maneuvering in any direction, but simultaneously lacking a single location on board with visibility of all directions. Crew coordination is particularly important when operating in small areas like ports. As I watched the ship pull out of Dakar, the crew cleared the deck as skillfully as the best helicopter air crewmen I’ve encountered during my 21-year aviation career.

MONROVIA, Liberia (March 7, 2014) - Chief Mate James Regan, a civil service mariner aboard USNS Spearhead (JHSV 1), gives instructions as a rigid-hull inflatable boat is lowered into the water in preparation for a U.S. Marine Forces Europe and Africa led exercise aimed to enhance the ability of the United States and partner nations to protect U.S. diplomatic missions.  (U.S. Navy photo by MCSN Justin R. DiNiro)

MONROVIA, Liberia (March 7, 2014) – Chief Mate James Regan, a civil service mariner aboard USNS Spearhead (JHSV 1), gives instructions as a rigid-hull inflatable boat is lowered into the water in preparation for a U.S. Marine Forces Europe and Africa led exercise aimed to enhance the ability of the United States and partner nations to protect U.S. diplomatic missions. (U.S. Navy photo by MCSN Justin R. DiNiro)

So yes, surprises and new experiences abounded for me both in the friendly and welcoming city of Dakar and aboard the Navy’s newest ship on its maiden deployment.  As the deployment continues on, and the Navy gains a greater understanding of the full-range of capabilities of the ship, I suspect there will be no shortage of opportunities for Spearhead and the JHSV class to shine in the coming years. The ship certainly impressed this aviator.

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