Boeing Frontiers
July 2003
Volume 02, Issue 03
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Integrated Defense Systems

Engineer takes a trip ‘I will never forget’


It was supposed to be a two-week stay aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln for Tony Slade, a Boeing Integrated Defense Systems manufacturing engineer.

All he had to do was verify that maintenance processes on U.S. Navy F/A-18E Super Hornets were in place, then fly home to St. Louis.

But as soon as he landed on the flight deck of the Lincoln on Feb. 12 in the Persian Gulf, Slade found out he'd be there a little longer than planned. "I said 'fine, no problem,'" he recalled. "And I ended up being there for five weeks."

Slade didn't return to St. Louis until March 17—two days before major coalition military operations began in Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The Navy had requested Slade's presence onboard the Lincoln to help support 12 F/A-18Es from Strike Fighter Squadron 115—the first Super Hornets to be deployed in combat. The jets were already flying 'round-the-clock missions against surface-to-air missile sites in Iraq.

Slade, who supports perishable tooling needs for production, was the author of some key maintenance processes for the Super Hornets and had taught them to Navy mechanics at Naval Air Station Lemoore, Calif.

On the aircraft carrier, his role was to perform work as well as teach it. "I ended up doing a lot of the work myself," Slade said. "I got my hands dirty just like everyone else did. It was refreshing to be able to do that. It's one thing to send tools out, and it's another to actually do the work."

Slade, fellow Boeing IDS engineer Joe Gabris, U.S. Navy machinist Tom Moore and Northrop Grumman mechanic Bob Piggot worked alongside VFA-115 maintainers on the Super Hornets whenever the aircraft became available.

"There was never a typical day," Slade said. "We'd work on an aircraft at 2 o'clock in the afternoon or 2 o'clock in the morning. Sometimes, the maintenance office of the squadron would say an aircraft would be available at a certain time, then something would happen and we wouldn't work on it until late at night. The first full aircraft I worked on, they got me out of bed to do it. We basically worked the airplanes any time of the day or night in order to keep them up and running within 24 hours."

The dedication and work ethic of the Navy maintainers impressed Slade. "They worked 12 hours on, 12 hours off all of the time," he said. "Some would stay with us past their shifts and keep on working—18 hours or more. Anything we wanted, they would bend over backwards to get it." Communicating with Boeing St. Louis in regard to work status, parts and supplies was a challenge because of frequent security blackouts and a nine-hour time difference, Slade said.

"The Lincoln would go through what is called River City, which simply meant that communications to the outside world would be shut down for an undisclosed timeframe," he said. "To get a land line (telephone) was next to impossible. So most of the time we relied on e-mail and used PCs (personal computers) in the administration office when they were available."

Responses to e-mail sent from the Lincoln could be slow in coming. "We'd be working on an aircraft at 9 a.m. (in the Persian Gulf) and it would be late afternoon before we'd get a response," Slade said.

Slade had to make similar arrangements to keep in touch with his wife, Vickie, and his two daughters, Melissa, 17, and Nicole, 13, back home in St. Louis. "I was able to call my wife (by phone) once a week and I e-mailed her every day," Slade said. "Sometimes I'd make the phone call at about 1 a.m. so she would get it during normal hours."

When he wasn't working on Super Hornets, Slade could move about the ship freely. "I got lost a few times but soon found my way around," he said. The noise of the catapults accompanied sleep, since his berth was right below the flight deck. On nights when there were no flying operations, Slade would sometimes listen in as a group of pilots sang and played guitars. "They were pretty good," Slade recalled.

The Persian Gulf waters were generally calm, but fierce sand storms hit the Lincoln twice. After one of the storms, "there was this yellow haze all over everything, and dust everywhere," Slade said. "Some sand even got into the cockpits" of aircraft. Even though it was a combat operation, Slade said he "never felt threatened" while onboard the Lincoln "because we had the whole Seventh Fleet there."

The entire experience was new for him. Slade had no military background and had never been on an aircraft carrier before.

"It was a trip that I will never forget," he said.

Would he do it again?

"Yes," he said, "for two reasons. Our military deserves all the support we can give them, and it's the least that I could do personally to help. I owe them that much. Their sacrifice is one most people will never understand, until you've walked a mile in their shoes."


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