Sea story: “If I was in the Air Force”…

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When I was at my military training commands, our instructors would naturally gravitate toward college classes. If they were on shore duty for long enough, they’d get their bachelor’s and sometimes even their master’s degrees. If they were enlisted when this happened, then their thoughts would even more naturally gravitate toward getting a commission. (The alternatives were going straight back to sea duty or leaving active duty. To a submariner, even being an officer seemed like a better deal.) In a department of 50 instructors, 4-5 per year would get themselves selected for commissioning. We were running an officer assembly line, and we were proud of it.

Ironically, the submarine force’s aggressive commissioning program gave the Air Force three of the best submariners I’d ever served with. (I don’t know which service’s reputation is damaged more by the fact that Navy submariners would rather run the Air Force.) A few weeks ago, less than a decade after he was selected for commissioning, one of our submariners was notified that he made major. So in his honor, I’m going to tell this sea story for the last time. No, really.

My ballistic missile submarine was subject to regular inspections to ensure that we were doing our share for the Cold War’s policy of Mutual Assured Destruction. One of the programs, the Defense Nuclear Surety Inspection, actually sent members of the Air Force and Army onto submarines to watch how our weaponeers handled and launched ICBMs. They didn’t know the details of executing a submerged launch, but they could spot a safety violation with their eyes closed. Because of the inspector’s wide range of experience, coupled with a few glaring instances of blissful ignorance, they were treated with a mixture of fear and genial contempt. I’m sure it’s the same way the Navy’s DNSI inspectors were treated when they went down into missile silos or out into the field with the other services.

During one of these inspections, an Air Force major sat in a corner of the Missile Command Center observing as the submarine crew ran through a launch drill. It was the third day of the inspection and the itinerary was just about finished. Our Weapons Officer (the aforementioned affectionately nicknamed “Mad Dog”) was in charge of the show. However, as every submariner already knows, the show is really run by the chiefs. In this case it was Senior Chief (Submarine Qualified) Fire Control Technician (Ballistic) Martin. Of exceptionally long and meritorious submarine service, he had probably shown Noah how to properly stow the Ark for sea. As the department’s enlisted leader, he was widely respected for his team-building leadership and also revered for taking care of his people. Mad Dog may have had his finger on the trigger of the launch key, but the Senior Chief was giving the orders and taking the reports from his crew. He’d let Mad Dog know when it was time to squeeze the trigger– or to make a coffee run.

In the true spirit of interservice rivalry, we were going to show those Air Force guys how the real nuclear weaponeers did business. The inspection had gone well up to that point, perhaps enhanced by Mad Dog’s take-charge attitude of “I dare you to find anything wrong with our performance.” His reputation had preceded him, and by this time the inspectors had relaxed to the point of shifting their mission from “finding deficiencies” to “sharing training tips”. Instead of stern looks and scribbling pens, an evolution was likely to generate a discussion on the relative merits of the different ways that the services did their business.

In the middle of this warm (and rare) collegial atmosphere, the launch drill had progressed to the point where a POSEIDON ICBM refused to leave the tube. (This was just a drill, not an actual launch.) Mad Dog was required to go to the tube to help troubleshoot and perhaps override some interlocks, so a substitute had to actually squeeze the launch trigger while Mad Dog was at the scene. Mad Dog turned the launch key over to the Senior Chief, said “You have control of the countdown and may launch when ready”, and left MCC.

The major hadn’t seen this before, and it was clear that he hadn’t expected it. Even worse, he wasn’t sure whether it was standard procedure or a flagrant safety violation requiring his prompt intervention. After a few seconds of uncomfortable silence, he decided to confront the issue:
“Senior Chief, did he just put you in charge of launching the missile?”
“Yes sir, he did.”
“Is that standard procedure for this sort of emergency?”
“Yes sir, it is.”
“It isn’t considered a nuclear weapons safety violation to turn the launch key over to an enlisted man?”

(Senior Chief had to pause for a few seconds to remind himself that perhaps these Air Force majors weren’t aware of the regard in which chief petty officers are held.)
“No sir, it’s not a safety violation.”

The major, unaware of the professional transgression he’d just committed, decided to carry on with a little interservice training on how things ought to be done:
“You know, Senior Chief, in the Air Force that launch key would only be handled by a major.”

Senior Chief had been patient for far longer than usual, but he’d finally had enough:
“Sir, if I was in the Air Force, I’d be a major.”

The launch drill was completed in silence. Our submarine passed with flying colors. Senior Chief was eventually awarded yet another medal for his sustained superior leadership, especially the part where he put the Air Force in its proper submariner perspective.

So congratulations, Jack! We knew it was only a matter of time until a submariner finally carried out the Senior Chief’s threat…

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WHAT I DO: I help you reach financial independence. For free. I retired in 2002 after 20 years in the Navy's submarine force. I wrote "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" to share the stories of over 50 other financially independent servicemembers, veterans, and families. All of my writing revenue is donated to military-friendly charities.

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