My Memorial day post on the loss of an airman reminded me of the procedures when a man went overboard. Navy ships drill for man overboard at least once a week while they are at sea. The drill goes like this:
An officer throws a mannequin dressed as a sailor into the sea. That mannequin is named “Oscar,” after the flag that is flown from a ship’s mast when they have a man overboard.
There is a watch on the rear end of the ship, called the fantail watch. On aircraft carriers, there are two sailors assigned to this watch 24/7, one one each side of the ship’s rearmost point. They are wearing headsets attached to the lookout circuit. The fantail watch sees what appears to be a sailor in the water, and tosses a smoke float into the water to mark the position of the man in the water. He also calls “man in the water, (starboard/port) fantail” over the lookout circuit. The phone watch on the bridge hears this and notifies the Officer of the Deck (OOD). The OOD immediately orders three long blasts from the ship’s horn, orders the bosun of the watch to sound “man overboard” over the ship’s announcing system (1MC) and stops the ship by reversing the engines. Once it is below a certain speed, the ship will turn around and return to the location of the smoke float (if operations and conditions permit). The navigation crew uses as position tracker called a DRT (dead reckoning tracker) to coordinate the search. (This system uses inputs from the ship’s gyro to track its location. The advantage of the DRT over GPS is that the DRT can’t be jammed.)
The announcing of “man overboard” on the 1MC causes a few automatic actions. The signal bridge will hoist the above-mentioned oscar flag. The rest of the crew begins a face to face muster. There is a phone tree setup, where each crew member reports his location to a superior, who then calls their respective Division office. The division office calls the department office, who calls the bridge with a list of missing sailors. All 6,000 members of the crew must be accounted for in less than 20 minutes. Ten minutes after the initial “man overboard” call, the names of any sailors who remain unaccounted for are called over the announcing system until everyone is accounted for, or until the names of missing sailors are known. In a drill, the training team will randomly grab a couple of sailors just before the drill starts and hold them incommunicado, to make sure that they are reported as missing as a check to make sure divisions aren’t fudging the muster.
Another thing that happens is the ship launches a helicopter if possible, or a small boat if flight operations aren’t possible. The boat or helo has a rescue swimmer in it whose job is to grab the sailor.
Once the rescuers arrive near the man in the water, another smoke float is tossed in the water near him. This is in case they lose sight of him for some reason (waves, weather, darkness). They then deploy the swimmer to pull him from the water.
We used to lose 3 to 5 guys over the side in any given year. Most of the time we would find them, sometimes we wouldn’t. During the six years I was in, I remember two or three that we never found. The one referred to on Memorial day was one of them. I remember one time, we had a helicopter crash where an entire CH-46 Sea Knight went into the water, complete with aircrew. I saw that one happen. Luckily, we rescued the entire crew. That’s a story for another time.