When I graduated from the Naval Academy in 1991 and prepared to embark on my career as a Surface Warfare Officer, I asked my father, a retired SWO, if he had any advice. Drawing from his 30 years of experience, he provided me only these simple words, “Don’t hit the Bird Farm.” It sounded simple enough. In the past 20 years, there have been many occasions in which those words have come to mind.

I have not served aboard an aircraft carrier and there have only been a handful of occasions in which I have been aboard one of these floating cities. Nonetheless, carriers have figured prominently throughout my career. I have served aboard cruisers and destroyers and all have counted as one of their primary missions the protection of these magnificent capital ships. As it turns out, an unavoidable consequence of having to protect aircraft carriers is the need to operate in close proximity to them.

Operating with an aircraft carrier, especially at night, demands some of the most vigilant watchstanding of any operations we do. It requires a full understanding of the maneuvering characteristics of your own ship as well as those of the carrier. One must also quickly come to the realization that the carrier is always right and that what they say they are going to do may not always line up with reality. Some of the most stressful moments in my career have involved staring at the stern of a carrier at close range at night. When not assigned to protect them, almost as much energy has been spent trying to keep them over the horizon. In many aspects, they remain an enigma to non-carrier Sailors.

As Admiral Stavridis and Admiral Harvey convey so well in this blog post, serving aboard a carrier is clearly a unique experience full of valuable leadership and operational lessons. However, it is equally clear that the lessons learned from carriers go far beyond their lifelines and they have affected the professional lives of virtually all sea-going officers in one way or another.

-CDR Robb Chadwick, USN

Commanding Officer


Lessons Learned from Our Carrier Tours

Admiral Harvey: I was about half-way through my training at the nuclear propulsion prototype in Idaho Falls, Idaho in the spring of 1974 when I received my orders to my first ship . Much to my dismay I saw that I had been assigned to the USS ENTERPRISE (CVN 65), at the time our only operational nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. The Big E had not been my first choice, my second choice or even my third choice on my preference card; in fact, I hadn’t listed the ship at all! I had put down every nuclear-powered cruiser then in commission or under construction at the time and specifically added the comment that I had no desire to be assigned to an aircraft carrier under any conditions. How could my detailer have possibly gotten it so wrong on something that was so important to me?

I graduated from the Naval Academy in 1973, and during my first -class year, there were rumors that Congress was going to pass legislation mandating that all new major surface combatants would be nuclear powered. In fact, Congress did just that, and in 1974, the National Defense Authorization Act for 1975 contained a provision (Title 8 ) which mandated all newly constructed major surface combatants be nuclear powered. Because I was fired up to graduate, go surface line and be eligible to serve in the best ships we had, I applied for the nuclear power program to serve as a SWO(N). Now, as fate would have it, just three years later, Title 8 was rescinded, but by that time, I was on my second division officer tour as a nuclear-trained Surface Warfare Officer and loving life.

The point is I came into the Navy to go to “real” ships and be a ship-driver, a Tin Can Sailor and a Cruiser Sailor. Aircraft carriers weren’t part of my plan at all! I was concerned that being a junior officer aboard an aircraft carrier with a crew of over 5,000 would not offer me any real opportunities to make a significant contribution to the ship. But, as always, the Navy knew best what was good for me and off I went to NAS Alameda, CA to join the crew of the Big E and get ready for her upcoming deployment to the Western Pacific. I was assigned to the Reactor Department and , after I completed my nuclear watch-standing qualifications, became the 4 Plant Station Officer.

Although I certainly didn’t appreciate it at the time, I was extraordinarily fortunate to be assigned to the Big E and, in particular, to 4 Plant. My CO was CAPT C. C. Smith and I could see right away that he was the kind of Captain, the kind of leader, I would want to be. As an ensign from the Naval Academy, I thought I had a pretty good understanding of our Navy, but the Big E under CAPT Smith gave me the deck-plate knowledge of what the Navy was really all about. Along the way, CAPT Smith had that extraordinary impact on me that every JO’s first CO does, and it was an incredibly positive experience. The way he commanded the Big E, the way he got about the ship and communicated with the crew, and the way he demonstrated an in-depth understanding of every department and division (including mine!) solidified in my mind what the Commanding Officer of a ship can (and should) be like. CAPT C. C. Smith was the model for me in my own subsequent command tours – the standard by which I would judge myself.

My LCPO in Plant 4 was Senior Chief Machinist’s Mate Robert D. Neil of Riverton, Wyoming. MMCS Neil only had a high school education, but it sure seemed to me that he had PhDs in nuclear propulsion, naval leadership, and life! MMCS Neil set high professional standards for everyone in 4 Plant – professional standards he himself demonstrated every day – and he took Ensign Harvey and taught him the ropes just as Chiefs have always done in our Navy. It didn’t matter that there were 5,000 other Sailors on the Big E; I had MMCS Neil who gave me his full attention, everyday. The relationship between new division officers and their chiefs is essential to the shaping of our junior officers and the lessons MMCS Neil taught me then have shaped virtually every decision I have made since that tour with him. There is literally not a day that goes by that I don’t use what I learned from Senior Chief Neil. What a privilege to have served with him!

Of the many lessons I learned while serving in Big E, here are three that have stayed with me: First, the essential relationship between the division chief and the new division officer is what makes all the difference for overly enthusiastic, but perhaps dangerously naïve JO’s like myself. Senior Chief Neil taught me what it truly meant to be an officer. Second, the ship, no matter how large, takes on the personality of the Commanding Officer, and a good leader must possess professional competence, intelligent good sense, and respect for those he leads. CAPT C. C. Smith exemplified those essential leadership qualities. Finally, and most importantly, it’s your choices, not your circumstances, that determine your future. You have to play the hand you’re dealt. Some people may be dealt what may appear to be better hands than others, but it is how you play your hand – what you do with what you’ve got – that really determines your future in our Navy.

So my first tour in the Navy, my first two years in my first ship, not a sleek destroyer or a powerful cruiser, but an aircraft carrier, far from being the negative experience I feared it would be, was, in fact, one of the great experiences of my life and one of the best tours I’ve ever had in the Navy.

Admiral Stavridis:

I graduated from Annapolis in 1976 and went to a brand new destroyer. She was USS HEWITT (DD-966), the fourth of the SPRUANCE-class, with a hand-picked commissioning crew. As the Anti-Submarine Warfare Officer, I had a team of about 25 super smart sonar technicians and torpedo men, all of them very squared away. The next three years passed quickly and I decided I loved the Navy.

Then I got a call from my detailer: I’d been selected for something called the Carrier Readiness Improvement Program. This meant that I would leave my beautiful new destroyer and life above decks and become an engineer in an old, conventionally powered aircraft carrier, USS FORRESTAL (CV-59). I couldn’t believe this was happening to me – the “reward” for all my hard work was to go to an old, burned out carrier as the boilers officer with over a hundred hard-cored boiler technicians, many of them with severe drug problems and most with a bad attitude. I fought it hard, but orders are orders.

When I arrived on the FORRESTAL, I learned that many of the men in my division refused to come to quarters, were discipline problems, and simply didn’t want to go to sea. When I told my single Chief Petty Officer (for over 100 men) to throw out an old trash can with what appeared to be rusting parts in it, he looked at me with scorn: “Lieutenant, that’s the number one feed pump.” I had so many discipline problems that I had a standing appointment for two hours each week at Captain’s Mast. It was a nightmare assignment in 1979 at the absolute trough of the Navy’s post-Vietnam collapse.

Luckily for me, I got a new Chief – BTC Clevon Jones was his name, and he was a big, tough, experienced Sailor. The Marine Corps Captain in the ship, John Kelly (now a three star General) helped with discipline. There were good shipmates who had been steam engineers and helped with the technical side of things, including several former enlisted. I was in a different part of the Navy, and I needed all the help I could get.

I learned a thousand things over the next two years in FORRESTAL, from how to light off a boiler to the way a flight deck works. But the most important thing I learned was that no matter how bleak a situation looks, there are three principles that apply:

Ask for help: After my three years on the new destroyer, I thought I knew everything I needed to know. But the carrier was a different universe. I had to swallow my pride and learn to tap into the rich base of experience and knowledge that existed in the ship, from my Chiefs up to the Captain. And above all, I saw that the peer network that sustains us in friendship is also a deep source of technical experience and ideas.

Creativity matters: The things I had learned on the new destroyer just didn’t seem to apply. I was in a new and tougher world on the carrier, and I had to adapt. That means getting rid of old habits, even ones that have worked in the past, and coming up with new approaches. Like in sports, you have to change a tactic or technique that isn’t working and try new approaches.

Keep your sense of humor. Lots of things are going to go wrong. The measure of any officer is not perfection, because we will all fail at times. I certainly have; and for example we flunked the first big engineering inspection badly that I was involved in onboard FORRESTAL. But you keep things in perspective, learn to laugh at yourself, correct your mistakes, and keep coming back.

In the end, while the tour was far from perfect, it was a huge learning experience for me. Countless times in my career, I’ve gone back to the lessons I learned in FORRESTAL to adapt to a new and challenging situation. So I am a proud Surface Warfare Officer – but one who learned some important lessons in a Fleet Carrier many years ago.

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  • sid

    My CO was CAPT C. C. Smith and I could see right away that he was the kind of Captain, the kind of leader, I would want to be.

    Some years before he was CO of the Big E, CC and family lived just a couple of houses down from us…What I didn’t know then, was how unique a “navy” Sanford was.

    Looking back, I can see now that the command environment (the kind of “navy” I literally grew up in) that was fostered by the likes of Tommy Blackburn, and Jig Dog Ramage, is what set the stage for the likes of a CC Smith to grow and proper as the highly respected leader he became.

    A view of those long ago days can be seen on p24 here

  • Craig A. Glesner

    “Don’t hit the Bird Farm.”

    I do so love that, though it took a bit of further reading for it to make sense. Once it clicked though, it was both funny and true.


  • A similar story for me; to quote Robb’s Dad’s advice, I never intended to “hit the bird farm” – either with a ship or as a PCS assignment.

    And yet, having been selected as a Special Mission XO, I made the decision to request assignment as CVN DCA under the wise mentorship of then-Captains Mike LeFever and Ray Spicer and then-CDR Dave Steindl. So, in the spring of 2003, I found myself reporting to USS NIMITZ (CVN 68) as Damage Control Assistant. As a young LCDR I thought I knew it all . . . boy, was I wrong.

    In NIMITZ I was blessed to serve under and with many great leaders to include the Commanding Officer, CAPT Bob “Creech” Gilman. CAPT Gilman was the picture of calm in the maelstrom that a CVN can be and still stands as one of the most personable leaders I have known. Whether he was speaking to the newest Seaman Recruit, a Flag Officer, or a senior civilian official, he did so with the same level of personal focus, listening, and respect. Directly from his actions I learned to “aviate, navigate, communicate” – or at least a surface warrior’s variation on that theme – like I’d never learned before.

    I learned about Carrier Strike Group operations and how a CSG played into theater plans. I learned about flight operations and grew to understand and deeply respect the violent, but well-choreographed ballet of the flight deck. I learned about engineering and repair from tough, 30+ year LDOs and young HTs and DCmen – to include several who are now commissioned officers serving in their division officer and department head tours. I learned to train, delegate, trust, and hold accountable like never before; mustering a repair locker roster of over 800 people tends to force you to do that. More than anything, I learned about leadership, being a good Shipmate and perseverance.

    And every day I was humbled – sometimes by a problem, but more often by the inginuity, selfless dedication, courage and leadership of the young Sailor that solved the problem before it even got to me. I will never forget conducting CONREP for an ammo offload when a forklift’s engine caught fire in hangar bay three – this particular forklift had a 500-lb bomb on the tines – and DC3 Page led his hose team to put it out within seconds. His reply when I asked him what went through his mind as he approached the forklift will stay with me for life: “Sir, it’s what I was trained to do; it was my job.”

    Sometimes we don’t choose the paths our lives take and yet – if we are fortunate enough to have a good foundation and even more fortunate to have great Mentors and Shipmates along the way – our lives are the better for it. NIMITZ still stands as one of the best tours of my career and I am blessed to remain in touch with the great Mentors that got me there and the Sailors who saw me through it.

  • Roy Youngblood

    This reminds me of 1997 when Adm. Stavridis was the Commodore of CDS 21 and we deployed with the Abraham Battle Group in 1998. He had the ability to empower his staff (at total of 15) to make decisions and act as needed. As an STGCS I was certified by him as a Sea Combat Commander Watch Officer and acted on his behalf when he was not present. There were two occassions where things got a little hot and hairy but I knew I had the boss’s backing. I carry those lessons today in my personal and professional life.