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Hovercraft's no-officer crew offers challenging career path

Apr. 26, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
LCAC-62, a landing craft, air cushion piloted by Chief Boatswain's Mate (SW/EXW) Ethan Cleveland, reaches the shore during beachmaster training exercises at Camp Pendleton, Calif., in February.
LCAC-62, a landing craft, air cushion piloted by Chief Boatswain's Mate (SW/EXW) Ethan Cleveland, reaches the shore during beachmaster training exercises at Camp Pendleton, Calif., in February. ()
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Cleveland flies his LCAC toward shore during training at Camp Pendelton. All LCACs are crewed by enlisted sailors, led by a chief or above serving as craftmaster. ()
A sailor walks across the tarmac of Assault Craft Unit 5 in front of the massive hangars used to house and maintain its complement of landing craft, air cushioned at Camp Pendelton. The 182-foot vessels are used to ferry equipment and people from amphibious ships to shore. ()
Boatswain's Mate 2nd Class (SW) Brandon Landry, a loadmaster onboard LCAC-62, directs vehicles during load-out in preparation for training exercises at Camp Pendelton. ()
LCAC-62 rests on the beach at Camp Pendleton during training. The Navy says the hovercraft can reach more than 70 percent of the world's coastline — conventional landing craft can get to 15 percent. ()

Sea duty in the Navy’s fleet of landing craft, air cushion vessels is a minimum five-year sea tour at one of the two assault craft units based in the U.S. Overseas duty is two years unaccompanied or three years accompanied. When embarked on amphibious ships, LCAC sailors get career sea pay. Here’s who’s eligible to join:
Craftmaster: All E-7s and above can apply.
Engineer: E-5s and E-6s from GSE, GSM, EN, DC, EM, HT, MR and MM ratings can apply. The pipeline is now open to aviation maintenance ratings on a case-by-case basis.
Navigator: E-5s and E-6s in the OS, QM, AW, ET and ET (SS) ratings.
Loadmaster: E-5s and E-6s in BM, GSM and GSE ratings.
Deck engineer: E-4s and E-5s in the GSE, GSM and HT ratings.

ABOARD LCAC-62 OFF CAMP PENDLETON, CALIF. — They’re big, they’re fast, and they’re commanded — and flown — by chiefs.

The Navy’s fleet of roughly 80 of these assault hovercraft train to ferry Marines ashore under fire.

Any officers on board are just passengers.

These high-speed vessels are commanded by a craftmaster, a highly trained E-7 through E-9 sailor, backed up by a crew of four more sailors.

Since the craft “fly” about six inches above the water, the crew members wear flight suits.

Recently, the Navy opened up the chance to skipper these landing craft, air cushioned to any chief petty officer from any rating who can meet the mental and physical requirements for the job and then pass a rigorous training regimen.

The craft fall under the command of an assault craft unit: ACU 4 at Joint Amphibious Base Little Creek-Fort Story, Va., or ACU 5 at Camp Pendleton, Calif. ACU 5 also maintains a forward-deployed detachment in Sasebo, Japan.

Sure, the amphibious ship they deploy on has operational control. But when they’re flying, the enlisted pilots have the same responsibilities as an airplane pilot or a ship’s commanding officer.

“The closest analogy is they’re like the CO of a small ship, and I put a lot of trust in them on a day-to-day basis,” said Capt. Jonathan L. Harnden, commanding officer of ACU 5,in a Feb. 25 interview.“It is a huge responsibility, and they’re operating daily at what we often think of as an officer level with commensurate responsibility.”

'Jaw dropping'

Technically a surface craft, LCACs are really more similar to aircraft in how they fly over the water.

Made of aluminum, the craft is surrounded by a rubber skirt that fills up like a large rubber tube. Inside that skirt, air is forced down onto the ground or water, lifting the craft seven to eight feet in the air. Air slips underneath the skirt to form an air cushion, six to nine inches high, that the skirt floats on.

The smoothness of the ride depends on the sea state, but if you are prone to motion sickness, think twice before applying.

The craftmaster steers with a yoke, a joystick similar to the controls in a jet airliner, while his feet sit on rudder controls to keep the craft from moving left to right.

The similarities between an LCAC and an airplane are many. The craftmaster sits in a “cockpit” and talks to air traffic control located near a gator’s stern gate.

It’s a job that Chief Boatswain’s Mate (SW/EXW) Ethan Cleveland has been waiting his whole 17-year career to step into.

“I’ve wanted to do this job ever since I was a young seaman attached to a beachmaster’s unit and first saw these craft — and who operated them,” he said. “As a young sailor, it was a jaw-dropping realization for me that enlistees commanded these craft, and I wanted to be a part of it.”

It took Cleveland more than a decade to realize his dream, but he jumped at the first chance. He’s now in the process of spinning up for his first deployment.

Growing up in the amphibious Navy, Cleveland feels his whole career has led up to being a craftmaster.

“I’ve always been an operator, driving boats as a coxswain,” he said. “It’s great being in charge, but it’s a responsibility, too, and you can’t forget that, either.”

An enlisted navigator and engineer, both petty officers, help the chief fly the LCAC. Like their titles suggest, they too have responsibilities that parallel officers’ jobs in the fleet. These jobs are normally filled by E-5s and E-6s.

Two junior sailors, a deck engineer and a loadmaster round out the LCAC crew. They’re typically E-4s or E-5s, though many E-3s also qualify in these jobs.

'Best-kept secret'

The cockpit crew sit side-by-side in the LCAC’s cockpit on the craft’s left front side. Inside, the craft looks, and operates, more like an aircraft.

The craftmaster sits on the right, giving the boss a view forward and also to the vessel’s starboard side. The chief engineer rides in the middle seat and is responsible for managing the vessel’s four gas turbines.

On LCAC-62, that seat is filled by Gas Turbine Specialist (Electrical) 1st Class (SW/AW) Matthew Smart.

Smart has been in LCACs for most of his career after an initial two-year sea tour on the destroyer Elliot. Like many who ascend to the chief engineer’s seat, he started as a deck engineer and learned the craft’s plant from the bottom up.

“For an engineer looking for something different — something more hands-on with a lot of autonomy and responsibility — this is the best-kept secret in the Navy,” Smart said.

Though many engineers move up through the LCAC ranks, many others come to the job from the fleet. And it’s not just gas-turbine types: Those from other surface engineering ratings are encouraged to apply, too.

Officials have also begun to recruit from aviation maintenance ratings. Those rules haven’t changed officially, but aviation mechanics wanting a shot can apply regardless.

One bonus for the engineer: cross-training in flying the hovercraft.

New type of flying

Another place where the aviation Navy meets the surface force is in the navigator’s chair. Traditionally a job for sailors in the combat systems ratings, here, too, the aviation Navy is making inroads.

Naval Aircrewman (Operator) 1st Class (NAC/AW) Christopher Hirn was the Navy’s test case for whether sailors in aviation ratings can qualify as LCAC navigators. He’s completed training and is preparing for his first deployment.

Though called a navigator, Hirn says the job is really much more.

“Sure, the basic job is to navigate — keep track of course, speed and waypoints — but I’m also a lookout and I handle communications as well,” he said. “What it all boils down to is keeping the craftmaster up on the operational and tactical picture.”

Hirn came to LCACs from the maritime patrol community, where he flew as a warfare operator in P-3s. He misses flying, but he says LCACs are a completely different animal for him and are fun and rewarding.

The toughest part of the switch to the surface force for Hirn has been the language.

“It’s really quite different, and the learning curve for me has been a bit different,” he said. “But I’m getting the hang of it. The easiest thing is the fact I still wear flight suits — so I already came to this job fully outfitted.”

When the hovercraft is cruising at sea, the port-side eyes and ears of the crew belong to the loadmaster, who sits in a “bubble” on the craft’s port bow and relays contacts and sightings to the navigator through an intercom.

On LCAC-62, that responsibility is in the hands of Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Brandon Landry, a seven-year Navy veteran who did frigate time before coming to LCACs for his second sea tour.

“It’s really something very different from what I did as a BM in the fleet,” he said.

When the craft is on the beach, Landry’s responsibilities change to moving people and equipment on and off the craft, calculating the weight and ensuring things are tied down properly on the deck.

“There’s a lot to learn here, and I’m really still a baby in the LCAC world,” he said. “I’ve yet to deploy with this command, but I’ve been told I can stay here and move up in the LCAC community if I want to.

“I haven’t decided yet what I’ll do.”■

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