PERSIAN GULF (NNS) -- Flight deck operations on an aircraft carrier have been compared to a ballet.
Anyone who is afforded the opportunity to observe flight deck operations on an aircraft carrier will instantly notice the assortment of colors worn by the personnel to specify their job. After watching how the flight deck operates for a while, it is clear, one jersey color is in charge of the big dance; yellow.
Aviation boatswain's mates (handling) (ABH), commonly known as yellow shirts, that work on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68) are directly responsible for the handling and maneuvering of aircraft as well as the safety of all personnel during flight operations. Any mistake or lack of better judgement can cause damage to equipment or injury to personnel on the flight deck.
"At first being a yellow shirt was scary, but now that I have some confidence I would say there is a sense of pride," said Aviation Boatswain's Mate (Handling) 3rd Class Melanie Cluck, from Palm Springs, California. "On the flight deck we are not only responsible for directing aircraft but also for directing people. Normally anyone who needs guidance on the flight deck looks for a yellow shirt. Safety of all the personnel on deck is a big part of our job as well. So we don't only need to know our job, but everyone else's as well."
Before donning the sought-after yellow jersey, ABHs wear blue jerseys to indicate that they are currently in a more junior status. These Sailors are normally newer airmen who have yet to acquire all of the necessary qualifications. Their main responsibilities during flight operations include chocking and chaining, running elevators and tractor operation.
"Being a blue shirt is hard work, but it makes you tough," said Airman Michael Lothrop, from Atlanta. "It's hot up there right now, and we work long days, but you have to be on alert at all times and ready to get the job done whenever you are needed."
Blue shirts are normally covered in grease and always carrying something heavy, whether it be a chain, tractor bar or chock. They play a big part in the maneuvering of aircraft on the flight deck because they do most of the hands-on work. During their time wearing blue, they learn the ins and outs of properly directing aircraft, which helps build the foundation of a high performance yellow shirt.
Since the job requires demanding attention to detail and an extreme amount of knowledge to be performed well. The training and amount of hours a Sailor needs to put in to become a yellow shirt is impressive.
"There are two main qualifications you get as a blue shirt, but from there it's all about if your chain of command sees you have the initiative to take on being a yellow shirt," said Cluck.
The qualifications required are flight deck observer and directing and handling in addition to all the qualifications Sailors are required to obtain when they report to Nimitz. The qualification requirements take roughly 12 weeks to complete. After the completion of required qualifications, Sailors take a written and oral test administered by the flight deck leading petty officer (LPO), assistant LPO and any other yellow shirt qualified chief petty officers or first class petty officers who decide to attend.
Once a Sailor earns the right to wear the color yellow on the flight deck, they will enter a status of under inspection (UI). This means they need an experienced yellow shirt to help them along the way of becoming an expert at their new job on the flight deck.
"It's a case by case basis on how long the UI process takes," said Cluck. "The process is just there to make sure you fully understand what you are doing on the flight deck. It's extensive work to say the least, but it helps you build character. The goal of the process is just to build you up to be the great yellow shirt you are supposed to be."
A UI yellow shirt is always accompanied by a seasoned mentor who is observing every signal and decision they make to ensure that they are learning the process.
Yellow shirts have to communicate with pilots and other personnel working on the flight deck with hand signals to move aircraft onto the catapults and off of the landing area safely.
"You have to be able to really get control of your aircraft and understand the pilot," said Cluck. "It's a gut feeling that you develop during your training, if you feel you need to slow the aircraft down you can, and you start to learn when exactly to turn it. We have hundreds of hand signals we can use to take control of the aircraft on deck. The people in the pilot seats are officers so you have to be professional and every motion you make has to be crisp and precise to prevent accidents."
The working environment of a yellow shirt is unlike anywhere else on the ship. On the 0-4 level of Nimitz is where someone would find the yellow shirt locker. A tight-knit group of men and women who spend their time out of the scorching heat joking, laughing and preparing to launch multi-million-dollar aircraft into the sky. It is here where the instructors of the world's most dangerous ballet reside. It is here, where the yellow shirts dwell, mentally preparing themselves to launch aircraft as their ship currently sits at the tip of the spear.
Nimitz is deployed in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations in support of Operation Inherent Resolve. While in this region, the ship and strike group are conducting maritime security operations to reassure allies and partners, preserve freedom of navigation, and maintain the free flow of commerce.