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Sea Stories: Qual Boards

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Sea Stories: #47 - Qual Boards


The Navy is a skill-intensive profession by nature. In an environment that is always trying to kill you, aboard an extremely technically-complex machine that is a modern warship, there are many tasks that simply require expert execution. Even seemingly simple things can have serious consequences if done improperly. And some tasks can result in deaths, serious injuries and major damage if screwed up. So how does the Navy determine if a person has learned a task well enough to be allowed to perform it without supervision? In all cases, the Captain of the ship officially certifies that the sailor is qualified. And if the man later does something improperly that results in damage or disaster, the CAPTAIN is also held responsible, for he qualified the offending sailor. No Captain avoids the ultimately responsibility for anything that goes awry aboard his ship (unless the seemingly irresistible forces of 21st Century Political Correctness deem it in the Navy's progressive interest that blame be affixed elsewhere. (See the USS FITZGERALD incident, look closely at who was involved and on watch in CIC, and read between the lines.) No matter that those same PC forces may have pressured the Captain to deem someone qualified even if he had misgivings. But that is another story for another day.)

A Navy Junior Officer is assigned to a ship first and foremost to lead a division of sailors. But the JO is also expected to learn his trade, in part by qualifying in and performing specific watchstanding duties.

Among these are:

Officer of the Deck (In-port). This is the person responsible for controlling access to the ship, and overseeing the evolutions, daily routine and general communications of the ship when in port. He conducts honors and ceremonies as required. He stands his watch on the Quarterdeck.

Command Duty Officer:  The senior officer in charge of a duty section in port.  When everyone else goes home, this officer is in full charge of the ship in the Captain's absence.  I once had to get my ship underway as CDO, WITHOUT THE CAPTAIN ABOARD.    This is not usual.

Conning Officer: the person who gives orders to the Helmsman, directing the movement of the ship in all underway evolutions.

Junior Officer of the Deck (Underway.) This person assists the Officer of the Deck in supervising and directing all aspects of the Ship’s operations when underway.

Combat Information Center Watch Officer. This officer supervises the ship’s Combat Information Center, where the electronic sensors and weapons are controlled and a duplicate navigation plot maintained.

Engineering Officer of the Watch: the person who supervises the operation of the ship’s main propulsion, electrical power generation, and auxiliary systems machinery. This is an extremely complex engineering plant, akin to the infrastructure that supports a small town.

And most importantly, Officer of the Deck (Underway). This is the officer who is responsible for all aspects of a ship’s operations when underway, including its safe navigation and maneuvering.

When an officer has learned a comprehensive understanding of his ship, it's systems and general shipboard operations and engineering, he is deemed qualified as a Surface Warfare Officer (or Submarine Officer, with its unique requirements and watch stations achieved along the way), and is entitled to wear that insignia for the rest of his career.

And in time, it must be determined that an officer is actually qualified to assume and be given command of a ship. This is, naturally, called Command Qualification. It is typically earned at career midpoint, about 8-12 years into a 20+year career.

A time-honored rite of passage and system of ensuring that an officer is in fact competent in the major tasks that he must master is the Qualification Board. When the Officer has completed all the paperwork, and stood the watch successfully under supervision for some time such that his chain of command thinks he is ready, he is called before a Qual Board for the watch station in question. This board is comprised of several individuals who are themselves qualified and have long experience in the task. It almost always includes a senior officer and may include the Captain himself, or not. It's his call, as it is ultimately his responsibility.

The officer presents his written record of task qualification for review, if any. He is then questioned by the members of the board, at length, to test his knowledge of the task. This can be highly technical in nature. I remember one question asked of me at my Surface Warfare Officer qual board: “You are a molecule of water in the main condenser. Describe your passage through the ship's main propulsion system's major components, giving your state, temperature and pressure at each step along the way.”

Questions might also be situational: “ You are underway, transiting San Diego harbor en route to sea. You are on channel course, at speed 10 knots. Just as you are abeam Shelter Island in mid-channel, you lose main steering control of the ship's rudder. What do you do?” This tests not only the officer's knowledge of the steering equipment, but also his grasp of procedures, his judgment and ability to think quickly.

Another possible question: “Describe the process of mooring the ship to the pier. What are your likely rudder and engine commands, what mooring lines are used, and how might you use them to get the ship in proper position alongside?”

And another: “A fire breaks out in the Main Engine Room. A leaking flange is spraying atomized lubricating oil onto hot equipment and it has flashed into a fire. What do you do and what happens now?”

And another: “Describe the ship's weapons systems, from longest to shortest range. What are the capabilities of each system and how many of them do we carry at full load? “

And if the officer knows as much as he should, answers well and keeps his composure, the Board reports him ready, the Captain signs a qualification letter, and he begins to stand that watch or is granted that permanent qualification. And before he knows it, he is sitting on the other side of the table, as a member of a qual board examining a more junior officer.



A Surface Warfare Officer's insignia



A Submarine Officer's insignia

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