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Sea Stories: Douching A Surface-To-Air Missile


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Sea Stories: Douching a Surface-to-Air Missile

My first ship was an 8300+ ton steam-powered Guided Missile Cruiser.  After a year-long baseline overhaul, countless inspections and systems certifications and pre-deployment workups, it was in its homeport of San Diego just a few days before deploying as Air Defense Coordinator (AW) of a Carrier Battle Group. 

This class of ship was armed with the Standard Missile -2, Extended Range (SM-2ER) surface to air missile system.  These missiles were huge two-stage affairs, which could shoot down enemy aircraft or missiles at long range (we once got a skin-to-skin hit on a target drone at 89 nautical miles…good shooting!)  Think supersonic flying telephone poles with explosive warheads.

The missiles were housed in two separate missile magazines, one each fore and aft.  Each magazine had two huge revolving circular racks of 20 missiles each, resting more or less horizontally.  Behind each missile’s rocket motor was a booster suppression system.  The BSS was seawater under pressure, with a nozzle positioned such that if a missile’s rocket motor lit off in the magazine, it would shatter a frangible burst disk stoppering the nozzle and allow the high-pressure water to jet up the missile’s rear, inhibiting (but not extinguishing) the rocket exhaust fire and theoretically preventing a catastrophic missile magazine fire and explosion.

On this soon-to-be-less-than-peaceful day, the ship’s Missile Officer (who figured prominently in an earlier Sea Story (The Missing .45) was having an argument with his Division’s Leading Chief Petty Officer.  To keep from “fighting in front of the kids”, they took the “discussion” below decks in the missile magazine.   Now, this officer had one major qualification for a stellar USN career: he had played football at the Naval Academy.  He was a pretty stout guy, physically.

And at some point, to underscore his argument, the Missile Officer slammed his hand down onto a booster suppression nozzle.   And…BOOM, the burst disk did its thing, and high pressure seawater went shooting up the back end of a Standard Missile, spraying saltwater all over all of the other birds in the compartment.  Pandemonium reigned for a brief time.  The proper valve was shut, the seawater was pumped out of the magazine, and massive effort was made to carefully hand-dry and corrosion-treat the remaining 39 birds, hoping that their sensitive electronics had not been damaged.  But the one missile was undoubtedly dead as a doornail.

This is now a major problem.  A major combatant like this ship simply did not deploy with an empty weapon rack, much less one with a dead missile in it.  Calls were made.  There were two authorized weapons handling facilities within reasonable range (where ordnance is safely handled far from civilians or serious collateral damage in the event of mishap.)  Both were already scheduled for other ships; booked solid for a couple of weeks.  Discussions began concerning having a sister ship of the same class deploy as Air Defense Coordinator for the battle group, with our ship following behind and “taking back over” once we caught up.  (In reality, the other ship would likely have been allowed to keep the premier job.).  Now, our Captain was senior to the other ship’s CO, and was directly competing with him for selection to flag rank.  There was no way he was going to play second fiddle.  None. Period.  Calls were made and favors called in or promised.

The next day, the forecastle was secured.  The missile division was mustered on the forecastle for a weapons handling detail.  A portable crane drove up the pier and set up operation.  And in port, pierside in downtown San Diego, a Mike Boat landing craft pulled alongside WITH A LIVE SM-2 MISSILE ABOARD.  (In case you are wondering, this is dangerous, strictly forbidden by regulations, and pretty much unprecedented.  Imagine the national news coverage if a mishap were to occur.)  Old missile was craned off.  New missile was stowed below decks, joining its siblings without befalling disaster.  And the ship deployed on schedule, with a full magazine of birds.  And the careers of all concerned continued without interruption.  I guess safety rules were made to be broken when an ambitious officer’s promotion is at stake. 



Edited by Gunboat1
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If ya really want to jack up the pucker factor, think about a similar situation where a "Special Weapon" has been dropped onto the concrete hard-stand from an "alert" bird. (half trained E-4 with the grand-daddy of all hangovers)


Of course we were told that it couldn't possibly have "gone nuclear,"  but that did not lessen the pucker-factor.

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You're lucky it was only salt water.  I had to deal with a major CHT leak combined with an improperly dogged armored hatch that lead to dousing of "special weapons" with much nastier stuff than salt water.  My dungarees went over the side after cleaning that mess up.

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