What Went Wrong with the Aircraft Carrier Saratoga? (Vintage Story Flashback to Philadelphia Naval Shipyard)

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Here’s one of my favorite pieces from The Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine.  When I was a reporter there in the 1980’s, I’d love to watch the shift changes at the Naval Shipyard and in Chester, Pa., at Sun Ship.  Mobs of men and women in hard hats each supporting middle class families with good wages and benefits.   — Bob Frump

 

 

 

 

WHAT WENT WRONG WITH THE SARATOGA?

 

 

 

By ROBERT R. FRUMP .

 

TEXT: I. WHAT ALFORD SAW

 

SUMMER 1981

 

BOILERMATE FIRST CLASS Mark H. Alford balanced on the wood planking in the bowels of the ship and pretended that he belonged there. He knew what they were up to, these civilian jerks. He had seen the rusty tubes – rusty! – cut jagged when they should have been rounded off smooth. And the trash! He could pick up their trash by the handfuls.

Here came one now – a welder, by the tilt of his brown hardhat. Time for Alford to act casual and give them no hint. Just listen. Just take notes. Just act like any dumb Saratoga sailor. Check that card of how things were supposed to be, compare that with the incredible things he had seen here, and just be “everywhere you weren’t supposed to be.”

 

Deep in the engine room of the aircraft carrier Saratoga, in the summer of 1981, Alford played his game of espionage . . . with his own countrymen! He shouldn’t have to do this – but the civilians had no pride! He saw them, welders from the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, civilians who didn’t really give a good care, to tell you the truth, just butchering his ship. He had the card in his back pocket, about how you were supposed to do it, this welding in the boiler room. At sea, it would take 20 years to straighten things out if these

knuckle-dragging oafs botched it now.

 

Lord knows Alford got no support on this from his own chief engineer. But there would come a time when these civilians who were almost like traitors the way they botched up and then covered up . . . oh yes, there would come a time when these boo-birds from Philadelphia got theirs.

 

Oh, and they would, too. In the end – or what everyone thought was the end, there in the summer of 1983 – Alford and his boss and friend, Chief Boiler Technician William R. Goodyear, would push the bureaucratic equivalent of the trim tab, the little rudder on the huge immobile rudder of a gargantuan ship that turns first and, in so turning, channels the flow of water so that the immobile rudder moves and turns itself. An ounce of pressure on the trim tab turns 10 tons of ship.

 

And yes, well, the trim tab was stuck at first on this particular military-political-bureaucratic ship of state, certainly; but in the end, the little guys would win out, would turn the trim tab, and the trim tab would turn the rudder and the huge ship of state would turn around and fix what was wrong on board the USS Saratoga, just as any right-fitting, tight-fitting fighting ship should be fixed up.

 

But the trim tab would turn the ship of state too so that its wake engulfed and swamped the hardhats of the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, politically drowned them like rats, leaving only a distasteful image, tattered and tarnished, of the Philadelphia Worker, Mr. Northeast Smokestack 1983, this dark and grubby slob who dragged his knuckles on the ground and pitched his hoagie roll one way, the cellophane wrapping another way and his beer can straight up in the air, to plop down among the delicate and sensitive ganglia of the Saratoga.

 

And that’s not all – for the same engulfing wave would threaten to swamp the Philadelphia area’s congressional delegation, too. After all, what good was it for the politicians of the Philadelphia region . . . what good was it for these cogs in the sputtering Philadelphia economic-societal machine to actually come through, to not just do well, but to turn about and do good, to perform brilliantly on Capitol Hill, to actually rewrite pork barrel history, as they had in 1979?

 

They had turned a political tide themselves by grabbing off this huge aircraft carrier contract for the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. The Saratoga was going to Newport News, Va. – until the Philadelphia-area politicians met the Sun Belt boys who wanted it bad and always got the military contracts they wanted. Until they had taken on these Johnny Reb political admirals in an open fight on the floor of the Senate and had outflanked, outfought, outsmarted and outright defeated them, to save the Philadelphia region’s largest remaining single-site smokestack industry!

 

That is just what had happened back in 1979, when the Saratoga budget came up in the Senate. But what good was any of that if down deep at the workers’ level there were these knuckle-calloused primates who dumped their garbage down the superheater tubes of the Saratoga and welded hoagie crumbs into the boilers?

 

This was reverse Abscam, reverse Watergate, reverse Rocky. These guys had a chance to keep the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard going. Eleven thousand workers. Had a chance to revive a piece – a right good size chunk – of the local economy. The $450 million contract, if diverted to buildings, had the sort of capital muscle that could remake Philadelphia’s skyline. The Saratoga money alone could build five or six Franklin Plaza Hotel-SmithKline buildings. All the carriers that could come to Philadelphia would make Bill Rouse’s taller- than-William-Penn office complex a blip on the region’s economic health chart.

 

The Philadelphia Worker had only to do a passable job. And what had happened? He did exactly what the Johnny Reb politicians warned would happen!

 

Oh. And then there is the even bigger picture to be zoomed up. Summer of 1983. Lebanon is exploding. Nicaragua has imploded. The Iranians and the Iraqis are frothing at each other. The Strait of Hormuz threatens to be bent out of shape. High Command counts up carriers, divides them by trouble spots – and there are not enough big ships to go around. The carrier Ranger is sent to Central America, and then the Vinson, too, and there are no carriers off the Persian Gulf for the first time in anyone’s memory, in an area that is as volatile as the 22 percent of the Free World’s oil it supplies. And in the clutch, now, the brass looks to the Saratoga, a “major combatant” as they would put it, to see exactly how soon it can show the flag.

 

“We want a carrier – fast” is the way one folk tale at the shipyard goes.

 

“Sorry. You can’t have it,” comes the reply from the shipyard to the High Command.

 

“Why not?” says High Command.

 

“It’s broke.”

 

Ultimate Philadelphia story. “Philadelphia isn’t as bad as Philadelphians say it is” was the old slogan. Then along come the Philadelphia boo-birds to prove: “No. It’s much worse.”

 

Or so it seemed. Or so the Alford version of it seemed, and so was the public perception in the dark days of the summer of 1983, when the aircraft carrier Saratoga, after two years and nearly half a billion dollars’ worth of work at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard was . . . recalled . . . like some defective piece of Detroit-made junk.

 

  1. WHAT QUINN DISCOVERED

 

AUTUMN 1981

 

BUCKY QUINN SQUINTED AGAIN. HE knew something was wrong somewhere. The superheater tubes were still leaking.

 

Deep in the boiler room of the Saratoga, the metal opening looked to be polished bright. Quinn could see himself in its reflection, the curvature bending his face and bulging his lips like a funhouse mirror. He rubbed a finger along the opening in the header, the huge metal frame that held the tubes in place in the aircraft carrier’s boiler. It felt perfectly clean and smooth. How could there be a contaminant here?

 

But something was wrong somewhere. When a leak was fixed, other leaks would pop up in some other part of the superheater tubes. It didn’t make sense. Baffled, the shipyard’s welders and boilermakers, civilians working under Quinn, had even named the phenomenon. The Phantom, they called it.

 

Well, Quinn would try the welder’s trick on this one – the trick old Sol Rubell, his mentor, had passed on to him 10 years ago. He reached for his penlight and the handkerchief in his back pocket.

 

It was September 1981. The Saratoga had arrived almost a year before for SLEP, the Service Life Extension Program that would make new vessels of a whole class of old steam-powered ships that were wheezing their last. SLEP would rip them stern to stem, take every exterior surface down to bare metal,

gut out all old wires and then install Star Wars electronics, radar-guided Gatling guns, extend the decks, devise new sophisticated weapons magazine systems, zap up the old launching catapults and . . . oh yes, put in new boiler systems.

 

The boilers, with their superheater tubes, were an integral part of the Saratoga propulsion system. Steam passing through the tubes would be heated to such a temperature under pressure that the accumulated energy zapped the turbines that powered the big carrier in a hyper, more powerful way than normal, non-super steam. Imagine a mild breeze wafting through a pinwheel and you have an idea of what normal steam does to turbines. Now picture the pinwheel being spun about fiercely by a direct stream of compressed air – that’s superheating.

 

In such a manner would the eight boilers in four main machinery rooms power the Saratoga, this three-football-field-long, four-acre floating, fighting parking lot, at speeds up to 30 knots, while still providing enough power to catapult a 70,000-pound plane from 0 to 150 m.p.h. in 2.9 seconds (or throw a Cadillac through mid-air for a mile, if that’s how you like your stats sliced), while still providing enough power and water for a city of 5,000 people.

 

That’s what Quinn and his men had to provide. But as important as the superheater tubes were, there was a sense in which they were nearly taken for granted. After all, welders had been installing them for decades, using the old, hand-held arc-welding method. In those days, welders had to heat the whole header to 400 degrees, and in some cases lie flat on their backs and reach through a 10-inch-diameter hole in the hot metal with one hand clasping an arc welder, then reach through another small hole with their other hand holding a dental-like mirror so they could see the weld . . .

 

But now the vital boiler system depended largely on the new, slick welding robotic process they were using on the Saratoga. Mate a household quarter-inch drill with an Uzi submachine gun: The ugly offspring would look like the business end of the Astro-Arc robotic welding device.

 

The new process applied decades-old technology in a new way. Bucky Quinn was old-line, in his 50s, grew up in the shadow of the Shibe Park stadium before it became Connie Mack. Structural superintendent by rank, GM-15 by civil service pay scale – high as you could go as a yard civilian. Welder by trade, in charge of both the boilermakers who polished and inserted the tubes into the headers and the welders who then Astro-Arced the tubes in.

 

He was old-line, but the savings from the Astro-Arc welder were not to be argued with. No massive pre-heating of the header. Just insert into tube; pull trigger; wait; inspect; go onto the next tube. Beep, beep, beeep, zzzappp, zzzzapp. In its plodding, faithful robot way, old Astro-Arc would tick off a 60-second weld cycle that would fuse the tube and the header that held it in place in a baby’s-bum-smooth weld. Using the old manual method, skilled welders could do, say, seven tubes in three hours. In Astro-Arc tests, an inexperienced welder did 21 tubes in the same amount of time.

 

Moreover, the device – Project B1047 – had been pioneered in Philadelphia, with Quinn’s help and cooperation. Astro-Arc had been used before at the shipyard on smaller vessels, on several destroyers. Quinn had even presented a technical paper on the process – “Pulsed Arc Welding of Boiler Tubes” – at a welding trade workshop at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard.

 

IN THE HUGE ENGINE ROOM OF THE CARRIer, Quinn’s men were scattered about him at various heights on the wood planking, here one at chest level, there one eight feet below him, another just popping out of a barely-man-sized hole in the boiler. First, the movement of a hand, then the arm, then the head and shoulders, then the whole man’s body up to the hips wiggled through like a woman trying to get out of her girdle.

 

They were like little men small enough to pop in and out of the engine’s valves and chambers, like shrunken mechanics dispatched to explore the V-8 of an old car. Well, they were doing the job. They were good workers. Workers? They were artisans. If you were a worker, you slapped in the tube and that was that. If you were an artisan, you had the wisdom and the experience and the caring to go one step further.

 

Or, you knew the welder’s trick. In the guts of the Saratoga, where the cold rolled down from above like dry ice from a playhouse stage, Quinn took out his handkerchief and his penlight flashlight. He showed the light on the header opening directly. Clean as a whistle. Then he wrapped the flashlight in one fold of the handkerchief. He shined it on the opening again, and turned the light as slowly as a diamond inspector.

 

The handkerchief sent diffused rays of light starring out from the handkerchief like rays of sun through a stained glass cathedral window, and Quinn saw what no one else had. Little relief-map canyons and hills – whole islands of crud – popped up from the header.

 

The opening was coated with mill scale – an unwanted product created when the huge headers were “stress-relieved,” baked until they were mooshy at 1,300 degrees to give the header the proper metallurgical properties, so that it would not bend and break under the heat cycles of a steam boiler.

 

The scale – formed when the metal combined with oxygen under heat – was to have been rubbed and polished off so that the bare, clean metal of the tubes met the bare, clean metal of the header. The boys in Boilermakers Shop 41 had polished the headers, all right, but this mill scale was particularly persistent, and, unknowingly, they had polished not down to bare, clean metal as the specs had called for. No, they had polished the persistant mill scale, had polished the mill scale so bright that the scale looked like shiny metal.

 

Well, Quinn knew that was a problem. He could see it well enough now with his flashlight-in-hankie trick. He had caught it, but his catch was late. Of the 2,048 superheater tubes, 1,334 already had been installed when Quinn discovered the oxide. The pipes had been “rolled” into the headers, stretched by mechanical expanders so that the top part of the tubes was jammed into the header, making a sandwich of tube, oxide and header.

 

And then when the Astro-Arc welder had hit the oxide contaminant, the pinhead leaks occurred. Or so they thought.

 

ON ANY SUPERHEATER TUBE JOB, the welders and boilermakers knew, you always had flaws. You always had leaks. And always, you fixed your way out, as you had on every other ship you’d ever worked on. You re-welded until you stopped the leaks.

 

But for some reason, it just wasn’t working out that way on the Saratoga. They would fix one leak and then hydrostatically test it – rig the pipes up to a hydrostatic testing device that would force water through the tubes at pressures above those of the actual steam in the pipes. The suspect weld would hold. It was fixed. But 10 tubes over a perfectly good weld was now leaking.

 

It was as if some force were teasing them. The Phantom, the men said. And in November 1981, the Phantom began his mischievous romping in earnest when the men began hydrostatically testing Boiler 1A. Four leaking tubes popped up. So the men re-welded joints 35a, 13b, 4a and 5a. Some of those welds were fine. But the men found a new leaker at 25a. It would be re-welded, it would pass a hydro test. Then they tested again and found 4c and 4d leaking, and, far removed from those leakers, 10c, 13b, 20c, 20a and 40d leaked, too!

 

Quinn knew how to find polished oxides where none seemed to exist. And he knew, too, how to handle the ship’s force, the blue-suiters like Boilermate Mark H. Alford who were always running around trying to play “gotcha.” There were always splits between the uniformed boys and the civilians. It was natural: The yard was industrial, the ship’s force was operational. And the ”snipes” like Alford, the ship’s operating engineers who worked far below deck, just hated to see their vessel torn apart.

 

A lot of the ship’s force were strange kids, guys from landlocked states in the South or the Midwest, and a lot of them would stop their car for you if you even hinted you were about to step off the curb at mid-block. (God help them in Philadelphia if they ever stepped off the curb at Broad and Vine.) And a lot of them, despite the cultural offerings of an international city, with New York nearby if Philadelphia was too low-key for them . . . these guys tooled their ’69 Camaros and old Dodge Chargers over to New Jersey to the Silver Saddle Saloon to hear country & western music.

 

Yes, Quinn knew how to find polished oxides, and he knew how to deal with these military characters. He knew how to make a bad weld good, knew how to fix his way out of a leaky boiler. But Quinn did not know – nor did anyone at any level of the yard at that time know – exactly how to deal with this blasted Phantom.

 

III. TRACKING THE PHANTOM

 

DECEMBER 1981 TO FEBRUARY 1983

 

CAPT. THOMAS U. SEIGENTHALER, commander of the Philadelphia shipyard, had a genuinely warm and wonderful smile that could cut short the worst bureaucratic nastiness, a smile that spread good will and fellowship through a conference room as it spread over his face with a message that said, “Hey, we’re all in this together.”

 

More important, Seigenthaler was just what Philadelphia politicians and the Chamber of Commerce boys had been looking for: a real comer, a man who could get a star. They figured that Seigenthaler, young and aggressive, could take the SLEP project, bring it in on time and on budget, and in consequence make commodore, maybe even admiral someday. No one had gotten a star in Philadelphia for decades.

 

And in December 1981, after just five months on the job, the new commander seemed to have things shaping up. As he saw it, the Saratoga project faced three problems. First, the ship’s big steam turbines were late coming back

from the manufacturer’s shop. Then there were two major engineering challenges: the Integrated Weapons Handling System, the new design elevators that brought weapons to the deck for the planes; and the new catapult systems, aligned by lasers, that launched the jets.

 

Those were problems of delays or technology, something firm and touchable, not at all like the Phantom, this will o’ the wisp who, in the winter of 1981 and then in 1982, was romping through the boiler rooms of the Saratoga, playing the superheater tubes as if they were an off-tune marimba, harassing the welders, driving them mad, with the randomness of the leaks.

 

The Phantom had cut loose with a real belly-buster of laughter late in 1981. There were 59 leakers in Boiler 1A! The conclusion by all concerned was that the welds had been contaminated – contained those hidden oxides – and that re-welding and stricter cleanliness and tube polishing would allow them to fix their way out.

 

It had better work, after all. The April 1982 deadline for the LOE – the Light Off Examination – was beginning to crunch the pink hats and the brown hats, the civilian boilermakers and welders. The Light Off Examination, in which the boilers would be lighted, was crucial because only with the boilers working and the ship’s power up could the really tricky parts of the ship – the elevators and catapults – be tested.

 

Alford, the lowly snipe, was not the only man in a Navy uniform who was concerned. In addition, Jim Classick, one of the technical specialists at the yard, had analyzed the problem as cleanliness on Sept. 24, 1981. And Capt. John Ulrich, the assistant repair officer for SLEP, was so edgy about the leaking superheater tubes that he had brought in outside experts – Starr Associates, a welding consulting firm in Camden, N.J.

 

Later, Navy officers would swear they had not seen the Starr report – because it contained “eyebangers” they could not have missed. Some workers, the report said, were grinding out the leaking Astro-Arc welds and attempting to re-weld them with traditional welding methods. Can’t be done, said Starr. In addition, boilermakers weren’t trained well in the fitting of the pipes. Plus, the headers were stress-relieved in ovens but in a manner that deposited heavy scale formations on their surfaces: the hidden mill scale.

 

Many of the tubes were improperly rolled into the headers, so that only slight contact held them in place. And when welders complained that they were given poor-quality joints to weld, they supposedly were told: “Weld it anyway since we are a service shop and are here to complete the job given to you. Production is King.”

 

Eyebangers, indeed. Headbangers to Bucky Quinn. Thanks for telling us what we already knew, and too late to do anything about it. Quinn knew the problem. And here these guys were telling him to go by the book when he had written it, and in a project for which the book was being rewritten faster than anyone could read it.

 

But there were other problems, remembered later by supervisors and officers, that reflected directly on the Philadelphia Smokestack Worker. Capt. George Fink, the SLEP production officer at the shipyard, recalled that he had had trouble with these headstrong Philadelphians. When cleanliness was an issue, he had warned Tommy Spilker, the production superintendent of Boilermakers Shop 41 who worked under Quinn, that the tubes must be kept clean. Spilker told him that they were being very careful, that the tube ends were polished, and then bagged, to make sure they stayed clean.

 

So here comes Fink, up on the hangar deck of the carrier, and he spies this roll of tubes and the plastic is torn, and on the tubes is a thin coating of oxide. Right after Fink has just asked Spilker nicely to be super careful on cleanliness.

 

Then there was Quinn himself, Spilker’s boss. Fink walks around the Saratoga some more. He finds this welding rod – 7018, it’s called – lying around. Some 6010 stuff is lying around, too. Cans of rods are sitting in the open – not protected in ovens as they should be. And Fink goes off “high order” to Quinn.

 

And Quinn is hurt. “Hey, look,” Quinn says to Fink, pleading for understanding. “I was a welder. I can give you a water-clear joint with a soaking wet 7018 rod.”

 

And Fink just shakes his head. “Buck, you don’t understand. We don’t have control of the process. And you might be able to make a water-clear joint with 7018 that is soaking wet, but, no, averages, a welder can’t do that, and you’re going to control rod.”

 

That is how the officers remembered it. But at the time, those concerns did not translate into official action, memos, notations, complaints. Everyone seemed in agreement. Dirtiness had gotten them into the fix; cleanliness would get them out.

 

Anyway, they could not start again, jerk all the tubes and start from scratch. They had considered it, but new headers were not available. So they buckled down in February 1982 and began fixing their way out. Again. First 30, then 20 leakers, then 18, then 16, then . . .

 

Finally, in April 1982, it looked as if they had fixed their way out just as that crucial LOE – the Light Off Examination – was approaching. On April 7, the boilers in one and two main machinery spaces hydro’ed out OK. Even the cantankerous boilers in 4A and 4B checked out. They closed up the boiler systems, and the LOE was passed on April 26 for boilers 1A and 1B, then later for the other boilers.

 

So far as the yard commander, Capt. Seigenthaler, was concerned, the yard was taking care of it. The hydroes were OK and the real test of the boilers would be the operational, at-sea examinations. In the coming months, as it turned out, leaks did develop again. But even then it was thought that they could be taken care of by the Tiger Teams – the mobile, at-sea repair crews.

 

Finally, the Saratoga SLEP came to an end. The ship left Philadelphia for good on Feb. 2, 1983, for its last official sea trials. (It would sail on to Mayport, Fla., its home base, and a new crew would be trained; active duty was to begin in April 1984.)

 

At the send-off, hundreds of sailors lined the deck. Some held a sign, ”Goodbye Silver Saddle Saloon.” Others sailed their hats toward a restraining rope that held back young, pretty Philadelphia women who had gotten to know these Saratogans. Boilermate Mark H. Alford was getting married soon. To a Philadelphian.

 

Seigenthaler was there with his family, wearing a Buddha smile of contentment. It was the first SLEP ship completed. On time. On budget. Seigenthaler’s wife clasped his arm as their small child toddled alongside. He was still Captain Seigenthaler, but in a few short months he would be promoted to Commodore Seigenthaler. He would get that star.

 

And now the Forrestal, the second great carrier to undergo SLEP, was already being ripped apart in the Philadelphia yard. A third contract was a cinch . . . so long as the Phantom stayed buttoned up inside the Saratoga boilers, that is.

 

In truth, the Phantom had never been found at all. It had been buttoned up for a time, but it had not been banished.

 

  1. THE TRIM TAB

 

JANUARY TO JUNE 1983

 

SENIOR CHIEF BOILER TECHNIcian William R. Goodyear was on a jungle gym set in the dark, crawling around inside the Saratoga boilers, down in Mayport, Fla., in March 1983. Yes, Alford’s friend and boss, Mr. Goodyear, was back

from another assignment, and the bottom line was that an operational man like Goodyear was decidedly not snowed by all these assurances from the industrial shipyard folks.

 

Alford had been writing him, for one thing, and now the man in charge of boiler repair was there to “see how bad it was.” Goodyear had returned to the Saratoga before it left Philadelphia for the final sea trials. It looked bad then. Even without steaming it looked bad. Even without entering the boilers, just on paper, it looked bad. While still in the yard, Goodyear had climbed around this big jungle gym with a flashlight and, Christ, there were Phantom footprints all over. He told the chief engineer about the problems, and the chief responded patiently, as he had before to Boilermate Alford: “We have a 14-month guarantee from the shipyard; they’ll make it good.”

 

Then they steamed out of Philadelphia, left the yard for good, and the trip had exceeded every snipe’s nightmare. One weld failed in boiler 1A, seven failed in 1B; six failed in 2A; nine failed in 4B; 19 failed in 4A, and 29 failed in boiler 2B, where they only had six failures before!

 

Goodyear had found 10, maybe 11 tubes plugged by the shipyard and thus made unusable. Goodyear went to the manual. It was legal. But two or three more plugs and the ship would be maxxed out – would exceed the maximum number of superheater tubes allowed to be plugged.

 

Now, in Mayport, the tiny little trim tab was about to turn. One ounce of

pressure on the trim tab turns the gargantuan ship. And Goodyear began pushing that trim tab harder and harder until it . . . finally . . . swung over. And then not even the chief engineer could keep saying, “The shipyard promised . . .”

 

Goodyear plugged five more tubes, and the Saratoga maxxed out. The report by the Navy Board of Inspection and Survey was clear: “Due to the extremely large number of superheater tubes which are plugged or have required rework . . . the board has no confidence in the reliability of superheater tube welds in any of the eight boilers and considers it MANDATORY that they ALL be replaced prior to ship deployment.”

 

ON JUNE 26, 1983, A DElegation of military and civilian brass from the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard met briefly in the lounge of the Jacksonville, Fla., airport. Seigenthaler, a commodore for little more than a month now, was briefed on the story to date.

 

Then they went to the officers’ mess on board the Saratoga and sat down with the Navy’s technical experts. The rolling was wrong. All the technical experts said so. The tubes should have been rolled tighter, so that the roll, not the weld, held the tubes in place. The weld could not hold the tubes in place, and that is why they were cracking.

 

A few minutes later, Capt. Leonard G. Perry of the Saratoga, back ramrod- military-straight, ready to go to the wall with anyone on this now, walked into the room. Seigenthaler had always told Perry: “The ship comes first.”

 

So now, the technical boys had found the Phantom. So now, what did Commodore Thomas U. Seigenthaler and the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard plan to do? Seigenthaler didn’t bat an eye. The Saratoga was owed eight new boilers. Period. The yard delivered. It would put in new headers, new tubes – the old way, with hand-held stick welding.

 

TOMMY SPILKER, WHO had been the boilermakers’ production superintendent, wasn’t seriously worried when, working in Mayport, he got a call to come back to Philadelphia. The Judge Advocate General’s office was conducting an investigation and wanted to interview him. They called them JAGs. Run by Jagmen.

 

The stakes had escalated. Why? The folk tales say High Command got mad. (“We need a carrier, fast,” says High Command. “You can’t have it,” says the shipyard. “Why not?” “It’s broke.”) All the Philadelphia boys got engulfed and swamped in the JAGs. All of them were censured in one way or another.

 

Seigenthaler was called before an admiral’s mast. It was a reaming for a bright young man with a good shot at admiral. He never alibied. The JAG transcripts show he took responsibility. With a smile. “He is an old- fashioned officer,” said a colleague. “He more or less saw the s- rolling downhill, and rather than run, he turned and faced it.”

 

But he was still in his job. And Fink was still in his new job, having been transferred to commander of the Long Beach Naval Shipyard. But while Spilker and Quinn were still employed by the Philadelphia yard, they were removed from their production jobs. Fish out of water. Artisans barred from their craft.

 

And throughout it all, the Phantom laughed and laughed. Water trickled down

from the superheater tubes, the Phantom laughed so hard. Now they were fixing him out of business, ship’s force and Philadelphia civilians re-welding new superheater tubes the old-fashioned way in Mayport.

 

True, true, he was beaten. But the reason they had given. Rolled improperly. Hah! That was a rich one. Imagine that. They thought the tubes were rolled improperly. They thought that was the reason.

 

  1. SPECTER’S GAMBIT

 

AUTUMN 1983

 

SEN. ARLEN SPECter smiled politely at the radio reporter and said, “Keep your hand down, please.” Specter and Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey had toured the Forrestal on Oct. 11, 1983, the latest ship to enter the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, and though they had been on board only 20 minutes they were telling a gaggle of reporters that yes, yes, the work was going fine, and the Saratoga scandal was now something to put behind them.

 

Only when Bradley talked, the radio reporters had to reach up and over to get their microphones in front of him, up and over Specter’s face while the television cameras were churning, recording Bradley’s words of wisdom, Bradley standing next to this headless person who ducked and bobbed and

weaved, trying to get his mug on the tube. Television is political money, and Specter was at the bank window.

 

“Keep your hand down, please,” he had said with a baby-kissing smile, and the reporter dropped it, only to bob his arm back up reflexively when Bradley’s mouth opened again. Specter’s face darkened. The eyes narrowed. He grabbed the reporter’s arm and held it down. Then, without missing a beat, Specter turned to the cameras, smiling, to tell how he and Bradley were fighting for the Forrestal and all other carriers and the very survival of the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard.

 

It was damned tough fighting, though, when you thought about it. Two senators inspecting the Forrestal for 20 minutes impressed practically nobody. They could sure use some help in this War of the Carriers, Part Two. Navy Secretary John Lehman had said the yard could lose future carrier contracts if it fouled up on the Forrestal as it had on the Saratoga. The Independence was due in around 1985. And the Kitty Hawk class of carriers was due in around 1987 through the rest of the century.

 

And some help was on the way. Bucky Quinn and Tommy Spilker had run tests in the spring of 1983 which seemed to show that the Astro-Arc process caused stellite hardness in the welds. That was fine if you were making, say,

surgical instruments, but it was absolute death in a boiler, where rising and falling temperatures require of the metal a kind of metallurgical give and take to keep it from cracking.

 

None of the technical boys placed much credence in this theory, though – until an Oct. 19, 1983, memo began making the rounds. The memo discussed a metallurgical study done by an expert from the Navy’s Pearl Harbor Yard with no conflict of interest in all of this.

 

Rolling? No way that I can see, metallurgist R. W. Helliwell said. There would have been circumferential cracking in the welds, and there weren’t many circumferential cracks. “Light rolling of the tubes in the headers was not a cause of the deficiencies found in the CV-60 superheater headers.”

 

Dirt? The equivalent of hoagie crumbs? “Based on the available evidence, the unclean welding conditions reported as existing . . . were not the source of . . . impurities and did not cause the observed cracking.”

 

So what did? Well, it seems that the Astro-Arc pre-heat cycle didn’t quite do the job, the metallurgist said. That swipe of the pre-heat cycle did not quite get rid of the normal condensed moisture on the joints, so water was present when the robotic device made its second, welding pass. The water decomposed and formed hydrogen, which made the weld much, much more brittle than it should have been. “The proximate cause of the failure was hydrogen embrittlement . . . the ultimate cause of the superheater cracking is inadequate pre-heating associated with use of the Astro-Arc process.”

 

There you had it . . . very hard brittle metal in the weld that would crack with thermal cycling.

 

Spilker saw that Pearl Harbor memo and waited for the call to come that would tell him he had his old job back. It never came.

 

Alford and Goodyear had turned the trim tab, and the trim tab had turned the rudder, and the rudder had turned the big ship in one direction: The Navy’s investigation had concluded that the roll was the problem, that cleanliness was the problem. But no one, after the Pearl Harbor memo appeared, had turned the ship back away from that course – a course that could ram the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard.

 

MOST MEMBERS OF THE Philadelphia-area delegation favored trying to ease the trim tab back gently, but Arlen Specter saw the Pearl Harbor report as a sledgehammer to be swung at it. So here was Specter appearing before a House Armed Services subcommittee, sitting down alongside Vice Adm. Earl Fowler, the head of all Navy shipyard operations, chewing out Fowler for Washington’s original approval of the Astro-Arc process.

 

Fowler bristled. There was indisputable proof, sir, that the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard had done poor work. Even if the metallurgy was the problem, Fowler said, there was enough evidence to show that poor supervision did exist. The Pearl Harbor report did not tell the whole story, he said. On his desk, he had a Saratoga weld cut out of the header. Inside, clear as could be, was a pinhole caused, he said, by a contaminant.

 

So did Specter’s gambit help Philadelphia’s cause? Did any of it help? Quinn and Spilker had set out to nail the Phantom. And they had missed. The Jagmen had set out to nail the men who missed the Phantom. And they missed. Now Specter was trying to nail the men who missed nailing the men who missed nailing the Phantom. And now Specter had missed.

 

QUIETLY, OUTSIDE THE limelight, Vice Adm. Fowler stepped off that merry-go- round. His official position remained unchanged. The yard seemed ”mesmerized” by the fact that it had done Astro-Arc before on destroyers,

Fowler said. (Astro-Arc worked on the destroyers, according to one theory,

because the pre-heat cycle was adequate for their smaller boiler headers.) The ”psychology of the moment,” Fowler said, was to hurry up and finish.

 

But unofficially, his rudder seemed to be swinging. The Navy had stated at one time that the “fatal flaw” was improper rolling. In a January 1984 memo, Fowler says the cause of failure has not been directly determined, but the likely cause is listed as:

 

“Defects in Astro-Arc weld” caused by lack of fusion, penetration, porosity or slag, which means, essentially, inadequate pre-heating. And down below in this memo there is another heading, potential cause, that says, ”lack of control Astro-Arc process,” followed by “contaminants.” The supposed fatal flaw of rolling is confined to a note even farther down in the memo.

 

The Astro-Arc process is not being used on the Forrestal. It is not scheduled for other aircraft carrier work in the near future, and Fowler notes: “Until better understanding of thermal transitions, must consider A/A pre-heat insufficient in cold weather climates. . . . The process transitioned incremently from a labor procedure to an evaluation on a few ships to a full production use in Saratoga. This occurred without a full thorough technical assessment and evaluation . . . .”

 

  1. SARATOGA PRIDE

 

SPRING 1984

 

SLAM! AN F-14 Tomcat has dropped onto the deck, hook dragging behind it like a dragon fly’s behind. Slam! The plane has hooked the cables stretched across the deck to catch it, insane jet whine screeching, tearing the night 100 miles off Florida, on board the Saratoga, all fixed and at sea in March 1984.

 

The airplanes hang there above the flight deck – looking more like breakaway Mattel toys than airplanes – and then . . . fall somehow. Slam! Down on the deck of the aircraft carrier, like skidding kites.

 

“Wave off! Wave off! Power! Power, power, power, power!” shouts Paddles, nickname of the man who brings the jets in, to an F-14 jet pilot. This Tomcat’s landing hook is down but not catching. The pilot guns the plane for all it has, for now he must take off again. Whooooooshhhhhhhh! The plane hangs for a second, like a kite caught in a crosswind, the hook hopping along the deck of the carrier, scratching up sparks in a three-foot furrow, afterburner glowing cherry red in the dark night . . . then howwwwllllinggg off with an enraged vengeance.

 

“Uh, what’s bingo on 123?” Air Boss, the nickname of the man in the tower, asks of the plane that has just departed. Bingo is the computation of fuel, flight time and distance to the shore field that says when a pilot, having missed too many landings at sea, can be dispatched safely to shore. It is upsetting to proud pilots, who equate bingo-to-the-beach with failure. But it is a cushion for the carrier, a check on pride: the point at which the pilot will either pass the test of landing or go back to shore to start again, with a minimum of risk in a high-risk game.

 

“One more pass for 123 and then bingo him to the beach,” says Air Boss.

 

New Life, New Spirit is the Saratoga’s motto now. And the carrier emanates pride like fresh toast radiates warmth. The problem of the superheater tubes slammed the crew face down on the deck when it happened, but the bounce back was one of those sweet miracles. The training was compressed, with the snipes down below welding like crazy, yard personnel from Philadelphia working there, too.

 

For the first time in its history, the Saratoga passed the Operational Propulsion Plant Examination on its first trial – a rarity for any carrier. On another day in March, the ship claimed a record 321 landings in a 24-hour period – just to see what this born-again ship could do. And the Navy has another way of measuring morale: Marijuana usage kicks in at about 15 percent on most carriers; 485 recent, random urine samples on the Saratoga showed zero THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.

 

Mr. Goodyear still prowls the boilers, happy now with the new tubes, though his friend Alford is gone, out of the Navy, living in northern Florida with his Philadelphia wife and shooting ‘gators in the swamp. Both men were praised by the Navy for their persistence “even in the face of apparent indifference.” Goodyear got commended; Alford got the Navy Achievement Medal.

 

The ship was out on time in April 1984, deployed to the Mediterranean. All the welding repairs cost $18 million, a piddling overrun in Navy terms that did not keep officials from declaring the Saratoga SLEP an overwhelming success. But that doesn’t mean there are no complaints on board. Candid opinions about the yard seem critical, sometimes hostile. Some paint is peeling. Some pipes are loose. Cut it anyway you want, this slob stereotype of a yard worker pops up.

 

“You want the truth?” says one officer. “I think the taxpayers got ripped off.” From the rear of the crowded room comes a voice, “F- them, they f-ed us.”

 

The final judgment on what precisely went wrong with the Saratoga work will be made as the result of a Navy study due in September. Meanwhile, Philadelphia is assured of the Independence carrier contract. The Kitty Hawk contracts are still pending, though Fowler has suggested that Philadelphia receive them.

 

THE FINAL POINT FOWLER wants to make is that human beings, not robots, were to blame for not saying at some point that this problem of the bad welds “is of extraordinary concern.” No one checked the Astro-Arc progress, the allowed time, the problems, computed them and said, Air Boss-style:

 

“Uh, Astro-Arc is bingoed to the beach.”

 

It is tough to argue how understandable it was that the problem didn’t get caught. The ship was screwed up. All told, 403 of the 2,048 tubes failed while the ship was in the yards and an additional 100 failed after the June 1983 trials. It is tougher still to argue that recognition of the problem, and its correction, belonged solely to Washington. “Any way you cut it, it was a Philadelphia responsibility,” a Philadelphia officer says glumly.

 

But if Bucky Quinn and Tommy Spilker are held as the chief culprits – and they seem to have taken the toughest fall – where was their fatal flaw? The investigations, the editorials, the word on the street all point to sloppiness and carelessness. But listen to Capt. Ulrich, SLEP’s assistant repair officer:

 

“It was always difficult for me during my five years there and difficult for everybody who dealt with Bucky, to get him to admit that there was a problem. Bucky is a very strong individual. . . . We, Philadelphia, had done it on several previous ships . . . he was the expert. . . . As I look back on it, I think it was . . . Bucky . . . not wanting either the blue-suiters or outside people to tell him how to run his business. . . .’

 

That seems the worst-case scenario of what the Philadelphia Smokestack Worker did wrong. The problem was not sloppiness. Not sloth. Not hoagie crumbs in the weld. Not cover-up. Here’s Sam J. Gagliano, second in commmand on SLEP, looking back:

 

“Buck and Tom (Spilker) would be around at all hours of the day and night. But what they brought to the job was not a cavalier not-caring, but rather a belief that what they were doing was professionally adequate and perfectly correct. And they’re strong indviduals, so they were outspoken about that: ‘I’m doing the right thing.’ ”

 

Pride. Stellite hard pride was the worst that could be said of them. The pride of the shipyard helped create the Phantom, the pride helped hide it . . . and then the pride helped nail it, before and almost in spite of the technical boys.

 

It was pride, stellite pride, that kept the yard alive; pride, brittle pride, that nearly killed it; and pride, tempered pride, the more flexible type, that may still save it.

 

 

All content © 1984 PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER

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