Mar 20, 2014
NAVAL AIR WARFARE CENTER WEAPONS DIVISION, CHINA LAKE, Calif. - After 31 years working with the Navy, NAWCWD's Elsa Hennings recently earned her sea legs on USS San Diego (LPD 22) while supporting a NASA test.
Hennings is a senior systems engineer in NAWCWD’s Escape, Parachute and Crashworthy Division who serves as a parachute consultant for NASA. This particular mission in February was to practice the recovery of NASA’s Orion space capsule and parachutes. Hennings is also a member of the aerial photography and videography team that practiced shooting from 6,000 feet in a helicopter, pointing a lens up toward the sky, to find the capsule plummeting to earth.
“This was my first opportunity to go out on a Navy vessel,” Hennings said. “It was amazing. It’s very eye-opening to see how our fleet works and see constraints Sailors have living and working on a ship. It is very fast paced but the teams were very cohesive and knew what they were doing.”
Hennings said she was impressed with the professionalism of the ship’s crew during this unique mission.
“NASA has not recovered a space capsule since the Apollo days,” Hennings said. “This is a new process; there was a lot of trial and error as we went along. The crew was very helpful in assisting us with changes.”
USS San Diego is an amphibious transport dock ship homeported at Naval Base San Diego.
“It was encouraging to see these young Sailors and how they were on top of things,” Hennings said. “They are my kid’s age and to see how well they all worked as a team was amazing. For many of these men and women, this was one of their first missions.”
Hennings wasn’t sure what to expect when it came to sleeping, eating and living in quarters on the ship.
“The sleeping part was fantastic because the sea state we were in was low and it caused a gentle rocking,” she said. “As soon as I hit my rack I was [asleep.] There were only a few females on this particular mission, so the four of us shared a six person room. We had plenty of space. It’s not what you expect in a hotel, but you have to understand that this is a working ship and this is how our Sailors live day-in-day-out when at sea. My hat is off to them. They get used to living in close quarters to support the mission.”
This was the first sea voyage for many of Henning’s team members as well. The ship’s captain ensured the crew was accommodating and assisted them in with everything they needed.
“When we first boarded ship, the captain told us that we might get sea sick and the best way to prevent that is by keeping a full stomach. The food was great. My appetite was very good. I figured out why [Sailors] are hungry all the time. Going from one end of the ship to the other, you go up and down many ladders. You definitely work off the calories that you consume.”
When first arriving on ship, members of the team went to a training course on how to find their way around based on the “bulls-eyes” that are all over the ship.
“Getting around is interesting” she said. “There is no straight across and you get an amazing amount of exercise every day just living and working on board ship. It is very logical once they teach it to you. But it never hurts to ask somebody if you’re lost.”
“Everyone was very helpful, especially when we had to come up with solutions to problems that arose,” Hennings said. “I learned quickly that when you are out at sea, you can’t go to Home Depot; you figure out what is available on ship. At one point, the crew took a discarded section of an old fire hose and cut it open to make a nylon buffer that we needed for the mission. You make do with what you have and the ship’s crew is amazingly good at that.”
Hennings said she was ready for her first time at sea, because of the people here at China Lake who have previously deployed on ship.
“Working for the Navy this long, I know what a head is, a deck, bulkhead and basic terminology; but there were a lot of the NASA people that were a bit confused,” she said.
Her bed was a “rack,” where she slept was “berthing,” and she didn’t go to lunch in a cafeteria, she went to “chow” in the “galley.”
“I was really fortunate to have folks here at China Lake to help me prepare,” she said. “Since I would be flying on a Navy helicopter over water, I had to do all the safety training, which gave me the opportunity to pick up the jargon.”
In preparation for the five-day mission, Hennings had to go to the Modular Amphibious Trainer and learn the basic principles of underwater evacuation during a helicopter dunker exercise. She also took water survival training.
Hennings describes her training of “crashing” into water as nerve-wracking but worth learning before over-water flight.
“The night before test day, I lost some sleep and was apprehensive about it,” she said. “I am a swimmer, so I didn’t worry about the swimming aspect, but being restrained in a seat upside down in the water, blind folded, makes you a little worried. Fortunately, the instructors were awesome in training me with the skills needed and gradually I worked my way up to the dunker.”
Flying over water for the first time in a helicopter during the test gave her the realization that there is no place to land when at sea and if she crashed she would flip upside down. Because of her training, she was careful to figure out how the window she was next to would be removed in case egress was necessary.
“It was calming to know that I knew what to do in case of a water crash,” Hennings said. “It was because of my training that I felt much more confident in knowing what to do.”
Hennings learned a lot during her first sea voyage, some of which she did not expect.
“I didn’t fully appreciate the fact that the lights are off in the hallways on ship at night until the sun comes up,” she said. “My biggest gains from this opportunity were understanding the Navy’s pace of operations, the lifestyle that a Sailor lives when deployed, how things are done, the importance of chain of command and constant drills the flight personnel would do to practice their skills. I didn’t realize that it is a constant training environment aboard a ship.”
On the return trip to port in San Diego, Hennings was able to experience a Sailor’s re-enlistment ceremony on the top deck of the ship.
“I asked if I could watch the ceremony,” Hennings said. “Afterward, the crew went up and shook his hand and then I went up and shook his hand; since I am a civilian I think he was surprised when I said to him ‘I just want you to know how much I appreciate what you do for our country.’ I think that really got to him because he wasn’t expecting to hear gratitude from a civilian while at sea. But in reality it is us civilians that are being defended by this group of young people who are out there living this life and putting their lives on the line if something happens. Watching that re-enlistment was a highlight of my time at sea.”
NAWCWD Public Affairs