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Earning yellow.

A green shirt catapult operator approaches a screaming EA-6B Prowler positioned at full power on a catapult, when, like dust to a vacuum, the Sailor is sucked into one of the aircraft's large jet intakes.

This is a familiar "shock and awe" video that aviation boatswain's mates and undesignated airmen watch dozens of times until respect for what they are about to undertake becomes second nature. Working on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier, where injury or death is only a moment's inattention away. Choreographing this dance with danger are the flight deck's masters of this supercharged environment--the "yellow shirts."

Yellow shirts, or aircraft directors, occupy the most coveted enlisted positions aboard an aircraft carrier. As rulers of the flight deck, yellow shirts have the ultimate responsibility for all aircraft movement on the most dangerous 4-and-a-half acres of flight line in the world, Using hand signals and headset communications, yellow shirts arrange an imposing mix of combat aircraft for fueling, hunch, recovery and elevator moves, among other things, day in and day out, around the dock and in all kinds of weather.

"On the flight deck, aircraft directors are accorded the status of officers and everyone must abide by their instruction; explained Aviation Boatswain's Mate 1st Class James K. Priest, USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) leading petty officer, V-1 division. "They're the ones who run the show."

Yellow shirts create poetry in motion by bringing order to the carefully choreographed ballet on the carrier flight deck. Success depends on focus and attention to safety.

"One moment of distraction can mean the difference between a successful launch (or recovery) and a crash," said Priest. "An incorrect placement can wreck a multimillion dollar aircraft. Complacency can kill us when we stop thinking about our jobs and ignore the risk."

"I'm anxious to go on the flight deck," said Airman Eric Shriwise, a Sailor recently assigned to Air Department (V-1). "We go through extensive training and are fully aware of the dangers on the deck, such as aircraft constantly moving and the risk of being blown overboard."

With most of the flight deck crew barely out of high school, the responsibility of running a flight deck is overwhelming for many Sailors. For this reason, Priest explained, it's important that yellow shirt candidates are both skilled and effective. All potential yellow shirts start off as a blue shirt--plane handlers, chock and chain crews or tow tractor operators. Only the most capable blue shirts will be considered for selection to yellow.

"We go through a screening process in selecting who is capable of becoming a yellow shirt," said Priest. "The Sailor must be a self-motivated, hard-working, natural leader, too. I do my best to recognize these individuals tight off, because the process can take months to years, depending on that Sailor."

The first step in even being allowed to work on an operational flight deck is a three-day, three-night observation of flight deck operations from the safe perch of "vulture's row," located on the 0-8 level overlooking the flight deck. From this safe overlook, Sailors become familiarized with the sights and sounds of the flight deck--the constant scream of aircraft engines, and the inescapable smell of jet fuel that fills every breath. More importantly, they become acquainted with the flow of action--the cycle of events, the sequences and the things to watch for.

"It's dangerous out there, and that is exactly what new Sailors must learn if they are going to respect every move they will be asked to perform," Priest said. "It's not a clean job, and stresses will be peaking. The individuals who handle themselves best are the ones who are the best candidates for the yellow shirt."

"It is definitely a shocking experience to be out there for the first time," said Airman Apprentice Kenneth Gibson. "There is so much going on at one time. People run everywhere, planes turn mad you can't hear what anyone is saying over the loud aircraft. It's intimidating but I do love the excitement, and just being a part of the whole thing is amazing to me."

Once a new Sailor completes observer time, it's time to complete a Personnel Qualification Standard (PQS). Only specified supervisors may signify completion.

"PQSs are the most important part of the new Sailors' training process," said Priest. "It helps them get familiar with most all aspects of how the flight deck operates, especially safety. Details such as proper wear of personal protective equipment (PPE) is critical to operating safely on the flight deck; so are the signals we use, flight deck markings and aircraft firefighting skills."

Following completion of flight deck quals, the Sailor can now don a full flight deck uniform, which in addition to the blue cotton turtleneck shirt and blue "float coat" inflatable life vest, includes a "cranial" helmet with a big "T" located on the back, signifying trainee status.

Within a matter of weeks--sometimes months depending on the individual Sailor--qualified blue shirts who master the skills of proper plane handling, driving tractors, being safety observers and chock-and-chain crew (and who complete their PQSs) may be given the opportunity to retire their blue jersey for a yellow one marked "UI" for "under instruction." With more training, the UIs are within reach of becoming a full-fledged yellow shirt.

At this level, the "shock and awe" training film becomes a reality.

"The dangers are evident in everything we do on the deck," said Priest. "Being the masters of the deck, we must make sure all evolutions are carefully and safely worked through. Nothing is overlooked, from reassuring that the deck is free of foreign object damage (FOD) to the locations of all personnel on this dangerous workplace, the responsibilities are immense."

Only those individuals possessing the skills and courage necessary will earn the most coveted enlisted position on the flight deck, yellow shirt. But once there the sense of pride and accomplishment equals the awesome responsibility.

"The challenge and chance to feel so important and in charge doesn't come easy but I am up to the task," said Gibson. "It's like nothing I have ever done before or will ever do in my life and one day I can say that I was once master of a flight deck."

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Frantom is a photojournalist assigned to All Hands.
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Title Annotation:yellow shirts, aircraft directors, Navy aircraft carriers
Author:Frantom, Todd
Publication:All Hands
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2005
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