The Number One Lesson Learned From Falling Overboard While Serving On An Aircraft Carrier

USS Ranger

The USS Ranger

I didn’t exactly fall off the ship, but I was reported as “missing” during a man-overboard alarm. This embarrassing situation helped me learn a valuable lesson.

How to “fall overboard” without leaving the ship

Life aboard a modern aircraft carrier is very different than anything you have likely experienced. It is a floating maze of expansive hangar decks, stairs (called ladders), hallways and smaller spaces that hold everything from turbines to Operating Rooms.

As a Search And Rescue Medical Technician temporarily assigned to the Ranger with a squadron from my regular base, knowing the way around the ship was very important. At any minute a trip from the flight deck to the medical spaces could be required.

Landmarks. The key to finding your way around the hangar deck is landmarks. As the hangar deck stretches most of Ranger’s 1046 feet, and covered her 130 foot width, it is as large as a small city block!

All along the outer walls are ladders that lead either up to the flight deck, or down to the spaces lower in the hull. The Medical space was in the center of the ship, one level below the hangar deck.

This was critical information. Not only to avoid getting lost on the way to “work”, but also because that was the assigned space to report to in the event of a “man overboard drill”. With a ship that large, carrying over 3000 men and women if it was thought that someone fell overboard, it was critical to determine if anyone truly was missing with the utmost urgency.

One morning before duty started, as I was walking across a catwalk on the aft (back) wall of the hanger deck a man-overboard alarm is sounded.

“Man overboard, man overboard! This is not a drill, this is not a drill!”

Oh Crap! Run!

Down the stairs to the landing, down the next flight, and the next. Start running forward in the hanger deck. Thankfully all the aircraft are out flying and not turning the hanger deck into a huge, sharp, pointy maze of equipment.

Keep running! Let’s see, look for the big catapult piston hanging on the starboard (right) wall. Yep, there it is! Now, take the next left and go down the ladder to the Medical spaces and report. No problem, I got this.

So, through the door. Watch out for the head-banger and knee-knockers! Turn right and head down the ladder….

What the..? These stairs are carpeted. The hand rail is polished. All of the ladders that I’ve ever seen have been covered in chipped gray paint.

I’m not supposed to be here….

Have you ever suddenly stopped and realized that you were somewhere that you had no business being? Yeah, that was me in this stairwell.

Just as it dawns on me that I should be anywhere but here and I’m about to turn around and high-tail it out of this relatively opulent space, a head pokes around the wall at the bottom of the ladder.

The most senior enlisted sailor on the ship locks eyes with me, points his finger at me and informs me…

You just fell overboard!

Double Crap! Busted by the Master Chief Of The Boat!

I respectfully walk down the stairs and turn the corner where he just disappeared only to find three other sulking sailors who’s fate I had just joined.

This being my first time on board a ship, I have no idea what the penalty is for falling overboard without actually falling overboard.

During the next 10 minutes various departments in the ship called in to this office to report those sailors that had not yet reported to their assigned spaces. Eventually the phone rang, the Master Chief verified who I was and said I could now report to my duty station.

Whew. Okay, that was mildly embarrassing but there were no long lasting consequences. When I finally did get to the Medical space I had to suffer the good-natured ribbing of my shipmates for going down the wrong ladder.

Fortunately, in this case no one really fell overboard. A sailor on watch at the aft of the ship saw some garbage float by that had been thrown overboard near the bow of the ship and thought it looked like a person in the water thus prompting the man-overboard alarm.

Everyone was accounted for and it was then discovered that it was all a big misunderstanding.

Make your habits count, so that in stressful times you can count on your habits.

Learn To Be Prepared

Up to the point that I “fell overboard” I had not given much thought to learning exactly how to get from any part of the ship to my duty station. I figured that since we were not in an active battle zone that there would never be a reason to have to run there.

Stressful situations are like that. By their very definition, they exist outside the expectations of our normal, daily lives. They show up at the least opportune moments and reveal the level of preparation that we have committed ourselves to.

Like having a fire plan for the family that tells everyone what to do and where to assemble in case of natural disaster. Or even something as simple as “Stop, Drop and Roll” in the event of burning clothing.

There is no way to anticipate every stressful situation that life could deal us. Your plans should be tailored to the most likely events that you are going to encounter.

If you have a long commute in an area that can have significant storms, then an emergency bag in the trunk can go a long way towards being prepared. If you commute using public transportation, learn the alternative routes in the event of a break-down.

Living in areas prone to tornadoes should lead you to learning where to go in the event of a storm. Whether you are at home, at work or even in town. Plan ahead and you will have built the habit of being prepared.

As your situation changes and the possible stresses change, be sure to re-evaluate your routines and prepare for the most likely issues. Change jobs, learn the best alternate routes to and from your new job. Learn the new landmarks.

New car? Be sure you know where the spare tire and fuses are and how to change both of them. Before you need to in the worst storm of the year while you’re running late for an important meeting.

Building a habit of preparedness should be a way of life for us. Not only will it help reduce the impact of unexpected situations, it will generally make life easier for you and those around you.

What is the number one area that you need to be more prepared in? Share in the comments so that we can learn from each other.


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