When I was still a young “nugget” Naval aviator in a fighter squadron I was placed in charge of the Line Department. It was made up of “Line Rats” who serviced the jets and lived in the “Line Shack.” These young 18 to 19-year olds had the unenviable job of working on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier, at night, in 30-40 knot winds. By the end of their 10-hour shifts, they would be covered in fuel, oil, hydraulic fluid, bits of anti-skid decking, and utterly exhausted from working in the world’s most dangerous environment. I, their young Lieutenant, on the other hand, flew high-speed fighter jets, ate in the clean Officer’s Mess, and if I chose, never had to go up on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier until it was time for me to do a pre-flight check of my aircraft. But I had a problem… No one wanted to work in my department. No one wanted to be a “Line Rat,” I mean, why would you? I had a serious “staffing” and morale problem, all of which could have led to the failure of our overall mission.

I couldn’t allow my team to suffer while I lived a life of relative comfort, so one dark and windy night I stepped up and joined my team on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier. After steading my nerves in the comfort of the squadron’s ready room, I naively walked up onto the flight deck of an aircraft carrier, only to be immediately grabbed by one of my guys just before being blown over the side by an F-14’s jet exhaust. Initial shock? Check!

After regaining my composure, I burdened a 10-pound tie-down chain over each shoulder and set out to see what being a “Line Rat” was all about. The chains over my shoulders were meant to tie down an aircraft post-flight, or if a plane should start sliding uncontrollably towards the edge of the flight deck of an aircraft carrier, to heroically throw the chains around its landing gear in an attempt to save the taxpayer’s $80MM investment.  To be very honest, I was terrified.

For safety, I was led around the dark and deafening flight deck of an aircraft carrier by my lead Petty Officer, who held a tight grip to his young and inexperienced Lieutenant. To add to my misery, and later my pride, one-by-one my “Line Rats” threw their 10-pound chains over my shoulders to see how much I could take. To them, at first it was a game, but later we all began to see what it really meant; that I would shoulder, figuratively and literally, the burden of their thankless job. I stayed on that flight deck of an aircraft carrier all night long, shouldering 40 pounds of chains on each shoulder. I never quit, never said “this is too much” and when the last jet landed and the sun began to rise, I was just as filthy, just as tired, and most importantly, just as much a part of the team as they were. I did what they did. I was their “servant,” and it was at that moment that I became their leader.

 

By Tom Baker, 
VP, Operations and Solutions (Advatix)