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USS Franklin D. Roosevelt Rotating Header Image

1964-65 Smoke in the Groove ~ Tom Lutz

Submitted by Tom Lutz, Ltjg. B Division

There’s smoke in the groove – USS FDR 1964-65

 “Roger, I have the ball,” the words crackled over the radio as pilots acknowledged they were on the final approach to the pitching deck of the carrier: USS Franklin D. Roosevelt (CVA-42).  Sometimes the words were tart and short, “Roger, Ball.” They seemed to be words of accomplishment following a successful mission. Perhaps there was a bit of relief mixed in as each of the many planes stationed on-board the ship returned home safely.

 When pilots turned their planes into the glide slope to land they were required to report in to the LSO (Landing Signal Officer) that they had visual contact with the giant Fresnel Lens, (affectionately called the “meat ball” because of its red-orange color). The landing system was located on the port side on the after end of the flight deck.

 But to the sailors below decks in the Engineering Department, Boiler Division, it was often a struggle to ensure that those words rang clear and true so the pilots could complete their landing. To keep the visual “coast clear” an intricate ballet had to take place within their white-hot boilers.

 FDR had 12 boilers in all. During air operations 8 – 10 of the “tea kettles” were on line each generating 600-psi of 750 degree superheated steam to drive the four huge engines and operate the catapults if called on to do so.  To generate the steam necessary to produce the speed (30 kts of wind over the bow) to launch and recover aircraft, the boilers burned NSFO (Navy Special Fuel Oil) a thick black ooze the sailors called “black oil.” NSFO has to be heated and atomized under pressure to burn efficiently. But as we know, fuel is only part of the fire triangle. Burning, especially smokeless burning, requires air. In the case of burning gooey NSFO, it requires lots of air. And therein lies the dilemma.

 To generate the quantity of air necessary to burn fuel cleanly and leave no smoke trail requires big blowers or fans that can gulp in the air from the outside and force it into the brick-lined boilers to mix with the atomized fuel.  And no smoke was a must so that the pilots returning to the ship could see the “meatball” clearly.

 “Forced draft blowers” have to spin very fast to accomplish their mission. They also happen to be steam driven.  And as one might imagine, they are very heavy. Because of the weight and the turbine spinning at very high speeds there is stress on the equipment at every point. Even if the sailor in charge of the boiler was alert as he peered up the periscope located in the stack, often, (sometimes it seemed too often) the mixture of fuel and air got out of whack causing the dreaded cry…”Main engines control, this is the bridge. You have smoke in the groove.”

 Those words were not something the EOW (Engineering Officer of the Watch) wanted to hear, especially if it is the voice of the Captain, which was the case on the second or third call. To counter the “Making Smoke” condition, a sailor was stationed top-side, up near the stacks, with one mission: “Keep your eyes peeled for smoke in the groove.”  This was not as critical, of course, when the ship was not engaged in flight operations and was seldom a problem a slow speeds (under 20 kts,) but when the ship turned into the wind and began to launch and recover aircraft one B-Division sailor per watch was designated as the Smoke Watch and was stationed high enough to see what was going on.

 On warm summer nights when the jets were flying, I enjoyed going topside after my watch in Main Control to check in with the smoke watch. I was, after all, his Division Officer and I wanted to see if everything was going ok…and to watch some arrested landings. What I normally found was a contented BT-striker enjoying some time out of the “hole” of the fire room. He was equipped with sound powered phones and had his eyes looking up and aft to be sure there was no smoke. If there was, he would call down below with enough acumen to know which fire room (or boiler) was the culprit with the admonition: “Two Charlie, clear your stack. You’re smoking black.”

 Down below, the top watch (1st or 2nd Class BT) would grab the “T” throttle of the FDB himself and crank it up. The huge blower would immediately elevate its pitch and begin to whine. It was a sound I became used to when I paid my visit to each fire room on a regular basis. From the deck above the access to the boiler, located three decks below I could tell if someone was having challenges with smoke or perhaps answering a bell that called for a faster speed. It became music to my ears…the whine of the Forced Draft Blower.

 But all was not always well. Occasionally, the weight of the heavy turbine located on a vertical shaft, perhaps spinning faster than they were designed to spin, would put too much stress on the main bearing of the giant fan and it would seize up or “wipe” as the sailors would say. If that should happen it would cause big problems since the boiler would have to be taken down to “cold iron” and the bearing removed and sent to a repair facility (or Destroyer tender) to have the inside of the defective bearing taken out and re-poured with a solid babbitt core. The bearing would then spend the next 24 hours in the machine shop getting bored out to very close (to within thousands of an inch) tolerance. After that, the 1st Class BT and perhaps his Chief would carefully supervise the installation of the bearing back into place; leading and mic-ing the leads at every step. It was a long process.

 It made me proud to work with these men…professionals all… ensuring that we could complete our mission and keep those planes flying. And frequently no one rested in our department until the last plane was trapped. We became familiar with the arresting gear singing out its patented whine as it was stretched for a landing. Then the Air Boss would announce on the flight deck: “Recovery complete. Tie down all aircraft.” At last our pace slowed and with it the concern for smoke in the groove abated until the ballet started anew the next day.