Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Subron 8: We Have Air

Another in the ongoing "Subron 8 Sea Stories" series.

Somewhere in North Atlantic, running on the surface in heavy weather. Pughead, a Machinist Mate 3 and I are in the pump room working on the high pressure air compressor. There are several things wrong with this picture, but we’re doing it anyway, and we are not having fun.

Most things on a submarine are dual purpose, so that if something fails then something else can be cross connected to serve in its place. If the bilge pump fails, for instance, we can cross connect and use the trim pump to pump bilges. That gets bilge water in our trim tanks, so we don’t do that unless we have to, but accumulated bilge is a problem, especially on this pigboat, which leaks like a sieve.

Anyway, one of the things which we have two of is the air compressor which provides us with compressed air at 3000 psi. That air is critical, as it provides the pressure for our hydraulic system, and is what we use to blow our ballast tanks when we want to surface. We use enough of our stored air surfacing, usually, that we can’t dive again until we replenish our supply of high pressure air using these beasts, which are powered by electric motors and are located in the pump room directly below the control room.

So when one air compressor produces a loud clank and craps out, that presents a major problem. We are on our way somewhere that we aren’t being told about (now revealed to be the north coast of Russia), and if we have only one air compressor we’ll have to abort the mission and turn back. The situation calls for a control room conference, which includes me in case the problem might be the motor or a control, and I happen to be the closest Electrician. I opine that motors don’t usually fail with a loud clank, but…

So the MM3 and I go below into the pump room. There isn’t a whole lot for him to check out, as the air compressor is a sealed unit which is replaced in its entirety when need be and is never repaired by the ship’s crew. He checks for metal filings in the oil and such and finds nothing. I check the motor and motor controls with the same results. We disconnect the coupling and find that the motor turns, while the compressor seems to be partially seized up. This is not good.

We go back up to the control room and make our report, and more of a crowd has gathered. The Chief Electrician is there and asks me a few questions, which I answer. The Engineering Officer and the XO have a few questions, and no one seems to like those answers either. The Captain isn’t saying anything, but he’s looking at me, and I kind of know why. I’m one of the top ranked Electricians on the boat and, while I’ve caused a bit of trouble from time to time, I also have a reputation for getting things done.

Mostly, in the Navy, repairing machinery is the province of Machinist Mates but, like most diesel boats these days, we don’t have many of those so the Electricians Mates, who normally care for electrical distribution, motors and motor controls, also pitch in on dealing with anything powered by an electric motor. On a submarine, that’s pretty much everything, so we stay pretty busy and I’ve done a good bit of mechanical work.

“We could take it apart,” I pipe up, “and see if we can fix it.”

What had been a gloomy silence turns into a “there’s a crazy person in the house” silence, and everyone is staring at me like I’ve suddenly lost my mind. All except the Captain, who was already looking at me and whose expression has not changed at all. I have a sinking feeling that he somehow suckered me into saying that.

“It’s sealed,” he says, “shipyard job.” But he’s still looking at me. I’m thinking about the time I stole the mooring lines off the sub tender, and I have a hunch that he is too. I’m not a big believer in letting petty regulations stand in the way of what I need to get done.

I shrug. “Better to ask forgiveness after we get back than to ask permission after we abort.” I’m not actually sure what that means, but I get the tiniest hint of a smile.

“Even if we’re stupid enough to do that,” the Engineering Officer chimes in, “we don’t have any parts.”

“Might be able to make ‘em,”
I come back. “Or if something’s broke we could probably weld it up. We jury rig half the stuff we fix.”

“Oh, that’s encouraging,”
someone retorts. The XO gives him a dirty look.

After a bit more discussion the Captain says to go ahead and I immediately wish I had kept my stupid mouth shut. The MM3 agrees to help and I send for Pughead, who is my favorite “partner in crime.” The three of us are gathering tools and getting ready to go below and the XO puts his hand on my shoulder. “You really think you can get it going?” he asks. I just shrug.

We get below and start on the problem and it doesn't take long to figure out why this thing is replaced rather than repaired. There isn’t room down here to take this effing thing apart. So we’re down here where there is room for maybe one guy, two at a pinch, and there’s three of us. It’s hotter than hell. We’re fighting with doing something that we’re not supposed to be doing, with machinery that we don’t have plans for, and we’re doing it on an unstable platform. There is, needless to say, a good bit of cursing and yelling, using the Navy’s favorite word, which starts with “f,” ends with “k” and isn’t “firetruck.”

At one point the XO comes halfway down the ladder and wants to know how the job is coming and I want to tell him to just eff off and leave us alone. I was not in a very good mood and had already told two Chiefs and a Lieutenant (jg) to do precisely that, but it’s best not to do so with the XO, so I just make some noncommittal noise. He offers some officer-like encouragment and then observes that, “it sounds like you’re trying to teach two machines how to mate.” He’s never really approved of bad language.

“Yes sir,” I tell him, “when they get the hang of it we’ll let you watch 'em.”
He opens his mouth, looking sort of like a beached carp, but can’t think of a snappy comeback and so merely closes it and leaves.

After taking apart several things that weren’t the problem and therefore didn’t need to be taken apart, we finally find the problem. The compressor has cylinders, much like your car but a little more complicated and the cylinders aren't all the same size, and a valve has broken off and gotten sucked into a cylinder. Happily, it didn’t do any real damage in there and with some welding and grinding we can cobble up a new valve. After about eight hours or so we have it pumping air, and it holds up.

And I have banked up brownie points for the next time I might be facing the “The Man” at Captain’s Mast. All in all, not a bad day.

1 comment:

  1. And did the machines learn their thing? I guess not, seeing as how you were only working on one machine. Too bad for the education of the XO.