Flight deck operations on an aircraft carrier have often been compared to a ballet. Sailors at work on a flight deck wear an assortment of colored jerseys to specify their job. The yellow shirt is one of the most coveted.
The aviation boatswain’s mates who work on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz are directly responsible for the handling and maneuvering of aircraft as well as the safety of all personnel during flight operations. Any mistake or lack of better judgment can cause damage to equipment or injury to personnel on the flight deck.
“At first being a yellow shirt was scary, but now that I have some confidence, I would say there is a sense of pride,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Melanie Cluck, an aviation boatswain’s mate. “On the flight deck, we are not only responsible for directing aircraft, but also for directing people. Normally, anyone who needs guidance on the flight deck looks for a yellow shirt. Safety of all the personnel on deck is a big part of our job as well. So we don’t only need to know our job, but everyone else’s as well.”
Before donning the sought-after yellow jersey, aviation boatswain’s mates wear blue jerseys to indicate that they are in a more junior status. These sailors are normally newer airmen who have yet to acquire all of the necessary qualifications. Their main responsibilities during flight operations include chocking and chaining, running elevators, and tractor operation.
“Being a blue shirt is hard work, but it makes you tough,” said Seaman Michael Lothrop. “It’s hot up there right now, and we work long days, but you have to be on alert at all times and ready to get the job done whenever you are needed.”
Blue shirts are normally covered in grease and always carrying something heavy, whether it be a chain, tractor bar, or chock. They play a big part in the maneuvering of aircraft on the flight deck because they do most of the hands-on work. During their time wearing blue, they learn the ins and outs of properly directing aircraft, which helps build the foundation of a high-performance yellow shirt.
The job requires attention to detail and an extreme amount of knowledge to be performed well. The training and the number of hours a sailor needs to put in to become a yellow shirt is impressive.
“There are two main qualifications you get as a blue shirt, but from there, it’s all about if your chain of command sees you have the initiative to take on being a yellow shirt,” Cluck said.
Earning the Yellow Shirt
Sailors must qualify as flight deck observers and learn directing and handling in addition to the qualifications all sailors are required to attain when they report to Nimitz. The requirements take roughly 12 weeks to complete. Sailors then take a written and oral test administered by the flight deck leading petty officer, assistant LPO, and any other yellow-shirt-qualified chief petty officers or first class petty officers who decide to attend.
Once sailors earn the right to wear the yellow jersey on the flight deck, they enter an apprenticeship period called “under inspection.” This means they need an experienced yellow shirt to help them along the way toward becoming an expert at their new job on the flight deck.
UI yellow shirts are always accompanied by a seasoned mentor who is observing every signal and decision they make.
“It’s a case-by-case basis on how long the UI process takes,” Cluck said. “The process is just there to make sure you fully understand what you are doing on the flight deck. It’s extensive work to say the least, but it helps you build character. The goal of the process is just to build you up to be the great yellow shirt you are supposed to be.”
Yellow shirts have to communicate through hand signals with pilots and other personnel working on the flight deck to safely move aircraft onto the catapults and off of the landing area.
“You have to be able to really get control of your aircraft and understand the pilot,” Cluck said. “It’s a gut feeling that you develop during your training. If you feel you need to slow the aircraft down, you can, and you start to learn when exactly to turn it. We have hundreds of hand signals we can use to take control of the aircraft on deck. The people in the pilot seats are officers, so you have to be professional, and every motion you make has to be crisp and precise to prevent accidents.”
The working environment of a yellow shirt is unlike anywhere else on the ship. The yellow shirt locker, or crew area, is on Nimitz’ flight deck. The tight-knit group of men and women spends their time out of the scorching heat joking, laughing, and preparing to launch multi-million dollar aircraft into the sky. It is here where the instructors of the world’s most dangerous ballet reside. It is here where the yellow shirts dwell, mentally preparing themselves to launch aircraft as their ship sits at the tip of the spear.