Story by Petty Officer 2nd Class Zachary Anderson
The water gate of amphibious assault ship USS Bataan (LHD 5) is lowered as Landing Craft, Air Cushion (LCAC) 36 lines up their approach. If you are standing in the upper vehicle stowage aboard Bataan as LCAC 36 breaks the threshold of the water gate, the violent thrashing of the air and roaring sounds will make you suddenly aware of the massive power of the twin rotors that propel that vessel through the water.
Inside the cockpit a different scene plays out, the five man, all enlisted crew are connected to each other through headsets that dull the screaming engines and allow clear communication with one another. The navigator, Operations Specialist 1st Class Michael Morgan receives direction from well deck control and relays that information to Master Chief Gas Turbine Engineer Scott Weifert, the craft master, who is piloting the 92-foot-long LCAC safely into Bataan’s well deck.
Once LCAC 36 is in position and the ramp marshal gives the signal, the engines shut down and the craft lowers itself. Boatswain’s Mate 1st Class Rio Ray, the loadmaster, then gets out and begins to unload the craft. Once unloaded, the crew heads back to the beach to get the next load.
This scene will play out over and over throughout the day as all three LCACs embarked with Bataan fulfill their mission as the primary means of ship-to-shore transportation for Marines and their equipment.
The craft accomplishes its mission in an interesting way, “The LCAC hovers,” said Ray. “We like to say it flies, but it hovers over sea and land.” The ability to hover gives Marines access to beaches that would be unreachable otherwise.
The hovering nature of an LCAC requires both aviation and surface expertise to operate. “This is one of the most unique places in the Navy,” said LCAC 36 engineer, Aviation Structural Mechanic 1st Class Joshua Wilborne. “I’m part of a five man enlisted team of different ratings from all over the Navy. It’s really great to get to interact with all those different ways of thinking and bring that all together on the LCAC to find better ways of doing things.”
The LCAC was first deployed in 1987 and is nearing the end of its lifecycle. Just like with any vehicle, they require a large amount of maintenance to keep going and each LCAC has a team of twenty to thirty maintainers. “The man hours for maintenance verses the flight hours are much higher,” said Wilborne. “We had an operation this morning and another early tomorrow morning. I’d be willing to bet that if you go into the well deck around nine or ten o’clock tonight all three crews would still be in their crafts getting everything ready and making the minor repairs needed to get the crafts out on the water in a full mission capable status.”
Though there is a maintenance team, when something happens while operating, the small crew has to fix the issues on their own. “If we’re sending a load and we have to stop in the water and come off cushion we have to handle that right there, just us,” said Ray. “I never would have thought that as a Boatswain’s Mate I’d be out fixing engineering casualties.”
LCAC 36 along with the other two LCACs onboard are a part of Assault Craft Unit Four based out of Little Creek, Virginia, and provide fast, over the horizon movement from ship-to-shore of combat troops.
All three crafts are always competing with each other and use that competitive spirit to motivate the crew. “We all work really hard and put in a lot of time and effort,” said Wilborne. “We want to show off all that work, so if we can carry a few more loads than the other crews, we’re happy to secure those bragging rights.”
While working with the LCAC crews you can feel the excitement the crews have to have to be doing their work and Ray sums up the attitude of LCAC 36 in a few simple words. “As long as 36 is running, 36 is ready to send it!”