This Month:

Earning His Wings

Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Handling) Airman Sean Phillips went to boot camp in the dark – figuratively speaking, that is. As a brand new recruit, Phillips had no idea what he would be doing as an ABH for the next four years.

“I didn’t know what my job was, beyond moving jets around the fight deck,” Phillips said. “When I went to ‘A’ school, I was intrigued by what I was learning.”

Phillips said he found out he’d be stationed aboard Nimitz about a week before finishing his three-week long “A” school.

“I was ready to just get out there and start working,” said Phillips.


Phillips joined Nimitz during the last few weeks of 2012’s Composite Training Unit Exercise (COMPTUEX).

“When I got off the COD [Carrier Onboard Delivery] I had no idea what was going on; there was just so much happening,” Phillips said. “I’ll admit, I was a little scared.”

The feeling of being intimidated and overwhelmed by the flight deck didn’t last long for Phillips. When Nimitz pulled out for a scheduled 2013 Western Pacific deployment, he found himself on the flight deck every day.

“Working up there is hard. It’s hot, and you smell like jet fuel. A lot of people will say, ‘oh, it’s whatever,’ but I love it,” said Phillips. “I’ll stay out here and watch it all day. I love my job.”


Phillips started his journey to become a flight deck director like any other airman – at the bottom of the pecking order as a blue shirt ‘T-head.’ T-heads have to stay within an arm’s length of a qualified blue shirt.

“It’s tough, because you can’t go anywhere on your own. Someone is always holding on to your float coat or jersey,” said Phillips. “You’re learning, too, so someone’s always yelling at you.”

But having that qualified person so close is an important lesson in safety. Phillips said he once walked dangerously close to an intake while he was a T-head.   It wasn’t until his sponsoring blue shirt grabbed him and pulled him out of the way that Phillips realized his mistake.


ABH3 Bryan Labrador, front, and ABH3 Ralph Swan direct an aircraft onto the catapult. Photo by MC3 (SW/AW) Siobhana McEwen

Phillips quickly moved on from the T-head stage after only a week and a half.

“As a blue shirt, your job is to lock chocks, secure aircraft to the flight deck, and also to pay attention and learn,” said Phillips. “If you‘re going to get moved up, it’s nice to know a little bit before you get to the next position.”

Phillips said it’s important for a blue shirt to ask questions of the senior personnel around in order to learn as much as possible.

“He was one of the few that we knew were going to make it,” said Aviation Boatswains’ Mate (Handling) 1st Class Carlo Abalos, V-1’s leading petty officer. “You see it in some of the blue shirts: they’re asking questions about what the yellow shirt does, and already want to learn the yellow shirt’s job.”

Before becoming a yellow shirt, a Sailor needs to become qualified as a tractor driver and also possibly as an elevator operator.

“As a yellow shirt, you’re required to be able to drive a tractor, just in case we have a very hard move,” said Abalos. “We can rely on a yellow shirt to jump in and drive the tractor if we have to.”

It took Phillips about three to four months to become a completely qualified tractor driver. Working every day under stressful conditions didn’t bother him, though, because driving the tractor was just another opportunity for Phillips to watch and learn from experienced yellow shirts.

“You have to pay attention as a tractor driver, because you have to do exactly what the director is telling you to do right way, and you have to do it correctly,” said Phillips.

Spending long hours driving tractors around the flight deck made it difficult to study for his qualifications for yellow shirt, but Phillips was hungry.

“He’s motivated, and has initiative,” Abalos said. “He asks what needs to be done before having to be told what to do, and then he attacks the job. I’ve seen him studying in his off time, learning his manuals and studying for advancement.”


Abalos said a “hungry” Sailor can move on from tractor driver to yellow shirt in about a month, which is exactly how long it took Phillips to be invited to his first yellow shirt brief.

“Being able to put the shirt on is a real responsibility,” Abalos said, “and everyone takes a lot of pride in the color.”

Phillips is currently waiting to take his board in order to become a fully qualified yellow shirt.

“I can see him getting qualified before we pull back into homeport,” said Abalos. “He’s very hungry. Every time I’m up on the flight deck, he is always directing. We have a lot of UIs right now, but he is one of the few who is always getting in front of a qualified yellow shirt.”


As Nimitz nears home, the number of fly days will diminish, and Airman Phillips will have to trade his wand in for a paintbrush. Many Sailors will look back at the past year with an assortment of feelings.   Some Sailors will look at the year as one of success, and face the future anticipating new goals and opportunities.

“This has probably been the most successful year of my life, truthfully,” Phillips said. “I’ve never taken so many tests, and actually passed them with flying colors. I feel like I’ve taken more initiative, and have been able to actually stick to one job and see it through.”


Story by MC3 (SW/AW) Siobhana McEwen


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