USNS Flyer (T-AG 178)
Flyer was a U.S. Maritime Commission (C2-S-B1 ) design of the late 1930s for the commercial cargo ship of the nineteen forties. The standard C2-S-B1 design was for a single-screw diesel or geared turbine powered ship with 41 crew and 12 passengers. Her dimensions were 459 oa x 63 x 28, about 7,300 tons light and 11,000 tons loaded. Flyer was steam turbine with two boilers and 6,000 shaft horse power. Her design was intended to become the typical large cargo ship of the nineteen forties. The Second World War changed those plans and the more famous, mass produced, Liberty or Victory types became the cargo ship pictured by most.
Greg Hayden's Another Merchant Marine Page had an article, now archived, titled "Have Ship, Need Information: How to research the history of a World War II era ship" by Theron P. Snell with excellent information for anyone interested in researching a particular ship of this period. At the bottom is a tabular comparison of the C2, Liberty, Victory and other types. The interesting USMM pages contain a Ship List with information by type and the list of ships built.
Compare the lines of Flyer with a Liberty or Victory type. The nice curves come at a price in money and time. Remember, the Liberty was considered "paid for" if it managed to get one load of cargo across Atlantic. They really were expendable and were often considered not very good ships. Then look at what they did and how many survived to do hard work well past any reasonable expectation for an expendable ship.
The Victory design was a higher quality ship and by all accounts was a very good ship. Due to sheer numbers the Victory ships took over much of the function the C2 types might have filled into the nineteen fifties. Still, the C2s lasted in that shadow of the wartime mass and were often seen as cargo-passenger ships in postwar years.
Flyer had been in just such commercial service before acquisition by Navy from the Maritime Administration in 1965. The Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, Volume V, p. 534, shows Flyer added to the list of ships entering Naval service since publication of previous volumes. The entry shows Flyer (TAG 178), ex MC-1209, ex SS Water Witch, ex SS American Flyer; built by Moore Drydock Co., Oakland, California; keel laid October 30, 1944; launched December 20, 1944; and sponsored by Miss. Margaret Helen Finnel. Flyer was placed in service February 9, 1965 with her name assigned March 22, 1965.
The keel date leads to an interesting question. Why build C2-S-B1 types this late with the glut of Liberty and Victory types that was foreseen? By late 1944, with the end in sight, war production was being cut back, orders being canceled, and a looming glut of post war capacity was a concern -- why were C2-S-B1 types still being built as late as 1945? I haven't yet found a definite answer.
I'll admit that of the three types I think Flyer was a swan among ducks for looks, but that has little to do with the hard economics of making a living carrying cargo at sea. Anyone looking at the sailing boxes out there now can see that "art" has nothing to do with that economy. You can take a cruise today and might as well be locked in a semi-luxury hotel in the desert or on the ice cap -- seeing sea seems incidental. I have a suspicion the C2 was a better choice for those wanting to operate a cargo ship with added passenger revenue. The things that made me partial to Flyer may have made the ships better suited for that role than the Victory type designed without passengers in mind.
As SS American Flyer I know she carried a few passengers as well as cargo, but there were no signs of real passenger facilities left. Possibly the Maritime Administration or Navy did alterations and removed some special quarters, but more likely there were only normal "officer" accommodations. My first quarters aboard could have been used for passengers. There were a few rooms on the 01 level with connecting showers that had two bunks, by then a Navy type desk, an outside port onto a covered deck and good sized storage lockers. They had enough space to be comfortable - better than some modern cruise ships' more economical staterooms. She was primitive living by modern standards or even those of the early 1970s, but she was comfortable, had good working spaces and had character.
When she transferred from Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS -- predecessor of today's Military Sealift Command, or MSC) Atlantic to MSTS Pacific in 1967 the paint was in such bad condition that the new captain had it taken down to bare metal. [As an aside, I always found "PAC" more concerned with appearance than "LANT" in ships and dress. Seamanship was equal, but in food, cleanliness, and the way things looked, Pacific was almost always superior to the Atlantic.] The racket from chipping was terrible, but after the many layers of Atlantic dark Navy gray were removed commercial blue, white and green were uncovered. When all was stripped and replaced by light Pacific gray she looked great - and we didn't trip in deck paint blisters. There had been more commercial colors than Navy and some intact paint pieces were a quarter inch or more thick. We rode a bit higher after that.
Flyer had more effective survey days than most other ships collecting in the late 1960s or early 1970s. She was a highly stable bathymetric survey platform. She was much superior, as were most of the old cargo types, to the ships built specially for bathymetric surveys. The deep draft and sheer size got the transducers below much of the noise and made for a stable platform for receiving the faint returns in thousands of fathoms. They could obtain readable echograms when the smaller ships were blanked out entirely. I was on one trip where we collected usable data while moving slowly in the fringe of a typhoon.
Only the frigid work areas had air conditioning. That was for the equipment, not us. What little computer capability we had and almost all the navigation equipment was early integrated circuit and put out lots of heat. It also did not work very well when room temperatures got into what I consider comfortable ranges. She was hot in the tropics even with operable ports and air scoops. The air scoops did little, particularly under high humidity, and a damp body print in the mattress on getting up was not unusual.
Flyer had space to spare. As far as I know, No. 1, 2 the main part of 4 and 5 were sealed voids. Concrete had been poured in several holds and into huge forms on the fore deck to give loaded stability. The "Tween deck" (C2s were shelter deck design with a top, the shelter deck, and a main deck level that provided cargo space above the deep holds.) part of No. 3 was working space and No. 3 hold had the stabilized transducer way down in a little cage room. The Tween deck of No. 4 held quarters for the survey party, ship's store and a crew lounge.
She had the largest rooms for the technical people that I know of among survey ships with the exception of the H. H. Hess that had "motel" like quarters. The wardroom was comfortable with three tables on each side. Each table had six round, spring loaded, pull out seats. Next door was a reasonable sized and equipped lounge, site of many bridge games My last bridge game was aboard Flyer. Ever been a casual player who had to live for the next few months with a skilled and fanatic partner? "You bid three hearts on that hand?" over and over and over. Six weeks later -- "We need a fourth hand, but you'd better bid right!" -- I refused.
There were no basketball courts and such amenities as found on some of the other old converted cargo types. She had no slick modern wardroom with table lamps, globes, sofas and carpets like some of the custom built survey ships. Those spacious quarters were not carpeted and color coordinated as in the Bent class. She was no showboat.
She did have good working spaces and we always had the conference room to spread out in. It had three full sized conference tables fixed in line down the center and all the necessities to give full blown end of season decision briefings. We used it as extra work space and in really hot, tropical weather some of the more heat sensitive slept there on blanket rolls or even in lawn chairs.
Flyer's conference room
For me the real blessing was deck space and a sense of openness. Lots of it - with nooks and hidden spots to get out of the wind and away from people. You had the choice of the "steel beach" on No. 4 hatch, a quiet and windswept peace on the concrete ballast forward, or any number of little places out of wind and the way. There was enough room to find quiet spots to sun, read or just look at things. Those spacious concrete deck ballast forms were great places to sit in warm weather. They did not soak up the heat and become cook tops like the steel decks or even the canvas covered wood of the hatches. I remember moving from the forward concrete, after reading and listening to a rare in range radio station, back to No. 4 and the beach party. It was the equivalent of a trip from a peaceful rock in Maine to a noisy, crowded beach in California. There were real choices of different places. Those are rare on ships.
Concrete ballast, the big flat, sharp edged form around and forward of foremost kingpost, that was great for quiet reading or, if in range (rare), listening to radio. A few minutes later Flyer and tug were parting (Sound clip [101 k .wav] modified to shorten sequence for a smaller file).
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In good weather Flyer was really open. With fore and aft doors open there was a constant breeze down above deck passages. Even in our quarters, one deck down, we could get something of that breeze by opening an above deck door and our ports. I've had nights in the tropics or summer in the Pacific off California when it was almost like camping out. Going to sleep was a pleasure with the scoop in the port, a stiff salty breeze and the sound of waves. Even in winter Flyer seemed to have more "outdoors" that was comfortable and gave a break from being closed up that can get to you on a ship. Some of the little corners that were never used in warm weather became effective wind breaks and warmer micro climates during winter. I never felt like I was becoming a fungus on Flyer.
My last trip in 1975 was a bit sad. Flyer had just come out of the shipyard and was filthy, listing slightly, and not running all that well. She gradually got cleaned up, but there were some obvious problems and the signs of age that had been there all along became very obvious. The spooky trip down to the bottom of No. 3 hold, where the stabilized transducer resided, had been eased by a long, long ladder. I did not go. Far down in the light of a single bulb lighting the huge space (about 4-5 stories deep and half basketball court size) stood a ping pong table with its legs in a foot or more of sea water. Flyer was leaking and I remembered years before my first Flyer captain, a real old salt Norwegian seafaring type, worrying about some thin plates down around #3 hold during a storm. My first big ship and now good friend and "home" was wearing out.
Flyer in heavy swell and seas
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She had been a home away from home for me. On that trip we did one job on Flyer and shifted to one of the newer AGS types for another type of work. I was making the move with one other person and we sat on rocks with beer from a little waterfront shed and watched her leave with considerable sadness. We both felt abandoned and had hung around to watch her leave. The much newer "oceanographic" ship was a poor sounding platform, noisy, and very bureaucratic. At the time this last was what was making us sad. On Flyer we did a job with absolute minimum bureaucratic complications. On the other ship we even had "pre-sail" meetings to attend -- knowing they would probably accomplish nothing. If you didn't know what you were doing when liberty expired nothing much was going to help then! We had carpeted and color coordinated rooms, no signs of big leaks, throbbing diesels (noise), full air conditioning -- but nothing like the home feeling and nothing like the efficiency either.
dwellers have friends, lovers, and relations. Mariners also have
Eloquently put by James H. Cobb in his fictional book, Sea Strike, second in an interesting series.
A little sentimental postscript that may give people who have not loved a ship an idea of how it is possible.
There is a movie, The Red Tent, that deals with a historic event and has spectacular Arctic shots. It is worth renting if you can find it. It has a "silly" prologue and epilogue, but one that maybe isn't quite so silly if you listen closely. It is a bit like Saving Private Ryan. The story wasn't about the beach or bridge, it was about the old man in the cemetery (the "silly bookends" of some critics) and what had made him and so many others tick for the next few decades. The rest was really just stage setting for the surviving lives. In the end piece of The Red Tent there is a bit with dialog about forgiving yourself for mistakes and taking joy in "the sights we've seen" set against visuals of Arctic islands, great glaciers and huge calving bergs. A specially agreeable companion who has taken you to see those sights takes and keeps a special place.
Over a period of years Flyer took me to places and to see things I'd never expected to see. At the same time she provided a real home that was quite agreeable. I've stood on her deck in a tropical Pacific night and watched basketball sized ctenophores or jellies flash in a blue white light that lit the king posts (tall things with black tips, cross pieces and masts in picture above) -- all in a steady backdrop of fluorescent blue green glow from the microorganisms in our bow wave. You could read a magazine dimly and then get a flashbulb effect. Then I've gone down to work on charts or to "pizza night" and a movie. It is the contrast. From sights nobody bound to land will ever see and places exotic and far away to take the clothes out of the dryer and fold underwear, or write letters, or play cards, or read in the bunk.
From her decks I've watched whales close alongside in North Atlantic fog you could almost cut. I've left a tropical Pacific island in a native boat to climb her side and a year or so later met her in France or England or raced Kingsport up Channel with the opportunity to visit great art museums in Amsterdam. One night after work I watched the moon rise out of the Pacific behind a group of rocks that would make a science fiction backdrop. Then I went down to a not luxurious, but spacious and familiar room to read. I've left her deck after watching a sunset that hangs on my wall and I still remember -- to do laundry. It has been more than twenty five years, but I think I'd still be able to wake up in a Flyer bunk and know her rumble. For months she was a familiar and not unpleasant place to live who moved me around an interesting world. She was the old friend met on the streets of a strange city. Halfway around the world, after a tiring flight following the wrench of sometimes sudden departure from family, there was old, familiar, comfortable Flyer.
Those older, larger ships do have different sounds, rolls, and general feels. Even the mass produced Liberty and Victory ships seem to have that individual character. Maybe it just came with age and modifications. I sometimes wonder though if it was the production process of the time. The newer ships did not seem to have the little differences (Better QC?) that would allow a wake up in darkness to identify the ship. I'm not sure I could tell if I were on Kane, Bent, Wyman or Wilkes until the lights went on -- even though those took me to equally great places.
All the ships took me places from mildly interesting to absolutely spectacular, but some are special. Flyer, Myer, Neptune and Kingsport are the old ones that did that with a somehow personal touch. Maybe one way of putting it is that they were perhaps somewhat worn grand old hotels (Mizar is in a class of her own! Lovable ole Bates Motel (Wasn't that the one in Psycho?) or Fawlty Towers? Interesting, but watch out!) and the newer ones were slick modern motels.
Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2001 by Ramon Jackson
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