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New table may offer relief for AOs on back-breaking bomb duty

Dec. 8, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Aviation ordnancemen from the aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush practice assembling bombs on the Office of Naval Research TechSolutions' improved weapons assembly station in Norfolk, Va., in September. The new stands offer improved ergonomics and works with existing assembly practices.
Aviation ordnancemen from the aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush practice assembling bombs on the Office of Naval Research TechSolutions' improved weapons assembly station in Norfolk, Va., in September. The new stands offer improved ergonomics and works with existing assembly practices. (John F. Williams/Navy)
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An aircraft carrier’s war-fighting mission demands a crew that can deliver bombs against the enemy with precision.

To “put warheads on foreheads.”

Sure, it’s the pilots who drop those bombs on target, sometimes assisted by forward observers on the ground.

But the real heavy lifting in the ordnance world — pun intended — is the work performed by aviation ordnancemen, or “ordies” as they call themselves.

Deep in the carrier’s magazines, well below the ship’s waterline, ordies assemble bombs, clad in their distinctive red flight deck jerseys. Working in teams, these sailors construct bombs that weigh anywhere from 500 to 2,000 pounds and ship them on elevators to be loaded on aircraft.

With nearly 7,900 sailors, it’s the fourth largest enlisted occupational field in the the Navy and the largest in the aviation community.

These men and women perform back-breaking work — but the Office of Naval Research has devised a new method of building bombs to eliminate some of the burden and increase efficiencies, too.

The solution? A new bomb assembly table set to be tested aboard ship next year.

The problem

Because of the heavy-duty job and dangerous weapons they work with, AOs are considered to have one of the Navy’s most at-risk jobs for work-related injuries.

Back injuries tend to be the most prevalent, as AOs’ work requires repetitive and often awkward motions, and these injuries lead to countless lost man hours at sea.

Bombs are not stored in an assembled state for obvious safety reasons, so they are built at sea, in the magazines, using hand tools. Power tools are another safety concern because fuses are electrical components and power tools have electromagnetic fields.

The bombs are made on a long metal table, a design that hasn’t changed since World War II.

“Since the Vietnam War, the technology of bombs has increased significantly,” said Tom Gallagher, who manages ONR’s TechSolutions. “Unfortunately the technology of bomb assembly hadn’t changed with it, and that can potentially put sailors at risk for this kind of injury.”

The height of the table isn’t adjustable, Gallagher said, which causes problems for smaller sailors, who have to stretch and maneuver to get the job done.

Back when the service used only “dumb bombs,” those without sophisticated guidance systems, assembly was relatively simple — sailors added fins to the bomb’s rear and screwed in a fuse into the nose.

But with the advent of the smart bombs, access to the middle of the bomb became more important, Gallagher said. That’s where electronic guidance systems are strapped in most bombs. This forces ordies to reach over the tables, in awkward positions that often strain backs.

“There was also a problem ensuring these straps were put on correctly. That wasn’t always evident on the assembly table,” Gallagher said. “This can cause sailors to have to readjust things later, and that is not efficient.”

The TechSolution

The goal of TechSolutions is to take recommendations from sailors on how to improve their work, and then devise and implement new technology or better practices in a rapid response — within 18 months.The idea for a new table was a direct result of talking to AOs, a community known for taking a lot of pride in the grunt work.

“Ordies are tough, mission-oriented sailors, and they don’t complain about the nature of their work and, in fact, they wear the tough nature of their work like a badge of honor,” Gallagher said. “But once we started the project, the sailors we worked with were very helpful in the process, and helping identify what the needs were and helping us tweak the design along the way.”

ONR’s new assembly table can hold bombs weighing up to 2,000 pounds. The table is adjustable in height, eliminating the need for workers of different heights to repeatedly bend down or stretch awkwardly to reach bombs and their components.

The new table is smaller and more portable. This could allow them to be moved via weapons elevators, enabling sailors to build bombs in more locations beyond the ship’s magazines.

“Much assembly is done on mess decks and even on hangar bays when the need arises, and this type of rack can be taken anywhere you can move a bomb,” said Tom McCammon, an engineering technician at the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Carderock Division, in Philadelphia. The center engineered the racks, which were built by BAE Systems and Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia.

The Navy’s Mobile Ordnance Training Team on Naval Station Norfolk, Va., recently helped test the design, with positive results.

Junior and senior AOs from the aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush were able to set up the tables in less than two minutes and commence building 1,000-pound laser-guided bombs.

“We have been getting invaluable feedback from sailors, which shortens our design cycle and helps us get this improved capability to the fleet even faster,” McCammon said.

The next step for the prototype bomb-assembly tables will be to test them aboard the Bush. Gallagher said that will happen during calendar year 2014.

If all goes well, he said, sailors could see the design finalized and production started to start delivering these to the fleet in the next two years, budgets permitting.

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