USS McInerney: Its final deployment marks a milestone
Published by Florida Times-Union on October 7, 2009.
Petty Officer 1st Class Kevin Limbrick just wanted a wet rag.
The USS McInerney, upon which Limbrick is stationed, would be under way in a few days, and the sailor needed the cloth to finish up his final checks.
"You want to make sure everything is ready to go, " he said as he waited to wipe off the 30-year-old piece of machinery he was responsible for.
Limbrick will be the last U.S. sailor to perform those checks on the McInerney, which embarked Monday. When the ship returns in about six months to Mayport Naval Station, it will be decommissioned and likely turned over to another country.
That decommissioning will be a turning point, marking the beginning of a massive change for the Navy overall and for the forces at Mayport. The McInerney will be the first of the ships that make up the bulk of the local fleet to be eliminated over the next decade.
At the same time, the McInerney's final mission under a U.S. flag will showcase the success of 30-year-old technology while providing the platform for the Navy's most cutting-edge equipment to get its sea legs.
The McInerney is the oldest surface combatant ship in the Navy, with the engine Limbrick is working on the first to last for three decades.
Switching from steam and diesel decades ago made a big difference, say those who rely on the engine's power.
"It's a very reactive engine, " said Cmdr. Paul Young, commanding officer of the McInerney. "It's the difference between a VW Bug and a BMW."
The then-new engine was safer and required less maintenance, said Cmdr. Paul Spohn, materials officer for the class squadron. "I came into the Navy and spent 15 years on steam platforms, " he said. "This was transformational."
Over the years, the ship had other chances to feature cutting-edge technology, including serving as the test bed for the LAMPS MK III helicopter, which helps find submarines.
Despite being only months away from decommissioning, the ship is again pushing the envelope - this time in the form of the Fire Scout, a rotary-winged unmanned aerial vehicle that will be used for surveillance.
"We're looking forward to what it can do on deployment, " said Command Master Chief Petty Officer John Lawry. "Let's go see if it can catch bad guys."
Even with the shiny new Fire Scout sitting on its deck, there's no disguising the fact that the McInerney is an old ship.
It is the second of the 51 Oliver Hazard Perry Class frigates built for the Navy since 1975, of which 30 remain in service. Thirteen of them - the largest contingent - are at Mayport with the rest scattered about the country.
All of them are scheduled to be decommissioned by 2019, with 10 or more of the Mayport frigates leaving the service in the next four years.
The exact schedule will not be set until Congress passes a budget, leaving those responsible for the frigates stuck in a sort of limbo.
"One week we're working on accelerating decommissioning, the next week we're working on extending service life, " said Cmdr. Steve Davis, operations and readiness officer for the class squadron, the group that supports all the frigates.
The uncertainty isn't stopping them from working. Whether a ship is six months or six years away from being decommissioned, it has to be ready when called upon, said Capt. Ron Harrell, deputy commander of the class squadron.
"We're just trying to make sure readiness doesn't decrease, " Harrell said. "Anything less would put the crew in danger."
The civilian contractors who help the Navy maintain that readiness are a bit less sanguine about the future vanishing of the frigates, seeing their business going away as well.
"What they're getting ready to do to us is devastating, " said Mike Whalen, owner of Specialty Marine & Industrial Supplies, who said 60 percent or more of his business will be gone.
That business will not return if and when the Navy's replacement for the frigates - a ship known as the Littoral Combat Ship - shows up.
The ship class is still in its infancy, with the Navy not yet having settled onto a final design or deciding where such ships will be home-ported. Even if a number do come to Mayport, as brand new ships, they won't require a large amount of work.
They'll bring other changes as well. With only about 40 crew members each, the naval station will see a drop in manpower, and the different philosophy behind the LCS means the sailors will do their jobs differently.
Such thoughts weren't on the mind of the McInerney's crew as it readied to deploy.
For the crew, neither the past nor the future was the focus in the days right before they left.
"I'm not preaching 'last deployment' to the crew, " said Lawry, the senior enlisted sailor aboard. "I want them to run through the tape."
Even so, the nature of the last mission did add a touch of poignancy to the crew's preparations.
"You go out there with a new perspective, " said Petty Officer 1st Class Robert Harris, who in a previous command had helped take care of decommissioned ships. "On this deployment, I'll pay more attention to what I see. You watch the History Channel and start thinking to yourself, 'I'll be a part of history.' "