MEDITERRANEAN SEA (NNS) -- Sailors who work on the flight deck of USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) wear different color jerseys to indicate their job and position. But one color stands out among them in a place of prestige, and that is the yellow jersey.
To wear this coveted color, a Sailor must earn the aircraft director qualification. Those personnel work in the ship's air department and specifically handle and maneuver aircraft.
"Yellow shirts are aircraft directors," said Aviation Boatswain's Mate (Handling) 1st Class Eric Ballard. "We're in charge of multimillion dollar assets to the United States. The average age of these Sailors is early 20s. It's a qualification that has a high level of responsibility. It takes about two years to become a yellow shirt."
The flight deck of an aircraft carrier is often called the most dangerous work environment in the world, and aviation boatswain's mates (Handling) (ABH) who wear the yellow shirt are right in the middle of it all.
"This is honestly one of the hardest jobs in the AB community because of the fact that you're responsible for an expensive piece of equipment, and you're also responsible for many lives, including the pilot inside that aircraft," said Ballard. "The maneuvering of these aircraft is a high-risk evolution, and it's very unique to our rate to be able to do this. Only ABHs can be aircraft directors."
Unlike other jersey-clad personnel, yellow shirt-qualified Sailors do not wear their rank on their sleeve. This is because of the unique qualifications required to wear such a jersey, that rank actually takes backseat in their community.
"If you see a yellow shirt, we're the only people who don't put our rank on our shirts," said Ballard. "I'm a first class, and we can have anyone from an airman to a master chief who the same qualification. There's a lot of manual time and studying that goes into becoming a yellow shirt, and we don't want someone to dismiss a fully-qualified aircraft director just because he's an E-3 or E-4. They've all done the board. They all did the training. They all know the same stuff. So we don't wear our ranks on our sleeves for that reason."
Because of the precision required and dangerous work they do, Sailors who aim to earn the yellow shirt have to undergo a multitude of training and qualifications.
"Getting the qualification is a tedious thing," said Senior Chief Aviation Boatswain's Mate (Handling) Shannon Hawkins. "As a
blue shirt, you become an equipment operator, then a tractor driver, and tractor drivers are essentially the stepping stone to becoming a yellow shirt because they actually work with and move around the aircraft themselves. If you have an excellent tractor driver, they'll probably be a great aircraft director."
Like other flight deck personnel, yellow-shirt ABHs often work long, rigorous days that require close attention to detail.
"A typical day for us is sweaty and rough," said Aviation Boatswain's Mate (Handling) 2nd Class Meghan Wise. "We work flight to flight. The first launch is usually around 1015, so from then until the last bird hits the deck, we're up here grinding, getting dirty, sweating, moving aircraft around, making sure the aircraft that need to take off can go drop the bombs and the ones that return are in safe positions to be repaired or refueled, whatever they need."
Due to the specialized work they perform, aircraft directors form a close community.
"The uniqueness of the job is very rewarding," said Ballard. "It's dynamic, it changes from day to day. We could go from doing humanitarian relief after a typhoon to keeping terrorists from our shores. The things we do are very unique to our rate. There are only so many carriers out there, so [if] you look at all the people in the Navy, we are a very small group of people who get to do this job. We're a tight knit community."
Similar to a surface or air warfare qualification pin, the yellow jersey is the symbol of a special qualification, well-earned through hard work and training on the part of an ABH. They are a proud and close-knit community who do a dangerous job that plays an important part in accomplishing the mission.
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