The Bearing Race

By Bob Cohen, Ensign, Boilers Officer

    The hotter you boiled the water, and the higher the pressures you kept it bottled up at, the more energy you'd be able to extract when the steam hit the turbine blades. In other words, you’d get more shaft-horsepower for each gallon of fuel burned. Theoretically, this increase in efficiency would continue until something known as the ‘end-point’ was reached at around thirty-two hundred pounds per square inch. The Navy never did make it to the end point – at twelve hundred pounds and one thousand degrees, things started to happen…

    “We broke the grasshopper on two-alfa boiler!” I couldn’t believe it. How did these guys manage to break that? The 'grasshopper' was a huge scissors mechanism that served to force the main steam stop-valve closed against the enormous pressure of the 1200-psi boiler. In reality, it was nothing more than a big sideways automobile jack – there weren’t exactly a lot of things that could go wrong with a grasshopper. However, as boilers officer of the USS Henry B. Wilson, I was kinda used to the idea that if you gave my BTs a bowling ball they’d figure out a way to disassemble it into pieces. Unfortunately, I was also used to the idea that the chief engineer, all five feet of him, would then scream at me until he lost his voice.

    It turned out to be less serious than I had feared. They didn’t actually break the whole grasshopper, just a small and simple piece of it. At each end of the shaft that operated the scissors that actually closed the valve, were the customary thrust bearings. The bearing assemblies consisted of two flat circular steel rings, each with a shallow groove around its circumference on one side, with a bunch of ball bearings racing around, sandwiched in the grooves between the two rings. I guess that’s why the ring was called a ‘bearing race.’ In any case, that’s what they broke – just a simple steel ring. The only thing separating it from an ordinary washer was that groove on one side. That, and the fact that without it, one of my boilers was off the line. Of course, we didn’t have any spares. Nobody ever broke one before.

    In the early eighties the Navy was using a system of readiness reporting in which everything was classified ‘C-1’ (fully combat-ready) through ‘C-4’ (welded to the pier). One of the principles of that particular system was that you couldn’t be any more ready overall than your least ready area. In other words, even if all your gear worked and your people were trained and chomping at the bit, if you had no food on board you were ‘C-4’ for supplies no matter good you were otherwise. Also, your readiness status (and any changes to it) was broadcast by radio for instant reference on that big status-board at the Pentagon. With only three out of four boilers available, we had to send out an embarrassing radio message reporting our little engineering casualty, thereby changing our overall number for the worse. Not that the captain would care, he was a real easygoing guy. And if my grandmother had wheels, she’d be a truck.

    Everybody’s mad at me like we broke this stupid thing on purpose. We pull into San Diego, and I learn that the DESRON staff has located our obscure part at some supply depot near Long Beach. I call the phone number the squadron provided, and after a few runarounds I finally get the right guy on the line. “So, you got that bearing race in stock?”
“Yeah, we got it.”
“Great! When can I get it?”
“You can’t get it.” Long pause. I thought he was kidding. “What do you mean, I can’t get it?”
“It’s a nuclear part.” When the Navy first built their 1200-pound plants in the late fifties, they used the same level of quality assurance as was used in the nuclear plants of the era. As we gained experience and confidence in the new high-pressure plants, they down-rated the associated QA levels of the various parts. Apparently, nobody else had ever broken one of these bearing races either, because nobody ever thought to down-rate them and take them off the nuclear list. “Listen, I don’t think you understand. We’re not a nuclear ship.”
“No, Mister, I don’t think you understand. I know you’re not a nuclear ship. That’s why you can’t have it.”

    I was sitting in the wardroom, despondent over the thought of having to listen to that malignant dwarf scream at me, when I absently looked at the broken piece of metal in my pocket. On one side, I could just barely make out the worn stamp: “Acme Hardware Inc., San Diego, Calif.” With nothing to lose, I dialed information for the number. “There really is an Acme Hardware Company?”

    The guy on the phone was almost bored. “Yeah, we got it. That’s $12.95 each. How many you need?” He was puzzled by my enthusiasm as I said, “Just one!” I grabbed BT3 Smith, stuffed a $20 in his hand and told him to hurry. And I wanted my change. He came back about an hour later with a brand-new, bright, shiny washer – with a groove around the circumference on one side.

The new part fit perfectly, and the legs of the grasshopper flexed their muscles effortlessly. Two-Alfa was back on the line. I was ready to head for the Mainbrace to pound down a few beers when someone pointed out that without the Navy stock numbers and the requisition information, we wouldn’t be able to send out the radio message to upgrade our status on the big board. I could hear the screaming starting again…

Home Up

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