Aboard Charles de Gaulle, French and US sailors toast ‘l’interopérabilité’
By CHRIS CHURCH | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 9, 2016
ABOARD THE CHARLES DE GAULLE — U.S. Navy Lt. Osbaldo walked through the catapult spaces beneath the flight deck, shaking hands with every present member of his French crew, a morning routine he’s grown accustomed to since attaching to the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle.
Today, he’s ensuring his catapult and arresting gear systems are in perfect operational condition for the launch and landing of aircraft supporting the U.S-led coalition fighting the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.
Elsewhere on the ship, four other Americans are also adapting to the customs and courtesies of serving on a French naval vessel. They all fill roles designed to improve the ability for the U.S. and French militaries to work together.
The Americans find funny the perception among some of their U.S. Navy colleagues that the assignment must be a pleasure cruise.
“I think that the perception of when you say you’re going to do an exchange tour on a French aircraft carrier is everyone thinks about you driving around on a motorcycle through the Alps with a glass of wine in your hand or something like that,” said Lt. Cmdr. Gerald, a helicopter pilot. “And in reality, it’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of effort to be able to learn the language and be able to participate, and you are away from home the entire time.”
This is the first time Army Capt. Joe Winglemire has been on a naval vessel and he is particularly aware of the amenities and the restrictions. “Clearly the ability to be able to cook delicious food in a nice kitchen is an amenity, but you are also confined to such a small area. The gym is small for 2,000 people. We get to run on the deck maybe once a week. You give up things as well.”
Having other Americans onboard does help the experience, Winglemire said. It’s good to have people to talk to about Thanksgiving or other things going on back in the U.S.
Personnel Exchange Program
Three of the five Americans on board are taking part in an exchange program in which U.S. Navy personnel serve on the French ship or with its air wing while French personnel serve with U.S. naval units.
Currently the nuclear-powered Charles de Gaulle has a U.S. E-2C Hawkeye naval flight officer; Gerald, the helicopter pilot; and Osbaldo, the catapult officer, along with two liaison officers. The Americans in the exchange program, including Gerald and Osbaldo, couldn’t be identified by their full names due to French military regulations.
When the U.S. provided France with the steam catapults and arresting gear systems, part of the deal was to have an American maintenance officer onboard to assist with operations, Osbaldo said.
“There are... (details) when launching and recovering aircraft that are different, but the sequences of operations of the catapult and the arresting gear are the same,” he said. “Other than that, there are some small differences to adjust to the Rafales (French fighter-bombers) out here.”
Beyond building relationships and enhancing the ability of the two countries to work together, the exchanges are an opportunity to share expertise, Gerald said.
He may have faced the biggest challenge of the Americans onboard, having to adapt to a completely different helicopter type. In the U.S. Navy, he flew the Sikorsky SH-60, while on the “Grande Charles,” as the carrier is known in the French navy, he is flying the smaller Eurocopter Dauphin.
“Almost everything is different, down to the direction the rotors on top of the helicopter spins,” he said.
After a year and a half with the French, Gerald has gained insight into the different procedures used by the two services.
“I don’t think there’s anything that either navy needs to start or stop doing tomorrow, but it’s been interesting seeing a lot of the things that I never really considered why we do them, and then to go to a different navy and see that in fact everything is different in a lot of ways,” Gerald said.
The two U.S. liaison officers share information and facilitate smooth operations with the U.S. military and the coalition fighting the Islamic State group.
“This allows us, between the allies, to coordinate our efforts,” said 6th Fleet Liaison officer Lt. Cmdr. John Amiral.
Amiral, who joined the U.S. Navy because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, feels a special connection to the crew because the ship has been deployed in response to recent terrorist attacks on French soil.
“To be able to defend the values, the liberties and the freedoms that we share as allies ... I think that’s the biggest thing that draws us all together,” he said.
Amiral helped ensure the USS Mason’s easy transition into the French task force — the destroyer officially joined Task Force 473 late last month. He will also help smooth operations with the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower strike group in the eastern Mediterranean.
Winglemire’s job is to coordinate between Charles de Gaulle pilots and joint terminal attack controllers, or JTACS, and those in charge of the ground operations in Iraq and Syria.
The role is vital because it fills a gap in a pilot’s knowledge between the overall situation (“we are attacking Mosul”) and specific information (“look at this coordinate”). Winglemire provides broad information on the locations of friendly and enemy forces, where the friendly plans to attack, where they’ll be moving, and what kind of equipment they are using.
If pilots know this information it’s “not so much of a ‘Where’s Waldo?’ on the ground looking for the enemy,” he said.
The three Americans in the personnel exchange program received language training and learned basic French. But mastering the intricacies of slang and job-specific jargon remains a challenge. Neither of the liaison officers had formal French training before arriving on board.
The job of Lt. Tiffany, the Hawkeye flight officer, requires constant communication. The Hawkeye’s mission as a command and control platform is to provide big-picture awareness for the Rafale fighters -- continuous exchanges of data with the carrier and other aircraft. Much of that information is relayed in English. However, when relaying information between fighters and the ship, that communication is often in French, which can get tricky, Tiffany said. In those situations, Tiffany is able to enlist the help of the other Hawkeye crewmembers.
It also helps that many French pilots have had some of their training in the United States.
“What I’ve learned here, you don’t have to speak French to work here (but) it obviously helps,” Tiffany said.
Life on board, in port
Life on board is very similar to that on U.S. Navy ships. In their time off, crewmembers tend to work out, watch movies and read books. But work hours can be long and strenuous.
One major difference is the bar serving beer and wine. All crewmembers are permitted two drinks per day, but no drinking is allowed within several hours of duty. Free red wine is also served for dinner in the messes on special occasions. Since the Americans are considered members of the French crew, they too are allowed to drink.
When the De Gaulle is in port, the U.S. servicemembers live in France.
“Every day on board, I’m the only American in my squadron,” Tiffany said, and when she is at home in the Brittany region of France, “there are no Americans within a couple of hours from me. So it’s complete immersion.”
For Gerald, it’s a great opportunity to travel and host family and friends.
Osbaldo said his wife and two kids love living in France and have picked up the language more quickly than he has.
U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. John Amiral looks out at the flight deck of the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, Nov. 25, 2016. Amiral, the 6th Fleet liaison officer on the ship, assists in sharing information and coordinating operations between the U.S. and French navies.
CHRIS CHURCH/STARS AND STRIPES