Saturday, September 4, 2010

McInerney sails into sunset, first of Mayport frigates to leave fleet

The USS McInerney has been turned over to the Pakistani navy.

By Timothy J. Gibbons

Shortly before the sun set Tuesday, the USS McInerney was no more. Within a few minutes, the PNS Alamgir floated in its place.

Dozens of feet above the water at Mayport Naval Station, a Pakistani sailor was already hard at work with a long brush and bucket of gray paint. He was covering up a large numeral "8" on the ship's bow, a U.S. designation, as the new crew made the ship its own.

"It tugs at your heartstrings," Cmdr. Paul Young, the final commanding officer of the McInereny said, minutes after turning over the vessel to Capt. Naveed Ashraf.

In recent months, Young led the ship on a successful final deployment and then spent months working with the Pakistani crew members, bringing them up to speed as they prepared to take over the ship.

"I'm proud of the ship and proud of the sailors," he said Tuesday. The ceremony handing over the McInerney marked the beginning of the end for the Navy's fleet of frigates, which make up most of the force at Mayport.

It's the last "first" for the ship, which was on the cutting edge for most of its time in service, including serving as the test bed for the LAMPS MK III helicopter that helps find submarines and for the Navy's new unmanned aerial vehicle that hunts drug runners.

"She led the way in operation readiness," Rear Adm. Vic Guillory said about the McInerney, which he used to look at across the basin when he commanded the Mayport-based sister ship USS Underwood.

A few dozen of the ship's plank owners - members of the McInerney's original crew - who were on hand for the ceremony remembers getting the ship to that readiness level.

Because the 1979-commissioned McInerney was the second Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate made, the plank owners were tasked with learning what worked and what didn't - sometimes dangerously so.

"We were off Nova Scotia looking for heavy seas. We found them," said Ken Hardison, a gas turbine system technician on the ship who came down from Virginia for the ceremony. "It was an experience."

The flexing that resulted led to the stiffer side, which became part of the entire class. The plank owners have been talking about the decommissioning for months, several said, reigniting old friendships along the way.

"This has brought us a lot closer," said Rocky Morris, another member of the engineering department. Seeing the new crew on the ship was a bit sad, he said. "It's like we saw the baby being born, and now we're giving it away," Morris said. "We wish them the best with it. We hope they treat it well."

Its new owners plan to: After spending several months across the river in the Atlantic Marine facility, where some basic repairs will be made, the PNS Alamgir is expected to become a workhorse in the Pakistani fleet.

"You're not losing a ship; you're gaining a strengthened relationship," Pakistani Ambassador Husain Haqqani said Tuesday. "We look forward to the transfer of more frigates."

The Pakistani navy is interested in seven of the U.S. frigates, although Congress has not yet approved any more of the transfers.

However, many of this class of ships being phased out will be sold or given to partner nations. The dozen frigates remaining at Mayport are slated to be decommissioned by 2015, when the USS Samuel B. Roberts is retired.

Having the vessels as part of the Pakistani fleet, Haqqani said, is good for both countries. "The strategic partnership between the U.S. and Pakistan will continue to deepen," he said. "The leadership of both countries understands the need for the relationship."

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