On any day that the famous Bath Iron Works sends a new warship down to the sea for trials, the air in this shipyard on the Kennebec River is electric with excitement. It's the acid test of every wire and weld, every bolt and bulkhead that has gone into her.

But on a cold, crystal morning following the season's especially beautiful first snowfall, standing at sunup on the still unshoveled deck of a guided missile frigate as she slips her moornings and sweeps downstream, the feeling on board among the several hundred men and a few women who helped build her is sheer exhilaration.

Pride of shipbuilding has been Maine's heritage for 300 years. It accounts for the storied quallity built into the ships Bath Iron Works produces. Combined with expert management, it explains why this yard, which dates back to 1833, is turning out these FFGs -- "fast frigate guided" -- three months in advance of schedule, below the agreed-upon price even with inflation, and without one financial claim against the United States government. So far, the savings to the US Navy from these early deliveries are big enough to buy a good portion of another FFG. Shipbuilders from all over the free world keep coming here to find out how Bath does it.

The USS Clifton Sprague is one of a completely new class of 54 ships being built for the Navy here in Bath and at Todd Shipyards' two yards on the West Coast to replace with something far better the redoubtable old destroyers from World War II that are now being phased out of service.

The sophisticated Sprague, computerized and bristling with automated weaponry , is the sixth of the new breed to be completed by Bath, with a dozen more to be built here under the present contract. On this brilliant winter day when whe is to be put through her paces, the view from her fantail is spectacular.

As sunshine breaks over the high hills that hedge this river, the freshly fallen snow glints from every rock and evergreen. As we run the 12 miles down to the mouth of the Kennebec, the twisting channel snakes us past plateaus crowned with handsome farmhouses. It squeaks us through passages so tight we could knock off a front porch if we aren't careful. It carries us part white spired churches and old frame lighthouses, until at the mouth we pass Fort Popham, a deserted granite landmark. Nearby, the Popham Colony built the first merchant ship in North America 13 years before the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock. Then they sailed right back to England. One Maine winter was quite enough!

All this is more than just history and striking scenery. It's Maine's magnet that draws even overqualified college professors, schoolteachers, and other highly educated people to become well-paid welders, pipefitters, and such for BIW.

As a huge flock of black eiderdown ducks flutters across our bow, our land legs feel the first long ocean swells and we enter the open sea.

Incredible as it sounds, a watch has been set on the bridge of this 445-foot, 3,700-ton man-of-war to look out for lobsterpot markers. Port Captain William L. Rich, a reserve naval officer in command of the ship today, explains with a grin that you can get into a mess of legal snarls if you tangle with lobster pot lines.

So we're heading 20 miles out, clear of fishermen's boats and floats, where we'll run up and down the coast all day and half the night pushing the Sprague to her limits, testing her seaworthiness and ability to perform to Navy specifications.

These are called shipbuilder's trials. At considerable expense, Bah Iron Works conducts its own dress rehearsal tests to prove to itself and Navy representatives on board that all the complex mechanism and electronic wizardy on what has been called "the Stradivarius of destroyers" works correctly on command. Before taking custody of the ship, the Navy will conduct independent ("preliminary acceptance") sea trials of its own to make sure taxpayers are getting their money's worth.

In today's tests, the Sprague is firing only dummy weapons from the completely unmanned missile launcher on its bow and antiaircraft gun on top of the ship's superstructure. The Navys own climactic test, reserved alone for the lead ship of this class, the USS Oliver Hazard Perry, also Bath built, was a baptism by real fire to simulate a near miss. Called an "underwater shock test, " it was a series of remotely detonated large explosions with live ammunition which came closer and closer until the final bang occurred right alongisde the Perry, which had her full crew on board.

The ship's ability to wage war after these explosions was not seriously impaired. Navy spokesman termed the test "immensely successful," especially when compared to that of other ships of different classes.

The game plan for today is for a BIW-hired plane and helicopter to rendezvous with the Sprague at sea so that its radar can track them, and its gunnery personnel in the ship's combat information center can test the accuracy of the weapons systems.

The empty missile launcher stands bolt upright, as rigid as a tin soldier. The helicopter comes into view. Before you can bat an eyelash, a blue missile shoots up into place in the launcher and points skyward. "If it's blue," I'm assured, "it's not real." Suddenly the launcher gives the missile a jerk, yanks it into firing position and aims it to starboard, over the bow, to port, then, oooh! straight over us in the pilothouse. Blue or not, at that moment it looked very real indeed.

Then just as instantly as it had appeared, it vanished, dropping down into one of the two revolving circular magazines where 40 missiles are stored, standing on end with their pointed warheads upright like sharpened pencils in a box.

"The best thing about the fire power on this ship is not how much there is of it, but the speed with which it can react to an incoming threat," US Navy Commander Andrew J. Combe observes. He is scheduled to take command to the next FFG to come down the BIW skids.

"That's all tied up in the fire-control system which can detect a target, track it, generate the proper fire-control solution, and determine the right direction in which to shoot the gun or missile in order to intercept the target at the weapon's maximium range, that is, as far away as possible from the ship. That's a very advanced system. Fast reaction is the name of the game. We can react in a hurry to any threat. We have a lot of electronics to aid us in that process." He says the Sprague is "much more responsive than any other ship I've ever seen."

The control console on the bridge of an FFG is at least as complex as that of a Boeing 747 jet. As gunnery and missile practice continues, Captain Rich explains what the amazing array of dials, switches, knobs, and lights mean.

"Push that button," he orders this reporter.

With a mental, "Aye aye, sir," this writer becomes the first woman in US naval history ever to activate all 12 of an FFG's windshield wipers. (Women are not permitted by law to serve on the Navy's combat ships). The place goes crazy with flip-flopping blades and shooting sprays of water until the knife edge of the 180-degree far horizon springs back into view.

"You're combat ready now," one wisecracker quips.

Unlike the grueling sailing vessels of the past, where sailors hung onto yardarms with their eyelashes, this is a ship for which men of iron need not apply. Fingertip steering has gone to sea.

Conspicuously absent from this late 20th-century pilothouse is the traditional 36-inch mahogany helm. Replacing it is an absurd little three-inch-diameter wheel on the console that any four-year-old could easily twist. The helmsman on duty today is guiding this powerful vessel with the thumb and third finger of his right hand.

And do our eyes deceive us or do we really see seat belts on the two bolted-to-the-floor swivel chairs before the console? They're there, all right. And when the Sprague begins going through her handsprings -- quick reversal astern from full speed ahead, quick reversal ahead from full speed astern, each in less than a minute -- we can see and feel why.

When the Sprague is at full power ahead, it can come silently to a rapid halt within three of its own lengths. Though hardly a fair comparison, it takes an aircraft carrier three miles to stop dead in the water. The SPrague and her sister ships can circle so sharply they can turn within their own length.

What gives an FFG its incredible speed of response and ease of operation compared with the old destroyers are its aviation-type engines. Replacing the steam boilers, turbines, and miles of hot piping that turned engine rooms into an inferno are two General Electric LM 2500 gas turbine engines, similar to those in Boeing 747 and McDonnell Douglas DC-10 jets, that have been adapted to marine use and consume a refined distillate of diesel oil similar to that used for heating homes.

The old destroyers were remarkably maneuverable, as much so as these new ships. But they took forever to get under way. If a captain wanted to shove off at 8 in the morning, the boiler crew had to start warming up the pipes at 4 a.m. These new engines are ready to roll in 10 minutes -- a giant advantage in case of emergencies.

The new engines, which produce about 200,000 horsepower each, can be operated singly or in tandem. If one fails, the other can carry on. If either needs to be repaired, it can be disconnected and plucked from the bowels of the ship by a tender's crane and another engine slipped into its place. This can be done in 24 hours. Overhauls on the old steam-driven destroyers put the ships out of commission for weeks on end.

Gas turbine engines also occupy much less space than steam engines, thus saving on cost of ship construction.

With each engine enveloped in its own soundproofed module, they purr along with such relative quiet that what used to be the noisy boiler rooms of the old destroyers, which had two propeller shafts and two boilers manned by 20 men, have disappeared. In their place is a cool, quiet, immaculate, livable central control station (CCS) that looks more like an office than a ship's engine room, and which can be operated with no more than two to four people. This model comes with mint green walls, daffodil-yellow light fixtures, and mouse-gray floors.

And why not, asks William Lowell, also a reserve naval officer, a graduate of the Maine Maritime Academy, and chief engineer of BIW's shipyard in charge of the CCS for these trials.

"This is the new Navy!" he exclaims. "Do you realize that 365 days of the year for probably the next 25 to 30 years this space is going to be manned? Good surroundings are conducive to good performance."

There are no windows in this small room aft of the engines and one level below the man deck. But it's loaded with consoles that give an exact mental picture at any given moment of everything that is happening on board pertaining to operation of this self-sufficient floating community.

One console regulates the speed of the engines on command from the bridge. Another controls generation of the ship's electrical power. A third governs distillation of the seawater to make it potable, maintains water pressure for fighting fires, and operates the ship's nonpolluting sewage system.

"Picture this as an information center," Mr. Lowell suggests. "Thousands of pieces of information from sensors all over the ship are being constantly fed to us, and we are monitoring that information.

"I'm getting temperatures, pressures, speeds. If a tank of oil begins to get empty or a tank of water begins to fill up, I know about it instantly. We know what our consumption of fuel and electricity is.

"If any of that information shows there is an abnormal condition, we get audible alarms. A siren or bells give us warming. And a flashing red light shows us where the problem is."

For example, he says, "We have a room for keeping food frozen. I want to know how cold it is in there. I don't want to thaw the meat. What if that broke down and I wasn't there watching it? I'd starve the whole ship. I can dial 830 on our digital computer and it tells me that we have 3 degrees F. in the freeze box. I'm pretty happy with that. but I don't really have to do that. If the temperature started going up, this light would flash on and tell me I was in trouble. Then I'd take a man here and say, 'Go take a look at the meat box.'"

On one side of the central control station is a computer printer. "Every hour, whether we want it or not," Mr. Lowell says, "it churns out about 1,000 pieces of information, a printed record of everything the ship is doing."

It's the centralization of all these vital functions that makes the FFG's more efficient than the old destroyers. The latter had gauges and warning signals, too, but they were scattered around the ship at the site of each individual piece of equipment. Hence many more men were needed to monitor the large number of systems such a warship includes.

For the helicopter and weapons tests, we needed 25 knots. Now that they are completed, what we are doing is slowly building up our engine power to 40,000 hp. "This becomes very important to us," Chief Engineer Lowell explains, "because we are really bringing the ship alive for the very first time, and it is a very difficult task. There are a lot of things to watch. A lot of gremlins can sneak into different systems. And we've got to get up to more than 30 knots." How much more is the Navy's secret.

In addition to her aviation-style engines, what gives the Sprague her great responsiveness is her variable pitch propeller. The old destroyers had fixed propeller blades attached to their drive shafts. To go forward, the propeller was turned in one direction. To thrust the ship astern, the turbines and shafts had to come to a full stop. Then the shafts had to be turned in the reverse direction.

The new FFGs have only one drive shaft, but it is the largest on any single propeller ship in the Navy. It's about 160 feet long and 14 inches in diameter and has blades that turn separately from the hub so that whether the ship is moving forward or backward, its propeller shaft continues to turn in the same direction. To change the ship's direction, all the central control station has to do is reverse the pitch of the blades.

"Up to 15 knots," explains Captain Rich, "to increase the speed of this ship, we change the angle of the blade. The blade cuts deeper into the water just like cutting into a piece of wood with a bit and screw. You just change the angle of the blade. It digs deeper and the ship goes faster. From 15 knots and up, the engines' rpms [revolutions per minute] have to be increased to make the ship go faster." That additional speed eats up a lot more fuel.

Standing today at the propulsion console, I wonder if the small black handle on the throttle would fit neatly into the hand of, say, a Wellesley, Mass., housewife. So I stretch forth my right hand, grasp it, and sure enough, it does. To say that reaction to this move if panic might be too strong a term. Still, there is much sucking in of breath in the crowded CCS, and Mr. Lowell blurts out: "No, no! Don't touch! You'll slow the ship down!"

He swiftly regains his composure -- as I remove my hand from the controls -- and continues: "Right now we are commanding 15 knots and we are getting 15 knots. But we don't even need oral communications from the captain. When he flips the black needle on a dial on the bridge, the corresponding dial down here shows that. We acknowledge the signal by flipping the red needle under the black one to show him we are in agreement. There's an awful lot of interplay of electronics here. Now you wait a minute," he adds, "and I'll let you move that throttle."

For a few towering moments, this reporter is in supreme control of the Sprague's propulsion, effortlessly edging her speed up and down at Mr. Lowell's bidding. It is more fun than driving a car, even if I can't see where we're going, and a lot easier.

We have a light sea going today. And as the ship moves faster through the water, we begin hitting four- and five-foot waves. The ship wants to work a little, and even here in our cocoon we can feel the motion of the accelerated speed.

"We are looking at a marvelous collection of shipbuilders here," Mr. Lowell remarks, looking around him at the BIW personnel on board. "My job is easy because of all the talent that stands behind us in the shipyard. We are blessed with good people.They have good attitudes, real positive-type thinking, and pride of workmanship. It is very refreshing to see people who care, who try hard."

BIW is cranking out these guided missile frigates at the rate of one every three months, or four a year. Together with another four coming out of Todd's two yards every 12 months, that's about half the number of all ships being built this year.

Until recently, Bath's proclivity for finishing ahead of schedule meant it was turning out vessels faster than the Navy could provide the highly skilled crews required to man them. But Washington has learned to live with this problem, a far more welcome one than the trouble it is having with the first of its Tridet missile submarines at Groton, Conn., which is two years behind schedule and $200 million over original estimates.

By eliminating nonessential elements of its 19-month training program, the Navy is managing to keep crew arrivals in step with frigate deliveries. The cream of its officers as well as its new recruits are being assigned to these fast ships.

"The crews who report for duty aboard these ships are of the highest quality, " reports US Navy Capt. Charles L. Mull, supervisor of shipbuilding, conversion, and repair at Bath Iron Works. "They are extremely interested in what they are doing, are motivated and anxious to learn everything possible about their jobs."

Captain Mull's staff of nearly 200 civil service personnel are resident at the BIW. They keep a constant watch over the shoulders of Bath builders to assure that quality remains high. A spirit of mutual respect and teamwork between Bath and Navy personnel aids in solving engineering problems as they arise.

The first FFG ship cost $92 million.Aside from the fact that this price included many nonrecurring costs, including design costs, the speed with which Bath turned out the first "flight of ships" in this new class cut the cost to $ 52 million each in 1975 dollars. Even with inflation of about 10 percent a year , the price Bath is now asking for these warships is about $70 million. But by the time the Navy finishes fitting out an FFG with electronic and weaponry systems, the overall cost climbs to $200 million.

The FFG was designed by Gibbs and Cox, naval architects of New York, with major input by Bath and the Navy.

Why does the Navy need this class of guided missile frigate? "They are built, " Captain Mull replies, "to escort merchant and naval ship convoys and to work with other naval ships to protect shipping against subsurface, air, and surface threats." An essential part of this mission is to ensure US freedom to use and access to the sea lanes.

Compared with long-range sonar in other kinds of ships, the FFG's sonar is medium range. The sh p packs two triple-tube torpedo mounts for submarine warfare. But its main emphasis is against air targets and surface ships.

Tucked neatly inside bays that open onto the Sprague's fantail are two Navy LAMPS (light airborne multipurpose system) helicopters. Each is armed with a torpedo that has a range extending approximately to the horizon.

The Navy is developing a new "over the horizon" helicopter to to on future FFGs that is about 50 percent larger than the percent version. It will be able to go out farther and stay out longer.

The current model also carries torpedoes. It can communicate by radio with its mother ship. But the bigger 'copter will provide computer data as well, precisely pinpointing the foe's location. When it finds an enemy submarine, it will drop a pattern of "sonobuoys." These will release signals which the copter will receive and relay back to its own ship and, if needed, to other ships in the vicinity, all of which can then deploy their forces accordingly.

In addition to seeking out enemy ships with its helicopters, the FFG has devices for protecting itself from enemy detection as well as defending itself from enemy action.

A stream of air forced out through the center of the propeller shaft reduces the noise of turbulence caused by the blades. And a noisemaker that looks like a baby missile can be trailed from a long cable astern the ship. By making more noise than the ship itself, it is designed to attract enemy underwater detection devices away from the FFG.

By 1983 the Navy will have on these ships, as well as on most of its other vessels, a defensive "close-in" weapons system, which will counter kamikazelike missions before they damage a US ship. How are FFGs functioning in today's world? All those built by Bath are headquartered on the East coast in Mayport, Fla. As yet only the Perry, the lead ship, commissioned in 1977, has been deployed. It is now with the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean where task force operations are learning how to use this new class most effectively.

Improved "habitability" is another of many new concepts being pioneered by the Navy on the FFGs. Instead of one area being assigned for berthing, dressing , and recreation as on the old destroyers, separate sections are provided for these functions to give men more comfort, space, privacy, quiet, and undisturbed best.

Late in the afternoon, as the sun, now a red ball of fire low on the horizon, is plummeting into the sea, the Sprague is put through her rigorous steering trials. Going ahead at full power, her rudder is thrust hard to one side, then hard to the other to see whether she'll hold together structurally and her rudder will turn at the prescribed rate. As she goes through these violent turns, her boiling white wake begins to describe those dramatically beautiful "S" curves for which this class is becoming noted.

Probably no one aboard is more interested in her performance than US Navy Commander Meredith Musick, the Annapolis graduate who will command the Sprague when it is commissioned in March. Like Commander Combe, a Yale man who skippered the presidential yacht Sequoia during the Nixon administration, Commander Musick is "thrilled and excited" to be taking command of a brand new ship, especially one designed for minimal manning and equipped with so many labor-saving, automated features. He says the Sprague's complement of 165 men, plus about 20 helicopter personnel is 100 men less than ships of comparable size he has served on previously, and will carry 12 officers instead of 20.

It is only when night falls, when a nearly full moon lays a lane of light across the waves, and the sole illumination in the darkened pilothouse are red indicators glowing on the control panel, that I am permitted into the inner sactum of the ship, the now deserted combat information center.

The room is as futuristic looking as a page from science fiction. Unplugged radar screens and computerized consoles, where earlier in the day operators controlled the gun and launcher and fired the dummy missiles, crowd three sides of the room.

This is where the battles would be waged. Standing at a chart table facing his amassed gadgetry, Captain Mull explains: "It is here that the commanding officer stations himself when the ship is engaged in battle or any kind of combat action where there is an antisurface, surface, or anti-air warfare situation. Any combination can occur at the same time --He has to be ready to prosecute either or both at the same time. Both the weapons system and the movements of the ship are controlled from here. He will do this in conjunction with any orders received from the task force commander who is off on another ship somewhere."

Warfare in the past was physical, but warfare in this new Navy is predominantly mental.

"This is where man and machine integrate," Captain Mull says. "Weapons systems and computers are all generating data displayed on these consoles that man is interpreting and then acting upon. It's man's decision where to place a ship, what weapons to fire, and when to fire them."

How did the Sprague behave on her maiden run? Abbot Fletcher, an Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate mechanical engineer said to have coordinated sea trials for Noah's ark, is trials coordinator and program manager for Bath. A veteran of more than 100 sea trials, he is very pleased with the Sprague's performance.

"I couldn't be happier," he says."It's a good ship." Apart from "a few glitches," the Sprague did its builders proud. "The few casualties we have are of a very minor nature," he reports. Most of her systems performed so flawlessly, he says, that he hopes in future these shipbuilders' trials and the separate Navy trials, which are extremely expensive for both parties, can be combined as a single trial. That would save both BIW and American taxpayers a lot of money.

"I'm always quite impressed with the caliber of the crews --come through the Navy's acceptance trials of these ships," says Mr. Fletcher. "they are a very impressive group. It's a tough job to run these ships and fight them. It's a tough life for them and their families. They need every bit of support everybody can give them."

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