By her own account, Ashley Havera is very much a homebody. When not directing the global field services and product support team for Military Systems Operation (MSO) at GE Aviation, she likes to spend her free time gardening, interior decorating and generally hanging out with her husband, David, and their 8-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son in the house they recently rehabbed in suburban Cincinnati. In short, she likes to chill.
But back in September, she found herself standing with three GE colleagues on “Vulture’s Row,” an observation deck on the USS Abraham Lincoln, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, wearing ear protectors, a bump cap, a jacket to stay warm, and goggles, watching fighter jets land on the aircraft carrier’s flight deck in the dark. For Havera, this was a totally different kind of chill.
“The nighttime operations were the most crazy, because you’re standing outside, it’s pitch black and you can feel the heat and the jet fuel in the air burning your eyes,” she recalls. “You’re looking up at the sky and you’re seeing all these stars, and you can hear the afterburners rolling on these airplanes — but you cannot see them. It’s actually really disorienting.”
Perhaps, but she’s getting used to it. Havera took over field services and product support at MSO in the summer of 2020, after 12 years working in supply chain operations serving the commercial aircraft market, in particular the GE90 and GE9X engine lines. However, because of the pandemic she had not been able to travel to any of MSO’s more far-flung field service outposts. So this was her first time seeing her team in action on the West Coast. After visiting Naval Air Station Lemoore outside Fresno, California, and Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego, Havera and her team had the chance to observe a Navy training mission at sea as guests of Squadron 122 out of Lemoore. It was an offer she couldn’t refuse.
The team consisted of Havera; David LeGard, senior West Coast manager for field services; Jorge Perez, general manager for military services; and Michael Bai, a CSM/field services regional leader who had also worked as a design engineer of engine hardware on the F/A-18 Super Hornet, which happens to be what Squadron 122 flies. They boarded the carrier at Coronado Island in San Diego and spent five days cruising the Pacific off the coast of Baja California as Navy pilots completed daytime and nighttime landings in a variety of airplanes — F/A-18 and F-35 fighters, as well as T-45 trainers and C-2 Greyhounds. Some pilots were there to renew their flying certificates, while others were still in flight school.
Havera and her group were given free rein on the ship; they stood out on the flight deck as planes landed and took off, inspected the engine shop belowdecks and even got to see the maintenance crews test jet engines off the back of the carrier. “They’ll bring the engine in and our field service team will help them troubleshoot,” she says. “They’ll actually hang the engine off the back of the boat on a test stand and it just runs right there, out in the open.” The crew can’t run engine tests during flight operations, though, so the test they witnessed took place at 2:30 a.m. on a Saturday.
“We saw everything,” Havera says, including how they manage trash (the carrier can hold 5,000 crew members when fully deployed, so there’s a lot of trash to deal with) and how they cook all the food. They got a tutorial on how the planes take off (given the short runway, a catapult system propels each plane off the flight deck) and land (a cable helps catch each plane as it hits the runway). The only thing they weren’t allowed to see was the nuclear reactor that powered the ship, “because it was classified.”
For Havera, it was a learning experience on many levels. In the wide-body commercial market, she says, the customers tend to be a little more formal; they like to play up the glamour of air travel. When she met commercial customers, she dressed up and wore heels. Meeting military customers out in the field is a whole different ballgame — one that requires safety helmets and steel-toed shoes. “They’re like, ‘Wear something you can get dirty with,’ ” she says.
Havera slept in a bunk with Navy-issued bedding (one pillow, one top sheet, one wool blanket) and trundled to the community shower like the rest of her roommates. (“They were like, ‘Wear shower shoes. Do not touch the floor.’”) Her room was one level below the flight deck, which means every time a plane landed, she could hear it hit the deck (“Bang!”), hear the tail hook let go of the cable (“Bang!”) and hear the cable retract (“Choo-choo-choo-choo!”).
“It was just a completely different experience than anything I was used to,” Havera says.
And it’s one she won’t soon forget. She came away with a deeper understanding of the hard work that men and women in uniform do every single day. “As much as I grew up respecting and learning that that was important, I still had no clue how difficult it was to be away from your family,” she notes. “And, you know, there’s not a lot of sleep happening on that aircraft carrier.”
She also came away with a deeper knowledge of the role the field services team plays in supporting their military customers. “Stopping and doing an engine change is not something that anyone wants to do,” she says. “It disrupts the entire flow of the operation. So the safety and reliability of our engines is paramount.”
And she learned one more thing. The Navy flew the GE team back to the mainland on an Osprey, a cargo jet that has the ability to take off vertically. She was strapped into a jump seat with a five-point harness, wearing a helmet, ear protection and a life jacket, when she noticed that the back hatch was still open. “So you’re just looking out at the water,” she says. “And you’re like, ‘Are they going to close that?’ And they’re like, ‘Nope.’”
It took 30 minutes to fly back to San Diego, and the whole time she kept thinking, “Just keep it together. Do not throw up or do something stupid.” Needless to say, she remained chill.