When the U.S. Navy wants to haul a few hundred tons of troops, material, or gear from ship to shore sailors use the Landing Craft Utility (LCU) or the Landing Craft Air Cushioned (LCAC) vehicle, a hovercraft.
The two vessels are vastly different, yet they both provide the backbone of missions ranging from humanitarian relief to a full-blown beach invasion. We got up-close and personal with both crafts and the units that operate them.
The LCAC Hovercraft
At nearly 90 feet long the LCAC is a massive hovercraft whose operator must peg himself by four limbs to a yoke, and two foot rudders. Operating in six dimensions, like a helicopter pilot, the enlisted LCAC Craftmaster careens across water and land like an air-hockey puck.
The LCU is old-school in every sense, but its navigation and electronics gear are continually upgraded. These were the boats dropping off Vietnam draftees on the shores on the Han river in the early 1970s.
LCUs drop off 125 tons of cargo and hit the beach at about 14 mph, while the LCAC slides in at more than 46 mph carrying up to 75 tons.
It’s no wonder the two units, which are right next door to each other at the joint Expeditionary Base in Little Creek-Fort Story, have a bit of a heated rivalry based off Aesop’s Fable number 226: The Tortoise and The Hare.
LCU Craftmaster Chief Petty Officer Bright of LCU Unit 2, told Business Insider,”It may take us a bit longer to get there compared to the LCACs, but you know what happened to the Hare. Slow and easy, is best.”
Business Insider visited both units in early July and went out on the water with an LCAC team over Norfolk Bay. Here’s what the day was like and how the U.S. military delivers its troops and goods onto shores across the world.
Pulling up to the Navy's East Coast Hovercraft Unit in Little Creek, Virgina leaves quite an impression.
Their hovercraft speeds in carrying 60 tons of material or troops at speeds in excess of 40 mph, straight from the water onto the beach.
There's a camaraderie and unit pride that's a lot like that of a Navy fighter wing. It's a pilot and aircraft type thing.
And this unit is the last bastion for enlisted sailors because Hovercraft pilots are all Non-Commissioned Officers and the mood in the garrison reflects that fully.
... they sit here outside the air traffic control tower where their crews report daily to perform upkeep and maintenance.
But today in Norfolk it's all business as we pile in behind the pilot on the right who tells us to put our headgear on.
Wearing those green headphones all the chatter between the navigator, co-pilot, and pilot start coming through.
We move onto the water with a burst of spray from the huge fans pumping air into the craft's skirts to keep us afloat.
Within moments we're hundreds of yards from shore. The windshield wipers beat furiously as the crew swings the craft around.
Back on land and settled in we back up and get ready to watch the crew take off and land from the shore.
The officer down here asks what else we'd like to see and we ask to watch it pull back onto the tarmac.
The officer jokes that there is technology everywhere, but he still has to send a text to the pilot. That doesn't work either so he tells the crew directly what he wants.
... the pilot eases the LCAC out and lets it settle on one side over a separate drain to ensure no chemicals will flow out into the water.
A quick spin around the tarmac to dry off and LCAC 39 prepares to park. That ship in the distance is the USS Ashland on its way to Japan.
Back inside we decline a burger before saying goodbye and heading to the LCAC's sister crews at the Assault Craft Unit across base.
The mixed-gender crew are usually made up of about a dozen members. Here they report to the vessel for morning formation for a day of upkeep and training.
Recent budget cuts have crews shrinking, which means more work. Shrinking funding means less-frequent training.
Like LCAC pilots, the captains of these 135-foot vessels are always enlisted, usually a senior non-commissioned officer like an E-7.
Chief Petty Officer Bright, like his peers, must be proficient in ratings from the engine room to the navigation system. They need to know it all.
This is 40-year-old technology and what sailors would use in an emergency, without power, to communicate below decks.
There is an immense amount of record keeping as the Navy tries to go paperless with shrinking crews.
LCUs can haul either 350 troops, 125 tons of cargo, or tanks, onto nearly any beach in the world, but they get there slow and easy at under 14 mph.
While perhaps not as flashy as the hovercraft, life aboard an LCU is not all bad. Without officers, there's no saluting.
It may not be big and flashy like the LCAC, but the LCU is a backbone of support when landing ground forces.
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