BATTLE CREEK, Mich., –
While the Air Force is well known for its aircraft, people in the Destin-Fort Walton Beach area of Florida will soon know more about one of its watercraft as the excess vessel becomes a new addition to an artificial reef.
The watercraft, PL-94-9301, better known as the “Big Dawg,” supported the Air Force Parachute Water Survival School located at NAS Pensacola, Florida. Greg Smith, the quality assurance specialist and watercraft equipment custodian for the school, said the nickname came from the watercraft’s size -- 94 feet long, 32.6 feet wide and 158 tons. Smith said the “PL” in the hull number stands for “parasail launch” boat used to support water survival training.
When the school was at Homestead Air Force Base, Smith said different smaller types of landing craft were used. When the plan to build a new larger vessel was approved, he said the positive characteristics from each vessel were applied to design the “one of kind vessel.”
After Hurricane Andrew the school moved to Tyndell Air Force Base and later consolidated with the Navy’s water survival training at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida. Smith said it was at Pensacola where the boat was delivered in 1993. He said the larger vessel proved to be an invaluable asset – “a floating classroom as described by most.” He said the watercraft was used for training Air Force and Navy air crew, pilots and even assisted NASA staff with testing some new space suits.
Students could disembark from the stern for one-person life raft training and be dropped and dragged from the stern during parasail training.
“We had two I-beams off the back that could be used simulate the student plunging into the water after ejecting from an aircraft. The dragging motion from the watercraft simulated conditions when an inflated parachute drags its user through the water so students could practice techniques different anti-drowning techniques,” Smith said.
Smith also described how students could also be launched from the front flight deck using one of the smaller parasail vessels to tow a trainee to an altitude of 500 feet before the line was released. The student would conduct a checklist during the descent, splash and then release the parasail before recovery by a pick-up vessel. The flight deck also supported observed helicopter hoist demonstrations. Two twenty-person life rafts could be deployed from the Big Dawg so students could conduct a large aircraft ditching with multiple personnel on board.
“They would run through various scenarios during this training and then be recovered by the Big Dawg,” Smith said. “We had it down to a science.”
The watercraft came back to Air Force control after the Navy school at Pensacola was deactivated in 2015. Smith had hoped to see it used to range control work at Eglin, and later there was a possibility to use it for recovering drones. It was after those ideas did not work out that the boat was made available the Defense Logistics Agency.
Property Disposal Specialist Vince Ramirez said the boat first came to DLA Disposition Services attention when Barbara Johnson, his colleague at Eglin Air Force Base, was contacted by the 1st Special Operations Support Squadron’s Maritime Section last summer about turning in the boat.
Johnson arranged for the Eglin staff to receive the boat in place, so it stayed at the marina at Hurlburt Field until it was requisitioned by the Florida Federal Property Agency for Okaloosa County located in Fort Walton Beach. Ramirez said the boat was requested for use by the Okaloosa County Coastal Resources to add to the county’s project.
Ramirez said the boat would go through a process the Environment Protection Agency and the Army Corp of Engineers conduct to certify it is clean and environmentally safe for its final mission –“to become an artificial reef in our emerald coast.”
Coastal Resource Manager Alex Fogg said the northwest part of Florida has very little natural reef habitat compared to other parts of the state. Fogg said artificial reefs help by creating a habitat for recreationally, commercially and ecologically important marine species. He explained that artificial reefs can be anything from a small piece of concrete or steel to structures such as large vessels like the Big Dawg.
“They can also have a large economic impact, specifically as it relates to tourism,” Fogg said. “Scuba divers in particular will travel from far and wide to dive large ‘wrecks’ such as the Big Dawg.”
As an active waterfront community, ecotourism destination and host to a large charter fishing fleet, Fogg said artificial reef additions are essential to Destin – Fort Walton Beach to support these activities.
Fogg said the deployment of the Big Dawg will probably happen in a couple of months following the preparation work, inspection and final approval,
The final voyage of the Big Dawg will also have an impact on Ramirez as one of the more memorable items he has processed.
“This was one of my biggest and most rewarding,” Ramirez said. “Knowing that they are going to use the boat as an artificial reef, I am pleased that I had some part in this.”