Dockside Classic Tech: How to Operate an Elevator

Actually I am talking about an aircraft elevator circa 1943 that is still functional.

As originally designed an Essex Class carrier had three elevators to move aircraft. Two were centerline, fore and aft, and a third was deck edge on the port side after being proved successful on CV-7 USS Wasp. The deck edge created more lift capacity and storage space for aircraft without compromising the flight operations of the carrier. Machinery was a little less complicated and required 20% less man hours of maintenance.

The obvious compromise of the centerline elevators was in having one in the wrong position or inoperable due to battle damage. One can see some famous pictures of the USS Enterprise being hit by a kamikazi carrying a 550 lb. bomb which exploded under the forward elevator. It was blown 700 feet high and the Big E was now done for the remainder of the war. Starting in the mid fifties all Essex Class carriers underwent SCB-125 modernization which eliminated the aft centerline elevator and replaced it with a starboard deck edge leaving the forward centerline seen here.

To make the elevator operational, actually two are on the Hornet while the third is waiting, hydraulic oil was needed. This is where Chevron came through with a donation of 3,000 gallons in 55 gallon drums that were emptied into the tank below deck via siphon for Elevator 1 (L1) and then 3000 gallons for the port side L2. L3 is awaiting new cables which is considerable.

Pictured here are the controls for L1 on the starboard side next to the elevator pit. To the right are two toggle switches with the top controlling up and down. Just left of that is the sound powered phone used to talk to the pump room and to a man at the flight deck edge catwalk. Far left shows two lights up top which would show the machinery is powered up. Below that is the switch for the klaxon which is sounded three times before operation commences. Last, behind the large brass cover, is the hand crank for manually operating the elevator. On automatic the elevator will run a cycle of plane spotted on, raised, plane off, next plane spotted on, lowered, and then plane off in 45 seconds. Now using the hand crank, and being a relatively strong and healthy man, you can raise the elevator in 20 seconds and back down in 20 seconds. Capacity is 45,000 lbs.


The process works this way. With the elevator in the up position all the oil is in the High Pressure (HP) Tank already from a previous operation. When we lower the elevator  the oil stays in the HP Tank as we use gravity. On raising the elevator oil is pumped from the HP tank to the LP tank. Once up you then need to transfer the oil back to the HP Tank for the next cycle. We use emergency manual to do the transfer as the automatic system using the slave cylinders has never been tested. So you walk around the corner from hanger deck control and down this starboard passageway past pilot’s staterooms.  Then left at the end and a quick turn right. Anyone who knows of the fire aboard USS Oriskany it was started in a locker (A-107) off to the right of the ladder.

You have now made the right turn and see a ladder from Deck 1 down to Deck 2. Take it down and bear left.

Here you walk a short way down the passageway past the hull to the left and up and over the knee knocker.

On the right there is a ladder down to Deck 3. You watch your head here as the overhead is low. You learn to wear a hard shell inside your hat to avoid smashing your head on objects overhead such as a major pipe. I did that once and ended up on the deck for a minute wondering what had happened. Yes, it was a concussion.


To the back you can see another hatch down. If you pass it and walk inside the hatch, to the left, you will walk into the Starboard catapult piston space.

Now heading down the ladder from Deck 3 to Deck 4 you walk around to the back for the next hatch.

Before going down the next hatch you could walk straight off the ladder into this space that holds the 30 inch piston and cables that move L1.

Now you are at a trunk and you use the vertical ladder down past Deck 5 and to the bottom at Deck 6.

Here you are at the Machinery space on Deck 6 Frame 32 where you walk into the dark space. That wire connects to the flood alarm further down in the bowels of the ship.

Turn to the left and turn the two lower rotary knobs to light up Deck 6 and Deck 7.

Looking aft in the space one sees this. Power panels back left. HP and LP tanks to the right. They span from Deck 7 to half way into Deck 5 above.

Turn on power to the pump.

Move to the back and prepare to open the main valves. Be prepared for a work out as these valves are overhead and require quite a few turns missing the power steering. The other two elevators have their main valves at a manageable waist level. The two smaller wheels are for the bypass valves which are also opened.

Now take the short ladder down to Deck 7 for some more valves.

Valve on the left opens the strainer and to the right opens to the pump.

Toggle the switch to turn on the pump. Spin the wheel (white tag) full open to allow the transfer of oil from LP to HP.

Move back and turn to the left next to the HP tank.

Now from this position look up.

Here you see the lighted tube that tells you the level of the oil in the HP tank. Almost at the very top you can see a mark that I put on the tube years ago to know when to close the pump from pumping more oil. It is actually lower than the actual mark because of my upward view. One needs time to move from here to the pump, to turn the valve, and get the pump closed. If one overshoots you risk opening the relief valve, and if working properly, will vent high pressure air and oil out the hull.

Here is my mark which is easier to see from below than the plaque. As you can see the plaque is upside down. The ship was launched in November 1943 and the plaque was apparently installed incorrectly as the other two pump rooms are correct. One of those quirks that you leave alone for historical accuracy. We usually shoot for an inch or two above because of seepage of oil back out into the LP tank if standing unused.

After you are done, with no further operations, you get to close all the valves you opened with the HP tank full. Before leaving the space you need to log in your movement of the elevator, then turn off the lights, and step out. Not much operation in 2017 due to an air compressor on Deck 5 that was leaking cooling water. A new compressor was installed in another location. One pretty much has to work in the restricted spaces to repair any machinery such as re-sealing those pumps on Deck 7. They were lifted off their mounts to do that task.

Head back up and retrace your steps out while turning off the lights for each deck as you go. If this was a Living Ship Day, like those in the past, the elevator would operate four complete cycles in the day before being shut down. So to start a cycle we pick up the sound powered phone to the flight deck edge to request that the safety stanchions be raised. No need to call below decks since we were the ones to transfer oil. Once the stanchions are up and all is clear one hits the klaxon three times and then press the toggle switch.

We no longer operate the elevator during Living Ship Days since the ship’s insurance company heard we carried visitors up and they had a hissy fit concerning liability. We do exercise it once a month and move planes now and then. With the rainy season starting the elevator will stay in the up position and come spring Tom will show me how to grease the machinery from hand crank, to gears, to all the stanchions, and last the 16 cables.



Back at the control station one can see Tom who has been with the ship since 1995. Former Seabee and Fireman who can basically do everything except electrical. Without him the ship wouldn’t run or get the heavy duty repairs she needs. Every ship museum needs a Tom but most don’t have one so we are indeed supremely lucky. Tom, besides owning a Jeep and a Mack truck, uses a 1964 Chevrolet C10 Stepside as his daily driver from Santa Cruz to Alameda most every Friday to spend the weekend aboard ship working, fabricating, machining, welding and repairing.