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April 2003

Niagara Falls delivers mail in a new, big way
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By Capt. Jeffrey Siepert, Master, USNS Niagara Falls

Aerial Group
USNS Niagara Falls carries letters to the fleet with new containers developed by the crew. Making the idea a reality were Able Seaman Rhonald Enriquez; Lt. Cmdr Lynne Chapman, USN; Capt. Jeffrey Siepert, Master of Niagara Falls; Able Seaman Chito Gonzales; Able Seaman Sunny Santa Ana; Able Seaman Dominador Enciso and Carpenter Hamiliton Capers. Kevin Sorbello photo

For as long as Sailors have been putting to sea, one of the most welcome sights has always been communication, in any form, arriving from loved ones far away.

Since mail delivery to Sailors at sea was first established, nothing aboard ship quite compares with the thrill of hearing the word being passed for mail call.

Military Sealift Command combat stores ship USNS Niagara Falls is fortunate to play a part in the mail delivery system, often acting as a mail transfer facility for customer ships.

Mail has traditionally been delivered to Niagara Falls' customer ships by placing the letters and parcels into large cardboard containers, attaching floatation gear and sending it on a wire via underway replenishment rigs while the two ships sail side by side.

The other method favored by many of the customer ships is placing up to four of these containers inside embarked twin-rotor CH-46 helicopters and then landing the aircraft on the customer ship's deck.

The aging CH-46 helicopters, familiar to many Sailors throughout the fleet, have now been replaced with new SH-60 helicopters that are not configured to hold the same amount of cargo.

The different physical configuration of cargo space on the SH-60 aircraft provided the opportunity to create some innovative methods for alternate mail delivery without sacrificing expediency or safety.

Niagara Falls rose to that call. The ship's carpenter, Hamiliton Capers Jr., and his assistant, Dominador Enciso, used more than 38 years of combined seagoing carpentry skills and plenty of common sense to construct specially designed boxes for ferrying mail.

These buoyant, self-righting boxes can be easily carried externally under the helicopter during vertical replenishment operations.

Each box was carefully fitted with permanent floatation gear, hoisting straps and rubber bottoms for soft landings.

Three of the containers are forktruck friendly for loading and unloading boxed mail, and the fourth is fitted with cargo netting that keeps individual mail bags safely inside for customers that do not have forktrucks and must manually unload these flying mailboxes.

Able Seamen and shipboard artists Rhonald Enriquez, Chito Gonzales and Sunny Santa Ana adorned the boxes advertising inbound mail from the Niagara Falls with colorful artwork.

The flying mailboxes are a wonderful innovation that demonstrates that necessity is truly the mother of invention. We have already used them very successfully with some of our customer ships and discovered it is very easy for them to return their outgoing mail to us as well.

Lt. Cmdr. Lynne Chapman, USN, officer in charge of HC-5 Detachment Three out of Guam, the helicopter unit embarked aboard Niagara Falls, likes the look of the brightly painted mailboxes. "When we carry these loads out to other ships, they look noticeably different from the typical load. It shouldn't take long for Sailors to see us coming with these boxes and to know right away that we're bringing them mail from their loved ones back home," she said.