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The career of RFA commodore engineer David B Smith has spanned the Falklands War, the Gulf War and the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Having recently received the Merchant Navy Medal for Meritorious Service, the Nautilus member talks to Helen Kelly about the successes and challenges of his working life and his plans for promoting maritime careers
Helen Kelly (HK): Tell us about your life before joining the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA)
Commodore David Smith (CDS): I had always wanted to go to sea as an engineer from an early age. At the time the Queen Elizabeth 2 was being built, my father was working in John Brown's yard and I remember getting the day off school to go and watch her being launched (I still have the cine film my father took on the day) and that was it – I was hooked. It still gives me goose bumps when I watch that film with the guys hosing down the drag chains right in front of me and the sheer scale of what those people created.
HK: What do you do in a typical day in your job at the RFA?
CDS: My job is wide and varied by nature. I must ensure that the ships within the RFA flotilla and the Royal Navy's hydrographic and patrol flotillas are safe to operate. That's a lot of ships, and a lot of people are involved in the process.
I have the ultimate responsibility for ensuring that the policies and procedures we employ result in ships being delivered to the operational commanders in a safe, capable condition and able to be sustained there whilst delivering their mandated military effect.
All of that must be achieved within time and to budget whether it be a refit or fleet time maintenance period and through the regeneration to full capability afterwards.
The engineering is mostly relatively straightforward, but as any senior manager in any organisation will tell you, it's the people involved in all that process that take up most of your time and create the sleepless nights. Managing budgets, key performance indicators, various project milestones, making the hard calls in various safety related issues and managing some talented and very busy people fills my days and nights.
HK: What are your career highlights so far?
CDS: Well I suppose the Falklands War was my first highlight, although it seems inappropriate to say so as so many people lost their lives. For me, though, at that young age, it cemented in my own mind what the RFA was in existence to deliver. Working in a carrier task group for the first in what was to be many occasions was exciting as a young man, and there is a whole new generation out there about to experience that with our new carriers coming on line.
The Gulf War and the NATO operation in the former Yugoslavia were my first experiences in working in anger with foreign allied forces, which stood me in good stead when I was selected to be the first RFA officer to attend the Joint Services Advanced Command & Staff Course. This was a turning point in my career and gave me a real interest in world events and how governments and their armed forces interact with each other – again reinforcing the fact that I had joined an organisation that had a real sense of purpose.
Becoming a Chartered Engineer 12 years ago and achieving Fellowship of IMarEST is a considerable highlight for any marine engineer and I look back on that moment as yet another milestone.
HK: You were chief engineer on RFA Argus during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa; what did you learn from that experience?
CDS: It was one of the most worthwhile missions I have ever been involved in. Having no host nation support for six months was a challenge and real testament as to why it is so important to retain the organic ability to be able to fix your own ship when it breaks down.
Shipping companies would do well to remember that and invest in the education and training necessary to achieve it. If you want to retain good quality engineers, give them the time, the spares, and the tools to fix things – it is why they joined in the first place.
I am immensely proud of the engineers who were there and what they achieved.
If you want to retain good quality engineers, give them the time, the spares, and the tools to fix things – it is why they joined in the first place