Aircraft carrier as illustration of “overhead” needed to get something done

4,100 people work so 200 can fly.

In August, my wife and I toured the USS Midway aircraft carrier museum in San Diego. Quite a treat if you enjoy either airplanes or naval ships.

One narrative plaque really caught my attention. It quoted someone as saying that 4,100 people are hard at work onboard so 200 can fly airplanes. Since the purpose of the carrier is to put planes in the air, everyone else on board is in a ‘supporting’ function.

Seems to me that this is a good illustration of the concept of overhead or functional allocation that we work with in the nonprofit world.

To get about 200 pilots into the air on those 60 or 80 airplanes requires an additional 4100 people doing all sorts of stuff.

You need hundreds of people to work on power generation. There are about four dentists, a dozen dental technicians, several doctors, a bunch of med techs, Marines to provide law enforcement, a few lawyers, and a huge kitchen crew.  There are hundreds upon hundreds of mechanics, fuel loaders, and munitions handlers.  Other comments around the ship indicated the Midway consumed 100,000 gallons of fuel per day.  The cooks served 13,000 meals per day – breakfast, lunch, dinner, and mid-rats.

Overall, an incredibly impressive operation.

Back to my main point – it takes an incredible amount of effort on the part of a huge amount of people to keep those 200 pilots in the air. You can’t say the laundry crew doesn’t count because they’re not in the air. You can’t say the logistics guys aren’t important just because they’re not the ones that can fire missiles.  All of those other jobs are necessary to get the job done.  If you don’t have the cooks, the supply guys, and the med techs, you won’t have any planes in the air.

It is the same thing when we look at a nonprofit organization with an eye on the functional allocation.  The budgeting process, HR efforts to comply with the myriad laws and regulations, board governance, and even the audit don’t get the “mission” done. However, if you don’t have the accounting staff, functioning internal controls, good recruiting, HR procedures, and compliance with laws and regs, you won’t be accomplishing your mission very long.

(Some sharp accountants may notice that this is more of an activity based costing concept than a functional expense allocation concept. That may be the case, but it still illustrates the issues of functional allocation.)

I didn’t even go into the concept of a carrier battle group. A carrier is far too valuable to go anyplace by itself. Typically it would be accompanied by two guided missile cruisers, a guided missile destroyer, another destroyer and frigate, a pair of attack submarines, and a supply ship or two. Perhaps 8 or 10 additional ships and their crews are needed to protect the carrier so it can keep those 200 pilots in the air. (Source here)

Previously discussed the US Thunderbird aerial demonstration team as a concept of the functional issue. Will have a followup later that is more on-point to the heavy ‘overhead’ costs of operating a nonprofit organization.

Update:  I just had to do the research and math on a current carrier battle group. My math, based on current official Navy fact sheets:  Carrier has 5,630 crew, 9 support ships would have crew of 2,190.  That’s 7,820 crew to keep around 200 pilots flying 85 aircraft.

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