In honor of our veterans, I wanted to share an excerpt from a story I wrote a few years ago about my experience spending 24 hours on board a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, the John C Stennis. At that time, I was invited to participate in the Navy’s Distinguished Visitor program, and while you could argue the degree to which I am distinguished, it was my great honor to spend a day and night at sea with 5,000 hard-working veterans.
The following is my recollection of getting to stand on the flight deck watching airplanes take off and land on the carrier. I hope you enjoy it…
Watching the action from the bridge was cool and seeing the arresting cables was interesting, but none of it was nearly as impressive as watching from the flight line. Not long after we arrived on board the Stennis, we were corralled into a small room to suit up for a trip outside. We put on white vests, double hearing protection, and cranials. We were given a briefing on the basic rules of being on the flight deck by a “shooter.” The shooter is the person who stands closest to the airplane when it’s about to be launched. He communicates with the pilot to confirm everything is ready and then he, in effect, launches the plane by signaling to the catapult crew when it’s time to go. Lucky bastard. This particular shooter was taking a break from his regular duties to be our guide on the flight deck.
While we waited for our chance to go outside, we were told about the color of shirts for the different jobs on deck. Sailors wearing purple shirts handled the fueling, the green shirts handled the catapult and arresting gear operation, and the brown shirts were in charge of each plane. Notably, the pilots are not in charge of the planes. The folks in the brown shirts were nice enough to let the pilots use their planes. The red shirts, interestingly, were responsible both for the ordnance loaded onto the planes as well as for crash and salvage operations. Apparently those two activities generally don’t occur at the same time, which is a good thing. We wouldn’t want anyone crashing into the bombs. That would be bad.
The shooter explained he would bring us to a specific spot on the deck near the flight line. The main rule was we should not step across the painted line. If we did, it was referred to as “fouling the deck” and would result in a plane coming in to land being waived off because an idiot got in the way. I was determined not be the idiot. In general, I try to avoid being an idiot but I am a middle-aged man and from time to time idiocy is thrust upon me. The shooter went on to explain the landing process. As I mentioned before, the airplanes that land on the deck of an aircraft carrier come to a stop by grabbing a rope. More specifically, the airplanes have a metal hook – called a tailhook – that hangs down from the bottom of the fuselage. As the plane touches down, the tailhook grabs one of four arresting cables stretched across the deck. Each cable, as we had seen below deck, is made of inch-and-a-half thick steel rope. When the tailhook grabs the cable, the plane goes from 130 mph to zero in two seconds. We experienced this sudden deceleration earlier in the day when our COD touched down. It was quite abrupt, but comfy. A pilot facing forward has a different sensation when landing. He feels the strain of his four-point restraint as his body attempts to continue moving forward while the plane he is strapped to comes to a sudden stop.
Our moment was upon us, and our guide opened the door to the outside leading us onto the deck into the noise and fury of flight operations. We were led past racks of sidewinder missiles and other hardware on our way to the flight line. The shooter lined us up along the deck, with a white line at our feet. This was the line we were not to cross. I looked down and at my feet and took note of the deck material. It was somewhere between concrete and asphalt with a coarse texture. Also at my feet was a circular object. It was flat-topped, two feet in diameter, and stood just a few inches off the deck. A steel cable extended out of the side of it, reaching across the deck. This was one of the arresting cables. I was keenly aware how close to the flight line we were. I looked around at the massive aircraft parked on and moving around the deck. This was a kid in a candy store moment. I didn’t think it could get any better until, directly in front of me, just fifty feet away, an F/A-18 Hornet was lining up to be catapulted into the air. There were sailors moving around the plane making sure everything was set and ready. A rectangular piece of the deck – called a blast shield – was tilted up behind the jet. The blast shield helps deflect the discharge of hot exhaust from the jet engines that could damage other aircraft or sailors located behind the airplane. Finally, the sailors moved away from the Hornet, except for a shooter who stood on the deck on the right side of the aircraft keeping eye contact with the pilot. When everything was set and ready, the shooter made a gesture similar to a baseball umpire calling a strike, leaning to his right and pointing his hand toward the bow of the ship. The pilot sat ready with his hand gripping part of the canopy. He kept his hand off the joystick during takeoff to avoid over-correcting during the launch. The engines roared, our bodies throbbed with energy, and the plane was catapulted down the deck, from zero to 130 miles per hour in two seconds. The plane cleared the bow, banked slightly to the left, and accelerated up into the sky quickly shrinking from our view. Awesome. The word is overused, but this was awesome. As the dictionary says, the sight, sound, and physical experience of the Hornet being launched from the Stennis inspired “an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, fear, etc., produced by that which is grand, sublime, extremely powerful.” Yup, it was quite specifically awesome. As my eyes returned to the deck, I saw the clouds of steam which rose from the catapult track. While there are plans to create a magnetic based launch system – using technology similar to the super-fast bullet trains in Japan and Europe – these catapults were powered by steam.
We watched several more airplanes get launched and each time was spectacular. It’s difficult to construct metaphors when one has not experienced anything remotely similar. After four or five airplanes took to the sky, the action slowed. It would soon be time for airplanes to come in for landings. In the meantime, we all looked around and took pictures of our surroundings. It was a beautiful, sunny afternoon. We were facing west, and the sun was making its way to the horizon. The sailors preparing for the imminent arrivals were becoming silhouettes. The contrasts were apparent. We were on board an enormous man-made structure of steel, and we had watched the world’s most powerful aircraft carrying live weapons – guns, missiles, and bombs. We watched highly trained Navy personnel perform their practiced routines. It was mechanical and metal and muscular. It was preparation for war. And it was lovely. I suppose my sentimentalism is a reflection of my upbringing. While I do not always appreciate the military entanglements in which we as a nation find, or put, ourselves, I have tremendous respect and admiration for the military. In this moment, I was smiling unabashedly, enjoying every moment and not thinking about politics, and the best part hadn’t even happened yet.
Our guide pointed aft, and our eyes focused on what was approaching. A small black speck grew into an EA-6B Prowler jet. I was certain of the type of aircraft based on its distinctive body shape – a chubby front end that narrowed to a skinny tail. I was certain about the shape of the fuselage because it was so close. The airplane now approaching the carrier appeared to have every intention of landing on me. I’m no expert on geometry, but the angle of approach was alarming. Fortunately, or unfortunately, there wasn’t time for analysis. The airplane was descending at 130 miles per hour; closer and closer, faster and faster. Then, “BOOOOMMM!” it slammed onto the deck. “ROOOOAAAAR” went the engines as the arresting cable forced this mechanical beast to come to a stop. I looked to my right at one of my fellow Distinguished Visitors. He was smiling at least as big as I was. Now, that was awesome.
Thank you U.S. Navy for giving me the chance to see our veterans at work. Truly inspiring. Thank you veterans, whichever branch you serve or served in, for your service.