Take flight from the U.S.S. Nimitz
I catapulted off an aircraft carrier.
Now there’s something I never thought I’d say. But it’s true.
I, along with 12 other intrepid types, recently went from 0-160 mph in two seconds in a C2 jet off the deck of a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier at sea in the Pacific.
Through the Distinguished Visitor Embark Program, Art Leinwohl, a retired Navy captain and local lawyer, helps connect local community members with the military experience. During the two days we spent aboard the carrier, we saw, felt and experienced some of what life is like in the Navy.
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Since returning from the adventure, I’ve been thinking of the best way to share the experience. I hope this story, along with the photo essay, reveals some of what I experienced while at sea with the 5,000 men and women of the USS Nimitz CVN 68.
Day 1: Fly to San Diego and meet up with the group headed out to the USS Nimitz. There will be 13 of us on the trip. Art Leinwohl graciously hosts an elegant dinner at the Del Coronado Hotel for the Distinguished Visitors he’s invited and for the Naval Base Coronado public affairs officers. During the meal, Cdr. Jack Hanzlik, public affairs officer for Commander Naval Air Forces; Lt. Sonja Hanson, assistant public affairs officer; and Master Chief Donna Corvin, also of the public affairs office, share with us what we will be doing for the next two days aboard ship.
We are told we’ll fly out to the carrier, tailhook aboard, and then be escorted all over the ship. We will interact with the servicemen and women, be invited to take pictures, ask questions, eat with the crew and sleep onboard. They assure us the trip will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience and that the USS Nimitz will make us very welcome.
Traveling in the group from Truckee-North Tahoe are myself, Lisa Dobey, David Kahn, Sherilyn Laughlin, Dennis Williams, Tom Grossman, Jim Moore, Elise Norman and Tami Bentz. In addition, Carl Pagter, Brian Pennix and Chuck Hoster join us from the Bay Area.
Day 2: Travel to Naval Air Station, North Island, where we are briefed by a staff officer. We get a complete overview of the Navy, the mission of this branch of the military and the trip we are about to take. Mobility, flexibility, and combat readiness define the mission of the nuclear class carriers, we learn.
Post-briefing, we are introduced to the pilots who will fly us, via the C2 or Carrier Onboard Delivery (COD), to the Nimitz deck, located about 200 miles off Baja. Prior to boarding the C2, which is a twin-engine turbo cargo plane, we don life vests and cranial headgear, complete with chinstrap and ear protection.
The interior of the COD is what you might expect from a cargo plane: it’s fitted with seats and that’s about it. It’s loud and dark, and smells like jet fuel, rubber and old canvas. We are in the belly of a machine.
We strap into four-point belts, facing the drop-down rear door of the aircraft. We take off and fly out to the carrier. Five seconds before our arrested landing, the two crewmen in the cargo bay with us ” also in full gear and strapped in ” wave their hands in the air and shout as loud as they can: “Here we go.” Two seconds later, we go from 160 to 0 mph and tailhook land on the deck of the carrier.
Yeah, it’s a rush.
The rear door opens and we step out onto the 4.5-acre deck of the U.S.S. Nimitz CVN 68, first in the class of nuclear carriers. This is one of the Navy’s 10 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers.
Fighter planes ” FA18s we’ll learn later ” are launching off the deck to our left. It’s loud and windy and men and women in colored shirts and vests are everywhere. It’s one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen.
It’s a bit surreal. I am standing on the deck of an aircraft carrier in the middle of the Pacific while fighter planes take off and land. This isn’t a movie: it’s real life and the mission the pilots are flying is serious and designed ultimately to ensure our freedom. Today as I write, it still gives me chills.
We are ushered inside and welcomed by Commanding Officer Captain Ted Branch. Later were served lunch in the Officers Wardroom.
I meet three officers, all 20-something, who work in the nuclear reactor part of the ship. That is something we won’t get to tour ” classified. The three officers are highly trained and responsible for the ship’s propulsion, electricity and steam for the catapult. Nuclear power allows for unlimited mobility of the carrier and provides fuel for 25 years.
Meanwhile, upon on deck, Flights and Recovery (that’s when the flights return to the ship) are underway, so we’re taken to the flight deck where all the action is.
Life-vests, helmets, and ear protection and we’re outside. Standing about 10 feet away from the fighter jet you can see the solo pilot inside. The crew outside is confirming all his equipment is working. Missiles locked and loaded, the pilot moves all the flaps. The ship is steering into the wind (because you need lift to take off). The pilot signals the ‘shooter’ ” the yellow-shirted sailor kneeling right below the plane ” and the jets fire up.
Believe me: it’s loud, it’s hot and adrenaline is pumping. The shooter signals the catapult operator ” positioned in a window just above the deck surface ” and the jet is ‘cat shot’ off the carrier: zero to 170 mph or faster in 1.5 seconds.
I wonder if the thrill ever wears off. Maybe after 50 launches a day? I never tire of seeing it while we are on the carrier for our tour.
The recovery of a plane is just as thrilling as take-off. Four cables lie across the deck and disappear into the bowels of the ship. When a plane approaches the deck, the pilot ‘calls the ball’ ” a visual guide meant to get the wings in the right position ” and visually lands the plane. Imagine landing at nearly 200 mph on a moving, 300-foot runway. The plane comes in, screams by us, and tailhooks or traps a cable, coming to an abrupt halt.
The entire flight deck operation is choreographed. Everyone has a specific job and is expert at it. The colored shirts help with the choreography:
Green: Catapult and arresting-gear crew, air wing maintenance, cargo handling.
Blue: Plane handlers, tractor drivers, elevator operators
Yellow: Aircraft handling officers, catapult gear officers
Brown: Air wing plane captains
Red: Ordnancemen (explosives), crash and salvage
White: Air wing quality control, landing signal officer, safety, medical
Launch and recovery complete for now, we go back inside the ship and proceed with our tour of the ship. One of our first stops is the small media area. The Nimitz has a weekly newspaper and satellite and on-board TV programming that goes to 1,200 TVs on the ship.
Up and down narrow metal stair ladders, through oval knee-high doorway hatches, one after another, we travel up one side of the ship and across the hangar to the other. We walk several miles while on board and stay close to our guides; getting lost inside this monstrous ship is a real possibility.
The hangar is roughly three football fields long and stores the planes, serves as the maintenance area and is open to the sea in four places where elevators move two planes at a time to the flight deck. It’s absolutely enormous.
We cross the hangar bay numerous times getting from the left side of the ship to the right, and every time several people are working out: riding stationary bikes in one area, doing aerobics in another, playing football and boxing in another. Sailors go through a fitness test every six months.
Each day sailors in red shirts get a list of weapons needed for the day’s flight plan. Bombs, mines, bullets and missiles get assembled onboard the ship, several flights down. They are raised to the flight deck to be loaded onto the jets for the mission.
Both live and dummy munitions are used.
Like many of the jobs on board, this is serious and dangerous and the men and women wearing red do it with caution, precision and pride.
For one of the best views, we visit Captain Ted Branch on the bridge. The bridge is about four stories above the flight deck and is where the steering of the ship happens. It is also where the Captain oversees the day and night flight activity, as well as what’s going on on the flight deck. The Captain also communicates with the entire ship from the bridge, giving a daily briefing to the crew.
The Carrier Air Wing is a major part of the carrier operation. The air wing, when onboard, brings about 2,500 personnel: pilots, navigators, plane captains and maintenance crews. More than 50 airplanes from nine different squadrons make up the Carrier Wing, under the direction of the Air Wing Commander.
“Speed and Violence” is their creedo. Squadrons onboard fly FA18 Hornets and FA18 Super Hornets designed for air-to-air and air-to-ground combat; EA 6B Prowlers, designed for tactical warfare or jamming radar; E 2C Hawkeye and the Seahawk helicopters.
One squadron of Marines is attached to the Nimitz air wing and operate just like the Navy squadrons onboard. The ship has been at sea for 30 days upon our arrival, and is due in port in two days. All of the squadrons will be launched off the ship in the morning for return to their home bases until the next six-month deployment with the carrier, around the first of the year.
Overnight all of the planes are raised to the flight deck and parked wing-to-wing. The hangar bay is empty.
Maintenance of the planes is a major concern. These planes cost more than $40 million a piece. Aircraft Intermediate Maintenance Department (AIMD: brown shirts) handle the repair of the jet engines. They have an impressive machine shop, analysis center, hydraulic and metal fabrication shop. The planes are kept in top condition, as is the hangar bay.
We watch several hundred sailors walk shoulder-to-shoulder, picking up anything from the hangar floor that might get into a jet engine.
We meet the Admiral of Carrier Strike Group 11: the USS Nimitz CVN 68 is the flagship of the group. The group includes destroyers, frigates, support vessels and submarines. Admiral John Blake speaks to us frankly about the business of the military, the billions of dollars required to maintain domestic peace and freedom.
He allows us a peek in his command center where computer and radar screens light the dark interior of the room and tell the officers the positions of everything above, below and near the carrier group.
Imagine the ship as a self-sufficient, floating city. The ship distills more than 400,000 gallons of fresh water each day and can stock 70 days of food for 5,000 men and women. Two barber shops trim 1,500 heads each week. There is a general store, a post office, a chapel, a library, numerous galleys and messhalls and a hospital with 50 plus beds.
There are dentists, lawyers and journalists on the crew doing their jobs at sea. There are computers for e-mailing friends and family. Talking to the men and women on board, I quickly realized the sacrifices they make to do this job. They are away from family and friends, sometimes for months at a time, and keeping in touch with home is important.
There is a clear delineation between officers and enlisted onboard, although all seem to work as one while on duty. I was struck by the youth of most of the crew, and the clarity with which they describe their duty: the average age is 19. They know why they are here, what to do, and how to do it perfectly, whether it’s scrubbing dishes, painting floors, assembling bombs, testing engines or flying jets.
Make no mistake: These servicemen and women are professionals.
We bunk in ‘Officer’s Country’ ” an area under the flight deck, two to a room. The space onboard, personal and otherwise, is very limited, with no frills. This is a warship, not a cruise liner.
The ship is always awake: 12-hour shifts rotate to keep things running. The nighttime activity on the ship is evident by the sounds above our heads: Elevators moving planes from the hangar to the flight deck, water in pipes, chains on the deck, and the 0-500 muster call over the loud speaker.
Day 3: Up early, we’re anxious to see more. We are taken to ‘Vultures Row’ ” an outdoor bridge overlooking the flight deck ” to watch the entire Air Wing depart the ship. Fifty aircraft or more are on the deck readying for take off. Four steam-powered catapults will launch the aircraft with perfectly timed precision, one every 30 seconds.
The planes line up one after another for launch. Even four or five stories above the deck you can feel the heat of the jet engines as they roar to life. Awesome power.
Our public affairs officers direct us to the Air Traffic Control room, which is where flights are monitored, launched and recovered. Here we meet up with the Captain once more. He has been gracious, as has the crew, in sharing a day in their lives.
We are briefed on our return flight: we will get a ‘cat shot’ of our own off the ship.
Back in the C2 COD ” buckled in, helmet on, goggles on ” the rear door raises shut. We taxi into position. Our two crewmen in the back with us ” gear on, buckled in ” wave their arms and shout as loud as they can: “Here we go.” The force is instant and immobilizing. Zero to 160 mph in 1.5 seconds.
What a thrill. For a moment none of us can move. Then the plane lifts and we’re airborne.
We return to Naval Air Station, Coronado, a different group. I am sure we’re all awed by the experience and will remember it forever. I was impressed with what I saw, the efficiency and the dedication of the people onboard. I have a whole new respect for them and what they do to protect our country.
I will never forget the feeling of the landing and take-off, the raw power of the fighter jets on the deck, the open, friendly nature of the crew we met. I won’t forget why they are there and what that means to me and my personal freedom, every day.
Thank you USS Nimitz CVN 68. Fair winds and following seas.
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