The US Navy invited me to join a small group for an overnight embark on the carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower on July 18-19. Flying out to the Carrier from Naval Station Norfolk (the largest Naval Station in the world) on July 18, I got the Distinguished Visitor’s tour, stayed on the carrier that evening, continued with the tour the following day and had a return flight to the Naval Station. It was the ultimate cool, but more important, it shined the spotlight on our superb Naval forces. It is an honor to be served by these young dedicated men and women.
Reporting to the Naval Station on the morning of July 18, we were shuttled to the Base’s air terminal where we boarded a Grumman C-2 Greyhound, know in Navy-speak as a COD (for Carrier Onboard Delivery), piloted by a pair of Naval Aviators assisted by two additional crew members, all members of Fleet Logistics Support Squadron 40 (VRC-40), also known as the "Rawhides,” charged with safe delivery of cargo and personnel to and from the Carrier.
As recently as July 7, approaching our berth upon return from a family Carnival cruise, I looked down at the Intrepid, once among the most powerful ships in the world, but now a museum, surpassed by technology a couple of times over. Thinking about my upcoming Carrier “cruise,” I thought “My goodness, what a short runway”! With the Intrepid’s overall length at only 872’, the Eisenhower’s 1092” beats it by over 200 feet. However, that pales in comparison to my beginning and ending points for getting to and from Norfolk International Airport. Beginning at Newark Liberty International Airport, with runways ranging from 6,800’ to 11,000’, any Carrier, including the Super Carrier Eisenhower, seemed incredibly short.
Before we boarded the COD, we were given a safety briefing and donned our safety gear, including a horse collar vest with pulls to inflate if we found ourselves in water. The vest also had a supplementary mouth inflation device and a zippered bag with a transponder, ink and strobe light so they could find us is we were in the brink. Of course, none of that was going to happen and we relied on the impeccable safety record of the Rawhides, the affectionate nickname of the COD squad. Our headgear consisted of helmet, ear muffs and goggles.
Into the belly of the beast, we entered the COD from the drop-down rear, about as wide as the plane to accommodate the cargo that it carries when seats are removed. To accommodate the abrupt (an understatement to say the least) tail hook stop the COD would make upon landing on the carrier, all of the passenger seats faced rearwards. The seatback provides the backstop for our bodies. The interior of the COD was a marvel in contrast to a civilian aircraft. It was dark, with only two small windows on either side and dim lights; there were loose wires, hoses and other miscellany hanging from above us; grime, chipped paint, dents and dings completed the décor; it was noisy and smelled of a mixture of fuel, hydraulic fluid, cosmoline and sweat. Vents blew air that was strong, but not cold. Needless to say, there was no beverage cart or bag of peanuts. Nevertheless, it was a great flight!
Since we couldn’t see anything, the crew let us know when we were about to make the carrier landing. We all braced ourselves for this new experience. Later, I would find out that our actual clocked event went from 105mph to 0 in two seconds. Now I know why I’ve heard it referred to as a controlled crash!
Eventually, my innards returned to their original positions in my body and after regaining composure, I was happy that my eyeballs were still in their sockets instead of resting comfortably on the rear inside of my skull! Even knowing in advance the superb safety record of the Rawhides, I was glad to be alive. I’ve been in all kinds of aircraft in my life, from jumbo jets to four seaters to helicopters, but this was truly a new experience. Wow! Wow! Wow! Whatever else had been “cool” in my life immediately became mundane. Yet, the best was yet to come.
When the cargo door dropped, a blinding light entered, accentuated by the darkness that we had experienced for about an hour, coupled with an incredibly clear and bright day. The noise level increased dramatically. The scratched and dirty goggles made all of this blinding light a bit fuzzy and then we saw flight deck personnel dressed in various colors and wearing protective headgear. It felt like landing our spacecraft in a B sci-fi movie, with the aliens coming to see us earthlings.
Naturally, an aircraft carrier tour should start with the essence of the carrier, its flight deck because that’s where we were. However, the personnel who shepherded us on this adventure know enough that we’d need a bit of recovery time to appreciate where we were now standing, so they scooted us inside. As part of our pre-flight briefing, we were asked to simply follow our crew, single file, until we were in the safety of the inside of the ship. Having been foretold that the flight deck of a carrier is the most dangerous workplace on the planet, we didn’t have to be reminded.
To understand the Carrier, it is best to keep in mind that it is the Flagship of a group, in this case, Carrier Strike Group Eight, the primary function to bring the firepower of the strike force (the offensive aircraft) within reasonable distance of a theater of operation. In other words, it is a traveling airport complete with all the aircraft and ordnance to do the job. In addition to the Carrier Eisenhower, there are two Cruisers (USS Vicksburg and USS Hue City) and eight Destroyers with responsibility to protect the Carrier, but also with offensive striking power as well. All air operations are conducted by Airwing 7, including offensive striking power, defensive capabilities, intelligence and others, our COD included.
The following is a statement about the group appearing on its homepage:
“The Carrier Strike Group (CSG), composed of roughly 7,500 personnel, an aircraft carrier, at least one cruiser, a flotilla of six to 10 destroyers and/or frigates, and a carrier air wing of 65 to 70 aircraft. A carrier strike group is the largest operational unit of the United States Navy and comprises a principal element of U.S. power projection capability.
“The Carrier Strike Group is a flexible naval force that can operate in confined waters or in the open ocean, during day and night, in all weather conditions. The principal role of the carrier and her air wing within the Carrier Strike Group is to provide the primary offensive firepower, while the other ships provide defense and support. These roles are not exclusive, however. Other ships in the strike group sometimes undertake offensive operations (launching cruise missiles, for instance) and the carrier's air wing contributes to the strike group's defense (through combat air patrols and airborne anti-submarine efforts). Thus, from a command and control perspective, Carrier Strike Groups are combat organized by mission rather than by platform.
“USS Dwight D. Eisenhower is the flagship for the Commander, Carrier Strike Group Eight (CCSG 8). The Strike Group is commanded by Rear Adm. Clifford S. Sharpe. Destroyer Squadron 28 and Carrier Air Wing Seven (CVW 7) with its eight squadrons complete our strike group.”
The homepage of the flagship Eisenhower has this to add:
“USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) provides a wide range of flexible mission capabilities, to include maritime security operations, expeditionary power projection, forward naval presence, crisis response, sea control, deterrence, counter-terrorism, information operations, security cooperation and counter-proliferation.
“The ship’s embarked air wing is capable of projecting tactical air power over the sea and inland, as well as providing sea-based air, surface and subsurface defense capabilities.”
Back to our venture, at 1400 hours (that’s 2:00PM for you non-Navy personnel!) we were greeted by the very capable Commanding Officer of the Eisenhower, Captain Marcus A, Hitchcock, together with other senior officers. We were given a brief history of the ship and its mission while we enjoyed light refreshments. The ship was presently about 150 miles SSE of Naval Station Norfolk. Its personnel were doing training exercises prior to an upcoming redeployment tot the Middle East. This was no dog and pony show for us; we were there observing actual operations of the carrier.
Now that we had our carrier legs, the next safety briefing took place prior to going to the flight deck to watch operations, including the arrested landings and catapulting of aircraft of various sorts. Since the F18 Hornet fighter squadrons had completed sea training only last week, those Carrier Air Wing 7 planes were now elsewhere doing firing range training. The safety briefing showed us how to use the Emergency Escape Breathing Devices that were located all over the ship in blaze orange cases. We then donned all the safety gear we needed including long-sleeved turtlenecks, float coats (again with the inflation pulls, transponder, ink and strobe light in case we fell overboard!), and the same type of headgear we had used on our flight to the carrier. The dangers of the flight deck were re-emphasized. There were no gradual degrees of danger; either you were safe, or you were dead. Our protectors explained where we were to stand and how to follow their hand signals on a deck where the only communication would be visual; the noise levels and hearing protection precluded any other method. Not to worry – they scared us enough that we froze wherever they told us to freeze! It was now 15:25.
Having recovered from the disorientation of the original landing, the aliens of the flight deck were now more understandable for us. Colors indicated function and hand signals (with typical airport wands) were the only means of communication. Click here for an explanation of the colors. Here were young men and women with enormous responsibilities, directing all traffic on the deck. To put it in perspective, while the average age of everyone aboard ship is 25-26, the average age of the deck crew is a mere 20-22!
We started at the stern of the carrier to watch incoming aircraft grab one of the four arresting cables and land on the carrier, as our COD had done just a short while ago. Positioned safely, but at times only inches away from danger, we watched a host of landings. Of the four cables, the third one is the preferred one and pilots are rated on how frequently they catch the “right” cable, or “wrong” cable. Any one will stop the aircraft, but accuracy is key to a successful career. We saw many correct arrested landings and a couple which were not so correct. Remember, these were training exercises. Later, we would watch the same exercises at night.
Moving to the bow of the ship in single file, careful of any movement that was not in step with our leader, we watched catapult operations, exactly where we would be launched the next day. Each plane is readied on a steam driven catapult by the colored shirt people. Although the pilot can communicate with Primary Flight Control (i.e. the tower), all communication on deck between the pilot and flight deck crew is through hand signals. Watching the planes queue and getting ready for each launch was like a ballet. The folded wings coming into position made me think of Swan Lake in particular. It seemed like everything they showed us was eclipsed by the next thing.
Having seen the flight deck operations, we now went to various decks within the tower to watch things from above and to see how things worked. The Handler (just inside the tower from the flight deck) is responsible for the movement of aircraft before launching and after recovery. Commander Scott Anderson, our Air Boss occupies Primary Flight Control (the top bridge) overall responsibility for controlling launch, landing, movement of planes on the flight deck and those aircraft in the air near the ship. The Captain of the ship spends most of his time one level below Primary on the Navigation Bridge. Below this is the Flag Bridge, or Admiral’s Bridge.
Going all over the insides of the ship, at 17:10 we were shown to our staterooms to freshen up before dinner. Having accumulated the consequences of heat and an industrial environment, we were assured that we should just come to dinner as we were. Our rooms were officer’s quarters, two to a room with a sink. The male officer’s head and showers were down the hall, through two bulkheads. That consisted of four stalls, one sink and five showers.
The room was clean, but in Navel gray and with exposed ceiling. In addition to the bunk beds (yay, I got the lower one!) there was ample storage space for deployed officers and individual work areas. As a nice touch, we had some snacks, bottled water and a toiletry kit waiting for each of us.
Dinner at 18:00 was fit for a visiting dignitary and that’s exactly what it was. We were taken to the same room where the Captain would entertain a head of state or other VIP. Our host for the evening was Commander Nick Denna, Executive Officer of the Eisenhower, accompanied by several other staff officers. At this and all other dining activities, we were mixed among Navy personnel to get a cross-sectional experience. The actual dinner was served like a fine upscale restaurant, silver charging plate and all. The menu was prix fix, including a salad, main course and desert. The white-gloved servers wore formal shirts, bow-tie and silver cummerbunds. Not to worry – we would also experience every other eating forum including Navy chow lines.
After dinner, we continued our tour of the inside of the ship, seeing room after room of equipment, computers, young faces and scurrying activity. The ship’s complement is nominally 3,000 people, plus the Air Wing, bringing the capacity to about 5,000 people. It is truly a city. In addition to all the military things, there are also people things such as recreation center, workout areas, medical and dental facilities and the like. We went up and down ladders (there are no personnel elevators) and down passageways bulkhead to bulkhead continuously, with little reference to the outside. There are actually few places that view the outside, like the hangar deck, fantail and a few others. While an off duty sailor does not hang out on the flight deck, they can be seen in the other few areas that give a view to sea and sky.
Having walked countless factories during my career, I was struck by the lack of any “goofing off.” Unless on free time, everyone was always doing his or her job and, it seems, with enthusiasm. As one of the others in my group commented when asked about impressions: “No wonder I can’t find good people to hire in my business; the Navy has them all”!
At 20:45, we were treated to another highlight, a trip to Vultures Row, just below the Captain’s bridge, on an outside observation area, to watch night operations on the deck. This particular evening, new Naval aviators were making their first ever night landings. The routine called for two “touch and goes” where the plane would come down on deck without its tail hook ready, touch the deck and take off again, followed by a trap (an arrested landing). This was a calm sea and clear night (those stars were magnificent, especially with such a dark ship). Eventually, the pilots would be expected to do these night landings in all kinds of weather and sea conditions.
The beauty of the orchestration by the flight deck crew was only accentuated by seeing them at night and from above. Most of our observations were as they should have been, pilots grabbing arresting cable number three. A few grabbed number two or four; while the result was still a safe arrested landing, it was not as desirable as a number three cable. When a plane missed all together, it was quite distinguishable from a touch and go. On a planned landing, the tail hook would be in place and a miss would drag it across the flight deck with sparks flying.
Although we stayed on Vultures Row far longer than our planned schedule, it was the last event before we returned to our sleeping quarters. Our two escorts allowed us to stay as long as we wanted, and when asked when I wanted to return to the stateroom, I replied “Tomorrow”! I wanted every last moment I could get. While some of the group trickled back to the staterooms, several of us stayed until the eyelids trumped the desire to stay and we prodeeded back o the cabin to sleep (although not very well).
Our rooms were directly below the flight deck and, lucky us, as directly close to the catapult that was continuing in service until about 2:00. My roommate got up and put in a pair of earplugs, but I decided to “tough it out.” After a brief break upon the cessation of operations, routine maintenance on the catapult was, perhaps, noisier than the actual operations. Bang! Bang! Bang! Drills were still proceeding apace for other departments and there was a real medical emergency during the night (thankfully, it turned out to be not so serious). Despite all of this, or perhaps because if it, it was the best non-sleeping night ever! After all, I wasn’t there to be pampered; I was there to be immersed in the real thing.
Although reveille was 6:00, I decided to beat out the crowd at 5:05 and headed to the showers. No one else was there and I took a leisurely shower, only to later read “The Proper Navy Shower,” which I had violated several times over. To conserve water, I was supposed to (1) turn on water, (2) wet body, (3) turn off water, (4) soap and scrub, (5) turn on water, rinse. Under this scenario, total elapsed runtime of water running is 2 minutes. I apologize to the Navy for having abused the water conservation procedure.
At 6:50 we headed to the Chief’s Mess hosted by Command Master Chief Gregg L. Snaza. There were no charging plates or white gloves here. This was separate mess hall with a chow line and all, including cereals and the usual high-cholesterol things you’d expect for breakfast. Having discovered at dinner that decaf wasn’t available, I didn’t even bother to ask for egg beaters. Yes, they even had chipped beef on toast (or whatever you would prefer to call it). Once again, we were intermingled with Navy personnel and I was lucky to get the head of ordnance sitting across from me. My goodness, did I have questions and my goodness, did he have answers!
We continued on our tour, in addition to flight control and weapon deployment rooms, seeing the post office, dental office, medical office, TV Studio, enlisted sailor’s quarters, forecastle, ready rooms, jet shops and more. Every time we saw something memorable it was surpassed by the next memorable thing. I knew that this would be a wonderful experience but I just could not imagine how wonderful. And the people! As Command Master Chief Snaza put it so well: “I have zero concerns about the youth of America.” He followed this by his observation that he “sees the finest every day.” In the midst of our tour, we did lunch on the general chow line, again sitting with various Navy personnel. While on line, I chatted with a helicopter crew behind me.
Alas, all things must end and although sad to realize we had to return to land, there was still one big event to come, the catapult takeoff. As a farewell, we met with the Captain, on his bridge, followed by a final safety briefing. As to the catapult, the suggestion was to imagine the fastest roller coaster ever, the one where we just go over the top and then have the steepest, longest, fastest drop. Then a pregnant pause followed by “Not even close”! That was an understatement. We donned our safety gear and headed into our waiting COD. All the noise, grime and appearance of the transport greeted us again, together with the heat, sweat and smells, but his time it was more relaxing. We knew we were in good hands with the Rawhides.
Although we were told that one of the crew members would signal us right before the catapult shot, I knew I didn’t have to fret about it since I was sitting right behind the crew members. Still facing backwards, when the plane jumped into the air, we would be thrown that way. During the safety briefing, we were told how to brace our feet so our knees didn’t slam into the next seatback and to cross our arms and grab our harnesses so our hands did not fly into the next seat back. So, not waiting for the signal, I watched a crewman. When he braced, I braced; when he crossed his arms and grabbed his harness, I did the same. Holy mackerel!!!!! You have no idea! Zero to 128 mph in three seconds! It’s like a Starship Enterprise beaming. You go from being on the ship to flying in one step. Wow! Wow! Wow!
After all our body parts settled, the flight back to Naval Station Norfolk was non-eventful (except that one of my fellow DVs was under a leaking hydraulic line). A couple of times, I almost dozed; I was so tired. But what an experience!
For me, this experience has redefined cool, the term that my generation used to express the faddish rad, gnarly, boffo, awesome or whatever trendy made up word de jure anyone might use. I guess the expression that perception is reality only applies to things that are not really what they should be. So too with cool; anything that I thought cool to date was really not so. If it were, the new cooooooool would have to add those several letter “o”s to differentiate it. I don’t mean to pull something like “Oh, you haven’t done this, have you?” But, you haven’t. Truly, I am not the one to explain light to the blind, but I do feel like I, at least, can now see.
More important than personal wows, however, is the deeper understanding and appreciation for our armed forces in general and our Naval forces in particular. I’ve always been proud of our Navy, but never prouder than I am now. It does an incredible job, from the top officers to the newly trained enlisted personnel. I’ve observed quite a few enterprises during my career and my receptors for competence and professionalism are pretty good. I know good when I see it and this is it. Those young men and women who serve our country are the best of the best and it was a pleasure as well as an honor and privilege to get this close to them. May god bless them and keep them safe.
Anyone who knows me knows what a non-sports fan I am. From now on, however, my eyes will be glued to Network TV for the historic December Army-Navy Game to root during one of the most classic rivalries in college football. Go Navy!!!!!