We had a screening of the PBS Series “Carrier” in our main studio tonight, which is going to be an outstanding show. The film crew spent a cruise aboard the USS Nimitz, and shot some amazing footage. The best part about it is, it’s not a total sales job for the Navy. As is PBS fashion, they show the good with the not so good. But it did get me thinking about my 36 hours aboard the USS John F. Kennedy.
It’s been 5 years ago, now, I guess, when they did a media embark aboard the local aircraft carrier. She was headed out for sea trials after a re-fit, one of several they did right up to the time they said they were mothballing her. It was an experience I’ll never forget.
I was assigned a media handler, who followed me everywhere. Fortunately, at least he stood outside the head when I had to go, and didn’t sleep in the same quarters. But pretty much the rest of the time, we were attached at the hip.
The ship was a fascinating place. Since it was something of a shakedown, they were fully operational, and I had pretty much an all-access pass, of course with my shadow.
I recall climbing down several ladders into the boiler room, where all the steam was generated for the ship. Everything from pushing her through the water to shooting planes off the deck. It was hot, as you might well imagine, and loud. I can’t imagine standing a full watch in those conditions, but there were guys down there that did it every day. 20 minutes was plenty for me.
I talked with a lot of the sailors, much as the guys shooting the documentary did … and heard a lot of the same responses. Some were all Navy all the way … some were just putting in their time waiting to get out. The only officers I interviewed were the Chow Boss, the Captain, and the Admiral. At that time, the Kennedy flew an Admirals’ flag. I sat in his chair on the bridge while underway, and the Captains’ as well. It was a real rush.
The Chow Boss was one of the most interesting guys I spoke with, maybe because I have such an interest in cooking. He was truly interested in being sure the crew was fed, and had been to culinary school. But with 3000+ people to feed every day … it was a scale far beyond any restaurant.
I didn’t sleep well the one night I was on board. I was in some mostly unused VIP Officers quarters, which were right below the catapult firing mechanism. When they tested the catapult at about 0100, it sounded as if one of the planes had crashed into the ship. I recall sitting bolt upright in my bunk and wondering what the frack had just happened. The testing went on for about an hour. That great crash followed by the grinding noises as the cables from the truck were reeled back into place for another test. It made for a long night, and I was so bumfuzzled I didn’t remember to grab my minidisk and record the sound.
But the two things that really stand out to me were being in pri-fly, which is air traffic control for the carrier, and actually on the flight deck during flight operations.
The guys in pri-fly orchestrated everything that went on on deck. I can still see them writing aircraft numbers and situations on the windows in grease pencil to keep track and not have to bury their eyes inside. It was quiet, but urgent in pri-fly. Everyone knew their job, and went about it with purpose.
On the flight deck, you could really feel the power of the aircraft departing and trapping. Even with ear plugs and muffs, the sound was nearly deafening. And just being so close to the airplanes as they were violently flung off the deck was amazing. And, to prevent some small foreign object from putting a hole in an airplane or being ingested into an engine, they would walk the deck at night picking up any tiny thing that might be loose. It was that meticulous.
We’d walked onto the ship, but they weren’t going back to Mayport, so we had to be thrown off in a COD … a mail and supply delivery plane. Not quite a cat shot in a fighter jet, but interesting all the same. The loadmaster told us about an Admiral who hadn’t strapped in properly, and wound up in the tailcone with a couple of broken ribs. We all re-checked our seat harnesses.
Imagine sitting backwards, wearing a helmet and “float coat”, strapped tight to your seat, arms crossed in front of you and your head braced against your arms ,,, in an airplane with no windows. No way to know what’s going on until, suddenly, you’re traveling 140 knots and flying. It happens that fast. The only way I knew were about to go flying is I heard the engine spool up. It was disappointing not to be able to see it, though. After we were airborne, they opened up the tailcone so the TV guys could get shots of the ship at sea. Then, it was a windowless hour back to Mayport.
So, that was my 36 hours kinda playing like I was in the Navy. I say that very facetiously, of course. Those men and women have so much training and have gone through so much to get where they are, I’m sure they hate to see some civilian reporter like me coming. But it was an unforgettable experience, and one for which I’m very grateful.
Watch “Carrier” on your local PBS station … and you’ll get just at taste.