29 June, 2008

DV Embark III: Jets!

We have only a few minutes to rest in that lovely refuge--the XO tells us a bit about the ship's current activities and points us to the pictures lining the walls (they are images associated with the Senate, since STENNIS's namesake is Senator John C. Stennis), then the Public Affairs staff hands out our stateroom keys, and we're off again. I'm disappointed to hear that the air wing has left the day before, but fortunately there will still be flight operations while members of the Fleet Reserve Squadron attempt to complete their carrier qualifications.

Feeling a bit more human, we file out and are almost immediately introduced to something that will become very familiar in the hours ahead: ladder after ladder. However, these ladders are a bit fancier than most on the ship--decked out with wood handrails and what looks like blue and gold painted ropes wound around the posts. Fortunately only a few short climbs are required before we pop out into the admiral's observation deck, with a full view of the flight deck in mid-operations below us.

Ahead, an F-18 Hornet is already in tension, waiting to be flung off the bow of the ship. Everyone rushes to the forward window, cameras in hand. Even standing on tiptoe I can't see over their shoulders. So making the best of the situation, I turn and look aft (off the back of the ship), straining for the sight of a jet that might be landing soon. Behind me I hear the gasps of shock and the distant roar as the Hornet is launched. Turning toward the sound and looking to see if another is launching, I miss the chance to see a jet come roaring up behind us for a landing.

Seconds later a Hornet comes screaming by and is plucked out of the sky by the three wire just to the left of me, which spools out far enough to almost reach the catapult to the right before bring the jet to a sudden stop.

I have imagined this experience so many times--standing on the Bridge or Pri-Fly at the Midway Museum, or hanging over the railing of Vulture's Row on a pier-side NIMITZ last November. I've tried to integrate the words I've read and the videos I've seen, tried to make it come alive. Now it takes me a moment to convince myself that those are real planes out there, that the window frames are not the edge of a movie screen.

Another jet is already in tension, but our delayed arrival has compressed the schedule. We reluctantly leave the observation deck and play our now-familiar game of Follow the Leader.

Being my typical fuzzy-headed self and rather distracted by all I'm seeing, I haven't paid attention to mention of where we're going, but I gamely follow our little flock down the ladders and through the passageways. Everything looks the same: an endless maze of corridors, knee knockers, and gray-painted walls. Hurrying along and watching the floor to protect my shins, I can only spare quick glances to the side. In general it's just a blur, but some doors in the maze stand out—emblazoned with names and words such as "CAG," or adorned with squadron patches (ready rooms?).

We pause for a lecture on checking for pocket FOD (foreign object debris), using straps on cameras, etc. Earplugs and headphones are passed around, and up ahead somebody is opening a door. A few stairs remain to be mounted--startling in their normalcy--and suddenly we're on Vulture’s Row.

Nothing seems to be about to land, and the catapults in use are too far forward to be seen in their entirety, though I note a blast shield is up. Absent anything else to keep my attention, my eyes light on the LSO platform on the opposite side of the ship. It's packed with LSOs and trainees. My instant reaction is "Intense!"--it can be felt even from that distance. They face the stern of the ship in sturdy poses with the the loose legs of their flight suits flapping in the 25+ knots of wind at the edge of the platform, sunglasses on, no cumbersome helmets or ear/eye protection. I can't see anything in the somewhat hazy sky, but their body language and focus tell me a plane is on the way.

A roar from the bow announces the Hornet's departure; by the time I turn to look, it’s in the air and a blast of noxious heat reaches us even at our distance from the jet and height above the deck.

I can’t see the arriving plane yet, but soon a speck coalesces in the sky behind the ship. A wide turn takes it beyond the electronic structures on the back end of the Island, and (forgetting that the "landing strip" is angled off the far side of the ship) I think it's not going to land. But a glance at the LSOs tells me otherwise. Soon it reappears from behind the antennas and dishes, wings wobbling a bit, but mostly stable. It lands just in front of the three wire, which dances as it spools out before bringing the jet to a sudden stop with engines roaring.

After a moment, the roar is reduced to a growl and the nearest Green Shirt makes a straight-arm, downward motion as the jet rocks back slightly. The tailhook drops in obvious echo of the Shirt’s motion, and another Shirt steps up and waves his hands overhead, directing the Hornet toward the now-empty catapult. It's starting all over again.

I look back down the deck to find two Hornets in the middle of a hard turn behind the ship. The first one lines up on approach and my mind instinctively whispers: too fast! The wings wobble, the jet slides to its left; It seems high, too! But it keeps coming. It swoops down rather abruptly, engines roaring: 1st wire... 2nd wire... 3rd wire... 4th. Oh! A touch and go. It roars off the port side of the bow in afterburner, its wingman following only a few seconds behind.

Finally remembering I have a camera in my hand, I put it to use, but there are only a couple more traps to enjoy before we're on our way again. Back to the passageway, headphones dropped in a bag as we pass, another ladder or two, and now we’re meeting the captain of the ship.

Captain Johanson takes the time to shake each hand and talks a little bit about the ship, but I'm wishing I could walk around the bridge and look at each station. Like the flight deck, it's packed with trainees; most stations have two people standing in front of them. The kid closest to us is obviously steering the ship, and the intense focus as he watches the display screen in front of him is palpable. Unfortunately, I don't think to take a picture until a few minutes later.

The Captain draws my attention back as he apologizes for the effects of the weather problems that had delayed us. At the edge of the clear and sunny bay on their departure that morning, the fog had risen up in a thick wall, "like a science fiction movie," he says. They couldn’t even see the bow from the bridge, could barely make out the beginning of the catapults. The Coast Guard escort had been turned back early for fear of the carrier bumping them, and CPT Johanson tells us that knowing that the fishing boats around them would hear but be unable to see the carrier, STENNIS had broadcast to all they encountered, "We are an aircraft carrier and we see you on our radar [accurate to five feet]. Don’t worry."

Later, one of the Public Affairs petty officers accompanying us reported that he had been standing outside and toward the stern of the ship as she entered the fog. Sections of the ship disappeared from view ahead of him and the wind turned on a dime. It had taken them 1.5 hours to move through it all, collective breath held and eyes glued to instruments for fear of crunching blinded fishing vessels. Hearing about this was one of those moments that highlighted another paradox of the ship for me--so powerful and yet pulled up short by Mother Nature.

Captain Johanson bids us each goodbye with the gift of a ship's ballcap, complete with gold braid signifying an officer, and we follow our guides back through passages that seem vaguely familiar. Pausing, we dutifully don the safety vests we're handed and receive a quick briefing about how to use them. The fact that they're equipped with radio transmitters reassures me, though I have no plans of falling overboard. The PAO has rejoined us, and she points to the cutouts on the back of each vest nestled between our shoulder blades. It's a handle! We're told not to take offense if we are pushed and prodded, or if someone grabs us by the cutout and yanks us off our feet. "They're watching out for you and they probably see something you don't."

Once again it's time to play follow the leader, and once again I haven't been paying attention to where we're going; I blame it on the overwhelming sensory input of a new environment. Eyes on the cutout in the back of the vest in front of me, I resume duckling behavior as we return to the passageways, down the ladders, and out the way we came. Our guide pauses for one final instruction while we don our ear protection: "Watch me and do everything I do!"

The door opens ahead, and soon we’re on the flight deck again.

[click for more]

I expect we're just going to stand along the Island, but I try to keep my eyes on the person in front of me, so our ultimate destination is unclear. It’s just as hot and noisy and smelly as before, though not quite so confusing now. A guy waving his hands over his head on the right is moving a Prowler into position next to the island, and I sense the motion of planes elsewhere on the deck. We pause to crouch as a Hornet adds a little power to line up on the catapult, and a blast of hot wind washes over us.

Up again, and we're moving toward the bow. I stifle the urge to do a 360 to orient myself and take it all in, acutely aware that I'm bringing up the rear and afraid I'll lose sight of my group or do something stupid. So much to see!

The line stops. Our guide's movements direct our attention to words painted on the deck next to our feet: Foul line. Do not cross. We ducklings nod as his gestures emphasize the point and he looks at eachof us for confirmation. At the end of the line, I'm still watching him, waiting for the implied signal that it's okay to look around. Meanwhile, my brain is shouting, "Foul line = right next to the catapult!!!"

Finally he looks at me and I nod my understanding. Freed from paying attention to anything else, I look beyond the foul line to an empty space, then aft. I was right! A Prowler inches forward from my right. This time I'm quicker to the camera. The jet pauses, rolls a bit in response to signals as the pilot watches a Yellow Shirt waving his hands while a green shirt stares intently at the landing gear. A couple more inches, traveling in fits and starts, and the lever finally drops into the shuttle that will carry the plane through the catapult sequence.

The jet is now just to our right. Hand signals change. Something moves on the shuttle and locks down. Two White Shirts squatting near the rear of the jet dash up under the frame, then return to their positions alongside and further to the rear, crouching down sideways with one hand each on the deck.

I look to my left and see a geometric set of windows thrusting up out of the deck, the home of the Catapult Officer. I must’ve missed the signs, but I hear the engines go to full power. Before I can glance back to the rear of the aircraft, it’s moving. The hot air and the true roar hit us as it passes in a split second.

"Hit" is the right word. It's physical--the feeling is indescribable. I'm instantly reminded of something I'd once read about a jet's engines in tension being “felt rather than heard.” It’s true. The vibrations had begun in my ribcage and reverberated into my extremities, overwhelming any input from my other senses.

By the time I think to look to my left, the jet is already airborne and turning. An involuntary exclamation escapes my lips, and I have to move. I stomp my feet and turn in a circle... trying to release the energy racing around my insides. Like a silly teenager at a rock concert I think to myself as I touch hand to heart, expecting to feel my ribs still vibrating: “OMG, OMG, I can’t believe what just happened. Right in front me!"

My actions catch the attention of a White Shirt behind us as I turn, and he smiles at the wide-eyed excitement on full display. I feel momentarily self-conscious until he puts his own hand to his chest, parodying the vibrations we had just experienced. "Wow," I mouth as I nod. He just grins, then steps forward and yells in the temporary lull—“That’s the loudest jet we have.” I believe it. I'm almost disappointed when a single seat Hornet pulls up to the catapult next. I want another Prowler!

Only one trap behind us and one more launch in front before I see the ducklings filing back in front of me. I look astern past the line of people angling back toward the island to discover another Hornet moving headed to the catapult. But a hand pushes gently on my back, then points in the right direction when I look over my shoulder, and I reluctantly respond to the implied directive.

We're on the move again, then momentarily hunkering down as the Hornet with swept wings passes in a warm, eye-watering blast of exhaust. I am so disappointed to be returning to the Island. Only the sure knowledge that a wrong move would end up with me “confined to quarters under guard” (if not in the medical ward, first) keeps me putting one foot in front of the other rather than escaping in a mad dash to spend a few more moments on the deck.

Removing our gear, we barely have time to exclaim our amazement over what we've just experienced before it's off to our rooms to prepare for dinner with the XO. Following the PAO to the ladies' staterooms, I hope we're not going to be expected to find them again on our own; it's all just another maze of endless passageways, knee knockers, and haze gray. Deposited in my room, I wash the grime off my arms and face, then check my clothes: Phew! So this is what they mean about the smell of JP-5…

I change my shirt, throw on some makeup, and try to look presentable. Before dashing back out of the room--to the waiting PAO who had moments before so sternly said we had four minutes to freshen up--I check the time. We’ve been here only two hours.

It felt like 15 minutes.

Update: edited a bit for quality

Update: Part IV