24 June, 2008

DV Embark II: Hurry up and wait

[Update below]

From shore to ship...

I wish everyone I know could have the wonderful opportunity I did, but since that's impossible I'll try to take you along for the ride.

I was part of a small group of only 14 people (usually it's 20), ten of whom already knew each other. Though working in different fields, the ten were all CEOs from Los Angeles who belonged to a kind of club or peer business support group. The other three were a high-level manager in a tech field, another CEO from Texas, and an "expert witness" from Georgia. I think perhaps because the group was so business-heavy, the presentations and "tour stops" had a management/process focus. I was the youngest by far, but armed with Soldiers' Angels pins and business cards, I felt like I had hit the jackpot.

The first half of the day was an introduction to the classic "Hurry up and Wait" military lifestyle. It was hazy early, but by midmorning things had cleared and as we toured the the helicopter and Hornet repair facilities (which conduct repairs/maintenance too complicated for the squadron mechanics), we had every expectation we'd be on the ship by 1:00 that afternoon.

Not quite. Right on cue, the fog rolled in.

The Public Affairs Office was wonderful at keeping us occupied, changing things on the fly while receiving constant weather updates. So, we trundled over to the C-2 squadron's offices to get an up-close-and-personal tour of our transport vehicle in the cool and quiet of the hanger bay. A member of the squadron spoke proudly and in detail about how the plane operated and his role in keeping it flying. What caught my eye was the little black circles all over the C-2's rudder and stabilizer (tail fins). It took a moment of study to recognize that each circle was made by a magic marker and surrounded a small ding or paint chip that could have been only found by careful and close visual inspection. Such care seemed to confirm the pride and enthusiasm I was hearing in the squadron member's voice as he talked about his plane.

Another thing that stood out from our morning tours was how much business theory and processes have taken hold in the Navy. The helicopter repair facility had a number of charts displayed, documenting the turn-around rate and cost of their work in the last year. The charts included a lot of business jargon I didn't quite understand, but the CEOs certainly did--they marveled at the huge improvement rates the charts demonstrated, and exclaimed that the factory floor was laid out with the same design and tracking charts as their own facilities. One supervisor told us how they had created a "vending machine" system for small but expensive tools and parts that tend to get lost. They had gone from 30% loss to zero since the system was installed.

The tour of the Hornet repair facility was somehow disturbing, like visiting a morgue or Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory. We saw airframes with their engines removed--you could look right through the intake and out the back end--and largely-intact planes with all their panels open to display the innards as if undergoing some kind of weird abdominal surgery. The amusing part was when I asked why certain portions of the Hornets in the gargantuan building were covered with foil, expecting to be told that they were very sensitive to dirt or highly classified. "Birds," our guide replied.

Finally, word came that the cloud cover had lifted to around 200 feet, so we hightailed it back to the loading zone... for more waiting. This time, it was the Secretary of the Navy who changed our plans. Dogs sniffed around the building and the base Commanding Officer pulled up in a golf cart with an official-looking seal on the front. Decked out in cumbersome safety gear, we gathered around the windows to watch, after being told to stay inside so as not to worry the security personnel.

I wish I had a picture to show you how ridiculous we all looked, especially as we jostled to see out the windows. It started with the "cranial," which was described to us as "one size fits none" helmet. Very true, although about three minutes before our touchdown back at the base the next day, I discovered it was somewhat adjustable, which only partially eased the sense of having my head in a vise. Attached to the cranial were scratched goggles that turned the world into one big blur. But the really funny part was the "horse collars." Although they are life vets, that's pretty much what they look like, with the added fashion statement of a little round pouch of emergency gear that dangles from the front and bounces against the upper thighs of short people like me.

Horse collars zipped, chin straps tightened, and goggles down... I couldn't decide whether we looked like low-tech aliens or kids playing pilot.

In a C-2, the passengers sit backwards. The explanation of our safety briefer was, "It's safer. The airlines let you sit forward because people don't like to fly backwards. They're in the business of selling tickets; we aren't. They don't care if you die."

Flying backwards was definitely disconcerting. Even taxiing was confusing! In order to override habitual thoughts associated with airplanes, I had to close my eyes and give all my attention to intellectual calculations in order to form a correct mental image of what was happening to the plane as we turned into the proper lanes on the flightline.

With everything that had gone wrong both in the past and present in regards to my trip, I didn't let myself start to truly believe it until we were strapped in. I sat next to a very cheerful crewman who obviously found our enthusiasm contagious. My smile refused to be subdued, and I just kept looking at him and grinning. He returned the smile and gave me an enthusiastic thumbs up.

[click for more]

Sitting in the first row (facing backwards), I had a full view of the back of the plane. I remembered Steeljaw Scribe's story about the guy who hadn't been strapped in on a cat shot, finally able to see what Steeljaw had described. But the crewman and I soon had a great time attempting to talk with our hands and shouting in each others' ears throughout the flight. As soon as we were airborne, he poked a little flashlight into all sorts of nooks and crannies at the back of the plane. I asked about it when he returned to his seat, and he said he was looking for problems in all the places they'd had problems before. Our safety briefer had told us not to worry if we saw fluid leaking, so I asked, "Any new leaks?" He replied with a grin that everything was leaking exactly as it should.

Since we were generally flying in a straight line, the impact of the backwards factor began to wane and I adjusted to the dim light and physical disorientation. Still, there was a fluttering in my stomach that grew as it dawned on me that soon we would be on the carrier. I found myself more and more impatient as I realized that I couldn't see enough out of the single, tiny window I'd parked myself next to to tell how close we really were. It was dark, hot and smelly in the plane but I knew the next thing I'd see was the carrier deck, and so I decided it was the most magical vehicle I'd ever been in.

I felt the plane drop, and the fluttering inside increased. The crewman looked over and gave me another grinning thumbs up. I craned my neck to look out the window again, and about climbed out my seat in excitement at the discovery of the carrier laid out parallel to us far below. It's really happening!

We kept dropping, and the suspense nearly did me in. After a little while, the crewman tapped my shoulder and pointed to the back of the plane so that I would be facing the right way. Suddenly we felt the lightest touchdown onto something solid, followed by a moderate and increasing pressure pushing us back into our seats as the "wire" played out to gradually rein us in. At that point I almost forgot it wasn't a regular landing, until what felt like taxiing at an airport was cut short with a sudden thump as the wire came to its end, and we were still.

We had been warned of the "violence" of the "trap," but as one of our group exclaimed later, "I've had worse landings at San Diego Airport." Me, too.

The plane rocked back slightly, paused, and then began to turn as the back ramp cranked open. Heat and noxious fumes rolled in. All I could see was the deck, though. There was no time for anticipation, as everything went from "Hurry Up and Wait" to "Hurry Up and Move!" Two helmeted and goggled White Shirts appeared as soon as the plane stopped, and our crewmen jumped up to hand us down the 18-inch step from the ramp to the deck.

After the disorientation of the C-2 flight, the first moments on the ship were a blur. Sudden noise, noxious smells, and glaring light made for sensory overload. Gloved hands reached out in support as I hesitantly stepped down, then turned me to the left where I spotted the back of a fellow DV. Like a line of little ducklings with eyes blinking in the harsh light, we followed one after the other into the unknown...

Cranials conspired with the roar of jets to block any meaninful communication, and the cumbersome horse collar with the hanging packet bumped against my legs as I toddled along. The warm blast of a jet maneuvering into a parking position forward of the island made my eyes water behind poorly-fitting goggles, and I tried and failed to hold my breath for more than a moment, coughing on the fumes.

Step, step, step... follow the person in front of you. Suddenly a dark oval door appears and a voice yells, "Step up!" as a seemingly disembodied hand points downward. I lift my foot over the 12-inch "knee knocker," and darkness envelops me as a small part of my brain says I must be stepping into the island, the tower attached to the deck of the ship. My eyes fail to adjust to the dim light, but I respond to an additional shout: "Right turn!" Step, step... "Over here!"

Step, step...

A blast of cool, dry air beckons, accompanied by light beaming through another oval door, but the goggles distort what lies beyond. I lift the damned things up onto my helmet as I step over another knee knocker and it snaps into focus: a beautiful and relatively spacious room with carpet, stuffed sofas and fancy chairs. Somebody in a uniform takes the cranial from me, and I feel the sweaty horse collar being lifted off my neck.

The beautiful room feels like an oasis. Cool air rushes past all the body parts that had been sweating under the equipment, and the noise and smell fade away. A tall and elegant man in a turtleneck shakes everyone's hand as we stumble past and says with gracious warmth, “Welcome to U.S.S. STENNIS.” I'm still too disoriented to respond properly, but the tall gentleman is polite enough to ignore that.

Besides, something else demands my complete attention, A row of recessed, porthole-style windows beckons from across the room and I am drawn like a magnet. Standing on tiptoe, I look out and see clear sky edged by deep blue water that appears to move along at a good clip. It takes a moment for me to comprehend it all... I’m really on an aircraft carrier at sea!

After several seconds watching in awe, I realize something is going on behind me. I turn and see a lovely table with ice-cold water, tea and coffee, cookies, pastries, and the Captain’s chef smiling shyly. I turn back and stare out the window to be sure I didn’t imagine the sea and the sky. I would climb right through the porthole if I thought I could.

Talked into a glass of ice water, I try to be a good guest and ignore the siren call of the window. As I walk across the room, the ship shifts under my feet, and my stomach does a little flip. Back at the window I stand on tiptoe again to check the angle of the waves. Yup, slight change of direction—didn’t think I’d feel it on a carrier...

It hits me again: I'm finally on an aircraft carrier at sea!!!

Part III: Jets!