14 July, 2008

DV Embark V: More than a Flight Deck

Air Ops [click to enlarge]

On our way to dinner we'd had one brief stop--Air Ops.

In the old carriers, the Air Ops functions were contained in Pri-Fly, the Air Boss' deck in the Island. Pilots for each aircraft aloft would be standing by, and one lucky person would be writing information about each plane (type, fuel state, problems, etc) backwards on an acrylic panel so that the Air Boss had up-to-date info. Today, these functions are contained in an entirely separate room filled with giant flat screens, and the Pilots Landing Aid TV (PLAT, displaying a view of the flight deck) is the only visual connection to direct flight operations. The information once written on acrylic is now all computerized.

I found the Air Ops room absolutely fascinating. Behind the sailors operating the computers were two rows of benches facing the displays. They reminded me of old-fashioned choir stalls. Each seat at the bench had a squadron patch on it, and we were told that it was occupied whenever a member of that squadron is in the air. Directly in front of the benches was a small bookshelf with a copy of NATOPS and manuals for every type of aircraft on the ship.

Because Carrier Qualifications were underway, the displays showed more than just the typical information. Over to the righthand side of each screen was a graphical display of landings and take-offs for pilots undergoing CQ, with letters indicating the results. For example, a W for wave-off or B or bolter, etc. Additional marks showed whether a pilot had been sent to Miramar to refuel after multiple bolters/waveoffs, since they didn't have a tanker aloft for CQ. Another column tallied successful touch-and-goes and landings for each pilot.

I was fascinated by all of it, and in looking at the displays I could see that some were having a difficult night. As their tracking graphics ended in an upward line, I knew they would be coming round soon, and I wished we could be allowed to hear the radio conversations and stay long enough to see what would happen. But they rushed us off to dinner after only a couple of minutes.

After later depositing our "treasures" from the ship's store in our staterooms, we visited another supporting function for the planes we'd been watching all afternoon: Arresting Gear #3, one of the under-the-deck mechanisms that reins in the planes when they land. The very young sailor manning the machines explained the function and activity of the devices in great detail, but I didn't completely understand. My mind was elsewhere--the disparity in experiences among the various occupants of the ship had begun to hit home for me.

The sailor told us he typically worked 12-16 hour days, maintaining the gear when it wasn't in use and monitoring or repairing it during flight operations. If he didn't take care of it correctly or temperature and forces acting on it were allowed to exceed effective limits, either he or someone on the deck could die in the resulting accident.

The room was small, the air hot, humid and greasy. I stood there in a thin linen top, sweating and wondering how he could cheerfully tolerate it in the long sleeves that safety required of him on the job. And I couldn't help but think about the lucky pilots above us in their air-conditioned cockpits flying above the cramped ship... dependent on a very young man who spent 12-16 hours a day in this claustrophobic, hot, miserable place.

The young man told us that he rotated assignments between this post and work with the arresting gear crew (Yellow Shirts) on the deck. When asked which he preferred, he had a hard time deciding, pointing out that they both had their good and bad aspects. He never gave a definitive answer, but he seemed to lean toward preferring the work below decks as it was quieter, often solo, and didn't leave him "looking like a raccoon" when he took of his safety goggles after a day on the sunny deck.

Still, I couldn't wait to get out of there. I couldn't imagine spending the greater portion of my time on a daily basis in that room.

Fortunately, our next stop was the environmental opposite--the Combat Direction Center. Apparently this is something Hollywood manages to get right, as it looked just you see in the movies. Packed with computers, display screens and other electronic equipment, it was ice-cold to keep everything from overheating. In addition, the lights were "turned down" to a ghostly blue glow. It was somewhat cave-like and definitely otherwordly, but a welcome relief after the heat and humidity of our previous stop.

I didn't have my camera quite ready, but I managed to capture a little bit of the presentation:

Our evening was topped off by 45 minutes on Vulture's Row, observing night flight operations. On the starboard side, the moon cast silvery shimmers on the water. On the port side, the blue glow of jets in afterburner flared momentarily before disappearing. Brief bursts of clean air blew past us here and there, thickly framed by gusts of hot fumes as jets maneuver on the deck, catapulted into the inky sky to our right, or roared across the deck in front of us, trailing fire.

[click for more]

As different and fascinating as seeing things at night from Vulture's Row was, I wanted to be back on the deck below in the worst way. The excitement of seeing and hearing the jets from a couple stories above the deck was almost tame after the afternoon’s experience of standing next to a Prowler in tension, or watching a Hornet seemingly come straight at me on its way to a successful landing only dozens of feet away.

Believing there was no way watching more than one or two night landings from that position was going to top the afternoon's experience, I focused instead on taking in every sensation of being out on deck at night that I could. I turned to face the opposite direction from the flight deck and watched the moonlight dancing on the water behind us, tried to see if the air from that side of deck smelled more like the sea than the exhaust that wafted up from the planes moving below us on the other side. I looked up at the stars above us twinkling through the slight haze, and wondered if they were any brighter further out to sea.

Turning back to the port side, I watched everyone moving around the busy deck. To me, the deck crew--marked by their subdued-color flashlights and reflective vests as they purposefully directed the planes while navigating the equipment and people all in motion in the near-dark--were the real story. It was amazing to think that there are not serious injuries on a flight deck every time the sun goes down. But somehow they made it work: no one got sucked into a jet engine, no one sent a plane over the edge when trying to park it, and no pilot crashed into the stern of the ship.

Despite the siren call of the flight deck, I'd accepted that I wouldn't be going down there in the dark. And so I wished for hours to stay out there and try to absorb enough to put myself in their shoes from a distance. But it was not to be, of course. When the time came, I whined a bit and was told matter-of-factly by the warrant officer escorting us, "You've had 45 minutes, haven't you?"

How to explain that 45 hours wouldn't have been enough?

It was bedtime. Our flock of ducklings followed the PAO through the ship again as we dropped the me
n of our group off at their staterooms... directly below the catapult blast shield. A jet went into afterburner in preparation for launch just as the PAO was giving us instructions for the next morning. The ear-splitting roar was so loud she had to stop speaking for a moment.

"Well, they're not going to sleep until 2:00... but better you than me," I thought to myself, remembering that we'd been told that was when flight operations were expected to end. Once the roaring stopped, we ladies laughed at the agonized groans of the men... until we were informed we would be sleeping under the landing area--just forward of the three wire.

As the ladies followed the PAO to our own staterooms on the other side of the ship, I thought of nothing but how much I wanted to wander off and find a way out onto the flight deck. I wanted it in ways I cannot even describe. It had been a wonderful and amazing day, and sleep seemed a ridiculous way to spend my limited time onboard an aircraft carrier at see. I remembered what Homefront Six had said at the first Milblog Conference: "You can sleep when you're dead." But I dutifully followed along, wondering with genuine interest what would happen if I tried to sneak around the ship in the middle of the night.

Alone in my stateroom (there were only three of us ladies and I was the "odd one out..." yippee!), I had time to absorb the experiences of the day, which only increased my excitement and longing to be other than in that little room. Had it been big enough, I would've taken to pacing it to get rid of the nervous energy. I sat down, wondering what in the world I was going to do until 2 a.m.

The first time I heard the banging thud of a plane landing just aft of my stateroom, I dropped what I'd been holding. The second time I managed to hang onto things, but didn't lose the startle reflex. Knowing how many tons of aircraft were dropping out of the sky over my head was not relaxing.

Convinced it would be hours before I slept, I nonetheless went through the motions. The room was almost as cold as the CDC had been, so I was happy to slip on the turtleneck I'd bought at the store. And the soft and fuzzy blankets on the bed were a delicious luxury after a day of hard decks, metal ladders, and greasy railings; I sank into that dark blue cloud of luxury, face down, suddenly too tired to even slip between the sheets or roll over. The thought of spending the next three hours waking up every time a plane landed was insanity-inducing.

A shuddering thud on the deck directly above me made me startle more than I had before. "Caught the four wire," I thought to myself, nose pressed straight down into my pillow. I heard the arresting cables spooling out, then the muffled roar before the pilot dropped out of afterburner at an unseen signal. After the day's activities, I could almost see it all in my head. I wearily rolled over and tugged at the blanket as I slipped between the sheets. How was I ever going to sleep?!

It was about the third trap after I crawled into bed before I stopped twitching when a plane slammed down above me. I never heard the fifth.

At least one of my questions had been answered: How in the world do sailors manage to sleep right below an active flight deck? Exhaustion. Pure exhaustion.

Fuzzybear Slept Here

Part VI: Peace