By Chris WALDHEIM
Recently local businessman Chris Waldheim had the opportunity to visit one of the nation’s supercarriers – the USS Carl Vinson. He shares his experience of a lifetime.
A few times during our lives we do something that only a select few will ever get to do. This was one of those times.
In October, 16 of us met at the Naval Air Station in Coronado to come together on a call of duty aircraft and hop over the Pacific Ocean to the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson. Having heard a little bit about what to expect on this flight, we were all excited.
No windows and no creature comforts as on a commercial aircraft, we instead found backward facing seats, four-point harnesses, helmets, ear protection and life vests – no peanuts and soda on this flight. We taxied down the runway, fully unaware of our surroundings. Not until the humming really started screaming and the bumps stopped did we know we were airborne.
About an hour later we got the hand signal – go, go, go! And then boom! Just like that, tail hook was engaged and we landed aboard our home for the next 24 hours.
Upon landing, the plane’s rear door was opened and the first thing we saw was a Super Hornet fighter jet rolling across the flight deck like a big screen TV. Surreal. Out we hopped and were ushered into the bowels of this massive engineering marvel.
Powered by two nuclear reactors, the ship is relatively quiet and cool inside. The passages are tight, filled with electronic filled boxes, pipes, wires and all other systems visible. The stairwells are near vertical, just shy of a ladder. Every doorway has a 12-inch lip at its base and many compartments have hatches that can be closed in case of an emergency. Insert about 5,000 hard working men and women and a 24-hour, seven-day a week schedule and you have a working aircraft carrier.
We were lucky to come aboard in the middle of training exercises and there were constant announcements over the intercom and radios. Crews were rushing back and forth in mock fire, missile and flooding drills as we followed our guides throughout the ship. Each call was treated as if lives depended on it. After a short safety talk, we were geared up with helmets, goggles, flotation vests and ear protection for a visit to the flight deck.
Coming out into the open air again and seeing the flurry of activity was incredible. There were at least 100 sailors on the deck, each color-coded so everyone knew their responsibility and how they fit the mission that day. From the pilots and co-pilots to the tugs pulling jets into place, from the guy making sure the planes were secured to the catapult to the fireman shining in their fire-retardant silver suits, it was choreographed like a well-rehearsed dance performance. Pure discipline.
As the deflector plate swung up, we were ushered even closer to see the first Hornet take off. The rumble of the jets penetrated two pairs of ear protection as the wind from the exhaust blew like a concentrated tornado. The rumble rolled though our insides not unlike a small earthquake. In a series of checks and double checks, the deck crew signals one another with thumbs up, pointing in different directions and finally to the pilot to say, “It’s all you.” Full throttle is applied a few seconds before the catapult launches and wham! That jet is off the deck and airborne. Three seconds to reach 130 mph.
After watching a half dozen launches, we were directed to the landing zone. We saw a seemingly endless stream of jets make huge circles above the carrier to get into position for their turn to land.
Then we spotted the first plane coming in. It looked like it was coming right at us. The angle is a little off of a straight approach and remember – we are moving at 20-plus knots across the water. Taking into account the rise and drop of the ship and a crosswind, it was amazing anyone could land safely. A few seconds later, the chirp of the tires met the scream back to full throttle and the tail hook caught its prey, cable number three. A perfect landing.
Throttle off, idle off to the side of the deck, cable number three silently retracts and we’re ready for the next plane.
This continued for about 10 aircraft. All but one pass caught the first time.
The pilots get set up on angle and then other pilots standing on the deck guide them in, giving only quick advice – up, down, left, right or radio silence if the approach is on the mark. That is solid trust and dedication.
We got to go down to the pilots’ ready room and hear their take on flying.
The pilots are the superstars of the ship, and they make a huge sacrifice during those sometimes seven-hour flights. Sacrifice came to mind often during this trip. Being on the ship made me appreciate how these sailors have sacrificed their personal life for the protection of everyone else. They have little privacy, a 12-plus hour work day, constant radio calls, middle of the night tests, being away from spouses and children, sometimes not seeing daylight for days at a time, cramped quarters and six-month deployments away from the United States. The funny thing is that not one person said they would give it up to get those things back. The sense of duty rises to the top. Selfless sacrifice.
The evening brought us a chance to meet with the Rear Admiral, visit the war room, have dinner with a handful of officers and then back out on the deck to observe the flight operations at night. Totally incredible. The next morning we enjoyed another tour of the interior of the ship including the medical and dental facilities, the hangar bay, the repair stations, the gym and the fantail, the absolute end of the ship.
The final experience was gearing up for the COD ride home. After briefing us about what to do and explaining that we were about to be catapulted off the ship like the fighters, we climbed out of the briefing room and onto the deck. We were all anxious inside the plane, tightening our harnesses and helmets as snug as they would go. The ramp closed on the back of the plane and a few minutes later we got the signal: go, go, go.
The next three seconds were unlike anything one can imagine. Because we were sitting facing backwards, the G-forces were trying to slam us into the chairs in front of us. Despite pulling the straps as hard as they could go, I was still pulled off my seat, trying to catch my breath and smiling from ear to ear.
As we celebrated Veterans Day this year, I had a whole new appreciation for the Armed Forces and in particular the men and women of the United States Navy.
I encourage everyone to make sure to take the time to thank them for everything they have done and everything they still do.