Aircraft Carrier, Part 3 (Air Power)

The USS John C. Stennis and the thousands of sailors that comprise its crew exist to keep military jets in the air far from home.  They do this extraordinarily well.  We got to watch aircraft from a variety of vantage points, feeling their immense power as much as hearing and seeing them.

I’ve never served in the military and that will be readily apparent to those who have, and I’m sure I’ll sometimes get the terminology wrong as I describe what I saw.  Given that, I’ll do my best and I appreciate your patience.

Practice Makes Perfect

Both an admiral and a captain reside on an aircraft carrier when fully staffed.  The admiral commands an entire carrier strike group composed of multiple ships while the captain commands just the aircraft carrier itself.  Our visit happened during a two-week training deployment that involved only the carrier.  Thus, the admiral and his immediate staff remained ashore as did the air wing and its large crew.

The deployment focused on a handful of the Navy’s newest pilots.  They’d only graduated from their training jets the day before our arrival.  We got to see them on their first day of practice on a carrier with actual wartime equipment.  Pilots launched from the deck, circled a few miles counter-clockwise, and caught the arresting gear with their tailhook as they landed.  They repeated this over-and-over, for hours.  Every once in awhile they practiced something different, a touch-and-go landing that simulated what to do if they missed all four arresting cables.

It’s been awhile since I posted anything on YouTube so I hope everyone enjoys the short video I took.

On the Flight Deck

Stennis Flight Deck
Looking Down the Flight Deck

We got to stand right onto the flight deck, mere feet away from jets on an active runway.  Not much space separated us from the ocean on the other side, either.  This could become a very dangerous place for those easily distracted.  We received a safety briefing that seemed to boil down to:

  • Follow directions
  • Keep behind the line
  • Don’t do anything foolish
  • Watch for jet nozzles (crouch and grab a tie-down if one swings your way)

We all understood and respected the potential threats and followed the rules.  Nobody wanted to get blown overboard or injured by equipment.

The Hangar Bay

Hanger Bay
Inside the Hangar Bay

Jets remained down in the largest open space in the carrier, the hangar bay, when not involved in flight operations.  Their wings folded to make room for even more.  A massive hydraulic elevator shuttled jets between the hangar bay and the flight deck in a matter of seconds.

Ordinarily this space would be stuffed with aircraft (as would the flight deck) although it sat practically empty during our visit.   Instead of a fully-staffed crew of over 5,000, we deployed with about 3,000 sailors during this training mission.  Our guides often remarked how “empty” the ship felt although it seemed plenty crowded to me.  Even with a reduced crew it equaled the population of a small town stuffed into four acres surrounded on all sides by ocean.


A Trail of Steam from the Catapult

Steam powered the two parallel flight deck catapults.  It seemed remarkable that steam could push an aircraft with sufficient force to help launch it.  Perhaps I shouldn’t be too surprised though; steam once powered trains and other heavy machinery.  Pressure built ever higher until its release and then the catapult shot into action.  A white vapor trail remained behind for a few seconds as each jet left.

We learned that each catapult launch needed 300-500 gallons (1,100 – 1,900 litres) of fresh water.  Consider that both catapults ran continuously for hours per day.  Also the ship needed water for cooking, cleaning and daily life for several thousand people.  Even a large ship like the Stennis couldn’t store enough fresh water between ports, sometimes an ocean apart.  Instead it desalinated seawater continuously in large distilling units powered by its nuclear reactor.

The Navy has explored electromagnetic launch systems although steam remains the method of choice for now.

The Deck Crew

Deck Crew
Deck Crew Helping Launch a Jet

Numerous crew members moved about the flight deck during operations.  Each had a function represented by shirt color.  Green shirts on the sailor in the foreground and the group in the background showed they belonged to the support crew that worked with the catapults and arresting gear.  White shirts referenced several miscellaneous functions including safety.  Distinguished Visitors such as ourselves also wore white.  I liked the purple ones best because they were called “grapes.”  They handled fuel.  Everyone wore long-sleeved shirts for protection, regardless of outside temperature.

Notice the deflector behind the jet as it prepares to be catapulted.  That kept the tremendous force and heat of the jet engine from pushing farther down the flight deck.  Aircraft revved their engines so they could remain in the air once the catapult pushed them off.  That made things quite noisy too.  We wore two levels of hearing protection as a result, external headsets and foam ear plugs.  Even then it still seemed loud.

Around the Clock

Nighttime Flight
Taking off at Dusk

Nighttime didn’t stop the action either.  Pilots needed to practice in the dark.  The roar of engines, the rushing catapult, the recoiling arresting gear continued loudly and rhythmically day and night.  It could be heard and felt through most of the ship, seeming almost unusual in the scant hours it stopped.

See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr

Aircraft Carrier, Part 2 (All Aboard)

The message I’d been waiting for finally arrived so I scrambled over to the Naval Station Norfolk Tour and Information Center on the public side of Gate 5 (map).  I met the rest of the people invited to this excursion and we climbed into a 15-passenger van.  Guards waved us through and we drove onto the base and over to Chambers Field where we would fly to aircraft carrier CVN-74 the USS John C. Stennis.

Chambers Field

Chambers Field
Chambers Field at Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia

We didn’t go to the airport terminal where most military flights departed.  Rather, we went to a much smaller building designated for Distinguished Visitors (map).  The waiting area looked like a living room in a nice house, with leather couches, a coffee table, a television and touches like that.

I got acquainted with the rest of the group.  Several people worked for a defense contractor designing jets for the carrier.  Two others belonged to a leadership program for young entrepreneurs.  Others were friends of the captain of a different carrier.  We numbered a dozen total.  Everyone seemed very nice.

An unofficial military motto might be “Hurry Up and Wait.”  We experienced some of that as we rushed to the DV terminal and then sat.  I even had enough time to fire up my phone for one last hit of the Internet — we wouldn’t have access out to sea — to discover the namesake of Chambers Field.  It honored Captain Washington Irving Chambers who pioneered the use of ships for airplane takeoffs and landings in 1910.  I also didn’t realize this would be our last little moment of inactivity and probably should have appreciated it more.  Every movement aboard the ship would be tightly planned and choreographed, and we would be extremely busy.

C-2 Greyhound

C-2 Greyhound
U.S. Navy C-2 Greyhound

We would fly to the carrier on a COD, an acronym for Carrier Onboard Delivery, specifically a C-2 Greyhound.  Loading took place through a door that dropped down in back, conveniently opened when I took this photograph.  These planes could carry either passengers or cargo depending on the need, with seats inserted or pulled out as necessary.  The Greyhound served a very utilitarian function designed solely to shuttle back-and-forth to aircraft carriers.

Arresting gear would keep us from sliding off the deck when we landed and a catapult would propel us with enough force so we could later take off.  I’ll admit I wanted to experience both.  The Navy was about to replace the Greyhounds with V-22 Ospreys, tilt rotor aircraft that could take off and land like a helicopter.  That didn’t sound nearly as exciting.

The Flight

About to Depart
Safety Instructions inside the COD

A  Greyhound flight didn’t have a lot of the conveniences of a commercial flight.  It was completely spartan, fit for its single purpose, and nothing else.

Passengers sat backwards in a stuffy space, sweating as the air conditioner struggled to keep up.  Two tiny porthole windows allowed the only outside view from the cargo bay.  By chance I sat near one although I couldn’t see anything other than the Atlantic below.  We all wore headphones to protect our hearing and to receive crew instructions.  Flotation devices called “horse collars” hung over our necks and down our chests.  Items that couldn’t fit into our pockets had to be stowed separately, lest they turn into projectiles during takeoff or landing.  We remained like this in our dark stale tube, belted in by four-point harnesses for about an hour.

The patch the crew member wore in the photo above corresponded to Fleet Logistics Support Squadron 40 (VRC-40), the “Rawhides,”  based at Naval Station Norfolk.

Landing on the Aircraft Carrier

Doors Open
Our first view of the flight deck after landing

Finally the COD began to descend, much faster than a commercial airliner.  I caught a fleeting glimpse of the Stennis through the tiny porthole and then our plane banked hard left and dropped.  That actually felt more like riding a roller coaster than when we later hit the deck.  The crew waved their arms to let us know we were about to land and we crossed our arms over our chests as instructed.  Arresting gear stopped us so quickly that I didn’t even have time to process it mentally.  We were moving one second, felt a quick jerk, and then we were completely stopped.

The Greyhound, taxied away from the runway, turned a couple of times sharply to squeeze into a safe spot, and the pilots cut the engines.  The back door dropped and we could see nothing but open ocean ahead of us.  We were on deck.

Next came a flurry of activity.  We were told ahead of time to move with purpose and not stop for pictures.  There would be plenty of opportunities for that later.  We needed to get off the deck right away.  It all seemed a blur from the time I unhooked my harness, climbed out the back, and followed everyone down steep ladders and claustrophobic corridors.

Mobile phones didn’t work out there although GPS did so I successfully captured our coordinates:  35.013341,-73.794198.  That put us approximately 100 miles (160 kilometres) southeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina (map).  I can reveal that location now because the ship returned to port before I posted this.  No secrets have been revealed.

Welcome Aboard

Sitting Room
The Sitting Room

Then we entered a completely unexpected world, a surprising luxurious space.  A captain or admiral on an aircraft carrier had to have a place to entertain dignitaries, and that’s where we’d been delivered.   It seemed so strange, having transitioned from an open flight deck to narrow metallic tunnels to a well-appointed salon that looked like it had been dropped from a fancy hotel lobby.

Here we got our welcome briefing.  The Public Relations crew — yes, an aircraft carrier is so large and specialized that there are people who focus solely on public relations and social media — offered snacks and water.  Lots of water.  They warned that dehydration could become a problem with the many ladders, hallways, and decks we’d cross along the way, and much of the ship did not have air conditioning.  We’d seen the only lavish space onboard and now it was time to see how things really worked.

See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr

Aircraft Carrier, Part 1 (Getting to Norfolk)

I’d been on-and-off the road repeatedly for weeks, taking one brief trip after another for the entire summer.  The latest stretch brought me to six different places over twelve days.  I just wanted to get home and sleep in my own bed for awhile.

That lasted barely three nights.  Then I headed right back out the door again and drove towards Norfolk, Virginia.  I’d been offered a chance to spend two days on an aircraft carrier and I certainly couldn’t turn it down even if I wanted to stay home for awhile.

A Rare Opportunity

A Hundred Miles Out to Sea

A coworker who’d retired as a senior naval officer asked me if I wanted to be nominated for the Distinguished Visitor Embark Program.  It sounded awesome although I doubted I met the criteria:

Commander, Naval Air Forces’ Distinguished Visitor (DV) Embark Program places key leaders from all sectors of society – corporate, civic, government, education, non-profit and service – aboard a deployed carrier. While aboard, embarkees meet the talented young men and women who bring these ships to life, and they experience first-hand how the Navy is contributing to the security of the United States, and to the stability of the global community.

I didn’t think of myself as particularly “distinguished.”  Even so, I put my name on the list and promptly forgot about it.  Two years later, and  unexpected, I got an email from the Navy.  They had a vacancy for me in ten days and I could either accept it or go back in line.  It seemed pretty clear that I might not get another chance for awhile — if ever — so I made it work.

The Drive

I’d rather walk through venomous snakes than drive down I-95

I would fly to an aircraft carrier along with other participants on a Monday morning.  That meant I had to get down to Norfolk on Sunday and stay somewhere nearby overnight.  I wouldn’t be able to make it all the way down early enough on Monday.

It also meant that I needed to endure one of the most soul-sucking drives ever devised; and painful journey down Interstate 95 (map) on a Sunday afternoon during summer.  That route never runs smoothly.  Throw in throngs of people returning from weekend getaways and it guaranteed gridlock.  Indeed, it took 90 minutes to cover the first 45 miles (72 kilometres).  A trip to Norfolk that should ordinarily take three hours took four.  I gritted my teeth and got it done, knowing I only had to arrive before Monday.

I hate I-95.

The Detour

Entering Poquoson

About three years ago, I entered Highland County on the western side of Virginia and finished the state.  At that point I’d visited every county and independent city within the boundaries of the Commonwealth — all 133 of them.  Or had I?

I go back through my logs occasionally, reminiscing about my county counting adventures and confirming their accuracy.  I didn’t keep obsessive records in my early days of counting.  Sometimes I sort-of guessed whether I’d crossed into a new county or not.  Internet tools simply weren’t as good as they are now and I’m still doing some cleanup work.  For instance, I stopped in Los Alamos, New Mexico a few years ago just to make sure.  Now Virginia’s independent city of Poquoson gnawed at me for the same reason.

I couldn’t remember explicitly crossing into Poquoson.  There were a couple of opportunities in the distant past, and I thought I must have done it while I visited a friend in Virginia Beach about 25 years ago.  Anyway, I marked it down as visited at the time so it seemed plausible.  Even so, I wanted to prove it to myself so I took a fifteen minute detour and clipped Poquoson’s corner.  The little green sign in the photo showed my final approach.  Open it up in another tab and zoom in if you don’t believe me.  Virginia, if it wasn’t done before is certainly done now.  I’m absolutely sure.


Elation Brewing in Norfolk, Virginia

Longtime readers knew I had to sneak a brewery into this situation and I couldn’t disappoint.  I visited only a single brewery though.  That wasn’t the purpose of my trip.

Aircraft carriers don’t have beer.  In fact, they’re completely dry and alcohol will be confiscated upon sight.  I respected those rules and didn’t even try.  Still, I had to eat dinner somewhere on Sunday evening and I found Elation Brewing only a couple of miles away from my hotel.  I might as well eat somewhere with decent beer, right?


Norfolk International Terminals

My hotel sat conveniently close to where I would catch a van to enter Naval Station Norfolk, to then fly out to the carrier.  I didn’t have an exact departure time nor did I know which ship.  That was a security thing.  I could talk about it and share my experiences all I wanted once I returned, in fact the Navy encouraged it.  However, they preferred to keep things quiet ahead of time, including little details like when we would embark.  I got an approximate time and they’d be in touch the next morning; the actual time might be earlier or later.

My hotel window offered a “scenic” view of cranes at the Norfolk International Terminals of the Virginia Port Authority.  As a bonus, they stayed active all night with generous truck traffic too.  I got some sleep although not as much as I probably needed.  Some of that might have been excitement about what I’d be doing the following morning.

Dawn finally came and I started watching my email nervously, waiting for those instructions.  A message finally arrived and moved our departure up by an hour and a quarter.  We were ready to roll.  I would be heading to CVN-74, the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis.

See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr