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
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
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.
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
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 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