"Now what would you like to do?" says the tinny voice over my headphones. All his years of training to be a fighter pilot have in no way prepared Lt. Scott Ind for what he will hear next.
"I think I've seen enough," I say rather nonchalantly, really more addressing the mountains off our right wing than him specifically.
Obviously there's no way anyone would want a flight in an F/A-18 Hornet fighter jet to ever end, especially after only 15 minutes of gut-wrenching aerobatics with one of the U.S. Navy's Blue Angels, so Ind begins offering options in case (perhaps) I'm simply too disoriented to think of them on my own after what amounts to a ride on a 7,000-foot-high rollercoaster at near-sonic velocities. * Hey, he suggests, we could fly the solo routine that they perform during one of their air shows. "No, that's OK," I reply. Then how about if he lets me fly a huge loop like the one we just
finished--ascending with the needle nose pointing up into the deep blue of space, a brief weightlessness while floating over on our backs, and then rocketing toward the ground, pulling back on the stick until the g-forces have you weighing about four and a half times normal? "I'll pass," I say. I'm still too cool to plead at this point, but I am seriously ready to blow chow inside the very clean cockpit of his $24 million fighter jet. If I can keep saying no long enough, I know he'll give up and take me back to the base.
"What if we fly some nape-of-the-earth combat maneuvers?" he asks. Oh, all right, I think. So, pretending that we're avoiding an Iraqi radar screen, we descend until we're what seems like five feet off the rocky desert plain and scream like a banshee toward a barren ridge in the distance. Now we pop up over the ridge, hugging it by rolling over on our backs, then descending nose-first before rolling upright again. Sweat's really pouring off me now, even though the temperature remains quite pleasant inside the cockpit.
The lieutenant wants to know how great that little maneuver was, and I think I managed to force out an unenthusiastic "oh, boy" while thinking that the true meaning of heroism can be encapsulated by my attempt to hold down lunch. Again, he wants to know what other fun stuff I want to do. "I think I've seen enough," I repeat.
At this point I don't know which one of us is trying hardest to keep from begging.
Ultimately, though, my cause prevails, if only because the fighter carries only so much fuel. So we head back to the base--but not before he promises me a landing just like the ones they do out on an aircraft carrier. I groan mentally. He lines up on the runway coming in hot about 200 feet above the surface, and right above the point where we're going to touch down he rakes the fighter over on its side and yanks back hard on the control stick. This tight circling approach is designed to bleed off airspeed while taking us back around to the end of the runway. My role in all this is to hold on and grunt hard enough to feel my eyes bulge, because such high-g maneuvers drain the blood from your head and that makes it tough to stay conscious. Of course, all this would be easier if I had on one of those nifty g-suits that keep blood from pooling in your butt and legs, but the hot sticks in demo squadrons are so acclimated to g's that they never wear them--nor do they offer them to their decidedly wimpy passengers. Of course, this turns into another battle of wills between the lieutenant and myself: it seems that the harder I grunt the harder he turns, and before I know it I'm having a hard time keeping my head from lolling over onto my chest. Milliseconds later I stop grunting to concentrate on holding my head up, and then, POOM! It's over: I'm in dreamland. Something in the back of my brain tells me: Wake up! We're too close to the ground and we're gonna crash--like it thinks I'm at the controls or something, and so I force myself back to consciousness in time to hear Ind ask me if I'm OK. He begins apologizing.
"You're already forgiven," I say.
Back on the ground they tell me that I'm the third one he's put to sleep this week. But at least I held down lunch. No afternoon cleaning chunder off the instrument panel for this honorary Angel.
Since they began wowing audiences in 1946, the Blue Angels' highly polished six-plane flight demonstration squadron is the closest that many people get to the U.S. Navy. After all, the waves that the majority of Americans see with any frequency are amber and made of grain. Sure, the Angels like to point out that their near-supersonic passes and thundering diamond formations are precisely the types of maneuvers that all naval aviators learn in flight school. But in reality the high-gloss team is a recruitment tool; the Blue Angels are about as close to the workaday world of a nuclear aircraft carrier as a Ferrari is to a Chevy pickup.
Before my stomach has the chance to settle from the little jaunt with Lieutenant Ind, I am on my way to the Atlantic coast for a brief trip on America's latest operational aircraft carrier, the $3.5 billion USS John C. Stennis. (Technically, there are two newer carriers, but the recently commissioned USS Harry S Truman has yet to undergo a shakedown cruise and the USS Ronald Reagan is still being built.) In its home port at Norfolk, Virginia, and devoid of aircraft, the Stennis is slated to steam out a few miles off the coast, take on its contingent of war birds, give the pilots practice taking off and landing, and then head out on her maiden voyage: relieving the USS George Washington on patrol in the Persian Gulf.
I arrive at the appointed spot (Naval Station Norfolk) at the appointed time (no later than 6:30 a.m.) to find a dozen members of the local news media milling about on the same mission as I. We wait around for a while until a couple of uniformed types show up with a pair of vans, load us up, and drive us to the waterfront. Our ship, we are told, is the big one on the right. It is the biggest one in the yard--and every vessel there would dwarf an Iowa-class battleship, or for that matter, everybody's favorite ship, the 882-foot-long RMS Titanic. Here, though, there are definitely enough lifeboats--well, life rafts--for everyone.
Words don't prepare you for a behemoth like the Stennis. According to Navy handouts, the ship contains 60,000 tons of structural steel, 2,700 compartments, 30,000 light fixtures, 900 miles of wiring and cables, 28,000 sheets and 14,000 pillow cases, 2,000 phones and two 30-ton anchors recycled from a decommissioned carrier. If any person (presumably one responsible for consuming three of the 18,600 meals prepared on board each day) were to try to master her, he would have to read a stack of technical manuals as high as the Washington Monument. Her air-conditioning plant could cool 950 homes and she is capable of distilling enough water for 2,000 households.
Any naval architect can tell you that this 97,000-ton ship will remain afloat as long as it displaces more water than she weighs. Still, the Stennis seems to violate the laws of physics. Its 1,092-foot-long flight deck is longer than New York's Chrysler Building is tall, though the whole ship looks about as tall, too. Its 18 decks rise 24 stories into the air. V-shaped from the front, the ship seems to ride precariously high on the ocean's surface, as if the thick ropes tying her to the dock are all that keep her from toppling sideways onto the harbor's floor. You just know that the rest of this iceberg is immense.
Navy officers send us up the gangplank, onto the expansive but empty hangar deck, and crowd us into the TV studio. Decorated with curtains and an official-looking podium, it's a standard feature on modern naval aircraft carriers. There the captain broadcasts announcements to the rest of the crew as we wait to find our berthing assignments. We are told that we will have two-person staterooms instead of enlisted personnel's quarters. Since the ship isn't under way as scheduled, they decide to lead us into a cafeteria to feed us breakfast. Herded back into the studio, we receive the keys to our staterooms and are assigned our individual shipboard escorts. Before announcing mine, the ship's public affairs officer explains to everyone that the assignment had been somewhat hotly contested; not only were most officers huge fans of Cigar Aficionado, but they also rightly figured that I'd be packing some fine smokes on board to hand out to those nearby. The lucky winner is Lt. Chris Ramsden, a roly-poly sort of chap with dark, close-cropped hair, blue smiling eyes, a green jacket covered with squadron patches and a cheery nervousness about saying the wrong thing to a journalist. There's an air of ambition about him; he's a hard-charger. Permanently attached to one hand is a barrel-size mug filled with a steaming, acidic mud that the Navy calls coffee; I slip a cigar into the other. Ramsden normally flies land-based patrol aircraft, but for the time being he's on what's called a disassociated sea tour, "meant to broaden my horizons, so to speak," he says. As an aviator, Ramsden wears brown shoes. They're highly polished.
By now it's almost noon and the ship still isn't under way. Rumor has it that the delay lies with one of her two nuclear power plants. We may not leave at all that day. There is nothing we can do except eat. While dining on piles of meat and potatoes in the officers' mess, Ramsden introduces me to Lt. Bill Pollitz. Red-haired, slightly disheveled, Pollitz isn't one of the official escorts. He's gruff. He swears. He just wants to meet me because he loves cigars and he's sure I'll be fascinated by his opinions. I take an instant liking to him.
As we finish with dessert, the lieutenants seem to detect a slight vibration in the ship. They both excitedly rise and drag me to a tiny platform welded precariously onto the starboard side of the hull just below the flight deck and aft the ship's island. (Three hours on board and I'm speaking like an old salt.) It's about six stories above the surface of the water. There, with a clear blue sky, we watch as the carrier slowly reverses out of the dock and majestically steams out of the harbor, heading to the open Atlantic.
Ramsden tells us he must run off to perform one of his many watches, so Pollitz suggests we take a stroll across the flight deck while we have the chance; as soon as we are out to sea we will be taking on airplanes, and then the deck will be about as hospitable to human life as a runway intersection at O'Hare.
Pollitz tells me that he's not your typical naval officer; he's a limited duty officer, part of a program that commissions senior enlisted men with between eight and 16 years of experience. "We are technical experts and are assigned to areas where our expertise is needed in a more senior role," he explains. "We are not in line for command and are not eligible to promotion for flag rank." His expertise is nuclear power.
Pollitz joined the Navy in 1979, a year out of high school and already in a dead-end job. "The training in the Nuclear Power Program looked like a good deal so I signed up." He failed to inform his family, he says, adding that they grew concerned when they discovered that his phone had been disconnected. In 1981, he met the younger sister of one of his instructors in nuclear power school. Her name is Terri; they were married in Charleston, South Carolina, 18 months later. "Nothing fancy, just the two of us, my best friend, Chuck Thivierge, and the justice of the peace," he says. Their son, Jonathan, was born in September 1984. They now own some real estate, and Pollitz says he has enough time in the service to retire next year and live off some rental income and his Navy pension, but he plans to remain in the Navy until 2001. Pollitz wears black shoes, a little scuffed. "Black shoes are for people with jobs," he says, adding that "people refer to the 'black-shoe Navy' as the regular Navy."
By now we're clear of port but not yet far enough out to sea to take on the air wing, a moment my two escorts have reckoned would be a perfect time to meet back on the ship's fantail (an open area on the ship's aft between the flight deck and the propulsion screws), for a nice, scenic smoke. Word has gotten out and a few cigar-loving members of the crew are there to join us. "You need a good lighter in the Navy because of the wind," Ramsden says.
Pollitz is telling me that he stows around 200 cigars in his two shipboard humidors (following an old sailor's tradition of fine craftsmanship, he built them both by hand, lining the mahogany boxes with Spanish cedar). "I try to get outside in the early evening for a smoke," he says. We're relaxed, enjoying the ocean air and fine cigars, when suddenly the heavens open up with a heavy seawater spray. We all scramble for the nearest doorways. When the door slams behind me I notice that I'm among complete strangers, all enlisted personnel in a mélange of uniforms. All are built like boxers, some are presumably armed. They eye me and my civvies suspiciously. I have no idea where I am except that I'm somewhere in the rear of the world's biggest and deadliest warship, and I don't know how to get to where my companions are. The last thing I need to be is a stranger wandering around on a nuclear-powered vessel. I smile and shuffle nervously. Then Pollitz bursts through a doorway and announces that a routine scheduled wash-down of the fan deck had interrupted our smoke. "It was good while it lasted," he says, but our time is up; he'll have to lead me through the maze of the ship's gangways back to my stateroom, then he must go on duty down in the power plant.
The staterooms came billed as the lap of luxury by Navy standards, and true, they are comfortable and semiprivate, but tiny (about the size of the bathroom in my small one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan). There's a sink, a mirror, two small desks and chairs with some cabinet space for each, two bunks and a TV in a frame bolted high on the opposite wall. I stretch out on the lower bunk and try to sleep for an hour or two.
If you don't remind yourself that an aircraft carrier is a ship that has evolved over the past eight or nine decades, then the concept comes across as a totally insane idea: build a floating airport of 97,000 tons with four runways and expect the pilots of 30-ton high-powered jets to slam down on the pitching surface at night in crappy weather to a precision of within inches. But no, all this didn't begin last week.
On January 18, 1911, just seven years after the Wright brothers' first flight, stunt pilot Eugene Ely made the first attempt to land on a ship. Workers covered the stern of the cruiser USS Pennsylvania with 119 feet of wood planks to provide a flat surface, across which they spaced 22 ropes with sandbags tied on either end; a hook on the airplane would grab one of the ropes and drag the airplane to a halt. Somehow the tailhook idea worked, keeping Ely and his flying machine from plunging into San Francisco Bay. It was a fitting follow-up to a stunt that Ely had performed just over two months earlier, when he took off from the USS Birmingham on the opposite coast.
Not surprisingly, given their proclivity for all things nautical, it was the British who built the first true aircraft carrier, at the end of the First World War. It was hazardous duty; more pilots died from drowning or from crashing their frail machines on the deck than in combat. In 1922 America joined the carrier club, clapping a flat deck the length of a coal ship and calling it the USS Langley. Over the next few years a handful more carriers followed; these were built from the keel up. The Navy's brass, conservative by nature, wasn't too sold on the concept just yet, though. In those days the battleships were its proven power base, its big stick. Carriers had barely been tested in battle. Then came Pearl Harbor.
The Japanese navy steamed its carriers to Hawaii and sank or disabled most of our Pacific battleships. What few carriers the U.S. Navy had happened to be out on exercise, missing certain destruction. At the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942, American carriers went up against the Japanese carriers in the first naval engagement in which the opposing ships were never within sight of one another. With carrier-borne war birds, the Americans managed to sink two of their carriers and halt the Japanese advance across the Pacific. From then on, the Navy couldn't build aircraft carriers fast enough.
After the war the Navy began using jet fighters, which needed more speed to become airborne, and so someone hit on the bright idea of using a steam-driven catapult to propel them off the deck. Then the Navy took an idea from the British to "angle the deck": allowing airplanes to land on the ship's stern at an angle instead of straight down the deck. This way, if there were a problem hooking the wire, the airplane could bounce off the deck and go around--or crash into the ocean--instead of plowing into a slew of aircraft and personnel on the foredeck. Too, the angled deck allowed the ship to have planes landing on the aft deck while others were catapulting from the foredeck. The whole arrangement made for an appealing efficiency. Once the Navy started building them with nuclear generators, the supercarrier was born. With virtually unlimited range and firepower, nuclear-powered carriers are, as Ramsden says with guarded understatement, "an instrument of national policy."
I have been lying in my stateroom for only a few minutes when there is a remarkable noise directly overhead--like a garbage truck moving at full tilt slamming into a steel barrier, followed by an ethereal sigh. Then it happens again, and again, and again, at short, precise intervals. It's like water torture. I stick my head out the door, and everyone in the corridor seems to keep right on doing what they are doing. Giving up on sleep I turn on the TV, and on a black-and-white channel there's a gray F/A-18 Hornet staggering in toward the camera. It hits the deck--the garbage truck slamming into the steel wall--and its tailhook snags the cable and it stops within a few feet--the ethereal sigh. I surf through the channels with the remote: CNN, the movie Jumanji, a couple of networks. Five channels and nothing on. I switch back to the Landing War Birds Network--All Jets, All of the Time--and settle back.
Pollitz eventually arrives to escort me to the mess for a quick dinner, then we start making our way up to the bridge, where Ramsden has invited us while he's officer of the deck. The Navy's media hounds like to say that an aircraft carrier is like a small, floating city, and the Stennis is no exception: it has 6,200 residents, a library, a gym, several restaurants, a general store, a post office and even a jail. True, it is like a small city, but one that's not big on windows; one with long, white hallways that go off into the distance, interrupted only by bulkhead doors marked by incomprehensible symbols allegedly designed to tell you your location--the carrier's "addresses"; and one in which at most times you're in danger of self-inflicted brain damage from banging something sharp-cornered and metal overhead. It is also a city that could desperately use a Starbucks.
To get to the bridge, we must climb flight after flight of narrow, steep steel staircases. Actually, ladders with loose chains or handrails is a more accurate description. One of the officers has described the ship as "a four-billion-dollar Stairmaster." Ironically, real Stairmasters are lodged into the occasional stairwell landing for the crew's use, along with other pieces of exercise equipment. Not an inch of space is wasted here. The Stairmasters aren't as popular as the treadmills and bicycling machines, by the way.
By the time we make it to the bridge it's dark outside; the bridge is darkened, too, to help the crew see out. Everyone's face is bathed in the glow of computer screens; for some reason I'm surprised at all the state-of-the-art electronics, but then again this is a new carrier. (With countless antiquated computers--especially air-traffic-control computers--still in use, the U.S. government remains one of the largest users of vacuum tubes in the free world.)
In front of the bridge, down on the flight deck, a 37-ton Mach-2 F-14 Tomcat is being shot off the deck, going from 0 to 165 miles per hour in two seconds while twin spears of fire from its Pratt & Whitney jet engines stab at the dark. Behind us, another Tomcat is circling in for a trap. All the while Ramsden has a calm, authoritative banter going with the air boss, who's in charge of the launch and recovery of everything that flies, and the crew members on the bridge who keep the carrier steaming on course through the pitch-black night. He seems so normal to have such towering responsibilities (having watched too many movies, I expect such a person to be sweating and shifty like Bogart in The Caine Mutiny) and he seems so very young.
In truth, he is. Ramsden was born in 1966; he joined the Navy, he says, to help pay for college and to serve the country. In 1989, he got into flight school and got hooked on aviation, but was screened out of fighters because of his eyesight. While he was in flight school, an old high school friend, Julie St. Laurent, came to visit, and pretty soon they fell in love. "I proposed during the Charlie Brown Christmas special that December ," he says. They married the following spring and now have three children. He finds the separation from his family very difficult, though it helps that they can stay in touch through e-mail, occasional phone calls, and letters. And it's true, he is ambitious: his goal is a command at sea. To get there he's putting in 18- to 20-hour days seven days a week at sea (12- to 14-hour days when in port) with his coffee mug surgically attached to one hand.
Pollitz has let slip his earlier opinion of the Brown Shoe Navy. "I just want to add that there truly is a delusion among 'Shoes' that they work harder than anyone else, especially aviators," Ramsden replies. "Then again, they probably work to the best of their ability, too. Heh, heh, heh."
Pollitz leads me back to my stateroom, where I stretch out again and finally drop off to sleep once the fighters stop landing. By the time the noise stops, the Stennis has its full complement of 80 of the deadliest aircraft known to mankind crammed on board. Just how much firepower that adds up to is anyone's guess, but when a modern carrier shows up offshore, most countries take it pretty seriously.
The next morning, Ramsden wakes me after coming off another watch and tells me he's arranged for me to visit the flight deck. He takes me to his office, where one of the ship's photographers shows up with headphones, a helmet and a life jacket for me and leads me out the starboard side and around the island. We wait for a Tomcat to launch, and then she takes me onto the 4.5-acre deck that gives a flattop its name, to a spot out in the open between the front two catapults. Another Tomcat is moving into position. It's windy and hot from exhaust and it smells like steam and burning jet fuel, and coming directly at me from behind is a 26-ton Hornet making its final approach. I'm standing there, a deer in headlights, thinking I don't have a clue where to go if that hook doesn't grab or the cable breaks, though I know that as soon as he hits the flight deck the pilot's going to give it full throttle so he can take off again.
But everything works out, and right beside me the Tomcat pilot gives the thumbs-up and he gets shot off the deck, dipping a little, then pulling up and rocketing skyward. Then the next Hornet makes the trap, and another Tomcat shoots off. In just a few minutes, they've launched and recovered maybe 10 aircraft, and standing there watching it all becomes nerve-wracking.
Down below again, the public affairs officer buttonholes me and tells me to get my gear ready pronto--unless I want to see the Persian Gulf. In a flash I'm back with my bag, and I'm led to the ship's version of an airport lobby. The local media with whom I came on board begin to filter in with their bags, and we wait there for perhaps 90 minutes, getting outfitted with life vests and helmets and headphones. Finally a sailor tells us we're going to head out. We scramble up some stairs and around the island and pause for a moment, leaning against its smooth gray wall. The sailors working the flight deck check us out, and we look back uncomfortably. Each of us media folks knows that we are not them; we are just guests, we have only been playing a game and now we are heading back to our safe lives. This is their home, their jobs, their reality--they are the guys on the front lines.
Our escort loads us onto the COD (Carrier On-Board Delivery), the carrier's version of an airliner, only one in which the seats are backwards and there are no windows. Hot jet exhaust blasts in until the door slams shut about an hour later, and then we are moving. The escort shouts instructions about how and when to brace ourselves for the catapult, but I'm too far away to hear him. Suddenly the engines grow loud, then everyone else bends forward and so I do, and then I'm pushed forward with this intense force that lasts way too long to be comfortable; the COD drops for a heartbeat and then its wings grab enough air to climb out. I want to puke (again), and I vow (again) to never get inside another Navy jet.
Until my next chance comes up, that is.
Phil Scott is author of The Shoulders of Giants: A History of Human Flight to 1919 (Addison-Wesley, 1995) and the upcoming Canvas, Steel, Wire (Princeton University Press).