Nick’s note: My father wrote this on May 12, 2013 in a private email to our family. I enjoyed reading it and he gave me permission to share it here for family and friends.
I wanted to capture/share my thoughts, feelings, and emotions from my “DV” (Distinguished Visitor) trip to the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson.
The opportunity came available through a group I belong to called Business Executives for National Security (BENS). This is a group of business owners and executives that want to support and help the US military from outside the military establishment.
For this trip I went to San Diego and then to Naval Air Station, North Island, on Coronado Island. We met up at the gate with a Public Relations escort and were given several briefings on the history and mission of the Navy. The talks were both informative and very open without getting into sensitive classified data. Then on to discussions about our approaching immersion into the daily life aboard the carrier.
We were briefed in detail about the trip we were to take on a C-2 Navy Greyhound airplane. This is a mini-cargo airplane with two massive turbo-prop engines. The purpose of the airplane is two-fold: to run supplies back and forth to a carrier that is within several hundred miles from shore, and to shuttle people back and forth on a special/limited basis.
Truly, very few people ever fly aboard an aircraft carrier and this experience was to be one that we were most fortunate to be selected for.
There was nervous apprehension in my crowd of 15 going to the ship. What will this feel like, could I get hurt, what if we crash, what could go wrong, are we in good hands? My military training and faith in the system taught me that our government would not allow us to be put in an unusually dangerous situation, so I was at ease and not apprehensive in the least. Just follow what they tell you, don’t make impromptu deviations and you will be OK.
This mini-cargo aircraft is not so mini when you think about those big propellers and large wings. How is this thing going to fit on an aircraft carrier? Well, the best way to explain it is origami. The wings fold up and tuck to the sides of the airplane after successfully landing and with pilot intervention. It is truly an unnerving thing to see all this weight and capability and then “some-assembly-required” prior to flight. But, the Navy does this day in and day out, for years on end, and I have lived a good life up to this point.
Prior to take-off from North Island we are given some fold up helmets with ear protection (they call this a “cranium”), a life vest, and then goggles to wear. Also supplied were foam ear plugs which they recommend you wear (quick lesson on anything recommended = do it), I heeded their recommendation and donned my extra ear gear. So when we were all ready we were told the airplane is here so we single-file-Indian-Style’d it out to the airplane. You aren’t walking down the gateway with the elite boarding club of your airline now. No, not in Kansas any more. So from this point on, we are talking about sensory overload and out of the comfort zone (not that the whole experience was uncomfortable, just different).
This line of 15 very mature (50 and above) newbies are lined up and following orders very well. The airplane has pulled up and with very efficient style, has one engine running and we are piling into the ramp in the back of the airplane and being guided with hand-signals by the cargo master (we are now cargo – but not in the airline sense). We duck our heads as the ceiling is reinforced with low beams (to hold the airplane together after crashing aka aircraft carrier landings for many years). We make our way to the nearest seat and strap in with a four-point harness. Now we are all sitting facing the rear of the plane and have become elbow mates with the guy sitting next to us. We have traded our first class Delta airline seats for a Chrysler Caravan with wings. Over the din of the first engine running, the smell of JP-4 jet fuel, some hydraulic after glow, and the air nossel now pointed at our faces, we hear through the speakers to give the thumbs up if we are good. Like the good followers we have become we all rush to be the first to hold our thumbs up and prove we have mastered the four point harness and are ready for the ship!
The second engine is cranked up as we start to taxi and we are all looking at a weird picture of the world going this way and that though the back gate. Kind of like riding in the back of a station wagon when we were growing up. Except this military base world looks different and we take 90 degree turns this way and then that. Shortly the gate is closed, another announcement for takeoff and we all do our thumbs up again. We are flying, oh, I forgot to tell you this station wagon has no windows. So we are in this large metal, noise box sitting too close to our neighbor and contemplating our future controlled crash on the aircraft carrier in about 35 minutes as we traverse the sky to the ship somewhere 100 miles off the coast in a training zone. Passport, we don’t need no stinking passport. The good thing about the four point harness is that you don’t have to worry about your head bobbing around and it is easy to close your eyes and think about all the things you have done in your life and how it has been great to this point. Odds are that it will remain that way and if perchance this pilot is having a really bad day and he attempts to land short, well, he will be the first one to experience what we would a millisecond later. I hope that he has a good day.
After about 30 minutes there is an announcement that says we are getting closer to the ship and to pay attention to the cargo master (what the heck else are we going to do, we are all now eyes and ears waiting for the signal that we are landing in seconds). Now the briefing we had on land comes into your mind and you remember to cinch down on your straps and to be ready to come to a extreme halt after being caught by the tail hook while flying at 120 MPH. We were told,”Don’t distress with the sound of metal on metal or the bang of the aircraft crashing the deck or while the engines are thrown into full power in the case that you miss one of the four arresting wires,” or Public Relations Officer says. This is one situation where being arrested is good!
Of course, we land and catch the wire and we look at each other with satisfaction like we had a lot to do with the landing, again, thumbs go up in the air and we are now aboard the Disneyland of the sea or for us a bunch of guys just entered fantasy land. Move over Tom Cruise, Goose Gossett, and others, the Calvary has arrived. OK, a bunch of older, fatter, balding but gleefully estatic people have arrived. After a series of motions the door cracks open and we are looking at the deck of a carrier surrounded by Pacific ocean. There is a loud engine roar as a F-14Ct goes to full afterburner less than 40 feet from us and Dorthy we are now in OZ for sure. The catapult goes off and that jet just left our world. We fold our airplane wings, taxi in spits and starts (Navy airplanes can turn on a dime and they get us off the “trap” and off to the side of the ship so the rest of the activity isn’t interrupted. The signal comes to un-strap and we get up, bow down so as to not knock our noggins and shuffle off in school house fashion. Wow, the DV’s are not slowing anything down on the ship. Another Jet powers up and within seconds is shot off the bow. Holly Crap Batman, he was within 20 feet. We are standing in this surreal world with people next to airplanes and jets running (one of our turbo props still spinning) and we are part of the whole scene. No longer a stand in for the movie, but in the movie. This is COOL!
We walk indoors and take our first steps on ladders that we will become very familiar with. Up and down, around and over, and watch where and how you step. Hey, there is the ocean, no really you could fall overboard. No OSHA here. Like going to Asia, if you screw up, and you hurt yourself, well you hurt yourself. You are responsible for not doing something stupid. I like this world!
We take off our cranium’s and life vest and follow in our line to meet the XO “Executive Officer” a full colonel rank. He is to become our senior host of the trip (think Ryan Seacrest in a flight suit). Boy did I get old overnight? This fellow is young. Everyone calls him XO on the aircraft carrier but his call-sign is Speedy. My mind is going now, how or why does he have this call-sign, sorry I think that way. So he gives us the welcome in a fancy room that most sailors on-board will never see but admirals and DV’s are invited when they want to hang out in style. Fancy photo’s, memorabilia and punch and cookies for the guests. We take a group photo and then we are off for some tours and our first official exposure to the flight deck.
Day ops on the deck is amazing. Again, we are what would be classified as inches from the action, taxing airplanes, jet blast, landings, takeoffs. In the Air Force you would be miles from an airplane landing, here you are feet. We are standing next to the landing zone, watching F-14’s land. Seeing if they hit the 1,2,3, or 4 wire, and acting like we know the difference of each of the 20 foot difference between those landings. To put this in perspective, when I land the Mooney, I am happy to land within 500 feet of where I want to, and that is just on the length of the runway. Left and right, 20 feet of the center line and that’s what I consider a good landing. These guys and gals are in about a 20 foot window each time they land. If they go left or right too much, well I wouldn’t be here because that’s all the difference from where I was standing to the landing area.
We are standing outside, with a white vest (designates us as DV’s, or to the crew of the ship, watch these people) and our cranium’s on watching the steam coming up from the catapults, the crew scattering all about and smelling, feeling the rumbles, roars and every bit a part of the experience. It is like going to Top Gun in 4-D. The last dimension includes the feel and smell.
I think we all have eyes as wide open as saucers and the smile on our faces is touching each ear. As Tim Allen the comedian would say, ARRRRRR (a guys-way of expressing himself with total satisfaction). Neat. We watch the recovery of a group of jets and then go to our rooms. We find out who our bunk mate is (well top or bottom bunk we really don’t have to share the bed) and we just get cameras and stuff but don’t stay in the room. We are invited to dinner after meeting the Admiral. He is a one-star, looks like a kid, big smile, loves his job, the navy and appreciates the mission that he is on. Very down to earth, an naval academy grad with 33 years in (including the Academy). He will find out very soon if he has made his second star and then that determines what his future is. We will see him later.
We have dinner in a special officers ward room. The dinner was served by an enlisted crew decked out in a special uniform. It was synchronized serving and most impressive to watch the formality and precision they put on with the process. Food was great, a five course meal. We met a group of other colonels and they were spread between us during dinner so we could pepper them with questions and understand their perspective on the Navy and life in the military, etc, etc. Our XO was a fantastic host and after introducing the wait-staff he invited them to ask him anything they wanted. They really asked some good questions and he displayed a comfort and concern for them that was very genuine. This is not a “us or them” situation. I think the Navy is very comfortable with the sacrifice that they all make and the respect for one another is from the years of experience and knowing what each other goes through.
Then on to night operations. We watched the launch and recovery of the helicopters, jets, and turboprop AWACS from the tower, that metal thing next to the runway. Lots of steps, and ladders to get 5 stories up. This is where the cigar-chomping Air Boss would be found in a movie. We find instead he is some poster image of a trainer for LA Fitness with a really nice personality but all business. It was also interesting to find a “mini” air boss. This guy is responsible for the front end of the ship and will be the Air boss some day. There are several floors as you go into and up the tower. The ground guys are deck level, the other trackers and watchers at the other levels. Some floors have windows, others have screens, and all are tuned into the ops plan. That is the launch, recovery and mission of those aircraft in the ownership of this ship. Lots of young people, responsible for lots of money, and doing a fantastic job for our country.
Night ops is flat out scary. We are joined by the Admiral, and he creates a cool and calm sense to what we are going to watch. It is the most intricate choreography of dangerous activity next to watching Cirque DE Sol Le with the lights out. Perhaps if the circus actors could blow up or would take out the whole audience should something go horribly wrong you would understand better the relative potential for mayhem They launch all the airplanes in quick succession. A lot of effort goes into positioning the planes so that there is a launch every 30 seconds. 4 catapults, it is now a four ring circus with again, sensory overload. How do they do this? Imagine the pilot, he puts the airplane in full throttle, lets go of the controls, puts his hand on the canopy handle and waits for some one to pull the trigger and throw his airplane off the front. And he can’t see any relative horizon between the black deck and the black ocean. That takes some practice and confidence. After all are launched there is quiet and jobs to do to get ready for the recovery in one hour. Now the ship is cursing along at 25 knots, there is no moon, you can’t really see a spec of an airplane until he is within 100 feet of landing. Then the roar, the afterburner and “quiet” until the next airplane returns.
It is time to go to bed now. 11 PM and I feel like my first marathon is over. We saw only one “glitch” and that was a F14 was waved off (told to go around) because the deck was not ready. This happened in literally the last seconds before landing. I think the airplane was within 100 feet of touching down and he was given a signal to go around. The signals and information given to the pilot have to be followed as these orders can sometimes be the difference between life and death for not just the pilot but others on the deck. The instant reaction of the pilot to add power and go around put him within 20 feet of the deck and off he went. No issues just back around for the full stop next time. As a pilot, I can tell you that was impressive. So with lights out my roommate and I recanted some of the sights we had seen and we drifted off to sleep knowing that there would be some “drills” during the night and not to worry about what they were doing on the boat. HMMMM!
I picked the top bunk. The ship was designed some 40 years ago, brought into service about 26 years ago and so some changes had to be made along the way. All the internet cabling was an after thought and my head was about 18 inches form a 4 inch bundle of cat-5 wire. Other plumbing and ducting was well within head-strike distance should I wake up with a start. I will say the air conditioning was fantastic. I like my hotel room AC on “arctic ice” setting when going to bed and even-though we had no setting control, someone had thought the same way I did. What I didn’t anticipate was a 5 inch loudspeaker next to my left ear. If you ever wondered were the people that work at drive through windows get their training on talking through the speaker to customers, I now think it is in the navy. At best, I could understand every third word of what they were saying. Hey, I took English in high school, what did he say? Just a mumble of words. So at 4 AM it was the commencement of drill time. All hands, all hands, we are testing a rod drop in the number 2 reactor. Hey is Homer Simpson working on this boat? I am glad they warned us that these were drills and not to worry. What happens when the #2 rod drops? Oh well, I don’t think I could swim to shore and it is awful cold to get out of the bed.
There are other strange sounds that you hear on the ship. A series of groans, scrapes, and bangs. If you didn’t know better you would think the ship was haunted. But it is a 24/7 operation and stuff has to happen at all hours. I am not at all understanding the “bells” system of time. 3 pairs of bells equals the whole hour. Some sort of odd number of bells means the half hour. Then some guy or gal blows a dog whistle and it sounds like the steam coming out of the ship with it tapering off to an inaudible sound. Perhaps there are dogs on the ship that understand this command. I am now afraid to get out of the bed and go to the head because they could have watch dogs patrolling the ship with fangs the size of knives. OK, perhaps a little sleep deprivation crept into my night.
In what had to be mid-morning, I was thinking to myself, I could really use a potty break, and then I heard my roommate stir. He did not want to turn on a light so as not to bother me so I called out and sure enough he was out of bed getting ready for a similar fate as me. I turned on the light. Oh joy, the 4 AM shuffle. Off to the toilet and back into the bed. Now we waited, and drifted in out of sleep as we heard more and more personnel roaming the halls. Some miscellaneous announcements that we could not decipher and soon it was 6:30 wake up time.
We had breakfast with the Chiefs of the ship. The enlisted personnel run the military. They are the true feet on the street and go to guys to get anything done. To share breakfast with some of the Chiefs was a treat. The average tenure of these master Chiefs was about 23 years. They have a load of knowledge and are the real deal when we are asking questions. I have the utmost respect for these men and women and they have the talent to work with young people and steer them on a course for a positive career in the military.
After breakfast another tour on the ship. We visited the hangar bay and walked un-impeded around the airplanes and equipment that makes everything work up on the deck. We were encouraged to talk to anyone, ask questions, and be part of the sailors day. It seemed like a back-stage all-access pass. I engaged several sailors and asked about this and that. Always the aircraft nerd, asking questions about this or that bulge or bump on a plane. I was starting to feel like I was in the service slightly after the dinosaurs roamed the planet. Did grade school just let out and all the students turn into sailors? The troops looked happy with their duties and joked and cut-up among each other. A good sign of comradely.
We toured a hidden work-out room underneath the deck. Here you can use elliptical or rowing machine, treadmills, and other apparatus in the open air while the ocean is passing underneath It is a unique place that makes you feel like you are on a cruise ship, not a cruising ship in the Navy. We saw the anchor and chains that hold the ship in port if not docked. It is interesting to get an explanation of something as simple as an anchor and understand their are completities with scale when it comes to a ship the size of a carrier. I was again playing the nerd and asked way too many questions about everything.
Lunch was in the pilots ward, and we sat near the flight crews. Watching guys and girls in the green flight suits made me reminisce about when I was flying in the military and how I felt about the service, my job, and my future. I could see some with animation and there were discussions with hand gestures, talking shop about a flight one day and “jumping” another plane in the air. I saw these young people that don’t realize that what they do is really, really special. They take it for granted that what they can do with that multi-million dollar airplane is unique to a very small fraternity . I saw the blind ambition and fun that some folks had in their eyes. I saw some tired eyes and perhaps some with other thoughts distracting them with issues at home. These pilots have a whole armada of people catering to them to put them in a position to do their job in a successful way. They earned their position in life from hard work and with any luck they will be able to capitalize it into either a successful carrier in the military or a life-lesson in business.
After lunch we walked the deck and saw some helicopters takeoff and the preparation for the first wave of flying to commence. We were to be in the wave of first recoveries so we again roamed the deck. By roaming I mean I walked to the bow of the ship (not a point, an edge of the runway). There was a small net below the deck, but how cool was that to stand on the bow. We walked among the empty catapult tracks and just like top gun there was steam seeping out. We went everywhere and talked to people at random. I enjoyed the company of all and would ask where they were from and how long in the service. A young female major came out with flight suit, helmet, and, this is different, a backpack I asked the major where she was going, and she said she was doing some training in a helicopter. She was going on a 6 hour mission. She explained the different helicopters and said you have the hunters and the killers. She was in the killer helicopter and showed me the Hellfire training missiles on the sides of the helicopter. She was very proud of her job and showed the energy it takes to fly long missions over vast services of water. Wow, these people were fun to be with.
As with most fun filled adventures, ours was about to come to an end. We watched some more jet launches and then it was time to prepare for our departure. We went to our ready area, donned our craniums, life vest and ear plugs, and off we went to the Greyhound school, following kid style. Filing into the running aircraft we prepared ourselves as before and made sure we were extra ready for the catapult launch. As described to us, we would experience a G-loading in our chest for about 2.5 seconds and then a feeling of weightlessness once free of the catapult. So one second you are standing still and within a second you are shooting off at 120 MPH. The experience was like a Disney ride. Only the G-loading was sustained and it was on your chest as the straps held you from smacking into the seat in front of you. It seemed to be a long 2 seconds but sure enough we were weightless and floating and then flying away from the ship. The ride home was uneventful and the landing just like one in the airlines. Lots of high fives, thumbs up, and these old guys had put one more pebble in their bucket-list of experiences.
Now I feel like I owe the Navy to tell others about the tremendous value proposition the US has in a quality team of individuals that can make a presence in the world that will gain the attention and respect of any country that should want to do harm or cause disruption to the US of A. The Navy can place a carrier and its contingent of other ships (subs, destroyers, etc.) at the relative shore of the potential advisory and say, hey, we are here and you might want to rethink what you are doing before you start something you will regret. I am convinced that we have something special that no one else in the world has. It takes a dedicated military team with the backing of its citizens to help maintain the freedoms that we enjoy in America.
I am so thankful for this experience, and I am very proud to be an American.
Written by David Gray, May 12, 2013
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