Squid for a Day

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Some guys get all the coolest assignments. This time, it was AVweb's Joe Godfrey. Joe recently had the opportunity to fly onto the USS Stennis via arrested landing in a C-2 Greyhound, spend 26 hours as a DV (distinguished visitor) watching Navy pilots get carrier qualified, then get a catapult shot back to home base in San Diego ... all courtesy of Uncle Sam. If that's not enough to stimulate your salivary glands, check out Joe's detailed account and photo gallery. Then write your Congresscritter.

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Places To FlyRecently I did two of the coolest things I've ever done in an airplane. I didn't get to see either one of them and together they took less than five seconds.

What could possibly be this exciting? One day I arrived on the deck of the USS John C. Stennis via arrested landing. The following day I was shot via catapult back to terra firma. I didn't see either one because like a bag of mail, a replacement part, or a transferring yeoman, I flew in a C-2 Greyhound with the acronym COD (carrier onboard delivery).

Did I enlist? No. I spent about 26 hours on the Stennis watching pilots get carrier qualified over two days. The Stennis was about 200 miles southwest of San Diego in international waters. On January 7, 2000, the ship will deploy for a six-month cruise to the Middle East. On day one of my visit the crew of the Stennis logged 165 day traps and 53 night traps. That's a record for the Stennis. It's also about a 17-hour day, which is not uncommon in training and a relatively short day when she's working on station.

What I was invited to is officially called a Distinguished Visitor (DV) tour. Apparently the Navy has a loose interpretation of who's "distinguished" and the occasional flib driver like yours truly is able to sneak in. [NOTE: "Flib" is a term of endearment used by air traffic controllers. In contrast to airliners who operate on scheduled routes and times, a small plane is a Funny Little Itinerant Blip.]

My group of 16 was mostly judges and politicos from southern California. The previous day's group had been mostly educators from UCLA. The Navy offers these tours almost daily when the ship is within COD range because they're proud of how hard they're working and they want people to know about it and tell others. As this bull market rages on, as America's entrepreneurial spirit turns deficits into surpluses, the Navy is living paycheck to paycheck. I can't speak for the whole Navy, but I can tell you that on the Stennis, they're giving Sam a dollar's work for about two bits' pay.

I was invited by aviation artist Stan Stokes, who is a walking encyclopedia of naval aviation and WWII history. Remember the Marshall McLuhan scene in Annie Hall? That's what it's like taking a trip with Stan. When you need the definitive answer, he has it. Tail numbers, pilots, crews, kills, routes, how many rivets on the tail of a Dauntless ... if it's ever a Jeopardy category he's a lock. You'll recognize Stan right away at future aviation events as the guy with the cleanest car. That's because to pay him back for this invitation I've promised to wash and wax his car every Saturday for the rest of my life.

The Ride Out

Our DV visit began at San Diego's North Island Naval Air Station with a rampside briefing by the flight crew. As the anticipation built, we donned "Mae West" flotation vests. Then we added a "cranial" which is a contraption that combines skull protection, eye protection and ear protection. From there until you're safely aboard ship and below the deck, hand signals are the means of communication. Pretty soon we were led off to the waiting C-2, with one prop spinning and the other shut down. Filled with anticipation, we boarded the airplane via the rear ramp and grabbed a seat.

On board we got another brief on how to evacuate in the unlikely event of a water landing. The 19-year-old Marine pointed to the small square escape hatch on the roof of the airplane and said something like "just pull these two hinges to remove the door and reach up and pull yourself out." The idea of a chin-up through a small escape hatch made sense to the Marine, but in the shape I'm in I figured in the event the unlikely event happens, I'd become shark bait.

The COD has 30 seats and they all face backwards. There's one puny window in the passenger area, but 90% of the time you'd see a little sliver of water anyway. Nobody was complaining ... not like we could hear them if they had. This was my first time taxiing blind and backwards. I've taxied in the fog, at night, and in the fog at night, and I did taxi sideways once with a marginal view when John Deakin offered me a ride in CAF's C-46 China Doll, but this was my first time blind and backwards. Soon the engines went to full power and we were flying.

It took a little less than an hour to reach the ship. The flight was as routine as a flight can be with 30 people sitting backwards in relative darkness wearing helmets, headphones and goggles. No one's ever going to mistake this form of travel for business class.

The Marine waved his arm, which was our signal to settle in for the arrested landing. When you're facing backwards, there isn't much bracing to do because ... the force is with you. Maybe not for long, but at least long enough to push you into the seatback. After what seemed like an eternity on final, we slammed into the deck at 165 knots and came to a stop in about 300 feet. I spend a lot of time at 165 knots ... that's about all I can coax out of my Bellanca Viking on a good day. The thought of stopping my Viking from cruise speed on a football field is beyond my ability to imagine. Not to mention that the C-2 weighs about 50,000 pounds more than my Viking.

What is it like? It's like that sudden deceleration feeling near the end of a roller coaster ride ... with a thousand times the force ... a hundred times faster ... facing backwards. I'm not normally one to scream at rock concerts or sports events, but I remember letting out a good howl as we citizens were arrested. Soon we were exiting the airplane onto the carrier flight deck.


Our group was led into the Captain's mess where we met our host, Captain Richard K. Gallagher, Commanding Officer of the Stennis. Capt. Gallagher took command of the ship in late August and will stay with her about a year and a half. He came from the minesweeper USS Inchon and led the Navy Fighter Weapons School (aka TOPGUN) in '93-'94. Captain Gallagher is a Tomcat guy with the nickname "Weasel." He logged a lot of his 4,000 flight hours and 700 carrier traps in the F-14A and F-14B.

Here's an interesting factoid: The Navy is averaging about 50 years of service from its fleet of carriers. The Stennis was commissioned in 1994. At fifty years of service, the last captain of the Stennis hasn't been born yet. Captain Gallagher put us in the hands of Lt. Dave Oates, the public affairs officer of the Stennis, and after a quick lunch we were back topside to visit the catapult.

Someone controls every inch of this floating airport and you can tell what they do by the color of their vest. Yellow shirts direct aircraft in motion. White shirts handle inspections and safety. Green shirts handle the hardware of wires and tailhooks. Brown shirts are captains of a particular aircraft. Blue shirts run the tugs and chock and chain airplanes. Purple shirts handle fuel. Red shirts handle ammo. And silver suits are the firemen.

Topside, we again suited up in flotation vests and cranials. Lt. Oates handed us to the Air Bos'n who walked us out to the bow. On the way we passed behind the back of an idling F-14 and got a nice blast of heat and smell of burnt JP-5 jet fuel that is pretty common on the cramped real estate of a carrier. You're always walking in front of something, behind something, or next to something.

The sea was very calm throughout our visit. That's part of the reason for the record number of traps. When the ship is pitching in the waves planes have to be timed to launch on an up-pitch, and there are more wave-offs as airplanes approach to land. During our visit, the Stennis averaged about 14 knots through the water, creating about 25 knots of wind over the deck. Just about perfect conditions.

In Tension

We stood on the deck and watched cat shots of F-18s, EA-6s, and Air Wing Commander Sherman's F-14 for about a half hour. Cat shots are an amazing blend of art and science, man and machine. Here's a nickel's worth of how it happens.

Guided by a yellow shirt, the airplane taxies onto the cat track, like a slingshot dragster inching up to the start line. A green shirt stationed at the nose gear makes sure that one bar attaches to the catapult and another attaches to the tension bar. A second green shirt verifies the hookup. Then the airplane powers up and sits there "in tension," waiting to be launched. Both green shirts do a final inspection and roll out from under the airplane. The pilot salutes, the yellow shirt kneels, touches the deck with one hand and points to the bow with the other.

Peering out the windows of the hexagon-shaped "bubble," the launch officer presses a button that releases steam into a tube. The steam drives two huge pistons toward the front of the ship and the airplane goes from a dead stop to about 160 knots in about two seconds. One one thousand, two one thousand. Zero to 160. Once an airplane is launched, an eerie calm prevails for a few seconds before it all begins again. The pictures don't capture the endless roar, the smell, the wind, the heat, and the angst.

The force of the catapult changes from airplane to airplane. The specific setting is based on the type and the weight of what that airplane is carrying on that sortie. The launches cause the metal on the catapult to expand, so that's factored in, too. After the pistons launch the airplane they hit a water brake, a tube of water, that stops them in five feet. It takes about a minute and 45 seconds to load and launch a plane.

Three Wire

We went back inside, watched a few more cat shots from the quiet sanctity of the bridge, then went back outside to an observation deck to watch traps for about a half hour.

Thanks to a Frenchman named Fresnel, landing airplanes use a VASI-type lens to determine their glide path. When an amber light lines up with a row of green lights, the pilot will "call the ball" and get landing clearance from the Landing Signal Officer (LSO) at the stern of the ship. Pilots approach at about 165 knots and the ship is moving at about 15 knots, so the touchdown speed is around 150. After touchdown pilots go to full power, in case the wire breaks or they "bolter"  — i.e., miss the wires — and go around.

There are four arresting cables and the "three wire" is the target. Hitting the three means you kept the airplane on the glidepath all the way to the deck. Hitting the one and two means you were a little low and perhaps a little to anxious to get back on deck. Hitting the four means you were perhaps a little reluctant to get back on deck. Miss the four and you bolter. There's a five-inch metal triangle on the deck of the ship that pilots are "aiming for."

The good news about a floating runway is that during traps, the Captain can keep the angled landing area pointed into the wind. Landing on a football field is hard enough without factoring in a crosswind. The bad news is that the floating airport may be in rough seas, so the runway elevation may be changing from moment to moment.

I'm sure that, like anything else, experience brings a level of confidence and proficiency that challenges you to always shoot for the best. And, when the air wing is on board the carrier, each landing is graded and logged on a board in the pilots' ready room for the duration of the cruise. So peer pressure is enormous. But, standing on the deck that day watching plane after plane hit the three wire, I kept thinking about the old saying that any landing you can walk away from is a good one ... and if I were flying, I'd have been happy just to snag any wire, one through four.

After watching traps it was back inside for a tour of the ship.

Buns Of Steel

There are elevators on the ship, but they're for the aircraft and the ammo. If you don't fly or explode, you take the stairs. Here's a rule of thumb: Wherever you are on the ship, the place you want to go next is at least four flights of stairs up or down and at the extreme other end of the ship. Count on it. After several hundred flights of stairs, it became clear to me why that escape hatch in the COD was so small. Another factoid: The most popular exercise machine on the ship is the Stairmaster. You see them tucked away in ... stairwells.

We spent the rest of the afternoon getting in the way all over the ship. We saw the radar rooms, the war rooms, the tool shop, the aircraft hangar bay, the forecastle (pronounced "FOLK-sell"), the ready rooms, the catapult bubble, the various messes, the Senator John C. Stennis room, the library, the chapel, and endless hallways and stairways.

I lived in Chicago for about ten years, and once you learn the grid system there you're never lost. It's a miniature version of lat and long. Similarly, every spot on the ship has a three-dimensional coordinate, called a bullet point. They're stenciled on the walls about every hundred feet or so. A glance tells you immediately which level you're on, how far forward or aft, and how far port or starboard from the ship's centerline. There are also numbers on each frame (wall) that indicate how far you are from the bow.

The only two areas we didn't see were munitions and the nuclear reactors. Captain Gallagher not only runs a floating airport, he runs a floating nuclear plant. The day we left, the Stennis began three days of tests of those systems. CVN stands for Carrier Vessel Nuclear. They're more expensive to build, but less expensive to operate over time. The Navy currently has eight Nimitz-class CVs and its ninth, the USS Reagan, is being built. The Stennis carries 3,000,000 gallons of fossil fuel, and all of it can be used for the aircraft. Everything on the ship from steam catapults and arresting cables to radar scopes and hallway lights — all of it — is powered by two grams of Uranium a day.

Ops In The Dark

Like any airport in a major city, activity doesn't slow down on the flight deck of the Stennis when the sun sets. The shirts use flashlights for their hand signals, but the traffic keeps moving. After dinner, we visited the primary flight (Pri Flight) deck and — bathed in red light — watched about 40 cat shots and about 25 traps. It's not that we misplaced 15 airplanes ... it's that many of the launches that night were pilots who had finished their qualification and were heading back to land. Some back to nearby NAS North Island and MCAS Miramar, some all the way up the west coast to NAS Whidbey Island.

One EA-6 pilot had to wait for another pilot for finish with his airplane before he could begin, which meant that by about 2300 hours, the whole flight deck and the radar rooms were still active for one lonely guy as he completed his shots and traps. The Air Boss summed it up: "No matter what you do, there's always a last guy." Two C-60 helicopters are always airborne, flying donuts around the ship, whenever shots or traps are in progress. They're there to fetch pilots who eject or photgraphers who fall overboard changing lenses.

The helos made an interesting approach. Their descent rate was about 500 fpm but their airspeed of about 60 knots surprised me. Figuring that the ship was cruising at about 15, they landed at about 45.

Both Stan and I tried shooting ASA 800 film from the Pri Flight deck and nothing worth looking at turned out. What you see on the cat end is an F-18 taxiing in the dark. Lights off, the airplane hooks to the shuttle. The pilot powers up and the two GE engines look white hot sitting in tension. The pilots signals "ready" by turning lights on, and the two white lights disappear into the night sky. On the arrival end, you see a landing light several miles out. A TV monitor in Pri Flight displays the airplane's speed, its distance from the ship, and its descent rate. The descent rate for the airplanes I saw was about 800 fpm. At 160 knots that's about a 5% glidepath.

At about 2345, I remember wondering if I would get a good night's sleep. I remember walking to my room. I remember climbing into the upper bunk. I remember turning out the lights. That's all I remember until reveille at 0600.

Day Two Brings Deep Thoughts...

The last guy from the night before really was the last guy. With everyone qualified, the deck was quiet on day two, which gave us the chance to walk around topside. A few deep and not-so-deep thoughts that occurred to me as I looked around...

Communications ... from the bridge the Captain has instant communications with everyone from the ensign in the next room to the FAA to the Pentagon to the President, wherever he and his football may be from moment to moment. Think of the encrypted code and the backup systems. That's a lot of zeros and ones flying through the air. BTW, the Stennis just installed a whole shipload of Dells to front their Information Technology 2000 system. Can the USS Dell be far behind?

Claustrophobia ... I couldn't spend six months on a ship. Period. Yeah, I know they've got email and Internet access. Yeah, I know they can call home. Still couldn't do it. Maybe, if they let me fly off every day, then maybe I'm good for a long weekend, tops. Two hours in a movie theater is bad enough. A half hour if it's an Adam Sandler film. I'm glad there are people that can do it. I'm not one of them.

Age ... the average age on the flight deck is nineteen and a half. Once you spend some time watching them work you realize why. There's no way a 40-year-old could keep up with this pace hour after hour, day after day. Certainly not for the benefit package that Sam is offering. Here's another factoid: These kids have only lived under three Presidents — Reagan, Bush and Clinton — and they were 11 years old during the Gulf War.

...And Thoughts Of The Deep

Around 1100 we gathered our thoughts and our stuff to head back home and the anticipation started building for our COD cat shot. We assembled to get an official goodbye from Captain Gallagher and a departure briefing. Lt. Oates clued us in that the most common error among civilian COD launches is foot placement, so he gave us the "shin briefing." You're still facing backwards and this time the force is not with you, so when the cat goes off any unsecured shins will be slammed into the bottom of the seat back that you're facing. At about three Gs, give or take. Marines don't allow limping, so the idea is to wedge your legs up onto the seat back and keep them there.

After the briefing, it was back into our Mae Wests and cranials. Also back to hand signals for the parade out to the flight deck. We loaded, strapped in, and made a modified akimbo with our arms, grabbing the opposite shoulder harness with our hands. Then we waited as the C-2 taxied into place.

There wasn't much to look at, so I closed my eyes. We waited. In my mind I imagined the choreography of the yellows and the greens I had watched the day before, checking, double checking. Throttles went up. The airplane shook in tension as we waited for the yellow to kneel, touch and point. Then it happened.

One one thousand, two one thousand. Zero to 160. As your body takes off, your blood rushes to stay inside your skin. Adrenaline is plentiful. You can taste it. Then the strangest sensation hit me for about a second and I hadn't thought about it ahead of time: Force = Mass x Acceleration. That's about the extent of what I remember from high-school physics. But when the sense of acceleration stopped I wondered for a moment if we were flying. Did something terrible happen? Did they forget to unfold the wings? Would we hit the water and I'd have to chin-up through that hatch after all?

We were flying. Climbing like a bandit, too. I don't remember opening my eyes. Maybe the blood rush opened them for me. I unwedged my legs and was glad that I had been "shinbriefed." I felt us level off at 5,000 MSL about two minutes into the flight. We landed at NASNI about a half hour later, fetched our luggage, said our goodbyes and thank yous and headed for home.

Do It Yourself?

How do you arrange for a DV tour? I don't think there's one answer. I think it's different for everybody depending on where you live. The Stennis and the Constellation are based in San Diego so they get a lot of tours of local folks. Start with your Congressperson. Maybe find a ship you're interested in and drop a note to the PAO (public affairs officer) of the ship. You'll find Lt. Dave Oates's email address, along with stats on the ship and Senator Stennis, on the excellent CVN-74 website but please don't flood Dave with requests. They're already booked for DV tours until their deployment in January and he won't be there after that tour.

I hope you get to do it. Your end of the bargain is to tell other people — taxpayers, voters, legislators — about the dedicated professionals who run the ship. Their end of the bargain is to do what they have to do to prepare for war and let you watch. If you're a pilot and you get a charge out of a few hours at the airport watching folks do touch and goes, this is absolute nirvana. Not only will I always remember my trap and cat shot, but I got to meet a lot of folks that are working and training hard around the clock to make my world a more peaceful place.

More pictures

I've left out a lot of detail, stats and history but here are some links that will give it to you:

and let's not forget: