Online Community of Zenith Builders and Flyers
Last week I had the the privilege of visiting a working U.S. Navy carrier out at sea as part of an EAA group. Fifteen of us were given a first-hand look at life aboard an aircraft carrier and Navy life at sea. This was truly a unique and unforgettable experience.
We started the trip with a night at the historic Hotel Del Coronado, a luxurious historic hotel overlooking the Pacific Ocean, next to Naval Air Station North Island (across from San Diego). This was in stark contrast to the following night that we would spend aboard the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier, not all that far away sailing on the Pacific (somewhere west of Mexico). The USS Carl Vinson is a modern Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, one of ten nuclear-powered aircraft carriers in service with the United States Navy.
Our first day started with a short drive to NAS North Island where we were briefed about the Navy’s operations. This is a scale replica of the first Navy aircraft, a Curtiss floatplane with ampib gear:
Our visit to the carrier at sea would require us to ride in on the C2A Greyhound (aka COD - carrier onboard delivery) and land on the carrier with the needed assistance of a tail hook. Here are some slides from our preflight briefing:
Following the briefing we walked out and boarded the COD aircraft (after putting on our crash gear). The actual flight out involved riding in the near-windowless back of the very loud COD, seated in a heavy-duty seat facing the tail of the airplane, and (unexpectedly crash) landing onto the carrier deck! This was most definitely the hardest landing I've ever experienced (and not all my landings have been good ones!). There's a tail hook hanging under the plane which hooks on to one of the four arrestor wires on the flight deck upon landing, allowing the plane to slow down from 120 kts to stand still in a couple hundred feet.
When the rear cargo ramp (door) opened, we were in another world, floating on the Pacific Ocean aboard a huge carrier!
EAA's Jim DiMatteo is greeted by Rear Admiral David Steindl, commander of the Carrier Strike Group.
We were privileged to have Jimmy (aka "Guido") as part of our group during the visit. As a a retired U.S. Navy captain with an impressive career (including overseeing the TOPGUN Adversary Squadrons), he gave us great additional first-hand behind the scenes narrative about the operations on the carrier.
Checking into my "berth" under the flight deck:
Our "state rooms" were luxurious in comparison to the standard "berthing" quarters for the sailors:
Our rooms were also located right below the catapult (steam-powered cannons) and arrestor wire mechanisms, so it was extremely noticeable (very load!) when planes were taking off or landing.... Luckily, they stopped air operations after 9:00 the night we stayed on board...
Donning new protective gear, we soon headed back up on unto the flight deck to watch practice take-offs and landings:
Watching the F/A-18 Super Hornet aircraft take-off and land was both exhilarating and frightening at the same time:
Video: Here are some of the landings of the F/A-18 on the USS Carl Vinson. Avoid the temptation to turn down the volume so you can get some of the sensation of the extreme noise (and you'll also need to add wind and the nearly overwhelming smell of burning Jet A fuel). Landings are just as loud as the take-offs since full power is applied right after touch-down (in case the tail hook doesn't catch the cable and a go-around is required). Talk about STOL operations:
Here is a video of some of the F/A-18 take-offs from the carrier.
I've been around fighters many times before (at Oshkosh AirVenture and other airshows) but never so close...
Understandably, fighter pilots (and their ground support) are paranoid about running out of fuel (there are not many alternate airports when over the Pacific Ocean!) and the fuel status of the aircraft is continually monitored by the air boss and others. Interestingly, a squadron of aircraft will often include a tanker version of the F/A-18, equipped with external fuel tanks, and configured for "buddy tanking" other aircraft if the need arises.
This photo gives you a feeling of how close we were as the airplane would scream by attempting to land or being catapulted from the ship:
A nice view of the extended tail hook... with one of the four arrestor wires stopping the aircraft in an astoundingly short distance:
Throughout the carrier, both on the flight deck and below, there's continuous hustle and bustle on board. It was like observing an ant hill or beehive with all the nonstop coordinated and purposeful activity.
Here's one of the maps found in the hallways... I always paid attention to stay with the group and managed not to get lost!
Scuttles are round openings that are 53-inches in circumference. For personal safety reasons, only guests who are able to fit through a scuttle could participate on the embark:
On board the carrier there are many different activities always going on and needing to be coordinated. It's basically a city-at-sea with an airport on the deck. The Carrier is run by a Commanding Officer, and a Carrier Air Wing is run by a Wing Commander which overseas about 65 aircraft. There are about 2,800 ship personal, and an additional 2,000 personnel for the Air Wing. The carrier is the main vessel in a Carrier Strike Group (CSG), which is headed by an Admiral, and includes several accompanying destroyers, a submarine, cruisers and frigates (these surface ships are spread over several hundred miles).
Below is the mess hall: The many different color shirts are to quickly identify the sailors on the flight deck. Each color signifies a specific function or team.
On board everyone was very casual and informal, except for our formal dinner with the ship's executive officer, Captain Walter Slaughter:
The USS Carl Vinson carrier has an angled flight deck, with basically two runways. The aft part of the deck is widened and separate runways are positioned at an angle from the center-line (maximizing runway length). The design also allows for concurrent take-offs and landings (or launch and recovery operations as they're called on the ship), and allows for safer aborted landings (allowing the aircraft to accelerate for a go-around with less risk to other aircraft on the deck).
Night operations as seen from the flag bridge:
View from the flag bridge, which is the command center for the admiral (who is in charge of the entire carrier group). Below, Rear Admiral Davis Steindl wows the ladies in the group.
Night operations on the bridge:
My roomate Norm DeWitt, an accomplished aerobatic pilot and EAA board member:
View of the rising sun between two helicopters in the hangar below. Helicopters on the ship include the SH-60B/F and HH-60H 'Seahawks', the MH-60S and MH-60R, used for multi-missions including anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare, search and rescue, and logistics.
Breakfast with officers. Everyone on board was very approachable and we had amazing access to all the sailors, pilots, and the bosses. Everyone was much more casual (informal) than expected, in both dress and demeanor.
Huge hangar inside the ship. Four large elevators transport aircraft between the flight deck and the hangar.
Everything was chained down, both on the flight deck and in the hangars below:
The ship and its systems, and all the aircraft on board, require continuous maintenance and it's a huge ongoing task to keep everything running. These are expensive complex machines being operated in harsh environments, and while this was amazing to observe it also made me appreciate the simplicity of our aircraft simplicity of operating them.
Left to right, Russ Haley (CityMark), Connie Bowlin (retired Delta airline captain), Mary Compton (Citation pilot), Norm DeWitt (EAA board member and aerobatic pilot), Nadia Farr (EAA donor relations), Wendy Stallings (TPI and Excel Learning Centers), me, Robert Pietsch (Twitter sales director), Capt. Jim DiMatteo (retired U.S. naval aviator and EAA Vice President of AirVenture features and attractions), Stuart Auerbach (Ampersand Capital Partners and EAA board member), John Monnett (Sonex Aircraft), Sam Deluca (Horizon Foods), Paul Royko (Shell Aviation), Jim Phillips (Godfrey & Kahn and EAA board member) and Mark Stoneking (MDS Contractors):
Meeting with the fighter pilots:
The mission of the squadron:
The young fighter pilots were all very approachable and friendly:
One of the many radar rooms:
The captain''s bridge:
The deck is about 4.5 acres, but space is a real premium with the two runways and parked aircraft. Aircraft on board include the F/A-18 E-F Super Hornet and the F/A-18A-D 'Hornet' (which are strike-fighter aircraft), as well as the EA-18G "Growler" and the EA-6B "Prowler" (for electronic warfare). Below is the E-2C/D 'Hawkeye' (with the round radar on top) and the C-2A 'Greyhound' or COD (carrier on board delivery) which brought us to the carrier.
The COD (carrier onboard delivery), a C-2 "Greyhound" with the folded wings on the deck of the USS Carl Vinson. . Because of its 81-foot wing span, the high-wing COD folds its wings while taxiing (right before takeoff or landing) so that it can maneuver and fit on the carrier deck (it is has four vertical fins to limit its height to fit in the hangars below the deck).
This man arguably has the most important job on the ship. The "handler" organizes and keeps track of all the airplanes on the ship and makes sure they are where they need to be at the right time. With 65 airplanes on board it requires meticulous planning and coordination or things can go drastically wrong on the flight deck.
A layout of the flight deck with each aircraft's position (there's also the hangar below). A close-up view of the model, color coded. The colored nuts, wing nuts, and other items represent needed fueling, maintenance, etc.
Looking forward on the flight deck:
On the deck at the captain's bridge:
View from the bridge:
Panoramic view of the entire deck:
Checking out the view from the captain's chair:
It takes more than one person to steer the ship....
Ready to return to dry land:
Boarding the COD for the flight back to San Diego's NAS North Island:
As we were taxiing out I managed to take this last picture through the one small window, while getting ready for the catapult assisted ride out!
Smiling with Mary Compton after the catapult launch (0-120+ kts in under three seconds!)
Besides deployments in Operation Desert Strike, Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Southern Watch, and Operation Enduring Freedom, the USS Carl Vinson was involved in a number of notable events. In 2011, the body of Osama bin Laden was disposed of from the deck of the Carl Vinson, and that same year, on Veterans Day, it played host to the first NCAA basketball game on an aircraft carrier.
The U.S. Navy sponsors the Distinguished Visitors (DV) program to increase awareness of the Navy's mission, and invites journalists, community leaders or celebrities aboard its carriers to witness the pride and professionalism of the young men and women who serve the United States at sea. It was a thrill to be on this this trip, and it has given me a new appreciation of the Navy's operations and especially of the high caliber of its dedicated staff, from the bottom on up...
(Some of the above photos and links are from others who have participated in the Distinguished Visitors program)