NOTE: This article was written a day before the horrific shooting attack on the D.C. Naval base. My heart and prayers go out to the families of the fallen. That said, lawmakers need to rethink this whole “Gun-Free Zone” business. The police teams responded and engaged within seven minutes … but as the actions of a deranged evil-doer intent on murder proved … a lot of bad stuff can happen in seven minutes. We trust our military to protect our nation … it seems simple common sense to trust them to carry sidearms to protect themselves.
I’m excited. We’re airborne and I’ve been strapped into a seat with a four-point harness for 45 minutes on board a C-2 Navy transport known as the “COD”–short for Carrier-Onboard-Delivery aircraft.
We’ve made our way out to the USS Carl Vinson CVN-70 cruising off the pacific coast of Southern California and are now circling the carrier in preparation for a “trap-landing.” We’re about to land on an aircraft carrier at sea. All 14 members of our ‘distinguished visitors’ group are facing aft, strapped in, wearing inflatable life-preservers and survival packs around our necks and a ‘cranial’ semi-helmet with hearing and eye protection on our heads.
On a bank turn, suddenly I spot the carrier outside the one small port window. My heart leaps into my throat! There she is … gorgeous! Now I have a sense of our altitude, speed and perspective. I’m guessing we’re about 1,000 feet above the water. The C-2 straightens out and trims into its downwind run.
Having flown private aircraft myself I recognize the dynamics and that we’ve joined the pattern for landing. I’m still fairly relaxed … but also giddy with excitement. The pilot banks left 90 degrees. Base leg. It’s fairly short, before another left 90-degree turn, and I feel the engines feather back as we begin our descent. The nose lowers–and we’re on ‘final’ approach. A nasty wind buffets the plane about, and I suddenly wonder how stable this 50-year-old aircraft really is, and I work to steady my breathing. Some things in life you just have to trust … so I’m a-trusting!
As we get closer to the water, my pulse quickens as the full impact of what we’re about to do hits me like a shock of reality: We’re actually doing this! We’re flying over the water at 100+ mph and are about to land a 28-ton, 57-ft long steel and-aluminum aircraft onto a pitching deck of an aircraft carrier at sea. And we’re going to have to hook one of four arresting cables strung across a 50-foot area … and get yanked from 105 mph to a dead stop in less than two seconds … or, if we miss the wires we’ll have to go to full power, fly off the deck, go around and try it again–hopefully before running out of fuel and having to ditch at sea.
Have I mentioned I’m excited?
My pulse is now racing, my heart is pounding in my chest and mentally I’m jumping from cliff-edge-thrilling excitement to panicked, ‘we’re going-down’ terror. Just as the wrestling match of fear-over-excitement plays to the mat … three things happen in quick succession: I hear men’s voices outside starboard of the aircraft (which is weird, because we’re still over water!), then I catch a quick glance of people out the port side (the LSO group) and then boom!–we touch down (more like slam down!), followed by a yank that pins us to the back of our seats … followed instantly by a gentle calm as the arresting gear is reset.
Everyone breaks into spontaneous cheers and applause … and laughter–the joy and release of exhilaration. Safely on board.
I heard it said, “If doing a trap landing onto an aircraft carrier at sea isn’t on the top-five of your Bucket List … then you have lived a very exciting life!” Roger that.
Suddenly, we’re outside the aircraft amidst roaring, thunderous activity of jets and helmeted sailors directing us off the deck, past the flight line, along walkways below decks for orientation briefing. What follows next is the beginning of a whirlwind 24-hour tour of the most amazing and concentrated ‘city on the sea’–a U.S. Nimitz-class Aircraft Carrier.
We observe the most amazing complex and beautifully integrated system of man-and-machine imaginable. On this tight, compressed space the carrier can house, maintain and launch up to 75+ aircraft, running day or night operations and project power in the interest of national defense, or serve in humanitarian disaster relief anywhere on the globe, in all weather conditions. The Navy personnel on board were consistently polite, professional and focused on their job. Professional and efficient. The sailors’ commitment to duty and excellence was inspiring, to say the least. And they all multi-task. I was speaking with a young Ensign on the bridge who was tracking surface contacts on radar, who said he was nearly done with his five-hour shift, and then had to go to his ‘day job’–overseeing a unit of engine mechanics and technical maintenance. He indicated that pretty much everyone on board had multiple jobs, and in fact put in 14-hour days.
I asked more questions from everyone I met. And a common response, when asked things like, ‘”Why are the men and women working such long days?” or “Why are the training rounds cut back from what they were?” … and the answer was always the same: “… the Sequester cuts.” (And this response was not offered freely–I sort of had to pull it out of them.)
We watched flight-operations from several spot on the ship, from various balconies to the ‘Admiral’s deck’ to the ‘con’ where the Captain directs ship functions … day and night flight-ops. But the big rush… was on the flight deck. Talk about awesome! To be a few yards away from F-18E/F Super Hornets and EA-6B Prowlers as they taxi, cat-launch and trap-arrest one after another, being shuffled and guided about by the ‘white-shirts’ in a carefully and dazzlingly efficient ballet … it literally takes your breath away.
Several thousand men and women, all races, all religions, all moving, working together, each doing their specific job–where you are judged and graded constantly, not by the color of your skin or physical appearance, but by the excellence of your performance under stress. This intense environment is the crucible by which character is forged and this is the clearest paradigm I have yet seen for the essence of what America is.
This particular weekend was a time of high-stress for the young aviators who needed to qualify to continue as Navy pilots. I was told most of them had never landed on a carrier before. And that they needed to execute four successful traps that day and four traps during night-ops. And that ordinarily, if they didn’t do it in the allotted four-hour session, they could come back after three more months of training and they could try again.
But… “because of Sequester cuts…” either they qualify this weekend–or they’re out. Career-wise, it’s literally do-or-die.
Now–imagine that you’re an 20-year-old Navy pilot doing your qual-runs–and you’ve never done a trap landing before. But you must qualify this weekend in order for you to continue in the Navy.
Hey. I like pressure as much as the next guy … but when you are desperate to stay in the Navy and you’ve got one chance to put your $55 million dollar aircraft safely down on the impact zone and hook an arresting wire … at night … I think these guys deserve a little more support from our purse holders in Congress.
Especially in light of the exorbitant spending the President has exerted elsewhere … on extended monthly vacations, golf outings, celebrity bashes, trips with Jay-Z and Beyonce, not to mention the immense outlay in entitlements, welfare, food stamps, EBT cards, etc.
The ‘Sequestration cuts’ were the President’s idea, regardless of his desire to ‘blame it on the Republicans.’ With the out-of-control giveaway programs on people who won’t work and spending on bankrupting and inefficient green programs, the President and Congress are neglecting our most urgent prerogative–our Defense. And getting short-shrift is the entity that makes that possible, our most vital asset–our Military.
Duty, Honor, Excellence. The Navy is the tip of the spear. Ready at the drop of a hat to cruise in and launch offshore around a sometimes hostile globe; to plunge headlong into harm’s way, in order to project power and influence in defense of national security or in times of natural disasters, commit assistance in offering humanitarian relief.
The President and Congress need to rethink their priorities. Especially now–when our standing on the world stage is so in question, when third-world despots are spitting in our eye and former superpower communist chieftains are flexing their imperialist tendencies with aggressive pokes to our leadership’s chest … Now is not the time to cut back on military spending and further weaken both our capability and our resolve.
We spent the night on that great ship, the Carl Vinson … and as the roar-and-boom of yet another Prowler or Super Hornet “Growler”blasted off the catapult … the deafening, rumbling roar was ‘stirring’ to say the least.
The next morning, after breakfast and briefing, before we went topside to do our ‘cat-shot’ off the deck for our flight back to Coronado … a friendly and personable Chief Petty Officer asked how we all slept the night before. Referring to the thunderous night-ops of the jets being launched and arrested until 12:45 am, I joked, “Slept fine… except for all that racket upstairs.”
The Chief Petty Officer winked, “That’s the sound of Freedom, sir.”
Aye, Chief. Aye.
All photos courtesy of Gary Graham