Thrill Rides

Imagine you are sitting facing the back of a plane and someone is pressing an eight-pack of toilet paper onto your chest. Then BAM — for about two seconds, they punch it really, really hard and keep up the pressure.

A Navy ship in the background protects the carrier as a jet moves toward its take-off position.

That’s what it feels like to land on an aircraft carrier. It takes your breath away. From the moment the tailhook on the C-2 Greyhound cargo plane latched onto the arresting wire on Saturday aboard the USS Enterprise, passengers decelerated from 105 m.p.h. to zero in just two seconds.

Launching off the carrier feels quite different. Instead of the unpleasant whooshing pressure on your chest, there’s a very strong tug that slams passengers, strapped tightly with chest and belt braces, forward. By the time the plane is free from snap of the steam-driven catapult, it has gone from zero to 128 mph in just three seconds. The motion is so fast that your body can’t process what’s happening, one veteran pilot explained. It feels like the plane dips down, but in actuality it just soars upwards.

In a single word, landing and taking off from a carrier are awesome, just as was a 24-hour visit to the Enterprise, the oldest and longest active aircraft carrier in the world. At just over 50 years old, the ship is a city at sea filled with dedicated sailors and Marines who work hard day in and day out. They serve, one officer observed, as “100,000 tons of diplomacy that doesn’t need a permission slip.”

From the moment the plane touched down on the black, rubber-coated flight deck where the smell of jet fuel reeked, our Navy hosts couldn’t have been more gracious and open about the ship and her capabilities. The 11-person team of “distinguished visitors” included Tyson Foods Chairman John Tyson, national commercial real estate icon John Cushman III, ESPN and ABC Sports President George Bodenheimer, former UNC football coach Butch Davis and some friends of Secretary of Navy Ray Mabus.

Visitors saw the ship from the top on the captain’s bridge to below decks in the mess halls, munitions room, jet hangar, medical facilities, machine shop and pilots’ ready room. About the only off-limits area of the 1,123-foot ship was where its eight nuclear reactors generated power.

Among the lessons learned and highlights of the overnight visit:

Hard workers. Life aboard a military ship is tough with no days off. During our visit, sailors had been underway for two weeks for a month-long naval exercise designed to get the carrier fleet ready to be deployed to the Persian Gulf in March. Work days are 12 hours, at a minimum, although it is not uncommon for enlisted sailors and officers to work up to 18 hours a day. Those aboard, including about 650 women, are under a lot of pressure and responsibility. But they seemed to handle it well. Days are tiring and grueling, but officers say they closely monitor everyone to make sure the strain doesn’t get to be too much.

An F-18 Super Hornet lands Saturday on the USS Enterprise.

Young sailors. The sailors launching the planes, helping them to land, running sophisticated machinery and cooking the food are quite young — their average age is around 22. We met galley hands who were 18 and a control tower operator who was 20. They glowed with enthusiasm. Throughout the tour, officers noted how the youths were the backbone of the ship and how they fueled her successes. Officers radiated pride with how the young Americans performed, day in and day out, to make the ship into a fighting machine.

Numbers. Of the 5,000 people onboard, about 3,000 are dedicated to making the ship run. Another 1,500 focus on flying and maintaining 60+ airplanes, including four F-18 jet squadrons as well as planes that do electronic jamming and offer in-the-sky radar. On board Saturday were about 190 pilots. Among those on the Enterprise was a squadron of F-18 jets, pilots and support staff from Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort in South Carolina.

Take-offs. We stood on the flight deck as about 10 F-18 Hornets and Super Hornets zoomed into the skies above the Atlantic Ocean about 100 miles east of Mayport, Fla. The sound was incredibly loud, despite earplugs and ear protectors. In the 10 minutes it took to launch the jets, you could feel the heat of the afterburners as jets throttled up before being catapulted away. Then in the instant each soared away, cool air rushed in to smack you in the face.

Landings. Then we stood by and watched pilots meticulously thread their way back onto the carrier, which was bobbing up and down, and moving forward at about 28 knots. In other words, pilots were looking for just the right spot on a moving runway for their tailhook to grab one of four 2-inch steel arresting cables, which ripped them to a halt in two seconds. Most amazing were the night landings during which the deck was dark with just a few green lights that illuminated the deck’s landing center line and some other dim lights offered navigational aids to pilots. All totaled on Saturday, the ship launched and recovered 78 aircraft over about a 10-hour period.

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Photos by Andy Brack.
Andy Brack

Andy Brack

Andy Brack is a syndicated columnist in South Carolina and the publisher of StatehouseReport.com. Brack, who holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, also publishes a twice-weekly newsletter about good news in the Charleston area, CharlestonCurrents.com. A former U.S. Senate press secretary and reporter, Brack has a national reputation as a communications strategist and Internet pioneer. Brack also is president and chairman of the Center for a Better South, a nonprofit regional think tank. Brack received a bachelor’s degree from Duke University. He, his wife, two daughters and dogs live in Charleston, S.C.