One March morning in 2012, I got an email from a buddy in Houston that read something like "Check this out. I applied, and you should too." What followed would be the most fun I've ever had around planes as I got to spend a day aboard the $6.8 billion USS George H.W. Bush Nimitz-class supercarrier.
The US Navy was doing a PR campaign, promoting recruiting and the bicentennial of the War of 1812. They were inviting community leaders, writers, and people with a large social media presence to experience life aboard USS George H. W. Bush Aircraft Carrier. After several emails with the Navy, and a background check, I was officially invited on what they called a "D.V. Embark." D.V. stood for Distinguished Visitor.
Image of CVN-77 courtesy of the U.S. Navy
USS George H.W. Bush is the tenth of the line of Nimitz-class supercarriers, which means it's also one of the largest warships in the entire world at approximately 1,092 feet long with a displacement of nearly 100,000 tons. Despite the size, its two nuclear reactors can push the carrier to nearly 35 mph (30+ knots) while carrying more than 5,500 sailors and pilots and numerous aircraft on its 4.5-acre flight deck.
To visit this floating city, I flew from Dallas to Baltimore, MD where my friend picked me up, and we drove to Washington DC and spent the afternoon touring the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, then drinks with a couple of writer colleagues of mine. The following day, we drove down to Norfolk, VA and met the rest of the invitees at Naval Air Station Norfolk. We were given a warm welcome and briefing by Navy staff at the base, followed by several anxious minutes of anticipation of what was to come.
Around 1300 that afternoon, we were ushered onto the tarmac, where a C-2 Greyhound was already spooled up and waiting for us to board. We had been given helmets and float jackets, should we have to abandon the aircraft during our flight to the ship, which was roughly 100 miles out to sea. We weren't given the exact location, for obvious reasons. Our seats on the C-2 faced backwards, so that our heads would hit the back of our seats as the tail hook caught the wire on the ship's deck. We took off from NAS Norfolk and flew about 45 minutes before landing on CVN-77.
C2 Greyhound by Official US Navy on Flickr for Creative Commons, commercially licensed
After landing, we were ushered off the plane quickly into a welcome room one deck below, where coffee, ice water and iced tea awaited us, along with cookies and the ship's Commanding Officer Brian "Lex" Luthor. We took a group photo and signed the guest registry. In the meantime, my friend and I knowingly glanced at each other as if to say "Is this really happening?"
Shortly thereafter, we were taken up to the flight deck, where we spent a good amount of time watching EA-6B Prowlers, F/A-18 Hornets, Super Hornets and EA-18G Growlers coming and going. During our visit, pilots were working to earn their "CQ" or, Carrier Qualification. Each pilot had to successfully complete five daytime and five night "catches" on the tail hook in order to achieve his or her CQ.
In the photo below, the red & white dashed line shows how close we were allowed to stand to the landing aircraft on the deck. We were roughly 10 feet from the wing's edge!
For the remainder of the day, we toured the ship, seeing things such as the CATCC (Carrier Air Traffic Control Center)
Inside the CATCC , there is a closed circuit TV that shows a live video feed from the flight deck.
We dined in the Officers' wardroom, so we didn't really have a true taste of what the rest of the sailors aboard ate, but what they served us was delicious. Meals were buffet style, other than dinner, where they served each of us individually.
After dinner, we visited the library, along with a room where sailors can record video messages that could be sent to their loved ones. This room (shown below) seemed kind of sad, and made me think about how hard it would be to be away from my family for several months at a time. But it also made me glad that they at least had the opportunity to send messages home.
We went back outside and watched flight operations at night. It was cool to see pilots try to land on a moving target, as the ship pitched and rolled with each wave. The plane's tail hook would drag along the deck, making a roster tail of sparks before either catching or missing, sending the pilot back around in the pattern for another try. We saw one EA-6B Prowler pilot miss the wire on four consecutive tries. We were told that if he missed again, he would have to go back to shore, because he was at "Bingo fuel weight" meaning he did not have enough fuel to miss one more time and still make it back to shore. He finally caught the wire on his fifth try, and we all cheered and clapped.
Afterward, we retired to our rooms, which had bunk beds yet were very nicely appointed with amenities. My friend and I were assigned to the Ambassador Suite, which signified President Bush's service as Ambassador to China from 1974-75.
Thankfully, the closed circuit video feed was also available on the TV in our stateroom, because we were one deck below the flight deck, and those planes and catapults are LOUD! I'm a very light sleeper, so I watched planes land until about 0130 when things finally quieted down.
The next morning, we toured the hangar deck, where we saw sailors practicing self defense. They were being sprayed with real pepper spray in the face before having to demonstrate a defense against an attacker.
Finally, after lunch, we spend more time watching flight deck operations. This time, we were a level above the deck, where the Air Boss sits. The Air Boss runs the whole operation as planes arrive and depart.
An EA-6B Prowler comes to a stop after just having caught the wire on the USS George H.W. Bush
An F-18 takes off from the USS George H.W. Bush
After about 24 hours on the ship, our ride home landed on the deck. We scurried up the ramp of the C-2, took our seats, and once again waited nervously. This time, we were to be shot off the deck by catapult. Nobody on the plane had ever gone from 0-200 mph in under 3 seconds. Riding backward again, this time our feet flew out from under us as the acceleration caused us to lose control momentarily. We rocketed off the deck, carrying with us some lifelong memories, and a deeper appreciation for each man and woman in our Armed Forces.
An E/A18G Growler lands on USS George H. W. Bush
I'd like to send out a special thanks to each and every person who has served our country in the military — whether current or long ago, whether by air, land, or sea. I am in your debt.
All photos except for the C-2 Greyhound and the exterior shot were taken by the author, Paul Thompson