Brace for launch!!!
The Marine in the front of our plane waved his arms over his head, signaling us to brace for our first launch off an aircraft carrier. Seconds later we heard a pop, immediately followed by what I can only describe as, the feeling of being punched in the chest where the impact lasts for many seconds. We were off, hurling down the runway from a standstill to 165 miles an hour in 2 seconds. From there we were flying somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean on our way home to San Diego.
Two days earlier, I sat with my friends are a bar near the Navy Base on Coronado Island having Guinness beers trying to envision what it was going to be like to land on the carrier. A lot of laughs and bets of who would get sick took place. With aircraft carriers not having bars or alcohol, we knew that these would be our last drinks for a couple days, and proceeded to tie on a couple more for good measure.
The morning of our flight out to the USS Stennis, I woke up the guys by texting them all the beginning of Top Gun along with a few choice words (something to the extent that the “plaque for the alternates was in the ladies room.”). To be honest, we were all nervous, myself included, about what awaited us with the day’s landing. Even the best pilots that briefed us described an aircraft carrier landing as a, “controlled crash.” The thing is, we were about to go from 150 miles an hour to a dead stop in 300 feet, and since we were in a plane with no windows, it would be blind for us. Fortunately, all of us ate light for our breakfast in an effort to avoid the need of a barf bag in front of our peers.
As the plane got closer to the carrier, we were told that we were five out… then four… you see where this is going. When we were thirty seconds from landing, the guys in the plane yelled, “brace.” I tightened my chest straps so tight that I couldn’t inhale a full breath, and I began to count backwards from thirty.
I got to three… two… one… nothing. I went to tell my friend that we might be a bit late; before the words could leave my mouth, I heard the landing gear of the plane SLAM onto the deck of the carrier. The experience of landing on a carrier was jarring at best. If a commercial airliner ever made the same noise or sensation, you would expect the oxygen masks to be dangling and walkway to illuminate.
After a short taxi, we sat still in dark plane with the rear door opened in front of us (we were sitting backwards). The vapor from the condensation left like the smoke on a theatrical set, and we were then overcome with the noise of F-18 fighter jets taking off feet away and the jet fuel from them burning our eyes. Though this sounds terrible and alarming, I promise you, it was one of the coolest things I have ever been witness to. No sooner than we could take in the situation at hand, we were ushered from the plane along the deck of the ship to a room where they served us an incredible lunch.
With our stomachs now full and our safety briefings aside, we went to one of the gear rooms of the ship and put on cranials (think of them as helmets in pieces that protect you from hitting your head on things) and goggles. After donning safety vests, we were walked right back to the pure chaos that was an active flight deck and stood to bear witness to the flame, noise and power that is a squad of Super Hornets launching in a matter of 10 minutes. As much as I want to say I made an incredible video of this, I chose to use my phone and watch it rather than put a camera to my eye. However, for good measure, I have added my boring video of an incredible event so you can draw your conclusions about how deafening it is.
It was at that point that I recognized how immense the situation was, for we were not just on a carrier in the Pacific Ocean, but we were surrounded by the Pacific Fleet. Battleships circled us while subs were alongside the ship in the open water doing some kind of exercises with helicopters that were hovering just above the water’s surface. It was very apparent that the many great men and women around us were training. For when we flew out to finish our vacations, they would be sailing on to the middle east and the real combat that awaited them.
Over the next 24 hours we met many of them on deck, at the Starbucks on the ship (yes, there is one) and sitting alongside of them at breakfast. What struck me was how young they were, and the great responsibility that rested on their shoulders. From the aircraft maintenance crews to the guys in charge of protecting the bombs, to the cooks making our meals, every single one of them impressed me. It wasn’t just the kind and professional attitudes that they had, but the living quarter of which they slept in. Often multiple people in a large room with many bunks, that had shifts that overlapped with those around them (you have to remember, the carrier is conducting operations around the clock). Add to that large fighter jets landing on the deck that is only ten feet above your head and you can understand why I got zero hours of sleep on the carrier.
It was a harsh and dangerous environment on the ship, from the constant rocking of the sea to the exposed metal pipes everywhere which saw me hitting my head on them not once, but twice in a matter of hours. One day on the ship taught me aspects of my life that I never knew existed. I learned how much I take little things for granted in my life, like the freedom to walk to the store, or email/text with anyone at any time. But more than anything else, the thing I took for granted the most was silence. I missed that moment after a long hard day with you can take a breath in and exhale the stress of the world around you.
On the flight home, many of us fell asleep, even with the loud hum of the propellers at a constant roar. However, sleep did not find my eyes, for my mind was wrapped around what I had just seen and more importantly, the people I had just met. The thought that overwhelmed my mind was how much I wasn’t cut out for what the men and women of the USS Stennis did on a day to day basis. I had come to the harsh realization that I wasn’t strong enough (physically or emotionally) to handle the many riggers that a life in the armed services has, but I am forever grateful for those that are. The one thing I can do is tell you their stories and the lives they live in order to protect us.