Somewhere in the Pacific - Waking up early was a bit tough on the first day at sea on the USS Abraham Lincoln. Having been up a bit late and getting up really early, it was hard to force myself up when all the lights were off and that really nice hum of the air conditioner continued to try to sooth me back to sleep. Right away, however, I noticed something different this time waking up in my bunk, the whole room was rocking; quite a lot in fact. Beyond that, I felt rather cold with an icy chill snapping at me. I carefully sat up, making sure I don't choke myself on the bunk's overhead light bar, and instantly saw I was missing something. I went from three wool blankets keeping me warm to just one. Where did the other two go? Opening the side privacy curtains and looking out into the little hallway, I peered down to the floor, and sure enough there they were along with some other things that had fallen off in the night due to the heavy rocking of the Carrier. This would be the last time I would make the mistake of not securing everything before falling asleep. At this point, we were hitting 8-13 foot swells, and the Carrier was rocking quite a bit. This made this very difficult for me, having not ever given a chance to get my sea legs, and now I'd have to suddenly find them or look rather clumsy. The rocking only distracted me a bit for the very excited event of the day, and the reason for waking up early: Today was the Air Power Demo out at sea provided by the Carrier Air Wing 2 (CVW-2). I was excited for this for a variety of reasons, and the excitement was really building with each little teasing tidbit I'd get about this incredible one of a kind airshow. From using live ordinance (weapons) to breaking the sound barrier off the side of the ship, this was going to be an incredible day.
After the very careful process of getting ready for the day and trying to stay flat on my feet, I was informed that there'd be a bit of a detour to today's activities as it was inspection day and my sponsor would have to be a part of that. All department heads have to take part in this annual inspection, and it consisted of an Officer accompanying the department heads to anywhere from one to many different locations, and the Officer would inspect certain aspects of the ship for anything not up to Navy par, or catch things that are broken and overlooked. It's a really big thing for the entire ship, and when all is said and done, just about every area of the ship will have an inspection done that day. First thing was first, it was cleaning time for the various areas before inspection. This included cleaning our bunks, the berthing room, offices, etc. Making the beds so they were ready for inspection, and making sure anything that could 'ding' the inspection was carefully looked over and fixed or cleaned. The day started with a walk up to the hangar deck, to wait till it was time for the inspection process. The goal for the day was to be up at Vulture's Row (the balcony levels above the flight deck) to shoot the Airshow aircraft during take off and then head down to the flight deck for the actual airshow. The inspection was a bit of a delay, but that was still the plan. Little did I know that everyone seemed to have that plan, and had I known I would have requested to head up to Vulture's Row and just sit there and wait till it was time like I would end up doing for the Air Wing launch. But for now, it was just waiting for that inspection process to begin on the hangar deck. I just walked around and peered out of the elevator bays at the rapidly rising sun, which turned out to be a pretty spectacular sun rise, so I headed over to the little starboard side room where the jet fuel is taken in that accompanies the smoking room to snap some shots of the front wake of the ship and the sunrise. The photos turned out pretty spectacular, and I was able to see just how big the swells we were getting pummeled with really were. The swells were hitting the ship from a left to right side direction, which was the cause for the gradual by rather heavy rocking. I suppose I should be thankful they were side to side swells rather than head on which I'd imagine would be a lot more violent.
Soon it was time for the inspection, so I accompanied my sponsor down to the Chief Petty Officer's mess hall where all the department heads were patiently waiting for their number to be called to be pared with an Officer and head to their inspection areas. It was a pretty long wait, and for me just getting used to the rocking which appeared to get worse, this would be the only time I started to feel sea sick the entire trip. Perhaps it was the waiting around in the rather humid and hot meeting room next to the mess hall as they explained how things would work today to the group of department heads that were currently called. It seemed like this would be a process that would go on for most of the day with each group assigned to different times throughout the day. Eventually, we were assigned out officer, and we set up for three inspection areas. While it might have been pretty boring for most people to endure, I did find interest in seeing, once again, the professionalism and attention to detail that the US Navy has on an Aircraft Carrier. Each Officer looks for different things, often relating to their expertise (although they look for other things as well, they tend to look more in detail to the things they are trained on and know really well) and once they feel all things are in order, they sign off that area as being inspected. If they find something wrong, they will have a written report on it, and the department heads are expected to fix it promptly, which the time allowed for fixing based on the severity of the problem. If it's a mission critical problem, or one that would or could cause potential threats to the ship, the XO of the ship is informed immediately and all efforts are put forward to tackle the issue. I felt this was a very efficient system of keeping a floating city in check. There's a lot of things that can go wrong, sometimes even horribly wrong that could endanger lives or even endanger the ship itself, so these routine inspections are key to hopefully spotting a problem before it grows. After visiting three separate areas of the ship (which mind you felt like they were on opposite sides of the ship and on different levels) we were finally cleared of the inspection duties and could get moving on the airshow. Unfortunately, it was too little too late for my goal of getting up to Vulture's Row.
Quickly heading down to the Security office so I could pick up my camera gear and for us to grab 'cranials' which are basically Flight Deck Helmets for hearing protection which is required for watching aircraft launch off the deck. Grabbing everything I need along with backups just in case as I didn't want to risk any failures and not having a backup capturing this incredible event, we started our journey up to Vulture's Row. I should have sensed that there was going to be issues when as we got closer to the levels that stepped out onto Vulture's Row, we were already seeing people heading back and talking about how packed it was. With only a few minutes until the first aircraft was going to be launched off, we still made an effort. Unfortunately, when we reached the first level of the first balcony, it was so jam packed that there was a line of people trying to squeeze in. We were told that it was all full and that there wasn't even standing room anymore it was so jam packed. Doh! So we tried to head up to one of the other two rows, but on the way up several sailors and flight crew were heading down and each one said the other two levels were the same, if not even more packed. Desperately attempt to get out there to shoot the launches, I still tried to get up to one that might have even a little bit of room, but it quickly sank in that I would have to sit this one out and just wait for the flight deck to open for the Airshow viewing. We decided to wait at the main exit bulkhead door that led out to the flight deck from the island (tower). Other people got the same idea as us, and soon that little hallway was jam packed with tigers and crew alike waiting for the all clear. Ever so often a flight deck crewman would come inside to get a quick drink of water, and would be startled by the number of people waiting in this hallway. A long line formed, and we found it quite amusing to watch the people head up the ladder thinking they would for sure find some sort of room on Vulture's Row even after our warnings of it being closed from being too crowded, and then a few minutes later watching them return down the stairs having confirmed what we tried to warn them about. At this point, the rocking of the ship was at its max, as we had sped up to near or over 30 knots to provide air flow over the flight deck to help air the aircraft to quickly get aerodynamic lift and raise airborne. It was time to launch the airshow aircraft.
Being stuck in the island during the launches meant I couldn't see the aircraft launch, with no TVs showing the flight deck nearby, but I certainly got my first experience FEELING what it was like. The first few catapults they did were tests, and I got an idea for the amount of power that's involved in these steam catapults. Basically, a little sliding device known as a 'shuttle' slides through a long shaft in the flight deck about the size of a football field. This shuttle is what pulls the aircraft via a towbar that is permanently attached to the front nose wheel of naval aircraft. The towbar is locked into the shuttle and secured with a breakable restraining bolt that is designed to hold that particular aircraft at its full power and only break once the precise amount of steam pressure is applied. At this point high pressure steam from the ship's nuclear reactors are loaded into cylinders until the exact pressure and amount required to pull that particular aircraft without A) ripping the towbar off upon launch or B) not propelling the aircraft fast enough so it can't get airborne and is launched into the sea. While the steam pressure is loading, a Jet Blast Deflector (JBD) ramp is raised behind the aircraft so the intense hurricane force super heated air and wind from the fighter jet is deflected upwards to not endanger deck crew or other aircraft. It's at this point that the pilot of the aircraft will move around all his control surfaces like the rudder, stabilizer, flaps, ailerons, etc for the crew to see and make sure that everything is operating normally as you don't get a second chance to check once you are launched and anything out of the ordinary could mean disaster. After the jets are confirmed, the fighter activates full afterburner (or full power if a prop plane) in a loud roar. Once everything is in place and all crew members have given the okay and safely moved out of the way, the 'Shooter' (a flight deck crewman who wears yellow) will make his iconic hand signals and kneel down on one knee with his hand pointed the direction the jet will launch and it will be the sign for the catapult officer to hit the launcher. Once the launch is activated, the super high pressured steam is released from the cylinders, and the little shuttle is propelled forward at super high speeds dragging the several thousand pound aircraft forward from 0 to 165mph or more in just two seconds! The shuttle will scream across the flight deck in that little shaft with visible steam being released behind it and at the end of the shaft the towbar will be disengaged automatically from the shuttle and the aircraft will now be under its own power with the forward momentum it was given. If all goes well, this will be enough for the aircraft to continue off the flight deck and over the water and have enough forward speed to be in flight. A near instant sea-water breaking system is used to stop the shuttle as it reaches the end, otherwise it would burst through the bulkhead and be launched out to sea as well. The whole process takes just seconds to happen, but is one of the most dangerous yet magnificent processes in the US Navy. For all of us Tigers waiting in the island only able to listen to the first jet be loaded onto the shuttle and ready, it was quite the 'jolting' experience. For the Air Demo, a gaggle of Legacy F/A-18C Hornets and several newer F/A-18E and F Super Hornets were launched along with an E-2C Hawkeye reconnaissance plane and an EA-6B Prowler electronic warfare jet. Several MH-60R Knighthawk helicopters lifted off as well during this long excruciating wait till we could go outside. For the Hornets, it starts with the rising and falling sound of the Pratt and Whitney engines as the pilot taxis into position so the towbar can be attached to the shuttle. From there, the loud roar of the engines come to life as the pilot applies full afterburner, and within seconds you feel a slight shake as the pressure is applied and the jet is propelled off. At this point the noise, even from within the ship is quite loud as the Jet screams forward. Its short lived, however, and the sound quickly fades as the Hornet leaves the deck and soon silence fills the air. At the same time as the sound fades, a large shaking jolt shakes the entire Carrier from the massive amount of pressure required to instantly slow the shuttle to a complete stop in just a foot or less. It's like a small jolting earthquake, and no matter where you are on the ship, you can feel that shuttle come to a stop, even if you can't hear the jet's being launched from deep within the ship. When the first aircraft was launched, I couldn't help but chuckle at the sheer power of what was happening, and only made me wish even more I could be out there to see it all happening.
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