Oh HEY. I have to fill you in on something MAJOR that happened last weekend.
A week ago I flew out to sea in a military transport plane, landed on an aircraft carrier via an arrested landing, spent 24 hours aboard the USS John C. Stennis, and then flew off the carrier via a catapult shot. How? What? Why? I’m getting into ALL of it in today’s post. It’s a long one with a LOT of pictures, so make some iced coffee and let’s get to werk.
A lot of you may not know, but I’ve had a serious interest in military/defense studies for a while. I remember in one of my high school classes I’d get my work done early, and then would sneakily spend the rest of class watching Senate Armed Services Committee hearings on my computer. Honestly, I was a really rebellious teenager.
In college I majored in Political Science with most of my PoliSci classes centric to the Middle East, Russia, or defense related. Then of course, I minored in Arabic and Russian.
So currently I follow a lot of military commands and defense related accounts on Twitter. Obviously, I follow the official twitter account for U.S. Naval Air Forces. Back in November they put out feelers for taking some of their naval aviation-loving followers on a Distinguished Visitors Embark. I immediately submitted my application (of sorts) and a few months later was extended an invitation to participate.
You can read more about Commander, Naval Air Forces’ (CNAF) Distinguished Visitor (DV) Embark Program HERE.
The embark started bright and early on Naval Air Station North island. Myself and the other DVs were greeted by our point of contact and then things started moving quickly. Our luggage was tagged and taken by aircrew to load onto the transport plane that would be flying us out onto the aircraft carrier. We then had about a two hour briefing in a passenger terminal that covered an array of topics.
Before we knew it, it was time to go. Our flight to the aircraft carrier (AKA BOAT by all the aviation folks) was not like a commercial flight — which I feel like should be self explanatory, but I have to make sure we’re all on the same page here y’all. The flight to the boat was on a C2-A Greyhound (AKA COD) — a biga$$ plane compared to the jets that land on the boat. For our flight we were outfitted with a flotation collar, cranial (helmet), goggles, and ear protection. The seats face backwards and there are precisely only two windows.
Going to be totally honest here, the flight out to the boat was awesome. It was exciting. It was a totally new experience. I loved it. I was also really relieved that I didn’t throw up.
So this is the deal with landing a plane on a floating runway in the middle of the ocean: something has to physically stop the plane as it makes contact with the flight deck. The runway on the aircraft carrier is only about 500 feet long — not nearly enough room for a plane to make a normal landing via reverse thrust and brakes.
Planes landing on an aircraft carrier are physically stopped by something called an arresting wire. As the plane comes in for a landing, a hook that extends from the tail of the plane catches the arresting wire, physically stopping the plane. This type of landing is called an arrested landing. Yes, it’s BADASS. And it takes an enormous amount of skill.
Pilots won’t know they’ve successfully hooked the wire until they feel themselves come to a brutal stop. In fact, jet pilots must go to full power immediately upon touch down just in case they miss all of the wires and have to fly off for a second attempt. This is called a bolter.
So we made an arrested landing on the boat. The sheer force of it knocked the breath out of me and I swear I had an out of body experience for 2 seconds. The ramp lowered and the scene outside was vastly different from the one we left on Coronado. The flight deck was buzzing with activity and there was a vast ocean in the background. At this point it’s not like we could hop off and casually mill around looking at all that was going on around us. Uhhhhh LOL no.
Aircraft carrier flight decks are some of the most DANGEROUS working environments in the world. Just a few life threatening possibilities include: landing aircraft, taxiing aircraft, launching aircraft, jet blast, spinning prop blades, prop wash, jet intakes, arresting cables, catapult shuttles, spinning helicopter rotors, moving tow tractors, tripping hazards, and the list goes on. Also, you don’t want to be the obnoxious idiot that gets in the way of military members trying to do their JOB.
The aircraft carrier flight deck was LOUD. We exited the C2 single file, all keenly aware to keep our eyes in front of us and follow the leader. We made our way into the ship and were greeted by a super boujee reception in a decked out room.
This room is not indicative of the realities of life aboard an aircraft carrier. It is obviously used to greet visitors, heads of state, etc. Fun fact: the United States Senate was the sponsor of the USS John C. Stennis, and so there are little homages to the Senate (and Senator Stennis himself) throughout the boat. In this room, the carpet and ceiling are modeled after the Senate Chambers.
After our reception and welcome from the XO, we had full day. We put on different gear, and then made our way onto the flight deck to watch flight operations up close and personal. I can’t begin to tell you guys how insane and amazing this was. We had two shooters escorting our group and maneuvering us so we weren’t in the way.
The wind was fierce, the jets loud, and the activity perfectly synchronized. The flight deck is intoxicatingly lethal. Not only is it a dangerous environment, but the entire situation can be summarized as one of America’s most lethal warships launching strike fighter jets, a war machine that drops deadly ordinance. Essentially it’s varying degrees of badassery layered on top of each other.
After the flight deck we had a blitz tour of a lot of areas including the bridge, the chapel, and flight deck control. We also got to watch flight ops from a place called vultures row. Vultures row was amazing because we were outside, but a little bit above the action so we didn’t have to worry about being in the way.
For dinner we ate in a wardroom with the XO and other military members. It was pizza night, which is a very popular night.
We rounded out the day by watching more flight ops during sunset and night time. Watching jets launch and recover while the sun set behind them over the ocean was a sight I’ll never ever forget.
Night carrier flight operations are a reality for most tailhook pilots. All planes launch and recover at night with the C2 the only exception. The enemy doesn’t sleep y’all and neither does our military. For nighttime landings, pilots fly instruments to get to the boat until they’re about 3/4 mile out. Then they’ll start looking for the “ball” which is a visual cue letting them know if they’re on target (glideslope).
Alas, the first day was done. We were all in a happy, exhausted daze. We spent the night in spacious staterooms. This type of living situation is not the standard for the majority of sailors aboard the USS John C. Stennis. I say this to not give you any false illusions based on my pictures above.
After a restful night listening to aircraft trap right above us, we woke up bright and early and dined in one of the mess decks. This is an eating area where the majority of sailors eat.
Honestly the second day was kind of a blur. We visited the fantail, medical area, dental area, hangar bays, and more. For lunch we had the privilege of eating in the Chief’s dining area.
Suddenly, it was time to head back to land. We suited up in our horse collars and cranials and loaded into the C2 for our ride back home. We taxied to the catapult and eagerly awaited to be shot off the ship. Just as planes cannot land conventionally onto an aircraft carrier, they cannot take off conventionally either. Because they have such a limited runway, they must be launched off the ship via a catapult. When this happens it’s a HUGE rush.
To prepare to be shot off, we were secured with a 4 point harness, placed our shins on the seat in front of us, crossed our arms across our chest, and tucked our chins to our chest. As soon as we were “shot off” the ship, our bodies lurched forward (or backwards??). It felt like a roller coaster — it was awesome.
The ride back to Coronado was smooth. We landed and I couldn’t believe it was over.
SURPRISING THINGS FROM THE EMBARK
I want to share with you guys some surprising things I learned/thought/noticed during this embark. These are in no particular order.
I’ve watched SO many documentaries and Imax movies on aircraft carriers and flight operations. Nothing could prepare me for the real thing. It’s so much more powerful seeing everything in person.
Aircraft launches and recoveries happen in cycles. So there will be a big group of launches, and then a big group of recoveries. It’s not like, 1 launch, 2 recoveries, 1 launch, 1 recovery, and so on.
Tall people definitely have an added challenge living on the boat.
The lack of personal, or quiet space, for sailors was much more sobering seeing it in person than just hearing about it. Carriers house thousands of sailors, with most of them sleeping in racks that are right on top of each other. There are some outlets such as working out, common areas, and eating areas, but for the most part sailors learn to exist in a constant state of crowds.
The same food menu is repeated week after week, and is mimicked on other ships. So let’s say wings and pizza are on Saturday night — sailor’s can look forward to this occurring every week.
I was surprised to see an emphasis in the dining areas on separating food from paper, plastics, etc., while disposing of our dishes. Maybe this is just for ease? Or a trend towards becoming more environmentally conscious?
*** I’ve since found out it IS for environmental reasons (how awesome). Non-biodegradable plastic is separated and put into a compress melt unit (CMU) and melted into giant discs commonly referred to as “hockey pucks”. They are then stored and disposed of when the boat gets ashore.
A chef we met with said today’s sailors are more health conscious and health focused than ever. The requests for vegetarian and vegan centric menus have increased.
The passion, drive, and discipline from some of the sailors we met was truly astounding. They are practically kids (and by that I mean just a few years younger than me) who headed the call to serve. Their friends back home are probably chugging natty light and complaining about having to pay their own cell phone bill.
When these sailors enter the civilian workforce their employers will be LUCKY to employ them.
The photos from this embark make it look like an adrenaline fueled, exciting adventure. Which I’m not going to lie — it was. Watching jets make arrested landings as the sun set, sleeping in spacious staterooms, learning about all facets of carrier operations – it was a dream. However for every photo I snapped of a jet about take off, there was a large and disciplined group that made it happen.
The Navy is our nation’s “away” team. An aircraft carrier is sovereign US territory — capable of traversing the globe to represent the interests of the United States, provide humanitarian relief, and act as a potent deterrence force.
The Navy projects strength and in doing so maintains peace. Vital international shipping lanes remain open and volatile world actors can be checked.
The Navy is unique from the other military branches in that they can easily respond to an escalating situation across the world via international waters — they don’t have to wait for country clearance, an air field to be built or cleared, or infrastructure to be established. An aircraft carrier is a self sustainable, portable, floating runway equipped with the best aircraft, pilots, and crew.
We’re at a unique time in our country when there’s more of a civilian/military divide than ever before. Currently, less than half of 1% of the U.S. population is active duty military. This stands in stark contrast to the 9% during WWII and 2% during the peak of Vietnam. And while this may sound like a good thing, the reality is that there’s now a large divide between our nation’s war fighters and those they are protecting. Our parent’s mostly likely grew up with a parent, grandparent, or friend that served — meaning they had a direct connection to their nation’s military. This doesn’t hold so true for my generation #millennials.
I hope this blog post gave y’all a little insight into your Navy. And yes, this is your Navy. A group of men and women who are out there everyday getting after it.
What struck me during this 24 hour visit were the vast array of sacrifices these sailors undergo in order to serve. There’s a sacrifice of creature comforts, sleep, the years of their youth, time with spouses + children + family, missed birthdays and holidays, personal space, hobbies, other career aspirations put on hold (just to name a few). And on a more somber note, some give up something that is truly irreplaceable.
Thank you CNAF for this incredible opportunity. And a BIG thank you to the PAO team aboard the STENNIS that made our experience so memorable.
A FEW NOTES
There are not many (if any photos) of the sailors we met and interacted with. Out of respect for sailor’s privacy/PERSEC I did not photograph or video them without their permission. All of these photos are in accordance with OPSEC. If an area/subject was off limits we were told no photographs or our phones were taken from us.
I was not instructed what to post, or what to say. As always, these thoughts and opinions are my own.
This trip was not sponsored in a monetary fashion or compensated for by CNAF. In fact, DVs paid a small fee to cover the meals we ate aboard the carrier.
This DV embark was granted based on my own merit, and not in association with my spouse’s career.
All videos from this embark can be found on my Instagram. Find me at @kathrynhadel and view the InstaStory highlight labeled “uss stennis”. This must be done on the mobile Instagram app, and not on a computer desktop.
Thank you all for reading! If you have any questions, I’m always available. Feel free to send me an email at hello @ kathrynhadel.com or send me a DM on Instagram. Xx, K