WORKING ON THE ROOF
Word count: 2,786
One of my favorite questions which people ask me about my service in the Navy is: “What’s it like to work on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier?” It’s my favorite question because it allows me to give the most positive and descriptive answer. Life onboard an aircraft carrier is mostly boring routine, punctuated by lack of sleep and poor food. However the one thing I find that makes it bearable is working the flight deck. We often refer to the flight deck as “the roof” because we live and sleep under it.
To date, I have had the privilege of living and working aboard the USS Independence (CV-62), USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63), USS Nimitz (CVN-68) and USS Eisenhower (CVN-69). The Kitty Hawk and independence were both what the navy terms as “conventional” aircraft carriers, which means the ship is powered with fuel oil, while the Nimitz and Eisenhower are both nuclear powered vessels. Each ship was unique in its own way, and each has a special place in my heart.
Come with me, while I take you on a tour of my flight deck aboard the Independence. Let’s start with your safety gear. You have your black-leather steel-toed boots, which feel like you’re walking around with bricks tied to your feet. The camouflage pants you wear came from one of your shipmates and they reek of sweat, jet fuel, and something you just can’t identify, but reminds you of bad cheese. You are also wearing what we call a flight deck jersey, which the rest of the world would describe as a Kermit-the-Frog-green long-sleeved turtle-neck sweater.
Don’t worry; you’re not going to win any fashion awards out here. The float coat you’re wearing is a heavy cotton vest with an inflatable air bladder, designed to automatically inflate if you fall into the ocean for some reason. We’ll try not to let that happen today. Your head is encapsulated within a WWII style aviator’s skull-cap which has hard plastic plates buttoned to the front and back, combined with ear-muffs and a set of goggles. This is to protect your brainpan if you hit it on an aircraft or piece of equipment, as well as your hearing from the jet noise, and your eyes from the flying debris that is launched from the deck by jet exhaust. The final piece of your ensemble is a pair of very fashionable heavy leather gloves. Now, we’re going to leave the shop and I’ll take you with me as we go launch an aircraft. Hold on to my belt like a circus monkey so I know where you are at all times, and don’t let go no matter what.
Ready? Let’s go to the roof.
We leave the shop with my nylon belt firmly in your grasp. Your peripheral vision is reduced because of the goggles, and your hearing reminds you of the worst head cold you ever had. You can hear your footsteps and breathing as your body conducts the sound to your muffled ears. Our first destination is a heavy steel hatch at the end of a hallway that is barely lit by a single red light mounted to the right of the hatch. You feel me stop and work the heavy latch opening the hatch. Suddenly, as the hatch opens, you can hear the scream of dozens of jet engines like a symphony of demons crying out from hell.
We move through exit as one creature, taking care not to trip over the bottom lip of the hatch. You find yourself standing on an open steel grate. You look down seeing the ocean slipping past the gray hull of the ship some fifty feet beneath you while I close the hatch. You resist the instant feeling of vertigo by looking up at the wall, just as I start up a set of stairs, dragging you behind me.
We erupt out of the ladder well and into the catwalk on the starboard side of the ship. For you, this is more than likely the right hand side of the ship, but my sailor brothers and I honor our sailing forefathers by referring to it as the starboard side. As we make our way forward, we stumble in unison over hard rubber hoses as thick as a soup cans, but are presently collapsed and empty like a discarded sock and coiled in haphazard patterns in our path.
After a few yards, I take an abrupt left, hauling you up a short set of stairs and on to the flight deck for the first time in your life. You dutifully follow as I lead you a short way aft towards what would be described as a comically narrow building in the civilian world, but we call “the island”. The island juts out of the flight deck and climbs as tall as a four story building. As the tallest part of the ship, it stands in stark gray contrast to the sky and is the most prominent landmark that proclaims to the world that this ship is a United States Navy aircraft carrier.
We pause and I let you take in the scenery. With the warm steel wall of the tower on your back, you scan the deck trying to make sense of all the commotion. Flight crews are manning their jets; each with their own distinctive helmets with seemingly limitless variations of graffiti patterned on the surface with multi colored reflective tape. Each aircraft is surrounded with workers, each dressed in distinctive colors. Each man wearing a green, red, brown, yellow, blue, purple or white jersey; each with a matching float coat, seems to be performing different tasks. As you watch, it’s clear the every man knows his job, and is working in collaboration with every other man in a rehearsed choreograph with a common purpose. The purple-shirts are using the same black hoses we stumbled over earlier to pump fuel into various aircraft, while the brown-shirts do final checks on the jet, ensuring panels are fastened correctly or polishing translucent canopies with something that looks like car wax. The white-shirts seem to just be standing around watching everyone, and the green-shirts are doing something inexplicable with some of the electronics. A pair of men wearing red-shirts are checking over a missile mounted on the tip of an F-18’s wing. The inspection culminates with one of the men grabbing the missile and forcibly trying to pull it off of the jet with no success. This seems to satisfy his curiosity and the pair moves on to the other wingtip and starts the routine anew.
Your eye is drawn from the storm of activity directly in front of you, to the contrasting calmness of the ocean. The sun has almost dipped beneath the waves, the small sliver of brilliance disgorging the last rays of the days light, painting the sky a brilliant orange that fades to the blue of night as your eyes turn skyward. As you stare upward the first stars are proclaiming their dominance of the sky. Your attention is drawn back to the sea and the endless horizon surrounding the ship. A sense of solitude like no other envelops you as you realize just how small this ship is in comparison to the vast ocean on which it swims. I recognize your expression and lean in close to your ear and glibly shout over the noise “It’s like being in a giant snow globe ain’t it?” I then tap on your hand to make sure it’s still on my belt and we’re on the move again.
We head forward and then toward the center of the deck. We don’t make it far before we are forced to stop as the sleek, shark-like profile of an F-18 hornet taxies in front of us on its way to the catapults, directed by a man in a yellow-shirt and float coat waiving illuminated wands with crisp precision as he walks backwards, scanning his surroundings for unwary shipmates or possible obstacles. The jet glides past us yet we don’t move because another F-18 is following the same path as the first. You watch as the first jet, directed by the man in the yellow-shirt, makes minor steering corrections, lining up with the track of the catapult. Just as it seems to be lined up perfectly, a section of the deck behind it rises up like giant trap door, blocking your view with a ten-foot-tall wall of steel. You notice for the first time the acrid sting of jet exhaust which reminds you of the smell that fills the room just after someone turns off a kerosene heater. The fumes are strong enough to sting your eyes despite the safety goggles you wear.
The second jet is now directly in front of us, its wingtip just inches above my head. The yellow-shirt crosses his wands and the jet abruptly stops blocking our path. You see my head scanning from side to side, assessing the situation. As we wait, the noise intensifies as the jet on the catapult prepares to launch, its exhaust deflected upward by the steel wall behind it. The sting of exhaust is almost unbearable and your eyes produce real tears now.
The noise from the other side of the wall reaches a peak then stays that way for a few seconds. Suddenly the noise level drops dramatically and ends with a loud thump that you can feel in your feet as the jet reaches the end of the catapult and leaps into the air. The wall between us and the catapult drops as if to reveal some grand magic trick in which an aircraft was made to disappear before an awestruck crowd.
The jet in front of us starts to move forward, following its yellow-shirt master, and we start our trek once again. I lead you aft as the jet slowly roars forward, and for a moment you think I am taking you on a walk behind the aircraft. You discover that you are partially correct as I duck down and walk under the exhaust pipe, forcing you to do the same. As we pass under the tail of the jet, you are bombarded by the thunderous noise from the engines, and you can feel the heat radiating from the broad metal plates that interlock to form the flexible exhaust ports for the jet.
We emerge safely from under the jet and make our way forward toward a group of men standing in a section between the two catapults on the bow. We stop a few feet from the group and you watch as a single-seat, F-18 taxies on your right, and a larger, two-seat F-14 tomcat takes position on your left. The hornet seems dwarfed by the larger and more imposing tomcat. You watch as the deck crew lines up the nose landing gear on either side of the track, inching it forward into position. The tomcat stops and men rush in with equipment, crouching dangerously close to the massive intakes which are gulping in air to fuel their insatiable engines. You watch as the aircraft is attached by a steel bar to the wedge shaped shuttle which will eventually drag the aircraft down the deck. While the crew works under the nose, another man holds up a box the size of a cake pan with white numbers on it, waiting for some response from the pilot. I lean in close and shout to explain that he is showing the pilot the weight which the catapult is being set so that the shuttle doesn’t rip the nose gear off of the jet, or pull too slowly to launch it successfully.
The pilot gives the “thumbs up” and the man with the box turns then dashes for safety in the port catwalk. Suddenly, the men under the nose of the tomcat dash out from under it and take up positions on the other side of the red and white striped line between us and the aircraft. The yellow-shirt in standing in front of the jet gives a signal and two men in white-shirts, with a black and white checkerboard pattern painted on their float coats move in and start closely inspecting the jet. In a few moments they take up position aft of the jet, but well outside the exhaust. The crouch and the yellow-shirt gives the pilot a signal. Suddenly, the tail hook drops, the white-shirt gives the “thumbs up”, and the yellow-shirt gives another signal which the pilot obeys by raising the tail hook back up into the tail of the jet. This sequence is repeated several times as the jet is checked prior to flight. Panels open, then close, lights come on then turn off and everything seems to be going to plan. The yellow-shirt waives his arms and suddenly every moveable surface on the jet comes to life. Panels open and shut, the vertical stabilizers on the tail swing back and forth, flaps open and close and the horizontal stabilizers wave wildly. The two white-shirts give the thumbs up again and hold it. All movement stops and the jet seems to hunch down like a sprinter in the starting blocks. You feel, rather than hear the engines spin up and watch as a blue flame grows from exhaust.
Soon, you are mesmerized as fifteen feet of white-hot flame, encapsulated within an electric blue haze erupts from the jet and splashes against the jet-blast deflector that has magically risen behind the aircraft. Never in your life have you been so close to such raw power, and it is truly awe inspiring. You can feel the shockwaves surging through your feet, and pounding into your chest. As you stare at the shafts of energy, you can clearly see concussion waves forming perfect rings of flame within the exhaust. Suddenly, the jet springs forward, dragged willingly toward the bow where it leaps into the air with a concussive thump as the shuttle reaches the end of the track and the bracket holding it to the aircraft is shattered.
If you don’t have a stupid grin on your face at this point, you must be dead. Suddenly, the F-18 behind you joins its brethren in the air with a no less forceful concussion at the bow.
We wait as an EA-6B, with its ugly, 1960’s teardrop design, performs the same ballet as the younger and sleeker aircraft we just watched. The choreography and movements are the same, despite the unimpressive shape of the jet. I point out that the exhaust on this jet points down and out, unlike the straight aft exhaust of the tomcat and hornet. We can’t perform the “walk under the exhaust” move that we did with the F-18 on this jet. Try that and you will end up taking an unwilling swim. I also tell you to keep your teeth unclenched when this one launches. I answer your quizzical look with a knowing smile.
The prowler is hooked up and final checks are made, and just like the preceding jets, the check culminates in the check of all flight control surfaces. The significant difference between this jet and the others preparing for launch is the noise of the engines. The roar of a F-14 engine, is the quiet chirping of a cricket when compared to the banshee scream of the EA-6B. The noise punches into your chest like a boxer, while you can feel each and every bone in your body vibrating in tune with the engines. Your funny bone tickles, it’s hard to breath, and you can feel your fingernails vibrating. Suddenly you understand why I told you to unclench your jaw, because if you hadn’t it would be quite possible to chip your teeth as they vibrate together. Just as you realize that you can feel the membrane of your eyes pulsing and watering from the concussive noise, the jet sprints down the deck and leaps into the air. You do not hear or feel the thump of the catapult because the engines drown it out. The silence that suddenly envelops the flight deck is deafening. As the jet disappears into the night men start taking their cranials off and drinking the clean ocean air.
You have just witnessed your first night launch. This organized confusion of men and machine is repeated each and every day and night, in every ocean of the world by men and women who serve their country with honor. So, the next time you watch a sun set, think to yourself that somewhere out there, men and women are preparing to launch aircraft into that sunset with the steady determination to defend our nation.