Arrested, then shot–III

For the last month or so, this scribe has trying to imagine fighter jets landing in the pasture of the five-acre Illinois farm where he grew up, the tail hooks catching mom’s garden fence, stopping the planes before they nosed into the neighbor’s kitchen.  And I’ve tried to envision that same plane taking off from that same pasture, climbing out over the surrounding fields of deep green corn or soybeans.

Deduct our house and mom’s garden from those five acres and there would be an area the size of the deck of the USS Theodore Roosevelt.                                 Looks pretty big, doesn’t it?   The flight deck is more than twice as long as the Missouri Capitol.  But as we watched F-18s land and take off and move around on that 4.5 acre deck, we watched some amazing things happening in a space that turned out to be pretty small. And to see those things happening on a cloudy, starless night, well, that is something to see, indeed.

We started on the back side of Vulture’s Row, the top observation area to the left side of the island.  That’s the windowless deck just under the radar domes that you see here from the front.                                island

We were watching small flashing red lights off to our left, aft of the ship.  There was little sense of motion as we watched that light.  But the video shows we were, in fact, moving.  The deck below was so dimly lighted that our cell phone camera didn’t show the light.  Our escorts had ordered us to turn off any flashes in our cameras and our cell phones.  The movement in the video, while not entirely an accurate portrayal of what is happening with the carrier, is a reminder that people flying these planes are skilled beyond our imaginations.

It’s dark. It’s noisy. The dimly lighted carrier deck is in motion.  Somewhere out there is a pilot who will, in effect, put a piece of thread travelling 140 mph through the eye of a needle moving in the opposite direction, pitching and yawing with the movement of the ocean.

We’re watching a red light become three lights.  And suddenly there is an F-18 on the deck below us.  Good God!

Our shepherds led us forward along a pitch-black gangway to watch the night launches. Blind as a bat (actually worse because bats have some kind of animal radar), I used the dim light from my cell phone screen to see what was ahead of my feet and was firmly admonished to turn the thing off.  Not even that much light was allowed.  That’s how serious this night landing business is.

From the front of Vulture’s Row we watched a new and fascinating F-18 Ballet.   Flashlights of varying colors replaced people in different-colored shirts.  In a climate too noisy for voices to be heard and too dark for hand signals to be relied upon, flashlights become critical communications devices, directing the movement of planes from landing areas to ready areas to the catapults and then to the order to launch.  A sudden, long streak of flame.  And the F-18 that abruptly appeared below us on landing has disappeared into the dark off the carrier’s bow, leaving behind the flashlights directing the next ballet movement.

The full appreciation of what we witnessed that night from Vultures Row took time to settle in. Absolute precision.  Totally disciplined actions.  Everybody had the most important job on the ship.   It is a magnificent thing to see. And to know that so much of that heavy responsibility is being carried out by some people who are at least a couple of years away from attending their high school class five-year reunion is nothing short of astounding.                                         DSCN0269 Their focus, their commitment, their belief in the essential nature of their jobs is—–

Well, a few days ago were interviewing a state legislator who has been in the middle of the Ferguson disturbances as she talked about young people who are “rootless.”

The young people she was talking about on the streets of Ferguson and the young people of the same age on the flight deck of the Roosevelt are worlds apart.

We saw a lot of breath-taking things on this trip. But the most impressive thing we saw, when all was said and done, was the people we met, talked to, and watched, most of them young and purposeful.   It was an honor whenever some  of the members our group got to stand with them on their flight deck..                                          DSCN0229 Our quarters for the night were on DV Row, a series of two-person staterooms that included a couple of small desks, locker space, bunk beds, and some shelves. The room numbers described where the rooms were located but if you had put us in the other end of the ship and told us to find our rooms we probably would have been trying to figure out the code for most of a day.                               DSCN0189DSCN0190 They had a “DV Row” symbol on the floor, which was a good thing because without it, we found it easy to get lost in the carrier catacombs going to and from the head,  the bathroom. Do not ask an embarrassing question about the details of  how the essential nature of that symbol was discovered.                                   DSCN0188

About the only things in our stateroom that were not steel were the mattresses and the pillows.  I have wondered what percentage of the wood on the Roosevelt is in the Captain’s office and in the Executive Officers office.  The reason just about everything is steel is simple.  Wood burns a lot more easily than steel.

Sleep did not come easy that night for roommate Greg Willard and me, in large part because we were pretty wound up from from the day’s activities culminating in the excitement of watching the night takeoffs and landings.  The fact that our rooms were about two decks below a catapult certainly delayed slipping into the arms of Morpheus, as it were.  The launches stopped at about 1 a.m. and we were quickly sound asleep. For five hours.  The ship public address system jump-started the next day for us at 6 a.m..

Crew members say they’ve gotten used to the noise that is part of life on an aircraft carrier most of the time.  We were never buried so deeply in the lower decks that we didn’t hear or feel what was going on up top.  But we’ve camped beside fast-moving streams, lived next to busy highways,  and spent a night in a motel next to the Union Pacific main line in Nebraska.  Eventually, we know, human systems adapt.

It might take a little (a lot?) longer to adapt to F-18s being shot off the bow of an aircraft carrier right over your head, though, than it takes to adapt to a Great Smokey Mountains stream flowing past a campground.

(We’ll get shot in the concluding episode.)


Arrested, then shot–II

General Quarters!

Battle Stations!

A missile is headed toward our ship.

The crew of the USS Theodore Roosevelt mobilizes. Everybody has an assigned place, an assigned duty. A stopwatch is running to see how quickly they respond.

“The Big Stick,” a couple hundred miles off Norfolk in the Atlantic, is preparing for its first deployment since refueling and refurbishing, practicing all the things that happen or that can happen on and with aircraft carriers. Our party of Distinguished Visitors (that’s what they call us) continues to move through the ship in the early minutes after our arrival, passing crew members in the passageways who have quickly put on their firefighting gear and others who have put on other emergency equipment or gone to their emergency stations.

The loudspeakers speak of a missile impact, fires, flooding–even water on the deck.

There is no frantic dashing about, no shouting. There is only disciplined, orderly response, organized movement. If this were real, the people in the corridors ready to battle any condition that puts the Roosevelt in peril would be responding forcefully and in an orderly manner. Disorganization in an emergency is a recipe for cataclysm.

One of the drills run on the Roosevelt is called a “Flight Deck 50,” which simulates a fire on the flight deck with fifty casualties. That kind of thing can happen, has happened,. The USS Forrestal had the worst aircraft carrier fire since World War II in 1967. The Forrestal had more than 100 casualties.

The simulated crisis created while we were there passed. Evaluations began. We heard one voice tell one group, “It took thirteen minutes to respond. Our goal is twelve.” They’ll be better next time. They have to be. The next time could be real. And if it ever is real, 5,000 people know exactly what their responsibility is, where their battle station is, and what they must do to save the ship. Don’t call it practice. This is real. Except there is no explosion. There is no fire. No water is washing over the deck. But there’s no play-acting.

The person most concerned that the emergency responses were done promptly and properly is the Commanding Officer, Captain Daniel Grieco, a Naval Academy grad who flew 23 combat missions in Operation Desert Storm, has more than 2700 flight hours and has made (this impressed those of us who’d just made our first one) 650 arrested landings.


He was the first person we went to see after gettng off the COD and pulling ourselves together. But that entailed immediately getting accustomed to climbing a lot of steep metal steps. Don’t ask how many floors we went up in the island (the part of the carrier that contains the bridge and other important operational quarters) before getting to his office. It was a bunch but it set the tone for our visit. We were up and down and up and down those steep stairs throughout the visit.

The commander of an aircraft carrier has a nice office but it is without a doubt nothing compared to the office that a CEO of a company with 5,000 employees and a twenty-story building (which is how tall the island is on the carrier) would have.  It’s not a corner office with a great view. In fact, Grieco’s view is pretty restricted.


But Captain Greico is the CEO of this company, and while we were there he was leading the fine-tuning of its operation. He’s wearing a purple shirt on this day with the words “Commanding Officer” stenciled on it. Later we’ll see him in in a different color. Whatever shirt he wears, he commands all shirts of all colors.Shirt colors are the way roles are defined, especially the flight deck crew. The most glamorous color, yellow, is for the “shooters,” the plane directors, the catapult/arresting gear officers, the aircraft handling officers. These are the people who make sure landings and launches are properly done.


But they can’t do their jobs without people in a half-dozen other shirt colors do theirs.

The white shirts go to the medical and landing signal officers, safety observers, liquid oxygen crews, and the air transfer officers. (Our Public Affairs Officer, LCDR Reann Mommsen,  also had a white shirt). Blue Shirts are for the plane handlers, tractor drivers, aircraft elevator operators and the Messenger/Phone talkers.

If you land a plane and you need more fuel for your next flight, look for a person in a purple shirt. Unless the Commander has on his red shirt, the person you see wearing one deals with ordnance, or explosive ordnance disposal. They also are in charge of crash and salvage, but you don’t want to see them for that reason.

Some of the top Air Wing people are in brown shirts–the plane Captains and the landing Petty Officers.

That person in the green shirt might be taking pictures–that’s the photographer colors. They might also be handling cargo, doing catapult and arresting gear work, or maintenance for the air wing. They’re also hook runners, quality control people for the Air Wing, running ground support equipment, or telling helicopters where to land.


Defining roles and defining the people to fill them is critical in a climate where precision is required or the entire system is in jeopardy of possibly fatal disorganization.

We got a grasp of that precision when we climbed to the bridge and got our first look from on high at the deck.



We spent several minutes watching a ballet of F-18s as they landed, moved to the side, and moved toward the catapult for a new launch, their wings often inches apart. We felt the heat flow over us from the twin engines of the F-18s as they took off, despite the jet blast deflectors. And only a few seconds after one plane was shot into the air off the bow, another one suddenly roars onto the scene and starts the cycle back to the catapult.

There was no wasted motion. No wasted time. A few seconds’ delay meant another F-18 would have to go around again. A Fighter Plane Ballet is as much concentrated, coordinated, precise movement of strength and grace as “Swan Lake,” except the stage shakes with the impact of each landing and the orchestra is full-bore jet engines.

It is a fascinating thing to watch and we were glad to be up high to do it. People like us certainly had no business lingering on the deck while this was happening. This scribe happily embraced the safety of the upper level of the island. But a little later, we were on the deck.

gang with landing

Yes, that’s an F-18 about to hook the third arresting line and yes, it was THAT close and you bet your buttons it was an incredible thrill but the double ear-protection sure was handy. However, we were more than glad to be herded to this safe space at side of the landing area. Most of us were, after all, in a dangerous alien world unlike anything we had ever before experienced.

Trying to put all of this into some kind of perspective, trying to relate it to the world we know, is a challenge. How does someone explain something so experiential to someone who hasn’t experienced it? Pictures help. Video helps.

Let’s think about this for a little bit.



Arrested, then shot

We went with some friends a month ago to visit to a community of about 5,000 people back east. We were arrested upon arrival.  And we were shot as we left.

We’re okay, all of us. But we’re not going to forget what happened to us. Actually, the bigger problem is trying to REMEMBER all of the things that happened to us.

You might think we’d be glad to be out of the place. In truth, however, we’d go back in a heartbeat.

We’d go back because we were surrounded by incredible people, all of whom were focused on making their community the best in the world. Every single one of the 5,000 had that goal. Everything they did was focused on the productivity of 4.5 acres. The average age of this community is less than 25 with many of the most important jobs done by people who are 18, 19, or 20.

This is the USS Theodore Roosevelt, 92,000 tons of sovereign United States Territory wherever it goes. Its twin nuclear reactors recently refueled, the latest electronic gear installed, and the most recent updates available built in, “The Big Stick” is described as the “Corvette” of America’s aircraft carrier fleets.

(Okay, we’ll explain the nickname in case you missed history class that day. President Theodore Roosevelt’s definition of our country’s foreign policy was to “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” in other words: negotiate from a position of strength.)

The USS Theodore Roosevelt can launch and land more airplanes in a few hours than dozens of nations have in their entire air forces. It’s a city that can go 35 miles per hour. It has its own daily newspaper, television station, a Starbucks, restaurants that serve more than 18,000 meals a day, a distillation plant that daily turns 400,000 gallons of the ocean into drinking water, the head of a moose shot by President Roosevelt, and an airport that houses St. Louis-made airplanes that can be armed to the teeth and go airborne at the rate of two per minute. It’s twenty stories high, not counting the forty feet that’s below the water line.

It is majesty and menace, depending on whether you are friend or foe. A rational person seeing the Roosevelt understands it is much better to be the former.

The ship was 150-200 miles or so east of the Norfolk Naval Base. We took a Greyhound out to it, although the folks on the carrier told us we took a Cod. Dog. Fish. Airplane. It was a Grumman C2A Greyhound Carrier Onboard Delivery airplane (COD). The same airframe with some different stuff hung on it is the E-2C tactical airborne early warning airplane, the one with the big radar saucers on the top, that you see with its wings folded on the picture above. The Navy pilot who flew us to the carrier was a former high school biology teacher who joined the Navy and since has made hundreds of COD flights.  He briefed us on what to expect:

AUDIO: What to Expect

Military transport planes have few luxuries. I say “few” because for this trip we were not in the sling chairs that have been in the C-130s we’ve taken to submarine events. The Greyhound seats were utilitarian, did not recline and did not have trays. But at least they were seats. They faced to the rear of the plane.

There’s no sound-deadening insulation in military cargo planes. Pipes and cables and tubes and support structures are left uncovered and sometimes the overhead is pretty low. And that is why they issued everybody something called “cranials” so we wouldn’t damage the airplane with our foreheads.

They’re kind of like the catchers’ masks and hats that Yadier Molina and Salvador Perez wear for the Cardinals and the Royals but they’re not nearly as fancy and don’t have masks. But they did have goggles–which rather quickly fogged over for me when I got into the plane. This is what the well-dressed Greyhound rider looked like that day.

They also issued each of us a life vest since Greyhound seat cushions aren’t intended to be flotation devices. And earplugs. Anytime we wore a cranial on this trip we also wore earplugs. Although these funky helmets had ear-protecting headphones built into them, secondary protection was needed. The un-muffled turboprop engines of the Greyhound were still loud but at least were tolerable during the flight out. Later, on the flight deck, with F-18s of various configurations landing and being launched within yards of us, the double protection was barely adequate.

Dollar to a doughnut, I’d bet one of the first questions any of my companions has been asked by someone who learned of the trip is, “How was the landing?”

Well, it’s like this.

The pilot told us he has to take an airplane with an 80-foot wingspan and put it down in a space that is 85 feet wide on a landing strip that is moving away from him at a speed of at least 25 knots and is not stable.

The Greyhound has only two windows in the passenger/cargo area and they’re toward the back. So almost all of us were sitting in the dark wearing life vests and cranials and goggles, flying backwards tightly strapped with a four-point harness into our seats. We flew for about an hour and a half.

And then we stopped.

We didn’t land. We stopped.

The fog that you see in the video is the condensation from the Greyhound’s air conditioning system.

We knew the landing was near because of the way the Greyhound was moving. But we couldn’t see the water rising toward us. There was no runway to see as we sank toward it. We were in flight and then–

WHOMP!!! and four or five G’s pressed us back into our seats for two seconds as we went from 120 knots (138 mph) to 0 knots when the tailhook grabbed the arresting cable..

That’s us in our COD, snagging the three-wire.

By the time the brain processed what had happened, we were moving again and the rear cargo gate in front of us started to come down, revealing about 400 feet or less of carrier deck and miles of gray ocean. Three or four seconds into the visit, we already were on sensory overload. And we remained in that state for almost twenty-four hours.

We had been out of the COD and inside the ship for only a short time when General Quarters was called. Everybody was mobilized.

We were under attack!