On Board an Aircraft Carrier in the Arabian Sea
On Board an Aircraft Carrier in the Arabian Sea
I made some contacts in the Pentagon, and they told me to get myself to Bahrain. They'd handle it from there. I put on my Graceland hat, fueled up my Elvis Presley Zippo and headed east, walking with the King for luck.
I spent an anxious week in Manama, Bahrain's capital city, holed up in the cheapest hotel I could find with phones in the rooms. Manama is the most expensive city I have ever been in, and I do a lot of traveling. It's a friendly town, owing perhaps to the fact that it's where the Saudis go to cut loose and have a little fun. There are bars all over the place. The average Saudi is no more puritanical than the average American: it's go to church on Sunday, go to hell on Monday. Manama is a 10-minute ride over the bridge from Saudi Arabia, so the bars are full of Saudis. Arab hospitality being what it is, I drank free once they realized that I wasn't some kneejerk anti-Arab bigot. Everyone I met apologized for the 9/11 massacre and emphasized that "those people" did not represent the Arab world, and, in fact, were criminal infidels. Every day I'd check in with my Navy contacts, and in the evenings I'd head out to the bars. Despite my frugality and the generosity of the locals, the money situation was getting pretty dire by the time I got word from the Navy that they were going to put me on a carrier on New Year's Day. I was told to be in the hotel lobby at 5 a.m. for the pickup.
I spent New Year's Eve in my room, pacing around, knocking back beers, afraid to sleep for fear of missing my ride. Gazing down at the crowds swarming Exhibition Ave., it occurred to me how difficult it is to distinguish between a festive crowd and a rioting mob. I watched the midnight fireworks move from east to west on the BBC and packed my bags when it got to London and Paris.
It was midnight in Manhattan on New Year's Eve (8 a.m. local time) and Rudy Giuliani was performing his last official act as mayor when I lifted off in a C2 COD (carrier on-board delivery) aircraft from the naval air station in Bahrain, headed for the USS Theodore Roosevelt. As Rudy lowered the gigantic Waterford crystal ball to usher in the New Year back home, we took off into the bright blue sky over the Arabian Sea, headed for a rendezvous with one of the most powerful instruments of war ever conceived by the mind of man.
I was a little nervous. Not about the plane: I had a lot more confidence in that C2 and its crew than I have ever had on any commercial flight, and I do a lot of flying. Lt. "Link" Linkous tended to the passengers by way of making sure we were properly strapped into our shoulder harnesses, waist belts, float coats and cranials. He gave us a quick and concise lecture on what to do in the unlikely event of a ditch over water, and he filled me in on some of the finer points of this wonderful little aircraft. Link has been in the Navy for 13 years and has logged some 600 flights in the C2. The one we happened to be in was the last to come off the Grumman assembly line, and Link flew it off that line back in 1989. The C2 costs $38,960,000, and can carry a maximum payload of 10,000 pounds as far as 1440 nautical miles as high as 28,800 feet, at a cruising speed of 296 mph. It has a fantastic rear-loading hatch and is a smuggler's dream. Among the odder things that Link has flown with have been a live whale rescued by the Navy after having beached itself somewhere in the Carolinas and 400 live turkeys en route to a Thanksgiving dinner on a carrier.
The Navy holds its craft to much higher standards than any commercial airline does, and inspects each C2 every 100 hours. The inspection consists of a complete disassembly and reassembly of the aircraft. Depending on the level of urgency, this task can be accomplished within a matter of three days or three weeks.
It was a three-hour flight to an unspecified location in the Arabian Sea, where we caught up with the Theodore Roosevelt, or the TR, as she is more commonly known. Our approach was a true thrill ride: a quick spiraling descent to 500 feet and then the sudden catch of the tailhook with the cable on the deck, 125 mph to zero in just under three seconds. The sensation was outstanding, a great introduction to the novelties and thrills awaiting on board the TR.
What had my nerves on edge was the idea of being trapped in some tightassed military situation in which I would somehow manage to make a complete fool of myself and offend everyone involved. I'm addicted to novelty, and I've managed to cram a lot of interesting and often bizarre experiences into my life so far, but one thing I missed out on was the military. My ignorance of military protocol made me nervous. I figured if I just kept the conversation clean and punctuated every sentence with "sir" or "ma'am," I'd be okay, maybe. Luckily, I'd struck up a friendship on the flight with an AP photographer, a Vietnam veteran, tornado chaser and all-around danger junkie by the name of J.P. Carter. Carter went a long way toward tranquilizing my anxieties regarding the whole protocol thing, as did Lt. Linkous.
We debarked the C2 and threaded down a steep series of stairs through some bulkheads to an office of sorts where we were reunited with our baggage. Carter and I were introduced to Journalism Officer First Class Aaron Strickland, who gave us an excellent whirlwind tour of the interior of the ship. The TR is effectively unsinkable, constructed as a series of compartments separated by watertight, fireproof hatches and bulkheads. The hangar bay is about the size of three football fields, with two enormous hydraulic doors, which can be closed to protect aircraft, bombs and other equipment stashed there. It is odd to be surrounded at all times by metal, to be enclosed and encased in it. The ship is powered by twin nuclear reactors. These heavily shielded nukes provide propulsion, power for all support systems and heat for the four boilers that produce the steam needed to make the ship's fresh water and power the catapults that launch aircraft. The nukes and the ship's desalination facility allow the TR to stay at sea indefinitely, if required.
We wound up standing in a blinding shaft of sunlight blasting through the open hangar bay door, watching some of the crew play basketball with none other than Artis Gilmore and Spud Webb. You have to take a moment to imagine Artis Gilmore, at 7-foot-2, making his way through the Hobbit-sized bulkheads and low ceilings of an aircraft carrier to appreciate what the guy was doing out there. The 5-7 Spud Webb still has his legendary jump. They both went for hours out there, the carrier keeping the setting sun to the starboard side, until the light faded.
The Arabian Sea was smooth except for the rippling wake of the ship as she went gliding along her way. Gazing at the sunset through the massive hangar bay doors, so close to the water, no land in sight, I got the first glimmer of the lure of Navy life, the first fleeting sense of what I'd missed. Aaron showed us where the mess halls were, where the store was, where we could smoke. I was a little uncomfortable with the fact that I, a mere civilian, had access to the Officer's Mess while my escort, as a Petty Officer, did not. It didn't bother him in the least. I decided to join him in the CPO Mess, where I grabbed a good hearty meal of turkey with stuffing and mashed potatoes. I then retired to my berth and crashed out for the night.
The next morning I got up at dawn, like I always do, went down to the CPO Mess for an excellent breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon and Froot Loops, and made my way to the TR's television studio to meet up with Aaron and set the day's agenda. The TR is like a small town with its own airport, radio and television stations and newspaper. The 5500 people on board can get world and local news as well as letters from home in The Rough Rider, the daily paper. WTRM radio plays "Dedications from Home" twice a day, along with shows like "Extreme TR," "Youth Gone Wild" and "Midnight Rock." The ship's cable tv system provides six satellite channels and three dedicated movie channels. This system also allows vital briefings to be conducted without the inconvenience of assembling the affected crew members in one place.
Public Affairs Officer Lt. John "Spin" Oliveira runs the media center with the smooth self-assurance of a man who has turned down a few truly sweet broadcast network offers to do the thing he really loves. He's clearly in charge, but his management style is sufficiently subtle that the impression you get watching him and his staff work together is of a collaborative effort rather than any kind of strict hierarchy. Spin and Aaron introduced me to Journalism Officer Kat Whittenberger, who edits The Rough Rider, and JO2 Kirk Boxleitner, who does a little bit of everything, including keeping abreast of high weirdness from the Fortean/X-Files end of things. Master CPO Dale Schoeber arrived to show me around, as Spin and his team had a busy day ahead.
Dale and I split for the Khaki smoking area, where I turned him on to the American Spirits I favor these days and we shot the shit for a while and got acquainted. He asked me if I wanted to talk to the officers or the pilots. I suggested that they were probably pretty busy, what with the war and all, and that the well-coifed talking heads of the mainstream media had probably already effectively bored those folks to tears by asking the same questions over and over again. I was more interested in the grunts of the team, the young men and women who do all of the less glamorous nuts-and-bolts work of keeping the ship greased and ready to kick ass at all times.
We wended our way through the buzzing hive of the hangar area, where bombs were being assembled and F-14s and F-18s and all manner of flying machines were being serviced and readied for sorties over Afghanistan. Dale led me to the "Crack House," the seaman's smoking area. The Khaki smoking area is open to the sea, restricted to CPOs and officers, but the Crack House is an enclosed space, and you don't even have to light up to get a nicotine fix in there. The CPOs, officers and fighter pilots tend to be a slightly older crowd, but the seaman class is where you get the 17- to 22-year-olds, and they tilt the demographic of the ship in a big way: the average age of the 5500-member crew is 20. Hanging out with the deck crew in the Crack House, I felt completely in my element: deck crew is the "street" level of the TR, where all of the basics get sorted out and put together. I'm not uncomfortable with fixed hierarchies, I'm just a lot more comfortable on the street than in the boardroom.
I went up to the "Vulture's Perch," just above the flight deck, to watch some take-offs and landings. I was invited to stand on the flight deck itself, but I found the backdraft from the planes impressive enough from a distance and felt no need to get any closer than I already was. I'd heard a funny story in the Khaki smoking area about a high-maintenance camera guy from one of the networks who insisted that he needed to be "right in the center of the action, right up the plane's ass." He got blown over backwards, camera and all, and had the hair on his arms singed for his efforts. I'm not that kind of guy, thanks.
The planes are launched off the flight deck by steam-powered catapults. As opposed to the mile-long runways used by land-based aircraft, these catapults slingshot jets 310 feet across the flight deck and into the air, 0 to 160 mph in under three seconds. It is an amazing thing to see, even more impressive to feel and hear, easily 130 decibels of sheer white noise and a hot wall of force capable of blowing a full-grown man into the water like a toy.
The TR crew can launch an airplane every 20 seconds if need be. The actual launch is controlled by an officer known as the shooter. The shooter uses hand signals to tell the pilot to go full throttle. The pilot salutes the shooter, who then assumes the position of a sprinter in the starting blocks and touches two fingers to the deck, the signal to launch the catapult. This is a genuinely gonzo position, because if a launch has to be aborted, the shooter walks in front of the jet while its engines are roaring at full power to inform the pilot of the abort command. I can state with full honesty and a clear heart that I would never ever do that.
The TR had been at sea since Sept. 19 when I arrived. The crew was closing in on the record for days at sea, 146 days, and yet I detected no evidence of frazzled nerves or fraying tempers, despite the close quarters. They had a sign up here and there that read, "Don't count the days, make the days count," and they all seem to take that to heart. Most of the civilians I know would be ready to go postal at this point, especially given the absence of beer. Several people pointed out that I'd just missed a tremendous New Year's Eve party in the hangar and suggested I hook up with the ship's band, Men Overboard, and check out the video.
Men Overboard is a tight, tough power trio delivering rock 'n' roll in its most primal form to the crew of the TR. Think of a stripped-down, khaki-clad clean-cut version of the Ramones and you've got the picture. It is a testimonial to the band that the weapons crew began moshing to Men Overboard's hardcore rendition of "Under the Boardwalk." No sex, no drugs, no booze, just straight-up rock 'n' roll and enough firepower to wipe a small country off the map before lunch.
The next morning I met Boatswain's Mate Senior CPO Brian Collier and his partner Boatswain's Mate First Class Ed Abel. These are the guys who run deck crew. Collier and Abel take the new recruits and turn them into sailors, and they have been known to perform the odd miracle or two with slightly older recruits who may have somehow screwed up.
"We've turned more than a few from shit to sugar," Collier told me.
Collier is a dead ringer for "D-Day," the guy with the motorcycle in the movie Animal House, and Abel looks like a rougher and darker Brad Pitt. They both look like guys you want on your side. They invited me to join them at 4:30 the next morning to watch the deck crew execute an UNREP, an underway replenishment.
The UNREP is a fantastic procedure, a beautifully choreographed masterpiece of precision rigging. The supply ship pulls up alongside the TR at a distance of 140 to 180 feet. Any farther apart and the distance is too great for the operation, any closer and the two ships would be sucked into collision by the draft created by their converging wakes, a phenomenon known as the Venturi Effect. A seaman takes careful aim with a rifle and fires a projectile carrying a line of parachute cord to the supply ship. The crew of the supply ship attaches this cord to a messenger line, which is then hauled over to the TR by the deck crew. A tensioned spanwire is thus suspended between the two ships. A set of hose saddles is then attached to the spanwire by trolleys, and the hoses are attached to the saddles and hauled over to the TR. The UNREP I observed involved the transfer of 450,000 gallons of jet fuel, about 10 percent of what the TR's air fleet had consumed so far in the course of the Afghan war. A second spanwire rig running into one of the hangar bay doors transported 650 pallets of other supplies, including food and mail. The TR gets an average of 25,000 pounds of mail a week. Over Christmas it was more like 50-60,000 pounds.
Collier and Abel introduced me to Seaman Cobbs, a young helmsman from Philadelphia of whom they are justifiably proud. Seaman Cobbs is a true gentleman, and he escorted me up to the bridge, where he introduced me to Seaman Estrada Greene, a 22-year-old single mother from Augusta, GA, who stood at the helm, guiding this $6 billion aircraft carrier with a confident hand as Seaman Marlon Baggett of Chicago manned the "lee helmsman" position, maintaining speed. Boatswain's Mate Third Class Fikisha Meadows, hailing from Jacksonville, NC, kept the log and kept order among the seamen on the bridge.
Outside on lookout, I met Master Helmsman Shawn Rollins, hailing from Grove, OK, as Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" blasted across the deck at ear-splitting volume. The ship has a wide array of surveillance equipment to ensure a large perimeter of safety, but it is wise to keep a human being on watch at all times, and that was what Seaman Rollins was engaged in when we met.
When the war began, back on Oct. 7, the Theodore Roosevelt was in possession of the flag that was raised by the FDNY in the ruins of the World Trade Center. Spin told me about the silence and the stillness that ensued when that flag was hoisted in the moments before the TR unleashed her firepower on the Taliban and Al Qaeda. That firepower was the decisive factor in the swift prosecution of the war effort. When a crisis breaks out, anywhere in the world, the first question that gets asked at the White House and in the Pentagon is, "Where is the nearest carrier?" When the TR launches her 76 planes into enemy airspace, the lesson is given: fuck with the bull and you get the horns.
Came time for me to leave, and I've got to say I was not anxious to go. My trepidation about military protocol turned out to be completely baseless. The TR is a tight ship, but there are no tightasses on board. Her firepower is awesome, but her real power lies in her great heart and in the pride and dedication of her crew. Hell, if I was young enough to do it, I'd sign up for a hitch myself.
Aaron Strickland escorted me to the deck, where I was once again greeted by Lt. Linkous and his sidekick, Lt. Stannuto, from Bensonhurst by way of Massapequa. They invited me to write on a bomb before boarding the C2. "You can't leave the TR without sending a message for the folks back home," I was told.
A crewman handed me an ink marker, and I wrote, "Rudy Giuliani Says 'HELLO!'" I saluted the fine men and women of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, boarded the C2,and got catapulted off the deck, 0 to 138 mph in two seconds.
I spent a couple of days back in Manama, making arrangements to get back to the States and hanging out in the bars. I was running out of money fast and the airline was being a pain in the ass, so I lied and told them that my mother was in the hospital. Fact is, my mother, bless her sweet soul, died two years ago. Never run that scam with a living relative, at least not one you care about. It's bad juju. The scam worked, but I only had five bucks in my pocket. I called a buddy of mine collect and got him to wire me enough cash to get home.
I got back to Manhattan on Elvis Presley's birthday. The impromptu WTC tribute across the street was gone, and so was my creepy mood, blown away across the Arabian Sea by America's Big Stick.
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