I knew I wouldn’t get much sleep, but I was excited about the trip so 2 ½ hours didn’t seem that bad. An early morning flight to Norfolk was necessary because I had been offered a chance to actually fly out to the George H.W. Bush, the newest aircraft carrier in the United States Navy.
Amazingly, all went according to plan. The commercial flight was early, the cab ride was only 15 minutes and the C-2 (COD in Navy terms) was on schedule.
Even if it turned out to be delayed for an hour, nothing was going to dampen my enthusiasm when it came to flying on to a carrier. I’d done it before in a F/A-18 Hornet, but this was a whole different experience. No windows, bouncing around, and sitting backwards, I nodded off, as the flight from Norfolk was more than an hour. The Bush was well south, looking for good weather and smooth water. The ten minute announcement rousted me and the hands in the air and “here we go” call from the crew signaled we’d be on deck any second.
Landings on a carrier look smooth and comfortable from the outside. Inside, it’s violent and a crushing G-force smashes your body into the seat: for about 2 seconds. It’s exciting, exhilarating and exhausting all at the same time.
Inside the ship, we met LCDR John Schofield the ship’s Public Affairs Officer (PAO). He’s a pro and laid out our schedule for the next 24 hours on board covering everything from flight ops to night ops, lunch, dinner and a meeting with the skipper.
After a quick cup of coffee (I really like Navy coffee) we headed to the flight deck. It was “open” and they were in the process of bringing the Air Wing (CAG 8) on board. The main platform for Naval Aviation now is the F/A-18.
On the flight deck, it’s loud.
You hear “Rhino, 90” and “Grizzly, 45” among other things on the loudspeakers above the wind and the jet engines. Rhino and Grizzly are how they differentiate between the two different Hornet platforms. It lets the crew know how much tension to put in the landing wires based on their different weights.
While it looks like a smooth transition on deck, it’s a very violent event. Thirty-Eight thousand pounds going from about 150 mph to zero in 340 feet is loud, scary, dangerous and violent. Yet the crew is as efficient and professional as if they were cooking meals going about their business capturing and launching planes with regularity. With most of the sailors just over 19 years old, it’s impressive to see the pride and professionalism they all have.
Of course they know it’s a matter of life and death; for everybody involved. It’s a coordinated effort, no different than an offense or a defense in football.
If it’s violent to “arrest” a plane on deck, the launch from the catapult is awe-inspiring. The blast shield comes up behind the airplane. The plane is hooked to the “cat,” by the “hold back” and the numerous checks and re-checks begin. When the pilot moves the throttle to full power (before burners) it shakes the whole ship. And it’s deafening. The pilot and crew go through more checks and rechecks for about 40 seconds before the salute and launch. Three hundred feet, zero to 125 miles and hour, all in about 1.7 seconds. We got to see that over and over.
And it never got boring.
We didn’t want to leave but an elevator ride was waiting.
Not just any elevator. The mechanism they use to move airplanes from the flight deck to the hangar deck is simply called the “elevator.” But moving 40-tons up and down all day should have a much more dramatic name. And it’s fast! They zip up and down with planes and sailors constantly. Another harrowing experience!
I’m sure it’s harrowing inside the Skipper’s brain on the bridge, but you’d never know it. The bridge is where the Captain oversees the whole operation, looking for potential trouble spots and is responsible for everything.
That’s right, everything.
But Capt. Chip “Bullet” Miller looks confident and in control, no matter what’s at stake. It’s about what you’d expect from a former F/A-18 pilot and former squadron commander. As impressive as the crew is on the George HW Bush, they take their cues from their equally impressive Skipper. Capt. Miller is the guy you want on the bridge, in good times and bad. He’s everything you expect from a Naval officer and more. He remembered when we flew together out of VFA-105 “The Gunslingers” in 1992 at Cecil Field. He gets high marks from all of his contemporaries as well as those who work for him.
As he spent time with us and conducted a couple of interviews during the flight ops portion of the day, he smoothly handled problems about every 15 seconds while answering questions with the aplomb of a diplomat.
As night fell, we were treated to dinner in the officer’s mess. Excellent fried chicken and great company.
We headed off to witness the night operations on the deck, this time watching from the Flag Bridge. Then down to the ready room of the Golden Warriors, commonly known as “War Party.” We were briefed on what was up for them tonight: two touch and goes and two landings to become carrier qualified. It was off to the combat operations center to see how the ship defends itself. Some ships in the carrier group were accompanying the Bush on this “at sea” period so they were involved in the perimeter defense of the ship.
My personal favorite was in Air Operations. A dark room with four large electronic screens on the front wall all with information about where the planes were, where they were headed and what time it was all happening. Sitting on the benches on the back row “observing” were the Group Admiral, the Commander of the Air Group (CAG) and just about every squadron commander on the ship.
That room is small, so the intimacy of it was fascinating. Every move is scrutinized, analyzed and debriefed. If you don’t want to be evaluated on your actions, don’t get involved in this situation! A group of air traffic controllers were next door, coordinating the air traffic around the ship, all happening seamlessly.
We were treated as “Distinguished Visitors” onboard the USS George H. W. Bush. As a “DV” we were assigned to the “Congressional Suite” along the row with the rooms named “Ambassador to China,” “RNC Chairman,” “Vice-President,” “Director” (CIA) and others. Bunk beds, 13 cable channels on the TV and beautiful towels and robes all embroidered with “GHWB.” (They were the only things LCDR Schofield said we couldn’t take from the room!) The DV rooms are on level “O3” amidships. Until we turned in for the night, we didn’t know they were right under the blast shield for Cats 1 and 2. So as each Hornet or Growler was ready to be launched off the deck, the 40-second full military power run up was right over our heads! Matt and I had a laugh and turned on what we called “the airplane channel,” the closed circuit broadcast of what was happening on the deck. “At least we’ll see it coming,” we laughed.
They quit night ops around 2AM. With the room “68 and dark” as our friend Kevin calls it, I fell into a deep sleep. But not for long. They blow reveille at 6AM for the “DV’s!” We were on the deck before sunrise (honest) but we were far from the first people “topside.” A full crew was already doing maintenance on some of the Hornets parked on deck. Another was working on one of catapults. The radars were going and the ship was still alive. We had breakfast in the officer’s mess with some more excellent Navy coffee.
With 5,500 sailors and officers on board when the full air wing is active, the USS George H.W. Bush serves up to 22,000 meals daily. Four meals a day, breakfast, lunch and dinner plus “mid rats” (midnight rations) the seven galleys onboard stay busy. A visit to the food stores was impressive just by the sheer number of goods on board. On a ship, and particularly on a carrier, they carry what they need with them. And I mean carry. No automation to get things from one spot to another. They’ll take more than 100 sailors to load and unload the food and drink they need.
By the way, the food was great.
We had a full tour and review of the ships medical facilities. It is a warship, so treating casualties is a prerequisite. But sick call, physical therapy, and preventative medicine are all part of their daily routine. The Senior Medical Officer (the “SMO”) is a Captain in the Navy but also an internist and a hospital administrator. They have 53 beds available for patients, can do full surgeries and have a digital x-ray system among other cutting edge medical systems. They even have their own pharmacy.
A visit with the Skipper concluded our time onboard.
Back in his in port cabin, he told us stories about the pictures arrayed in the room (a one of a kind photo of The President and First Lady Barbara Bush as well as Bush family photos and a picture of George H.W. Bush receiving Babe Ruth’s hand written memoir’s while he was Captain of the Yale baseball team) about the President and First Lady visiting (Mrs. Bush didn’t recognize the setting a young Ensign Bush was in giving a toast at a wedding surrounded by three young women!) and how the President just likes to meet sailors on board, roaming around at 2:30 in the morning just to see the ship operate.
Captain Miller talked about his pride in the ship and crew, how putting his team together was almost like fielding a new club in the big leagues. An expansion team, if you will. It’s obvious Captain Miller believes in the people around him and that’s reflected in the personality of the ship. It’s his personality: upbeat, can-do, friendly, but with an eye constantly on getting the job done.
I also think the crew’s attitude might have something to do with being onboard the only ship in the Navy who’s namesake is still alive. President Bush has been onboard a couple of times and many of the sailors have met him. They don’t want to let him down.
And that shows. (I’d really be remiss if I didn’t mention how well the Captain’s cook/chef, Culinary Specialist 2nd Class Leesa Zilempe, treated us each time we stopped by the in port cabin. We’re a bunch of nobodies but she acted like we were ambassadors from abroad. And the cookies were fantastic!)
The Captain bid us farewell guaranteeing “the first 300 feet” of our journey home.
That, of course, is the length of the cat shot off the bow of the ship. The C-2 (COD) had returned so we put our gear on and climbed inside. The brief was the same, only backwards. Sitting still, and backwards, the crew explained that when they gave us the signal we had to “grab our harness, tuck our chin, put our feet flat on the floor and brace yourself.” I’d done this before in a Hornet so I kind of knew what to expect.
But not backwards.
The signal of hands in the air and the call of “we’re getting ready to go!” were followed by a quick jolt and a forceful push out into your harness. I just remembered the plane captain in the Hornet putting his foot on my shoulder and tightening the harness until it almost hurt, and being appreciative of that the other time I did this so I kept pulling on the harness until it was just about cutting off my circulation.
And it worked. About 1.7 seconds later we were airborne and climbing.
The flight home was uneventful and shorter since the ship had steamed north overnight. The landing smooth and the Force PAO was on hand to make arrangements to get us back to Jacksonville.
There are so many people to thank; I’ll just say again that Captain Miller was fantastic. LCDR Schofield and his deputy Matthew Stroup were experts at putting us in the right situation, guiding us but not being intrusive. We were greeted with “Good Morning Sir,” and “Excuse me Sir,” so often that it was gratifying that it felt normal to be polite.
The men and women serving our country deserve our unending respect. But more than that, they serve as examples of personal accountability, dedication, pride and professionalism that sadly, are often missing in the civilian world. They’re willing to be evaluated at every turn, and their leaders are doing what they can to make them the best they can be.
I only hope I run into President Bush one more time to tell him how proud he should be of “his” ship.
But I’m sure he already knows.