U.S.S. Kitty Hawk

Reliable as they are, jet engines still can have problems. He talked about flying the single-engine A-7 Corsair, which developed an engine problem when they were first introduced. The engines had a tendency to explode one mile out. The manufacturer quickly addressed the problem, but it took time to get the new engines into the fleet. In the interim, they would hook the aircraft to the catapult, the deck crew would clear out, the pilot would run the engine at full throttle for two minutes, and if it didn't explode, they would fly the airplane. The F-14 had some engine problems as well, but with a spare engine you could always get back to the ship.

He is particularly proud of the controls of the F-18, which he helped design. The flight controls and instrument panel displays dramatically reduce the pilot workload on approach. The heads-up-display has become the primary flight instrument, and the pilot can move whatever gauges he wishes to this display. The flight control inputs are all processed and interpreted by a computer, so if you slam the stick full right, you're telling the computer to roll right, and the computer then figures out which controls it will use for this purpose depending on the airspeed and strain on the wing. Full right stick could produce differential movements of the aileron, flap, rudder or stabilator.

In fact, the standard takeoff procedure for the F-18 is for the pilot to completely let go of the stick and grasp the windshield bow instead. At near-stall speeds, the computer does not respond well and if the pilot attempts to make a correction, he will just make things worse. So they just let the computer fly the plane until it's established in a climb.

As we talk to Bear Pickavance, flight operations have been suspended and all on deck are busy with training exercises. A hundred men rush to rig the arresting net, a huge nylon strap affair that's used when a plane can't land using an arresting cable. It takes them three minutes. A crew of six men races to assemble the MOVLAS, a standby apparatus for the landing light 'meatball', and they do it all in "one plus thirteen seconds" intones the supervising officer. (MOVLAS stands for "mobile landing, um, er, something system"-part of the role of any military is to murder the language with acronyms like this.)

Others practice putting out a make-believe fire in an engine-less derelict F-14, then they pretend it has landed with a collapsed landing gear, and they rush out a crane to lift the aircraft and move it a short distance.

The training session ends with a FOD walkdown, a ritual performed several times a day. That stands for Foreign Object Detection, and it's vital to the operation of jet engines that all debris be removed from the deck. These engines will suck up anything that's on the deck and little pieces of metal can destroy an engine. The previous night, an A-6 had a 'FODed' engine removed, however it turned out to be an over-reaction. This morning a small band of red-faced men had to troop up to the captain's bridge to "explain" the situation to Pickavance.

When flight operations are underway, the deck of a carrier becomes one of the most dangerous places on the face of the earth, yet the safety record is superb. With the deck crew, we moved among the taxiing aircraft and stood beside the catapult as fighters and bombers rocketed past us.

The noise is indescribably loud, and even though your ears are well-protected, you can feel the vibrations all through your body. Short unprotected exposure to this noise level can permanently damage your hearing, and even high up among the antennas over the captain's bridge it's frightfully loud. Later while lounging in the public affairs office, a deck safety officer stormed in and cursed our host Rob Newill. "I'm really pissed at you! You've got two women up on the upper deck without double hearing protection. I've got twenty-five years, man." As the safety officer stomped out, you realize that the Navy takes safety seriously.

For takeoff, the pilot is guided by the deck crew so the dual nose wheels exactly straddle the catapult slot. A man crawls under the jet and attaches the aircraft to the catapult. He moves with the agility of a lynx, the strength of a college wrestler, and the grace of a ballerina as he installs the hold-back bar, arches forward with dramatic hand signals to move the aircraft slightly forward, kicks a bar into the catapult shoe, then runs a tight hook pattern forward and clear of the plane.

All of this takes place within a few feet of the jet engine intakes. Mike McCamish, the air wing commander who has been flying off carriers for 22 years, and the personification of the quick-reflexed, supremely confident fighter pilot, admits he's frightened by the thought of working among the planes. Every year or two, a man will make a wrong move and get sucked up by an engine. Some brace themselves against the intake vanes until the engine is shut down, some lose fingers to the engine, and others die.

The jet blast fence comes up. An F-14 thunders to full power, then explodes the air with afterburners. The catapult officer crouches to one side and exchanges hand signals with the pilot, who salutes when he's ready. On the final wave-off, the fighter jerks suddenly forward, its nose bobbing quickly and screeches forward in a howling blur. The catapult is extremely short, and in less than four-and-a-half fuselage lengths the F-14 is hurled to 170 mph. The catapult shoe hits a stop, sending a tremor that can be felt throughout the ship. The F-14 climbs out, the blast fence comes down, and mountains of steam waft over the deck and obscure the men who guide the next airplane to the catapult.

Perched high on the aft superstructure, the 'air boss' runs the control tower of this air field. His tiny glass office, like all compartments in the ship, is filled with an impossible quantity of men packed together like newborn puppies in a shoe box. "Personal space" is not a phrase heard round this ship.

They bring the aircraft in with astonishing precision. An airplane crashes into the deck, hooks a cable and bellows at full power (in case of a bolter) against the cable as it comes to a stop, often one fuselage length from the end of the deck. The hook is raised, the cable falls free, and begins to rewind into the deck. Men use solid metal push-brooms to guide the cable. The aircraft turns, taxies clear of the landing area and in a few seconds another aircraft hurtles onto the deck.

The final phase of the landing is controlled by the LSO-landing signal officer-who inhabits a small patch of metal to the side of the landing area. In front of him a television monitor gives a bore-sight view of the aircraft on approach, complete with cross-hairs that match the gyro-stabilized glide slope. "You're right, above glide slope," he radios to the pilot in clipped phrases, and the plane gets closer he adds "Deck coming up. Deck going down".

At night it's a dramatic experience to huddle in the cold wind and watch this spectacle. The television monitor glows red against the dark Pacific, and in it you can see the fuselage and wings of jet approaching, yet against the night sky only the winking lights of the plane are visible. As it slides toward the deck, the LSO clears the plane to land with a final "Fly the ball". The fighter comes into full view, shrieks by so close you feel you could leap up and touch the wing, crashes into the deck and bellows to full takeoff power as the cable snags it to a stop. Occasionally, the hook misses all the cables, and the fighter arcs back into the night.

To our right, somewhere in the dark there's a canvas safety net that we can dive into should the airplane careen our way. In the moment that's quiet enough so I can scream into the man's ear and be heard, I ask, "Is this work or sport?"

"A little of both!" laughed the sailor.

From the flight deck to the innards of the ship is only a short distance. Bounce down a few steps, duck through a metal door, and you've suddenly moved into the quiet steel honeycomb world of passageways, oval cutouts in bulkheads that you hurtle over, and occasionally tiny holes that you must crawl through. Wherever you go, you're never alone. There's always someone else there, too, passing the other way, waiting for someone, busily hurrying along or working on something. The inferno of the deck is far away and forgotten.

We had dinner with the officers, and they lined up a long banquet table with white tablecloths in a large dining room with an acoustic-tile ceiling and paintings on the wall. You could be in any office building in the world and not tell the difference. A Marine captain sat across from me and was so competitive with the Navy officers that he never exhaled lest his physique deflate.

I took a devilish delight in watching their polite discomfort as I told a story about how, years ago, I had concocted a monstrous lie for a fellow Marine caught sleeping on post (see "Corporal Goldberg") and how it had succeeded in getting him off. It's a terribly funny story that never fails to amuse people, but it was also a bit like telling a group of U.S. Attorneys about a bank robbery you pulled off in a foreign country. The Marine exhaled long enough to say, "I can tell when my men are lying to me."

"Yeah, that's when their lips are moving", said the Navy supply officer to his side.

Lance Theby, one of our enthusiastic guides on the ship, talked about his life in port. He's in a softball league, and it's very competitive because there are a lot of retired professional baseball players in the league. One of the pitchers is an old pro. "Boy, I hope when I'm 56 I can still pitch a softball!", said Lance, as I swallowed hard and tried not to count the years to that decrepit age.

Later that night, we visited with the commander of the group to which our carrier belonged. Admiral Dennis Blair, a thin, soft-spoken Rhodes scholar, talked about the dramatic changes that the Navy was making in response to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Of the delicate management balance of how long you could keep men at sea, away from their families, and still keep them in the Navy. Of the need to maintain salaries and housing allowances at a sufficient level to keep qualified motivated people in the service.

As he talked, a black-and-white television connected to the ship's closed-circuit system played out the violent drama on deck. In the comfortable, carpeted quarters, it all had the impersonal, remote feeling of a movie. Yet directly above we could also hear the slap, scrape and thump of the aircraft, and you realize that it's all happening within scant feet of where we were sitting.

The next day it came our turn to pile back into the COD and wait our turn to be catapulted off the ship. This time I had a window seat. We jerkily taxied out, and I soon found myself peering over the catwalk down to the ocean below. Since you're facing aft, you brace your legs on the seat in front of you, cross your arms tightly across your chest and lean forward.

The engines rev up to takeoff power, and you know that the moment is near. You wait, breath uneasily, and wait some more. There is no warning. You are looking at your feet and the floor below you when the cat-shot begins. You know what is happening, but there is a complete sensory shutdown. The force that's hit you is so enormous, so otherworldly and so foreign that all mental processes collapse. True, you can hear a scraping sound below you, but this wild, black-hole force that's got hold of you is otherwise silent. It ends suddenly with a loud THUNK, and the airplane is flying as normally as if you had just awakened on a routine flight. We all sit up, look around at each other and blink.

In twenty minutes, we've landed back at North Island. Less than an hour after the catapult shot off the Kitty Hawk, I'm back at the hotel, a mansion that once belonged to a wealthy sugar importer. In three hours, I'm going to meet friends for dinner. I'm exhausted. I run a hot tub, soak for two hours, and think about all I have seen.

More photos from the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk