Aboard a City at Sea
They call it a COD. It’s a noisy, smelly, albatross of an airplane the Navy uses to shuttle cargo and sailors from shore to aircraft carriers at sea. On a perfect morning in April, three CODs cranked up their powerful twin turboprops on the tarmac of the Naval Air Station in Norfolk, Va., and prepared to board a band of fidgety tourists.
It was Day 3 of J.C.O.C. – the Joint Civilian Orientation Conference – and the anticipation and anxiety surrounding our imminent takeoff was palpable. The previous day in Norfolk, we had toured a nuclear-powered attack submarine and a Ticonderoga-class cruiser at dockside. Now, we were about to embark on what the captain of the USS Theodore Roosevelt would later call the Navy’s version of a Disney E-Ticket ride.
The first part of this adventure would see us fly to the Roosevelt, 100 miles off the North Carolina coast, where the tailhook of the COD would “trap” the third of four wires sprawled across the deck of the Roosevelt, bringing us to a bone-jarring, but safe, landing.
But the best was saved for last when the COD – Navy shorthand for Carrier Onboard Delivery aircraft; actually a C-2A Greyhound twin-engine cargo plane – would catapult off the deck of the carrier, reaching flight speed in just two seconds and subjecting its passengers to G-forces comparable to a space launch.
Before marching out single file to the awaiting planes, my fellow J.C.O.C. participants and I were fitted with “cranials,” floppy helmets with goggles reminiscent of Anakin Skywalker’s headgear in The Phantom Menace. We were told to stuff orange, spongy plugs into our ears to blunt the plane’s deafening roar, even though the cranials came equipped with ear covers.
We all wore inflatable life vests in case we landed in the drink. The vests came equipped with dye markers and flares. We were warned, if we splashed down, not to inflate the vests until we climbed out of the emergency exit in the roof of the plane lest the bulky vests jam us in the exit. Comforting thought, that.
We entered the windowless, dark interior of the COD through a ramp at the rear of the aircraft and found our way to our seats, all facing backward, where we struggled to buckle our four-point seatbelts and shoulder harnesses. Pull them tight, we were warned. You’ll be glad you did when you land.
The standard approach for a carrier landing required us to fly past the Roosevelt, then make a steep U-turn that pinned us to our seats with the force of about two times normal gravity. Slowed by this banking maneuver, the COD then dropped to the carrier deck. But on our first pass the deck was “fouled,” meaning it would be bad news if we tried to land, so we flew over, did it all again, and hit the No. 3 wire – thus earning us the title of “honorary tailhookers.”
After the infamous Tailhook Scandal, some of us were surprised the term was still bandied about. But I didn’t see anyone refusing the cool certificates presented to us. Sailors we met on board during the day expressed surprise and even envy that we got to fly onto the carrier. Sailors can spend entire careers in the Navy, even on carriers, and never get that ride.
The flight deck of an aircraft carrier is the most dangerous work environment in the world, we were told. It was easy to believe.
As we clambered out of the COD, the blast from nearby engines almost toppled me. I looked to my left and there, a few feet away, was the Atlantic Ocean. Not a good place to lose one’s balance.
All about us, sailors, dressed in color-coded uniforms signifying their duties on deck, were positioning jet fighters for takeoff, signalling incoming aircraft and helping naval aviators climb aboard. It was a scene straight out of Top Gun.
The Roosevelt is immense. The flight deck is 1,092 feet long and 257 feet wide. It towers 24 stories from keel to mast top and is powered by two nuclear reactors that propel the carrier to speeds of more than 34 mph. It carries a crew of more than 5,500 and can handle 76 aircraft.
At 97,000 tons, the Roosevelt redefines the meaning of “heavy metal.” Surprisingly, the behemoth has only two anchors, but they weigh 30 tons each. Each link of the anchor chain weighs 360 pounds.
It is a city unto itself with more than 3,000 television sets, 2,500 telephones and serving 18,600 meals a day while at sea. It even has its own hospital and surgery suite capable of handling most emergencies, including pregnancies. Welcome to the co-ed Navy.
It’s also a far cry from the ships we had toured at dockside the day before in Norfolk. You can live on a carrier. You survive on a submarine (where, by the way, women have yet to be welcomed as crew members). Despite what we’ve seen in the movies, subs – even modern fast-attack submarines such as the Los Angeles-class Montpelier – are coffin-tight. Indeed, quarters are so snug sailors must share “hot bunks,” sleeping in shifts in the same beds squished into impossibly small crevices in the bowels of the boat. This is no place for anyone who gets nervous in crowded elevators.
Why anyone would aspire to spend weeks, even months, confined in these sardine cans is beyond me, but they are the top choice among Naval Academy grads. What’s it like being submerged for so long? “After four months,” Cmdr. Ron LaSalvia said, “outside air stinks to us.”
Talk to these “bubbleheads,” as the surface sailors call them, and you quickly realize the depth of pride they have in their combat capability. They carry 33 years worth of nuclear fuel on board, produce 10,000 gallons of potable water a day, have unlimited recirculated air and, consequently, can be anywhere, any time, undetected. Bristling with torpedoes and Tomahawk missiles, the nuclear sub is the ultimate weapon at sea.
What do submariners think of their “black shoe” counterparts topside? Not much. Ask them what they call surface ships, friend and foe:
The biggest target of them all, of course, is the aircraft carrier, which is why, like a schoolyard bully, you never see one alone. Submarines such as the Montpelier prowl the waters surrounding carriers like the Roosevelt hunting for enemy subs. Destroyers, cruisers and orbiting aircraft provide a shield around the carrier and are coordinated by an admiral on board.
But while the admiral may run the fleet, the captain runs the ship, and he made that perfectly clear to all of us in a briefing before our daylong tour:
I am in charge of this ship. I command all 5,000 personnel on board. I am responsible.
The frequent use of the first person by the captain made me wonder if this is how they came up with the Navy’s famous “Aye, aye.” Was this ego running wild? In the civilian world, it is more customary to hear the word “we” in these settings, signifying the team effort of business.
But this isn’t ordinary business. Lives are at stake every day. Officers, I was told, are taught early on to take personal responsibility for their actions. Accountability is paramount.
Which is why commanders so often use the first person and why, among the Navy officers I met, there was so little sympathy for the commander of the USS Greenville, the American sub that collided with a Japanese fishing boat, killing nine people on board.
You don’t get to run a carrier or a sub for nothing. You get this job, you’re supposed to be the best. No excuses.
Capt. Richard O’Hanlon seems typical of the breed. Steely eyed and focused, he worked hard to be an affable host during our stay, but it was clear that the guy is all business.
During a visit to the bridge while Tomcats were busy taking off and landing on the flight deck below, O’Hanlon was interrupted by a bridge officer notifying him that radar had spotted an object 3,000 yards off the carrier’s port bow. “We have no visual, sir,” he told
O’Hanlon casually swiveled his command chair away from us, glanced to his left, and pointed.
In a blink, he had spotted a boat his younger officers had not. If there is one photograph I wish I had captured on this trip, it was the look on that duty officer’s face at that moment.
And that’s why O’Hanlon’s the boss.
While we watched the continuous stream of aircraft catapulting off the deck, we knew it would soon be our turn. But first we spent time below decks, touring the innards of this mammoth ship and visiting crew members.
At lunch, I sat with 22-year-old Frank Rupnik III of Troy, Ohio. He’s a petty officer second class, an intelligence specialist who has been deployed to both the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf. I asked him what he did. He told me he’d have to shoot me if he told me. Actually, he didn’t quite. He’s far too polite for that.
Rupnik has only six months of service left before he returns to civilian life. He plans to finish his degree at Wright State University, then head off to divinity school.
How do you square your ambition to don the cloth with your role aboard a fighting ship? I asked him.
“I’m just doing my duty to God and my country,” he said. “I believe in my chain of command. And the Lord.”
Rupnik said he has been heavily influenced by conversations he’s had with the ship’s chaplain. And he explains that what he and his shipmates are doing is just and moral. “This whole job is about helping people,” he said.
Nonetheless, he’s a perfect example of the turnover problem the services are experiencing. Does he think his decision to enlist in the Navy was worth it?
“No matter who you are or where you’ve come from, you can use the Navy as a step in the right direction.”
The guy’s a walking recruitment poster.
Finally, it was time.
Once again we crossed the blustery flight deck and reboarded our COD. All day long we’d been told what a thrill the catapult off the deck of the carrier would be. Zero to 150 mph in two seconds. A kick in the pants.
If we’d strapped our seat belts on tightly before, they were doubly snug now. Crew members advised us to bend forward, presumably so our heads wouldn’t snap off when we shot from the deck. Everything loose was secured, lest it become a missile in the plane’s interior.
We felt the COD being positioned for takeoff. Long moments passed. Finally the signal: We were about to do it.
Son of Beast has nothing on this ride. We were slammed into our harnesses like we’d been shot from a cannon, which, more or less, we were. How can two seconds last so long?
Then it was done. We were airborne. And we had lived to tell about it. We all looked up.
And cheered. And high-fived. And, finally, relaxed.
It was beyond E-Ticket.