I am flying aboard a Grumman C2-1 Greyhound, a powerful twin-engine turboprop nicknamed “COD” for Carrier Onboard Delivery. It’s the U.S. Navy’s aerial workhorse — its Jeep so to speak — ferrying passengers, cargo, engines, spare parts and whatever else is needed back and forth from land to the fleet’s aircraft carriers. We’re about 100 miles off the Florida coast, three minutes away from landing aboard the nuclear powered aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman — HST for short — where we will spend the next 24 hours.
This will be an “arrested” landing, as the Navy calls it. The 25-ton Greyhound will hit the rolling deck of the carrier at about 100 mph, its tailhook will catch one of four steel cables stretched across the flight deck, and the airplane (and my body) will come to a complete stop in three seconds — one chimpanzee, two chimpanzee three chimpanzee.
“Here we go! Here we go! Here we go!” shout the two Navy crew members in the first row, as they wave their arms over their heads.
I give my four-point harness a final tug, brace myself in my seat and say a small prayer. Then everything happens in a flash. BANG! A huge, crashing impact. Engines louder than ever. I am thrust back, the breath gets knocked out of me, and the plane comes to a stop.
For a moment there is silence. The crew lowers the ramp. Sunlight floods the cargo bay, and a wondrous, almost surreal sight unfolds before us. Deck hands in helmets, goggles and colorful vests. F/A-18 Hornet jet fighters, their wings folded to save deck space. Surveillance aircraft. A helicopter. A clear blue sky. And the noises — aircraft engines revving up, the clatter of machinery, tinny radio announcements echoing in our helmets, the thump-thump-thump of a helicopter, the roar of our Greyhound.
Within seconds the Greyhound’s crew is on the deck, motioning for us to follow. We unlock our harnesses and step down a foot or so off the ramp. The full panorama of the flight deck comes into focus. I am reminded of the words of Howard Carter, the famous Egyptologist who was the first person in 3,000 years to gaze upon the gold and jade and lapis of the tomb of King Tutankhamen: “I see wondrous things.”
A member of the deck crew in a white vest meets us with arms raised. We follow him as other crew members keep us bunched together and moving safely among the taxiing aircraft and whirring propellers that are just a couple of dozen feet away. We are led to the “Tower,” a building-like structure on one side of the carrier. It is the ship’s nerve center as well as the entryway to the inside of this ship. Noises fade a few decibels. We walk up flights of narrow metal stairs — one is constantly walking up and down stairs and through small hallways that connect the carrier’s innumerable compartments — to emerge in the Captain’s Bridge. A sailor smartly hands each of us a refreshing hot face towel as a smiling Capt. Joseph Clarkson, the Truman’s commanding officer, shakes our hands, welcomes us aboard, and gives each of us an engraved name tag and a blue cap with our name emblazoned on it.
Through the large observation windows I catch my first sight of the entire deck — all 40 acres of it — now some four stories below us. Surrounding us is the endless Atlantic stretching out to the horizon. The massive ship glides effortlessly under a warm, blue, cloudless sky, its motion barely perceptible.
The deck is alive with activity. A fighter roars in to land. Our Greyhound, its wings and tail folded, is already parked over to the right, clearing the way for another jet taxiing to its parking place.
On the bridge, all is calm. Clarkson introduces us to the others assembled there — his executive officer, Capt. John Meir, who runs day-to-day operations; the senior enlisted sailor, Command Master Chief Allen Walker, who is responsible for the thousands of enlisted men and women aboard and the crucial link between them and the ship’s officers; and Rear Adm. Patrick Driscoll, commander of the carrier strike group and the top of the chain of command that ultimately controls whether the Truman is successful in its missions.
The Nimitz class USS Harry S. Truman, the nation’s ninth nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, is among the most formidable ships ever put to sea. It displaces 97,000 tons, carries 75 aircraft and 5,000 crew members. At 1,096 feet, it is as long as the Empire State Building is tall. Two reactors power the ship through four screws (propellers) that are each 21 feet across and weigh 66,000 pounds. Nuclear power means refueling is needed only once every 20 years, giving the carrier almost unlimited range. At full power, this ship can fly over the ocean at more than 30 knots, or about 35 mph. It can heel over in a turn like a racing yacht if it needs to take evasive action. In its Iraq deployment, the Truman launched more than 1,200 aircraft sorties and dropped more than 700 tons of ordnance in support of special operations forces in northern Iraq.
Each Navy carrier usually travels with surface warships and submarines, called a task force, each with its own array of weapons. Each U.S. carrier task force is, by itself, more powerful than the entire military might of most of the world’s nations.
Sailors appear with white life vests for us and we are led out on deck. F/A-18 Hornet jets, the Navy’s premier fighter-attack planes, roar in to land barely 30 yards from where we are standing. With their tail hooks extended, they float in at about 130 knots, guided by a computerized display as well as deck landing officers — pilots themselves — who provide additional guidance via radio.
As soon as the plane hits the carrier deck, the pilot pushes the throttle wide open in case something goes wrong — missing the cable, for example — and the plane has to take off again to circle back for another try. There is an exhilarating roar as the Hornet’s hook catches the cable, stopping the 20-ton aircraft in only 200 feet.
Within seconds the hook is retracted, most of the cable slips back under the deck, the airplane moves off to the side and everyone gets ready for the next airplane coming in — already visible off the stern.
The Truman can launch multiple planes at the same time, and that also is a sight to behold. A powerful steam-powered catapult will literally throw the airplane, its engines at full throttle, into the air fast enough for it to take flight. I watch this action intently and notice how the plane, shot clear of the front of the carrier, dips a bit before flying off on its own power.
As we toured this amazing ship, one thing impressed me above everything else: The average age of the crew is just over 19 years old. From the bridge to the engine room, the Truman is full of young Americans who have enormous responsibilities and who perform admirably.
“Think of the phrase 70-80-90 to fully understand why sea power is so important for the United States,” Rear Adm. T.G. Alexander, commander of the Navy’s Southeast region, told us before we embarked on the Truman. “Seventy percent of the world is water,” he said, “80 percent of the world’s population lives within 200 miles from a coastline, and 90 percent of America’s commerce moves over water.”
Sarwar A. Kashmeri is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s International Security Program.