NavWeek: Reagan’s Run

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ABOARD THE USS RONALD REAGAN

It would be nearly impossible to steal even a wink of sleep in the stateroom of CVN 76 Ronald Reagan during nighttime air ops in the middle of the Pacific off the Hawaiian coast during the Rim of Pacific (Rimpac) exercise.

WHOOOOOOSH! BAAAAAAAAAM! CLAAAAAANNNGG!

It’s like being bedded down under an airport in a construction zone haunted by giant ghosts. Anyone who has ever spent a night on an aircraft carrier –- as a visitor -– will invariably note the difficulty in trying to get any shut-eye.

But consider those who spend their nights working on a carrier, making all of that racket -– launching and landing fighters off and on a heaving ship in the black night in the middle of a darker sea -– talk about difficulty! It’s hard enough to do any of that in the daytime.

The seriousness of the business at hand starts shortly after the sun breaks over the horizon, when a line of sailors, mechanics and others working Reagan flight ops start the FOD –- foreign object debris -– walk, moving across the deck like a wave, scrutinizing every inch for even a speck of something that might get sucked into a F/A-18 engine and put the aircraft out of commission, or even worse.

Launching aircraft is something else, something unworldly, at least for women, men and machines. By now, anyone who has even a passing interest in carrier flight ops has seen the movie Top Gun and is familiar with the ballet of sailors, pilots and aircraft that puts weapon-weighted fighters and pod-protruding electronic warfare and attack airframes into the sky, only to retrieve them when the mission is done or the fuel runs out.

But no movie could capture the surround-sound noise of fighter engines at full throttle and the mechanical zing of the catapult that shakes your body to the bone. Or the rush of heat of the F/A-18 catapult shot that almost knocks you over with a blast that’s akin to sticking your whole body into an open oven. And then the fighter rockets off the end of the carrier in a snap, catching that last bit of lift it needs to zip out over the ocean.

Watching a jet land on a carrier, though, is even more exciting and nerve-wracking. A small dot appears in the clouds from astern. It slowly grows larger and takes shape. As it approaches the ship maddeningly slowly, or so it seems, the wings rock and dip this way and that as it lines up its trailing hook for the runway and arresting wires, thick as a fire hose, stretching across the deck. Suddenly, the aircraft appears to speed up and angle in like an arrow, hitting the deck with a thump and screech that you feel right in your gut. The halt is so abrupt it stops your breath.

And that’s during the day.

At night, a landing aircraft is nothing more than a set of tiny lights that appear out of nowhere before managing the controlled crash on the carrier deck. It’s even more challenging and stressful for the pilots landing the plane. From the sky, the carrier is little more than a lighted smear on the sea –- or even a set of sensor signals.

All the while, the Reagan is moving just right for course and speed to give the pilots the best possible chance to land their aircraft safely. On the deck, sailors are moving equipment, checking arresting wires and keeping the at-sea airport running smoothly. Below, in the hangar, mechanics and maintainers keep the aircraft airworthy, while below-decks, other sailors keep the carrier itself humming along.

A night shift of mostly youngsters in their late teens, or barely out of them, run the world’s largest naval vessel with a precision and proficiency that have become the envy of other navies. No wonder the Chinese want to know how the U.S. trains its sailors.

Considering all of this, it became a lot easier getting sleep in a Reagan stateroom with the Navy’s night shift on the job.

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