Gary 'Maverick' Parsons reports from on-board the US Navy's flagship aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise.
USS Enterprise (the 'Big E') is one of seven aircraft carriers involved in Summer Pulse 2004, the simultaneous deployment of seven aircraft carrier strike groups (CSGs) to demonstrate the ability of the Navy to provide credible combat power across the globe in five theatres together with other Allied and coalition military forces. Summer Pulse is the Navy's first deployment under its new Fleet Response Plan (FRP), all about new ways of operating, training, manning, and maintaining the fleet that results in increased force readiness and the ability to provide significant combat power to the President in response to a national emergency or crisis.
Through until August the near-simultaneous deployment of seven Carrier Strike Groups provides the Navy and the joint combatant commanders a unique opportunity to exercise the FRP while maintaining the ability to respond to crises around the globe, enhance regional security and demonstrate a commitment to allies and coalition partners across the globe. The six other aircraft carriers involved in Summer Pulse '04 include USS George Washington (CVN 73), USS John C Stennis (CVN 74), USS Kitty Hawk (CV 63), USS John F Kennedy (CV 67), USS Harry S Truman (CVN 75) and USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76). So in mid-June, Enterprise was back in UK waters for the first time in three years, operating off the north coast of Scotland to participate in the second JMC exercise of the year. (Click here for our 2001 report)
How does one describe a deck landing or take-off? Impossible, suffice to say it's a memorable experience! Catching the Carrier Onboard Delivery (COD) flight from Prestwick, we are shoe-horned into a C-2 Greyhound from VRC-40 'Rawhides', heading north for the Pentland Firth where Enterprise sits just five miles from shore. I don't know why, but when I think COD flight I imagine a plane full of fish, but there's none to be seen, thankfully... We're strapped in the airline-style seats with a four-point harness, the rear doors shut and it's then I notice the lack of windows. It 'cod' be a long flight (sorry).
Later it's getting cold, and there's nothing to see but the back of the chair in front or the sleepy faces to either side. The noise prevents any communication other than waved arms and facial expressions, so it's time to catch some shut-eye before landing. Suddenly the heater bursts into life, hot air spewing from the vent down by my leg. Warmth at last. Five minutes later, the sweat begins to build, and my leg feels like one of Colonel Sanders' finest offerings. "Turn it OFF!" I think very loudly to myself - there's no point shouting, no-one will hear. Another five minutes and the heat subsides, to be replaced by the chill. Bliss for a few minutes, until the cold begins to creep up my trouser leg once more.
Our outbound flight should have been over by now, but there's a delay in getting a slot to land on the 'Big E', so we circle for an hour. Repeated freezing/cooking sessions follow, until we hear the clunk of the undercarriage and a definite sensation of reducing altitude is felt. "Just relax", they said - as we're facing backwards the seat will take the g-force of the arrested landing. The Greyhound is a big old bird to be thumping onto an aircraft carrier, I think to myself - there are about twenty-five of us on board, plus plenty of cargo tied above us - I hope that strap's nice and tight…
We drop further and further, but with no references it's hard to tell where we are - fifteen hundred feet, or fifty? The cabin crew said they would wave their arms before we 'hit', but they seem unconcerned as yet. We drop still further, the aircraft jinking about slightly more as we descend, maybe manoeuvring with the LSO's instructions. Suddenly, arms are waved - here we go - man, these five seconds are taking an eternity - then with an almighty bounce, we're being pulled back by the mightiest hand of god since Maradona in 1986. My seat seems to pivot behind me, while the back of the aeroplane stretches back into infinity, before snapping back into its proper position where I last remembered it should be. We've stopped, and the tail is still intact, against my better belief a moment before. The cabin crew are already unstrapping, seemingly unconcerned that the aircraft may have been torn into two pieces. As the rear cargo doors open, F-18 Hornets and EA-6 Prowlers come into view - we're here - and it feels bloody good!
Finger of the Pulse
As part of Summer Pulse '04, Enterprise is central to the simultaneous Joint Maritime Course (JMC), the second of three scheduled exercises for 2004 hosted by the Joint Maritime Operations Training Staff, a British naval organization. The exercise features more than fifty ships from Norway, Sweden, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, France, Spain, Germany and the United States.
Commander Paul Bradfield, the tactics, plans, and exercise officer for the Enterprise Carrier Strike Group, says major evolutions such as this afford the US Navy an opportunity unlike most others by improving interoperability with other nations' maritime forces. "This allows us to gain knowledge of, and operate against, dissimilar platforms. With the multitude of ships involved, we're going to get valuable training from other nations," he said.
The JMC involves two distinct phases. "Phase one is the training exercise, where each ship carries out its basic mission. USS Gettysburg (CG 64) will conduct gun support operations and coordinate the air defence system, while Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 1 will drop live ordnance on ranges," said Bradfield.
The exercise gradually gets more and more complex as ships conduct multiple operations simultaneously, such as tracking submarines and carrying out undersea warfare tactics while refuelling. "The second phase is the operational phase," Bradfield continued. "The fifty participating ships will split into two task groups. Enterprise will serve as one task group flagship, and the commander of the Belgian and the Netherlands task group will command the other," said Bradfield. "USS Detroit will provide logistic support and function as a high-value asset during the exercise."
Summer Pulse '04 is a short cruise for the Enterprise crew, just two months compared to the more normal six - this has resulted in a mini-wing on board, with only thirty-eight aircraft instead of the more normal sixty-plus. Embarked is the oldest and finest (so they tell us) Carrier Air Wing of them all, CVW-1, comprising seven flying units and six types of aircraft. Already mentioned is VRC-40, but the offensive element of the Air Wing is the two F/A-18C squadrons, VFA-86 'Sidewinders' and VFA-82 'Marauders', who are busy flying Close Air Support (CAS) missions for the JMC. Support squadrons VAQ-137 'Rooks' and VS-32 'Maulers' provide Electronic Warfare and Anti-submarine tasking respectively with their EA-6B Prowlers and S-3B Vikings. VAW-123 'Screwtops', flying the E-2C Hawkeye, are the 'eyes in the sky', with SAR duties being provided by the SH-60 Seahawks of HS-11 'Dragonslayers'. Sadly missing are the F-14A Tomcats of VF-211, as the squadron has remained back in the US ready to make the transition to the F-18F Super Hornet before the next major deployment in late 2005, plus the USMC unit VMFA-312 and its F/A-18Cs.
Commanding CVW-1 is Captain Mark 'Haley' Mills, a former E-2C pilot. Leading a Carrier Air Wing requires the commander to be proficient in all types of aircraft on board, so his name can be seen on the Hornet, Prowler, Viking, and of course Hawkeye. He gives an insight into the differences between the F/A-18s on board: "The 300-series aircraft of the 'Marauders' are newer than those of the 'Sidewinders' - they have a better radar, flight control systems but as a result are slightly heavier than the 400-series of VFA-86. The older birds are less fuel critical as a result. We have full JTIDS capability with the newer aircraft, talking to the Hawkeye, to Link 16 standard. The Hornet's radar has a 230 mile range, but this is extended to over 500 miles with the datalink." With this increase in range, the carrier's support ships are spread more widely as a result - during our six-hour stay on board we don't sight another of the nine-ship fleet.
It's life Jim, but not as we know it
With nearly 5,000 souls on board, an aircraft carrier such as the 'Big E' is the closest man-made example of a single living entity, a small town floating on the high seas. Such a large number of people brought together in a confined space requires a special breed - content to see nothing but grey steel walls for weeks on end, save the odd hour snatched above the waterline, feeling the chill of the Northern Atlantic in their nostrils. All have to eat, sleep and function in the way all humans do for extensive periods of time in what is effectively voluntary confinement, so the ship has many recreation and support facilities to remove the isolation and boredom of the off-duty hours. The Internet has been a revelation for the way families can keep in touch, e-mail facilities being widely available through satellite links. The mailbags may not be as full on the COD flights as they were, but are still just as important. While our stay on board is too short to see more than a fraction of the ship, it is evident that it is a happy ship, with cheery greetings from all that we meet and pass in the long, long passageways.
Make it so, number one
That such a complex organism as a modern aircraft carrier functions in the way it does is simply amazing - the interactions between the 5,000 personnel simply bewildering to the visitor. A classic example of military command and control, but it's also an example of teamwork at its best - everyone knows his (or her) task and what is required of him (or her) in the ultimate aim of providing air power to a region. Teamwork posters are everywhere, reminding the crew that they're not on their own in the vast Atlantic Ocean.
On deck, there is a myriad of different coloured personnel, each colour signifying a particular trade and responsibility. Most numerous are the Brown shirts, the Plane Captains who look after individual aircraft, normally laden with chains as they wait to secure their returning plane. Green shirts operate the catapult and arresting gear, while Yellow shirts direct the movement of aircraft around the deck. Blue shirts operate elevators, check and clear planes into position, while Purple shirts operate refuelling equipment and Red shirts handle the ordnance. All these personnel wear the traditional 'cranial' head protector, similarly colour-coded. White shirts are for Landing Signal Officers (LSOs) and generally anyone else, including the privileged media personnel - very fetching we look too! It may look like chaos, but everything runs like clockwork as planes are moved into position, launched and the deck made ready for the recoveries.
Everything from the hangar to 5,000 ft above the carrier or five miles away is under the control of the 'Air Boss' from his 'island' in the main tower. Third in command of the aircraft carrier, he will be an experienced pilot, as to become an Air Boss you must have previously commanded an operational unit and have several thousand hours flying experience. Supported by his deputy, the 'Mini Boss', the Air Boss controls all movements for a twelve-hour duty period, aiming to get all aircraft launched to the second and ensure safe recoveries are made. Air Boss may seem like a cool position, but it is one of the most stressful jobs in Naval Aviation, being not just Air Traffic Control but 'mother' to her 'chicks'. To ensure safe recoveries, a S-3 Viking refueller remains in the air within two minutes flying time to top-up the unsuccessful pilot - regular 'wave-offs' are practised, under the direction of the Air Boss, to ensure contact with the probe is made within the regulation two-minute window. As we watch, a Prowler is given the order and achieves a successful hook-up in one minute and thirty-eight seconds - the Air Boss is happy, which will keep the pilot happy too…
The Air Boss and Mini Boss work next to each other, each having an identical control panel - the Air Boss controls the rear catapults and arrestor wires while the Mini Boss looks after the bow catapults. During high-intensity exercises, the four catapults can each fire an aircraft every 105 seconds, meaning the ship can launch an aircraft every thirty seconds. The operating windows for peacetime are exactly the same as in wartime, meaning no changes to procedures are necessary, something that could otherwise compromise safety.
Supporting the Air Boss on the deck are the LSOs, current pilots who take it in turns to man the platform at the stern of the ship. Years ago the LSO would guide an aircraft down with a pair of paddles, mimicking the attitude of the aircraft as it made its approach, but today it is thankfully much more sophisticated with a system of lights to guide the naval aviator back onto the deck. If the pilot has the 'ball', the amber light in the centre of the 'tree', level with the horizontal row of green lights, he is lined up correctly. The 'ball' has to be adjusted for each type of aircraft, as the distance between the pilot's eye and the hook can vary by several feet - the F-14A Tomcat being the longest, with the Viking the shortest. While the LSO no longer directs the pilot down, he is constantly giving advice if required and can be a calming voice for the inexperienced novice.
Each pilot will be given a rating by the LSO, either green (good), yellow (okay) or red (dodgy). Landing ratings will be displayed in the squadron briefing board on the 'Greenie Board', and more yellows than greens can mean extra practice for the unlucky pilot. We see the board for VS-32 'Maulers', but the greens heavily outweigh the others, much to our escort's delight.
Warp factor nine
So it is time for us to leave (reluctantly). With cranials and survival jackets donned we tread those last few steps back onto the awaiting Greyhound, and the expectation of replicating a cannon shot in the next few minutes. As we will be facing backwards again, the instructions are a little more detailed this time: "Put your feet up on the seat in front, hold the chest straps and lean forward, lowering your head. Don't try and move, you won't be able to anyway!"
With the Greyhound shuddering and jolting, the pilot inches the aircraft across the deck towards the waiting catapult. With a scraping sound the cat engages, and we brace ourselves for action. Several minutes pass, legs beginning to ache and tension building, before we hear the cat won't engage properly and we'll have to try again. An anti-climax for sure, but soon we're repeating the process and the cabin crew look more confident. Waved arms again, and this time I shut my eyes - I don't want them splattered against the cargo doors. Uuuuuuummmmmmmmmpppppppppppphhhhhhhhhh - and we've stopped! We'll crash! Hang on, we're flying! The Greyhound is away and airborne, undercarriage retracting and the loadmasters already relaxing. First-time catapulters look at each other and grin, thumbs in the air - if only we could talk about it! It's a shorter flight back to Prestwick, and what seems a very tame landing! The COD pilots are the unsung heroes of the US Navy, truck drivers for sure but have you ever tried parking a bus on your front lawn?
I feel the need, the need...
Despite her age of forty-two years, the 'Big E' is still very much the pride of the US Navy and the most well-known of the twelve CVN-class carriers. The first to be built by 1962, she is unique in having eight nuclear reactors to the later designs' two, and is the longest, tallest and fastest of them all, something the crew were very keen to boast about at the slightest opportunity - such is the friendly rivalry between the CVN fleet! She doesn't have quite the flight-deck acreage of the other ships, being less wide, but this enables her to make a couple of knots on her sisters.
Her fame was instantaneously granted with the televising of 'Star Trek' in the late sixties, and the naming of Star Fleet's finest as NCC-1701 United Star Ship Enterprise, a model of which sits in the Captain's cabin. She was brought back to the public's gaze in the late eighties with the making of the movie 'Top Gun' - many of the action scenes were filmed on the 'Big E's flight deck and Island. As her nuclear reactors were overhauled fairly recently, she is expected to continue in service until 2013 at the earliest, making her over fifty years old before retirement. One hopes that she doesn't suffer the same fate as past Enterprises at the hands of the scrapman, and that another 'Big E' will rise to carry the Stars and Stripes in future years.
Air-Scene UK would like to thank Lt Cmdr Terry Dudley, US Navy Public Affairs and the crew of the USS Enterprise for their help and assistance in preparing this article.