The Super Hornet vibrated as its two engines ramped up, each capable of more than 20,000 pounds of thrust. The F/A-18 fighter jet was armed and ready, loaded out with more than 13,000 pounds of Sidwinder missiles, 20 mm ammunition for its nose cannon and other ordnance.
The USS John C. Stennis cut through the waters of the Indian Ocean, now more than three months out of her homeport of Bremerton, Wash.
A yellow-shirted Sailor snapped a smart salute to the pilot and, seconds later, in an incredible roar, the ship’s catapult shot the fighter, bearing the colors of the “Argonauts” squadron, into the night sky.
And about 45 seconds later – the whole thing happened again.
Such is life aboard the Stennis, one of 12 aircraft carriers that project four and a half acres of American sovereign power to far flung corners around the world.
Each of the carriers is home to about 5,000 sailors when at sea. Life aboard the ship can be exciting and overwhelming for a newly-enlisted sailor.
Because the ships are so large, just learning your way around can be a challenging task. Even the most experienced sea hand will admit that he or she can get lost on a carrier, where one gray corridor – called passageways or “p-ways” in Navy terms – after another crosses still more gray p-ways.
“There is a system to it,” explained John McIntyre, a recently retired Navy sailor who spent more than 12 years at sea on America’s carriers, including a 1990s stint aboard the Stennis as a bosun’s mate.
The central place on the whole ship is the hangar deck, just below the flight deck. Every p-way, stairwell, room and cubby hole in the ship is numbered and letter in a system based on how far it is away from the hangar deck, either going up or down, right or left (starboard or port) and fore and aft.
Each of the 12 carriers in the flight enrolls new sailors in a “newcomers” school of one sort or another, where incoming personnel are given ship tours, meet key personnel and are indoctrinated into the way of life aboard that ship.
“What we do is assign a newcomer to someone in the same duty section, a petty officer who has been on the ship for a while to help the new person know where to go, who to see, what he or she needs to do,” McIntyre explained.
While at sea, sailors can expect to be rather busy, particularly in today’s Navy, with military operations ongoing in both Iraq and Afghanistan and the Navy also tasked with “showing the flag” in other world hot spots – and nothing shows the flag better than a carrier and her complement of more than 80 aircraft.
The day is divided into “watches” that last four hours, so there are four watches per day. Typically, a sailor will stand one watch per day. In addition, the sailor has to work every day in his or her duty section or perform some other duty. It can all add up to days that stretch beyond 12 hours, particularly when air operations are underway. Air operations – the launching and landing of various parts of the ship’s Carrier Air Wing – can happen at any time day or night.
“I was in the Navy 27 years, including more than 12 years on carriers. Night air ops still amaze me,” McIntyre said.
Hundreds of sailors and dozens of aircraft move about the deck in a tightly choreographed ballet. Sailors wear different colored jerseys to identify their jobs, red for ordnance men, purple for fuelers, yellow for plane captains and so on. All communication is done via hand signals – its too loud on the flight deck for any conversation or even shouted orders.
In addition to various operations, young Sailors are all but required to be working on some type of training or education program. On large ships like carriers, college professors often put out to sea with the ship to conduct class sessions while the ship is underway. There are also college correspondence courses and a variety of specialized Navy training programs for new sailors to gain various levels of qualifications.
“Some people don’t like sea duty because you stay very, very busy,” McIntyre said. “I always got a lot out of it, even as a junior sailor. I like to be busy and engaged in meaningful work. Plus, I got to better myself. I left the Navy with a bachelor’s degree and three credits short of a master’s degree and paid virtually nothing for it,” he said. “Plus, sea duty means shore leave.”
Carriers pull into ports around the world, allowing U.S. sailors a taste of life in a foreign culture.
“Join the Navy and see the world. It be a cliché, but for a lot of guys, it is very true,” McIntyre said.
Carriers in today’s Navy (with homeport)
Nimitz Class Ships
USS Nimitz (CVN 68), San Diego, CA
USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69), Norfolk, VA
USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70), Newport News, VA
USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71), Norfolk, VA
USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72), Everett, WA
USS George Washington (CVN 73), Norfolk, VA
USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74), Bremerton, WA
USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75), Norfolk, VA
USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76), San Diego, CA
George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) (under construction)
Enterprise Class Ships
USS Enterprise (CVN 65), Norfolk, VA
Kitty Hawk Class Ships
USS Kitty Hawk (CV 63), Yokosuka, Japan
John F. Kennedy Class Ships
USS John F. Kennedy (CV 67), Mayport, FL
General Characteristics (Nimitz Class)
Cost: About $4.5 billion each.
Propulsion: Two nuclear reactors.
Length: 1,092 feet.
Cost: $3.5 billion; projected service life: 50 years
Beam: 134 feet.
Flight Deck Width: 252 feet.
Displacement: Approximately 97,000 tons.
Speed: 30-plus knots.
Crew: Ship’s Company: 3,200 – Air Wing: 2,480.
Meals served daily: 16,600
Weight of anchors: 30 tons each
Number of telephones: 2,000
Miles of cable and wiring: more than 900
Bed mattresses: If lined up end-to-end, they would stretch more than nine miles.
Source: US Navy, USS John C Stennis public affairs office