A ‘Wow’ Day Aboard The Kitty Hawk
Wednesday - August 06, 2008
I am sweating.
More accurately, I am sweating buckets. My shirt under the standard-issue military life vest is sticking to my skin. My hair, flattened under a flexible helmet our handlers call a “cranial,” is drenched and prickly on my neck. (Note to self: Next time do not bother to blow dry.) Earmuffs. Coaster-sized goggles. The acrid, stomach-curdling perfume of jet fuel. Nausea. We are packed into a hot, dark, no frills - but unquestionably reliable - C-2 cargo aircraft our hosts affectionately refer to as a “bread box.” And as we shake, rattle and roll over the Pacific Ocean I pray I will not get sick.
But I’m also having the time of my life.
I wrote those words a few days ago and had to set it aside because, alas, motion sickness finally did get the best of me. Luckily it was at the very end of a memorable day.
About a dozen of us were guests of Wandalee Keating, who is a board member of the Hawaii Foodbank and the wife of Navy Adm. Timothy Keating, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command. She was kind enough to host us for a day on board the USS Kitty Hawk.
Commissioned in 1961, the Kitty Hawk is the oldest active ship in the U.S. Navy and about to be decommissioned in early 2009. Her final mission was to take part in RIMPAC exercises that ended on July 31.
For those of you who don’t know, RIMPAC stands for Rim of the Pacific - international war exercises that have taken place in waters off Hawaii each year since 1971. This year, 10 nations participated - 35 ships, three submarines, more than 150 aircraft and 20,000 Sailors, Airmen, Marines, Soldiers and Coast Guardsmen. The goal of this massive undertaking is to strengthen capabilities and to foster cooperation and team-work among nations. It is impressive on paper and even more so up close.
The Navy knows the value of public relations and does it very well. Everything - from the 40-minute flight out to the carrier, to the show-and-tell tour, to the heart-stopping experience on the flight deck - was impeccably choreographed and executed by a crew obviously proud of their ship and eager to show it off.
We were able to see only a tiny portion of the carrier - enough to get the smallest glimpse of the life and work of the people on board. As you can imagine, the living quarters are cramped, but the ship is clean and bright. We tramped single file through long, narrow corridors and climbed up and down I don’t know how many flights of stairs.
Heading out to the flight deck we were swathed in protective layers - vests, earplugs, earmuffs and goggles. Our safety-conscious handlers communicated with taps and hand signals and the occasional shout. It was blazing hot, windy and absolutely spectacular.
There are few things in life comparable to the heart-thumping rush you feel standing right next to a fighter jet as it is literally catapulted from the deck of an aircraft carrier, unless it is the thrill of standing feet away as they come swooping in for what’s known as a “trap” landing. The pilot, in a tricky maneuver, must have the aircraft’s tailhook catch onto one of four wires stretched across the flight deck. On approach, the jet is kept slightly above stall speed. But when it hits the deck, the pilot immediately applies full power, just in case the plane “bolters,” or fails to catch the wire. This way the plane has the speed and power to get safely back up in the air for another attempt.
It all worked like a well-timed ballet. Everyone from the top guns to the support crew dressed in color-coded jumpsuits worked in perfect synchronicity, performing their duties over and over again during the course of their 12-hour shifts. The cohesion and precision they bring to their jobs is a testament to their training and to their dedication.
Rear Adm. Richard Wren, commander of the Carrier Strike Group FIVE, emphasized that what we were seeing was simply business as usual. The average age of the crew, he told us, is 21. Young, very young, but they know their jobs inside and out. Their lives - and the lives of their comrades - depend on it.
Wanda Keating gets emotional every time she goes out to the ships and meets the young men and women putting aside complications in their personal lives, ignoring physical hardships and working under the worst of conditions, giving their all day in and day out. She wanted us to see their dedication, to “get” their sacrifices. And we did.
We live in interesting times. The blockbuster movie du jour, Dark Knight, is on its way to box office glory. People spend millions of dollars to watch a comic book superhero smash up the bad guys on screens. Meanwhile, in the real world, our “white knights” perform their duties on board ships, in the air and on the ground without fanfare and under the public’s radar. They do it for honor and country - and for us.
We are geared up again, strapped into our dank, smelly breadbox of a plane for the return trip home. The sweat is beading up on my back, my makeup long gone except for the unattractive raccoon rims of melted eyeliner under my eyes. (Note to self: Next time, don’t bother with makeup.)
As we catapult off the flight deck at 180 mph from a standing start, I feel my stomach doing its little dance. Breathe, breathe, breathe, I tell myself. The very least I can do is put up with a little bit of motion sickness without whining. Our unsung real-life heroes do that, and more, every day.
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