Saturday, November 1, 2008

Aircraft Carrier Visit!

I haven't had the chance to write this week, but its for a much cooler reason than just being busy with homework. From Monday until Thursday, I was at sea - aboard the U.S.S. Eisenhower aircraft carrier.

Getting to the carrier was exciting in itself. I drove to Norfolk, VA, and then at 5:30am, headed to the nearby Naval base. From there, we (I was with 6 other team members from the project I work on) found the waiting room for our plane.

We flew over on a COD - Carrier On-ship Delivery. It holds about 30 people, including the pilot and crew. The passengers all sit facing backwards. There are exposed buttons and ropes and things inside, and no windows. You have shoulder and belt straps, which you understand the necessity of when you land.

You get on and off the COD through the back, which opens up kind of like a spaceship - with one part of the door becoming a ramp. The ride for us was about 2.5 hours, but since you can't move (you're strapped in pretty well), you can't hear (because its loud and you have ear plugs and protective head phones on), and you can't hold anything (because it would fly out of your hands when you land), you basically try to sleep during that time. Before we landed, the crew told us to sit straight up with our feet flat on the ground and heads flat against the chair. They said they'd yell just before we landed.

The landing is pretty exciting - here's a summary of what happens, if you're not familiar with carrier landings. The flight deck on a carrier is much shorter than a normal runway. At commercial airports, you usually get a runway 6,000 to 10,000 feet long. On a carrier, you have about 1,000 feet. It's not long enough to allow you to brake on your own, so they put in arresting wires on the deck and a tail hook on the plane, this way, when the plane hits the deck its tail hook catches the arresting wire, and and you are brought from 150 mph to 0 in just a couple seconds. The plane has to keep its speed really high as it lands, because if it misses the arresting wire, it has to take off again right away (called a bolter).

From the inside of a COD, you have no windows, so you feel the plane maneuvering around, hear some faint yelling by the crew, and then hit the deck hard and then stop within a couple seconds. You're pressed against your seat by the G forces. Then the plane taxis to where it needs to be, and the back of the plane opens up again, allowing you to see a flight deck and ocean to the horizon. It's very cool.
We ate lunch not too long after we landed, and then spent the afternoon of the first day watching flight ops - one of the coolest things to see on a carrier. We went to the flight deck and stood nearby as planes flew onto the carrier and either hooked an arresting wire or missed and took off again. (We were watching training flights.) I've took a great video of one coming in. Then we went forward on the ship and stood between the two catapults.
Another carrier lesson, for those unfamiliar. Earlier, when I mentioned that you don't have enough space to stop on your own on a carrier, you may have wondered how they have enough space to speed up and take off. They don't have enough room for that either, so they use steam catapults to shoot the planes off the deck. (Really - the guys that direct flight ops are called "shooters".) This allows them to go from zero mph up to 150 in a couple of seconds. We stood between the two catapults, which were alternating shooting jets off the ship. At any given time, we were about 30 feet from a navy jet.

After we finished seeing flight ops, we started our three-day tour of the ship. It seemed like we talked to many of the thousands of people on board - people were really friendly and happy to give their opinion of the systems they work with and life on the ship.

The purpose of the visit was to learn about these things, since I am part of a team working on the design of the next class of aircraft carriers - the CVN 21 class. We were in rooms on lower decks some of the time, watching operations and training, and also saw rooms in the tower, up to 10 decks above the hangar bay. We did lots of walking down hallways and climbing up and down ladders.
Each day we were on board we got up around 6am, ate breakfast, and walked around seeing things, talking to people, and learning about the ship until about 9 or 10pm, so we definitely took full advantage of our time on board. We saw the combat direction center, the bridge (where we talked to the captain), went outside next to a missile launcher, then climbed down a ladder where you could stand underneath it. We sat down with the XO in his office and talked for over an hour. We visited damage control and then watched a simulated fire drill in the hangar bay.

Another one of the cool things that happened while we were on board was a RES - replenishment at sea. A cargo ship comes up alongside the carrier (as close as 140 feet), and lines are thrown across. Then fuel and crates of materials are sent across. In the short time we were connected, 700,000 lbs of fuel were transferred. One incredible thing to see was the complete lack of relative motion between the two ships - even though they were both speeding along, it looked like you were at a pier.

On Thursday, we pulled into port in Norfolk, VA, and walked off the ship. It was a pretty unique four days!

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