I wrote this a few years ago, back when John Howard was PM, George Bush Jr was President, and my cabin mate was just the Member for Rockingham. I’ve been asked a few times in the last couple of months if I’d consider posting it, along with photos, so here it is:
“Basically you’ll be in a dark cave for the next 45 minutes. Your jacket is inflatable and has a whistle, flare and a torch. If we land in the drink, which we won’t, pop the flare and blow the whistle.” The US sailor smiles at us. We climb on board the grey United States C-2 plane (they call them Greyhounds – for moving people and parcels!) and strap ourselves in – real belts – two over the shoulders and one around the waist (only just in the case of the writer!). We are facing the rear of the plane. Apart from the pilots windscreens behind us, there only two windows and I haven’t scored either of them. The engines begin to wind up, hydraulics come into play and the tail section of the plane closes tight. It is a cave! Our sailor grins at us, “Now this ain’t no regular airline. No food, no drink, but if you’re feeling a bit queasy, hell we’ve got bags! And I’m coming round now to make sure your belts are tight, cause when we land, we stop. Quickly.”
Flying backward in the dark affects the senses. I know we’re flying out from Perth to meet the nuclear powered aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis, about 200 kilometres off the coast of Geraldton, but there’s no point of reference to gauge our progress, just a couple of dim cabin lights. Everyone looks the same, dressed in green life jackets and a curious combination helmet with earmuffs and goggles called a Cranial. We look like a bunch of marines. The scene looks like a thousand military based movies. Not only is the plane grey outside, it’s painted grey inside. The engines drone, conversation is impossible. I wonder what it would be like to be strapped in here flying out to a combat zone.
Around the same time that I notice several of us (myself included) are beginning to try and adjust the tight earmuffs, there’s a change in engine note and our man is on the microphone, “We’ll be landing in five minutes folks. Just sit upright and don’t move ‘till I tell you.” The American accent is infectious and I want to yell back “Yes Sir.” The engines rev up, slow down, then rev up again. We seem to be climbing. Then wham! From go to whoa in about three seconds. There’s no wheel touchdown as such and the overriding impression is just sort of suddenly stopping in mid-air.
The plane taxis around, stops and the tailgate opens. For a minute all I can see is a blaze of white light, then my eyes adjust. We’re on the deck of the aircraft carrier. The ship dips very slightly and there’s the blue sea of the Indian Ocean. We stumble out of the rear of the plane, disorientated but aware – almost like an out of body experience and are led into a doorway. Smiling faces greet us, take our flying gear and we are led down two or three flights of stairs to the Wardroom.
It seems the officers dress in khaki uniform, whilst the rest of the crew are in traditional navy blue. Lt David Oates, the ship’s Public Affairs Officer introduces himself and gives us a run-down on the tour. The group is broken up into two – those who’re flying back the same day and the ten of us who are lucky enough to be staying overnight. The overnighters’ first port of call is the mess for lunch.
As to where we are in the ship, none of us would know? Thankfully Amy Bender, our tour guide and guardian angel does. We grab plates and trays and walk the walk of hungry travellers – well not all of us, a couple of people are looking a bit green around the gills and politely refuse the sausages, fried onions, fried chicken and pastries. I fill my plate and fill a glass with a strawberry / kiwi fruit drink. Onya Elvis.
The whole thing still seems a bit surreal. One minute I was standing in the airport at Perth and the next minute I’m in the bowels of one of the most awesome ships the world has ever seen. A little bit about her. The keel was laid on 31 March 1991 and she was commissioned on December 9 1995. This monster is 332.8 metres long, 78.3 metres wide, 74.4 metres high, weighs 98,556 tonnes and carries 13,265,000 litres of jet fuel! Currently the ship carries in excess of 5,000 crew and 80 aircraft – somebody whispers that it’s probably more planes than the Australian airforce has.
The ship represents an almost unique blend of old and new technology, for whilst it is steam turbine driven, the steam is generated by two nuclear reactors. Later in the day, Captain Gallagher brings things into perspective for us, “This ship has a life expectancy of fifty years. In fact the person who will be this ship’s last captain is about four years old at the moment. In those fifty years, we will refuel only once, in about twenty years time!”
Lunch over, we’re escorted to our quarters to freshen up. Our bags have been placed in the two person guest cabins. Each of us has been given a superb travel and information kit and security card to unlock our cabin doors. We quickly learn that a “Head Stop” is naval speak for the toilet and that Aussie words or phrases such as, loo, or pointing Percy at the Porcelain lead very quickly to a bursting bladder. Next stop the bridge.
My legs are giving way on me, as we climb what appears to be the tenth set of stairs in three minutes. Looking around, I see that most of us are in the same boat – exhausted and perspiring. We stumble into the bridge. Captain Gallagher warmly greets us and invites us to look around. The flight deck below is a mass of movement, both humans and machinery. We watch in awe as steam driven catapults run back along their tracks and are hooked up to the jet fighters. Heat shields rise up from the deck directly behind the jets. Arms raise, hand signals are exchanged between ground crews and pilots. Full thrust is applied. The roar is beyond belief, even up here behind the glass. The deck glows red. Wham. An F/A-18 rushes down the deck, dips towards the ocean and then begins an inexorable climb towards the skies. It is an unbelievable sight. Sometimes two of them take off together, from the two different runway areas.
I become aware that we’re steaming north instead of south towards our destination of Perth. The Captain explains that he has to turn the ship into the wind for take-offs and landings and maintain the ship at a speed which will give the aircraft a deck wind speed of about 30 knots. With the aircraft all in the air, there’s time for questions. One of us asks what the ship will do (boy speak for how fast will she go). The captain indicates a computer screen in front of his chair. We are stunned into silence. At the moment the 98,000 tonne mammoth is cruising at 33.9 knots (61km/h)! There is no sense of movement, indeed the only indication of enormous speed, is the wake of the four screws. He tells us that it’s quite possible to surf on the wake.
“Would you like to steer the ship sir?”
“Is the Pope a Catholic” I think to myself and move in behind the small wooden wheel. Slowly things begin to make sense. One group of sailors is looking after engine speed, another is looking after direction (the course). The ship has two rudders and although at first it seems to respond very quickly, I am gently reminded (“Sir we’ve travelled quite a way.”) that the ship’s probably covered two kilometres since I altered the course by two degrees and consequently I now have to correct my correction.
Then we are taken down to the communications and radar rooms. On the way down the seemingly endless stairways, I gradually become aware that there are a lot of women on board the ship, something I hadn’t expected. I ask Amy about it. She tells me that currently about 10% of the crew are women (about 500) and that the navy is actively seeking to bring the percentage up as close as possible to 50%. Another question springs to mind, but I decide to leave it till later.
The communications room is a movie set. Computer screens everywhere, simulations, chartered courses. It is breathtaking. As we sit down, we see the sign written on one large wall screen – “Welcome on board mates.” Suddenly there’s an incredible noise. Aircraft touchdown. The flight deck is only about 7.6 centimetres above our heads and the sound is the arresting wire taking the strain of a jet under full power. The flight deck is small and when an aircraft lands, the pilot immediately applies full thrust, for if he misses the arrester hook, he has to be able to take off again. Just imagine the adrenalin rush as the arrester hook catches the plane, all you can see from the cockpit is the ocean rushing towards you, instinctively you apply full power and then back right off as the hook bites – all in three or four seconds! Lt Glen Leverette, the boss cocky here, explains that landing on a ship is basically a controlled crash landing. We’ll meet Lt Leverette a couple of times later on.
The radar room next door is another eye opener. It’s being run by half dozen young sailors, led by a nineteen year old girl. “Great to see you all,” she says, “My job is to send the aircraft out and bring them, in safely.” We look at the radar screens. She has about $US600 million worth of fighter planes under her control at this moment. “I’ve got them stacked at two mile intervals. That lets me bring them in and land them 54 seconds apart and also gives me time to make up for a “bolter” (a plane that misses the arrester hook), or slip in a plane short on fuel.”
Our guide leads us away to our next stop. As we climb more stairs and walk along the seemingly endless corridors of this floating city, I realise how unnervingly polite the sailors all are. They stand to one side as we walk past, invite us through doorways first and without fail address us as Sir or M’am. We end up in the room above the Bridge called the Island and it’s here Commander Mike Allen, known as the Air Boss (it’s written on his yellow tee shirt), controls all take-offs and landings. What he says goes. He’s in constant radio communication with the flight deck crews and the radar room. Nothing takes off or lands without his say so. The activity he commands is almost beyond belief.
The awesome power of the aircraft and the launching and arrester systems is mind blowing. A fully loaded F/A-18 weighs about 30,390kg and is launched from a dead stop to 264km/h in two seconds. When the same plane lands at 256km/h, it’s brought to a complete stop in 107 metres. The ship can launch an aircraft every 30 seconds!
It’s mayhem in the Tower and very cramped with the ten visitors, but somehow the crew work around us, smiling and laughing, making sure we can see everything. The Air Boss surveys the deck below, barks out orders on his microphone. He and his offsider are both trained pilots and we are told that the Commander Allen will shortly be given command of his own ship, whilst his offsider is leaving to join the commercial world of aviation, the nemesis of the navy. The navy trains its pilots so well, that airlines all over the world clamour to woo them onto the decks of 747s, with salaries the navy can’t hope to match. In fact, by the time this story goes to print, almost the entire crew on board the aircraft carrier will have changed, including the captain.
Amy smiles at us and leads us down to flight deck level. We file into a room to be confronted by “Mr T.” Chief Warrant Officer Adrian Turner is a gentle giant, about 2.5 metres tall! There’s no fat on him and the biceps on his arms are wider than most of our legs. We’re about to go out on deck and he’s explaining why we need the life vests – “Y’all might fall in the drink” and that we must stay close to him. He’s wonderfully funny and incredibly polite to a bunch of people who must be a bloody nuisance and yes, he sounds like he’s reading a movie script. Cranials on, we march out onto the deck.
The smell of jet fuel is overpowering, the heat from jet engines simmers across the deck and the noise, even through earmuffs, is colossal. Jet engines under full thrust, the almighty bang and wallop of the catapults as they come to stop. Steam hissing and rising everywhere and incomprehensible voices issuing commands via the ship’s public address system. We all look at each other, shaking our heads in disbelief, the hive of activity going on around us is mind boggling.
There’s a short lull with all the aircraft up in the air and we are led across the deck to a small area at the right rear of the carrier. This is where the Landing Signal Officer guides the planes in. A plane lands every 54 seconds. The pilot visually lines up the flight deck centre line and a system of lights to the left side of the deck. If the amber light (known as the “ball”) is not horizontal with a row of green lights, then he knows he’s too high.
We are standing just five metres from the aircraft as they come in and with the setting sun behind them, they look incredibly predatory and menacing. Gradually I become used to the approach angles and at one stage, when a plane seems too high, sure enough, it’s a “bolter” and he has to go round again. Controlled chaos seems the only way to describe the scene on the flight deck. As each plane comes to a stop, the wings fold and the plane moves to the side of the ship to refuel, the arrester cable snakes back into position, crew clear the deck and another plane lands, all in less than one minute.
The fastest planes land first, followed by the refuelling plane, the electronic plane and finally the helicopter, which is always deployed first and landed last, watching over the ship and aircraft ready to retrieve any “men overboard” or downed aircrew.
Back to our cabins to freshen up and then to the Officers Mess for dinner with Rear Admiral Gerald Hoewing, Captain Richard “Weasel” Gallagher, Captain John Sherman Jr (Commander of the Air Wing) and the other officers. The meal starts with a mandatory grace then we are seated. I’m a bit startled to see glasses of Coca Cola next to the water on the table. I’m even more startled when I realise that the drink is actually iced tea, not Coke! Of course, American ships are dry – no alcohol.
There are six of us at the table, two of whom are guests. On my right, Anthony Gonzales, the Chief Engineer, makes a joke about “RC,” (the person opposite me) never doing any real work and only flying. I ask RC what aircraft he flies, he replies that unfortunately he has to fly all of them now and then. The Chief leans over and tells me that RC’s name is Robert C Thompson and he’s actually the Deputy Commander of the air wing. We laugh over the reputation of fly boys and how they’d like to change his nickname to JC.
As the dinner conversation meanders on, I become acutely aware that the only opinions aired are from the two West Australian guests. No matter how provocative the topic, these guys don’t agree or disagree, they nod their heads, offering one word replies such as “Uh hu,” “Right,” “I see,” but there is no engagement in debate. Certainly they are only too happy to talk about home, family and career ambitions, but anything else is obviously off limits. It is a masterly display of polite controlled diplomacy.
A good mate of mine, Vince Di Pietro , ex Commander of Stirling Base (now based in Washington), has flown out with us. The Admiral calls everyone to attention and hands over a commemorative plaque from the USS John C. Stennis to Stirling Naval Base. Cdr Di Pietro also has a plaque, but says although his is a lot smaller than the Admiral’s, he’s not embarrassed, as his island is a lot bigger than the ship! Dinner over, our guide Amy tells us that the tour is scheduled to continue until 2230 hours. Struth, we’re off again. Next stop? The hangar.
Half past eight in the evening and everywhere we look there are people working. On planes, under planes, in planes. The aircraft are tied down within a couple of feet of each other, which brings something else to mind – there’s virtually no movement, no sensation of being at sea. The lighting throughout the hangar deck is very soft, similar to the lights inside a movie theatre. I stop and ask a couple of people working under the nose wheel of an F/A-18 how they can see what they’re doing, the reply is, “We get to be like owls Sir!”
Half way along the hangar, a contingent of about 50 sailors are hosing down and sweeping the floor, followed by a sailor driving a street sweeper. Meanwhile joggers run past us, on their way to the gym area at the back of the deck. The temperature in the gym can be altered to give different climatic conditions, for combat training. This aircraft carrier is, in effect, a small city of 5,000 people.
Our next stop is the jet engine repair room, at the rear of the ship. If an engine can’t be repaired in the aircraft, it’s removed, rebuilt and then test run at the back of the ship. We look incredulous. They mount the engine with the rear end pointing out over the stern and run the jet on full thrust for several hours, which would be a spectacular sight at night.
Next stop is to inspect the oxygen and nitrogen operations. They actually make all their own oxygen and nitrogen on board. Oxygen for the pilots to breath and nitrogen for the tyres on the planes. It’s an interesting comment on the cities of the world that they can’t manufacture either whilst tied up in port, the atmosphere is too polluted with methane and carbon dioxide.
Still we haven’t finished. There’s a museum area set aside to commemorate Senator John C. Stennis after whom the ship is named. We step inside to be greeted with the strains of Santana. The ship’s jazz band is practising for an appearance at a Westar Rules footie match in Fremantle. On drums we have Ensign Rodney Moss, on lead guitar, Commander John Kuehn and on keyboard, Lt Glen Leverette. I wonder what the very severe looking Senator Stennis would make of all this. These boys are good and I’d like to stay, but by now it’s 10.30pm and we are tired.
As we walk and climb back to our quarters, we pass through a large room full of people. The money changers from Thomas Cook in Perth are on board, changing US dollars for Australian. Anyone in any doubt as to the economic value of these visits to our shores would only have to spend five minutes in this room to understand the boost to the local economy. Even allowing for a spend of just $500 for each crew member, we are talking about $2 ½ million in three days! And this crew begged their Captain to bring the ship to Perth. They were supposed to call into several ports in Asia, but the crew had experienced Perth hospitality once before on their maiden voyage. It’s reported to be happy ship, with a much respected Captain. He acquiesced. Oh, just in case you were wondering about the value of the Aussie dollar – Thomas Cooks won’t exchange them back for the greenback!
Further along, we come across a long queue of patient sailors. There must be two or three hundred of them – literally. We ask Amy what could be so important at this time of the night. She smiles at us. There were two planes at Perth Airport, one for us and the other for far more important cargo (my words, not hers) mail – letters from home. These young people had worked a fourteen to fifteen hour day, but they weren’t going to bed without getting mail from home. My heart went out to them, they were the same age as my kids, but thousands of miles from their home. Here we were in one of the most powerful ships the world has ever seen and yet the reality was that these teenagers were no different to young people anywhere in the world, in their need for love, affection and news from their families.
Bedtime and we are exhausted. Amy tells us reveille will be at 6.00am and she’ll come and get us for breakfast at 6.30am … on Sunday morning! Tired or not, it takes a while to nod off. There’s no engine noise as such, but steam pipes hiss, things clang and every now and then a strange scrapping sound comes through the ceiling. I have no idea whether I’m facing north, south, east or west. I don’t even know where I am in the ship. I call out to Mark McGowan, (the Member for Rockingham) in the bunk above me, that if the ship started to sink, we’d never get out. He thinks about it for a minute and then replies he feels they are so friendly and courteous, they’d probably come and save us before themselves. In the secure knowledge that he’s right, I fall asleep.
Most of us hit the showers around about 5.50am and are thoroughly confused by the Navy tap system. Eventually we work it out and by 6.30am.we’re ready and willing for Amy. We are to have breakfast with the enlisted “men” – the ordinary crew. This means we climb down 30 sets of stairs and walk along forty corridors. The main mess is gigantic and the system is a bit of a cultural shock. There are no plates. We pick up what appear to be rubber trays with moulded sections and move along the serving windows. Like lunch, there’s lots of fried savoury dishes and lots of sweet dishes – Elvis is obviously still in the building!
We’re invited to sit down with the crew. I luck out a bit, in that the two young guys I talk to seem a bit non plussed by my presence. It occurs to me that my own son and his mates go dead quiet when I attempt to join in their conversation. Smiling to myself, I turn to Amy at the next table and ask her about sex.
“Oh sure,” she says, “It happens, but it’s not allowed and anybody caught is in very serious trouble. I mean if somebody opens a door and finds two people at it, then it’s going to hit the fan and that goes for kissing and cuddling in the corridors as well.” I tell her that I noticed several couples lounging around corridors last night who obviously had more on their minds than the shape of the ship. She laughs and says that as long as a couple were careful, called no attention to themselves and quietly snuck out to a hotel when the ship was in port, then they would probably get away with it. However, it was imperative for the chain of command that officers did not have relationships with ensigns, either on or off the ship. She hastened to add that she was married to an ex navy man and they had decided not to have children, preferring instead to build a financially secure lifestyle for themselves.
Breakfast over, we visit the hospital. There is a fully equipped theatre and the ship carries a General Surgeon, an anaesthetist and several doctors. All but the most serious cases of illness or injury are taken care of on board. All others are stabilised for safe air transport to the nearest land based hospital. As it happens, there had been a transfer to Murdoch Hospital the day before and we are told that the standard of Australian medical care is regarded as amongst the best in the world. On the way out of the hospital area, several staff are busy separating small packets from each other, “What are they?” I ask.
“Condoms Sir,” is the reply. It seems the crew (male and female) get a precautionary “travel ashore kit”, whenever they’re in port.
Amy leads us up to the flight deck. It had been impossible to tell, but the ship was no longer moving and lay at anchor in Gage Roads off Fremantle. Already the first of the barges is coming along side, commencing the start of the huge store replenishment to be carried out over the next three days. Our mobile phones work for the first time. Up on the bridge, we find the Admiral in quiet reflection, looking out the window towards Fremantle. He’s looking forward to joining his wife at Burswood Resort. Somebody mentions the golf course, he laughs and says there would be absolutely no brownie points in even thinking about picking up a golf club. A flotilla of ferries and boats are making their way out to the ship and it’s time for our official farewell in the Wardroom.
The Admiral, the Captain and all senior officers are present. The Admiral appears genuinely delighted that we have been able to join him and his crew. He presents us with certificates for our arrested landing and for steering the ship, plus a photograph album which includes pictures of ourselves landing on the ship. As always, with corporate hospitality and PR, it’s the little touches that make the difference.
As we head to Fremantle on the pilot boat, I look back. The awesome ship that is the USS John C. Stennis looks like a large dark city block sitting on top of the water. What I have I come away with? What have I learnt? The American navy believes that in the foreseeable future, we won’t see a repeat of the ship to ship battles that were a major feature of the Second World War – the Sydney / Kormorant battle springs instantly to mind. The idea of aircraft carriers like the Stennis, is to take the fight to a regional area, with the intention that the presence of the ship will act as a deterrent. I have become comfortable with nuclear power as a means of propulsion, it’s a lot more environmentally friendly than diesel or coal. However nuclear weapons remain anathema to me. As a person who has had absolutely nothing to do with any sort of military lifestyle, I have developed a profound respect for the intelligence and humanity of the people who serve on board the ship. I have learnt that not only is the Captain a trained fighter pilot, he is also a nuclear physicist. I am also stunned to find that in spite of the most incredible technology available, on the most modern aircraft carrier in the world, extensive man power is irreplaceable and absolutely necessary. I am pleased the Americans are our friends, they actually like us. Not in some condescending attitude to “you colonials,” but as fellow people with similar hopes and dreams, forgetting George Bush and his rabble government with our sycophantic Prime Minister. Earlier that Sunday morning, as we’d stood out on the quiet and still flight deck, a bugle call had played out over the PA system. Everyone stood to attention. I felt a touch awkward, a bit like being asked to pray. The Australian national anthem rang out across the ship and the water, followed by the American anthem. It was a good feeling.