This is the story of my tiger cruise in April 2013. It is an account of my six days on the John C. Stennis CVN 74 aircraft carrier, riding from Hawaii to San Diego. We were given access to the entire boat, save a few classified areas like the reactor department. Most, if not all, of the details in this account are from memory, which hopefully explains why I use so many approximations and generalizations. If you find aircraft carriers interesting – which they are – then you may enjoy some of the details I teased out during my trip.
joining a tiger cruise.
I met Sarah Catalono in the eight grade. After high school, Sarah went to the Naval Academy in Annapolis and graduated in 5 years with a specialized masters in nuclear engineering. This meant she was destined for either subs or carriers – the only nuclear powered vessels in the fleet. Following graduation, all academy grads start out as officers and get to pick their first assignment. Sarah decided her first assignment would be on a “small boy” or “tin can” destroyer called the USS Gridly.
The Gridly was not the first of its name. The original, was named during the Spanish American war. The flag ship in the battle was captained by Gridly. When war broke out, he was lying terminally ill in the hospital bed. They told him he was going to lose his command due to the illness, so he so climbed out of bed and skippered the ship to victory. During the battle Gridly is famous for saying, “fire when ready”, which is now the ships motto. After the victory, he returned to the hospital and died. In his honor, they renamed the ship – and something like seven subsequent ships – in his name.
Sarah reportedly told one of her superiors that she selected the Gridly as her first ship because of the name.
A year after graduation,I crossed paths with a mutual friend in San Diego and over drinks in the Gas Light district, she first told me about a “Tiger Cruise”. A Tiger Cruise is where you fly to Hawaii, hop on a Navy ship while it is temporarily in port, and ride it back to San Diego. Sounds great! I told Sarah, if ever the opportunity, to sign me up without any question. On the Gridly, Sarah could only bring her Family for the tiger cruise — I was a third string alternate, at best. Three or four years later she became a Lieutenant in the reactor department on the USS John C. Stennis, Nimitz class aircraft carrier. Bigger boat (biggest), higher rank, and the end of an eight month deployment finally resulted in invites all around.
On February 11, 2013 Sarah invited her family and a handful of our high school friends on a tiger cruise sometime at the end of April. The catch – she needed to know in-or-out in three days and she wouldn’t know definitive cruise dates for at least another month. If an officer on an aircraft carrier asks if you want to go on a tiger cruise you say, “yes”. Most people that get to see this side of aircraft carrier life were duped by a navy recruiter six months earlier. This will give you a week long taste, without a four year commitment.
Unfortunately, due to scheduling conflicts, none of our friends could make it. Two were in grad school finals, one had a wedding, one was getting married, and the rest simply couldn’t take off work with such little notice. That’s too bad, because, in addition to a tiger cruise being a once-in-a-life-time opportunity, this was a tiger cruise with an officer. This, we found out during the trip, makes a big difference.
All tiger cruises go from Pearl Harbor to San Diego, so first you must fly to Hawaii. The ship arrives in port on the on April 21st and does not leave until the 24th. During this time, all of the sailors are treated to a little R&R while the ship refuels and replenishes. They load $500,000 worth of food on board to feed the crew and tigers for the next six days. Whenever the boat is in port, the reactor watches are staged in 24 hour increments. So Sarah was able to leave the boat when it arrived on Sunday, but had to return the following morning and stand watch from 7am-7am.
Downtown Honolulu and Waikiki beach are very metropolitan, so if you’re looking for surf and sun, it’s best to rent a car and drive around to the north or east side of the island. I didn’t do that and fell directly into the Waikiki tourist trap.
starting the cruise.
The cruise was scheduled at the end of March for April 23rd-29th, 2013. Sarah invited five tigers: Her mother Carol, father Frank, aunt Marie, 5th grade nephew Gabe, and Me.
The trip from Hawaii to San Diego takes about six days. The boat travels between 17-22 knots/hour, powered by its two Westing House nuclear reactors. The reactors generate steam, which in turn powers four 70,000HP forward and 7,000HP in reverse to each of the four propeller shafts. Each shaft is 2-3ft in diameter and is spinning a prop that weighs about 30 tons. The shaft connects to the motor through a reduction gear that is so specialized and so finely machined that it too expensive for even the Navy to own and is the one thing on the boat they rent. If there is a problem, the shaft is broken in three parts and can be de-coupled from the reduction gear to prevent damage.
The reported top speed for a Nimitz class carrier is 30kts. The bridge had a printed plac specifying reactor RPM @ 170 for 34kts. The general “wink wink” consensus is the boat can go considerably faster and we heard rumors that she could cruise 50kts. I wouldn’t rule this out, but this particular rumor sounded more like fiction than fact.
The quick history of nuclear powered aircraft carriers begins with the first nuclear powered carrier – the USS Enterprise. It was commissioning in 1958 and used 8, nuclear sub reactors. It wasn’t until almost 20 years later, in 1975 that the first Nimitz class carrier was commissioning – utilizing 2 new larger A4W reactors. These “super carriers” had significantly longer decks and increased fuel capacity to accommodate emerging jet technology. Today there are 10 Nimitz class carriers, with the George HW Bush being the last commissioned in 2009. The next class of carriers will be called the Gerald Fords.
Our carrier, the John C. Stennis, CVN74 was commissioning in 1995 and is finishing its eight or ninth deployment. Right before we joined the Stennis, US and North Korean relations were tenser than they’d been since the Korean war. We joked with Sarah about needing to pack for Korean weather in case the Stennis was re-routed to the conflict. In fact, this can’t happen. The Stennis is heading home concluding an eight month tour, and before it reach Hawaii it was met by a supply ship at sea that off loaded all of its armament. This includes all the munitions for the jets, the on board self defenses, and most of their fuel. During our week long tiger cruise, they will burn up the remaining fuel performing air shows and basic flight ops.
The carrier is regularly refueled at sea by other ships. They take on food, basic supplies, and jet fuel, and send off mail from an on board US Post office. The carrier also has a full machine shop with skilled techs and welders, so sometimes it will take on parts or provide support for the other ships in the battle group. The machine shop is in the middle of the ship, two rows below the hanger deck. It has basic manual tools like a break, sheer, band saw, punch, four lathes, mill, drill press, and welding station. They do not have any CNC equipment and none of the guys had heard of a 3D printer.
When I arrived, one of the welders had recently been shifted to an admin roll. On his break, he came down to practice stick welding. I joined him in the weld room and watched him lay two beads before some of the other guys joined to give him a hard time. Everyone kept joking, “Hey! Surprised you still know how to do that…”. The supervisor told me they recently turned new motor shafts for the USS Mobile Bay’s fire suppression pumps. The Mobile Bay is our support cruiser for the battle group and all four of their pumps were off line, which means they have no fire suppression.
Typically the Carrier travels with a large entourage, but for our return trip the Mobile Bay and a nuclear sub are our only escorts. In “home” waters the carrier can travel with limited protection. The Mobile bay left a day before the carrier and will arrive at the same time – “for speed you can’t beat nuclear power”. By day three we still have not see the cruiser and no one is suppose to know where the sub is. The sub is on a strictly “need to know basis”. To that point, there is a new radar on the boat. It is their fastest radar at 300 revolutions per minute and designed to refresh fast enough to detect a subs periscope. Unfortunately, every now-and-then this detects our subs scope. When this happens, everyone in the room is told to immediately look away and pretend they didn’t see anything.
arriving at port and an introduction to carrier life.
We watch the ship come into port on Sunday April 21st. It takes about 2 hours until everything is secure, but if you’ve ever tied up and secured even a small boat, you’ll understand that this is quite the feat. The boat is brought into the harbor by two or three tugs.
Fun Fact: upon visiting the forecastle (pronounced Folk-Soul) early day 1, I watched them replace the covers securing the anchor chain. Apparently, when entering the harbor the anchors are made ready to drop in case of an emergency. When dropping the anchor, fathoms are marked in red/white/blue painted on the chain. If you see yellow, run! The anchor did not reach the bottom and there is not enough time to stop it before it tears off the bow. The forecastle is a wide, open room with small pen port holes that look directly on the sea.
The boat pulls parallel to the pier and the tugs slowly push it closer and closer. Then, from three different spots on the ship – bow, midship, and stern – a canister with a small line is fired by an M14 to the crew waiting on the dock. We were watching the ship approach the dock for almost 45 minutes and not expecting the gunshot “pow”. At each point they send over three small lines. These are attached to six larger lines, which are attached to six even larger lines, which are secured to moorings on the dock.
Once the ship is secure, a crane begins to assemble the brow — a tower that connects to the hanger bay. Within 20 minutes the first crew starts to filter off. The ship has a crew of 5000 with an 80%/20% male to female ratio. We heard one report that this 80/20 ratio is the tipping point for females to start getting recognized as a part of any military group.
Sarah had to power down the reactor, so it was another hour before she was able to greet us at the end of the 1500’+ long pier. Tigers are not allowed on the ship until they are greeted by their sponsor. It was a teary-eyed greeting between Sarah and her mother after eight long months at sea. The ship will remain in harbor for another two days to offload equipment and take on enough food for the tigers. The majority of the sailors will spend some R&R time in Hawaii on a short leave. They setup tents with BBQ grills and beer coolers near the ship so enlisted men and women can easily take a break from the ship without traveling into town. Of the 5000, about 1000 sailors will remain in Hawaii to make room for about 1000 tigers. The ship is headed for an 18 month “refit” so there is plenty of time to regroup for the next deployment.
We are instructed to be on the boat by midnight April 23rd. We arrive late in the evening and are in our bunks by 11pm. Sarah has placed her father midship, directly above our dining hall to limit the number of stairs wells he has to navigate. Gabe is suppose to sleep nearby, but rather than release an 11 year old on six helpless navy sailors in the middle of the night, Sarah decides Gabe will join her, Aunt Marie, and her mother in her room. Sarah’s quarters are in “blue tile country” or officer quarters in the bow of the boat. The room has two berths and she typically shares it with her fellow officer and friend, Bridget. However, Bridget recently shipped home for training, and was told not to return since the boat was already headed back.
Blue tile country is nicer than enlisted quarters – with more personalized spaces and better bathrooms. My room is in the same area – it’s a coed floor – and is the 17’x17’ home to six guys. The room is split in half – one side has six rail car like births and the other is a common area with six chairs, metal lockers, and a TV. The birth side is divided by an isle – four births on one side of the path and two births and a dresser/locker on the other. In the common space, several of the locker doors open down to serve as waist high writing desks. The week before we arrived on the ship, my room received a new junior officer slated for last minute reactor training. To accommodate the two tigers added to the room – me and one of the room dwellers dad’s – they added two bunks to the common area. The result was a chair mountain and even tighter living quarters. But still better than being enlisted, and most of the reactor guys work all the time, so our room was rarely occupied by more than one or two guys.
The aircraft carrier is often referred to as a “floating city”, but really it’s more like a floating “large corporation”. A city has character and is defined by its geographic and cultural features. On the carrier everyone has designated roles, uniforms, and departments. There is a MWR department (moral welfare and recreation) that performs a role similar to HR. Most people keep to their department, “co-workers”, and living quarters. They often don’t know many specifics about, or personnel from, other parts of the ship. It reminds me of talking to my friends that work in a 7000 person division of a large insurance company in Hartford Connecticut. It is a very close community, but the predominant tie is every one is on the job.
It’s further separated from a city because there are designated mess halls, designated dining hours, rules about dating, and only two stores on the ship. One called “the mall” and one called “the seven eleven”. These consist of tobacco products, candy bars, t-shirts, and a few basic amenities like soap and detergent. That’s it. You cannot use money on the ship, you have to use “navy money”. This is deposited on a debit card, much like adding money to a gift certificate. The debit card has two parts – a chip and a swipe band. The chip on the card reads out navy money. The band will read regular money so it can be used on land during leave. This is specifically for navy personnel who can’t get a debit card from a bank. Sarah brought us to the store on the first day to buy our tiger cruise “swag” before it all sold out. She had to pay for everything since we didn’t have navy bucks.
The first day I’m up at 05:30 to get a shower in before they turn off the water at 07:00. We are scheduled to cast off at 09:00, and they can’t dump waste water in the harbor. The shower is hot, the pressure good, and the crowd very light (neither true at certain hours) – there was maybe one or two other guys walking through a bathroom with seven toilets and five showers. The bathrooms are not coed, but there is still a dress code. To get to-and-from the restroom you must be covered by a robe or swim trunks and a T-Shirt. Shower shoes, a towel, and your own soap and shampoo are a must.
Cleaned and dressed, it’s time to eat. I think. This is the first unguided trip through the boat – which, to a laymen, is essentially a maze of stairwells and identical passages. We have also received zero instructions at this point. One of the junior officers in my room describes how to get to ward room three, the officer’s mess (real instructions):
“Go down the hall and take a left to the stairwell, and take it down two levels to the hanger bay. You are going to cross ¾ of the hanger bay until right before hanger bay 3. Take the second door from the bulk head. Go down one floor and enter the P way. Take a right and then another right onto the “I way”. At the end of the hall take a left through the doors into the officer’s mess and Wardroom 3 is about half way down the hall.”
To do this, you must walk under several F18’s, through lines of enlisted soldiers, and must open and close at least three water tight hatches – it’s about a five minute walk. Seeing the stunned look in my eye, the officer volunteered to take me as far as the I way. As you start to learn how to navigate the ship, it all becomes relative to know locations. Wardroom 3. The Hanger bay. The work out room. And any other space you regularly go. Some guys love to find new routes; others never deviate from a familiar route, saying it’s one of the few things they can control.
I mentioned earlier it’s good to go on a tiger cruise with an officer. The enlisted dining halls have lines that go up, around, and across the hanger bay for hours. On the other hand, the officer’s quarters never have more than a 2 minute line, even at peak lunch hours. They also have better food, more variety, and a guaranteed place to sit down. Enlist lines can last so long, that some guys scam the system with a technique called, “riding the line”, which is where you stand in line until you get to the front and then go around again – this way you don’t have to go back to work. An average enlisted diner may wait an hour each meal, and eat for half an hour each meal. This is significant considering the meals are spaced 3-5 hours apart. The other side of this coin — we met a tiger mother/son, whose son’s only job was to cook made-to-order meals for two captains.
Most of our meals were in Wardroom 3. This has a nice lounge connected to a dining room with table cloths and rolled napkin silverware. We heard a lot of grumbling about the food quality. At first it seems good and varied. There is a hot meal with two or three options served cafeteria style, salad bar, sandwich bar, fried foods, cereal, plated desserts, and a table in the center of the room filled with an unlimited supply of great tasting cookies. By the forth or fifth meal, you realize that this variety is all the variety you are going to get. If you want to be a healthy eater, it takes a very conscious effort. The health food is limited and unvaried between meals – ice berg lettuce salad bar. All the bad food tastes better and makes you feel worse. The unlimited cookies, packaged cookies, ice cream, and other pre-packaged un-healthy sugar licks are about the only thing available everywhere, all the time.
Meals last for a 2 hour window, four times a day. If you have watch or work and are forced to miss a meal, a limited selection of hot food (read burritos) is available in Wardroom 1&2, along with cereal and other packaged foods. Sarah told us about eating a bowl of cereal that had 10-15 bugs crawling in it. When she showed the “culinary specialist” – the name for the cafeteria staff – they replied without raising an eyebrow: “yeah, that happens”. Apparently you usually find the bugs in the salad bar – so much for the one healthy option. Several of the crew members mentioned using Amazon.com to order healthier microwave meals they could keep under their desk. Everyone has commented the food had improved for tiger week.
Later in the trip Sarah arranged a private tours of the kitchen for her Aunt Marie, who loves to cook. Our tour was given by a Lt. commander (L4) supply officer who was in charge of all supplies relating to personnel. This included kitchens, laundry, and bedding. He was a 37yo, academy grad with an MBA. This was a guy with “numbers” and he explained in great detail how hey ordered, loaded, and prepared the meals. He also had some outstanding numbers on boat consumption:
- They drink 150 gallons of coffee per day. 250 gallons with tigers on board.
- They eat 500 lbs of chicken per day.
- They purchased $500,000 worth of food in Hawaii for the tiger cruise and final 2 weeks until final port in Bremerton,WA.
- They wash 10,000lbs of laundry every day
And so on. They try to get a Replenishment at Sea or “Razz” every week. The RAS consists of connecting the two ships with rifle fired lines. The ships have to maintain a certain distance – not too far, and not too close. If either ship exceeds the designated boundaries, then fuel lines and connecting lines will automatically be severed. After a RAS the ship has fresh food for around 14 days and emergency supplies, including frozen goods and MREs for 35 days. That’s about $2m worth of food at anytime. Their meals rotate on a 14 day cycle. Many of the sailors claim a lack of variety, but the 14 day cycle is probably more varied than what most civilians eat. Because they have specific menus, they have to use specific vendors located around the world. This means shipping items like ice cream all the way to Dubai, but there isn’t really a better way to prepare a menu for 5000 people.
A good example, they invited four semi-celebrity chefs on board to each cook a meal for 400. Each chef was familiar with cooking at a large restaurant and still failed to prepare for more than 100 – the scale is hard to imagine. The kitchen’s equipment is all over-sized and designed to handle large quantities of food. It is easy to purchase large equipment, but hard to service – no one really knows how to deal with it. Some of their boiling pots where designed to flash boiling hundreds of pounds of potatoes and carrots. If possible, they prefer to have raw ingredients because these take up less space than prepared goods. So pre-made cookies are actually less desirable than flour, sugar, etc… The ship has seven galleys, two are dedicated to preparing food for the 300 officers and the other five service the remaining 4000-5000 men on the ship. They all eat the same thing, but the supply officer was very clear that even though it all starts out as the same chicken, in the end, the chicken prepared for 4000 men is not the same as that prepared for 400.
They try to keep fresh ingredients. The “canary in the coal mine” for freshness is always the bananas. They will last 5-7 days and are a good indication if the latest supplies have arrived. Occasionally, their vendors will provide more exotic fruits as the boat is heading closer to home. The crew gets excited – “I don’t know what kind of fruit that is! We must be headed home”. The supply officers track how much food is thrown off board at the end of each meal. Small ships, like a destroyer, will save leftovers and re-use them at later meals. The carrier has enough people and enough funding that they don’t save anything — it all gets tossed after each meal. To reduce the amount of waste, they try to make their meals palatable by everyone on the ship, and play to the ships demographics. This means most of the meals are very bland, because the boat is very diverse. If you want something spicier, add hot sauce. Depending on the home base of the ship, the supply officers will try to take into account the ethnic make up of the ship – west coast cruises have more Asian sailors, east coast have more African Americans and they have different tastes. In the end, it’s less about stereotyping, and more about watching your waste and changing your menu accordingly.
When they bring fresh food on he boat, they try to get it into the freezer as fast as possible. Their freezer is -18 below, to flash freeze any germs. Stomach born illnesses are one of the major threats to a floating city, so they try to do everything they can to prevent their spread. In the morning, cooks will bring up what they need for the day and store it in large walk in fridges and freezers by the kitchen. The kitchen’s layout may have been logical at one time, but the ship is now 20 years old and as appliances were replaced and the ship overhauled, they stuck things where there was space.
Some of the ports around the world are frequented by aircraft carrier, so they have facilities and food services already in place at the dock. Others are first time stops. During this deployment, they stopped in Phuket for the first time, so the supply officers had to negotiate contracts for everything. The designated budget was $2.5M, as determined by input from the pentagon and the ships officers. It is expensive for several reasons – first, the suppliers know they are dealing with Uncle Sam’s deep pockets. Second, a ship this big needs very specific resources to dock. For this port they had to charter two barges from Bangkok at $130K each and arrange water taxis for 4000 men. Most vendors struggle, like the celebrity chefs, to understand what it means to provide transportation across the water for so many people.
When you talk to the Captain, you understand the Navy’s commitment to the ship – he explained how our 10 carriers are the key stone to the US global military presence. The Captain and the commanding officers have a private chef that will prepare their daily meals to order. If the ship has an Admiral on board, which ours and any forward deployed carrier group will, then the Admiral has his own galley and chef. But the commanding officers aren’t the only ones that eat well; every Sunday all of the officers are treated to a fancy brunch – if you make reservations. This includes shrimp, eggs Benedict, prime rib, and anything else you would expect from a 4star brunch. That evening they served lobster, steak, twice baked potatoes, and hot melted butter. It was really impressive.
Next to the reactor room personnel, the kitchen staff works harder than almost anyone on the boat. Unlike other positions though, they do not have to spend very much time performing drills. Probably once, every three months, they will practice cooking meals under battle conditions. This consists of ceiling the kitchen, wearing gas masks, practicing food containment procedures, and serving a limited menu to the operating crew.
After breakfast, every morning from 07:30 to 08:30 is material condition hour. For one hour, everyone on the boat stops what they are doing and cleans an assigned area. Some guys sweep the hanger deck, some scrub walls, others mop, and someone has to clean the bathrooms. Officers are assigned to supervise the clean, which is a must. Wandering the ship during MCH, it was not hard to find small pockets of enlisted crew polishing the same spot on the wall while they shared the latest ship gossip. Regardless, the ship is very clean for a greasy, jet filled, steam driven, 5000 sailor floating island. One of the sailors told me that the John C. Stennis’ initials, JCS, stood for “Just Clean Something.
What isn’t clean is the stairwell railing. Most of the stairwells descend at a 60 degree angle for 7-12 steps. I witnessed one or two experienced sailors ascend and descend without using the rails, but for the most part everyone slides their hands up and down the rails at all times. This makes it easy to spread germs and important to wash hands regularly before touching your food, eyes, or mouth. This year they gave all of the tigers a personal bottle of Purell hand sanitizer. The crew is not used to tiger germs and the tigers aren’t used to the crews, so sickness following a cruise is very common.
On the first day, after MCH, we performed a man overboard drill to simulate someone falling off the ship. When the MOB is called, the ship stops and a helicopter team is deployed to pick up the overboard sailor. In the meantime, the crew heads to designated areas and officers account for their people. It took us 40 minutes to get an accurate head count of everyone on the ship. They thought this was horrible, but it was still impressive to see a city of 5000 conduct a role call in half an hour. Guys get lost at sea regularly, so this is actually very serious.
exploring and learning.
Leaving port mid morning on the 24th, all the tigers and any non working crew, are invited on deck to watch the boat leave Pearl Harbor. When invited on deck, you should go. If the boat is deployed, the deck is usually off limits because of flight ops, high winds, or bad climate. Except for the hanger bay, which has four large openings for the elevators, and the bridge, there are no windows on the boat. The only exception is the captains ante room, which had two porthole windows. So if you’re the Captain of an aircraft carrier, this doesn’t apply to you. The hanger bay has a 26’ high ceiling and spans the width, and most of the length, of the boat. It is a central corridor that everyone walks through or across throughout the day. If you were working below deck, it would be easy to go more than a day or two without seeing sunlight. By the second day, we all switched our watches to military time. This was a must, because except for eating a certain type of food at each meal (breakfast food at breakfast, and so on), the day’s schedule has little to do with time. During the trip, Sarah had watch from 2am-7am and had to shift her sleep and meal schedule accordingly.
When arriving or departing from port, sailors volunteer or are “volun-told” to line the edge of the deck in their dress whites. Leaving port can take several hours, which is a long time to stand at attention in the heat. The ship had to back out of the dock and was again escorted by two or three tugs. I say two or three, because the ship is so big that it’s hard to see what’s going on all around it. As we passed along the channel, an announcer gave a brief history of the harbor, the Alabama Memorial, The battle ship Missouri, the sub base, dry docks, and the attack on Pearl on Dec. 7th,1942. It is interesting to note, the Missouri was commissioning in the 1940’s, decommissioning in the 50’s, recommissioned for the Korean war, decommissioned in the 70’s, recommissioned in the 1980’s by Ronald Regan in order to fulfill our goal of a 600 ship Navy and actually fought in the first Gulf war until it was retired again after its 50th birthday in 1992. The fact that anyone still knows how to turn the thing on, let alone run it is incredible.
Mid-channel, the tugs spin the Stennis so we are facing the right direction, cast off, and we continue out of port under our own power at a 10kt clip. Within an hour we can’t see land and are cruising at 23kts. We clear the deck so they can start preparing for flight ops. Later in the trip we would get to visit the bridge and I actually got to steer this 90,000 ton ship. The boat has a lot of windage – with 23kts forward our apparent head wind was 40kts. They had different wind indicators for helicopters and planes to determine when it was safe to land – the ship needs the wind to be coming over the bow. The steering was set to “computer manual” and you constantly turned a 10” wheel trying to maintain a heading. If the heading indicator climbed, turn right, if it fell turn left. At that speed the ship was limited to a 2 degree rudder movement – anything greater and everyone on the ship would know you were turning. At one point while steering, the bridge watch called for the navigator to take control so they could land a helicopter.
The bridge is eight or night floors above the flight deck and has visibility for 10-12 miles on a clear day. There are multiple radar systems – the primary one can see up to 200nm. On the short range radar, a large green screen with a sweeping line and lots of “blips”, I asked the operator to find the helicopter that just took off the ship – surprisingly he couldn’t. He finally concluded something about a broken knob, looked out the window and pointed at the helicopter instead. The bridge watch in charge of steering the ship is always lead by a pilot. The pilot on our watch was normally stationed on land and was deployed with the carrier as a rotating educational program. The actual captain of the carrier also has to be a pilot – a very serious man.
To support the pilot’s navigation, there are digital charts and physical charts. New, paper charts are brought flown in weekly and are very expensive. Manual chart plotting is an important redundancy and backup to the computer systems. The chart room is right behind the bridge, with large pullout drawers holding the drawings. The importance of a redundant chart plot was learned by the missile destroyer USS Port Royal in 2009. Shortly after leaving dry dock, the ship was conducting close shore operations off Pearl Harbor when it ran aground on a reef. The novice skipper’s GPS told him he was 200 yards off his actual position. That cost a lot of guys their job and about 45 million in repairs. Oops.
We are finally given schedules — they say there will be static display and flight opps from 10:00-18:00. That’s it. We are now free to roam the ship. The only place that is off limits is the reactor room and a few places that you need an appointment to visit, like the bridge. The only thing Sarah could show us relating to the reactor room was “Sherwood Forest”, these are the pipes that vent the reactor room air. In case of an emergency, these are closed and the ventilation is filtered through the water. One of the reactor guys said, “I don’t know why I have to be so secretive, all I do is watch a gauge all day long”. The other goes, “Me too” and points to his wrist watch.
Before we start wandering, Sarah explains how to navigate the boat using ship addresses.
My room is: 02-54-4-L (above hanger, near bow, port side)
Gabes room is: 3-190-12-L (below hanger, midship, port side)
The first number is the level. If it has a zero before it, it is above the hanger deck, if not, it is below. The second number is the position on the ship. The lower the number, the closer to the bow. 190 is around mid-ship. The third number is the room – these are a little confusing because the room number grows from the center line of the ship odd numbers are starboard and even are port. 12,10,8,6,4,2,1,3,5,7,9,11. An easy way to remember is “PESO” port even, starboard odd. The final letter is the type of space, L = living. After a while, you can use this to find any place on the ship. But that “while” must be longer than 6 days, because we never used any addresses to find anything. You essentially walked in the direction of something you were trying to find and asked people along the way. We also had a 4 digit room number you could call with a regular “land line” telephone. The “JDial” for my room was 5423. Calling someone on their JDial was like calling the early 90’s – it was useless unless you knew someone was going to be in their room. If you missed them, you had to wait until arranged meet times or hope to bump into each other around the ship (pretty unlikely).
After a day or two, I had my bearings, but I still had to navigate everywhere from a known position. First go to hanger bay 2. This leads to Wardroom 3. From there you can find such and such. I wish we had more facts on the number of rooms, toilets, stairwells, etc. but, that’s something found in manuals and spec sheets, not really something most of the crew could tell you. Instead, you had to focus on job specifics and life stories, which was more interesting anyway.
The ship’s crew appears to be predominantly younger sailors. While the overall age range was probably 18-45, most of the officers were in their late 20’s and most of the enlisted were younger than 24. Of course, the chiefs, senior chiefs, and master chiefs were all older, as were the higher ranking officers.
Sarah went to the academy, which automatically makes you an officer, and after 5 years in the Navy she is now a Lieutenant, or 3L. To become a Lt. Commander or 4L she would need another 10-12 years and another 20 years to become a 5L. The Captain of the aircraft carrier is a 6L and you must be a pilot to command a carrier. On the ship, there is someone in charge of the 3500 sailors and someone in 2000 guys in the airwing. The Captain or CO is in charge of both groups. The Admiral is in charge of everything in the Carrier Strike Group and potentially everything in that theater. He’s a big deal, and was recently promoted after being in the Navy for 27 years. The admiral has his own bridge deck, state room, and galley that are separate from the rest of the carrier. We saw him leaving the ship when we pulled into port, but only 6l’s and up interact with the Admiral, except for the 3L Lieutenant that carries his stuff wherever he goes.
During a tour, we sat in the Admiral’s chair. They removed a lot of the “tech” and electronic equipment from the room for the tour, but it was obvious that he could get a great view of what was happening all over the boat. When the Admiral is not on board, this is one of the largest unused spaces on the ship. We also went to the Captains room, mentioned earlier. In addition to a port hole, it has carpet from the US Senate floor and tile sent as a present from the British after they burned the capital building. Of course it’s all very gaudy and none of it goes together, but its history is very cool. The Captain also had the wood shop on the ship build him a replica of the desk used by Senator John Stennis from Iowa. Stennis served for over 40 years and was one of the biggest supporters of the modern Navy. His saying, “look ahead”, is the motto of his name sake carrier, CVN 74.
If you are not an officer, then you join the navy as an enlisted sailor. We heard time-and-again, how people told the recruiter what they wanted to do – fly airplanes, drive the ship, work with computers. The recruiter would tell them working in the air frame shop is “like flying”, and 11 years later they are fixing engines and no where near the planes. Once you are trained and qualified for a job, there is a good chance that will be your job until you retire. The saying is, “Choose your rate, choose your fate.”
I talked to another guy in the air shop charged with repairing airplane body panels. He liked his job, but when the ship was last in the yard and the airwing flew off, he was given a temporary assignment detail (TAD) to work in hydraulics. He LOVED hydraulics. He liked solving hydraulic problems, bending pipe, and even doing the simple math. When the airwing returned, they reassigned him back to body panel repair. To permanently switch to hydraulics he needed to take a 3 month class. The Navy will pay for this class, but once he’s certified he’ll be doing hydraulics until he retires in another 16 years. He likes it, but he’s not sure if he likes it that much.
Choose your rate, choose your fate.
If you are enlisted, you are in for 20 years. At 20, you can retire with 50% salary. For each additional year in, your retirement pay goes up by 2.5%, so if you stick around for another 10 years you will get 75% salary. We talked to a lot of guys who’d been in for 10-13 and had no regrets, but weren’t thrilled with their job either. Since they started at 18, they were still young and a lot of them had plans for when they retired at 20 years service. Talking to one of the girls running the arrestor wires, she planned to use the GI bill to go back to school and become a nurse. Just seven more years.
There are also “90 Day” guys on the boat. These are people that, for one reason or another – usually delinquent or dim witted – have been sent to the ship to perform a single duty for the next 90 days. At the end, they may move up the food chain or get transferred to a different 90 day job. 90 day jobs are usually in the kitchen, sanitation, and another horrible manual labor jobs. This is not the cream of the crop. There is a test you have to take to get into the Navy called the Armed Service Vocational Aptitude test. Apparently it’s “sign your name” easy. So the two scariest words in the Navy are “ASVAB Waiver”. This means they couldn’t pass the test and had to get a waiver (yikes!).
We heard a story about a “90 day guy” who requested permission to travel to Louisiana once the ship arrived in San Diego. The officer in charge of granting permission asked a few questions and, as the answers came up short, started to “peel the onion”. Apparently this guy determined airfare for him and his kids was too expensive, so would save money by driving. Since he didn’t have a car, he would buy one with his $22,000 tax refund. How was he getting a $22k refund? His wife discovered you can plug numbers into Turbo Tax – the more you deducted, the bigger your refund. They claimed 4 homes and $80k in line item deductions. The commander politely showed the man priceline.com and suggested he not mess with the IRS.
It is not uncommon for officers to provide support and mentoring to young or trouble sailors. Many of the younger guys come from trouble back grounds and the Navy is a big transition, especially being on a carrier. To give you an idea, a Navy Seal who had previously been on a carrier told a friend that when things got tough in BUDS seal training, he just thought of the carrier to remind himself it could always be worse.
We did hear they are making some changes. The ASVAB Waiver is now void if you fail the physical training exam three times. Another girl in jet engine maintenance complained the navy was “getting soft”. She explained there is now a “stress card”, you can play when getting yelled at by a superior. Once played, the officer is not allowed to yell at you for at least an hour. She told us that was for “sissys” and liked to see if her superiors could out yell her mother.
This girl also happened to be engaged to one of the on deck airwing mechanics in another division. They’ve been together in secret for a long time, but recently had to tell their superior officers in order to secure time off for an October wedding. Dating on the ship is very taboo. You cannot date anyone who is in your division or above or below your rank. If you are a girl on the ship, just being friends with a boy will generate rumors you are “sleeping together”, which can undermine a woman’s authority as an officer. This makes an eight month deployment as a female officer incredibly lonely. The few people who did have relationship on the ship said they were very difficult. On the boat, lingering glances and public displays of affection are not permissible. If your loved one is off the boat, at least you can Skype and write emails without scrutiny.
For the tiger cruise, there are rules against inviting your spouse on the ship. These are for practical reasons – no hanky-panky or distractions during duty, and, in the unlikely case of attack, to prevent a child from losing both parents. Of course, on a ship of 5500 not everyone follows the rules. We witnessed several guys being disciplined after it was learned they convinced their friends to invite their wives. When caught, they claimed they had no idea, despite being roomed next door to each other. One of the guys was caught when his officer spotted him carrying a pink suit case across the hanger bay.
For the most part, the ship has a very A-sexual feel. Everyone is very professional and, as far as we could tell, the women on the ship were afforded a great deal of respect. With some prodding, I got three 19 year old air crew men to open up about their thoughts on the ships ladies. One claimed he had a “top six list” in his head and as he took his father around the ship would pointed out, “see her, that’s number four”. When asked what they would do back in port one of the boys said, “when I get home, I’m going to get 90 beers and 250 video games and see all ya’ll in a few weeks”, so they might not represent everyone on the boat.
life at sea.
After 245 days at sea the crew is pushed to its limit. This is the second deployment for some of them, with only a four month break in between eight months at sea for each trip. Now, picture 1000 of their crew mates getting off in Hawaii and being replaced by your grandparents. This is exactly what happened, and on top of that, the tigers were given free rein, priority to pass in stairwells, first dibs at meals, long showers, and encouraged to ask as many ignorant questions as we could. Through out the cruise, we all heard a sailor throwing a tantrum because of the tigers. From a near by birth you could hear banging, slamming, and cursing, with the word, “something something, those #@$@# tigers”, being shouted.
Evening commotion wasn’t always banging. Sometimes it sounded jubilant and it was hard to tell exactly where it came from. We were told about certain underground fights in different divisions – after a big drill, an entire division might gather in a 30 man bunk room to brawl. Why? After six month on the ship, guys don’t really need a reason. When we pulled into port, Sarah told us she counseled her men to not drink, since the last time they pulled into port all the guys got “piss drunk and started beating the hell out of each other.”
Dealing with drunks returning to the ship is the primary job of the security force. There are about twenty gun carrying security guards on the boat. We never saw any of them during the cruise except when touring security. They said they occasionally break up fights, but it’s usually drunk sailors getting back on the boat that given them the most trouble. Their primary goal is to avoid someone showing up for their job inebriated, so the morning after the first night in port they will perform random alcohol checks. If you show up intoxicated and are sick they send you to the infirmary, otherwise it’s off to the Brig. To become a security guard on the ship is a three week course.
Showing up drunk isn’t the only thing that can get you in trouble. When touring the weapons magazine, I asked one of the officers if he had a tiger. He told me he wasn’t allowed to bring a tiger this trip, because he was in trouble. During their last stop in Dubai he was accused of calling one of the black sailors a derogatory term. He unconvincingly claimed it was a false accusation, but when he had his hearing in front of the lieutenants, they managed to find every black lieutenant on the boat to hear his case. After a board, you are yelled at by the chief and then sentenced by the CO. He was able to keep his rank and pay, but has been placed on probation and his record will permanently reflect a poor performance this cruise which will reflect when he re-ups in a few months.
Not everyone “re-ups”. Most of the reactor room, including Sarah, see themselves as finished at the end of their obligated service period. This has a lot to do with work hours, quality of life, and their ability to get a job or graduate degree in the “real world”. Private universities love a naval academy grad with four or five years of field and leadership training.
In an effort to maintain moral, the ship has a MWR officer (moral wellness and recreation). The head of the Stennis MWR was actually a civilian. His job was to provide ship activities like bingo, movie nights, ping pong, and ice cream socials. They did three or four bingo games on the trip and gave away serious prizes, including a few cars. These were waiting in the parking lot when the ship pulled into port. Every night there was a concert with a live band the ship hired to entertain the tigers. One day Gabe, Sarah’s nephew, signed me and him up for sumo wrestling. There was even a magician on board as part of the crew – he was Assistant Damage Control Assistant, or as they called him on the ship, “assistant to the damage control assistant”. He regularly performed magic during the deployment. Gabe learned a new magic trick and asked if he could find the magician to “shame him” with his trick…it was suggested it might be hard to embrace a guy who willingly practices magic on an aircraft carrier.
Some of the guys would kill time with TV and DVDs. The ship had a CC TV system with three movie channels. It played different movies throughout the day and a few other channels with educational content about how to “change the oil on a 30HP fire pump” or “improve your drilling response time”. If not watching TV, you could visit one of the workout rooms or running areas. There were two small gyms on the ship with traditional weights. The weight rooms stink, with little or no ventilation, and are filled with big dudes – most of the girls said they didn’t like to use these gyms. There were also tread mills and cardio equipment spread throughout the ship. One room on the port side, level 3, had a dozen of bikes. Another room near the forecastle, behind some pipes and possibly near a puddle of oil, were tread mills. They also kept treadmills in the hanger bay. When we first arrived it looked like these were in storage or waiting repair, but that evening we saw sailors running on them.
My favorite work out spot was on the third floor of the port deck. They had two running machines, an Urg, and a eight ellipticals squirreled away on an outdoor sponson. The machines had to be self powered which made running difficult, but the view was incredible. While running, you could watch the boat cut through the water at 23kts on your morning 5k. Other divisions, like the EOD bomb squad guys, which I will discuss later, brought their own equipment. At night, you could see many different groups of enlisted sailors using cardboard scraps to perform different workout routines on the hanger bay’s “rhino lined” floor.
Staying in shape is important because everyone is given a yearly physical fitness test. The prepackaged food certainly doesn’t help. One guy in the reactor room – not a fan of working out – said he fasted for six days before his PT test. This was especially difficult because his test fell on a Saturday night. Saturdays are referred to as “Fatterdays” because the ship tends to serve “sports bar” oriented meals with pizza and wings.
Other amenities on the ship include a barber shop – which was closed, and a Starbucks called “Java Johns”. Starbucks really is everywhere.
night, mornings, watch, and more visits.
Dinner was from 17:00-19:00 and usually ended with an “ice cream social”. Many of the sailors commented how much they enjoyed “Tiger Ice Cream”. Most people were exhausted by early evening from climbing stairwells and interviewing sailors, and could be found in their berths well before lights out at 22:00. The time zone changed three times during the cruise, usually just after revelry. At “lights out” there was a prayer by the ships Chaplin and the white light was switched to red.
Sleep quality among our group of tigers varied from berth-to-berth. Frank was in an actual bed and never needed more than a sheet. Mary was miserable in her cot. Some how, my room dualed as a meat locker from the hours of 2am-5am. By early morning I’m fairly certain you could see your breath in my room. This was opposite of the enlisted rooms, where they can rarely close their bunk curtains due to the heat.
One place on the ship that was actually refrigerated was the weapons magazine. The explosives on the ship are called “ordinance” and they are kept in the weapons magazine which spans nine floors on the forward, port side of the ship. It is accessed by two stairwells and two elevators – a primary and secondary. There is also a back up elevator that can be manually operated with a hydraulic lever. Each floor is separated by a blast door and can be completely flooded in one hour by the sprinkler system. The sprinklers are used if there is a danger of explosion or if the temperature rises above 99 degrees. They have four or five chiller per floor mounted to the ceiling to keep the room cool. In the Middle East, these almost weren’t enough and the room reached 98 degrees one afternoon — close call.
The magazines hold a wide variety of ordinance including 500lbs, 1000lbs, and 2000lbs bombs. During this deployment they primarily launched 500lbs bombs. All of their bombs can be reconfigured for guidance by laser, gps, or both. The 2000lbs bombs come in a variety of forms from bunker busters to long range missiles that follow the contour of the land for over 100 miles using their own wings and fuel source. The plans cannot land on the ship with a 2000lbs bomb, so if they mounted, they must be used. All of the weapons come in moisture sealed packing from the manufacture. Their warranty period starts the day they are opened.
There are five units in the weapons magazine. One is in charge of the elevators, one the ordinance, and one loads the 20 caliber Gatling gun on for the F18’s. These are manually loaded from a bullet bag with a hand crank. The guns shoot 1500 rounds per minute and hold about 500 bullets – that’s one or two squeezes of the trigger. Another of the groups is in charge of the ships small arms including shotguns, M16’s with rocket launcher attachment for flares, and the M14 for shooting the ropes to connect to another ship during a RAS or docking. The final group serves as the last line of defense for the ship and must be able to man the ten 50cal machine guns stationed around the ship in less than eight minutes. These guys are stationed at different mounts when entering or leaving port.
The machine guns are definitely a tool-of-last resort. The ships primary weapons system is the 75 jet fighters on board, but it also has several other defenses. The first are the missile batteries with 8-12 long range sparrow missiles. They can fire at targets 9-12 nautical miles away and target incoming missiles, planes, or ships. This system uses the ships long range radar and travels at a relatively slow 600-700kts. The launcher is loaded from the upper deck by a crane and takes about a day to load and unload. The sparrow missile does have a shelf life, so they must occasionally fire, unload, and reload the system. A “use it or lose it” policy. One of the guys in the magazine commented that the sparrow was a “really old missile”.
The next line of defense uses four radars – two mounted at the top of the mast and two near the flight deck, to launch missiles up to 5 nautical miles. These are incredibly fast – something like 2000 fps. They are designed to intercept incoming threats and are mounted on shock absorbing platforms so they can maintain accuracy even after an impact.
If something gets within a mile of the carrier, the ship is defended by the CWIZ. This Gatling gun fires a 3000/ round per minute wall of tungsten shells at anything that moves toward the ship. The CWIZ’s two radars are controlled by three servo motors and cannot detect between friend and foe, so all friendly aircraft are instructed to fly away from he plane when the CWIZ is activated. When fired, it identifies the largest target, and then subsequent smaller targets as that breaks up. Originally it was set so sensitive that it would accidentally vaporize a passing flock of birds. The CWIZ holds 1400 rounds in a helixical loader and takes about 15 minutes to reload. The Navy originally used depleted uranium shells, but after a few years they found out these were hard on the sailors and switched to tungsten. The CWIZ isn’t really the right defense weapon for a carrier – it was said to be much happier on a smaller ship like a destroyer. During this round of ship repairs, they are going to upgrade to a new close range defense system and these CWIZ probably will end up on another ship.
Reusing equipment is very common in the Navy. If it works, is still within it’s serviceable life, and there isn’t a reason to change technology, then the equipment will get moved to the next boat. We saw this in the laundry room where they were using fifty year old washers and thirty year old dryers pulled off a battleship. The supply officer said large scale washing tech hadn’t changed much, so they will continue to run these until the day they die. The washers can handle a 200lb bag of clothes and each dry can take up to 600lbs of wet clothes per cycle. Currently only six of the twelve large dryers are working and they will all get overhauled and repaired when the boat gets back to Bremerton, WA.
Laundry is dropped in a central location. Depending on your rank, your clothes may be pressed and returned. There is also a local “laundry mat” that has the equivalent of two or three laundry mats of traditional washers and dryers. Both officers showing us the laundry room were unsure what the enlisted guys did to get their laundry. Remember, you want to be an officer in the navy. This part of the ship also features a press, dry cleaners, and in-house seamstress for sewing on patches, ranks, and promotions.
Ranks alternate between gold and silver. A 3L lieutenant is gold, a 4L lieutenant commander is Silver, a 5L captain is gold. Officers have different colored belts, buckles, hats, and lapel insignia, but otherwise look almost the same as everyone else. When walking past anyone with a higher rank you always salute. Almost everyone wears a one piece blue jump suit, digital blue camo, or the colored shirt that corresponds with their work group. Red is ordinance, green flight maintenance/crew, yellow flight deck, white safety.
Within these colored shirts, you can usually spot the chiefs because they are older. The chief, “works for a living”. It goes Chief, Senior Chief, and Master Chief. Master Chief is the highest ranking enlisted rank. Talk to any of the chiefs and you realize these are the guys that have been around long enough to actually know how to mobilize a bunch of 20 year olds to keep the boat running and the planes flying. Speaking with the “Flying Aces” master chief, in charge of maintaining 17 jets on the boat, he said he stayed around past his 20 year retirement because he enjoyed teaching the young guys what to do. He started in 1986 working on the F-14 tom cats. A lot had changed in 27 years. He loved the F-14’s but they required a lot of maintenance. For every hour of flight they required 50 hours of on-ground-service. The F-18’s only require 8 hours. The F-18’s biggest problem is their anti-radar paint is easily corroded by the ocean air.
There are three levels of airwing maintenance. The operational guys — like the master chief above — work directly in the hanger bay and on the flight deck to keep the planes running. They do their own inspections and maintenance. If there is something wrong with the plane, it will give a 3 digit code their maintenance crew can look up to diagnose and service the problem.
While I was talking the MC, he was showing a young guy how to inspect and tape cracks and fractures on the surface of the wing. If there is a serious problem with a body panel or engine, then it will go back to the AIMD repair shop. To repair body panels, the ship is equipped with the tools to modify sheet metal and aluminum plate, as well as make vacuum molded carbon fiber parts. Our “hydraulics lover” mentioned earlier showed me how they can use a 24 hour, low temp, vacuum bagged cook process for molding and cooking carbon panels. Most of the wings have an aluminum leading edge that is easy to replace and easier to crush if the jet should run into something.
The body shop shares its space with jet engine repair. The jet shop always has one or two engines ready to “drop in”. Surprisingly, the airwing maintenance crew can swap an engine in minutes. The jet attaches at a single, central point and is a connected to the plane by three secret data port connections. If an engine needs repair they have diagnostic sensors and a borescope that can snake through to look for cracks in the fan blades. If they cannot repair or replace the fan blades, then the engine will be pulled off the ship during the next RAS and get repaired in a ground facility.
After a repair, the engine must be tested. At the back of the jet shop there is a sound proof room with a window over looking the aft deck. The engine is connected to a sled and rolled outside so the backside of the jet hangs over the transom. It is connected with nine different sensors and hooked to a Windows NT touch screen. The operator’s job is to break the engine here, before it’s mounted to a jet. Testing is very loud, and usually conducted at night since the operator needs to see the fire coming out of the afterburner. The rear door of the jet shop is designed as a blast door to protect from bad landings and exploded jet engines. Despite that, during this deployment one of the engines exploded and critically injured several crew members.
When something bad happens, the ship has emergency procedures in place to respond. The first to react would be the crew on watch. If you are on watch, then you are qualified and drilled to respond to any disaster in your watch area. Watches last from four to six hours on varying rotations. Some watches are the same time everyday for a week, others change time slots throughout the week, rotating at 18 hour intervals. This is how you get a 2am-7am watch.
After the explosion, the watch would immediately contact the emergency fire prevention team — the on board fire department. They are trained to dawn full fire gear, with oxygen tanks, and be anywhere on the ship in a matter of minutes. Before opening a door, they will check the temperature on the back of their hand, looking for sweat. If there is a fire behind the door, the first guy will crack the door, peer in, and assess the situation before prepping his hose team for action. They carry the “jaws-of-life”, axes to remove debris, “smoke blowers” to eliminate smoke, and a $60,000 heat sensor to find missing personnel. I know the cost of the sensor because they just had to buy a new one after the old one was stolen.
To support any casualties from operations, incidents, or accidents the ship has four or five doctors on board at all times. This includes a surgeon that was used to treat some of those with critical injuries from the explosion. Their job is to stabilize a patient so they can be released to duty or transported to land for further treatment. They will rarely provide any cosmetic or additional support unless it will improve the sailor a better chance of surviving. This decision has a lot to do with experience and resources – or lack of. All of the ship doctors have complete med school – either through the armed services or privately – but this may be their first field experience. Doctors with experience don’t want to ride on a carrier for eight months. The two flight surgeons I met were both in their early 30’s. The ship has an operating room, dentist office, and basic facilities with PA’s and RN’s. The doctors told me the most dangerous place on the ship are the ladder wells. Every evening they release a medical report on daily ship injuries and treatment. The running joke is everyone is “treated and released to active duty”. “First mate’s arm was removed in horrible propeller accident, treated and released to active duty” Well, maybe not this bad.
If there were unexploded ordinance or a bomb threat on the ship, instead of an exploded jet, they would call the EOD or Explosive Ordinance Division. Their tag line is from the movie Dumb and Dumber, “So you’re saying there’s a chance”. These guys are trained to disarm bombs on land, ship, and under the sea. During one of the deck demonstrations we got to play with all of their equipment. This included a bomb suit, deep diving equipment, light arms, and their bomb disposal robots.
The bomb suit is heavy – it weighs 70lbs and is really hot so some of the guys end up passing out during training. Apparently there is a cooling unit, but no one has ever seen it. All of the armor is in the front of the suit, which is why they always back away from an explosive leaving the area. The suit is designed to protect from fragmented projectiles and not the actual blast – if too close, the blast will scramble your insides.
The dive tank is rated to 250’, which is really deep. It is a closed system that scrubs the carbon dioxide out of your breath and adds either O2 and nitrogen or helium depending on how deep you are going. It will not release any bubbles and allows the user to ascend at almost twice the decompression rate. This suit is used to identify and disarm underwater mines, so it has as few magnetic or metallic components as possible. Most of the time they identify a mine and then explode it remotely, but sometimes they will need to disarm it in the dark and cold underwater environment. The chief of the EOD had dived the deepest at 173’.
The EOD light arms consisted of a M14, M4, and 50cal sniper rifle. They could be required to board a ship, explode ordinances at a distance, or fly to land to assist the army or marines. These guys train hard – so much so the Chief, now 40, said some of the guys are probably “too fit”.
Their best toys were the bomb disposal robots. The larger bomb robot was recognizable from news footage and war movies. It was a larger, heavier, but very tried and tested bomb disposal robot driven by RF and powered by three lithium batteries on each tank tread. It could run continuously for 2-3 hours and had a 50-1000’ range depending on the environment. In the hanger bay, they couldn’t get the signal to travel over 150’. The smaller robot was newer and designed to go up stairs. It also used RF, but for some reason had no problem going all over the 800’ hanger bay. The little robot was controlled from a console or by an Xbox controller connected to a pair of glasses with a heads up display. All of the EOD guys said this takes a lot of practice because there is no depth perception or sensitivity feedback from the claw. One of the guys said he liked to practice chasing different people around the hanger bay. I thought driving and operating the little guy was pretty straight forward, but I was picking up a hat, and not an explosive.
To prevent needing to call a fire prevention team or EOD guys, everything on the ship has scheduled maintenance. Paint, toilets, that valve on the wall, the ovens, bearings, mounts, engines – everything. A lot of the time during deployment is spent performing scheduled maintenance. Like aircraft maintenance, this goes a long way to keeping the navy “new”, but not a lot to keeping it modern. The ship is 20 years old, and some of the technology, like the reactors could be 50 years old. In many ways it is “state of the art”, but in many other ways it can’t be for reliability and training reasons.
Every morning before flight operations the crew performs a FOD (foreign object disposal) walk across the deck, looking for any debris. Once clear, they begin warming up the planes and moving them into position. The 75 jets on the ship won’t all fit in the hanger, so it is necessary for many to remain on deck. The ship has four large elevators that can raise two F18 fighter jets from the hanger bay to the deck in less than 20 seconds. Once the planes were launched, the crew and tigers rode the elevators to the flight deck for a dazzling air show.
Before we could get on deck for the airshow, all the planes needed to launch. The ship has four steam powered catapults – two on the bow and two at mid deck. These use steam from the reactor. The ship can launch a plane every 60 seconds – however when we watched, they launched about every 90 seconds – still very impressive. Before each launch, the catapults have to be calibrated to the weight of the plane taking off. This is set by the deck flight crew, housed in a small retractable bubble at the waist and bow of the ship. The setting is confirmed by the steam room right before launch. Woosh!
Short Video: https://vimeo.com/65477836
Long Video: https://vimeo.com/65468376
The steam room is miserably hot, even when it is cool outside. It was reported all four steam catapults needed regular maintenance, and all four could be down at the same time — but not for long. When I toured the steam room there was a tech from the private sector on board helping them do last minute maintenance before arriving in port. They want to do maintenance at sea for two reasons – first, the reactor is still online making steam, and second, because you want to hurl things that might explode anywhere except at the dock.
Before taking off, the plane will taxi into position, directed by the yellow shirts on deck. When in place, the green shirts will connect the front wheel to the catapult and the bubble raises the jet blast deflector. The JBD’s allows the next plane to move into position without getting wash from the jet taking off. The deck crew is surprisingly close to jet engines, spinning props, and the edge of the carrier. This is clearly a very hazardous job, but when questioned, the guys said, “it’s scary the first few times, but it gets easier by the 3rd or 4th”. Quick learning curve. They only had a few critical injuries this deployment.
The pilot is getting his queues from the “whip”, a stick with a light that lets him know when it’s time to give full power. They will occasionally have a catapult malfunction during testing, but almost never during actual deployment flight operations. The only time it was “close” to malfunction what when they first set sail. A plane loaded with admirals wives didn’t get a full shot, and almost touched the water before getting air born. I don’t have a lot of details, as the crew telling this story quickly changed the subject.
We watched flight ops from “Vultures row”, an observation deck on the 7th, 8th, and 9th floor of the tower. There was a long delay getting planes warmed up and moved into position, but once they started launching they had 17 planes in the air in less than half-an-hour. For the airshow we went down to the flight deck. The first day they practiced the show in front of tigers, and the second day they invited the entire crew on deck and did the show again, but with live ordinance.
The show was incredible. It started with typical formation “flybys” that you can see at any air show. Then, because we were in the middle of the pacific, they did two high speed passes where the jet broke the sound barrier and passed at 1000mph. BOOM! https://vimeo.com/65477426
We watched a controlled 120kt fly by, a high-speed turn followed by vertical flight, and the jets shooting rockets and dropping bombs in the ocean. They finished the show with all the planes in a controlled formation flyby over the tower. After the show, the helicopters performed. One of the guys on deck whispered, “Helicopters should have gone first…” Any time there are flight ops, they launch several helicopters to assist in recovery. The helicopter guys said landing on a carrier is relatively simple – if they land on a smaller support ship, they lower and connect a line to the ship to keep the helicopter from rolling over the side in rough seas. There did not seam to be a rivalry between the jet pilots and helicopter pilots. The maintenance crews between the different air wings were very competitive.
After the show, it’s time to clear the deck for landing. The crew performs a quick FOD walk down while the carrier turns back into the wind. I catch the first few landings above deck from Vultures Row. There are four arrestor wires strung across aft deck, each is about 3” in diameter and weighs over 300 lbs. If all four cables are operational, the pilot is aiming for the third. The first and second are a little close, and the fourth is almost too late to take off again. The landing is incredible – the plane catches, stops, is released, the cable is rewound, and the plane parked. Wash-rinse-repeat.
From below deck, there are three arrestor rooms. One and two share a room, while three and four have their own. The arrestor wires are dampened through the sides of the ship and connect through a series of pulleys to a large sled. The sled, connected to a hydraulic tank, is designed to only travel 183” everytime. This is a “modern” sled system, introduced four years ago – it uses an encoder to limit travel to 183” by closing a valve that regulates hydraulic fluid’s flow into the attached reservoir. The valve close rate is based on the weight of the landing plane, which is entered ever time. After each run, 400psi compressed air pushes the fluid out of the reservoir and resets the sled. Since the Stennis was the first in the fleet to adopt this computerized arrestor, their crew is considered expert and are regularly contacted by other ships with service questions. The Chief explained that his two 26 and 27 year old crew men were the most experienced in the navy. The computer system was spec’d in 1995 by Northrum Grommet, so naturally it is running Windows 95 upon delivery in 2009. Right before the plane lands, the operator calls out the planes position as it comes behind the ship, at the aft, and over the aft to let everyone know to stand clear. If the plane grabs the wire in your room, you’ll know it.
If there is a problem with one of the arrestors, they can clear the wire in less than 90 second. To remove a wire, they close a valve to leave the arrestor in the “open” position. This is also a good time to release any pressure build up or add additional hydraulic fluid. Wire three definitely gets the most action. If all four wires are down, they might launch fuel planes while getting everything fixed, but it’s a simple system and can’t be down for long.
Fun facts: Guys use nitrogen in the wheels, liquid nitrogen to freeze warts, and Oxygen for the pilots. We watched them demo freezing push Popsicle in less than 30 seconds.
In addition to the jets, the carrier has two prop plans carrying radar equipment. These are manned by five person crews and do not have ejector seats, just five parachutes. If he jets need work on their ejector seats, they may need to get someone from the EOD team. While on deck, we saw air crew crouched behind a plane with the seat while it was getting serviced. They explained since it was explosive, they couldn’t bring it into the hanger bay. The EOD guys told us about some guys in Irag sitting on old MIG seats and having their rear ends blown off.
end of deployment. end of the tiger cruise.
When the ship is 400 mile from San Diego the air wing can fly home. The night before they pack everything into large boxes on the hanger deck. There is so much excitement at the prospect of getting off the ship. I ran directly into a pilot in the hall and he was still smiling ear to ear. The air wing is stationed near San Diego and not in Bremerton, WA with the ship. This means everyone in the airwing and associated with the airwing – maintenance, supplies, deck crew will leave the ship in San Diego.
The helicopters cannot leave until we are closer – around 200 miles. We reach this distance at night, but they aren’t allowed to take off for land in the evening. The helicopters will take gear and anywhere from four to ten personnel. The crew that doesn’t depart in San Diego will take the ship up the coast to Bremerton. This group includes Sarah, and everyone else in the reactor department. It’s a cruel, but quick last four or five days. Sadly, before the ship made it to Bremerton 5 days later, the crew dropped in San Diego received 5 DUIs and one guy was killed in a motor cycle accident.
Arriving in San Diego, we are escorted through the channel by several small security ships and two or three tugs. We watched the security boats aggressively approach several sail boats and other passing vessels in the area to make sure they didn’t turn toward the carrier. Returning from a deployment is a big deal, so only sailors in white are allowed on the deck and we had to watch from a lower outdoor sponson. When the boat arrives, they tie up to the dock just like in Hawaii. A crane constructs the brow for the mid and aft deck. The first man off the boat is the admiral. Next, one of the sailors was selected in the raffle for “first kiss” – the first guy off the boat to greet his family. Next they do “new dads” for any of the sailors that had kids born while they were deployed. Watching them meet their babies for the first time is a special moment on the ship. After, if you are dressed in whites, you can leave as your group is called. It takes several hours for everyone to file of the boat. From there, buses took the tigers directly to the airport.
Once the Stennis arrives in port in Bremerton, much of the crew will take a two week leave. For those finishing back-to-back deployments, this is a very welcome break. After furlough, the crew will return to Washington and help make repairs to the boat for the next 18 months. Everything on the boat gets a face lift and paint job. After two years at sea, things just get worn out. Some of the crew will continue to work in their departments; others will be reassigned to basic construction jobs like flooring and tiling. There is a barge tied next to the ship with a mess haul and birthing. This serves as temporary lodging while the crew works on the ship. In 1.5-2 years, the ship will redeploy for another eight to twelve months.
The trip needed to be six days or you wouldn’t have been able to see everything. I still didn’t. Every night before bed, my roommate and I concurred “good day, glad it’s over soon.” I did not take enough pictures. The light is not very good for an Iphone, so I recommend bringing a real camera and lots of memory.
The tiger cruise was very special for all of the tigers on board. Many parents got to see how their children really worked and lived. It was also a special trip for the crew. A lot of the crew members never had an opportunity or excuse to see places like the bridge or shaft alley or the officer’s galley. Several “lost tigers” in our group were delivered to the officers mess by enlisted men, simply so they could see inside for the first time. A good lesson from the trip – if you are in the Navy, you want to be an officer.
This was truly a once in a life time opportunity. Most people don’t get to see what I saw until six months after being tricked by a Navy recruiter. Hopefully you learned something about carrier life. If you are ever asked to go on a tiger cruise, say “yes!”
what to bring and not bring
- Pack light
- Towel and Shower Sandals
- Swim Suit instead of a robe
- Soap and Shampoo
- Healthy snacks if you care about being healthy
- Yoga mat if you work out.
- Sunscreen, sunglasses, ear plugs
- A light coat or heavy sweater
- Attire does not matter. Everyone wears jump suits. If you aren’t one of them, no one cares what you look like.
- Something to write your journal in!
- If you’re with an officer, don’t worry about locks/theft, just don’t be irresponsible.