One area in which our Navy is unquestionably the best in the world is carrier operations. Last April, for some odd reason, the topic came up on the alt.quotations newsgroup.
First, David C. Kifer (whose previous work I cited here) posted this excerpt from P.J. O'Rourke's Weekly Standard piece "24 Hours on the 'Big Stick' What you can learn about America on the deck of the USS 'Theodore Roosevelt'":
Carrier launches are astonishing events. The plane is moved to within what seems like a bowling alley's length of the bow. A blast shield larger than any government building driveway Khomeini-flipper rises behind the fighter jet, and the jet's twin engines are cranked to maximum thrust. A slot-car slot runs down the middle of the bowling alley. The powered-up jet is held at the end of its slot by a steel shear pin smaller than a V-8 can. When the shear pin shears the jet is unleashed and so is a steam catapult that hurls the plane down the slot, from 0 to 130 miles per hour in two seconds. And--if all goes well--the airplane is airborne. This is not a pilot taking off. This is a pilot as cat's eye marble pinched between boundless thumb and infinite forefinger of Heaven's own Wham-O slingshot.
Carrier landings are more astonishing. We were in heavy seas. Spray was coming over the bow onto the flight deck, 60 feet above the waterline. As the ship was pitching, 18 tons of F-18 with a wingspan of 40-odd feet approached at the speed of celebrity sex rumor. Four acres of flight deck has never looked so small. Had it been lawn you'd swear you could do it in 15 minutes with a push mower.
Four arresting cables are stretched across the stern, each thick as a pepperoni. The cables are held slightly above the runway by metal hoops. The pilot can't really see these cables and isn't really looking at that runway, which is rising at him like a slap in the face or falling away like the slope of a playground slide when you're four. The pilot has his eye on the "meatball," a device, portside midship, with a glowing dot that does – or doesn't – line up between two lighted dashes. This indicates that the pilot is . . . no, isn't . . . yes, is . . . isn't . . . is . . . on course to land. Meanwhile there are sailors in charge of the landing hunched at a control panel portside aft. They are on the radio telling the pilot what he's doing or better had do or hadn't better. They are also waving colored paddles at him meaning this or that. (I don't pretend to know what I'm talking about here.) Plus there are other pilots on the radio along with an officer in the control tower. The pilot is very well trained because at this point his head doesn't explode.
The pilot drops his tailhook. This is not an impressive-looking piece of equipment – no smirks about the 1991 Tailhook Association brouhaha, please. The hook doesn't appear sturdy enough to yank Al Franken offstage when Al is smirking about the presidential candidate who belonged to the Tailhook Association. The hook is supposed to – and somehow usually does – strike the deck between the second and third arresting cables. The cable then does not jerk the F-18 back to the stern the way it would in a cartoon. Although watching these events is so unreal that you expect cartoon logic to apply.
Now imagine all concerned doing all of the above with their eyes closed. That is a night operation. We went back on deck to see – wrong verb – to feel and hear the night flights. The only things we could see were the flaming twin suns of the F-18 afterburners at the end of the catapult slot.
~~~~~ P. J. O'Rourke, 24 Hours on the 'Big Stick' What you can learn about America on the deck of the USS 'Theodore Roosevelt.', The Weekly Standard, 04/28/2008
Then someone else who uses the nom de newsgroup "The Sanity Inspector" followed up with this photorealistic word picture from Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff:
In the Navy, in addition to the stages that Air Force trainees went through, the neophyte always had waiting for him, out in the ocean, a certain grim gray slab; namely the deck of an aircraft carrier; and with it perhaps the most difficult routine in military flying, carrier landings. He was shown films about it, he heard lectures about it, and he knew that carrier landings were hazardous. He first practiced touching down on the shape of a flight deck painted on an airfield. He was instructed to touch down and gun right off. This was safe enough – the shape didn’t move, at least – but it could do terrible things to, let us say the gyroscope of the soul.That shape! – it’s so dammed small! And more candidates were washed out and left behind.
Then came the day, without warning, when those who remained were sent out over the ocean for the first of many days of reckoning with the slab. The first day was always a clear day with little wind and a calm sea. The carrier was so steady that is seemed, from up there in the air, to be resting on pilings, and the candidate usually made his first carrier landing successfully, with relief and even élan. Many young candidates looked like terrific aviators up to that very point – and it was not until they were actually standing on the carrier deck that they first began to wonder if they had the proper stuff, after all.
In the training film the flight deck was a grand piece of gray geometry, perilous to be sure, but an amazing abstract shape as one looks down upon it on the screen. And yet once the newcomer’s two feet were on it ... Geometry – my God, man, this is a skillet! It heaved, it moved up and down beneath his feet, it pitched up, it rolled to port (this great beast rolled!) and it rolled to starboard, as the ship moved into the wind and, therefore, into the waves, and the wind kept sweeping across, sixty feet up in the air out in the open sea, and there were no railings whatsoever. This was a skillet! – a frying pan! – a short order grill! – not gray but black, smeared with skid marks from one end to the other and glistening with pools of hydraulic fluid and the occasional jet fuel slick, all of it still hot, sticky, greasy, runny, virulent from God knows what traumas – still ablaze! – consumed in detonations, explosions, flames, combustion, roars, shrieks, whines, blasts, horrible shudders, fracturing impacts, as little men in screaming red and yellow and purple and green shirts with black Mickey Mouse helmets over their ears skittered about on the surface as if for their very lives (you’ve said it now!), hooking fighter planes unto the catapult shuttles so that they can explode their afterburners and be slung off the deck in a red-mad fury with a kaboom! that pounds through the entire deck – a procedure that seems absolutely controlled, orderly, sublime, however, compared to what he is about to watch as aircraft return to the ship for what is known in the engineering stoicisms of the military as "recovery and arrest." ...
As the aircraft came closer and the carrier heaved on into the waves and the plane’s speed did not diminish and the deck did not grow steady – indeed, it pitched up and down five or ten feet per greasy heave – one experienced a neural alarm that no lecture could have prepared him for: This is not an airplane coming toward me, it is a brick with some poor sonofabitch riding it (someone much like myself!), and it is not gliding, it is falling, a fifty-thousand pound brick, headed not for a strike on the deck but for me – and with a horrible smash! it hits the skillet, and with a blur of momentum as big as a freight train’s it hurdles toward the far end of the deck – another blinding storm! – another roar as the pilot pushes the throttle up to full military power and another smear of rubber screams out over the skillet – and this is normal! – quite okay! – for a wire stretched across the deck has grabbed the hook on the end of the plane as it hit the deck tail down, and the smash was the rest of the fifteen-ton brute slamming into the deck, as it tripped up, so that it is now straining against the wire at full throttle, in case it hadn’t held and the plane had “boltered” off the end of the deck and had to struggle up into the air again.
The Sanity Inspector then linked to this YouTube clip. Watch in awe, and keep in mind that this is no computer-generated special effect. No. this is an actual cockpit view of a nice, normal routine fair weather daytime carrier landing onto the flight deck of the USS EISENHOWER:
Now, it's time to look at the rest of P.J. O'Rourke's column:
Some say John McCain's character was formed in a North Vietnamese prison. I say those people should take a gander at what John chose to do – voluntarily. Being a carrier pilot requires aptitude, intelligence, skill, knowledge, discernment, and courage of a kind rarely found anywhere but in a poem of Homer's or a half gallon of Dewar's. I look from John McCain to what the opposition has to offer. There's Ms. Smarty-Pantsuit, the Bosnia-Under-Sniper-Fire poster gal, former prominent Washington hostess, and now the JV senator from the state that brought you Eliot Spitzer and Bear Stearns. And there's the happy-talk boy wonder, the plaster Balthazar in the Cook County political crèche, whose policy pronouncements sound like a walk through Greenwich Village in 1968: "Change, man? Got any spare change? Change?"
Some people say John McCain isn't conservative enough. But there's more to conservatism than low taxes, Jesus, and waterboarding at Gitmo. Conservatism is also a matter of honor, duty, valor, patriotism, self-discipline, responsibility, good order, respect for our national institutions, reverence for the traditions of civilization, and adherence to the political honesty upon which all principles of democracy are based. Given what screw-ups we humans are in these respects, conservatism is also a matter of sense of humor. Heard any good quips lately from Hillary or Barack?
A one-day visit to an aircraft carrier is a lifelong lesson in conservatism. The ship is immense, going seven decks down from the flight deck and ten levels up in the tower. But it's full, with some 5,500 people aboard. Living space is as cramped as steerage on the way to Ellis Island. Even the pilots live in three-bunk cabins as small and windowless as hall closets. A warship is a sort of giant Sherman tank upon the water. Once below deck you're sealed inside. There are no cheery portholes to wave from.
McCain could hardly escape understanding the limits of something huge but hermetic, like a government is, and packed with a madding crowd. It requires organization, needs hierarchies, demands meritocracy, insists upon delegation of authority. An intricate, time-tested system replete with checks and balances is not a plaything to be moved around in a doll house of ideology. It is not a toy bunny serving imaginary sweets at a make-believe political tea party. The captain commands, but his whims do not. He answers to the nation.
And yet an aircraft carrier is more an example of what people can do than what government can't. Scores of people are all over the flight deck during takeoffs and landings. They wear color-coded T-shirts – yellow for flight-directing, purple for fueling, blue for chocking and tying-down, red for weapon-loading, brown for I-know-not-what, and so on. These people can't hear each other. They use hand signals. And, come night ops, they can't do that. Really, they communicate by "training telepathy." They have absorbed their responsibilities to the point that each knows exactly where to be and when and doing what.
These are supremely dangerous jobs. And most of the flight deck crew members are only 19 or 20. Indeed the whole ship is run by youngsters. The average age, officers and all, is about 24. "These are the same kids," a chief petty officer said, "who, back on land, have their hats bumped to one side and their pants around their knees, hanging out on corners. And here they're in charge of $35 million airplanes."
The crew is in more danger than the pilots. If an arresting cable breaks – and they do – half a dozen young men and women could be sliced in half. When a plane crashes, a weapon malfunctions, or a fire breaks out, there's no ejection seat for the flight deck crew. While we were on the Theodore Roosevelt a memorial service was held for a crew member who had been swept overboard. Would there have been an admiral and a captain of an aircraft carrier and hundreds of the bravest Americans at a memorial service for you when you were 20?
Supposedly the "youth vote" is all for Obama. But it's John McCain who actually has put his life in the hands of adolescents on a carrier deck. Supposedly the "women's vote" is . . . well, let's not go too far with this. I can speak to John's honor, duty, valor, patriotism, etc., but I'm not sure how well his self-discipline would have fared if he'd been on an aircraft carrier with more than 500 beautiful women sailors the way I was. At least John likes women, which is more than we can say about Hillary's attitude toward, for instance, the women in Bill's life, who at this point may constitute nearly the majority of the "women's vote."
These would have been interesting subjects to discuss with the Theodore Roosevelt shipmates, but time was up.
Back on the COD you're buckled in and told to brace as if for a crash. Whereupon there is a crash. The catapult sends you squashed against your flight harness. And just when you think that everything inside your body is going to blow out your nose and navel, it's over. You're in steady, level flight.
A strange flight it is – from the hard and fast reality of a floating island to the fantasy world of American solid ground. In this never-never land a couple of tinhorn Second City shysters – who, put together, don't have the life experience of the lowest ranking gob-with-a-swab cleaning a head on the Big Stick – presume to run for president of the United States. They're not just running against the hero John McCain, they're running against heroism itself and against almost everything about America that ought to be conserved.
If you happen to be one of those who's considering giving your vote to Obama because you think you want "change," I'd recommend that you think long and hard about your decision, then, if you're still having trouble making up your mind, go back and re-read this post, then think some more.