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My Time on the Stennis: What a Rush!

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Posted: Thursday, May 21, 2015 12:00 am

Landing on a nuclear powered aircraft carrier somewhere in the Pacific is a definite “bucket list” item. I was one of 12 persons selected to tour the USS John C. Stennis, a nuclear aircraft carrier during at-sea exercises. Sponsored by a retired naval captain and admiral, I saw teamwork that’s part of our national defense. The “Distinguished Visitor” program is geared to increase the public’s understanding and appreciation of carrier-based aviation by letting visitors see the Navy in action through interaction with sailors and demonstrations of Naval aviation.

Half the group came from the U.S. State Department, including an ambassador and assistant secretary of state. The rest were business leaders and myself, as a local government representative.

Rear Admiral Ronald Boxall, commander of Strike Group 3, greeted us at the Naval Air Station on Coronado Island. We flew to the Stennis (CVN 74) in a C-2 Greyhound two-engine propeller cargo plane, outfitted with a “cranial” (a helmet with hearing protection and goggles) while wearing a duty vest and inflatable flotation device. The plane is no-frills, with rear-facing seats, exposed cables and the smell of hydraulic oil. Though wearing hearing protection our ride was one continuous roar.

Approaching the ship the plane rose and fell as the pilot timed his approach to the deck. With a perfect tailhook landing the plane suddenly stopped, with engines still roaring in case the pilot was waved off.

The Stennis has a 4.5-acre deck. Approximately 90 aircraft were on board, fueled from three million gallons of jet fuel.

Captain Michael Wettlaufer spoke of the high quality of young men and women serving on the Stennis and noted 19-year-old Kaylene Behrendt, an Aviation Ordnanceman 3rd Class, steering the massive warship. (Pictures of the ship and crew may be seen on their Facebook page at “USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74).”)

Watching takeoffs and landings it did not take long to understand the “meatball” and how this system of lights “waves off” an aircraft or signals proper lineup for a deck landing. A tailhook landing requires the pilot catch one of four “wires” on the deck.

On deck in goggles, protective vests, cranials and ear plugs we were close to moving aircraft. Without warning the double exhaust of an F-18E Super Hornet blasted its super-hot exhaust at the group. We hit the deck, turning our backs to the exhaust and realizing a need to remain alert.

As planes approach for night landings, lighting is minimal. The meatball guides pilots by indicating if the plane is high, low, right or left of the landing lane. Planes do not use landing lights. Night landing is not for the faint of heart.

The second-day tour was below deck, featuring a huge aircraft maintenance bay, sick bay, surgical area, fire-fighting equipment and a lot of exercise equipment.

Our return to San Diego was by C-2 Greyhound, launched by catapult from a short end of the deck. Because the “G-force” is extreme, our harnesses were tight. With the plane stationary, but roaring at full throttle, we were launched into the air, from zero to 165 mph in two seconds!

Captain Wettlaufer said only 30 percent of high-school graduates can pass Navy qualifying tests. That’s a shame because the teamwork, working conditions and technical training is incredibly advanced and a perfect experience for high-school graduates looking for a career or job skills. An added benefit is the $150,000 toward college tuition the Navy provides.

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