It's a giant ship, but a crowded city
Published Sun, Mar 18, 2007


Marine Capt. Meghan Brooks' first time on an aircraft carrier came with a memorable piece of advice from her commanding officer.

"He told me the biggest difference is the boat, and the second biggest different is the boat," said Brooks, an officer in charge of jet maintenance of the F/A-18 Hornets of the Thunderbolts.

These words echoed in my mind after my brain recovered from being jarred when the tailhook of the

C-2 Greyhound I was riding in caught a landing cable, taking it from more than 100 mph to a halt in less than two seconds.

I stepped off the ramp of the plane to the chaotic yet seemingly choreographed movement of dozens of people in brightly colored shirts, and even through the confusion and the tint of the eye shield on my flight deck helmet, I could tell from the dark blue water that I was in isolated, alien territory and farther out to sea than I could fathom.

As the military reporter for The Gazette for a little more than a year, I've observed and reported on jets taking off and landing at all types of distances and interviewed countless Marines and sailors about their jobs and lives. But I never have from a flight deck floating

300 feet above the ocean floor on a vessel powered by eight nuclear reactors.

Brooks accompanied me and a group of about 10 other civilians from Beaufort as we flew aboard the USS Enterprise on March 8.

And Brooks' commander, Lt. Col. Michael Orr was, not surprisingly, absolutely right. The "boat," or aircraft carrier, is almost another character in itself, and though the job's the same, the environment is foreign. By the end of my two days and one night onboard, I was ready to head back to land, to my own bed.

However, despite all the hype of its hugeness, I didn't find the Navy's second-oldest carrier in service, which boasts a flight deck measuring almost 4.5 acres, as all that large. Its vastness is lost in the crowding.

With well over 5,000 people aboard, the carrier is referred to as a "city," but walking through the cramped and maze-like passages and up and down the sometimes frighteningly steep and narrow "ladderwells" (definitely more ladder-like than stair-like), I felt more as if I were in an old dorm than on city streets as I scrunched up to let people in all states of dress pass.

We were told the ship was so massive we'd barely feel it moving, but the "Big E" still is the fastest ship in the Navy, with a top speed of more than 30 knots, or about 35 mph, and I got weak-kneed when the carrier turned into the winds.

At night, the movement is its subtlest and spookiest, especially as it gently rocked while I was trying to sleep on a top bunk. Marines told me you can get "really weird dreams" on the ship because of this.

But after my first day on the ship, like many others' first nights on the carrier, I couldn't dream because I couldn't sleep during the six hours allotted, in part because of the voices over the PA reporting nuclear reactor leaks. We were warned before that they were only drills, and I guess I believe that, but it doesn't put a groggy mind to rest.

After the initial adjustment of their bodies to the ship, most sailors and Marines on the carrier find themselves in a grueling routine of at least a 12-hour work shift followed by a meal, which could mean about 30 minutes standing in line, an hour or so of exercise and squeezing in four to six hours of sleep.

"Sometimes you never see what's inside a door," said Cpl. Aaron Harmon of the Thunderbolts. "There are your own places you go, but after six months, you'll run into new people you never see."

And the isolation can make life lonely in this packed place. There is no cell phone reception out at sea, and it costs 50 cents a minute to use the phone, which Harmon said some of his friends shell out.

Most use e-mail to stay in touch with family and friends, but Internet access can be slow or spotty, and some resort to old-fashioned letters for the C-2 Greyhound cargo planes to shuttle back and forth.

However, just as abruptly as our plane's tailhook caught a landing cable almost 25 hours earlier, we were catapulted off the Enterprise at about 128 mph. Most non-pilots will never experience this, a sensation, though hyped to a point that it makes you almost fearful, as intense as stopping suddenly while harnessed into a roller coaster that made a steep descent.

As soon as we ascended comfortably for the 45-minute plane ride back to Jacksonville, the pilot soothingly welcoming us and telling us we'd reach an altitude of 10,000 feet or something similar to what commercial pilots say, I let my deep exhaustion settle on me and had a strong desire to wash the tenacious petroleum stink of jet fuel and tarmac out of my hair -- and call someone on my cell phone.

I couldn't imagine being one of those Marines or sailors I left behind to their dangerous, grueling and somewhat mind-numbing ship routines.

But the sailors and Marines were only on board a couple weeks during this training. They have to go out in July for six months on deployment -- for the second time in less than a year.

"It sucks we're going back out, but it's our job," one sailor told me.

Though not an enthusiastic view, that's the general feeling I received from most I met, and it's somewhat comforting. It's good to know that they're human and they realize the challenges of "the boat," but I sensed a determination to do the job they signed up for, which I now have a greater appreciation for but am glad it isn't mine.