Welcome aboard the Ike

The Navy aircraft carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower operates in the Arabian Sea, displaying signal flags that read 'IKE, CVN 69, GR8R EACH DAY.'

SOMEWHERE IN THE ATLANTIC -- The tailhook grabs you like a clenched fist and squeezes you to a sudden and violent stop.

Take my word for it, going from 125 mph to 0 in fewer than two seconds is a rude awakening to the world of aircraft carriers.

Welcome to the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, CVN 69, one of a dozen such ships and one of the most amazing things afloat anywhere on Earth.

From the air, the 4 1/2-acre flight deck of the Ike looks tiny as it bobs in greenish waters of the Atlantic, a 45-minute flight from Jacksonville Naval Air Station. But the C-2 Greyhound carrying 11 civilians out to this floating military airport hit the third wire perfectly, screeching to a halt before parking casually next to a strike force of F-18 Hornets that line the deck like so much firepower from hell.

It is an immense presence -- a 95,000-ton ship that serves as home to almost 5,000 sailors, a giant anthill of activity that never sleeps.

Speaking carrier

If you don't speak Navy, the "C" is for carrier, the "V" is for fixed-wing aircraft and the "N" is for nuclear. The 69 was the order number for this type of ship back when the Ike was built in 1977.

When we arrived Thursday, the decks were abuzz with activity as Ike's crew launched planes 45 seconds apart, screaming off the catapults down the deck out over a calm ocean that stretched to the horizon in every direction.

One after another, these gray war machines are hurled from the decks by powerful catapults that throw them 320 feet off the bow of the ship at 160 knots in the blink of an eye.

The only thing more impressive than the power of these planes is the choreography of the crew members who make it happen.

The flight deck is speckled with young men and women dressed in red, yellow, green, white and blue shirts that designate their duties.

Reds do ordnance; yellows are the shooters or directors; greens do repairs; whites are for safety; blues drive tractors; and purples pump the fuel.

Almost everywhere you go onboard this ship, there is the ubiquitous smell of jet fuel, JP-5. It mixes well with sweat and burnt rubber to form an unmistakable and potent scent.

Because this is a dirty, hot, smelly, dangerous environment that requires precision and perfect performance by crew members who appear, upon closer inspection, to be kids.

Indeed, our freedom is in the hands of our children and grandchildren, most right out of high school, fighting a global war without boundaries against an enemy without uniforms.

Continual cycle

"It's nice to have visitors aboard," a crew member said. "It's like looking at our world through the eyes of a child."

I'll admit, mine were wide open as I watched them launch Hornets and Prowlers in an endless scream of might and noise and steam and flame as they swept into formations just above the conning tower.

This is how the Navy shows off, and who can blame her. How else could she tell her story to a civilian population that lives the hum-drum existence of life on land?

Out here nothing is hum-drum. Excitement is 18 decks deep. From stem to stern this floating city is a maze of passageways and stairs where sailors move in a continual cycle of life that never stops.

Ninety sorties a day during the war games they play prior to yet another deployment to the Middle East. That not only includes takeoffs, but landings, which are never dull.

Ship shakes

It's spooky to stand on the vulture's deck above the flight line at night and watch these planes being recovered from the darkness.

They just suddenly appear, with a few lights blinking, falling from the sky, slamming down on the flight deck, engines at full thrust until the cables jerk them to a stop.

Combat isn't a nine-to-five job, so these pilots and crews train in darkness and bad weather, round the clock, ready to do what has to be done.

Even when you lay your head down, ready to sleep, the roar of jet engines and catapults exploding and landing gear slamming into the deck keep you awake. Even when you think you're getting used to the noise, the ship shakes and the vibrations jolt you loose from your dreams and makes you think you're under attack.

Having fun

Below decks, in a dark room illuminated only by computers, young sailors watch blips on screens. Green blips are good guys. Red blips are bad guys.

While they come to the Navy from all across America, with little in common but the desire to serve, these sailors share a sense of intensity.

Andrea Waller is 23 and a graduate of Stratford High School in Goose Creek. She is one of the people in this room, sitting in the dark, for weeks at a time, training for the real thing.

An operations specialist, Waller has been in the Navy for a year and probably has more responsibility in her job than 100 others who graduated with her.

Only 15 percent of the crew aboard the Ike are women. You notice them moving through the passageways, hair pulled high and tight, doing the same jobs as the men.

Waller thinks nothing of it, simply saying, "I'm having fun."

She didn't have time to say much else. All at once, blips on the screen started flashing.

Reach Ken Burger at kburger@postandcourier.com or 937-5598. To read previous columns, go to postandcourier.com/burger.