by Michael “Mick” Kaufman
All of my life, I have admired Navy pilots and their ability to take off and land on aircraft carriers. The Navy calls their pilots “aviators,” and claim they are better than pilots. I had the opportunity to visit the “USS Theodore Roosevelt” (CVN 71) in October 2014 to see for myself.
With only two days notice, I was on a flight to Norfolk Naval Air Station, Virginia, the following day, received a safety briefing, outfitted with flight and water survival gear, and boarded a twin-engine Grumman C-2 Greyhound for a flight to the Theodore Roosevelt. I never knew for sure where the ship was located at sea, but based on the amount of time it took the C-2 to reach the ship at 330 kts, I estimate about 500 miles off the Virginia coast.
Landing onboard a carrier is different than any landing I have ever made or experienced because of the sudden stop. You are going from 150 mph to 0 mph in two seconds. We were briefed before boarding the aircraft on what to expect, but experiencing it was another thing.
After arriving onboard, I was escorted to my sleeping quarters where my luggage had already been delivered, courtesy of the U.S. Navy. After just a few minutes in the cabin, there was a knock on the door and I was escorted with several other visitors to meet the ship’s captain.
During my stay, I was allowed to see the entire ship with the exception of the nuclear power plant. After being greeted by the captain, our tour guide provided the group with safety gear and hearing protection, then escorted us to the flight deck. I have never been so close to landing aircraft before, especially military aircraft. Most of us have seen movies of carrier operations, but there is no substitute in seeing them firsthand.
I was allowed to observe air operations day and night from the flight deck, the bridge, and a catwalk alongside the bridge. Photographs were allowed in most areas, and we were told where cameras were not permitted.
I learned a lot about the Navy and the carrier while I was onboard. There were around 5,000 personnel on the Theodore Roosevelt and approximately 70 aircraft during my visit. The average age of the people onboard was 21.
The Theodore Roosevelt is nicknamed the “Big Stick,” and her radio call-sign is “Rough Rider.” From the history books, we can see how these names fit. Roosevelt’s motto was “Speak softly, but carry a big stick,” and his cavalry unit where he served as a lieutenant colonel was known as the “Rough Riders.” Theodore Roosevelt was the first U.S. president to ride in an aircraft and the first to ride in a submarine.
The Theodore Roosevelt is in the class of aircraft carriers referred to as the “Nimitz Class,” and was designed for a service life of 50 years. The carrier had been in service for 25 years and had just spent over a year in the shipyard being refueled and refitted with up-to-date electronics and other equipment. I was surprised that a nuclear-powered carrier could operate 25 years without refueling.
The other guests and I were treated like visiting dignitaries while onboard. The food was excellent and the crew was very courteous and answered our questions.
Among the ship’s personnel were several doctors, nurses and dentists. One of the tour guides I had during my stay was the ship’s head dentist. His knowledge of the entire ship amazed me. You would have thought he was the captain.
The seas were calm during my entire visit, but I found it difficult to sleep. My cabin was located two levels below the flight deck. There were air operations that went on most of the night. Every time an aircraft would land, there was a loud bang, followed by the engines going to full power. When an aircraft hits the deck, the pilot is not sure if he/she has properly caught the arresting cable and needs the full power to go around if necessary. The missed cable and go-around is called a “bolter.”
My visit came to an end way too quickly, and it was time to go to the briefing room. The briefing was about the catapult launch and also to pick up safety and survival equipment for the flight back to Norfolk Naval Air Station. My writing skills could never describe what a catapult launch was like… just picture going from 0 to 150 mph in 3 seconds. The pilots cannot have any control of their body movements during that time, so they take their hands off the controls until the G forces stabilize.
After arriving back at Norfolk NAS, I was invited to join a group of high-ranking officers for breakfast, including the former skipper of the Theodore Roosevelt, Rear Admiral Stan Bryant (3rd C.O. CVN-71), and the former captain of the USS America, Captain Kent Ewing.
I came away with a great appreciation for the U.S. Navy, naval aviators and the crews onboard aircraft carriers. I would highly encourage any young man or woman seeking a military career to take a hard look at the Navy. As a civilian aviation veteran, many times I say to myself, “Gee, if I had only done this or that.” Becoming a naval aviator is one of those this and thats I regret not doing. Remember, “They call them aviators in the Navy, because they are better than pilots!”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Special thanks to the U.S. Navy and Capt. Kent Ewing (retired) for making this experience possible.