by: John N. Stewart, Vice President, Chief Security Officer, Cisco Systems, Inc.
This past March, I had the great fortune to be selected to participate in the Distinguished Visitor (DV) program aboard the United States Navy aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis, CVN-74, while she was at sea. The Distinguished Visitor program has existed for more than 30 years, enabling approximately 1,000 visitors each year aboard Navy vessels on the West and East Coasts of the United States. I’d like to share this account with you, as this experience certainly made a lasting impression on me and challenged some of my existing beliefs.
On Tuesday, March 22, I arrived in San Diego, CA, just a short hop from where I live, and spent the night a few miles away from the Naval Air Station (NAS) at Coronado. On Wednesday, early morning, eleven of us from across the United States checked in with Steve Fiebing and MC2 Jeffrey Miltzer to learn about the NAS. As headquarters for the US Navy Pacific Fleet, the NAS also serves as a training, repair, upgrade and staging facility for the United States Army and Navy. This support infrastructure and staging facility serves the aircraft aboard the carrier fleet, including CH-53 helicopters, C-2 CODs and F-18s, and would be our departure airport for this momentous experience.
After meeting with Captain Brad “Marge” Margeson – who is the self-described “largest Marge in the Navy” – this ex-pilot and current head for all flight training shared some of his remarkable Naval experiences with us. He explained what we would experience during our time aboard the USS Stennis, creating a sense of genuine excitement for our experience. He also suggested for us to engage with everyone on the crew, asking them questions about where they are from, what they do, and talk to them about their Navy experience.
We left with a homework assignment of sorts: to seize the moment of the experience and “leave it all on the field.” I could only hope he didn’t mean our lunch, as I know how the Pacific rolls, and how the Navy men like to showcase the capabilities of their vehicles.
One of our stops included the aircraft maintenance facility, where we met some of the maintenance team who showed us the aircraft they were repairing. Did you know that at times an aircraft may come back from the training grounds in Southern California dirtier than an aircraft coming back from an Afghanistan mission? I certainly didn’t, and that was a surprise to me.
After the tour, we headed to the flight line where our transport would pick us up and take us out to the carrier. The C-2 Carrier Operations Delivery (COD) aircraft is a twin-propped, 4- or 8-blade-per-rotor transport that seats about 60 people as well as cargo. Its wings fold upright, which, as I learned, is useful on a crowded carrier. Like any aircraft destined for a carrier, the C-2 lands by catching a trap wire with a tail hook and takes off via a catapult. My first impression left me wondering how that was possible, but I found out soon enough.
We were required to wear safety gear that included a clamshell-like helmet, goggles, and ear protection (double with “foamies” and the headgear). Once our protective gear was on, we were briefed on where to locate our floatation devices, as we found out that apparently our seats would not serve as a flotation device!
Though we were expecting to depart around 12:30, a training team needed to get aboard the USS Stennis urgently, so we were bumped – understandably. Our guide proceeded to inform us that we should consider our schedule as more of a “guideline,” which would prove quite true for much of the rest of our tour.
With the added time on our hands, our guide Steve took us over to the 19th Hole, which serves as the clubhouse for the golf course at the NAS, where we ate lunch. Returning back to our departure building, we re-suited into the safety gear and climbed aboard the next C-2. Soon we were off the runway at NAS Coronado, airborne and heading west over the Pacific.
A few interesting points of note onboard the C-2: Essentially, the cockpit has the only windows and there are no real “walls,” in the sense that all the wiring is exposed, you can see the fluid lines, and with this, one gets the full realization that you are now in the military’s “backyard,” not your own.
Approximately 45 minutes into our flight, the crew announced we were approaching the carrier and to prepare for landing. A few moments later, the crew was all buckled in and waving their hands; our signal that we were seconds away from landing. Keep in mind, there are no windows to peer out and gain perspective.
All at once: a loud noise, full brakes, and you, your seat, and the entire aircraft that was zooming along close to 130 mph went to zero mph in about 300 feet. Talk about a rush!