by: John N. Stewart, Vice President, Chief Security Officer, Cisco Systems, Inc.
Immediately upon arrival, the rear cargo hatch of the C-2 opened to expose the activity of the military operations on the aircraft carrier’s flight deck, and the great expanse of the Pacific Ocean. We were at sea on board the USS Stennis, and saw, heard, smelled and tasted F-18s taking off nearby. We had arrived!
After a short taxi, with the wings folding up, we stopped near the tower and were given the signal to unbuckle and prepare to step onto the flight deck. The flight deck was a bustle of activity, with aircraft landing and taking off at the same time, and we were quickly rushed inside to a welcoming room.
Aboard a carrier, the welcoming room was about 10×15 feet, yet lots of fun. We met Ensign Uranga (aka Chewy) and Lt. Commander Cindy Fields, who were our officer guides for the tour, along with MCSN Keim, MC3 Cameron, MC2 Sellbach, and MC2 Chepusov, all of whom cared for us throughout our stay. We were the first DV group of the year, and for some of our hosts, their first DV group ever.
After our preparation, an itinerary was handed out, which – due to our late arrival – was already outdated. We didn’t mind, however, because it meant that our group would start off on the flight deck watching the jets land and take off. We donned our safety gear, walked towards the bow about half the length of the ship, and stood in the hallway preparing to go up to the flight deck.
After a briefing and final safety reminder, we were almost to the door that would lead us onto the flight deck when the emergency hit. A number of the crew came into the hallway from the flight deck, hurriedly speaking and gesturing about an incident that occurred on deck.
With very little knowledge of what was going on around us, we were quickly instructed to stand still and remain along the walls of the hallway. Within a few minutes, we were instructed by our leaders to go “aft of Frame 100,” which essentially meant we needed to move quickly and get out of harm’s way. As I mentioned, our schedule was more of a guideline, and certainly no more so than at that particular moment.
As we went aft, we watched fire teams, officers, and various crew all reacting with calm and deliberate moves in what seemed to be a significant emergency. The Captain broadcast across the ship that an F-18, under military power and connected to the catapult ready to take off, had a catastrophic engine failure and had lit itself and the flight deck on fire. He also informed us that the fire teams had the incident under control, and that there were injuries – though we did not know the severity. This was a frank reminder that we were in a military flight line, not your everyday airport. Flight operations were suspended for the day and evening, due to the clean up and subsequent investigation.
We spent the remaining time on Wednesday visiting with Captain Ron Reis, Commanding Officer of the USS Stennis, seeing the hanger deck and operations, visiting the watch rooms for both attack and flight operations where they track movement around the ship, and enjoying dinner with our host, XO Captain Mike Wettlauffer.
We visited the flight-deck control, where we saw the “Ouija Board,” the control panel from which they manage all activity on the flight deck. We then went under the flight deck to see the “traps” – the hydraulic systems and equipment for the trap lines that the plane’s tail hooks catch to slow the aircraft upon touchdown, and then back up to our favorite part of the ship: the “Vulture’s Row,” where we watched the flight deck from above.
We certainly got our exercise, as we were on the go all day long. We calculated that in the first day alone, we climbed 400 stairs (and, of course, what goes up must also come down). At 22:30, the end of the day, we were brought to our staterooms, where each of us showered and quickly fell asleep to the ship’s reverberations. We were warned that we might not sleep had nighttime flight operations been going on as originally scheduled before the accident. In this case, however, with the ship’s rocking and our fatigue, sleep came quickly and smoothly.