Seated at the back and strapped down by two pairs of seatbelts, I take off in a twin-engine cargo aircraft, a US Navy Greyhound, to land on the deck of the planet’s largest warship — the US Navy’s Ronald Reagan. After flying for about 45 minutes, Lieutenant ‘Shady’ Degroot, my pilot, has to slow down from more than 160 kph to zero within seconds. (Among the other catchy nicknames that I’ve encountered over time are ‘Loveless’, ‘Nasty’, ‘Party Boy’ and ‘Shooter’. The whackier ones, though, cannot be spelt out in this ‘family newspaper’.) The touchdown has to be on a warship that’s heaving up and down several feet on the monstrous swells of the Arabian Sea.
If the aircraft’s tail misses the cable stretched across the pitching deck to reduce the speed down to zero, Shady would have to do a “touch and go” and loop around in air to try again. Some two years ago, a Hornet fighter plane had crashed off the Australian coast while attempting a night landing aboard this ship. But, in a flash, Shady manages to thump his plane on the flight deck and bring it to a screeching halt. It marked my second ‘controlled crash’ aboard an American supercarrier. The first such heart-in-mouth moment came last year, aboard the USS Nimitz.
An urban maze
The safety goggles and helmets removed, Lieutenant Ron Flanders hauls us away to the ship’s wardroom (officer’s mess) for a quick bite before we begin a gruelling, six-hour guided tour of the nuclear-powered warship that’s equipped to sail for 25 years without refuelling.
It’s easy to get lost on a warship this size, a 23-storeyed floating city carrying more than 5,500 sailors and displacing around 1,00,000 tonnes of water. Its length, at 1,092 feet, matches the height of the Empire State Building.
At the wardroom that’s adorned with blow-ups of former US President Ronald Reagan, I go for the chicken popeye, cold cuts and hash browns. Over 15,000 meals are served on the warship daily, and sailors consume up to 1,200 litres of milk along with 200 loaves of bread.
When not working 12-hour shifts or lazing about in a bunk, a sailor might be using the Navy cash card to buy a DVD or Hershey’s Kisses from a crammed ‘supermarket’. Those who frequently consume the fresh cookies served in the mess decks tend to hit the treadmill more often than others — nobody wants to fail the physical readiness test.
Rumble on the flight deck
Walking past a cabin reserved for the US President, we climb up ladders to reach the 4.5-acre main deck to watch flight operations. The safety goggles, helmet and life vest are back on. The jet blast from a Super Hornet revving at the catapult almost knocks us down. Then the fighter plane takes off from a runway of just 300 feet in length. It would have required 6,000 feet of runway to take off without the catapult. Sparks fly in the air as the one descending fighter’s tail slams into the first of the three cables. The heat of the jet blasts gets oppressive. The supercarrier is capable of launching two fighters any minute. In all, it costs $1 million a day to operate this ship.
The crew’s cut
Sailors working on the flight deck include young women with an average age of just 22. They work alongside their male colleagues in all capacities and account for a fifth of the crew. The sleeping areas — that are lodged between a runway and two nuclear reactors — are separated by gender. In the maintenance section, we bump into two sailors of Indian origin.
Confinement on a warship is quite stifling, even if it’s on a ship as big as this one. Life on the Nimitz, a ship of the same size, seemed a bit different somehow. Maybe my view is clouded by the fact that there I’d found members of an on-board rock band called Unnecessary Bacon.
At the end of the six hours, a plane waits to take us back to Goa, where we started from. I recall my first ‘catapult takeoff’ from the Nimitz. No matter how hard you clutch the armrests or how hard you press your feet against the seat in front, there’s no way you can dodge the sensation of being flung into the deep end.