On April 30, 2015, I was able to take part in a 24-hour, Distinguished Visitor (DV)/media embark aboard the US Navy aircraft carrier, USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74). The Navy flew me to and from the ship in a Grumman C-2A Greyhound, and we made an arrested landing upon arrival and a catapult launch when we departed the next day. I was able to see much of the ship, and also spend many hours taking photos on their active flight deck. It was an amazing experience that I will never forget! I am now writing a four-part, first person account to tell the story of my embark.
Our staterooms were located right under the start of the number 1 Cat, so it was loud. You could easily hear when a Super Hornet was preparing for launch and went to full power. Luckily the flight ops were finished around 10:30pm, but that didn't mean the ship would be quite. There were all sorts of noises happening all over the ship, some of them seemed to be coming right from my own stateroom. Due to my excitement and these noises, I didn't get much sleep. Once we were all up, packed, and ready, it was time for breakfast. We enjoyed our breakfast of bacon, sausage, eggs, and biscuits and gravy while discussing the previous day and making plans for that morning.
After breakfast we went to the Hangar Bay. Here we watched some of the crew performing maintenance on different aircraft. The Hangar Bay was like a maze walking around and under aircraft just to get to where you were going.
We made our way back to the Jet Shop, this is where they repair and test jet engines and they had a few engines on test racks inside the shop. They took us to the engine test control room, where they can watch and monitor engine tests that take place on the ship's fantail. They then took us out to the fantail to show us how the racks lock to the ship's deck and where the afterburner would be pointed. We were all hoping to be able to watch a test run, but they have to be done at night so they can clearly see the afterburner.
After the Jet Shop, we made our way down further into the ship to see their weapons hold. This is where they store the missiles and bombs for the entire air wing, along with any weapons for use to protect the ship. Our phones had to be turned off or at least on airplane mode to enter this area of the ship. They were all off anyway, it's not like we had any wireless or data service where we were, but we double checked them anyway. They reviewed the different pistols and rifles the crew used, and then they showed us examples of all the missiles and bombs they carry. Some of them are so big that a Super Hornet cannot return to the ship with them.
At this point our group split up, I needed to head over to the Ready Room for Strike Fighter Squadron 14 (VFA-14) "Tophatters." I have a friend that is a Boeing F/A-18E Super Hornet pilot with VFA-14, and at breakfast I had found out that he was aboard the ship. Tim and I actually went to the same flight school at Arizona State University, and while I went into aviation photography he went on to fly Super Hornets for the US Navy. Tim is also a photographer with a passion for aviation photography. When I first met Tim we were both shooting photos from the same side of the fence, the outside side. When I got to the Ready Room, I was hoping to surprise him, but he had just received an email from a mutual friend that told him that I was aboard the ship and would probably be stopping by for a visit. It was good to see Tim in this environment, and to hear that he was doing so good.
Now it was time for a quick stop back in my stateroom, I had to get my cranial and float coat before heading up to the LSO Platform to meet the others. Once up on the flight deck, I could see that there were helicopters on deck refueling and there were two Super Hornets on Cats 1 and 3 in the ready-5 status. Once the helicopters departed, the purple shirts refueled the Super Hornets and then they launched. The launch of the ready-5 aircraft started the launches for the day.
For these launches, I moved back up to the ship's Crotch. I was hoping to catch more launches coming off the waist. After a Hawkeye launched off Cat 1, my escort had an idea of a place to go. We went back down into the ship and came out along the catwalk on the starboard edge of the bow. We were right up at the front of the ship, and when the aircraft were launching from Cat 1 their wings would go right over our heads.
After the last launch it was time to head back to the media room and prepare to disembark the ship, our time aboard the USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) was quickly coming to an end. Our bags had been brought up to the media room, and were waiting for us. We turned in our cranials and float coats, and packed our gear away. At 12:45pm it was time to make our way up for our departure briefing. We took our bags with us and dropped them outside the briefing room door. We watched a video that covered our safety gear, horse collars and cranials, and what to expect during the launch and flight back to NAS North Island. After our briefing it was time to make one last trip up to the flight deck where we boarded our Grumman C-2A Greyhound from Fleet Logistics Support Squadron 30 (VRC-30) "Providers." We strapped into our rear-facing seats, this time making sure the shoulder straps were extremely tight. If the straps are not tight they will leave bruises on your shoulders as your are thrown forward during the cat shot. Once we were all securely strapped in, the doors closed and we began to taxi over to the number 1 Cat. Once again, about 5 to 10 seconds before the cat shot, the crew would waive their arm over their head and shout, "Here we go, here we go, here we go!" We pulled into position and were hooked up to Cat 1. We waited, we heard the engines rev up to full power, and then there it was, "Here we go, here we go, here we go!" Seconds later we were all thrown forward as we heard the woosh of the catapult launching us off the flight deck. The stroke lasts about three seconds, but it seems much longer while you are just hanging on for the ride. You can hear when the catapult reaches the end of its stroke, and at that same moment the 3Gs return to 1G and you are able to sit back into your seat for your flight back to NAS North Island.
The USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) is the seventh Nimitz-class nuclear-powered supercarrier in the United States Navy, named for Senator John C. Stennis of Mississippi. She was commissioned on December 9, 1995, and her home port is Bremerton, Washington. She has two Nuclear Reactors capable of speeds greater than 30 knots and allowing the ship to steam more than 1,000,000 miles before refueling. Her Flight Deck is 257 feet wide and 1,092 feet long, equivilant to three football fields in length and adding up to 4.5 acres. There are four catapults and four elevators accommodating 70 tactical aircraft. Her height (keel to mast) is 244 feet, as tall as a 24-story building. Her two Anchors each weigh 30 tons, and the starboard anchor was inherited from the USS Forrestal (CV 59). She is capable of accommodating 6,200 Sailors and Marines and serving 18,600 meals per day, with 12,000 eggs served at breakfast alone.
The mission of John C. Stennis and her air wing (CVW-9) is to conduct sustained combat air operations while forward-deployed. The embarked air wing consists of up to 10 squadrons. Attached aircraft are US Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet, EA-18G Growler, MH-60R Seahawk, MH-60S Knighthawk, and E-2C Hawkeye.
Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet
Strike Fighter Squadron 41 (VFA-41) "Black Aces"
Boeing F/A-18E Super Hornet
Strike Fighter Squadron 97 (VFA-97) "Warhawks"
Boeing EA-18G Growler
Electronic Attack Squadron 133 (VAQ-133) "Wizards"
Northrop Grumman E-2C Hawkeye
Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron 112 (VAW-112) "Golden Hawks"
Sikorsky MH-60S Knighthawk
Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 14 (HSC-14) "Chargers"
Sikorsky MH-60R Seahawk
Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron 71 (HSM-71) "Raptors"
My embark aboard the USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) was truly an amazing experience, one that I will never forget. I do need to note that while the ship itself and the aircraft operations were incredible to see, it truly is the teamwork of the men and women embarked aboard the ship that make it all come together.
For making my embark a possibility, I would personally like to thank the following people:
Commander, Naval Air Forces
USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74)
Also, my wife (Rylan), my mom and dad (Ellen and Pete), my uncle (Bob), and all my friends at AzAP. Thank you for always supporting and encouraging my habit of aviation photography.