I mean, I have to. I spent two days last week on a Navy aircraft carrier, at sea, with full operations underway. This is the sort of thing that gets the attention of any civilian.
I was part of the “Leaders at Sea” program, which sends leaders from all sectors — corporate, civic, government, nonprofit and service — to embark on a Navy ship at sea.
I was nominated for this program by a former student who is a public affairs officer in the Navy Reserve, specifically in the Navy Office of Community Outreach. She also works full-time for the Navy, as a civilian community outreach manager for Navy Region Northwest. Her work is largely about educating civilians about the Navy, and the embark program is part of that.
“By educating leaders, especially those in non-fleet concentration areas who may not know as much about the Navy, we are able to reach a broader audience to teach them about the importance of their Navy,” she explained.
My Navy knowledge previously was brief and out of date. It consisted of two events in the 1980s. One was when a Navy recruiter visiting me at my parents' house when I was a high school senior and seriously considering the Navy. The second was the release of the film “Top Gun” in 1986, the year I eventually graduated from Central Michigan University.
I learned more about the Navy in two days last week than I could have possibly gleaned any other way in the decades since “Top Gun” came out.
The visit started with a briefing from a veteran Navy aviator at the North Island Naval Air Station on Coronado Island, in San Diego. The aviator, who coincidentally is originally from Muskegon, went over the Navy operations globally as well as specifically in the Pacific Fleet. He reviewed the various types of ships and planes, and then gave us the specifics about the USS Ronald Reagan, the aircraft carrier we 14 civilians would be visiting.
Ultimately, this veteran pilot told us what to expect for our transportation to the carrier.
We flew on a C2 Greyhound, also called a COD (Carrier On-Board Delivery), which is a twin-propeller plane capable of carrying cargo and about 26 human beings. It’s about the size of a regional jet, but without the amenities. The seats face backward, seatbelts are four-point restraints — and everyone wears a “cranial," or helmet, with headphones and goggles.
The plane has to land on the aircraft carrier the same way the fighter jets do, in what is called an arrested landing. This means a hook on the plane catches a cable and brings the plane from 105 mph to zero in two seconds.
When we departed the following day, we took off via catapult, which had us go from 0-128 mph in three seconds. I am happy to say I got a certificate acknowledging that I completed these feats. I am even happier to say that I did not throw up.
In between landing and launch, we had an exhaustive tour of this massive carrier. It included a reception with the captain — another Michigander, incidentally, who hopes to retire in Traverse City one day. We also had a brief from the rear admiral. Both men were very warm and gracious in explaining the ship's mission and operations, and thanking us for coming to visit.
We also met many officers, chief petty officers and sailors on the 5,000-person ship, explaining their various roles. All of them demonstrated teamwork and exhibited great enthusiasm for serving their country.
They also repeatedly stressed that this is “our” ship as taxpayers.
The most exciting part was being on deck — under close supervision — to watch F-18s land and take off. “Top Gun” or other movies cannot do justice to standing 20 feet from these aircraft and watching the “ballet” of Navy personnel making it all happen on deck.
Watching a refueling ship come alongside and replenish the ship’s supply of jet fuel was also a fascinating engineering trick to observe. But I also enjoyed the tours of the bridge, the hangar, repair shops, the anchor deck, the on-board Reagan museum and library, and many other areas of the ship that is so big that we were told many sailors don’t even see all of it.
I’ll never forget the one night aboard. Let’s just say I’ll never complain about a hotel room near an elevator after sleeping with fighter jets landing and taking off 20 feet above my head during night operations.
It’s important to note that all of us civilians paid for our trip. With the sequester, the Navy has to be very careful about its budget. We even paid for all our meals on board. But it was well worth it.
It was more than just an adventure. It was truly educational. I learned so much firsthand about how much the Navy does, and how much has to be done to keep an aircraft carrier running efficiently. Imagine a job in a small city, and it’s a job on the ship. Most of the 5,000 sailors, including 25 percent women, are 25 years old or younger. They do a job that impresses any observer, and should instill pride in any citizen.
I’m grateful that a former student who graduated 10 years ago not only remembered me, but nominated me for this truly once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I’m especially grateful to see firsthand how hard the men and women in the Navy work, not only to protect the United States in military engagements but to serve the world in humanitarian and other peaceful missions.
Tim Penning’s columns and other thoughts can be read on his blog at pierpoints.blogspot.com.