NIGHT operations, 100 miles off Norfolk, Va. Out of a velvet black sky, watched by a full moon with his usual arched eyebrows, come the Navy fighters: F-14s, F/A-18s. They circle along the horizon, bits of orange light, then disappear in a turn and reappear as they approach the ship, closing on the flight deck at 200 miles an hour. Not more than 10 miles, or a few minutes apart. Not much time or distance between landings. In the tower above the flight deck, the captain and his officers keep the ship in perfect alignment with the wind. Crosswinds are one of the worst hazards for the landing planes. The Eisenhower, all 95,000 tons of it, churns through the ink at 30 knots.
On the LSO (Landing Signal Officer) deck on the far aft end of the 1,000-foot flight deck, and not 20 feet from where the planes touch down, officers watch anxiously to give landing clearance. There are mere seconds in which to make the call. Is the previous plane safely out of the way? Are the cables stretched across the deck retracted and in place?
``Clear deck!'' a crew chief calls out.
The incoming plane nears, growing larger in size and in reality. Suddenly it descends, rushing and whistling toward the deck. From between its wheels a hooked arm hangs, searching for the cables. There are four cables, about 20 feet apart, hooked below decks to huge hydraulic shock absorbers. The plane drops.
It is at this point that you see the punishment these aircraft take: The pilot hits full throttle at the same second the hook is grabbing for the cable, for if he misses he must get back in the air before he runs out of flight deck. The hook scrapes along the deck. Sparks fly off the paving. A blue light flashes on the hook, indicating a grab. The plane, now pulling the slithering cable behind it, is held to this unreal patch of earth. The cable races out, the plane dips forward, going from flight speed to no speed in three seconds.
This is an ``arrested landing.'' If you've done one, you don't forget it. Other nearly out-of-body experiences - roller coasters, and so on - pale by comparison.
On the LSO deck, the crew immediately focuses on the next plane. The deck crew works to get the landed plane out of the way. Maybe a minute is allowed.
The incoming pilot lines up on a row of green lights at the end of the landing deck. If the runway can't be cleared, the LSO hits a switch and a red light flashes in the middle of the green ones. This is an abrupt change of plan, a serious and sudden non-welcome mat. Pull up. Floor it. Get lost.
The curious thing about this is the odd blend of high technology, computers, and imaging screens, coupled with low-tech, men, and rows of light bulbs. The Navy doesn't completely trust technology, and probably never will. It wants everything to work even if the chips go down.
`WE still shoot the stars every night to check our position against what the computers say,'' says a navigation officer. ``There's one thing about the stars - they don't go `down''' the way computers can.
In landings, there's a man in the plane and a man on the deck, working together. The reliance on man-operated machinery, kept as simple as possible, makes a lot of sense in the middle of the ocean.
A good deal of this roaring, dangerous business of landing aircraft on a ship at sea is done by feel, a feel for the ship and a feel for the plane, the feel and familiarity that makes things happen instinctively, regardless of what the computer says.
The night operations I saw were taking place in good weather under a full moon - a commander's moon. The sea was flat as hammered iron, gray-black, with the moon's reflection a silver path to the horizon. But what this business would be in dirty weather, or worse yet, under attack, one can only guess. The Ike, because of its enormous size, rolls very slightly in heavy seas. But it doesn't take much to complicate landings.
Taking off is the other thing you won't forget. The aircraft, full of fuel and explosives, is hitched to a catapult, a sort of steam-powered slingshot pointed forward, running in a slot in the deck. (The Ike has four of them.)
With the plane's engine at full blast the catapult is tripped, and in 300 feet you go from zero to 150 miles an hour, together with your stomach, hopefully. At the end of the 300 feet, there is no more deck and the plane is released blithely 100 feet over the water, where it is on its own. Inside the plane, the sensation, at least the first time, is that a great error has occurred. The engine has stopped, or so it feels. Ah, well, here we go into the drink. But, thankfully, the engines push the thing forward and the flight continues.
Fighters are heavy; so are their bombs and armament. They have to be launched rapidly, one after another. Sometimes they have so much armament that they are sent up with nearly empty fuel tanks and refueled above (another clever operation). After their missions, they run out of fuel about as closely together in time as they are launched. The only way to get good at fast landings is to do it over and over, day and night, fair weather and foul.
The average age of the personnel on the flight deck is under 20. One young seaman, on the deck crew handling multimillion-dollar aircraft said, ``It's funny. I have trouble on land when I want to rent a Hertz car.''
NIGHT operations go on into the wee hours - except that on board a carrier there is no such distinction made. One hour is equal to any other. Work goes on around the clock, every day.
Under the decks, where the sun never shines, the time of day is immaterial. Some of the work must be done in cramped, overheated spaces in the midst of monstrous machinery. Some of it in cool dark chambers in the green and orange glow of delicate electronics.
Leaving a turquoise wake behind it, this community of 3,000 men (and only men) lives, sleeps, eats, works, washes, cooks, and writes letters home. In full battle readiness, the population swells to 5,500, when all the planes, pilots, and support crews are aboard.
And there are more mundane operations: At full capacity, bread is baked daily (800 loaves), eggs are fried daily (180 dozen), and laundry is washed daily (more than 5,000 pounds). The evaporators distill 400,000 gallons of water a day, and even so the crew downs 13,000 cans of soda a day. No alcohol is allowed whatever.
Life on board, totally encased in steel, on steel, and under steel, takes on a compressed quality. Noise is constant, so is heat. Despite air conditioning, things are warm. The 65-bed hospital and dental clinic must be cooled, as well as machine shops, jet engine repair shops, ship's stores, ward rooms, ready rooms, kitchens, freezer lockers (more like vaults), and sleeping quarters.
And under all this, this good-sized town, are two nuclear reactors cooking enough steam to push the ship through the seas and run everything else as well.
Sleep for the crew becomes a relative thing. Besides the noise and the heat, there's the constantly changing schedule. Bunks are stacked three-high for sailors, and even though the ship is over 1,000 feet long, space is at a premium. You learn a lot about machinery and electronics on a carrier, and a lot about getting along with your fellow men. Officers have staterooms in which they double up, but they don't escape the noise. My stateroom was under the catapult machinery. All night long it was shooting planes into the sky.
``It's a little noisy,'' said an officer, showing me to my room, ``a little like having a subway pull into your top bunk every few minutes. But you get used to it. Sleep tight.''
I slept with earplugs.
THE massiveness of everything on the Eisenhower is surprising at first, then it fades into relativity. You are shown the anchor chain and told that each link weighs more than 300 pounds. Each propeller weighs 11 tons. The engine makes 280,000 horsepower. Each anchor is 30 tons.
And the numbers: 1,900 telephones, 30,000 light fixtures, 20,000 meals and 250 haircuts a day (with full combat complement), and so on. The ship has its own television station, its own evening news show, its own newspaper, its own library, its own gym. Even its own financial system: The men are paid electronically and there are automatic teller machines throughout the ship. The crew has cash cards and they can make withdrawals and transfers just like the rest of America. The work is long and hard. The workday is between 12 and 16 hours, with no days off. Entertainment is limited.
The one question that disappears as soon as you board is ``Why?'' On a ship like this, the sheer size and complexity compel the conclusion, unwitting I think, that the basic idea makes sense. We have carriers this size because ... well, look how big the thing is. Look how many eggs are fried every day. The costs are astronomical, both to build and to run. Thousands of men are out there floating around in the ocean, taking off and landing. For what purpose? Once on board, you don't think about such things.
But after you leave, and watch this floating island of steel drift away toward the horizon, you realize that it exists for one reason above all others: so that people in other parts of the world will pay attention when George Bush speaks. In the Middle East, the carrier Coral Sea (smaller than the Eisenhower and non-nuclear) has been moved to what's hoped to look like a strategic position.
Only a carrier can provide the subtle, infinitely adjustable military pressure against states that are not exactly enemies and not exactly allies. You can move it closer a little or farther out to sea a little. You can do observation runs, and practice runs, and other operations to show the gradations of your intentions, the increase or decrease of your frustration. Nothing else - not bombers, not troops on the ground, not columns of tanks, not ballistic missiles, can be controlled like this.
If the Coral Sea's message isn't clear enough, another carrier, maybe the Eisenhower, may join her in the Mediterranean, upping the ante, pushing all parties to rethink their positions.
It would cost millions to get the Eisenhower there and more millions to keep her there. Under the decks, maintaining the nuke plant, running the steam catapult, repairing jet engines, baking bread, frying eggs, doing laundry, the work will go on as it does here.
There's no such number, I'm sure, but I'd like to know how many fried eggs it's going to take to get people like Rafsanjani and Rabin to the bargaining table.
USS EISENHOWER STATISTICS
Launched: Oct. 11, 1975
Commissioned: Oct. 18, 1977
Builder: Newport News Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Co.
Cost: $784.5 million (with armament, more than $1 billion)
Home port: Norfolk, Va.
Complement: 3,100 sailors and officers; 2,800 air crew
Length, overall: 1,092 feet
Widest point: 257 feet, 5.5 inches
Height: 206 feet, 6 inches (keel to mast top)
Displacement: Approximately 95,000 tons, with full combat load
Number of rudders: Two
Weight of rudders: About 45.5 tons each
Size of rudders: 29 feet by 22 feet
Aircraft: Typically, 20 F-14A Tomcats, 18 F/A-18 Hornets, 5 EA-6B Prowlers, 20 A-7E Corsair IIs, 5 E-2C Hawkeyes, 10 S-3 Vikings, 8 SH-3H Sea King helicopters
Other: There are four evaporators aboard which can distill more than 400,000 gallons of fresh water a day, enough for the daily needs of more than 2,000 homes.
The air conditioning plants have a capacity of 2,520 tons, enough to serve more than 800 homes.
Source: US Navy, Jane's Fighting Ships 1988-89