AS dawn breaks in the Red Sea, another F-18 is catapulted into the air from the flight deck of the USS Saratoga. As the nearly 5,000 crew members on board await the possibility of participating in a Gulf war, they are treating each day just like every other during their six months at sea.
The mood on board is one of calm professionalism and teamwork. It has to be. The pilots depend on the deck crew for proper directions and correct signals. The crew makes all the difference in the success of a launch or landing, and are responsible for the maintenance and operation of the three-football-field-length flight deck.
Over half of the ship's crew is attached to the airwing and have assignments that vary from jet fighter pilot to aircraft maintenance to ensuring the safety of the pilot and crew on the flight deck. The color of uniforms signify to which area of operations each crew member is assigned.
Everyone on the flight deck wears goggles and ear protectors. The protective head gear, combined with jet engine noise, make talking impossible. Thus the flight crew and pilots have developed a language of hand signals. A clenched fist raised in the air means to hold; raise the thumb, and a second later a plane is shot into the air.
The deck is slippery with jet fuel and must be constantly cleaned with steam. The crew must keep alert for even the smallest piece of debris on the deck. An object as small as a piece of chalk could injure or kill a crew member or seriously damage another aircraft if it is caught in a jet's blast.
Because of the inherent danger of the job, the crew must operate as if the vessel is always at war. There is little different in the way a plane is launched for combat or for a routine patrol.
Below deck, the rest of the crew have duties which are involved in operating the ship itself. They include engineers, navigators, barbers, cooks, librarians, and many others.
While these other crew members may not be assigned to a position which brings them into contact with the aircraft, they are constantly reminded of the planes' presence. The odor of jet fuel and exhaust can be found in every compartment on board, and it is impossible to escape the ear-shattering sound and reverberation of planes launching and landing 24 hours a day. The sound waves echoing throughout the ship can reach between 90 and 120 decibels. Yet if it were not for the sound, a crew member would not know a plane was landing unless he was on the flight deck. In relatively calm water, one hardly knows that the ship is moving.
LIVING conditions are fairly comfortable. The food in the crew mess is much like what would be found in any cafeteria. The men sleep in air-conditioned quarters in bunks stacked three high; however, because of work schedules, crew members spend little time sleeping. The average shift (or watch) on duty is 12 hours a day, seven days a week. When the ship is conducting an operation, a watch can last 36-40 hours straight. However, unlike the troops deployed in Saudi Arabia, the ship's crew has three hot meals a day, often-pleasant weather, and entertainment facilities.
Thoughts are not on liberty today though. There's work to be done. At any time the Gulf crisis could be reclassified as war. As desert troops fill sandbags and plan lines of defense in the event of war, the watch on the Saratoga changes, and while the crew would rather be somewhere else, today is just like any other day.