NORTH ARABIAN GULF - It’s been referred to as “the most dangerous work-space in the world.” Below the surface of this steel beast are 5,700 people living in a virtual city at sea. It holds about 80 aircraft ranging from planes to helicopters, 500,000 pounds of jet fuel, receives 3,000 pounds of mail daily, and travels the seas of the world at speeds more than 30 knots. Welcome on board the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln.
We’re underway on this U.S. Navy Nimitz Class Aircraft Carrier during a Western Pacific Deployment, which the crew calls a “WestPac.” The Lincoln heads up an eight-ship battle group that’s deployed to the region for about six months. They’re in the Arabian Gulf in support of Operation Southern Watch, the coalition effort to patrol Iraq’s southern no-fly zone.
Any fighter pilot on board will tell you it’s not the safest job in the world.
“You never get used to being fired at,” says Lieutenant Junior Grade Steve Dean, who flies the Navy and Marine Corps’ new F/A 18-E Super Hornet fighter jet. This is the first combat deployment for the new Super Hornet, which saw action over Iraq for the first time November 6th.
Attacks on coalition aircraft over Iraq are becoming routine as Saddam Hussein continues to defy United Nations resolutions prohibiting any attack on coalition aircraft in the no-fly zones. The United States considers these attacks, aimed at fighter pilots like Dean, a material breach of United Nations resolutions. “But all that really doesn’t matter to us,” he says. “We know what we have to do and we get it done.”
Getting it done isn’t a job he handles alone. With a crew bigger than many towns in LaSalle County, each and every sailor has a vital role in making sure Iraq plays by the rules, and the aircrews return to the carrier safely.
On the flight deck, we get to observe “launch” and “recovery” – Navy slang for take-offs and landings. Less than 20 feet from the planes as they take off, and close enough to feel the intense heat of the afterburners of the jet engines, we get to see up close why they call the flight deck of an aircraft carrier the most dangerous work-space in the world.
Planes are prepared for take-off by a number of crews ranging from life support technicians and mechanics to the crash and salvage team, which is ready for any mishap on the flight deck. The planes take off from the deck of Lincoln within seconds of each other. It’s the same hectic place during carrier landings. Sometimes the planes don’t quite make it to hook the arresting line on the surface of the ship, and they get a wave-off, which means they have to make another pass back to the carrier to get the landing right.
It seems amazing, given the hectic pace of operations on the flight deck, that there haven’t been any major accidents during this deployment. All the pilots have safely returned to the Lincoln after combat missions over Iraq.
“But I’m sure Saddam would love to get his hands on a coalition pilot,” says LTJG Dean, who attributes the success of his squadron’s mission to “risk management.”
HOME AWAY FROM HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS
Life aboard the ship during the holiday season is somewhat festive. Throughout the passageways are Christmas decorations that turn an otherwise dull looking steel corridor into a blur of red and green Christmas tree lights.
At the end of one of these hallways is one of the busiest places on the ship during Thanksgiving and Christmas – the mailroom. They’re in a combat environment, so sailors on board the Lincoln are entitled to send free letters back to the United States. In addition to the hundreds of packages bringing in fruitcakes and Christmas presents, outgoing mail makes for a busy day for Chief Petty Officer Rich Vargas.
“We get about 3000 pounds of mail per day during the holiday season,” he says, as mail clerks bring in even more packages to his already crowded post office. And it’s only the beginning of December.
On a typical day at sea, the crew of USS Abraham Lincoln eats about 20,000 meals a day. They consume about 13,000 sodas, 660 gallons of milk, 1700 pounds of fresh vegetables and fruit and about 180 dozen eggs. They wash about 5,550 pounds of laundry each day and cut about 250 heads of hair.
And that’s a typical day.
“We joked about the line during Thanksgiving,” says Petty Officer First Class Keith Jones, a public affairs specialist on board the Lincoln.
“We said the line was so long you could have read a Tom Clancy novel.”
There’s no need to read Clancy’s book “Carrier” in that line, though. It’s the adventure they live every day in the Arabian Gulf.