By Melvin Ah Ching –July 14, 2010
The following article was originally published on HawaiiReporter.com.
Story and Photos by Melvin Ah Ching
The USS Ronald Reagan is a nuclear powered super aircraft carrier that stretches 1,092 feet in length, displaces 97,000 tons with a full load and towers 20 stories high when measured from the waterline. Bearing the name of our 40th president, the USS Ronald Reagan cost $4.5 billion to build, and $1 million a day to operate.
Over 4,500 men and women serve on the USS Ronald Reagan and call it “home” while they are deployed. These people, volunteers to our U.S. Navy, hail from all 50 U.S. States and 40 different countries. They work in unison on their specialized tasks with precision, dedication, enthusiasm and professionalism to make this “city on the sea” work in helping preserve freedom for the United States of America and the world.
This month the USS Ronald Reagan is plying nearby Hawaii waters as the centerpiece of the bi-annual Rim of the Pacific Exercises (known as RIMPAC) commanding a task force consisting of 32 ships, 5 submarines, more than 170 aircraft and 20,000 Sailors, Airmen, Marines, Soldiers, and Coast Guardsmen from 14 Pacific Rim countries.
On Tuesday July 6, I was part of a media contingent of reporters and photographers that were invited to the USS Ronald Reagan to cover their first day at sea for RIMPAC.
Our tour started shortly before noon at a Pearl Harbor pier where the super-carrier was tied up. We boarded through one of the main hangar doors going up a 4-floor gantry-like stairway. We entered a beehive of activity in the hangar area where people were working on various aircraft spread throughout the facility. We spent a few minutes in the cavernous hangar before we were taken up to the officer’s mess hall by Capt. Ron Flanders of the USS Ronald Reagan’s public relations office and our driver, Lt. Terrell for lunch.
My cafeteria-style buffet lunch consisted of Spanish rice, fried chicken, stir-fried beef, broccoli and a nice, cold glass of ice filled water. All of the invited media sat at a long table toward the front wall of the mess hall that was flanked by a flat screen TV and a trophy case filled with some football memorabilia. Long before he became President, Ronald Reagan played the role of George “The Gipper” Gipp in the 1940 film, Knute Rockne, All American. The USS Ronald Reagan’s nickname is “Gipper”.
Shortly after lunch our group was led up several stairways until we emerged on the 4.5-acre flight deck on top of the ship. The USS Ronald Reagan was just about ready to depart Pearl Harbor at 1315 (1:15 pm). Before we got under way, the ship’s whistle blew and a very short change of the colors ceremony was held. Slowly, but surely, the super-carrier maneuvered away from the pier and made its way out of Pearl Harbor, passing the USS Arizona Memorial and the battleship USS Missouri museum.
Hawaii does not have a carrier based at Pearl Harbor. Spectators at the nearby landmarks, as well as on Ford Island, were treated to a spectacular sight. Hundreds of tourists aboard the Missouri lined to wave at us and take photographs. Our vantage point high up on the flight deck of the moving carrier offered us stunning views of the famous monuments and the rest of Oahu. The weather was clear and the skies were blue. It was the perfect day for a sail.
As the Reagan slowly steamed out of Pearl Harbor, a high-tech laden, civilian helicopter buzzed it. The blue chopper had been flying in the area all morning and followed us out to sea. It was obvious that its crew were shooting motion picture footage of the USS. Ronald Reagan. A nearby surface ship speeding along, around and ahead of the carrier turned out to be a very fancy boat that held a giant boom and another camera attached to it. I later found out they were shooting footage for the upcoming movie “Battleship“.
We were allowed great access to nearly all points on the flight deck at this early part of the tour. I stayed fairly close to “the island”, the tall structure on the starboard side that houses the bridge, flight control center, navigation center, communications tower, mast, flags and more. It is one of the few places on the flight deck that provides some shade.
If there is a center of activity on the ship, the flight deck is it. This is where most of the aircraft assigned to the super-carrier are stored, positioned, land and take-off.
As the USS Ronald Reagan was departing, flight deck personnel were preparing for flight operations that were set to begin later that afternoon at 1700 hours (5 pm). The level of activity was ramped up as deck personnel prepared for a busy afternoon.
Cruising at a speed of about 15 to 20 knots, the USS Ronald Reagan was out to sea on a heading due south. The island of Oahu was a spectacular sight to behold. From the flight deck and later the bridge, the ride on this roving air base presented me with some spectacular and usually unseen views of our island. It was a privilege to be on board.
There are at least two bridges on the carrier, one for ship navigation (which I visited) and the other for air traffic control. Our group was split between the two. The navigation bridge is used to steer and navigate the ship. It is a room filled with computers, electronics and not surprisingly, someone actually steering the ship. You’d almost think everything is automatic, but that is far from the truth. There are many hands on tasks that require a human to do.
Below the two bridge decks, we got to observe the flight deck control room where the status of every aircraft is played out on a big drafting table utilizing tokens that represent each aircraft on board.
After the bridge tour, officers Flanders and Terrell took us back down to the hangar deck for a press conference with Rear Admiral Thomas Rowden and Brigadier General Thomas P. Harwood III. They entertained the journalists with answers to questions on RIMPAC, fleet size, objectives, economic impact to the State of Hawaii, military readiness and cultural considerations.
After the press conference, we were led to the Admiral’s quarters where we got a refreshing drink of water and where some took a break to visit “the head”. The Admiral’s quarters is finely appointed and decorated to resemble the red room in the White House. The carrier’s sponsor, former First Lady Nancy Reagan, donated original furnishings and memorabilia. They include books and photographs of President Reagan, his desk from the time when he was Governor of California and other mementos. The Admiral also has a real bedroom and a bathroom that could adorn any decent home.
We were then led to another part of the ship where everyone who wanted to shoot flight operations had to suit up in protective gear. We donned our flack vests and “cranials”, – helmets with goggles and earmuffs built in to protect our head, eyes and ears. We were instructed on various aspects of flight deck safety (stay together, no roaming around, obey the officers in charge, do not cross certain lines, remove all loose objects, no flash pictures) and that a violation of any of the safety rules would result in the immediate removal of the person from the flight deck.
Under flight operation conditions, the flight deck became an intense, loud, dangerous and fast moving environment where jet aircraft engines scream way above tolerable hearing levels and where there is no room for error or careless photographers trying to get their best shot. The smell of jet fuel and exhaust also wafted through the windy air. Everyone on the flight deck had a job to do. From what I observed, they did their jobs well with professionalism, intensity and enthusiasm. This is a place where no one can let down his or her guard. Safety is always top of mind.
Flight deck operations included fueling, moving planes into and out of position, guiding them in for landing and prepping them for take-off. It was awesome to be standing just a few feet away from rushing F/A 18 fighter jets, EA 6B Prowlers and E2 Hawkeye airbourne early warning (AEW) planes coming and going. While all of this was going on, many other aircraft were flying around and above the USS Ronald Reagan. The skies were just as busy as the flight deck. It’s a good thing they have air traffic control on board the ship. Everyone in the media group had some kind of camera snapping photos away or taking video. This was truly “the rush” of the day.
After nearly a half hour on the flight deck, we were instructed to go down below and prepare for the trip back to Honolulu. We met in a ready room below deck, removed our flight deck gear and donned new gear to prepare us for our helicopter ride back to base.
We were required to put on another “cranial” and donned a life vest. The safety officer briefed us on what to do in case the helicopter had a problem and was forced to make a water landing. He told us to quickly unfasten the safety harness and try to get out of the sinking chopper as fast as possible to swim back up to the surface before it sank too deeply.
Huh? Most military personnel go through weeks of practical training for this kind of emergency and they expect us lowly civilians to get this all with a 5-minute briefing? If the worst happened, I surely expected to just drown and die.
Shortly afterwards, our group was split into two. We headed back up to the flight deck and hurriedly made our way in the windy noise to the two Sikorsky SH60 Seahawk helicopters. The Seahawk is the naval services equivalent of the Blackhawk.
My counterpart, Bob Hogue, was whisked with most of the group to the first Seahawk, I into the second with the photographer from Reuters and Lt. Terrell. We were placed in our seats, strapped in, doors slammed shut and waited. The steady whirr of the rotor blades could be easily heard through the protective headgear we were wearing. It was late afternoon at around 1830 hours (6:30 pm). A hazy view of the carrier’s deck and island could be seen through the double layered plastic window on the chopper’s closed door.
After a few minutes of waiting the sound of the engines revved up and suddenly we lifted off deck and made a sharp banking turn to the left. Away from the Ronald Reagan we went. The chopper rapidly climbed to an altitude of about 500 to 600 feet and for the next 30 minutes, skimmed over the Pacific Ocean at about 150 mph as we made our way back to Oahu. The engine sound was constant, and I knew this $28 million flying machine was performing at peak efficiency. The afternoon helicopter ride was a surprisingly pleasant experience. At this low flight level, the ocean was always near, the weather was clear and there was no turbulence at all. Slowly, on the right side of chopper the sight of approaching land was beautiful.
In a few minutes we landed at Hickam just outside the main runway at Honolulu International Airport and spent another 15 minutes or so taxiing to the VIP terminal where important dignitaries like the President of the United States are dropped off.
Upon disembarking from the Seahawk, we found out that our helicopter was the only one that made it back from the USS Ronald Reagan. The first chopper with Bob Hogue and the rest of the journalists experienced a mechanical emergency and had to return to the carrier for repair. They did not return that day.
It was not until late the next day that the rest of the media contingent returned, not by helicopter but on a freight plane known as the “COD” or C2 “Greyhound”. The reason for that was because the carrier had sailed further away from Hawaii and the only way back was to use a plane that had a greater range and flew faster than the chopper.
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