The Society of Women Engineers is pleased to maintain an ongoing relationship with the U.S. Navy. SWE board member Colleen Layman recently had the opportunity to see what life is like aboard the Navy vessel that boasts the greatest percentage of women sailors at 26 percent. Below, Colleen shares the insights she gleaned during this exciting time, meeting with the men and women of the USS Ronald Reagan.
The Navy officer strapped into his seat three rows ahead of me waves his arm in the air and shouts a barely audible “Here we go, here we go,” over the intercom of the C-2 Greyhound I am flying aboard. Twenty seconds later, our aircraft’s tail hook catches the middle cable on the aircraft carrier deck. The plane decelerates from 130 miles per hour to zero in 1.5 seconds. I have just earned my first (and very likely my only) U.S. Navy TRAP patch and my adventure as a distinguished visitor aboard the USS Ronald Reagan has begun. For the next 26 hours, I will be immersed in the day-to-day life experiences of a Navy sailor at sea.
During our visit, the USS Ronald Reagan was at sea about 30-40 minutes southwest of Naval Air Station, North Island in Coronado, Calif., conducting routine training in preparation for deployment later this year. As part of this training, Navy air wing pilots were qualifying to land on and take off from the deck of the aircraft carrier, a feat that I found to be absolutely amazing given the fact that they basically needed to hit a 3 foot by 3 foot target box that is constantly moving up, down and sideways (depending on the wind and waves) while traveling at 160 miles per hour. They do this while at full throttle so that if they miss the catch wires on the deck, they have sufficient speed to take back off and recover. This was incredible to watch during the day, standing on the deck of the aircraft carrier, but was even more amazing to watch at night, with the pilots having only the colored hand lights of the crew on the deck to guide them. All of these landings are orchestrated using only hand signals during the daylight hours and colored hand lights during the nighttime hours to simulate conditions where communications could be cut off or restricted due to operations. My group spent quite a bit of time standing on the deck watching the daylight flight operations. The whole operation was incredibly well coordinated by a stellar team of young men and women in various colored shirts. Purple shirts fuel aircraft, white shirts monitor safety, yellow shirts direct aircraft movement, red shirts handle weapons and ammo, green shirts hook aircraft to catapults and handle arresting wires, brown shirts are responsible for individual aircraft and blue shirts chock and chain aircraft. I’m awestruck by the fact that most of this work is being done by 19- and 20-year-olds. I can remember how irresponsible I was at 19 or 20 years of age. Impressive.
At night we had the opportunity to get a bird’s-eye view of all of this activity from “vulture’s row,” a windowed, balcony-type area located about seven stories above the deck of the carrier. And as luck would have it, one of the pilots who had recently finished his qualification runs was available to join us and provide a play-by-play of the activity that we were watching. He shared what it felt like to be a pilot sitting in that seat waiting to get catapulted off deck while both nerves and adrenaline build up, how it felt the first time his plane successfully caught the wire on the deck of the carrier (and what it felt like when he missed it), and how he just generally loved to fly. Like all the sailors and pilots we met during our visit, you could tell by the look on his face and the enthusiasm in his voice that he truly loved his job and was proud of the entire crew aboard the ship. That is something that impressed me most during the visit—how every member of the crew, from general laborers to the admiral himself, performed their job in such an enthusiastic manner, with pride and dedication.
In between watching planes land and launch, we got to explore a large portion of the ship and meet the people responsible for protecting commerce and American interests on the waters around the globe. We visited the Combat Direction Center responsible for directing and communicating combat operations throughout the carrier strike group, Flight Deck Control where the status and operation of each aircraft is monitored, the Jet Shop where they repair and test jet engines before installing them, the Bridge where we met the commanding officer team, and the Forecastle where the anchor chains and windlasses that raise and lower the anchors are housed. We were treated to lunch with the pilots in their own mess hall and the captain and several of his officers hosted us for dinner in the officers’ mess. I was amazed at how the aircraft carrier was really so much like a little village. It had its own chapel, chef and restaurant staff, judge and court, dental center, prison ward, hospital, convenience store, computer center, gym and recreation center, library, graphic arts and television station. They even had a Starbucks on board—yes, even the Navy has Starbucks it seems.
Our accommodations, the finest on the ship, resembled lower staterooms on board a typical cruise ship. Sleep was not something that I got a great deal of that night. Our rooms were located just below one of the steam-powered catapults used to launch planes off the ship and the crew was working well into the early morning hours that night qualifying pilots. Even with earplugs, the noise could be nearly deafening—my roommate and I were way too excited to sleep anyway and in between launches we chatted excitedly about our day well into the early morning.
In the morning, we learned more about life as an enlisted sailor, had breakfast with some of the ship’s enlisted leadership and sadly began to prepare for our journey home. The end of the adventure, however, was joyfully postponed for us as the ship was scheduled for a refueling operation that interrupted all air traffic on and off the vessel for a couple of hours. In addition to being granted a postponement to our eventual departure, we were given a rare opportunity granted to distinguished visitors to watch another highly orchestrated naval operation. A refueling ship pulled up alongside the carrier, the two captains coordinated their spacing and speed, and the crews transferred fuel and other materials between the two ships flawlessly. All I could say was “Wow!” as I watched them flawlessly execute these choreographed moves. One of our guides commented that our Navy was more successful than the Russian Navy during the Cold War simply because we had devised a much more reliable and successful process for these refueling operations.
As all good things do, however, our visit eventually came to an end. We donned our cranials, horse collars and goggles and, after a safety briefing, headed back to the C-2 Greyhound to be catapulted back off the ship and back to North Island Naval Air Station. As we sat patiently, waiting for the crew to hook us up to the launch arm and the steam to build up pressure, I had a few minutes to reflect on my visit. During my 20 years working in the power generation industry, I have worked with numerous ex-Navy operators, engineers, commissioning teams and maintenance crews. The power generation industry is proud to employ a large number of men and women who have worked aboard Navy aircraft carriers, submarines and other vessels. For many years now I have eagerly listened to their stories and admired them for their courage and hard work. But until I was granted this opportunity to visit the USS Ronald Reagan and see firsthand how the U.S. Navy operates, I had really no idea of the depth and commitment of the service that they have given our country. I am really lucky and very proud to have so many friends and acquaintances who have served on board Navy vessels. As this final thought ran through my head, we were finally launched off the deck of the carrier. I felt us accelerating; faster, faster, faster, then slower and the plane took over. We were on our way back to land.
Thank you to the brave, dedicated men and women aboard the USS Ronald Reagan and throughout our military services.