A day out on the ‘USS NIMITZ’ ..as you will see from the picture this is one Mother of a ship…one of the biggest tonnage vessels in the USA Navy.
I was sent down to Naples in Italy with a crew to do a short documentary on this naval titan as it set off on a patrol around the Gulf of Libya…in those days the Libyan state, controlled by Col Ghaddafi, who was not considered to be a friend of the Western world and it was constantly monitored by Allied navies.
After an eventful night in Naples..(Another story) we were picked up at the dockside and transferred to the Nimitz which was moored out in the bay.
Once on board we were shown to our quarters and invited to the Officers mess to meet our press liaison Officer. We all enjoyed our welcoming drink of a cola.
Yep.. all USA Navy vessels are dry. .no alcohol whatsoever, ever, nada, zilch.. this was a three day trip but it already stretched out ahead of my near alcoholic crew like a lifetimes sentence.
OK, So, parched, alcohol free and already showing anxiety levels akin to those who go cold turkey on any addiction we set off on a filmic tour of this leviathan of the waves.
IT IS BLOODY BIG.
A one point I was able to stand at what can only be described as a crossroad of gangways, one in each direction. they all dwindled off into the distance for what seemed like hundreds of bulkhead doors.
Then there was the storage and engineering deck.
This is immediately below the flight deck, its like several football fields joined together and it is stuffed full of aircraft, of all shapes and sizes but mainly fighter attack planes as one would expect, but the thing that really amazed me was the number of engineers who live down there, it seemed like thousands of them, all beavering away on engines and broken bits.
When we talked to some of these men they all said they had never been on the flight deck, they were on board for the two year mission and their aim was to work, pump iron in the vast gymnasium, eat, pass exams, eat some more, pump more iron and SAVE MONEY…these were serious people..and they had a lot to be serious about.
On our mission there had been a dog fight with a couple of Ghaddafi’s Migs out over the Gulf and both of them had been brought down.
Time for a modest celebration in the Officers mess, modest it certainly was as we downed copious amounts of Coca Cola, but for these steely eyed Top Gun boys it could have been the best champagne or beer in the world.
The operation of Jets taking off and landing seemed to be a 24/7 task as jet after jet catapulted off the flight deck and the incoming hit the deck with a thump and were then taken down to the maintenance deck for a mechanics rub down.
We met and interviewed the Captain of the vessel, this man was a USA Hero going back to the Vietnam war, it was reputed that he had been shot down on two occasions behind enemy lines and fought his way back with just a small hand gun, a tough cookie indeed, if it were me then one time being shot down would have sufficed.
The interview was arranged to be filmed on the flight control deck, the Captains Bridge, that’s the tall spiky tower in the pic.
All was set up, the skipper arrived and we began, except we couldn’t..
Every time we started the interview the sound man would shout “Cut”…he had a problem with his recording machine, in those days it was a Nagra, A state of the art recorder and a reel to reel ,very reliable, but this one would only turn round in short bursts of a couple of seconds. It didn’t take long to work out that the signal from the large rotating radar dish, just above our heads was sending out such a strong magnetic field that it actually stopped the recorder from working.
We quickly found another venue for our chat but it did give me food for thought that if the signal was that strong it could stop the recorder …what was it doing to the personnel who spent hours working on that deck every day…just a thought.. They all seemed quite normal..
OK..we did the usual documentary stuff for a few days , nice pics of the aircraft taking off and landing, some little escapades and near accidents but it all went relatively smoothly.
And then came the day of our departure.
The ship can stay at sea for over two years without re-fuelling and personnel rarely got to go on shore leave but for those in an emergency they can be flown off.
Not many volunteered.
At the appointed hour my crew assembled at the detailed departure point on the flight deck.
All equipment boxes securely fastened and stacked neatly, Navy style.. Then I looked around the deck. It was completely stuffed with fighter planes, row upon row of them, dozens of them, it was all you could see..
What I couldn’t see was a flight deck for my plane to trundle along to take off.
And where was our transport plane. .nowhere in sight.
Then a huge hole in the flight deck opened up and like the Phoenix from the ashes our twin prop driven aircraft arose. Its wings were folded up like a broken bird. They were soon flattened out and now it looked as though it was capable of flight…except.. there was no runway.
Then it dawned on me.
These lunatics were actually going to catapult us off the deck.
And we were lunatics for agreeing to it…not that we were ever asked.
They were really going to sling us off the very short flight deck on a catapult..
Most people today have flown, the plane taxis to the end of a VERY LONG RUNWAY..
They then run up the engines to high revs and start rolling down several hundred yards of concrete runway. .at a certain speed lift is achieved and the aircraft powers serenely into the blue yonder..
As aircraft went, ours was quite small, but it was much larger than any of the fighter planes that we had filmed taking off, these massively powerful war planes had been hooked up to the sling. Run their engines up to max power permitted, held back on their brakes and when ready the deck man would give a signal to both pilot and the catapult man and the combined forces of engine and catapult would throw the plane into the sky, an awesome operation.
Best seen from afar as a spectator.
Like sheep unto the slaughter my crew were herded across the deck and quickly kitted out in flight survival jackets, flight helmets, goggles.
Then we were boarded on the rear of the plane, the seats were all facing the tailgate ..we were told to take a brace position on take off and we did. The gear was stowed. The door was locked and now there was no escape.
The plane was trundled over to the end of the catapult section and attached.
Looking out of the very small window I noticed we had attracted quite a crowd of onlookers.
Dozens of Navy folk were standing around peering at us, thumbs up signs etc were in abundance. I had the feeling that I had suddenly been invited to go into a big stone circular ring with some hungry lions licking heir lips at the other end.
I watched through the small window at the deck control man who I had filmed many times over the last few days giving his usual signals to the pilot, it normally consisted of spinning his index finger at ever growing speeds.
This digital movement was copied on board the plane by the engines being revved to ear splitting level, the plane was threatening to tear itself apart as the engines reached maximum revs and then came the executioners moment.
The deckman stopped his murderous spinning and pointed forward with what I thought was a flamboyant gesture .At that moment I hated that man.
But I had no time to dwell on how I wanted to kill him as I was being propelled into the air at a limb wrenching speed ..and suddenly we were airborne, we soared away from the deck which I could see rapidly dwindling in the small window..
Brilliant…no doubt this was an exhilarating moment.
And then we stopped flying…
Apparently this is normal. .But I didn’t know it.
As we went rapidly down towards the ocean the aircraft made a valiant attempt to reach airspeed, it transpired that the catapult actually throws the plane off the deck at a much higher speed than the plane can fly at and it really just starts to fall into the sea.
The screeching from the engines was now overwhelming and the plane appeared to resemble a million rivets flying in loose formation.
The glistening ocean was fast approaching and I made all of my prayers, in Urdu, Hebrew, Christian , Rastafarian and all of the rest…this was it, the end. The Big End…it was just a few hundred feet away and arriving quickly.
Bye Bye life, Sex, Boozing, Watching Footie, and then as we were about to impact we started to lift.. we were actually flying… we seemed to just skim over the top before we began a stately ascent to a safer altitude.
Now it became clear to me why all those big body building, gluttonous, money saving mechanics never left the ship on its two year cruise.
This was the only way off.
They should all retire as rich men..
Two short footnotes to this story.
The Cargo master who had flown with us told me they had lost two of these aircraft recently and it always drew a good audience of ghouls on the Nimitz to see if we could make it. He happily confessed that he had a death wish… Thanks fellas.
We were landed at an airbase on an Italian island, Sicily I think, and we were transported to our hotel by a Navy driver who had a big blue bus.
On the way into the town, in the local rush hour we were struck a number of times by other vehicles.
Our driver seemed completely unfazed, I asked him why. He said “Its always like this, none of these guys have ever learned how to drive, they have been driving like this FOR SEVERAL HUNDRED YEARS and aint got the hang of the motor car yet”
I guess he didn’t graduate with a major in history from his high school..
Still, as usual ..it was a pleasure to have completed another little adventure with the American Forces.