Recently I had the rare opportunity to live out a life-long dream. Thanks to the efforts of my partners Mark and Archie, I was able to spend a week on an aircraft carrier. The ship was the USS Ronald Reagan, one of our Navy’s newest nuclear super-carriers and she was on her way home after a 6-month deployment in the Middle East supporting our troops in Iraq and Pakistan. I joined the ship in Pearl Harbor as she departed for her home port in San Diego. My trip included a trap landing and catapult take-off from her decks where the aircraft accelerates from 0 to 160 MPH in a breathtaking 3 seconds.
On board, I was met by my “keeper”, Commander James Mills, the Weapons Systems Officer for the Reagan. James took time from his busy schedule every day to make sure I didn’t get permanently lost on the huge ship and really got a sense of what today’s Navy is all about.
I’ve been a pilot and Navy buff since I was 16 so I knew I would be impressed with the ship and the aircraft. The Reagan displaces 105,000 tons (BIG) and is over 1000 feet long with a flight deck that covers 4.5 acres. A nuclear power plant provides high-pressure steam that drives four 250,000 horsepower turbines capable of moving the Reagan at speeds the Navy won’t talk about. What’s really impressive to me is that the ship will operate for 25 years without refueling. (Why we’re not using more of this nuclear technology to meet our Nation’s energy needs is beyond me!). The Reagan is home base to about 50 advanced aircraft, most of which are F-18 Hornets, supersonic multi-role aircraft that are fighters, attack aircraft, and refueling tankers depending on how they are configured. They land and take-off with amazing grace and precision from a pitching deck that looks like a postage stamp floating in the ocean to pilots. One thing I learned is that we are the only navy in the world that can launch and recover fighter and attack aircraft from a ship. (Other nations can launch helicopters and vertical take-off aircraft, but not fighters and attack jets).
Impressive as the technology is, the real stories of the Navy and all our military branches are the young men and women who serve. The full crew compliment on the Reagan is 5200 souls, but she deployed with only 4200 because of budget cuts, so everybody works more than full-time. The average age of the crew on board is 20 years. 35% are women, and most are high-school graduates and won’t attend college until after their service. All are volunteers and know that when they sign up in these turbulent times, they are looking at multiple combat deployments under very dangerous and challenging conditions. They are superbly capable at what they do and know that there are no unimportant jobs in the service of country and the world. When not in combat zones, the ship and crew are involved with humanitarian missions, helping people around the world recover from natural disasters and transporting food and medicine to people in need.
A day before returning to home port, excitement was high on board the ship. Loved ones would be reunited after six months at sea. Several hundred fathers would see their new-born babies for the first time. I thought about the commitment to service made not only by the young men and women on board, but also the families and friends carrying on in their absence back home. A day out of port is a very busy time on the flight deck. Carriers disembark all the aircraft before docking as they can’t launch planes in port and don’t want the aircraft unavailable for duty. 50 aircraft would fly home that morning.
I stood on the balcony of the Tower Deck watching teams of fine young people doing their work; fueling aircraft, taxiing them into position, hooking planes to catapults, raising blast shields as twin engines in each aircraft are brought to full power, then pulling the trigger and sending a 75,000 pound F-18 Super Hornet accelerating down the catapult rail homeward bound. Beside me in the “Freedom Tower”, “Milli” is matching catapult thrust to plane weight as 3 of her shipmates help manage the choreographed dance on the deck. One deck below, a young man and women are at the helm of the $3 billion dollar carrier making sure she is on course and that exactly 30 knots of wind are coming straight down the “runway” to help the aircraft lift off. Everywhere people are executing their duties and a sense of awe sweeps over me as I witness what incredible things 4200 motivated, trained, dedicated young people can accomplish working together.
As another F-18 takes to the sky, I think about how lucky I am to have been born in this country. I think about the thousands of people that designed and built this ship and its aircraft and all the young men and women that volunteered for service and their commitment to keep us safe – and I feel very, very grateful.
The next morning, in perfect Southern California weather, the USS Ronald Reagan enters the harbor in San Diego. Crowds line the roads and beaches and docks, fireboats spray water in welcome celebration, and overhead planes tow welcome banners. Around the deck perimeter, the crew in dress whites stand at attention and listen as “The Boss” provides background music. When the Reagan rounds the last channel corner, thousands of waiting family members wave flags and cheer – ready to embrace their returning sons and daughters, husbands and wives. Under a small tent sit the new mothers and their babies, born while husbands were at sea. The new fathers will be first off the ship…..
Suddenly, I am overcome by the honor of being among these fine young people and sharing their homecoming. With moist eyes and a lump in my throat, I reflect on how much we owe them and all who serve and have served. Truly, together they are an American Treasure. My heart skips a beat as I spot my wife Jill and son Phil – they have flown from Boise and Seattle to meet the ship. My sister Mimi is there, too. I am home, in America.