Saturday, July 14, 2012

Life aboard a floating city: Top Gun has nothing on this

Rick Westhead/Toronto Star 
The Carl Vinson has 5,000 crew members, giving it a larger population than some cities

An aircraft carrier’s flight deck is widely considered to be among the most dangerous work environments in the world and it’s easy to see why.

 The USS Carl Vinson’s 1.8-hectare, steel-topped deck is a hive of activity. Jets take off, sometimes two at a time, reaching speeds of 240 kilometres per hour in three seconds.

“The flight deck can be terribly unforgiving,” says U.S. navy Capt. Rick Labranche.

Four catch wires are stretched across the aft of the ship and pilots aim to catch the third wire with the hook that extends from the bottom of their planes. When it catches, the planes are jolted to a quick stop.

At least once a day a plane will miss all four wires and have to open up its thrusters to immediately take off again.

“A landing is a mission in itself,” Labranche says. “You’re trying to get that hook down on a four-by-four square and there are times when the ship is pitching and rolling so much that its screws (propellers) are all the way out of the water.”

While the steel wires are discarded after every 150 catches — they’re typically thrown overboard — some can snap after some wear.

In 2003, a wire snapped on the carrier USS George Washington while an F-18 was landing.

As the wire split, it snapped back across the deck, injuring 11 crewmen. The jet crashed into the sea, although the pilot ejected safely.

“This is not like hitting your hand with a hammer,” Labranche says. “Getting hit with a trap cable or being knocked down by jet wash can be life altering.”

Nowadays, it’s standard for a team of crew members to get on all fours to examine the wires for signs of fraying.

They also walk the flight deck and hangar bay four times a day, searching for foreign objects such as pen caps, pennies or Kleenex that could blow a jet engine.

With a crew of 5,000, the Carl Vinson is bigger than some cities.

The carrier is home to 44 fighter jets, as well as a complement of helicopters and command-and-control and radar-jamming aircraft. By turning some of the fighters into aerial tankers, the fighters can strike some 1,300 kilometres away from the carrier — roughly the distance between Toronto and Thunder Bay.

The jets are armed with a battery of air-to-air missiles, 20-mm cannons, and laser- and GPS- guided bombs, shells packed with high explosive that have proven effective at taking out Taliban militants in the craggy hills and mountains of Afghanistan.

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