Although a Nimitz class carrier has many decks and a significant number of functional areas, tours are pretty much restricted to the forecastle, flight deck and navigation bridge for reasons of safety and ease of accessibility. And due to time constraints and needs of the ship we were not able to have lunch in the galley and the ship’s store was not open for business.
On the forecastle the operations of anchoring and mooring were interestingly explained to us, and that 25-30 personnel are assigned when doing this work. There are many very specific steps taken when dropping anchor or mooring and they need to be executed precisely and safely to avoid damage or injury. When navigating through Rich Passage or similar areas a detail is prepared to drop anchor on a moment’s notice if there is ever a propulsion problem with the ship to avoid going aground. Fortunately this has never happened. The power of an anchor windlass can be imagined when it is realized that each link in the chain weighs 365 pounds.
From the forecastle we climbed up to the 4 ½ acre flight deck where the 70 or so air wing aircraft land, are launched and park. Only one old training aircraft was on the flight deck at this time as the air wing only arrives and departs off California during training and deployment.
During landings, or recoveries, there are 4 wires across the deck with the #3 being the ideal one for the tail hook of a landing aircraft to catch, although any of them will do the job. There is a 5th , a large net like barrier that can be erected in less than two minutes as needed. If a plane misses a catch it uses full military power to take off, fly around and try again. This is exciting to watch but is dangerous and also very loud. The tension in the wires is computer controlled and is customized to the specific aircraft being caught based on weight and size. The wires are used for 125 catches and then are replaced.
There are four steam operated catapults for launching aircraft. A given day can include 120 launches and recoveries, although neither happens simultaneously. But these operations occur at any hour, in any weather and any sea conditions. Wind over the bow is the only requirement and the ship’s 30+ knot speed helps to insure that.
Flight deck control is located at the base of the island with access to and from the flight deck and is where all flight deck movements and operations are controlled. This can include directing an aircraft to an elevator for decent to the hangar deck, repair, refueling, parking or anything else. As soon as a plane lands it is under their control and the famous Ouija Board is used to facilitate keeping track of every aircraft. Scale models, painted nuts, jacks and pins, etc. are used to show status. Several personnel move these parts as directed. The new Gerald Ford class carriers are due to have a computerized replacement of this amazing system but no one has yet been able to successfully design and build something that can react as quickly and multi dimensionally as the present arrangement using human brain power. Time will tell.
Our last stop was on the navigation bridge after a climb of many levels up the Captain’s Ladder. Everything there is now a 100% digital helm…no more paper charts on board. Numerous radars and other electronics are in place. A recent “close call” was told about when Stennis was navigating Rich Passage. There is a large “blind spot” from the bridge due to the size and shape of the flight deck. A Washington State Ferry en route to Bremerton stopped in the channel such that the helm on Stennis could not see it. Fortunately the electronic navigation aids showed it electronically and there was no collision.
As we ended our tour we coincided with what seemed like an endless line of sailors and contractors leaving the ship at the end of the work day. And there were still plenty of people on board. We had another great tour thanks to Byron Faber’s hard work, and we certainly thank everyone aboard USS John C. Stennis for their friendly hospitality.