My most interesting story was being officer of the deck during plane guard operations with the carrier. When you are sailing with the carrier, you are pretty much a dog tethered to a very short leash, in which the carrier orders you around at all times and doesn’t allow you to stray too far from their reach so they can task you 24/7. Its one of their most favorite things to do. They especially like to speed up to 30+ knots and then order you into formation even when you can not possibly go that fast to keep up. As it turns out my watch was going to have the first plane guard duties once we were on station, so unfortunately I was unable to come up to the bridge and observe before I was in charge of making it happen.
For plane guard, you must station astern and a little to the right of the carrier at 4,000 yards. Seems easy enough, except they turn
around a lot and you have to maintain station off of them, which is doable, but it takes some planning and coordination to make happen. What we do is set up a path for the inbound aircraft, so they know where to land on the carrier. This is especially helpful at night because during the day they can do a short turn and land fairly easily on the carrier, but at night they must come in on a long extended leg and set themselves up off of our ship with our aircraft light, as part of the runway to the carrier for safety reasons.
The sun was just setting when they first called us into station and I was reading the air-plan trying to figure out how this was going to
work when the captain came to the bridge. He helped us maneuver to our station, and then explained it to me. Basically, most of the fighter jets spend their days flying over land conducting certain missions and when the carrier turns to Foxtrot Corpen (the course for airplane recovery) they launch a slew of aircraft and they recover the aircraft that were out patrolling for the past few hours during the same flight quarters. This means all of the aircraft leaving take off, and once they are out-of-the-way, all of the aircraft returning, return. It’s very cool to watch. There are 2 tankers that will take off right before this whole thing starts and when aircraft take off they will refuel them in flight if they need it or they fly in case an aircraft misses the landing a few times and has to try several times to get on deck. If this happens they will become dangerously low on fuel, so they will have a tanker in the sky on hot standby to give them some fuel to land on deck.
When the first few fighter jets took off they did a little show for us flying by in 2′s and 3′s and spinning around. I was out on the bridge wing watching them through the big eyes and it was extremely neat. The flight plan itself is not easy to read. It’s a piece of paper with all kinds of symbols and things written on it, but the captain showed me how to read it and we had 15 aircraft coming in for the landing. On the back they always have a cartoon, and it normally pertains to the pilots on the carrier. Well, needless to say I don’t get them. I stare at the cartoon and try my hardest to understand it but I honestly never get it and then the captain will come up and laugh hysterically at these cartoons and I just laugh like I get it, when I absolutely positively do not. Haha.
As they start their decent and run for the carrier, they fly right over top of us at 800 feet and the FA-18 Superhornets are the biggest and the loudest, and the coolest!!! The captain called for me and we ran out to the bridge wing and there we stood, looking up into the sky, the wind furiously whipping our faces, and in the distance you could see about 4 red dots all lined up as they make their approach one right after the other. The first one to come was a superhornet, you always know because they have two port red running lights and two starboard green running lights on both sides, all of the other aircraft just have one.
We were also listening to the carriers tower frequencies, so you can listen to all of the action as it happens and you know exactly what they are doing, which is even cooler. The guy in the tower will tell them how far apart to get between each other and they have all these codes, to tell each other what’s going on and it is definitely very cool once you are in the loop and understand what they are saying. The captain did a very good job explaining it because by the end of the flight quarters, I had a very good idea of what was going on. When the first superhornet came over head, it was extremely loud and he was right there in the sky above us. There was half a moon so it illuminated the FA-18 perfectly, and I could see everything on its underbelly and watch the landing gear as it came out in preparation for the touch down on the carrier. They land the aircraft very quickly and efficiently, with about 90 seconds in between ,so they have to get them on deck and taxied out of the way fast so they can get the next guy on deck. We watched all 15 of them land, and when you are set up perfectly on station you have a direct view to the runway on the flight deck of the carrier, so you can also see them touchdown, if you watch close enough.
In this instant, out there on the bridge wing, standing with the captain, watching the super hornets fly, with a deafening roar above me, I finally realized the meaning of something the speaker had said at my OCS (Officer Candidate School) graduation. He had repeated several times “Well, you can’t do something like that in Madison Wisconsin.” when referencing certain things he had done throughout his naval career.
Being in charge of a war ship right behind an aircraft carrier, while watching 15 aircraft land, including super hornets was one of those moments. And so now I’m going to insert my own hometown into this saying, because it explains everything perfectly. “Well, I can’t do something like that in Mount Pleasant.”