U.S.S. Kitty Hawk


by Alfred Scott

This article appeared in the December 1993 Falco Builders Letter.

Come with me on a visit aboard the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk. I went aboard with two editors from Air & Space magazine, partly for the tour and partly to help with photography and words on an upcoming article. Pat Trenner, Caroline Sheen, and I joined up in San Diego on a December Saturday evening, and we had a few drinks on the patio out in front of the grand old Hotel Del Coronado, famous among other things as the set of the movie Some Like It Hot.

Built by Chinese labor in the 1880's of wood, the 'Hotel Del' was in full splendor with its red-tiled Victorian roofline draped in Christmas lights. The dining room is a huge mahogany-arched chamber that makes you think that the Chinese workmen were more likely shipwrights than carpenters. A basement full of shops bustled with Christmas shoppers wandering among tourist-art shops and displays of famous visitors from Teddy Roosevelt, Truman, Chiang Kai-shek, to our own modern-day joggin' pres and his biddy.

Caroline Sheen and Pat Trenner

I've rarely seen two women so excited at the prospect of the following day. Pat and Caroline could barely contain themselves, and the next morning both admitted to being so wired that neither had slept a wink. After breakfast, we caught a taxi out to the North Island base for the tedious hurry-up-and-wait pace of the military that I hadn't experienced since the late sixties when I was in the Marine Corps in Morocco.

We arrived, signed in, and then waited a couple of hours for the twin-engined Grumman COD transport to take us out to the carrier, presently forty miles off San Diego and conducting carrier qualification flight training for a new batch of pilots. This was Sunday morning, yet a steady stream of helicopters arrived, loaded and departed, while turbine aircraft from jet fighters to prop transports whined loudly out on the ramp in endless runups before taxiing out to the runway. Clumps of black-uniformed young sailors with close-cropped haircuts moved about like sheep while officers and chief petty officers in tan uniforms leaned on the wire fence, gazed out at the aircraft, and let the time pass.

As the departure drew near, we were issued our gear for the flight-an outfit that later turned out to be the standard, required apparel for all on deck. The canvas jacket is a complete water survival suit, containing a self-inflating life jacket, with multiple pockets, whistle and a pouch of colored powder to sprinkle in the water so rescue aircraft might spot you among the waves. The 'cranial' is a semi-helmet, with two hard plastic sections, integral noise-protection cups for your ears, and goggles for your eyes. As we would later learn, the deck of a carrier is no place for unprotected eyes or ears.

We trundled out to the ungainly-looking COD (Carrier Onboard Delivery), a hugely overpowered folding-wing mini-transport that shuttles mail, parts and people out to the carrier, and climbed into our seats.

One look at the innards of the COD is convincing proof that this is an all-business, just-get-em-there operation. The seats are immensely strong, riveted metal affairs that are jammed tightly into the dimly-lit cabin, all facing aft. Wires, cables and tubing are clearly visible above, and the sidewalls are covered with Velcro-attached padding. As we get a safety briefing about how to exit the aircraft through two tiny ceiling hatches in the event of ditching at sea, I wonder how many of us would get out before this twenty-ton Grumman Iron Works creation sank straight to the bottom. How any future warbird collector could romanticize this machine is beyond me, but I suppose the same could be said of literally all warbirds.

The engines whine up and thus begins another endless Navy engine runup. The COD's sole cabin crewmember closes the three-piece aft cargo door and then crawls up on it to inspect the latches. After perhaps ten minutes of furious engine-running, we finally taxi out and take off. The cockpit is dark for there are only two tiny windows for the seats directly behind me. By straining, I can just barely see out of one window and my only reward is the sight of the ocean below.

In twenty minutes we begin circling, and by now essentially everyone on board has dozed off. The approach to landing on the carrier begins with an unmistakable sudden sharp bank and then a hard pull in the turn. The movements of the airplane become increasingly jerky as our unseen, anonymous pilot makes quick, sharp corrections to the controls and engine power. A bell goes off, and a red light proclaiming "PREPARE FOR ARRESTED LDG" comes on. In the seat behind me, Caroline Sheen-who slept not a minute the night before-is fast asleep. We hit her leg, and her eyes pop open and roll about.

The jerky ride and throttle-jockeying continues with increasing roughness, and we all brace ourselves for the landing, which comes suddenly and with a thump as the COD careens onto the deck and pitches down. We are slammed into our seat backs with a sudden, stunningly strong force that no carnival ride could ever hope to equal, and in a few short gut-straining seconds we have reached a complete stop. We all breath out slowly and realize that we've done it.

The plane turns sharply, rolls a short distance, wheels about again, and then the engines spool down as the aft cargo door clanks open, and we peer out of the dark chamber at our first glimpse of the carrier. We are so close to the edge that we can scarcely see the deck at all. There's the ocean sliding by below, but we can hardly see that either because our full view is blocked by two jet fighters with wheels right at the deck's edge -- a surreal, impossible close-up of a part of a nose, an engine intake, two underwing tanks, and pieces of wing. Which tanks and wing belong to which airplane is difficult to tell because the images overlap each other, yet they are arranged side-by-side. So close, so impossibly close.

A band of goggled, helmeted, life-jacketed men appear and stream into the COD to retrieve us, while others lean tight-lipped into the wind. We pile out of the COD and glance around quickly at the deck. There are people everywhere, with jackets of wild colors. Some are standing with legs firmly apart, while others carry tie-down chains. There's a low, yellow boxlike machine with four black tires. Among them, an F-18 is bellowing like a bull in a castrating pen. Above the jet blast fence, we can see the airplane jerk and move away from us suddenly, pitch up and then hang in the air as the deck is clouded with steam. Men mill around among the steam, the jet blast fence lowers, the F-18 climbs away and another moves into takeoff position.

Thus it is on the deck of a carrier, where the preposterous is routine, the impossible is executed with precision, and it all takes place amid a swarm of men who but for the helmets and goggles might easily be mistaken for a spring college riot. How these men -- whom any New York cop would immediately arrest for mayhem -- manage and coordinate their activities is infinitely more fascinating than the astonishing machinery that dominates this tiny landscape.

They are organized by teams, each easily identified by jackets of green, yellow, white, tan, or red. Team leaders have radios built into their headsets and are directed by other men in the steel-and-glass Matterhorn that looms over the deck. 'Spotters' move the airplanes around the deck and their activities both on deck and on the hangar deck below are coordinated by a room of men sitting around a double-decked table littered with flat Christmas-cookie models of each aircraft. Names like neck, hell hole, throat and fantail are used to describe locations on the deck and hangar, and they use brightly-painted hex nuts placed on each model to indicate which plane needs refueling, arming, or maintenance.

To live on a carrier is to be married inextricably to a machine. Every compartment and passageway has a tangle of wires, pipes, valves and ductwork along the ceiling and walls. There are endless fire drills -- remember, you're sitting atop four million gallons of fuel and an enormous supply of rockets and bombs.

At least once a day, the ship goes to 'general quarters'-full wartime battle alert conditions in which all of the water-tight compartments are sealed, sailors don full firefighting gear, and everyone stands by for the worst. While inarguably necessary, such exercises contrast sharply with the action on deck where there's teamwork and hustle that any football coach would appreciate. In the fire drills, there's the unmistakeable look of I'd-rather-be-doing-something-else in every pair of eyes. Executive Officer Robert Taylor explains that young men come into the Navy as teenagers, and if nothing else at least learn discipline during their tour and return to society as adults.

Deck hand with a morale problem

When I was in the military in the late sixties, all of the services were filled with a special breed of bland, unimaginative, just-doing-my-job "lifers" who were mainly interested in 'three hots and a cot' and a pension. With the cutbacks in the military, those guys are all gone, and there's fierce competition for officer promotion. The result is a dramatically improved quality of people in the military.

I saw active, motivated men at every level who were interested in what they were doing and made no secret of it. Bill 'Bear' Pickavance, who commands the ship, thinks he's got the best job in naval aviation, but I also met a mechanic on the night shift who proudly showed me around the hangar deck and who said "I wouldn't trade my job for anything." Indeed, the invitations from men we met to "come see what I do" became something of a problem.

On a carrier, there's so much to see that it would take weeks to cover it all, and men report that even after months on board, they occasionally find themselves in a part of the ship they've never seen before, and engine-room mechanics may go months without a sight of daylight. The statistics are astonishing. There's a crew of 5,000, payroll sixty-three million dollars a year. Telephones: 2,400. Seven dining rooms, four doctors, 65 hospital beds, five dentists, two barber shops, four stores, and two lawyers. There's a jet engine repair shop, composite repair shop, machine shop, bakery, printing press and photographic lab. Whenever you think you have heard the last impossible statistic about the Kitty Hawk, you hear yet another -- that, for instance, they make their own eyeglass lenses.

Scattered below the flight deck are all sorts of machinery rooms supporting the flight operations. Each arresting cable has its own arresting gear engine room immediately below deck. The operator dials in the weight of the landing aircraft so that the airplane will be stopped in the correct distance. When an aircraft catches the arresting cable, all hell breaks loose in this room, as the two-inch steel cable streams out and courses though the array of pulleys that drive an enormous hydraulic piston.

There are so many critical interdependencies between pilot and ship's crew that the traditional military chain of command, and dependence on orders gives way to a very high degree of teamwork and cooperation that's more akin to modern corporate management. Bear Pickavance, for example, has much more in common with the best business managers than any military stereotype, and he is the sort of man who would rise to the top in any profession. He talks easily and comfortably with strangers, yet his eyeglass-spinning and ring-twiddling reveals an intensity he's working hard to suppress. The ultimate approval, however, comes from the crew, and comments like "He's a good skipper" come easily and unprodded from a number of deck hands.

Bear Pickavance a-jogging

Pickavance jogs four miles a day on the deck in a Nike running outfit. "Just like Slick Willy!" I say to a couple of officers and men, to see what sort of reaction I'd get. Privately, one-on-one, the enlisted men would snort and laugh conspiratorially with me, but the officers wouldn't touch it.

After his morning jog, Pickavance stopped by for a talk, and he spoke about the dramatic improvement in the safety of carrier operations that had come about in the last ten years. He attributed this primarily to the equipment: the use of twin-engined jet aircraft and the improvements in cockpit controls and displays.