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Landing on an aircraft carrier is like hitting a speed bump—a large speed bump! Nothing can prepare you for the experience and there are no words to describe it.
A group of us were recently honored to fly out to the aircraft carrier Eisenhower, to stay overnight and observe flight operations. Although we knew about the trip a few months earlier, the Navy couldn’t give us details. I got the word a week before we departed our orders were being cut, we’d be flying to the Ike but they wouldn’t say where we were going.
The way we got the opportunity was my brother, Stuart Cooke, had founded an organization called Champions of Freedom. It is a foundation that helps those in the military—primarily Special Operations, The Golden Knights, Walter Reed’s Wounded Warriors and The General Hugh Shelton Leadership Initiative (associated with N.C. State)—assist with scholarships and other opportunities for the military. The Navy has a distinguished visitor program going out to carriers from time to time and we were asked if we wanted to go.
We flew from Wilmington to Norfolk, Va., and stayed overnight to report to the Navy base early the following morning. We were then taken to the Naval Air Station, with a briefing on how to wear our inflatable “horse collar” life vest and survival gear. We were instructed on how to escape from the aircraft if we ditched, where the life rafts were, and some of the things to expect.
We donned our earplugs, our “cranium” crash helmet with hearing muffs and goggles and then walked out to the awaiting C-2 “COD” transport, with the engines already running.
We found our seats in the dark transport (which had only two small windows) and struggled with the four-point harness trying to figure out how to get everything tight while dealing with tunnel vision of goggles and getting the straps over the life vest.
Once everything was sealed, a dense white fog rolled along the floor smelling of hydraulic fluid. That didn’t seem to upset anyone. The crew chief calmly explained over the loudspeaker what to do if we ditched and what to expect when we hit the deck.
(At this point you either are excited to be on board or you have the same feeling as being on top of the first dip of a rollercoaster, wondering what possessed you to do this in the first place, and if it’s too late to get off.)
About an hour later the crew chief started waving his hands and yelling, “We’re going to hit! We’re going to hit!” As our lives flashed before our eyes we pressed our heads back into the seat. The bang of hitting the deck and the hit itself made us hope all would be all right.
Then it was over. We retained our composure.
The ramp opened on the aircraft, and people with all sorts of purple, green, yellow, white and red shirts with helmets, communications gear and aircraft were all around.
The noise was deafening, and the 30-knot wind hit us like a northeaster. Officers of the ship shook hands with us and welcomed us aboard. (You can’t hear what they’re saying and they can’t hear you.)
Soon we were ushered past other working aircraft, down a hatchway and inside.
The departure was similar, but I relate it to sitting in a red Radio Flyer wagon and behind us is a pickup truck with a long stretch of bungee cord coiled up. Suddenly, the driver spins his tires and takes off with you still sitting there (unaware anything is going on), until the slack goes out of the bungee and you’re jerked silly for about two seconds.
We went from zero to 150 knots, dipped below the bow of the deck, gained altitude and were on the way back home with the familiar darkness and soft white smoke rolling along the floor.
We were honored for the experience. No “Top Gun” movie or television show can do it justice. We were even more honored to personally observe what it’s like at sea, with what amounts to a steel island described as a machine with people inside it. The ship is massive, huge, beyond belief, and people are well trained, highly motivated and passionate about their jobs.
Most of the crew members are 19 years old. They handle multi-million dollar aircraft; they have responsibilities and wisdom beyond their years. They’re the folks ensuring we’re well protected.
One carrier has more firepower on board than all the munitions used during Vietnam, and probably as much as was used in the European theater during World War II.
They can do anything from major surgery to probably building aircraft right out of the box, repair just about anything made, and do humanitarian missions supplying aid and assistance throughout the world.
While we were onboard the Navy was testing a new aircraft referred to as “The Growler.”
We came onboard the first day of sea trials with the airplane that employs electronic warfare. It’s built on the F-18 Super Hornet frame, but is a new type of aircraft replacing the older EA-6B Prowler.
One would be mistaken or foolish to pick a fight with a carrier. They train constantly, and it’s their business to bring guns to the gunfight. The personnel are professional, hard-working, and go above and beyond in all they do.
To say we were impressed is an understatement. We were amazed, overwhelmed and appreciative.
We as Americans have much to be proud of, and to be grateful for the men and women of our armed forces who stand in the gap for all of us, putting themselves in harm’s way. It means so much to them to be thanked, to show some recognition for what they do, because they put their lives on the line each day.
I want to challenge you. If you know anyone who is a veteran or who is actively serving in our military, take the time and effort to thank them. Tell them you appreciate what they’re doing and you’re thankful for their service.