Behind the Scenes
training to become a yellow shirt.
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Another day on the John C. Stennis has come to a close; a good one. Got a lot
Viewed from eight decks above the flight deck, in and around the planes, bombs,
and moving machinery, the carrier looks as though someone had opened a box of
Crayolas and spilled them out. These "crayons" are in fact a mass of people
adorned in various colors, each color representing their specific job. White
shirts are "safety," blue shirts are "chock and chains," red are "weapons,"
green "avionics," purple "fuel," and yellow shirts are the "airplane handlers."
Now, these yellow shirts folks are the people who run the deck; even the pilots
don't fly until the yellow shirt hooks them up to the Cat and sends them on
their way. They direct the aircraft around the deck, tell them where to park
and when. Twelve years ago when I was on the Kennedy I followed a yellow shirt
around; he was a burly guy, very macho in a world where testosterone equated to
your ability to "move aircraft."
Onto the 1998 flight deck comes the new face of plane "handlers." Her name is
Jennifer. She is great. She joined the Navy to basically get a life. We pick
her up (in movie terms only) on the deck of the carrier moving 30-ton aircraft
whilst slinging yards of chain around her shoulders, barking orders above the
general din; she's found her place.
Actually, she just found it. After several jobs leading to this one she is
about to leave the ranks of the "UI" (under instruction) and become a
full-fledged "handler." She is like, "soooo proud, dude. It is completely
awesome." Did I mention she is from California? It's a study in contrasts. Even
though all the protective gear on makes gender a mystery, her diminutive size
is unmistakable. When one of these jets turns and fires its thrusters, manly
men stumble and cringe from the heat of the blast. Yesterday when the blast hit
an unsuspecting Jennifer, she flew—I kid you not - ten feet down the deck,
hitting the non-skid surface—which is like rubbing your body over a cheese
grater—and bounced three times. She stood up and threw both thumbs in the
air, letting everyone know she was "okay." She was lucky; she only tore up
about eight or nine inches of forearm. She is determined to make it in this
world of men, and if she does, she'll be the first "female yellow shirt" on the
Stennis. We are actually going to film her getting grilled like a cheese
sandwich by the senior chiefs for her final tomorrow.
Jennifer Keefer takes her test to become a yellow shirt.
The heat of summer is finally starting to hit us here. The first week was quite
a surprise, with temperatures at night getting down enough that you'd need a
long-sleeved shirt. That honeymoon is over. Even before the planes start to
wind up on deck, the mandatory long sleeves are too much. Once 20 or 25 jets
start firing and turning in this small space the overall temperature across the
deck feels like about 115 degrees Fahrenheit. Whole lot of fun.
We're here for another three or four days, then onto the Indy and after that
the Tucson and the "bubbleheads."
We leave the Stennis today and it's been a study in contrasts to the Indy; the
Stennis is "today" NAVY, the ultimate in "projecting the US power forward"
since Mahan first developed that strategy 100 years ago, and the Navy has lived
by it ever since. In other words, if you are going to sit off somebody's coast
and make them behave or put a hurtin' on them, this is the ultimate machine to
do it in. I don't know how crazy Saddam Hussein is, but he would have to be
psychotic to play chicken with these guys.
is just one of the "small boys" of a battle group.
In this case, the Gulf, we are in the midst of a "battle force," that is two
battle groups combined. In addition to two aircraft carriers, each has a
complement of "small boys," i.e., battle cruisers with Aegis systems,
destroyers with "lamps," equipped helicopters, a couple of submarines out there
with an arsenal of Tomahawk vertical launch missiles and, of course, the
Marines. Just in case we need to go ashore, there are a couple of amphibious
units of Marines just itching to get off the boat and fight with someone other
than each other.
As several admirals, captains, and pilots have explained to me so far, in the
unlikely event of an Iraqi initiated attack, sitting on the carrier is about
the safest place I could be with the exception of being back home in Maine, and
if they knew my children they'd know this is much safer in any case. All the
"small boys"—destroyers and submarines—live for in that event is to
protect the carrier. With an assortment of anti-air and anti-missile defense
capabilities on each of these platforms, the chance of a missile getting
through is slim to none. Furthermore, with the real-time look-down capability
available on board the carrier, the Aegis, and in the aircraft, they don't have
to wait until the missile is in the air. They can virtually tell when the other
guy is about to pull the trigger! More about that in the NOVA show itself. It's
A helicopter helps search for
Admiral Moore, in charge of the battle force, made a very good point; he's much
less worried about the "big attack" than the isolated incident (a terrorist
bombing, etc.) that makes this huge armada look like a dinosaur. It's an event
they pay a lot of attention to. Regarding the "big attack," picking a fight
with these guys is the military equivalent of a house call from Dr.
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