Behind the Scenes
Men from the US Navy
board a ship and check for illegal cargo.
Part 3 | back to Part 2
In the meantime, what do you do with all these people while they wait? They fly
around the clock. The primary mission for the pilots is called Operation
Southern Watch, in which they patrol along the established "No Fly Zone,"
making sure nothing Iraqi this way comes. The "small boys," in addition to
watching for any sign of a hostile launch, enforce the UN sanctions in an
operation known as MIO (Maritime Interdiction Operations.) Anything that moves
on the surface in the Gulf they look at (and believe me, they've got technology
for doing it that would make your head spin). The point of the operation is to
make sure that nobody violates the UN oil embargo, and they are very busy here.
There are many "pirate" ships running along the Iranian coast (using Iran's
territorial waters as a shield) to evade detection by the US forces. The
cruisers and destroyers stop several ships every week and if they are
suspicious, board them. If they find illegal oil on board, they confiscate the
ship, unload the cargo, and give the ship back. The money from the oil goes to
fund the UN operation out here.
I watched the video footage of a US boarding party from the USS O'Brien taken
two days before we got here; it's amazing. The video was shot at 2:00 a.m. from
a Seahawk helo standing off at a distance of five miles...it looks like 2:00
p.m., not a.m.! In the video you see a rendezvous at sea, which made the helo
pilot suspicious. He closed in to 500 feet off the vessel's stern, dropped a
raft with a boarding party, and as the camera rolls you see the party get on
the ship, run the length of the vessel, get into the wheelhouse and bring out
the Master with his hands over his head. The ship, Iranian registry, was
carrying a cargo hold full of illegal oil out of Iraq. What was amazing was
that he was able to video the whole operation in the pitch black and in
real-time show the pictures to the captain back on the O'Brien. The Captain
made the call to board the ship based on the video he was looking at. The video
looks like it was shot in broad daylight. I saw it while we were following the
admiral on his tour of the "small boys" and he was being briefed by the O'
Brien's skipper on the MIO operation. Very impressive. I can't tell you the
name of the technology but you'll see it in the NOVA show. They gave me a copy
of the boarding tape.
Gotta go; we are off to the Indy for two days and then I get on the Tucson SSN
(submarine) for four days. The submarine mission has changed completely since
the last time I was on board the Michigan for NOVA. Then it was the Soviet
Union. It's going to be interesting to see how they have adjusted their
thinking to accommodate this new limited conflict scenario we are seeing here
in the Gulf. Also, the average depth of the Gulf is 150 to 200 feet! That alone
has got to cause problems for the Fast Attacks! By the way, because of this
depth, if the aircraft carrier ever did sink, the entire bridge would still be
out of the water!
Some observations. The Indy is the oldest carrier in the fleet and when it
leaves this deployment in the Gulf, it will make its way to decommissioning.
She served throughout VietNam, and on the hangar deck there is a plaque to the
fliers who left the flight deck and never came back. Indy has been in on most
of the action that has taken place here in the Gulf, and it's with no little
amount of irony that she is being relieved here by the John C. Stennis, the
newest carrier in the fleet. Stennis is nuclear-powered, which is vastly
different than being nuclear-armed (a distinction the Navy is quick to point
out). While the Indy has to be refueled every four days to keep the ship moving
and the airplanes flying, the fuel the Stennis carries is dedicated to the
airplanes, making her operational readiness quite unbeatable.
A section of the battle group.
She steams at a published speed of 30 knots, an abstract number until you stand
on the deck of this behemoth and watch oil wells going past like telephone
poles on the highway! The airplanes ideally need 30 knots across the deck to
take off and land; on most days the wind and the movement of the ship make it
possible. But there are those odd days that the wind is still. With the Stennis
that is not a problem; the captain can get her up to 30 knots just by putting
the pedal to the metal and create 30 knots across the deck just using
the speed of the ship! About the only impediment here in the Gulf is that if
he's not careful at that speed he might bump into something unexpected like,
say, Iran. That is not a joke; the pilots have to be careful when they launch
that they don't overfly restricted air space like Iran's. Every time it happens
a formal protest is lodged and things get sticky.
The Stennis feels new, while the Indy has that well-oiled and greasy feeling of
a man o' war. Of course the obvious difference to even the unschooled eye is
the presence of 245 women on board the Stennis. What is remarkable is that on
the Stennis they fit right in. If they all showed up on the Indy tomorrow, it
would create havoc. It's a cultural thing, and the culture of the Stennis has
known nothing else; funny isn't it?
The routine on both ships is very much the same. While we are in the Gulf and
the possibility that we could go "hot" at any moment is never far from anyone's
mind, the pace of the ship is unaltered. There are no weekends; below the
flight deck there is no night or day, and on the flight line the flying is
virtually non-stop. The flight crews and general ship's company refer to it as
"Groundhog Day" after the Bill Murray movie of the same name. Every day seems
identical to the last and tomorrow will be the same. It has even overtaken the
film crew. Not one of us knows what day of the week it is, what time of day it
is, or when the day will end. While this could seem disconcerting, it is in one
way very freeing; since you don't have a way to get home to your family, a
movie to catch, or any other pressing social engagement, time becomes rather
Twilight aboard the Stennis.
There is one creature comfort new to this battle group that didn't exist on the
John F. Kennedy in 1985 when last I filmed on a carrier: television. The ship
has five channels: two carry ship announcements at all times, two get regular
network hours (but no commercials!), and the last channel is video cameras
trained at all times of the day and night on the flight deck. They record every
landing and take-off from three different angles. They affectionately call it
the "Airport Channel," and every room on the carrier has a television capable
of tuning into it. It's a not-so-subtle reminder that every man and woman,
every piece of machinery above and below decks is here to support those
airplanes; that is what it's all about. If this thing can't fly its airplanes,
for any reason, it's just a large target in the middle of the water; it serves
no other purpose.
Come to mention it, gotta run. We are filming a GQ (general quarters) tonight.
It's a ship-wide alert and practice. Tonight's simulation—incoming missiles!
Definitely better than Seinfeld!
Kirk Wolfinger is an acclaimed producer and director whose work has won many
awards, including the George F. PeabodyAward, the New York Film Festival award,
and two prime-time Emmy nominations. Wolfinger's recent broadcasts have
included two NOVA episodes, "Titanic's Lost Sister" and "The Beast of Loch Ness."
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