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Night shot Men from the US Navy board a ship and check for illegal cargo.
Behind the Scenes
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 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!

More later,

Carrier A section of the battle group.

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.

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?

Twilight Twilight aboard the Stennis.
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 irrelevant.

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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