Tonight on NOVA, this huge American warship is on patrol in the Persian Gulf, an armed presence in a troubled place. Top gun pilots are at the ready, catapulting into the air at 150 miles an hour, then landing, caught only by a hook. Five thousand men keep eighty planes constantly in the air, alert and ready to carry out any mission assigned to the Aircraft Carrier.
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NARRATOR: The sun rises over the mountains of Iran as the crew of the aircraft carrier, Independence, begins another day. A rescue helicopter eases into the air, circling the carrier, ready for any emergency as the daily cycle of flight operations gets underway. The ship carries eighty planes, a combination of fighters, bombers and reconnaissance aircraft—the equivalent of a small air force. As the day progresses, these planes will be launched into the air by steam catapults, to patrol the skies over Kuwait. The carrier's mission is to maintain a presence in the Persian Gulf and enforce the ceasefire with Iraq.
REAR ADM. BRENT BENNITT: Since Desert Storm, of course, we have generally had a carrier, at least one, in this area of operations. Sometimes in the Gulf, sometimes not, but in the general area. Independence was therefore one in a long line of carriers that had come into the Arabian Gulf.
NARRATOR: This aircraft carrier is a visible expression of U.S. global influence, and a potent weapon. It travels hundreds of miles in a single day. And with airborne radar planes and satellites, it can monitor flights across the Middle East. Carriers are a key to U.S. military policy.
REAR ADM. BRENT BENNITT: They can operate independently, far away from home, for an indefinite amount of time, sustain that presence either very close off the nation's shores, or well away. A carrier on the horizon or close by lets people know that we're serious about our commitment to a region. And I think that's the principal role we play.
NARRATOR: Leaving her Japanese home port for what should have been a routine six-month patrol, Independence visited ports in Australia, then traveled seven thousand miles across the Pacific and Indian Oceans, through the Straits of Hormuz, to take up station in the confined waters of the Persian or Arabian Gulf. Independence is one of the largest warships afloat, combining men and equipment into a massive complex machine.
CAPT. CARTER REFO: It's a big ship. It's a big, big unit. I see it probably a little bit differently than other people see it, because I'm in charge of it. So I see it as a whole. I look out and I watch the way the airplanes are moving. Do we have a lot of airplanes taxiing at that time? How much heel can we put on the ship? How much wind do we need? How much sea room do we have? Are we going to run into one of these oil wells out here, because we haven't positions ourselves quite correctly, or the wind has changed on us? Those are all the things that I look at. And of course, also the safety of each individual on here. We've got roughly five thousand people on board. Everybody is absolutely vital to the ongoing evolutions of every day. For example, if the guy in one of the main engineering spaces doesn't do his job right, the lights go out. And that can affect the guy that's making an approach to the carrier, if the lights go out.
LT. ROBERT RATHERT (BIRD): It's a little Spartan out here. Somebody said, I think a hundred years ago, about the Navy, that it's a lot like being in prison, except you have a greater chance of drowning. So that's still true today.
NARRATOR: Commissioned in 1959, the ship is older than most of the people on board. Five thousand men live beneath the flight deck in eight cramped and artificially lit decks. There are three miles of corridors, and over two thousand separate compartments. Parts of the ship will be unfamiliar to some of the crew, even after six months. The senior officers have little contact with enlisted men. For them, the Master Chief, the most senior non-commissioned officer on board, is the key figure.
COMMAND MASTER CHIEF BILLY ALLEN: On the ship, I am the Command Master Chief. That is the title. My responsibility is to be about and to present a presence to the crew. And I represent them on behalf of the Commanding Officer and the Executive Officer. How you doing? How you doing? How are you doing, good? All right. How long are they going to last?
COOK: Eight hundred sandwiches usually last maybe three or four hours.
COMMAND MASTER CHIEF BILLY ALLEN: About three or four hours. Though with five thousand people, you pretty much have to feed out here for twenty hours a day, is that right? Forward and aft galley would be about twenty hours a day. And it's real tough. Right. Watch Captain, do you know how much bread we make every day?
WATCH CAPTAIN: Anywhere between twelve and sixteen hundred loaves.
COMMAND MASTER CHIEF BILLY ALLEN: Twelve or sixteen hundred loaves a day, huh? OK.
NARRATOR: The men sleep and work around the clock, with little time or room for recreation. There are three TV channels that show news, sports, and movies.
COMMAND MASTER CHIEF BILLY ALLEN: How much longer you got down here?
SAILOR: End of cruise.
COMMAND MASTER CHIEF BILLY ALLEN: End of cruise, huh? OK. That's great. This is like a laundry. We have to wash everybody's clothes every day, obviously. So we use a young man like this, who's just come in the Navy. And they come here temporarily assigned for three months. Then they go back to do what we pay them to do. And what's your rate?
COMMAND MASTER CHIEF BILLY ALLEN: You're AMS. See, he works on aircrafts. Structural mechanic. But he'll be down here for three months to assist the ship and wash the clothes and take care of the rest of the crew.
NARRATOR: Space is so limited that only senior officers have any real privacy. Even the flight crews share cramped cabins with up to seven other people. It is a relentlessly masculine environment. But by summer, 1994, women will begin serving alongside men on U.S. aircraft carriers.
COMMAND MASTER CHIEF BILLY ALLEN: This is the average man's bunk space. It's not a lot of room. But it's pretty much about the only place on a ship that he can go and have total privacy. And he can pull his curtains through. And he's got a light. He can read.
NARRATOR: For six months at a stretch, men live in these conditions so that the ship can sail, and the planes continue to fly.
COMMAND MASTER CHIEF BILLY ALLEN: How you guys doing?
CARD PLAYERS: Fine, Master Chief.
COMMAND MASTER CHIEF BILLY ALLEN: All right. All right. Who's winning?
CARD PLAYERS: Us. No, and then you're losing. It ain't over yet.
COMMAND MASTER CHIEF BILLY ALLEN: Well, are you all ready? You all ready to go to port?
CARD PLAYER: I'm ready to go back to Japan.
COMMAND MASTER CHIEF BILLY ALLEN: Wait a minute. Where are you ready to go? The next port or Japan?
CARD PLAYER: San Diego.
COMMAND MASTER CHIEF BILLY ALLEN: San Diego? (Laughter). All right. All right. Let me get out of here.
CARD PLAYER: All right, man, see ya.
COMMAND MASTER CHIEF BILLY ALLEN: You all take it easy, all right?
CARD PLAYERS: All right.
COMMAND MASTER CHIEF BILLY ALLEN: It's tough. But I think most of us who wear the uniform that I wear, we're accustomed to that. We also keep them busy. And when you're talking about a nineteen, twenty year old kid, and you're working him sixteen or seventeen hours a day, he doesn't have time for a lot of mischief.
CAPT. CARTER REFO: Basically, what we live by is the airplane, or the flight schedule. And everything else is drawn from that, because that's what we're here for—to fly airplanes.
NARRATOR: Accompanied by the thud of planes landing on the deck above, pilots get instructions for the day. Monitors constantly show what is happening on the flight deck.
OFFICER: —launch at 16.30, eight to launch at 20.30 with thirteen—
NARRATOR: Among their colleagues, pilots are known by their radio call sign, a single name that stays with them throughout their career.
OFFICER: The line-up's on the board. In 104, it's going to be Stick and Dogger, 107 Montana, Lulu, and 106 is Rusty and Rooter as a spare. If we can expedite it by some of simul or close to simul launch off the cats, we'll try to rendezvous without going overhead to 17K and just press out to station to expedite.
LT. JOE VAN HELDEN (MONTANA): There seemed to be something neat about the idea of landing and taking off from a ship. And so this is where I'm at.
OFFICER: Other recoveries available for us are 1200—
NARRATOR: Like the carrier itself, the pilots are here for one thing only—to fly airplanes.
LT. ROBERT RATHERT (BIRD): I think the attraction for me is that this is such a challenging line of work. That mediocrity is never acceptable. I mean, if you're having a lot of average days, you're unsafe, and you're out of there. So you're continually being pushed to strive for perfection.
NARRATOR: From the squadron ready rooms, the pilots walk out into the noise and bustle of the flight deck. In a few minutes' time, they will be catapulted into the air, reaching a speed of a hundred and fifty miles an hour in just under three seconds. They say that it concentrates the mind wonderfully. One plane has been lost on this cruise. Nobody wants to be the next one. The cycle of launch and recovery begins with planes lined up at the bow, where they are fueled, and guns and rockets are loaded. Then, the planes are towed back amid ships and lined up for one of the four catapults.
HANDLER: Well, I tell you what. I'll make these preparations here, so these—
NARRATOR: The movement of planes on the flight deck is controlled by the handler. In his office under the bridge, the position of every plane is plotted by hand. A plane can be launched every forty-five seconds. The handler's job is to make sure it happens.
HANDLER: I don't know.
NARRATOR: There are strict rules on the flight deck. Everyone wears a colored shirt to identify their jobs. Green for mechanics, red for munitions, yellow for the catapult crew. Over a hundred signals must be memorized to make communication possible. Engine mechanics signal pilots to start their jet engines. Cockpits are closed, and once the engines are running, the planes' surfaces are given a final check. Hand signals warn others that there is possible danger from hot jet exhaust. The ship picks up speed, and the twenty-knot wind blows over the flight deck, giving the heavy planes the best possible wind speed for take-off. Under their own power, the planes must now maneuver over the greasy flight deck, worn smooth by oil and the rubber from constant landings and take-offs. Hand signals direct the pilot around the flight deck. Only one person on the deck is in control of the plane at any one time. And a strict routine is maintained as the plane is moved up to be launched. The plane's front wheel is hooked up to the catapult. And an engineer gives a final check. As he runs clear, he gives the pilot the signal to go to full power. The launch crew stand amid the noise and heat of the furnace-like jet exhaust. The launch officers signal to the catapult officer, who presses the button. Steam from the ship's boilers drives the piston forward, hurtling the plane into the air. The planes speed by within feet of the handlers. If anyone makes a mistake, many others will pay with their lives. The pilots know they must achieve a speed of a hundred and fifty miles an hour.
LT. JOE VAN HELDEN (MONTANA): The main thing I'm concerned about is having a cold catapult shot, which is when there's not enough steam behind it to get the airspeed you need to get airborne. If it throws me back in my seat and makes me so I can't hardly think of anything, then it's probably a good cat shot.
LT. ROBERT RATHERT (BIRD): And of course, the worse-case scenario is I have an ejection seat that I'm strapped into, and hopefully it will float me down to safety, should that be called upon to do that. But on a daily basis, I don't think you can become that concerned with the degree of danger. Otherwise, you couldn't accomplish the mission.
NARRATOR: When things go wrong, the handler makes last-minute adjustments to the launch sequence, keeping track of twenty planes and several hundred men. A cargo plane's wing doesn't close properly. And men rush to close it, just feet from the blades of the spinning propellers.
HANDLER: Take that spare 402. Bring it down here on the line.
NARRATOR: Then, a forward catapult breaks down. A repair crew is sent to get it working again.
HANDLER: Crash P.O. Control. Crash P.O.! You need to get the 6K up to Cat 1. You know about it? All right. Get it up there.
NARRATOR: In the middle of the launch sequence, planes have to be pushed to alternate catapults, adding to the confusion and the danger.
YELLOW SHIRT: The most dangerous elements out there on the flight deck that we need to be concerned about are some of the items that we may not be able to see or perceive, which would be the jet exhaust. In addition to the jet exhaust, we also have to be aware of propellers, which are very difficult to see, especially at night. We have to be aware of jet intakes, which have the capability to ingest you. We have to be aware of when they're moving aircraft, that you don't get in the way.
NARRATOR: But the launch proceeds, and all twelve planes are hurled into the air in a welter of heat and noise.
HANDLER: They thought they were coming up to get their ass chewed out, that's what they thought, you know.
NARRATOR: Afterwards, the handler demands an explanation for the failures that have delayed the launch.
HANDLER: But you know what? It looks like something happened out there. I called the Boss, and said, "Hey, what the hell's going on?" You know? And you know, he's real somber, and he says, "Well, I don't know."
NARRATOR: It is not the first time the catapult has failed.
HANDLER: So I made—did the boss show up? Oh, he did?
NARRATOR: The handler wants it fixed.
HANDLER: OK, thanks. Bye. Hah!
NARRATOR: The handler's crew retires to the cramped ready room behind his office for a brief rest. The noise of the flight deck creates its own fatigue and their work shift can sometimes be very long.
ABH-1 ANDREW GRIMES: Sometimes we put in fourteen, sometimes sixteen, sometimes twenty, sometimes twenty-two. A lot of hours. It just depends on how the flight plan goes, to see how big these launches are, and how many people are required. Most of these guys, Petty Officer Williams, Petty Officer Wilson over here, they've been out here the whole cruise.
OFFICER: Smile, Jack. This is our Flight P.O. right here. He's shy, he's single. This is Flight Three right here. This is family. We're all family.
OFFICER: Boss, Zero Five airborne. OK, Cornbread, that was the spare.
OFFICER: Then we'll clear Spot Three.
NARRATOR: The Air Boss is responsible for all the planes in the air within a twenty-five mile radius. While planes are launched, others are circling the carrier waiting to land. The Air Boss keeps a log of the fuel carried in each plane. Returning from a patrol, planes are running low on fuel, and they need to have enough left for three landing attempts. Every few days, the deck must be washed down to clear it of the rubber slicks and grease. And this has to be done in as little as half an hour between the launch and recovery cycles. It's the only opportunity for many of the men to get a taste of sunlight and fresh air. As the first plane starts its approach, pilots confront another unique element of carrier operations.
LT. TOM DOWNING (TRIM): The problem with landing on a ship is that the landing area is angled on the carriers. As we're flying along, the line-up is continuing to move to my right side. So you have to constantly correct to try and land on center. And that's what usually causes the most landing accidents, is line-up deviations on the carrier. Because it's constantly moving. LT. ROBERT RATHERT (BIRD): Well, I think the most dangerous part, at least what I feel is the most challenging, would be bringing the plane back aboard. Especially the F14. It doesn't respond very well at slow speed. It's incredibly large. It takes complete focus and concentration to be able to put fear aside and just to get the job done and get that jet back aboard safe.
AIR BOSS: OK. Out of the port cat-walks. Stand clear of the starboard foul-line. First aircraft's at the 90.
NARRATOR: A hook attached to the tail of the plane catches one of four cables stretched across the after deck. A twenty ton airplane landing at a hundred and twenty miles an hour is brought to a halt in two hundred feet. Each wire is used exactly one hundred times before it is replaced. If a cable should break, it would whip through metal and flesh like a knife through butter. Landing here is essentially a controlled crash. To maintained safety standards, officers assess every landing. There are grades from zero to four.
LANDING SIGNALS OFFICER: Well, that wasn't that pretty, was it?
SECOND OFFICER: Really? Where was he? Where did he go? And where did he end up?
THIRD OFFICER: OK. Well, no grade. Fair?
SECOND OFFICER: Not an OK.
THIRD OFFICER: OK, no grade.
LT. JOE VAN HELDEN (MONTANA): There's a series of grades for each landing. If your landing has very minimal deviations, then they'll give you an OK for that. And that's like a 4.0. And a cut pass is actually not worth anything—zero—and usually if you're around to collect your cut pass, you're lucky, because that's something that could kill you.
REAR ADM. BRENT BENNITT: There is an energy about this business that's contagious for everyone on the ship. The men on the carrier, whether they're aircrew or whether they're the people on the carrier themselves, are really at this all the time. There are at least two carriers in our Navy deployed 365 days a year. There are at least another two or three that are working up in home waters. So, this is a story that is continuous.
NARRATOR: Usually, pilots fly twice a day, because taking off and landing on a ship requires constant practice. Military flying means flying to the limit, and then being prepared for that limit to be broken. The pilots on the Independence start their training at bases like Miramar Air Station in San Diego. And training continues throughout their flying career. Pilots are taken through simulated ditching and survival techniques, and have to re-qualify every four years. There is no age limit. You can keep flying as long as you pass the physical.
LT. TOM DOWNING (TRIM): The aviation in itself is not dangerous. But it's very unforgiving on those who make mistakes. Because I think that we all believe that it would never happen to us. The thought of death—I think we all think that we're invincible in some way, we're all supermen.
LT. ROBERT RATHERT (BIRD): I personally don't think about the danger aspects of it. I could have been a banker and hit by a bus. And what a boring way to go that would be. I'd much rather go as a shooting star in a ball of glory.
NARRATOR: It costs five million dollars to train a pilot. Five hundred flying hours are required before landing on a carrier for the first time. And each hour of military flying takes eight to ten hours of maintenance. The investment in a carrier pilot is enormous, and continues throughout his career. Top Gun, the Navy's combat training school, is housed at Miramar. After four hundred hours of carrier flying, crew are eligible to train here. Four men from the independence qualify. Montana and Lulu, Rat and Bird. The Top Gun course lasts six weeks, and every day, pilots are trained against a group of instructors, simulating the latest tactics and weapons to be found around the world, so that they can confront any air force and know what to expect.
CAPT. PAT COOKE (KATO): Our job is to take the individuals, experienced fleet air crew both flying the F18 and the F14, and bring them here and teach them the science and the art of their combat, so that they'll go out when called upon and shoot down other folks in flying machines. That's really what it boils down to.
LT. TOM DOWNING (TRIM): We try to give them the hardest problem they can possibly have. And if they do well there, then the real world shouldn't be a problem for them.
NARRATOR: At seven in the morning, the pilots assemble. Three weeks into the course, they are engaged in a major exercise. And Lt. Mike Lewis, Lulu, is leading the briefing.
LT. MIKE LEWIS (LULU): The United States now has a carrier about a hundred and fifty miles off the coast of Orange. And we're planning on a strike, the loading docks, in one of the ports of Orange.
NARRATOR: The country that Lulu calls Orange is a real country with a real air force. But Top Gun won't reveal it in public.
LT. MIKE LEWIS (LULU): —and they have a bar cap set up about here, a composition of SU-27s and MIG-21s. So our mission day is going to be to destroy that bar cap prior to the strike, heading inbound. The line-up will be the first division, Top Guns 1 through 4. Montana and Lulu with the lead, Bird and Rat, Conan and Santa, and Crash and Ziggy. The bandits will be Slammer, et al, in Top Gun 40 plus. The launch will be 9:20 for the fighters, 9:25 for the bandits.
NARRATOR: While the students work out their game plan, the Top Gun instructors called Bandits meet separately. They fly A4s and F16s in the way that Russian planes would be flown with a foreign air force appropriate to the exercise. Their knowledge and experience updated with the latest intelligence makes it certain that they will outwit the pilots.
INSTRUCTOR: Don't know what their route is, don't know what their tactics are. Basically, our two airfields that we're working out of are going to be flankers basically originating out of the northern airfield up there around the Aguila mountain range. Down here is the Pintas, and just fly right down over by this big peak down here. That will keep you out of Mexico. You should still be tracking down there. And you're not going to want to get right down in the weeds right away.
LT. ROBERT RATHERT (BIRD): We'll come through the mountain past the Cabezas, and then, that's when we'll do our checks to the left.
NARRATOR: After the briefing, the pilots are keyed up discussing what they expect to do as they put on their special G-suits. They are designed to protect them from the physical effects of sudden aerial maneuvers—the very tight turns they need to make in dog fights, for example.
LT. RHODY NORNBERG (RAT): If all of a sudden, you see someone behind you, and you have to do a hard brake, turn into him, you can instantaneously put six, seven—and in some aircraft eight, nine—Gs on. So that's instantaneously that many times the force of gravity. Blood goes down out of your head, even with the G-suit, which is supposed to keep it up there. And you can lose consciousness. That's G-LOC, G-induced loss of consciousness. Now, you're basically asleep in your aircraft, in whatever plane of motion it's in. And hopefully, the blood's going to return to your head, and you're going to wake up and go, "Wow, gotta get out of here."
LT. JOE VAN HELDEN (MONTANA): There's kind of a ball valve, and as you pull Gs, it opens up, pumps air into it, into a bladder here, here, and one around your waist. And it just keeps all the blood from rushing to your legs and out of your head.
NARRATOR: At nine o'clock, Montana and Lulu are in the lead as the students take off and group up before flying towards their target. The Top Gun instructors take off and fly straight to where they will act as defenders. By 9:45, twenty-two planes are in the air for this simulated attack on an enemy port. Superficially, the exercise is simple. As attackers, the students fly low over land, trying to avoid radar and surface to air missile sites. Then, after thirty minutes, the pilots will confront the Top Gun staff, defending the target. Montana flies at very low altitude, using mountains and valleys as cover from probing radar beams. When he hears the cockpit siren warning of a missile being aimed at him, he throws the plane into sharp turns to confuse its tracking devices. At times like this, the G-forces can become severe. While the students are struggling to avoid these surface to air missiles, Top Gun instructors are assuming position up range, waiting for the students to appear. Finally, the two forces converge. Planes roll in the sky as pilots maneuver for the best position to use their weapons. They turn towards each other, hoping to fire their missiles first while desperately trying to prevent hostile planes closing in behind them. In pursuit of an A4, Montana maneuvers his F14 into a perfect position to fire his weapons. In the real world, the A4 would have been shot down. But an F16 has Montana in view. Montana realizes a plane is behind him, and pulls a hard turn to get out of the sights of the chasing plane. But it is too late, and the fight for Montana is over. As the pilots head for home, they are physically drained by their flying, and realize they might not be as good as they thought they were.
LT. ROBERT RATHERT (BIRD): I think frequently, sometimes we train to just benign situations. And we think that we're much better than we might actually be. So, Top Gun really presses us and makes us think through every situation. It provides absolutely the most difficult possible training environment they can. There's not a day that goes by that you don't get a little lesson in humility. These guys are absolutely some of the best fighter pilots that the Navy has to offer. And they're trained to this sort of dog fighting and weapons deployment all the time. Absolutely the best possible training environment we could be in right now. And yeah, it hurts our ego, and it's humbling sometimes, but hopefully, we're taking these lessons to heart.
LT. MIKE LEWIS (LULU): So now, it's like, we're screwed. Because for every second that we're turning here, the flankers are coming in on us, and you can feel that happening.
NARRATOR: As acting group leader, it is Lulu's job to piece together what happened during the exercise. The dog fights take place over vast areas of sky. And Lulu needs to hear from everyone what happened, and what went wrong. This prepares Lulu for his debriefing with the instructors.
LT. MIKE LEWIS (LULU): Yeah. You see the flankers up high and counting, right.
INSTRUCTOR: Like I said, by the time we got in, you know, you could pick up the cons. We were pretty close. And they were, you know, just hauling the chili. And so were we. So I said, "Well, they're not going to be able to convert, so let's just blow through here. We'll call it time out. As far as I'm concerned, those guys are dead. We're offensive here. And we'll press on down." Then, Dave locks up the A4s and we shot a couple of Fox-1s in that group.
STUDENT: If those guys were dead, who killed us?
INSTRUCTOR: I don't know. You've done a pretty good job of getting three weapons into that group. Let them do the killing work, and don't take an extra shot. Save that, because you've got two on board. What you need to do, though, Lulu, once you merge with that group, it's a good idea to go ahead and blow on through.
LT. MIKE LEWIS (LULU): Right.
INSTRUCTOR: As it was, there was kind of a break down there. Guys were getting kind of balled up. And one F14 who will get balled up with the MIG-21s will get kill-removed immediately.
NARRATOR: However demanding the exercise, or humiliating the debriefing, the pilots are wholly engaged in what they do, to a degree that few people ever experience.
LT. ROBERT RATHERT (BIRD): I live for the adrenaline that this gives us. The life and death nature of it, the rapid-fire decision-making, the huge responsibility.
LT. JOE VAN HELDEN (MONTANA): I've always wanted to fly. And once you get into flying, it's almost something that you have to do every day.
NARRATOR: While the course at Top Gun continues, tensions remain high in the Persian Gulf. In order to provide a safe haven for Iraq's Shiite population, U.S. planes will patrol the skies, monitoring the situation on the ground. They are ordered to shoot down any Iraqi planes that fly in prohibited air space. Renewed conflict with Iraq seems certain. On Independence, the flight operations take on a new urgency. In the evening, after operation planning meetings, helicopters take senior officers back to land, or to other ships in the battle group. In the armory, buried deep below deck, bombs and missiles are fused, primed and sent up to the flight deck as the Independence moves to near-war readiness. The patrol is no longer routine. And the aircraft carrier is now fulfilling its purpose, projecting military strength. Enforcing the no-fly zone calls for operations around the clock. And moments of sleep are grabbed when the chance arises. Returning from Top Gun, the F14 crews are thrown into action immediately. The mood on the ship has changed dramatically.
LT. ROBERT RATHERT (BIRD): In a perfect world situation, it wouldn't be any different at all. We have that motto that you fight like you train. So ideally, we should be able to just step into this scenario without a ripple. The reality of it is, there's no room for error now, obviously. But everyone feels like they're on the edge, on the step all the time.
NARRATOR: Aerial combat is now a real possibility. Guns are strapped on. Radio beacons and Arabic leaflets are carried in case they get shot down.
LT. JOE VAN HELDEN (MONTANA): OK. Iraq obviously has fighters up there, and if they ever choose to send them down, then you need to be ready for it. And it's easy to get complacent when you go up there every night and nothing happens. But you know, sometime, something may happen, and you need to be ready for it. So, who knows? We're going to go on a mission over Iraq for about four hours. We'll be escorting a couple of A6s on their mission. And our basic job is to protect those guys in case Iraq sends fighters south, and we can protect the A6s that way.
NARRATOR: Montana's and Lulu's mission is to provide protection for aircraft taking reconnaissance photos over the southern part of Iraq. Flying over the Iraqi coast, Montana knows that during the Gulf War, thirty-six planes were shot down by Iraqi missiles. The rules of engagement are clear—any Iraqi plane in this airspace can be attacked and shot down. So, too, might Montana's. He needs to refuel during the mission. And at this point, he fears that a missile's radar has locked onto his plane at a time when he is most exposed and vulnerable.
LT. JOE VAN HELDEN (MONTANA): We got a couple of indications of surface to air emitters—radars. That kind of took us by surprise, because theoretically where we were, there really shouldn't have been much there. And we were on the tanker's wing getting ready to tank, and then we got some pretty good indications of it. And that made me kind of nervous for a minute. It was disconcerting because, personally, that's the first time I had ever been over an enemy territory, so to speak, and actually got lit up like that.
NARRATOR: This mission ends without further incident. But subsequently, Iraqi planes do challenge the no-fly zone and are shot down. Although returning safely, Montana and Lulu report a series of mechanical problems with their plane that could also have proved fatal.
LT. JOE VAN HELDEN (MONTANA): It's a really hard force on the stick, and you don't get hardly any reaction out of it. I mean, no shit, I thought I had a problem there for a while. It's like ...
UNKNOWN LT: It's always had, like, an excessive longitudinal —
NARRATOR: The long cruise and the constant alert are beginning to wear down both men and machines.
LT. JOE VAN HELDEN (MONTANA): —modes on the PDCP, and the other modes were fine. But you back to air-to-air, and you still get the gun symbology.
REAR ADM. BRENT BENNITT: Most of us are probably on about a four and a half to five and a half hour sleep cycle at this stage of the game. And it seems that there's an airplane launching or one recovering almost all the time. It takes constant vigilance, constantly reminding people of the hazards that they face almost every moment of every day. And trying to keep them peaked with this kind of repetitive operation that we're associated with now is a real challenge.
NARRATOR: The Independence is a conventional powered carrier, and needs continual refuelling. Every few days, a tanker cruises alongside, and thousands of gallons of fuel oil and kerosene flow into the carrier's bunkers.
OFFICER: Stand by, detection midships. Carry on. Carry on.
NARRATOR: Music is part of this ritual. This contact with the outside world drives home the isolation of life on the carrier. This is the human cost of maintaining this massive ship on patrol. Confined with five thousand others, men are lonely for home. For six months, their only contact with friends, lovers, and families has been by the mail. At the end of a long cruise, they long for it to be over. One of the greatest dangers that they face now is the loss of morale, and a failure to concentrate on the job at hand.
CAPT. CARTER REFO: Teenage peer pressure—and that's what we have out here, is teenagers—Teenage peer pressure is very strong. And I think we take advantage of that. The organization takes advantage of that. There is a very strong pressure to do what's right and to do the job correctly. Even though they might not necessarily like it out here, they'll do the job correctly.
ABH-1 ANDREW GRIMES: It was kind of hard. I came out of high school, you know, and I was—most of the places where I tried to get a job, they wanted some experience. I just didn't have the experience. So I joined. I liked what I did, and I stayed in.
JASON WESTBURG: I feel I'm missing my family and my brothers and sisters growing up. But I feel I'm learning a lot more out here than what I would be if I was staying home, getting a—I'm exposed to a lot of things a lot of people don't see at any time. I think it's more of a learning experience, and you have to look at it more objectively than missing your family. We all miss our families. But we have a job to do out here, and we all want to do it the best we can.
CAPT. CARTER REFO: When we go on cruise, we get a tremendous guilt trip. Because you want to go. It's exciting. This is what our profession is, and you want to go. But at the same time, that's impossible to explain to families. You just can't do it.
PETTY OFFICER PARKER: I saw my wife last January. It's been about nine months.
INTERVIEWER: How do they get on without you?
PETTY OFFICER PARKER: Oh, she's always depressed. She'd like to have me home, I guess. I'd like to be home, but—I guess she's getting along fine. Hopefully, she is. We'll find out in a about a month and a half.
INTERVIEWER: Are you looking forward to going back?
PETTY OFFICER PARKER: Yes, I am. I'll be glad when I get there. Because I've got a little boy now—well, another little boy. And I'll be glad to see him, as well as the other one. Yup.
JASON WESTBURG: You see the world, I guess. Sometimes. Sometimes, you just feel like you're getting closed in, and you're never going to see land again. It's like we feel now. When's land?
NARRATOR: The six months that they were at sea, the crew of Independence conducted 8,752 launches and arrested landings. In the twenty-three days that the Independence operated in support of operations over Iraq, there were 1,349 missions, an average of 58 a day.
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Time-honored monuments. Wonders of the ancient world. These giant structures reveal the beliefs, the lifestyle, the spirit of cultures long past. What they don't reveal is the mystery of how they came to be. Now, NOVA and a cast of hundreds use brute strength and sheer determination to rediscover the technical know-how of the ancient builders. An Egyptian obelisk. England's Stonehenge. Inca masonry in Peru. A roof for Rome's Colosseum. NOVA's embarks on a four-part building spree to unlock the Secrets of Lost Empires.
February is technology month on The American Experience. They were called Hello Girls, and their job was to keep customers happy. No swearing. No rudeness.
You could only use certain phrases. Number please. And, thank you. But the customer could say anything they wanted to you, and you would say, thank you.
The Telephone. Coming Monday, February 3rd.
The idea came when he was plowing a field. He was just a fourteen year old farm kid from Utah. The idea was television. Big Dream, Small Screen. Coming Monday, February 10th.
It was a mammoth feat of engineering. The tunnel underneath the streets of New York was also dangerous. It was only a matter of time before something would go terribly wrong. New York Underground. Coming Monday, February 17th.
That's The Telephone, Big Dream, Small Screen, and New York Underground. February, on The American Experience.
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