The Magazine

24 Hours on the 'Big Stick'

What you can learn about America on the deck of the USS 'Theodore Roosevelt.'

Apr 28, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 31 • By P.J. O'ROURKE
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Landing on an aircraft carrier is...To begin with, you travel out to the carrier on a powerful, compact, and chunky aircraft--a weight-lifter version of a regional airline turboprop. This is a C-2 Greyhound, named after the wrong dog. C-2 Flying Pit Bull is more like it. In fact what everyone calls the C-2 is the "COD." This is an acronym for "Curling the hair Of Dumb reporters," although they tell you it stands for "Carrier Onboard Delivery."

There is only one window in the freight/passenger compartment, and you're nowhere near it. Your seat faces aft. Cabin lighting and noise insulation are absent. The heater is from the parts bin at the Plymouth factory in 1950. You sit reversed in cold, dark cacophony while the airplane maneuvers for what euphemistically is called a "landing." The nearest land is 150 miles away. And the plane doesn't land; its tailhook snags a cable on the carrier deck. The effect is of being strapped to an armchair and dropped backwards off a balcony onto a patio. There is a fleeting moment of unconsciousness. This is a good thing, as is being far from the window, because what happens next is that the COD reels the hooked cable out the entire length of the carrier deck until a big, fat nothing is between you and a plunge in the ocean, should the hook, cable, or pilot's judgment snap. Then, miraculously, you're still alive.

Landing on an aircraft carrier was the most fun I'd ever had with my trousers on. And the 24 hours that I spent aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt--the "Big Stick"--were an equally unalloyed pleasure. I love big, moving machinery. And machinery doesn't get any bigger, or more moving, than a U.S.-flagged nuclear-powered aircraft carrier that's longer than the Empire State Building is tall and possesses four acres of flight deck. This four acres, if it were a nation, would have the fifth or sixth largest airforce in the world--86 fixed wing aircraft plus helicopters.

The Theodore Roosevelt and its accompanying cruisers, destroyers, and submarines can blow up most of the military of most of the countries on earth. God has given America a special mission. Russia can barely blow up Chechnya. China can blow up Tibet, maybe, and possibly Taiwan. And the EU can't blow up Liechtenstein. But the USA can blow up .  .  . gosh, where to start?

But I didn't visit the Theodore Roosevelt just to gush patriotically--although some patriotic gushing is called for in America at the moment. And while I'm at it let me heap praise upon the people who arranged and guided my Big Stick tour. I was invited on the "embark" thanks to the kindness of the Honorable William J. (Jim) Haynes II, former Department of Defense general counsel. The trip was arranged by Colonel Kelly Wheaton, senior military assistant to acting Department of Defense general counsel Daniel Dell'Orto, and by Lt. Commander Philip Rosi, public affairs officer of the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group.

I traveled with the Honorable Mr. Dell'Orto and a group of ten Distinguished Visitors (minus me). Onboard we met people more distinguished yet, including Captain C.L. Wheeler, commanding officer of the Theodore Roosevelt, Rear Admiral Frank C. Pandolfe, commander of the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group, and Command Master Chief Petty Officer Chris Engles, who--as anyone with experience in or of the Navy knows (my dad was a chief petty officer)--actually runs everything.

I could go on about the TR and its crew at epic length. And one day, if they'll invite me back, I'll do so. But, being a reporter, I wasn't there to report on things. I was there to get a journalistic hook--a tailhook, as it were--for a preconceived idea. I wanted to say something about Senator John McCain. And as soon as our distinguished visitor group donned "float coats" and ear protection and went to the flight deck and saw F-18s take off and land, I had something to say.

Carrier launches are astonishing events. The plane is moved to within what seems like a bowling alley's length of the bow. A blast shield larger than any government building driveway Khomeini-flipper rises behind the fighter jet, and the jet's twin engines are cranked to maximum thrust. A slot-car slot runs down the middle of the bowling alley. The powered-up jet is held at the end of its slot by a steel shear pin smaller than a V-8 can. When the shear pin shears the jet is unleashed and so is a steam catapult that hurls the plane down the slot, from 0 to 130 miles per hour in two seconds. And--if all goes well--the airplane is airborne. This is not a pilot taking off. This is a pilot as cat's eye marble pinched between boundless thumb and infinite forefinger of Heaven's own Wham-O slingshot.