Planes are a type of time machine, taking you to other worlds where the values and the culture may be different, where the people order their lives by a different standard.
Certainly this is the impression one got climbing aboard the Navy Greyhound at the Santa Barbara Airport last Thursday afternoon. The Greyhound, or COD (Carrier Onboard Delivery), is the flying equivalent of the jeep: utilitarian, all steel and fiberglass, fold-up wings, 30 backward-facing seats in passenger configuration, and all the wiring, hydraulics and life rafts plainly visible running along the cabin’s ceiling. Decked out with helmets, goggles, hearing protection and three-point seatbelts, the media contingent was prepared for the 30-minute flight to the USS Ronald Reagan (CVN76) sailing just south of Santa Barbara, coming up from San Diego for the Santa Barbara Navy League‘s Welcome Weekend.
The flight was fast, dark — two small windows in the plane’s aft section — with rudimentary lighting, and a bit squirrelly. Our plane approached the aircraft carrier at 150 mph and with an enormous bang grabbed the cables stretched across the flight deck and came to a halt in 320 feet, mashing us into the backs of our seats. We had entered a different world, for certain.
Rear Adm. Phil Wisecup, commander of the Carrier Strike Group SEVEN, and Capt. Terry Kraft, commanding officer of the Reagan, greeted us on the ship’s enormous hanger deck, just below the flight deck. They welcomed us and discussed the ship’s brief history and the Reagan’s mission as both ambassador for America and as a tangible symbol of U.S. military might.
We were soon turned over to Ensign Tim Hawkins, a graduate of Cate School in Carpinteria and the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. Hawkins was our guide during our overnight stay, and did a commendable job considering he had been assigned to the Reagan for less than a week.
Built in 2003, the nuclear-powered USS Ronald Reagan is the newest aircraft carrier in the nation’s Navy. The Reagan is as long as the Empire State Building is tall and has a crew of 3,300 men and women when the Flight Wing is not aboard; the inclusion of the aircraft and its personnel raises the ship’s complement to somewhere between 5,000 and 6,000, about 750 of whom are women. The enormous size of the Reagan, its four-and-a-half acre flight deck, its cavernous airplane hanger, the labyrinth of corridors all point to the ship’s epic scale. One sailor, who had been aboard the Reagan for a year, admitted he still got disoriented making his way around the ship.
The crew, too, speaks to the ship’s enormous size. Wherever you go, there are crew talking, laughing, waiting politely for our media contingent of 10 to pass by. They are everywhere, which reminds you that even given the size of the vessel, 3,300 people is a big number to feed, house, equip and train in what is, relative to land-base standards, a relatively small space. And the polyglot society that is America in the 21st century is reflected in the racial and ethnic makeup of the crew. One would be hard pressed to find a city where the diversity of the nation’s population is so well represented.
On our tour of the Reagan, Hawkins took us to the control room for the carrier’s flight deck. There, flight deck chief Saul Mendo commanded the “Ouija board” model of the flight deck, offering in miniature a representation of all planes and equipment currently deployed. With great enthusiasm, Mendo orchestrated the disposition of the aircraft from the hanger deck to the flight deck, loading of bombs, the launching and retrieving of planes, and the general responsibility for what happens on the flight deck.
Mendo, 33, was born outside Guadalajara, Mexico, and snuck into the United States illegally at age 14. When the government offered amnesty to illegal residents, Mendo quickly took advantage of the offer and became a citizen. The president who signed the amnesty bill? Ronald Reagan.
Cmdr. Michael Galli heads the Combat Direction Center, the electronic pulse of the Reagan. The bank of large monitors on the wall and the numerous individual computers illuminate the cave-like center with its technicians intently processing all electronic information coming into the center, tracking the ship’s outer ring of defense as well as things that might be deemed suspicious.
Life aboard the warship is spartan by civilian standards. Nearly everything is built of steel, creature comforts are few, and privacy a precious commodity. Eating is a communal experience, separated by rank. Most officers share this no-frills existence. Six of us in the media group shared an officer’s wardroom, sleeping in bunks three on a side. The officers’ “head,” or bathroom, servicing our room and other officers’ quarters was several corridors away.
The Reagan, powered for the next 20 years by two nuclear reactors, is a world unto itself, capable of deployments that can last six or eight months. These long stretches at sea demand that amusements and a variety of services be available for the thousands aboard. The Reagan’s crew enjoys a weight room, a Learning Resource Center with more than a dozen computers giving sailors e-mail and Internet access, a half-dozen separate computers on which they can watch movies, and a 25-seat movie theater that frequently runs features throughout the day. The Santa Barbara Navy League has been an important contributor to these shipboard amenities.
A shipboard museum dedicated to the late President Ronald Reagan includes a mounted chunk of the Berlin Wall and excerpts from his most memorable speeches. There is also the Nancy Reagan Library and a nondenominational chapel with three resident chaplains and a Torah rescued from Nazi Germany. Five physicians and five dentists help maintain the crew’s physical well-being.
The Navy has had no trouble recruiting sailors into its all-volunteer service. Talking with the crew one hears a wide range of answers as to why this career path was chosen. For some the Navy offers a steady paycheck, a chance to learn skills that will be useful ashore. Others appreciate the fact that the responsibilities and challenges they can assume aboard ship are greater than any they would find in civilian life. The average age of the crew aboard the Reagan is 22.
But there is something else at work aboard the Reagan. One can suppose that the greater order, the greater discipline, the well-defined duties of shipboard life offer, for many of the crew, a stronger sense of purpose and of belonging that develops a camaraderie unusual once ashore. For that they are lucky, and for many of the crew the years spent aboard the Reagan will undoubtedly be one of the greatest experiences of their lives.
Jim Farr is Noozhawk’s sales and operations manager.