Facebook Badge

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Lifetime's Experience

A Posh Flight to the USS Nimitz

Early one Tuesday morning, I found myself sitting in the naval terminal at INS Hansa in Dabholim, Goa. A young officer from the American navy strode to the front of the reception area and began to brief the assembly about the flight we were about to take to the USS Nimitz, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier that was sailing 300 miles west off the Goa coast. The officer, who was also the pilot on board the C2A Greyhound turboprop, said things about safety gear, water-landing and whatnot. He made it sound fairly normal. So we geared up with helmet, goggles and flotation device and walked out to the aircraft.

It was a posh aircraft. No, there were no nubile flight attendants, 18-channel entertainment system or anything of the sort that is generally associated with the word “posh.” It was a no-frills aircraft with not much beyond 14 regulation-issue seats facing backwards and two portholes for windows; no sound-proofing, no second skin, a couple of lights and that’s pretty much it. You had to wear your earphones else you risked deafness. But it was posh, in the sense that passengers faced away from the pilot. “Port Out, Starboard Home,” the British called it, referring to the cabins on the port side of the ship as it sailed to India and those on the starboard side as the ship sailed back to England. The idea was to catch the last and first glimpse of “my own, my native land.” In this instance, we faced the shoreline of India, a comforting factor for a white-knuckle passenger like me confronting what they call an “arrested landing” and saw the back of the Nimitz as we were catapulted into the sky in the take-off back to Goa.

As we took off from Dabholim airport towards the Nimitz, everything seemed normal just like the dozens of flights I have taken out of Goa. In flight, the plane settled into a vibration mode that lulled me to sleep until I heard the pilot through the headphones, saying, “We’re three-quarters of a mile away from the ship.” Awakened, I sluggishly tried to peer out the port-hole, hoping to see the ship. Suddenly, I saw two crew members, who were sitting directly in front, waving their arms frantically. Then there was a roar, the plane’s throttle opened up to full speed, a thud and a few seconds of eternity as the COD (carry onboard delivery) plane came to a screeching halt.

Later, standing on the flight deck, as I saw a series of F-18 fighter jets land, I saw a hook being lowered as the plane came in to land. The hook grabbed one of four cables stretched across the width of the four-and-a-half-acre deck and made what they call an “arrested landing.” I began to understand why I thought the few seconds to it took our plane to go from over 120 miles an hour to a full stop in just 30 yards seemed like an eternity. At that point, it’s between the skill of the pilot and the Maker: split-second timing rather than fancy high technology made the difference between an “arrested landing” that enabled me to have lunch with the commander of the ship and a “crash landing” that might have set me in front of the Maker, worrying about all the stuff I may or may not have done in my life that He might question.

The hours on the ship zipped by and its dimensions—18-storey height, 97000 tons, 1000 feet in length, 4.5 acres landing deck, 5000 sailors, 110 planes—are gargantuan. Pretty soon, I found myself in the posh plane as it taxied to line up on the steam-powered catapult that would launch the plane into the wild blue yonder at 120 miles per hour on a runway that was just 30 yards long. Despite the restraints, the top part of my body bent over involuntarily to where my head touched my knees and then snapped back as the catapult released the plane in a whoosh of nuclear-powered steam. By the time the plane straightened out and set course for shore, I experienced eternity again.

The entire trip to the Nimitz lasted close to six hours. It occurred to me that we had seen the full majesty of American power. What struck me the most about our landing and takeoff was that it is based less on high technology—think about the “arrested landing” and the “catapulted take-off”—than on relentless training and the bravery of the men and women, who do this as part of their daily routine. In the end, I concluded that these brave and well-trained twenty-somethings should try driving on the streets of any Indian city. We do it daily. It is far scarier.

from daily news and analysis october 10 2007