In July of 2002 I received an invitation from the Department of Defense inviting me to spend three days and two nights aboard the aircraft carrier USS Constellation during CARQUALS (pilot carrier qualifications) while at sea off the coast of California.  The invite was to coordinate with the anniversary of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center and pentagon.  I had a hunch that the Constellation was working itself up-to-speed in order to participate in the Iraqi War.  I was right.  


I was instructed to report to the North Island Naval Air Station at 8:00 a.m.  I was joined in the old administration building by several other invitees and their guests.  Not surprising, I was familiar with a number of these people.  Stu Segall of Stu Segall Productions was there with his three guests; which guests were director Duwayne Dunham, actor Bill Pullman and screenwriter Anna Sandor, the latter one of four female invitees. 


Another feature film director joining our group was Antoine Fuqua, whose invitees were producer Ian Bryce, cinematographer Mauro Flore, production manager Steven P. Saeta, and art department coordinator Melody Bishop. The latter was the second of four female invitees.  The third female invitee was Fuqua’s production designer, Naomi Shohan. 


The fourth female invitee turned out to be the sister of the female Carry Onboard Delivery (COD) pilot.  Actor Bruce Willis was invited but had to cancel, due to a scheduling conflict.  His cancellation allowed Mauro Flore to attend.  My guest was director Roger Young.  


At 9:40 we boarded the Grumman C-2A Greyhound (COD) for the trip out to the carrier.  The Greyhound carries both cargo and passengers to the aircraft carriers at sea.  The passenger configuration consists of 12 – 14 rows of seats, two on each side of the isle.  For whatever reason, the seats all face the rear of the aircraft.  In the passenger compartment, there are only two windows, one on each side of the aircraft located in the second row from the cockpit (flight deck). 


Having flown aboard many CODs in the past, I made sure Roger Young boarded early enough to secure a window seat, for which he could not thank me enough.  The female LCDR and her male co-pilot fired up the two Allison T56-A-8B turboprop engines and we taxied to the end of the runway.  At precisely 10:00 a.m. the COD lifted off and headed out to sea. 


The carrier was approximately 70 miles due west of Monterey, California and as the COD lined up for our approach to the carrier’s one thousand foot long, angled flight deck the Chief, acting as “jumpmaster,” keyed his radio transmitter and gave us final instructions on the frequency tuned to our cranial helmets.  “I will say ‘brace … brace,’ at which time you will make sure that your heads are pushed against the back of your seats and that you are facing straight ahead,” he calmly instructed. 


Having experienced over a hundred landings (“traps”) aboard various aircraft carriers, as a civilian director and cinematographer under contract to the Department of Defense, I visualized what was happing both in the Greyhound’s cockpit and aboard the carrier, below. 


The COD’s pilot had already called “Marshall,” given the Greyhound’s fuel state and been told by the CATC to contact the tower (Primary Flight, or “Pri-Fly”).  With the aircraft on the glide slop, its hook down, the three vertical lights on the Greyhound’s nose gear will briefly glow, from the top green light, to the middle amber light, to the bottom red light.  Green tells the landing signal officer (LSO) that the attitude of the descending aircraft is too high, while red signals that the aircraft is too low.  Amber means everything is okay.  Proper attitude is critical in order for the tailhook to catch one of the four cables. 


In Pri-Fly, the Air Boss is in communication with both the LSO and four catapult rooms

located below on the 03 deck.  He notified the four Cat Chiefs which type of aircraft is lined up so that proper tension is set for the four wires strung across the aft one-third of the angled deck.  The LSO platform is located across the deck from the Island, in front of the “Meatball.” 


“Meatball,” or the “ball,” is colloquialism describing the gyro-stabilized series of colored lamps (with Fresnel lenses) that send narrow beams of light up the glide slope.  In the center are amber and red lights.  


Although the lights are always on, the Fresnel lens makes one light at a time seem to glow as the angle at which the pilot looks at the light changes.  If the lights appear above the green horizontal bar, the pilot is too high.  If it is below, the pilot is too low, and if the lights are red, the pilot is very low.  If the red lights on either side of the amber vertical bar are flashing, it is a wave off.  


Right now the COD pilot is following that beam of light down to the carrier’s flight deck, thankful that due to the gyro-stabilization the beam is not affected by the pitch and roll of the carrier. 


The pilot catches the third cable for a perfect landing.  Being seated facing the rear of the aircraft, we could feel ourselves being pushed against our seat backs.  The pilot raises the hook, folds the wings, makes a right 180 degree turn and taxies back to a spot in front of the island where the engines are shut down and the rear ramp lowered.  Un-strapping we exited the COD and were greeted by the attractive, female public affairs officer (PAO), LT Wendy Snyder.  


We followed LT Snyder as she led us to one of the hatches that would take us inside the island.  Once inside, we were allowed to remove out goggles, cranials, and life jackets, which were collected by the COD crew.  


We then took the ladder down to the 03 deck and to the captain’s quarters, located in Flag Country on the starboard side of the island.  The captain’s quarters consisted of a large luxury paneled room, with a separate galley, large dining/conference table capable  of seating 12, an area with stuffed chairs and couches, together with a state of the art home theater system.  


Adjacent to the large room, with its queen-sized bed, the captain’s sleeping quarter’s consisted of a bedroom that most people would die for.  The bedroom had its own bathroom and shower, as did the main room.  


The captain’s steward kindly provided refreshments while our luggage was sleped from the COD and deposited in the captain’s quarters next to the home theater.  The last of the luggage had just been deposited when the captain, J. W. Miller made his appearance. 


Seeing Captain Miller I began to get a hint as to why I was invited aboard the Constella-tion on this special occasion of the first anniversary of 9/11.  Captain Miller was Com-mander Miller when I filmed a refueling of the USS Enterprise for Westinghouse, in 1993.  He was one of a number of commanders, captains and at least one admiral who delighted

in inviting me to dinner during this period to hear my stories as a foreign journalist for Reuters and my experiences as an aerial cinematographer for Air Log, and for Lock-heed’s Skunk Works, off and on since my college says. 


Although they obviously enjoyed stories of my early career with Dick Powell, and exper-iences with the Skunk Works, I suspected that the admiral and several of the captains thought I was merely a good storyteller; that my tales were just too colorful to be true.  


But Commander J. W. Miller had done his homework.  One night over dinner with the admiral and a skeptical captain, at a top Newport News restaurant, he started grilling me on my work as a DoD civilian contractor.  Miller stunned both the admiral and captain by confronting me with a question that required only a yes or no answer.  “Are you the Dennis Stevens that filmed the Tomcat during the Naval Air Test Center trials, at Patuxent River, which footage allowed Grumman engineers to determine the cause of the earlier F-14 crash?  


I smiled and nodded in the affirmative.  The footage I filmed in 1973 from the rear cockpit of a Phantom F-4J convinced engineers to install wing mounted spoilers for low speeds.  Needless to say the admiral and captain, who were well familiar with this event in the history of the Tomcat, were duly impressed.  They fell all over themselves to make sure my wine glass was properly filled.  


I lost track of J. W. when he was promoted to captain and given command of a Navy amphibious ship, the USS Juneau, home ported in Sasebo, Japan. 


Entering the large room, LT Wendy Snyder introduced Captain Miller to the invited guests and then individually introduced everyone in the group.  J. W. greeted everyone warmly but when it came my turn, the captain smiled broadly and said, “Welcome aboard, my friend.  Good to see you again.”  An audible buzz could be heard among the invitees.  


The USS Constellation had three VIP cabins, one for the female and two for the male guests.  Each VIP cabin contained four bunks; a lower and upper with blue blackout curtains to seal off each bunk.  Each bunk has its own internal lamp.  This allows the occupant to read throughput the night without disturbing someone in an adjacent bunk.  The floor was carpeted. 


Our key cards also provided access to the officers “head,” located just down the hallway.  Plumbing in the heads consisted of both fresh and salt water; fresh water for the showers and salt water to flush the toilets.  


After getting settled in our quarters, we headed for the number two wardroom for lunch.  Meals were served aboard the Constellation four times a day, and great meals they were.  Officers aboard a carrier chip in each month for their wardroom meals which, because the food is subsidized, is relatively inexpensive.  In the main galley, the enlisted men and women eat free. 


Traditionally, the chief’s mess on a carrier is where the best food in the world is served. 

It’s like eating every night at Ruth’s Chris Steak House, but at a fraction of the cost.  The chief’s mess is run apart from the enlisted galley but still derives its funds from ship’s supply so officially there are no extra mess dues.  But unofficially, on many carriers, chief’s kick in a percentage of the food bill (never amounting to more than a dollar per day) to assure this continued quality. 


Whenever I was aboard a carrier shooting a film I always attempted to wrangle an invite to the chief’s mess.  Invites are by invitation only and very hard to come by. 


After lunch, tours of the ship began.  Since I had seen all this before, I requested that I be allowed to plant myself in one location while the others visited the engine room (a miser-able place) the hospital and hangar deck (all of which I had seen many times).  Four of my favorite places aboard a carrier are:  the Bridge, Pri-Fly, Vulture’s Row, and the Com-bat Direction Center (formally known as the CIC – Combat Information Center).   LT Snyder decided to plant me on the Bridge. 


I was having a great time listening to the communication between the CATC (Carrier Air Traffic Control Center) and Pri-Fly, as the ship headed into the wind to recover some F/A-18s from Lemoore Naval Air Station.  Suddenly I heard the OOD cry out, “Captain’s on the Bridge.”  I turned around as CAPT J.W. Miller entered, walked over to his special command chair, sat down, and issued some orders. 


Then CAPT Miller spotted me and motioned me over. 


Refueling of the USS Enterprise was already underway when Westinghouse phoned to ask if I could write, produce and direct a so-called business film depicting the changing of the Westinghouse made rods in the Westinghouse made reactor, for the Westing-house archives.  By that time, in 1993, the company was busy selling off most of its profitable electronic divisions and for all intents and purposes ceasing to exist. 


Since this fourth refueling of the Big “E” would take place over the period of a year, I was to fly to the Newport News, Virginia, naval facilities located at the mouth of the James River, three or four times during the refueling process, and film for four or five days at a stretch.  While officially I would be a DoD civilian contractor, I would actually be working directly for Westinghouse.  

Page Twenty-Nine.


In any event, as I stepped up next to CAPT Miller, the ship’s CO climbed out of his chair

and invited me to sit in it.  It was good to get off my feet and once seated the CO asked if I still had my Dilbert Dunker certificate.  I grabbed my wallet, thumbed through the credit card slots until I found my lifetime membership card in the Tailhook Association and my Dilbert Dunker civilian certificate.  I was so proud of these cards that I never left home without them.  I presented both to CAPT Miller.  


The Dilbert Dunker is an orientation device used to train flight personnel how to survive crashes in water.  With few exceptions, completion of the 3 to 4 hour course is a require-ment for anyone launching in a fighter from an aircraft carrier.  One exception is, of course, if you’re President of the United States.  But then there are probably many other exceptions, as well. 


Miller handed back my plastic, credit card size Tailhook ID – and Dilbert Dunker certif-cate – and then asked, “How would you like to take a ride in a Super Hornet?” 


“Are you offering rides to the other invitees,” I asked?  


“You’re the only one qualified to launch in anything other than the Hawkeye or the COD,” he added.  “Since this is a CARQUAL exercise, we don’t have any Hawkeyes aboard, and they’ve already had a ride in the COD.” 


“Alright, if that’s the situation, then I accept.” 


“Good.  Be ready to launch at ten hundred hours tomorrow.”  Looking me over and noting the extra weight I had put on during the past several years, he added, “You might want to skip breakfast.  I’ll see if I can find a flight suit big enough for you.” 


That evening, after a thorough tour of the ship and a terrific dinner, we all gathered on Vulture’s Row to watch night operations.  This is a once in a lifetime experience.  While I had seen it many times before, I delighted in hearing the response from the others in the group.  It was as if they were watching the greatest lightshow / fireworks display in the history of 4th-of-July celebrations. 


We were told that we could take pictures but that we couldn’t use our flashes, which might disorient a pilot.  Those like me, with external flash units, merely disconnected them.  Those with internal flashes (as a precaution) had to place a special black strip of tape over the flash lens.  Even so, more than one flash lit up the glide slope and flight deck below before corrections were made, to the chagrin of the PAO.  


The requirement for a pilot passing his or her CARQUALS was that they successfully complete ten daylight and eight nighttime landings (traps) over a three day period.  Our little group had been invited to witness this event as naval aviators from NAS Lemoore attempted to qualify.  As an aside, there were two women attempting to qualify.  I under-stand that both qualified.  


On the deck below, lighted wands of various colors in the hands of skilled V-1 yellow short handlers are directing the various aircraft to their proper stations on the crowded deck.  On the number one cat, forward of the island, a Super Hornet is being hooked up to the catapult.  The 10-foot-high blast shield rises out of the deck as the wings are un-folded and the launching bar lowered.  A handler kneels and attaches the shuttle’s hold-back brace to the T-bar on the Hornet’s nose gear.  Another handler gives the pilot the signal to go full power. 


As the pilot revs his engines to maximum power, with afterburners, blue-white flame shoots from the Super Hornet’s two exhausts, searing the blast shield and illuminating the deck.  


The wingtip lights flicker then the pilot grabs the canopy bars on each side of the wind-screen, letting the computer make the launch without interference from the pilot.  Sud-denly, the F/A-18F goes from 0 to 155 knots in two-and-a-half seconds. 


Simultaneously, out on the angled deck where the number three and four catapults are located, recovery operations were in effect.  The F/A-18 Hornets and Super Hornets are landing, one after the other.  Up in Primary Flight, the Mini Boss is phoning down to the four chief’s in charge of the arresting cables and advising whether the next F/A-18 is a mere “Hornet” or “Rhino,” the latter the code word for the heavier, Super Hornet.  


The Hornets “trapping” and coming to rest near the end of the angled deck raise their hooks, do a one-eighty degree right turn and taxi back to a point in front of the island, where they make a left turn and line up behind either the number one or number two catapults, for the purpose of doing it all over again. 


From Vulture’s Row we witness a few “bolters,” those aircraft who failed to grab any of the four arresting wires.  Soon as a descending aircraft touches the deck, the pilot goes to full “military” throttle.  If the pilot catches one of the wires, he or she immediately pulls the throttle(s) back to ground idle.  If the aircraft misses all four wires, at full throttle the pilot is in position to lift off the flight deck and go around for another try.  


Flight operations shut down at midnight with the understanding that it would resume at 0200 hours (in two hours), and continue until 0400 hours.  I joined the rest of the group and headed for our VIP cabin for some much needed sleep.  Having been birthed on many a carrier’s 03 deck during flight ops, I warned the group what to expect at 2:00 a.m. 


Sure enough, at 2:00 a.m., everyone woke with a start as noise from the catapults CRACKED through our VIP cabin.  I had assured everyone that after a while they would soon get used to the noise and be able to sleep through it.  I don’t know whether or not they slept during the next two hours, but for me the noise soon faded into the back-ground and became so-called “white noise.”  It actually helped me sleep. 


The next morning I was taken to one of the squadron ready rooms and introduced to Lieutenant (j.g.) David “Rabbi” Schneider, who was picked to be the pilot for my ride in the F/A-18 Super Hornet.  “Rabbi,” (his call sign) was stationed at NAS Lemoore, and had completed only half his CARQUAL requirements.  He was chosen to carry me as a pas-senger principally because he had not been assigned a WSO (weapons system officer), who rides in the rear cockpit.  But more importantly, he was acknowledged to be a skilled pilot on the fast track for the Topgun school at Fallon, Nevada. 


“Rabbi” helped me into my flight suit and made sure the bladder fit properly.  A proper fitting bladder is important to prevent blackouts during the high “G” forces.  As the “G” forces increase the bladder inflates to prevent the blood from draining from your brain to your lower extremities – causing blackout.    


In full gear we made our way to the flight deck where we found our aircraft and where I was helped aboard by the plane captain.  The hose to my oxygen mask was plugged into the aircraft’s oxygen system and as I tested the flow – it all started to come back to me. 


I saw myself once again in the rear cockpit of an F-4 Phantom II, with an Éclair 16mm

camera on my shoulder; one of three cameramen filming footage of the F-14 Tomcat tests at NAS Pax River.  


As I tested the oxygen mask, I recalled trying to control my breathing in the rear seat of the Phantom fighter so that the pilot couldn’t tell from the open intercom microphone (ICS) just how nervous and hyper I was, anticipating the next, unexpected maneuver.  Oxygen isn’t forced into your lungs; you have to breathe it in.  When adrenaline is pump-ing through your system, the tendency is to gulp the oxygen, causing the sound heard over the ICS.  


With both of us finally strapped in, LT (j.g.) Schneider gets the okay to fire up his engines and taxi out to the number two catapult, located in front of the island.  


As the Hornet ahead of us is catapulted off the bow, the blast deflector shield drops into the deck, allowing our Super Hornet to move into position.  As the folded wings drop into place, the ten foot high shield rises out of the deck and the cat crew goes to work.   


Everything hooked up; still another handler gives Schneider the signal to go to full pow-er.  Easing the brakes off, relying on the holdback link to restrain the aircraft, Schneider braces his head and monitor’s the gauges. 


Having been through this before, nobody has to tell me what to expect.  I braced my head firmly against the back of the seat as Schneider moves the throttles against the stop, salutes the catapult officer, then grabs hold of the bars on each side of the windscreen, allowing the computer to launch the aircraft without the pilot attempting to override the system. 


The V-1 handler takes a second to check everything out then, in an exaggerated gesture, crouches and points his finger forward. 


There is a snap, as if the giant chain had suddenly broken, and the F/A-18F is catapulted down the 300 foot long track and is airborne in two seconds. 


The first sensation one feels is that the aircraft has lost power and is going to crash into the sea.  This is known as the catapult effect, when the greater force of the catapult is replaced by the lesser thrust of the aircraft’s engines, even though the engines are at full power.  During this effect, the noise of the catapult is gone causing you to think the en-gines have died.  For a brief moment you can actually feel yourself being forced forward in your seat.  It’s a bit disconcerting for those experiencing it for the first time. 


We climbed to 20,000 feet and about fifteen minutes later rendezvoused with a second Hornet.  Then we circled around and headed for “Marshall,” for a “Trap” and re-launch. 


This pattern was repeated five times before making a final “trap,” with plenty of fuel still in the tanks. 


“Marshall … this is Rabbi … Rhino.  …Fuel state 6.0,” radioed Schneider to the CATCC.  


“Rabbi – Rhino, you have a Charlie.  …Contact the tower.  


“Roger.  …Rabbi – Rhino entering the pattern. 


And that’s the way it went on that final rotation.  Schneider contacted Pri-Fly and was granted permission to land.  We caught the number three arresting cable and came to rest in 350 feet. 


After getting out of my flight gear and back into my civilian clothes, I joined our group for a late lunch in the number two wardroom.  Everyone wanted to hear all the details of my experience and I didn’t disappoint.  I warmed them about the catapult effect, and what to expect when we launched in the COD, tomorrow afternoon.  


That afternoon the group once again gathered in the captain’s large inboard cabin where J. W. Miller presented each of the group with a certificate that reads: 


Honorary Naval Aviator:  This is to certify that Dennis F. Stevens in the finest traditions of naval aviation did, on September 11, 2002, defy all laws of physical science and common sense by making an arrested landing on America’s Flagship – USS CONSTEL-LATION (CV-64), and also completing a catapult assisted take off.  During these feats this Honorary Naval Aviator experienced deceleration from 130 mph to 0 in two seconds and acceleration from 0 to 150 mph in two seconds, thereby gaining an elementary under-standing of the remarkable challenges and accomplishments of naval aviation, a patriotic profession that has helped keep the United States of America free since the early 1900s. 


The certificate is signed:  J. W. Miller, Captain, U.S. Navy Commanding Officer USS CON-STELLATION.  


While appreciative, when I got home I filed the certificate with the eighteen to twenty similar DoD and Navy honors that I had received over the years for services rendered, including a lifetime membership in the Tailhook Association and a citation signed by John F. Lehman, Jr., acknowledging me as an honorary commander in the United States Navy.