MY INVITE ABOARD THE USS CONSTEL-
LATION ON 9/11s 1st ANNIVERSARY:
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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,
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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:
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