Out of sight in ragged, low-hanging gray clouds an F-14 Tomcat jet fighter whistles by the right side of this floating piece of movable real estate and banks to the left a mile ahead of the carrier's bow.The two-man fighter dips into 600 feet of clear space between the clouds and sea, races aft a mile away, turns left again a quarter-mile astern and roars down, down toward the ship.
As the plane lines up on the angled deck, it appears to an observer that it is headed straight for the carrier's bridge but as seen on a television monitor, the craft, its wings rocking, is dead-centered in the landing officer's crosshairs.
Crossing the stern of the ship the pilot rams the twin jet engines into full "military" takeoff power while still aiming down at four steel cables stretched across the deck. Engines screaming, the Tomcat bangs onto the carrier, sparks flying from the striped tailhook as it hits the deck and catches the number three wire.
Engines still at full power the jet pulls the cable into a 350-foot-long V which brings it to a slewing stop 50 feet from the end of the short runway. Beyond its lip is the pitching green Atlantic Ocean.
It is another successful landing aboard one of the United States' 15 fleet carriers, a controlled crash that is one of the most dangerous evolutions in aviation but which carrier air wing pilots must do daily - and get right every time.
On a recent three-day visit to the 80,000-ton USS America, the Deseret News watched Navy and Marine pilots make their required "carrier qualification" landings at sea, 100 miles east of Norfolk, Va.
The carrier crew also was in training after 16 months in the shipyard at Portsmouth, Va. For both sailors and airmen it was a rugged beginning of the process to put the America back in shape to be the centerpiece of one of the U.S. carrier battle groups, the 1980s manifestation of American military power around the world.
Strategic weapons are too dangerous for any of the nuclear powers to use them and the world's troubles too fast-moving for conventional armies. The carrier has become the tool of American force, to be shown and sometimes used in the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean or wherever else an American president believes U.S. interests must be protected.
In the 19th century wooden frigates answered the call "millions for defense but not one cent for tribute" when Barbary pirates seized American citizens and held them for ransom. In 1988 it is steel and aluminum and reinforced carbon-fiber ships and aircraft that carry the flag. It was just two years ago that the America was in the Mediterranean, bombarding Tripoli, 182 years after Stephen Decatur's raid.
When the America took part in the retaliation against Libyan dictator Moamar Gadhafi, two dozen of the ship's air wing pilots dropped the bombs on Libya but it took 3,700 sailors to get the planes to the Gulf of Sidra, then to arm, launch and recover them.
One of those bluejackets was AO/2 Kevin D. Smeltzer of Suffolk, Va., a red-shirt or ordnanceman whose job is to deliver the bombs and bullets from the magazines deep in the carrier's hull to the planes on the flight deck.
The bombs, weighing 500, 750 or 2,000 pounds, are brought by elevator to a deck just at the waterline, then are rolled on dollies through the crew's mess area to another elevator that lifts them either to the hangar deck or all the way to the flight deck. The two-stage trip is more work for the ordnancemen, but it avoids the risk of a lucky shot of the kind that sank the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor when a Japanese bomb went down an ammunition hoistway and exploded the ship's magazines.
The ordnancemen also load 20-mm explosive rounds into racks for the F-14 and F-18 fighters and belts for the carrier's last-ditch missile defense CIWS Gatling guns. The automatic, radar-controlled weapons, called sea-whiz by the Navy, can throw out some 9,000 rounds per minute at any missile that got through the carrier group's outer defenses.
Ordnance work is heavy and dirty with none of the glamour of flying aircraft or navigating the ship, but it is only one of a hundred jobs aboard a carrier that get none of the "Top Gun" billing of the movies. The fliers take risks, but so do the sailors, who risk being sucked into jet engines, cut in half by broken landing cables, blown overboard, crushed by mis-handled bombs, scalded by steam in the engineering spaces, or a dozen other hazards in this huge factory for making war or protecting the peace.
Those who work below may be kept awake at night by the crash and rattle of landings or the ship-shaking thud of the four steam-powered catapults, yet seldom see a plane in the air. One petty officer aboard the America confided that he had been aboard for three years without ever seeing air operations. Engineers related that they did not see daylight one day out of five.
How to describe this big carrier? It is essentially a huge steel box, the size of a factory, in which are stored up to 90 aircraft. Below the hangar deck are machine shops, electrical shops, cafeterias, living space, tanks for half a million gallons of JP-5 jet fuel and No. 2 fuel oil for the boilers, ammunition magazines and a hospital, weather bureau and a garbage disposal plant.
Alongside the hangar are more shops, two, four and six-man cabins for officers, a ship's store and other offices. Above it is the flight deck - 4.5 acres of rubber-coated steel.
Looming over the starboard side of the flight deck is the island, topped by the air operations control tower, the navigation bridge and a flag bridge for the admiral, who commands the battle group when the carrier is deployed.
No one man directs this vast assemblage of power. The ship herself is the responsibility of Capt. James A. Lair, a former Marine, and - as are all carrier CO's - a former carrier pilot. Though he has one of the choicest billets in the Navy, Lair is not Academy. He is a graduate of Loyola University.
It is the captain's job to get the carrier where it is needed, navigate it, maintain it and administer its 3,700 ship's company.
Once on station, the punch of the carrier is delivered by its planes, under the command of the CAG, the Air Group Commander. This week there is no air group embarked; the America has sortied from Norfolk to act as a floating training field for a succession of squadrons making carrier qualification landings.