Shot from Guns

GARLAND L. THOMPSON

May 04, 1991|By GARLAND L. THOMPSON | GARLAND L. THOMPSON,Garland L. Thompson is an editorial writer for The Sun.

JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA — Jacksonville, Florida. -- Now I know what it feels like to be shot from guns. Here's what it sounds like: ''W-w-w-wree-ee-ee-yyoooush-sh-sh-sh!''

Seagoing fighter pilots, bomber crews and submarine hunters hear that sound and feel the giant hand of acceleration mash them into their seats every time they whoosh away from an aircraft carrier.

My turn to feel the smash of the catapult came last weekend, during a three-day tour of the USS Forrestal. R.Adm. Walter Davis, former head of the Washington Navy District and now commander, Carrier Group Six, invited several journalists to come see life on a modern warship.

As today's youth would put it, the trip was Intense. First a ''COD,'' carrier on-board delivery flight, picked us up at Jacksonville Naval Air Station.

After a stern lecture about survival at sea and a warning not to throw up in his airplane, a crew chief buckled us into our rear-facing seats, helmeted, goggled and buttoned down in life vests. Most passengers among the handful of sailors and outsiders heading aboard had no windows, but I sat next to one of two. The flight was a noisy but uneventful hour and 20 minutes, then we circled the ships.

Then, ''We're going in!'' Down, on a slant like a regular landing, then a swoop to the flight deck that beat any roller-coaster I ever rode. And very suddenly, all stop.

We clambered out into a world of noise, moving screamers called Tomcats, Hornets, Intruders, Red Rippers and Steel Jaws, turbines, props and rotors turning, hopping gandy dancers manning a flight deck like a great sky railyard, tractors, engine-starters, bombs and missiles moving, hot breath of dragons blasting everywhere.

Now I know why the goggles were so important.

The Forrestal's deck is 1,039 feet long, as big as three and a half football fields, but it looked small with everything loaded on it. VTC Inside the ship, a lieutenant commander took us to the admiral's quarters. Admiral Davis greeted us with handshakes and gold-braided baseball caps, then his aides lowered the boom. The schedule of our visit looked something like this:

26 April: 1405 - Guests arrive by COD. Met by CCG-6/Flag Lt/ PAO/Escort (PHOTO OP). 1410 - Welcome Aboard in Flag Cabin/Battle Group overview by 00 (PHOTO OP). 1440 - Check into quarters/freshen up. 1450 - Meet CO FID (Nav Bridge) (PHOTO OP). 1510 - Observe launch (Nav Bridge) (PHOTO OP). 1520 - Observe recovery (Primary) (PHOTO OP). 1540 - Brief by Air Boss (Primary) (PHOTO OP). 1550 - Stop at Flag Bridge (Photos w/00 in Admiral's chair). 1600 - CDC/ASW Mod. . . .

You get the idea. It went on to 2200 -- 10 p.m. to you landlubbers -- for MIDRATS, late rations for late workers, and told us to ''retire for the evening'' after that.

What we saw was planes shooting off the flight deck, catapulted by steam pistons from 0 to 140 knots in two seconds, while other planes whooshed in to be ''trapped'' by their tailhooks on ''wires'' bigger around than a man's thumb.

Sometimes they miss. ''Skree-ee-ee-frooo-oo-fsshh-shh!'' Sparks. Back into the sky. Nobody got upset but us innocents.

I called the launch a ''cat dance'': Men crawled beneath planes looking like huge hungry beasts, urging them on with signals and pats while others rigged things, moved tools or stood back nonchalant.

A ''shooter'' waved directions to pilots -- come forward, stop here, wind 'em up. Two watchers waited as engines revved, control surfaces moved and pilots checked the monsters' to-do lists.

Then, thumbs up from the watchers, thumbs up and a stoop from the shooter, a raised-hands dance from a deck-edge

operator, and W-w-w-wree-ee-ee-yyoooush-sh-sh-sh! Gone.

What was about as amazing was the plane-moving dance below decks and the amount of maintenance that goes on. Computerized checkers analyze the performance of weapons, controls, indicators. Machine shops do major repairs on Forrestal's and other ships' working machinery. An 80-bed hospital, with its own surgery, dental and optical labs, for 5,000 sailors. An engine rebuilding station. It went on for three days, wearing me out with climbs up ladders and descents to the ship's bowels.

Walter Davis joined the Navy as an Ohio State University student when I was still in junior high. Back when this ship was built, I knew about its details and built a scale model in battleship-gray plastic. Neither he nor I knew there'd come a day when a black admiral would command it and its sister ships in a task force spread beyond the horizon, but that's the nature of a changing world.

It's also a function of real opportunity in an armed service now more concerned about effective performance than civilian companies are about the cultural mores that have hung up 200 years of American history, but that's another story.

For now, W-w-w-wree-ee-ee-yyoooush-sh-sh-sh! Gone.

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