Sailors do business 24/7 on a floating city of war

In round-the-clock shifts, they build bombs, fix jets and send them off to war

War On Terrorism

Military Response

October 10, 2001|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ABOARD THE USS CARL VINSON - An aircraft carrier at war is a steel platform for the attack planes that thunder off its flight deck. It is also a floating city with people like Goose from San Diego, who toils in its belly assembling ordnance and says his job is "putting bombs on terrorists' foreheads."

In this city, Curt from Cottage Grove, Ore., regulates steam valves that power the launch catapult; he works in a room where the thermometer never dips below 99 degrees.

The job of a petty officer from New York is to kneel at the front wheel of a 69,000-pound jet that is revving, screeching and girding for war, to make sure it is hooked into a catapult. One false step and he could be sucked into its air intake vent.

As the Carl Vinson's strike jets and support planes make their runs to Afghanistan, the crew of more than 5,000 continues its work. They have a true 24/7 shift, and it is spent where the acrid smells of fuel and steam merge on deck or where weapons are readied below.

Tony from Dallas handles bombs; Antonio from Chapel Hill, N.C., is an aerospace maintenance duty officer; Marie from Huntingdon, Calif., a married mother of two, helps maintain engines on F/A-18 Hornets.

The pilot's lives are in the hands of sailors like Marie. She wears grease-stained coveralls and works in a huge bay filled with steel-gray jets.

"I'm the leading petty officer of the power plants," she said. "That's the only thing they have to keep them alive - the system in the aircraft. If we don't do our jobs right and they don't come home, we'd feel that."

Goose, a bomb assembly gunner, and his fellow bomb-makers assemble ordnance piece by piece, heavy fins emerging from 50-gallon drums, the fish-like body delivered off pallets, the nosecones pulled from metal boxes.

"That table over there isn't for playing cards," said Goose. "It's for building bombs."

It takes seven minutes to assemble a bomb.

"It's just like a Ford factory," said Chris, a chief petty officer from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "You start with metal and you add parts. ... Each person has his own job. And just like you roll a car into a showroom, this is our showroom.

"Most people think bombs come preassembled from FedEx, but they don't. All the time playing with Legos as a kid has really paid off. Business is good."

A few levels up, just beneath the flight deck, Curt from Cottage Grove and his crew work in the Fill Valve Room, regulating the steam for the takeoff catapult. They work in conditions akin to a steam bath, but revel in the power that comes with providing the energy to throw jets into the sky.

"We own the gun," Curt said. "Air guys? They own the trigger."

The trigger is on deck. It's a world of constant movement of jets, carts and people, and an almost indescribable chest-thumping noise. It's also scorching hot, the afterburners of the jets sending heat through protective vests and long-sleeve shirts worn by the crews. They sip on straws connected to water bottles at their waist.

Crew members wear different-colored shirts that mark their responsibilities: yellow for aircraft handlers, red for ordnance, green for mechanics. Plane captains who start the aircraft? Brown. Purple for fuel. White for safety. And blue for those who secure the chocks and chain the planes.

"It's very blue-collar," said the lieutenant commander who is the senior authority on deck. He's the "shooter," the person who has the final word on launching the planes. His hand signals resemble those of an umpire calling a dramatic third strike. But that is the point: He has to be seen.

"I'm kind of a showman," he said. "That is part of the objective. We have kids 18 and 19 years old working in some of the most dangerous jobs."

Of the all the tasks, the most heart-stopping belongs to a petty officer from New York who has to keep his nerve as he checks that the jets are locked onto the catapult. He comes within inches of the front wheel as it rolls slowly into place.

"The danger is, anything can happen," he said. "You can get sucked into an intake. Run into a propeller. Get grinded up."

He actually enjoys his job, even if the pay is $390 a week, before taxes.

But now, the Harlem native has extra incentive.

"Send condolences to the States," he told a visitor. "I'm a New Yorker out here handling business for New York."

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