Wednesday, August 10, 2011 3:20 AM

Carrier: The frenzy of the flight deck

Pick up a clam. Hurl it into the water. That's a bit like landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln. In seats facing the plane's tail. Most of the additional G forces slamming you, caused by the plane's hook grabbing one of the carrier's cables, dissipated by having your back plastered against the seat frame.

I was the first of 15 clams to step down four feet from the twin-prop C-2 (COD) cargo bay and into the tornado known as the flight deck, as disorienting and sensory-overloading as the first viewing of "Apocalypse Now."

Gust of white steam from jets being catapaulted. Clusters of goggled faces in different colored jerseys. Helicopters. Fire crews in silver togs. In the hours ahead, those of us who were part of the Navy's Distinguished Visitors program would hear the flight deck described as a place where there's a hundred ways to die, where a couple of hundred highly trained sailors perform a ballet that results in eliminating a threat or providing delivery of humanitarian aid to victims of a catastrophe.

During our 22 hours aboard, the weather was fair and the seas mild. What we saw and experienced would have had hundreds of exclamation points -- and risks -- in any other weather moment, let alone under fire.

  • Standing yards away from the launch of an F-18 Hornet, the explosion of energy flailed every fleck of skin and neuron in our bodies. My knees buckled; behind goggles, my eyes watered; 2 sets of ear protection as words aren't used on the deck -- replaced by gestures, tugs and shoves.
  • From "Vultures Row" -- the control tower or "island" command center -- there was the windswept wildness of nightime landings as pilots, including from Lemoore Naval Air Station, tried to secure "carrier qualification." Out of the dark, a set of lights appears and then a whirlwind of sound on a sea-rocked speck of dry surface. Some will miss the wire and circle back -- again and again. A E-2C Hawkeye, a two-propeller communications/surveillance craft with a circular radar dome, will make four tries before landing -- each miss leaving a cascade of sparks dancing from its scraping hook.
  • And, in one of life's most surreal experiences, on a Sunday morning with nearly all jets having gone, we stand on the flight deck as Internet celebrity Matt "Dancing Matt" Harding leads a dance of 50 sailors, riffing off the hand gestures they use to communicate with pilots, for a You Tube video -- even as copters take off and land at other ends of the ship.

The Lincoln -- a billion-dollar-plus maze of mind-boggling complexity.  The Lincoln -- 4,500 sailors, aviators, Marines, where the average age is 21. It's always about the people, and I'll be talking more about what they do and have to say in the days ahead.

(This is the second in a series of blogs about my 22-hour embarkation on the Lincoln in the Pacific.)