Standing on That Ship
The summer of my seventh year, I was babysat by a VHS tape of Top Gun.
My mom tells me now that I watched it three times a day, for 30 days straight.
Why? Well, my mom tells me she loved the break. That was the only way she could find some quiet. Without Top Gun, I was a tornado in the house.
Why did I love Top Gun so much? I rewatched it again, recently, and I can’t quite tell you why I was so mesmerized as a seven year old. I had watched the recorded-from-the-television-live “edited for television” version, including the commercials for Bob’s Furniture Warehouse and the occasional forget-to-start-recording-after-the-commercial-break, so it wasn’t the romance or complete plot line that kept me captivated.
At seven, I felt that what I saw in Top Gun is what men did when they grew up. Jets are cool. The military? Hard and unknown. They experienced loss. Camaraderie. The message to me was clear: this is what you can do for your country and the world.
That seven-year-old would have been blown away by the day I spent on the USS Nimitz in March of 2022. He would have been so proud of the people I met on that aircraft carrier. He would have been amazed that those people he watched on his tiny television, over and over again, are real. All day long, he would have said — as I did — this is unbelievable.
Through some random happenstance, I was put on the list for the overnight Distinguished Visitor embark aboard the aircraft carrier, USS Nimitz, in 2022.
I’m not sure who put me in. That part isn’t significant. Typically, the people who attend this program are college professors who write their research on naval warfare. Legislative representatives. Police officers. City council members. PR people. The press.
I’ve always loved the Navy in particular, aviation in general. I’m an aviation nerd. Actually, I’m pretty much a nerd about everything.
Invite me somewhere to experience your world? I’ll be there.
So of course I said yes.
On March 11, 2022, I arrived at the appointed place, outside of San Diego, at 6 am. There, I met the other people who were in the visitation group, since we all had to take COVID tests at the same time. When the tests were definitively negative, we jumped in a van. They shuttled us to a military training facility.
When we arrived, I realized we were at Naval Base Coronado, where the original Top Gun had been filmed.
At the base, we listened to a lecture about the Navy and their mission.
“What does the Navy do? We provide pressure. If you want to fight the US, we’ll do it at your house. Within 7 days, we can have a warship within 98% of the world’s population.
If you need us to put a warhead on a forehead, we can do it.”
That means that the pressure the Navy could put on a situation — thanks to their incredible training and precise movements — gave other countries 5 days to negotiate a solution to their problems, before an aircraft carrier arrived in international waters outside the country.
I’d never thought of the Navy’s capabilities that way before.
Finally, we were outside. Soon, we’d be flying to the USS Nimitz, which was stationed in the ocean 115 miles from San Diego. (I’m not releasing classified information. You can find it on many ship tracking websites.)
Someone handed me a thick helmet and goggles. We were standing on a military tarmac, looking at a c2 Greyhound plane, a passenger-only plane, meant to hold 18 people.
As we boarded from the back of the plane, passing through the jet wash from the engines, I realized that this aircraft had not been constructed for our comfort. We sat turned away from the front of the plane. Everything around us was metal. There were no windows visible from my seat.
We were all wearing hard gear protection on top of our clothes. My lungs were filled with the fumes of jet wash that remained in the cabin. I quickly strapped myself into a floatation device and 5-point harness.
As soon as we started moving down the tarmac, hydraulic fuel dripped on me and my goggles.
The noise of the aircraft was almost unbearably loud, even with 2 layers of ear protection and a helmet. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t request assistance. I had to put all my trust in the people flying the plane.
I was fully out of control.
Normally, I’m a pretty even-keeled, cheerful guy. But as soon as that aircraft started taxiing on the runway, I started having a panic attack.
I started putting all my energy into meditative breathing, keeping myself away from the edge of total panic.
We’re going to land when we’re going to land. You can rely on these people.
I had wanted to make this flight almost more than anything I had ever wanted in the world. My entire body had been excited to make this hour and twenty-minute flight. But in that particular moment, I was terrified.
I could feel in my body that we were losing altitude. The plane was starting to engage. I had to let go and trust.
When the plane landed, it went from 180 mph to 0 in 3 seconds. The goggles jolted forward in space, but when we came to a stop, they slapped back on my head. I experienced 3 seconds of not being able to control my body because of the G forces. The wings of the Greyhound folded and we taxied out of the active runway.
I breathed out and looked around. Holy shit. I made it.
I don’t think I’ll ever do that again.
When they opened the back door of the aircraft, I stepped out and took a big breath. Then, I realized that everywhere around me was the Pacific Ocean. I was on an island, 60 feet above the water level, traveling at 30 knots.
This island was an active aircraft carrier, the most dangerous 485 square yards in the world.
We were standing on the tarmac of the USS Nimitz. There was no way off this ship until they flew us home. Back at the base, they warned us that — in case of an unexpected declaration of war — we would be on the Nimitz for the next couple of months. If the ship was called into duty, we’d be going with them.
For the moment, though, we were low-level tourists. People wearing helmets and uniforms pointed to us and told us where to go, above the din of the ocean and the aircraft. Someone took our bags and unpacked them in our rooms for the night. It was one of the wildest stays I’ve ever experienced.
We made our way through the maze of hallways and rooms to the Captain’s quarters. He officially welcomed us to the ship. It was so impressive, so rehearsed. Everything was done with excellence.
I had to keep reminding myself, “This is not an air show, Andrew. We’re visiting an active training facility for snipers. We’re surrounded by people who are trained to kill.”
Over that day and the next, we saw every department on that ship that’s accessible to visitors.
In Top Gun, there’s a room with a red light, filled with the smoke of cigars. I spent time in that room. The room is filled with ways to track any threats to the ship. Everyone in there was quoting lines from the movie and I was quoting them back. No pictures were allowed as we watched the sailors track any aircraft within 50 miles of the ship.
As the navigation officer told us, “First, we make contact. Then we use strong language. Then, if it gets closer, we use loud, strong language. Then we send up some of our coworkers to have an in-person conversation.”
(In this case, an “in-person conversation” meant that the Nimitz would send a F-18 armed with missiles to that aircraft.)
The Nimitz can sleep 5000 people. And it can go around the world without ever refueling, because it’s powered by its own nuclear reactor. It can sail forever on its own power. The only thing it needs is food for the crew (it can desalinate its own water too).
Every meal on the ship was split up into a different area depending on the rank and team of servicemen. We were seated at the captain’s table for dinner one night hosted by Captain Joshua Wenker. We had a beautifully presented four course meal. We ate breakfast with the enlisted sailors whose food was more on the college dorm cafeteria side of the fine dining spectrum. The main warning on food was about sodium levels. It seemed like the kitchens were straight out of the 1980s (to be fair the ship was christened on May 13, 1972).
It was hard for me to eat there, since I have celiac. No one with a food allergy or autoimmune disorder involving food is allowed to join the Navy. I was told that’s because in a time of war, the Navy needs to feed people in distant locations, with whatever is available. They can’t feed someone with a limited diet.
So, they did our best with the food options and I had no issues.
When I say we saw every department, I mean every department. At one point, we toured the outdoor fitness center next to the engine repair bay and the fire fighting operation.
The Nimitz has a team of doctors and dentists, ready for anyone on board who needs help. We talked with the chaplains, who seemed a little disappointed by the general lack of interest in religion on board. They weren’t impressed by my interest in psychedelics. I didn’t meet anyone who was there to help the sailors with their mental health, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. The Nimitz even has its own court.
It’s clear to me that anything you could find in a small city was on the Nimitz. But this is a city built for one purpose.
At some point, we were allowed to sit in the Captain’s chair. I have a photo of me smiling a big grin. It was an honor.
I learned that the Nimitz was deployed longer than any other aircraft carrier during COVID, because no one on the ship caught it. So they were on that ship, without being able to leave it, for a full year. That was the longest deployment of any Naval ship since the Vietnam War.
There was no intimacy or alcohol allowed for a year.
The Captain, Craig C. Sicola, worked as the Captain of the Nimitz all that time. He, and the rest of the sailors, had to be on duty to launch and land aircrafts, including pilot training and building experience for pilots and the crew, 7 days a week. There is no off time on an active ship.
During the day, we stood on the flight deck and watched flights coming in and landing. I could feel the jet wash. I could feel the heat. I could feel the insane decibels hit my body.
That night, we stood in the flight tower. I watched the ocean and the jets landing in the darkness. When they were coming in, the jets were flying across the Milky Way, visible in the sky.
The experience that mesmerized me was watching these aircraft — with names like Hornets, Growlers, and Hawkeyes — take off and land on a 300-foot strip on top of the aircraft carrier.
These were training missions. These pilots were young — 26 or 27 — and they had to be trained for fending off enemy missiles fired from enemy aircraft. So they have to practice, again and again, over and over, all day long. They were coached before each takeoff and coached again after landing. Always, always learning more and preparing for war.
Each of those aircraft had an extended hook attached to its tail. Each pilot landed by attaching that hook to one of four wires on the strip, with about 50 feet of distance between them all.
(Wires isn’t really the right word. These were thick, sturdy cables of high-tensile steel wire.)
These wires stretched across the deck. Their ends were connected to cylinders below the deck. Whenever a pilot caught one of those cables with the tailhook of the plane, the hydraulic system below the deck arrested the movement of the jet immediately. This system can stop a jet going 180 miles an hour in 2 seconds.
I couldn’t take my eyes off this. It would have terrified me to fly that jet. But these young pilots aimed for the third wire and hit it almost every time. And then they went out and did it again.
On takeoff, the pilots relied on a team of people who stood on the tarmac and signaled them when to go. I watched the pilots stay alert, not knowing when they’d have to take off. They had as little control as I did as a passenger in the plane that brought us to the ship. Those pilots had to be thoroughly trained and not question anything. When the safety checks were all complete, then they were signaled to launch. A track attached to the hydraulic catapult system pushed the aircraft to the edge, where it took flight.
The team on the Nimitz launch aircraft 364 days a year. It’s such dangerous work. But they are prepared. They are ready. They have to be.
They need to work as a team. They must.
Seeing the teamwork it takes to run that ship impressed the hell out of me.
The one-pointed focus of the entire aircraft carrier was so moving to me that at one point I asked how I could come back and help. “Well, you can enlist.” was the answer from anyone I asked.
The next afternoon, we boarded the same plane we had taken in. The front of the plane was attached to the catapult system, which propels the jet forward and increases the speed of the jet from 0 to 180 miles an hour in less than 2 ½ seconds. I felt an amazing pressure as we took off, and then this beautiful moment of wind beneath the wings as we flew away. It’s the experience of a roller coaster, the most insane roller coaster you could ever imagine that will ruin any actual roller coaster you might ever ride.
This time, knowing what to expect, I didn’t have a panic attack. Being on an aircraft carrier and watching every person there do a job that contributed to the team effort, from cooking and cleaning to flying the jets? That was probably the source of my calm. Every person on the Nimitz gave up some control to be there. But their joint effort kept that small city floating on the sea running as it was designed.
When we landed on North Island, I took off my helmet and climbed out of the plane. We touched land and I took a big breath.
That was quite the adventure, such a beautiful and weird, out-of-body experience.
The boy who watched Top Gun every day was thrilled to be on that ship. But for the adult who grew up to be an ardent pacifist? It was a bizarre experience to realize that some of the people I met were trained assassins.
It’s my habit to talk to everyone I meet. I genuinely want to know what they think and how they see the world. On the Nimitz, I had a super lovely conversation with a 22-year-old about electric bikes and the future of electric vehicles. It was a thoughtful, nuanced conversation. He also happened to be rebuilding a jet engine while we talked.
I asked the hard questions to the sailors too, questions about war and being willing to fight for their country. Frankly, I expected some jingoism or narrow thinking. But they didn’t flinch. Every one of them had tough questions about the US culture and government.
They weren’t hungry to kill.
They were hungry to do their jobs.
They were trying to do the job they were supposed to do.
Honestly, I have ultimate respect for what they’re doing.
After that trip, I realized there are so many democracies still standing because of that ship. There are geopolitical wars that aren’t being fought because of those ships. Even though so many on board that ship were trained to go to war at any time, they’re preventing wars.
I’m grateful. This is one of my biggest joys in the world, a joy I know most people can’t access. I love to get into a world and just look at it.
I crave adventures that let me enter a culture I don’t know and watch what’s at the heart of it. I always emerge with respect for that world. Reverence, even.
What a fascinating time.
Thanks to everyone that made this possible.