Time of My Life, Part 8: Aircraft carrier landing . . . and takeoff!

It’s not every day that one can say you’ve landed on the deck of an aircraft carrier — and then shot off the deck via catapult.

I can make that claim. I owe it to the job I used to do as a newspaper editorial page editor and columnist.

What a rush, man!

My phone rang one morning in 1993 while I worked as editorial page editor of the Beaumont (Texas) Enterprise. On the other end of the line was the late U.S. Rep. Charles Wilson, the Lufkin Democrat who was known as “Good Time Charlie,” because of his rather rascally reputation; he enjoyed the company of women and was damn proud of his reputation.

He also was a dedicated East Texas congressman who took good care of his constituents and who was a staunch supporter of the men and women in uniform. He called to invite me to accompany him on a factfinding trip he was making to San Diego, Calif. He wanted to tour the USS Carl Vinson, a Nimitz-class nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. “Are you interested in going?” he asked. I said I would get to him. I asked my editor if I could go; he said “yes.” I called Wilson back and accepted his invitation. The newspaper made the travel arrangements. I flew to San Diego a few days later and met with Wilson at the hotel.

Wilson’s party gathered at the naval air station the next morning, boarded a turbo-prop airplane used to carry mail and supplies to the carrier, which was about 100 miles offshore on a training mission.

The COD is a sturdy aircraft. However, I have to tell you that you haven’t lived until you’ve landed on the deck of an aircraft carrier. The plane carried us toward the Carl Vinson and began its descent. It would descend in fits and starts, suddenly and occasionally violently. I thought my guts were going to fall out as the plane descended rapidly toward the deck.

Then the plane landed. It came to a sudden stop, owing to the tailhook that grabbed the cable strung across the deck.

We spent three nights aboard the Carl Vinson, visiting with pilots, deck crews, sailors who performed all manner of support tasks to support a ship carrying about 5,000 sailors and Marines.

We watched “night flight ops” with A-6 Intruders, F-14 Tomcats and FA-18 Hornets taking off and landing in the dead of night.

We walked the deck with the commander of the ship, Capt. John Payne, who told us the Carl Vinson battle group carried more explosive firepower than all the bombs dropped on all theaters during World War II. That prompted the obvious question, or so I thought, so I asked it: “Skipper, do you have nukes on board?” He looked at me and with the slightest of smiles he said, “You know I can’t answer that.” Hmm, I thought, I believe he just did.

A brief aside: In May 2011, when SEALs and CIA operatives killed Osama bin Laden, they took his corpse to the Carl Vinson, where he was given a “burial at sea.”

Then we had to leave the ship. We boarded the COD and got strapped in. To say we were fastened tightly is to commit a most-serious understatement. Yep, the flight crew made damn sure we would be fastened securely. We were instructed to watch for the hand signal when we were set to be thrown off the deck.

Then it came. The catapult threw the plane off the deck, taking us from zero to about 150 knots in about, oh, one second! I have difficulty describing the sensation for that single second. I was facing to the rear of the aircraft, so I felt my facial flesh separate from my skull — for that instant before we were airborne.

We landed safely. Gathered our gear and went our separate ways.

Suffice to say that the experience was one I’ll never forget. I cherish the time I was able to spend with servicemen and women who are trained to do dangerous work in defense of our great country. I learned a good deal about a member of Congress I already had respected and watched him show his support for our troops.

That carrier landing and catapult takeoff also were epic events.

They remain among the highlights of my life.

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