Partners Experience Navy Life Aboard the USS Stennis

November 30, 2015

Imagine the adrenaline coursing through your body as you are strapped into a Navy cargo aircraft flying across the ocean, preparing to land on the USS Stennis aircraft carrier. It is one of the largest warships in the world, but is it large enough? There is no backing out as you get closer to the carrier; then, suddenly, the aircraft lowers quickly toward the carrier. You hear the sound of steel on steel as the tailhook on the aircraft makes contact with the flight deck; your mind races, wondering if the pilot has caught one of the four arresting wires stretched across the ship's deck. Instead of the aircraft slowing, it accelerates; all you can hear is the roar of the engines as they are pushed to full power (can that be right?). You experience that moment caught in time where you and your seat are one, the air gone from your lungs…the aircraft is fighting both forces and finally, finally you open your eyes and breathe. In the matter of only two seconds, you have landed in the middle of the ocean on the USS John C. Stennis Nimitz Class aircraft carrier.
Two of our partners, Ken Dugas and Brandy Marrou, joined William Berg, Brent Lathrop, Lucie Osborn, and Charles Tyler from our community, all of whom were invited to participate in the Distinguished Visitors (DV) Embark Program aboard the USS John C. Stennis, hosted by the Commander, Naval Air Forces Distinguished Visitors Embark Program. As a DV, the group got a rare first-hand look at life aboard an aircraft carrier and witnessed the pride and professionalism of our young men and women who serve our country at sea.

The DVs began their adventure in Coronado Island, San Diego where they flew out of Naval Air Station North Island on a Navy C-2 Greyhound Cargo Aircraft. After a relatively short flight, the group arrived on the flight deck of the USS Stennis following an arrested landing. The group was on board the carrier approximately 24 hours, during which time they observed day and night flight operations while on deck and from Vulture's Row (a balcony platform with a view of the entire flight deck); toured the ship's command, air traffic control, and combat direction centers; walked amongst the various aircraft secured within the hangar bay; slept in the berthing compartments; and had the privilege of dining with the sailors in three different mess halls. The group also observed a fire-fighting drill, in which Ken Dugas (far left) and William Berg (far right) participated.

Dinner was with top brass, breakfast was with petty officers, and lunch was with junior enlisted sailors with six months to three years of service; these interactions provided the DVs a nice mix of exposure to the crew. Ken shared, "I've been asked many times what impressed me the most.  There were so many experiences that left impressions on me and you might think that my answer would be my experience of a tailhook landing when we arrived or the catapult launch when we departed.  Actually, what I enjoyed the most, and what has left the most memorable impression, were the conversations I had during the three meals with the officers and crew of the Stennis.  I was so impressed with the young men and women serving our country and keeping us safe.  Their energy, dedication, and commitment to their personal growth and development in service to their country was amazing."

The DVs slept in small rooms furnished with two bunks, closets, dressers, a sink, and a television. There was no cell service so cell phones could only be used for taking pictures. The sailors had similar rooms furnished for six; typically, they work alternating work shifts – three in, three out. The carrier was filled with noise…a constant loud noise. Brandy shared, "Even while sleeping, we were immersed in the experience.  The women's quarters were located directly below the flight deck, and the flight crews conducted flight exercises well into the early morning hours. I could hear (and feel) the catapult release, brake, and retract on every launch. As a mother of young children, I am no stranger to a night of interrupted sleep; however, that is nothing compared to what the crew endures each and every night."  She continued, "During our time aboard the USS Stennis, we were inundated with information. The one statistic that impacted me the most was when we were told that the average age of the carrier's crew was 23. These young men and women are the driving force behind the aircraft carrier's operations and they bear tremendous responsibilities, all of which they perform while away from the comforts of home and their loved ones. I was in awe of their commitment and dedication.  The 24 hours I spent aboard the USS Stennis was one of the most amazing, humbling, and inspiring experiences of my life."

The Stennis is one of 10 Nimitz Class Aircraft Carriers existing today, which are the largest warships in the world, designed for 50 years of service with one midlife refueling. It was deployed in 1975 and is scheduled to be retired in 2025. The carrier is three football fields long, has two nuclear reactors and cost $4.5 billion.  Basically, the Stennis is a floating city and has a capacity for 6,500 officers and crew (including the embarked airwing) bigger than Wheatland (3,461), slightly smaller than Torrington (6,757). It has its own water, sewer, sanitation, power plant, airport, police and fire departments, several eating establishments, a health club, convenience stores, etc. These Nimitz Class Aircraft Carriers will eventually be replaced by the Gerald Ford Class Aircraft Carriers beginning in 2016.

After Ken's and Brandy's experiences and their observations of the operations of an aircraft carrier, it is obvious that these embarks provide unique opportunities to foster awareness and understanding of the role of carrier aviation, as well as demonstrate the high-level training required to keep our Sailors ready to meet the nation's needs.