2016 NIFA Distinguished Visit with the United States Navy: An Unforgettable Ride

Article by Josh Fisher

If you are instrument rated or have received some instrument training, you probably recall studying spatial disorientation and the concept of somatogravic illusion. The concept is essentially that, without visual reference to your orientation (flying in IMC, for example), an increase in airspeed causes the sensation of pitching upward and a decrease in airspeed causes the sensation of pitching downward. Never experienced it for real? Here’s a tip: sit in one of the aft-facing seats in the cargo hold of a windowless Grumman C-2 Greyhound on approach to one of the United States Navy’s 10 aircraft carriers. Barring you are a service person, it sounds like a pipedream, right? About one year ago, I and 15 other representatives of the National Intercollegiate Flying Association thought so, too.

Several months before the start of SAFECON 2016, a plan came together for 16 representatives of NIFA to be the guests of the United States Navy on a Distinguished Visit (DV) aboard the USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70), a Nimitz Class, nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. The plan was put together mostly by Captain Darryl Stubbs (ret.), former NIFA Senior Chief Judge and Naval aviator. A DV is a public relations visit which hosts representatives from large organizations such as educational institutions, corporations, community/industry leadership organizations, and others. The goal of a DV is to give these reps the chance to learn, via firsthand experience, the importance of the United States Navy and its personnel, equipment, and mission so that they may share this education with the communities they impact. As NIFA is an organization which seeks to enrich collegiate aviators through excellence in education, skill, and professionalism, the Navy saw our visit as an excellent opportunity to reach a very valuable population of individuals.

Representatives of NIFA on the DV were:

Eric Barton, NIFA Council
Peter Bro, Future of Flight Foundation
Emily Coaker, NIFA Judge
Josh Fisher, NIFA Judge
Josh Ganshert, NIFA Judge
Virginia Harmer, NIFA Judge
Erich Hess, NIFA Senior Chief Judge
Spencer Hyatt, NIFA Judge
Dom Landolfi, NIFA Senior Judge
Jason McDowell, NIFA Judge
Rob Numbers, NIFA Judge
Ryan Perrin, NIFA Judge
Nate Schmidt, NIFA Judge
Adam Stiffler, NIFA Dir. of Comm.
Jared Testa, NIFA Council
Scott Vlasek, NIFA Council

The NIFA DV assembled at Naval Air Station North Island in San Diego, CA on June 5th, 2016. We departed North Island at approximately 2:00 PM PST aboard a US Navy Grumman C-2A Greyhound number 162145 operated by Fleet Logistics Support Squadron 30 (VRC-30), also known as the “Providers.” The C-2 is a twin turbo-prop, high-wing, cargo aircraft designed to carry supplies, mail, and passengers to and from aircraft carriers. This mission is known as Carrier Onboard Delivery (COD), and the Greyhound is more commonly referred to as the “Cod.” When configured for passengers, the Cod features aft-facing seats in order to increase survivability in a hard landing or crash. Sitting in the seat next to me was NIFA Senior Chief Judge Erich Hess. The combination of our cranial protection, double hearing protection, and the two roaring Allison T56-A-425 turboprops made conversation virtually impossible, however we did exchange a quick grin and thumbs up.

The take-off and 45 minute flight to the ship were comparable to a typical airline flight, minus the peanuts, windows, and comfort. About the somatogravic illusion…with no outside visual reference, the rapid deceleration on approach to the carrier felt to us as if the aircraft were pitching more than 20 degrees nose-up (the opposite of sitting forward). About thirty seconds before touchdown, the crew members in the aft cabin raised their arms and shouted, “Here we go! Here we go! Here we go!” to signal to us that the arrested landing was imminent. The props were running high, and we could hear the engines adjusting power frequently and somewhat erratically at times. This was normal. The anticipation of touchdown was almost overwhelming. All of a sudden, “SLAM!” For a split second, it was a normal landing. The engines ran up to full power in anticipation of a bolter (missed cable) and, less than a second after touchdown, we felt our bodies being pressed into our seats by the massive deceleration of a carrier landing. Good Trap! Cheers erupted from all of us! The first sight of the deck was perhaps one of the most memorable sights of the trip. The aft cargo doors opened and the sight of a Boeing F/A-18E Super Hornet nosing straight toward us, steam from the catapults, crew members sharply doing their various jobs, and the blue backdrop of the Pacific immediately immersed us in the Navy environment. Welcome aboard the USS Carl Vinson!

We immediately disembarked the Cod and proceeded below deck to the Captain’s hospitality cabin where we were greeted by Lieutenant Commander David Bennett, Public Affairs Officer (PAO). Lcdr. Bennett oversaw our entire visit aboard the ship. Shortly after our arrival, we were welcomed aboard by CVN-70 Executive Officer (XO) Captain Eric Anduze and Commanding Officer (CO) Captain Doug Verissimo. I should mention that we arrived onboard the ship during carrier qualifications. In other words, we weren’t the only aircraft operating on the Carl Vinson that day. Dozens of fresh Super Hornet pilots were getting their first attempts at landing their aircraft on the deck since they left the T-45 trainers. The Captain’s cabin was only about a deck below the flight deck. Therefore, if a jet landed on the carrier or got shot off the catapult, you knew about it. During Captain Verissimo’s welcome, I distinctly remember the ear-to-ear grin on Hess’s face as an F-18 hit the deck. Captain Verissimo mentioned one very important note about our visit in closing his welcoming remarks. He told us that, over the next 24 hours, we would meet the ship’s crew and learn that they were “truly a cross-section of America.” He was definitely right. I could write volumes about the experiences we had aboard CVN-70 in only 24 hours. It was a sensory overload in every sense of the phrase. Of course, there were highlights, so I will describe some of them for you.

Immediately after meeting the Captain, we re-donned our protective gear and proceeded for a tour of the flight deck. The ACTIVE flight deck. Split into two groups, we spent aproximately 15 minutes in each of two stations. One station had us toward the stern of the ship standing roughly 15 yards from the touchdown zone where the arresting cables are located. As it was carrier qualifications, a Super Hornet trapped the cables in front of us every few minutes. Occasionally, it was an EA-18 Growler. The aircraft recognition aficionados on the DV (myself, Jason McDowell, and Jared Testa) made sure to notice. It was truly awesome to stand so close to the action. Emily Coaker and I made sure to get each other’s picture posing with a landing jet in the background. Standing next to the runway with Super Hornets in the pattern…now that’s exhilarating! Little did the pilots know, they were landing in front of NIFA judges. There were no complaints from G card.

The second station was up toward the bow next to the main catapults. I have one word for you: afterburners. As you might know, Navy jets (with the exception of some more modern aircraft) set full afterburner prior to catapult launch from the deck. In the case of the Super Hornet, it’s full military power (maximum thrust without afterburner). You have never known the definition of the words rumble and roar until you’ve stood ten yards from two General Electric F414 engines at max power. A few pre-launch checks and then SHOOT! Zero to 140 knots in two seconds. Later that evening, we would have the chance to observe both take-offs and landings under cover of night, which was a sight only to be described as spectacular.

We also had the opportunity to observe flight deck operations from above. From that I can tell you this: you will never observe a more harsh work environment. Jet blast everywhere, props turning, rotors spinning, aircraft moving, high winds, deafening noise; the flight deck seems like unpredictable chaos, and yet the sailors running it seem to move like the gears inside a finely constructed watch. I saw one sailor turn around, duck underneath an advancing wing’s leading edge, spin 270 degrees, lunge forward to dodge the horizontal stabilizor, and shield from the jet blast as the aircraft turned. It’s so finely tuned that it almost seems…safe. The job training must be intense. What’s even more intense is the trust between deck crews and flight crews. The safety of each depends on clear, accurate signalling and 100% flawless judgement and execution.

Much of the visit included touring the many departments and crew spaces below deck. No, we did not get to see the reactor room. I asked, half-joking, and likely have my own dedicated satellite at the NSA as a consequence. We saw crew quarters, the hospital, recreational facilities, emergency response equipment, the hangars, wards and messes, aircraft maintenance, and even the bridge! What was truly incredible during those tours was meeting the officers and sailors. From their hometowns to their hobbies, we learned so much about dozens of the thousands of people aboard the ship. Some especially stood out.

Ryan Perrin happened to run into someone he knew as we toured the ship. Brett Jakovich, a friend of his with whom he had competed on the University of North Dakota Flying Team back in 2005-2008, is now an instructor pilot in the F-18. That just goes to prove that it doesn’t matter if you’re at a regional airport in the middle of nowhere or floating on a 100,000 ton hunk of metal in the Pacific Ocean; you will always find yourself reuniting with your old teammates and fellow NIFA competitors throughout your career. Our community reaches across every facet of the aviation world.

A distinctive experience which I had while aboard the ship was drinking coffee in the officer’s ward with the ship’s nurse. That is, the ship’s ONLY nurse. While deployed, the total complement of the ship can exceed 6,000 people. She informed me that, aside from herself, the medical staff is about 25 people including one nurse and one physician. If that doesn’t amaze you and put a knot in your stomach at the same time, you’re not thinking about it enough. She and I had a very enjoyable conversation, and I learned about her family in Virginia and how she looked forward to seeing her son and daughter again, soon.

Let me ask you this: how did you sleep last night? Have you ever slept one deck below an active aircraft carrier flight deck during night ops? We did. Our rooms were truly one deck below and only a matter of yards aft of the main catapults. Once every few minutes, the roar of an F-18 preparing for launch would fill the cabin with noise which I can only compare to the sound of sleeping under Niagara Falls.  Needless to say, getting to sleep was difficult. Also needless to say, we really didn’t mind all that much.

Day two aboard Carl Vinson involved breakfast as guests of Command Master Chief Martin Barnholtz, followed by more below-deck tours. We also got the chance to perform a FOD check of the entire flight deck alongside several hundred sailors. All lined up, we walked a snail’s pace from bow to stern to the sound of Luke Bryan blaring over the superstructure loud speaker. No debris was too small to be picked up. Being that operations were not to start for a few hours, we had a chance to freely walk about the deck, enjoy the calm atmosphere, and take some pictures. It was a gray overcast day with a stiff, cool breeze. I tried to imagine the deck during flight ops in the middle of a storm and rough seas. I don’t know that I would even want to see that.

Day two was departure day. The anticipation of a catapult launch began building in all of us about two months before we even left for San Diego. I should remind you that, in the Cod, passengers sit facing aft. Imagine yourself strapped into a seat that suddenly and instantly accelerates backwards at about 120 knots. You do not get pushed into your seat. The acceleration forces now try to throw you out of it. As you would hope, we received a fairly detailed safety briefing prior to departure. The sailors prepped us with what I would describe as “tips and tricks to getting through a cat-shot unscathed.” PAO Lcdr. Bennett told us that the intensity of a cat-shot to the uninitiated is “so great that you’ll be begging for it to stop and, as soon as you reach that point, it will be done.” I can’t speak for all of us, but I was pumped! Having put on our safety gear, we left the briefing room and proceeded, single-file, out to the flight deck and onto the Cod. Strapped in, the door closed on our final view of Carl Vinson and the blue Pacific. Taxi to the catapult was fairly quick. A bump here, a knock there and we were hooked up to the catapult. The engines ran up to max. The pre-launch checks began and the minute to follow felt like an hour. All of a sudden, “HERE WE GO! HERE WE GO! HERE WE GO!” We knew what that meant. I leaned forward into my harness as much as I could to avoid being thrown. My hands gripped the loops on my harness. Ten seconds. For the smallest split second, it was if we were merely rolling. Then it really hit. The most extreme force I have ever felt sent us rocketing down the catapult. Muscles tensing, legs being pressed into the crossbar of the seat in front of me, the feeling was intense! Then, as if by the flip of a switch, it was over. Cheers again erupted from all of us. One or two of us may have even shouted, “Again! Again!” A little less than an hour flight went by and we were back in San Diego.

How can you sum up an experience like that? Like I said before, it was sensory overload and I could probably write ten more articles to describe it. We got to experience something that less than a thousand civilians get to experience each year. That’s a very tiny sample of the population; a privilege and honor, as well. Here are my big take-aways:

  1. The men and women of the United States Military are some of the hardest working, most dedicated people I have ever met. They make great sacrifices to do their jobs and we should all feel comfortable and secure knowing that they are there. I believe they are the best of us.
  2. Becoming a Naval Aviator is an incredible feat. The training involved and the discipline required in order to achieve that level is likely unmatched. I do believe, however, that the NIFA competitor who truly dedicates themselves to advancing their education, bolstering their commitment to safety, achieving the highest level of professionalism, and giving their true, best effort 100% of the time exhibits the exact qualities that are sought by ALL aviation organizations, including the military.
  3. Being involved with NIFA means being a part of a vast, yet distinct community. You will find that NIFA extends past the test room, past the hangar, and past the landings box. NIFA will reverberate throughout your career as you continuously reunite with your fellow teammates and competitors in the places you least expect. You, therefore, carry beyond SAFECON a responsibility to this community to strengthen its bonds, lead by example in the industry, and serve as a model for tomorrow’s competitor.

I can safely say, and I do believe I speak for my fellow representatives, that my experience as a Distinguished Visitor of the United States Navy was one of the most incredible things I have experienced in my life. It was one of those things that you never thought you would ever do, and that you still cannot believe happened long after it has passed. The thing is, I have learned that this feeling is common when you are affiliated with NIFA. Being part of this community means being a leader, being a steward, and, every once in a while, being lucky. Thank you, Captain Stubbs, for orchestrating this experience for NIFA! Oh, and one last thing….GO NAVY!