39 years ago

I ran across the movie Top Gun on Amazon and started playing it.  I'm certain that I see an entirely different movie than most of the people who watch it.  I was commissioned an Ensign in the Surface Navy 39 years ago this month and about the time they were releasing Top Gun I was driving a ship in what is known as plane guard position behind a carrier in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.  It was, as is much of ship driving, hours of tedium interrupted by moments of terror.  

The flight deck of an aircraft carrier is angled 9 degrees from centerline to maximize the length of the landing zone.  Off the starboard quarter (9 degrees off) of the carrier at all times during flight ops is a ship three thousand yards away.  The carrier is making speed to get 30 knots of wind over the bow and straight down that angled deck and the only thing they care about is getting that wind right, launching and retrieving all the jets.  They assume that the ship off their starboard quarter will stay in position regardless of maneuvers and stay the hell out of the way if they decide to do something weird as aviators are prone to do.  The USS Evans found out the hard way that inattention has consequences when they were nearly cut in half by the HMAS Melborne.

I spent a lot of hours on the bridge driving the ship as it stood off the starboard quarter of one carrier or another.  The F-14's would use our ship as a line up for the final approach so we'd have them screaming right over our mast at what seemed to be just barely clearing it when they were landing.  And we would visually follow them into the wire they snagged on the deck.  The flights always started late afternoon so that they planes could do as many touch and go take off and landings as possible when the sun was just barely down but before it got too dark.  They would get credit for a night touch and go even though it was still dusk.  And all pilots had to meet minimums of those.  As a result we sat there in the exact spot with as little variance as possible from sunset until it was well dark and the aviators were done.  It was a light show like few others I've ever seen.  Carrier lights and lights on the jets the blue of the exhaust exploding as they hit full throttle just as they landed.

At that range it feels like the carrier is right in front of the ship perilously close.  The radio is tuned to the carrier's tower so we could hear if the pilots were in trouble.  Our job was to pull them out of the water if they went in so there was always this feeling of tension in the ship as we had to be ready at a moment's notice.  In the back of everyone's mind while they did all the other duties required of maintaining the entire bubble was a list of actions they would be required to perform.  Everyone rehearsed all the time what they would do if they heard a plane was down. 

There are a thousand things happening all the time and the ship is full of 20 something kids all with their critical part in the dance.  And that is just a routine day at sea.  Nothing special at all.  I miss it all the time.  

I miss the uniform too.  I looked good in the uniform.


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