U.S. Carrier USS George Washington: A Boy’s Dream Come True

U.S. Carrier USS George Washington: A Boy’s Dream Come True

By Dialogo
December 01, 2015

Today, at fifty years old, I can be considered a gentleman, but I was a boy during the days of the Cold War. The son of an NCO in the Marine Corps, viscerally anti-Communist, who accompanied the rivalry between East and West, and always had the apprehension that someday we would see each other across a conflict where an offensive conventional power action from the great Soviet Union could drag us to a nuclear war. At sea, the former Soviet Union had a vast number of surface ships with cruise missiles, speedboats with guided anti-ship and submarine missiles, both conventional and nuclear, with which it could threaten all sea lanes of the world, including those in South America.

In this context, where Soviet influence was a clear threat, the U.S. Navy aircraft carriers were admired and seen as deterrence, able to make the communists think twice about embarking on any adventure. This boy, an enthusiastic reader of the yearly Jane's
publications and of magazines such as Proceedings
and All Hands,
repeatedly watched several movies about aircraft carriers such as The Wings of Eagles
(John Wayne) The Bridges at Toko-Ri
(William Holden) The Final Countdown
(which was shown in Brazilian theaters under the title Nimitz - Back to Hell
) and finally Top Gun,
could not imagine that someday he would have the opportunity to experience some of the actions aboard one of those great and fantastic ships.

Although my interest in military affairs did not lead me to work in the military, it eventually connected me to one of the oldest and most prestigious publications on defense in Brazil, and on November 18, as a guest of the Media Center of the Brazilian Navy representing Segurança & Defesa
Magazine, I climbed aboard the USS George Washington nuclear aircraft carrier that led the U.S. Navy fleet which has been operating together with the Brazilian Navy for the 56th edition of Operation UNITAS.

Boarding for Media Day took place at the Galeão Air Base in Rio de Janeiro, a place that is known and always pleasant to the boys who, like me, studied in the Brazilian Air Force’s Brigadeiro Newton Braga School in the neighborhood of Ilha do Governador. Parked on the tarmac at Galeão, besides the two U.S. Navy C-2 Greyhounds, were two Ospreys V-22, a brand new P-8 Poseidon, a Brazilian Airforce P-3AM Orion, and a Peruvian Navy F-27 Maritime Patrol.

Before boarding, the guests were briefed by Captain Tom Gordy, who discussed naval maneuvers, the aircraft carrier, its air component, as well as a description of what the visit would entail. We boarded the Spartan C-2 for more than two hours to meet up with the U.S. aircraft carrier located on the South Atlantic, about 70 km from the southern coast of Brazil.

Landing on an aircraft carrier is cause for great expectations. In fact, the overwhelming majority of those aboard the aircraft, Brazilians and Americans alike, were landing on an aircraft carrier for the first time in their lives. And after flying for so long in that double-tailed aircraft without windows and with unusual back facing seats, everyone was curious about the experience of landing, being hooked, and stopping on a flight deck. Landing was "soft," and while the locking hook at the stop cable is something you can feel, the jolt was fully offset by the four-point belt that held us into the seats. The vision of rear ramp opening and taxiing on to the ship's flight deck was a spectacular scene.

As their brethren of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, the USS George Washington is a floating city with over 3,360 rooms and 97,000 tons displacement. It is 332 m long and 76 m wide; its nuclear reactors can propel it at speeds over 30 knots and allow it to cover about 800 km in a single day.

It measures 74 m from keel to top (only its control "island" measures about 46 m from the bottom to the top of the mast). It can accommodate about 5,000 people and can hold up to 80 aircraft. Its engines can operate for 20 years without refueling. Usually, the defense of an aircraft carrier is left to its ships, escort submarines and their aircraft; yet the USS George Washington also has two anti-aircraft missile octuplet Sea-Sparrow launchers, two anti-aircraft missiles / missile RAM launchers, three Vulcan Phalanx guns, and several machine guns to guard the ship against asymmetric threats in port areas.

Once on board the ship, we went to a reception room for visitors where we were introduced to the Public Relations officer who would guide us throughout the visit, Captain Lara Bollinger, and a couple of Brazilian-born sailors that would serve as our interpreters.

Then, Captain Timothy C. Kuehhas, the commander of the USS George Washington, came to talk with us. He praised the professionalism of the crews of different ships involved and emphasized that UNITAS is important in developing the coordination capacity between the different forces to overcome any difficulties and operate together. The Commander explained that when returning to the United States, the USS George Washington will go into a refueling and repairs period that should last two years, during which the ship will receive a new load of nuclear fuel and undergo various repairs and improvements to its equipment. At this time, the crew and air wing will be reassigned to other flight decks of the U.S. Navy.

We followed the launch of F/A-18E and F aircraft, including F/A-18C from a lateral position, very close to one of the ship's forward catapults. The noise level on deck is very high, and even with earplugs and excellent noise dampers, verbal communication is virtually impossible. We could see the exceptional coordination of the personnel working on the flight deck whose functions differ according to the color of their vests.

Parked on the flight deck, we were able to see up close and for the first time in Brazil, the E/A-18G Growler, Electronic Warfare version and defense suppression Super Hornet, with their characteristic cocoon wing tip. The interval between launches was surprisingly small, it was clear that the use of the four catapults would not be necessary for the ship to put a dozen gunships in the air in less than 15 minutes. We visited the Aircraft Operations Center (where the positioning of parked aircraft traffic on the flight deck and in the hangar below is controlled) and the command bridge or walkway.

We also saw the aircraft being received, seeing the landing approach of the two models of fighter F/A-18, their landing on deck, and the way it was held by the stop hook on the tail. Inside the hangar, located just below deck, we saw aircraft stocked for repairs and a lot of equipment such as fuel tanks, target designation and electronic countermeasures pods, flight refueling for fighters, shelters with jet engines, etc.

Before returning, we still had the opportunity to meet with Rear Admiral Lisa Franchetti, who was accompanied by the Commander of the Air Wing's aircraft carrier # 2 (Carrier Air Wing TWO), Captain Max G. McCoy. Admiral Franchetti was gracious in her words, and highlighted the integration feature of UNITAS and the sum of positive experiences that it leaves in the forces under his command. Commander McCoy spoke of the exercises carried out with the Brazilian Air Force squadrons, including air-to-surface combat simulations against naval targets and air combat.

Although I had already been aboard other aircraft carriers such as the USS Constellation, the USS Enterprise, USS Abraham Lincoln, the USS Ronald Reagan, and the USS Carl Vinson, nothing resembled the experience that other journalists, visitors, and I had aboard the USS George Washington. Those movies I watched before and the images of military operations that aired during the newscasts had come to life almost in front of us and, there we were, as extras in the movie.

It was after 1500hrs that we donned the equipment again (life jacket and helmet) and returned to the Providers Squadron C-2 that would bring us back to Rio de Janeiro. Our expectations for the catapult were great, especially after watching the launching of fighters a few hours before. The plane takes position, and in an instant we are thrown forward with a force that is hard to describe. Only the tight belt around us prevents us from being violently thrown out of our seats. This feeling almost blends with the brief descent and subsequent ascent the plane makes, driven by its powerful powertrain and its eight-blade propellers. The sudden and brief emptyness in the stomach was a feeling I had not experienced before, even in the the amusement park roller coasters that I had been on. It is really something you can not forget! Now we can really describe how a steam catapult is able to go from zero, even in a large, heavy aircraft like the C-2, into the emptiness to over 200 km/h!

It took us about two hours to return to Galeão. During the trip, the facts of the day passed through my mind like in a movie. At the end of our trip, we were called one by one to receive an "Honorary Tailhooker" certificate from the hands of Commander Tom Gordy. It will certainly immortalize the adventure that the United States Navy so kindly provided us all that day. We feel like the "good guys" of those films I watched when I was a boy, and today, certainly, we all improved our understanding of that maxim that when there is a problem, wherever in the world it may be, the President of the United States can always call on those sensational ships.

*Vinicius Domingues Cavalcante has been an Editorial Board member of Segurança & Defesa magazine since 2009.