36 Incredible Hours On The Aircraft Carrier USS Eisenhower [PHOTOS]

Photo: Robert Johnson — BI Military & defence

The U.S. currently has 11 aircraft carriers that hold about 5,600 sailors and aviators apiece. While not all of them are deployed at the same time, the ones at home are training, undergoing maintenance, and still filling their crews’ days with inordinate demands.Aircraft carriers have three acres of flattop and are 1,000 feet long. It’s common to hear them referred to as floating cities, but they’re more than that.

Click here to see life on the Ike >

The carriers projecting America’s military power abroad are more exposed than most any other U.S. command in the world. Aside from working and sailing into dicey locations, these big ships are dangerous and the flight deck alone requires just one wrong move to bring an end to the distracted.

There’s no room to be anything less than focused, almost all the time and the jobs on board are just as varied as the people who fill them.

From pilots, to navigators, to recruits that wash the deck, everyone works together and supports the overall mission. No bitterness or condescension that I saw, and that would be a tough environment to hide it.

60-one thousand men and women, doing things most people have no idea, in places most others can’t imagine. It’s like someone took the entire Ohio University student body, and a chunk of the faculty, and sent them off to parts unknown. 61,000 people is a lot, and that’s just serving on carriers.

When we went to the Persian Gulf in September we spent about 36 hours on the USS EISENHOWER — or the “Ike” as her crew calls her. There’s no way to show everything that goes on, but the following pictures should offer a feeling for what the mad paced, ear crushing scene is really like.

Among the handful of ways to reach an underway carrier, this rickety old COD is far and away the least glamorous

To board we put on cranial units and inflatable life vests —we felt prepared for anything — and it never did feel like something might NOT happen

A flatbed truck of a plane that's hot, loud, and cramped we wedge ourselves into riveted metal-backed seats and strap in beneath 4-point harnesses

It's so hot that it takes a moment to tell if that's steam from the A/C or an electrical fire

It must be two hours before the COD crashes down onto the Ike — Imagine facing backwards inside a panel van as it smashes into a wall of sponge while dropping 20 feet down — equally jarring and thrilling

The flight and the arrested landing — from 140 mph to 0 in two seconds — takes a moment to shake but we're rushed off again as soon as we grab some fruit and stretch our legs

It's supremely hot along Vulture's Row — a colorfully named section of most large navy ship's — just as two F-18s line up for takeoff below

Zooming in I catch pilot LT Shelly give his ground crew a salute

Before grabbing that cockpit handle

And getting slung down the flight deck by the carrier's massive catapult — 0 to 165 mph in two seconds

Out of runway and nowhere to go but up, LT Shelly hits his afterburners and shoots into the sky

As Shelly's still targeting his course, the previous batch of fighters that went out earlier come in with their tanks nearly dry

Tail hooks down, the pilots are aiming for the second of four cables stretched across the deck to stop them from careening off the other end into the Gulf

This one makes it and is hauled to an abrupt stop as the engines wind down from their incoming scream

This EA-18G Growler is an electronic warfare plane that carries the newest technology to ensure American troops own the airwaves

As the pilots climb out, the ground crews climb on — cleaning and inspecting all parts of the jet

The jets are all disarmed before being stored and these AIM 9X Sidewinders get put on a rack to be rolled away

These 500 pound MK 82 bombs are part of a standard weapons load

But to keep pilots proficient they use these 25 pound Mk 76 practice rounds that mimic the trajectory of the larger 82s

As I'm checking out the ordnance and how it's handled our guide calls us in to meet these two guys who are going to take us out on deck as the planes take off

The way on deck is here through flight deck control where we pass the old-school Ouija board used to keep track of the confusion outside

The cutout planes get tagged with random stuff — that has a specific purpose — that purple bolt means Jet 41 is getting fuelled while another 'Green Shirt' service is performed

We don't linger before stepping back outside — even wrapped in the cranial it's loud out here and deck crew work a choreographed routine none of us can understand

Everything here means something though it's impossible to know what exactly

And though it's routine for crew — that doesn't change how dangerous every minute out here really is

This 'Hookup Man' is guiding the F-18 into the launch catapult, easing that rod up into place

Firmly locked, an established hand signal signs the all clear

And with barely time to drag the camera around, the 30,000 pound jet is flung like a toy down the length of the deck

Bonus: Quick takeoff video of that F-18 streaking across the deck and into the sky

When the plane is in the distance and the catapult dragged back, it is still steaming from the friction and heat

The middle of all this is just another lingering day at the office for hundreds of 'top-siders' who work up here

Parked and — the 'Red Shirts' move in and disarm the jets — storing unused ordnance deep below decks overnight

Takeoffs concluded we head to watch returning planes touch down aiming for this 'Second' cable — the 'First' (to the left) is too close to the rear of the ship — the third and fourth to close to missing completely

The first plane to approach found a 'fouled deck' and was waved off — it could have been one of us that mussed up his approach — his tail hook is outlined in this shot

No pilot likes to get waved off though it's far better than hitting deck as a crew member wanders out of place or the approach is off

Carrier landings are brutal even in the middle of the day and this pilot leans forward waiting to catch

Touching down on deck the wheels throw plumes of smoke as the hook dredges the deck looking for a cable

Finally it catches the third line

And rips the steel line from its coil

Before reversing its afterburners and coming to a halt

A 'Green Shirt' nudges the cable back for the next landing, as the landed jet taxi's about for instruction

Stepping for just a moment outside the action and its clear what a stunning scene all of this is

Heading below deck an E2 Hawkeye electronic surveillance plane swings behind us, wings already folded back looking for a place to park

And then the massive hangar deck spreads before us

Everything aircraft need to stay on mission can be done here just below the flight deck and all type of craft are in various states of repair — from this jet

To this helicopter — they all undergo constant schedules of maintenance and repair

One of the few open places on ship outside the flight deck — it's not uncommon to see troops exercising to stay fit for their physical fitness tests

From the hangar deck it's up into officer country where even the vinyl covers alert visitors to the Captain's presence

Here is where everything on the ship is governed. It's a demanding work environment, and the day is far from over for the sailors on the bridge

Long hours at rapt attention calls for constant supplies of coffee right at hand

Steering the ship and guiding it through the Gulf requires many hands

And many eyes — The Captain is in the background preparing for interviews with CNN and ABC

As I listen to the same questions elicit the same replies I've been hearing all day, I watch the planes get hauled about to their designated spots

Some maintenance can only be done with the tail of the plane hanging off the lip of the deck, so this is where this jet will spend the night where work will begin in the morning

From the Captain's bridge we head deeper into the ship to meet his boss — the Admiral in charge of the entire carrier group

After another round of the same questions with only slightly different answers, I sneak a peak at the Admiral's bridge and notice a cigar within reach of the chair

We missed dinner so head to the ship's '7-11' where we grab some snacks and several 25 cent bottles of water

Even miles from land and months from home there's plenty for sailors to spend their money on with retail goods loaded on in Naples, Italy

Something that becomes even more evident as I look for a cup of coffee and find this chance to spend four grand on an Italian bicycle

No doubt these gloves approved for use on the flight deck are far bigger sellers than the bikes which will never have a place on the ship

And there's no shortage of other things to buy if the mood strikes

And if the buying urge strikes without the pay to back it up — no problem here — they know their customers are good for it

But what I'm looking requires no lawaway and tastes just as good as it does ashore — these sailors actually trained in a civilian Starbucks to work on the ship

Making my way back above deck I see where connections to family are maintained

Officers encourage crew to wake up at 3 a.m. to call home and wish families a good morning before starting the day's shift — to a person they tell me missing family is the biggest challenge out here

The deck is quieter now, and I'm able to step into the world of the Landing Signal Officers

The group that posts here during flight operations

They're responsible for lighting up the 'Christmas Tree' for pilots to let them know if an approach is on target

But despite all their precautions, even the best laid plans can go awry

Which is why there's this emergency escape chute to take them below if a plane careens out of control

It's back here in the corner of the ship I notice a missile battery looking out to sea

It's just about then the sound of our ride comes in from the distance and we're called to go — the COD that brought us in broke down and couldn't be fixed

Well out to sea the chopper blades thump a staccato rhythm that pushes most passengers asleep

But not the crew who jump out onto another Navy ship to pick up this sailor headed home

He'd been on this small ship for months

Now headed into Bahrain there was no telling how long the flight would be, only that we were moving at about 125 knots at an altitude of about 400 feet

Passing over a shipping route we get a glimpse at what most of this military presence is about — safeguarding passage for much of the world's oil supply that passes through the Strait of Hormuz

Slipping past a local fishing boat called a Dhou it seems we're getting closer to shore

Within moments the cultivated Bahraini coastline comes into view — reclaimed land taken from the sea to build waterfront retreats

Some of the emerging coastal residences are quite grand

The American air base finally comes into view none-too-soon. Carrier life is exhausting — and we were only visitors

With the help of our Navy guide it's just a quick friendly stop through customs

With just hours before we head back out to sea

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