One morning several years ago, I awoke from a very vivid dream. I was swimming in San Diego Bay and was plucked out by the crew members of an aircraft carrier. They treated me like visiting royalty and gave me a stateroom with a porthole. As I gazed out the small window I noticed that we were steaming out to the open ocean. I felt panic mixed with exhilaration. This was one of those dreams that sticks with you, and I mulled it over for days, thinking, “Yeah, that was amazing… Now why would I dream about heading out to sea on an aircraft carrier?”
I’m the partner at a local video production company called Crystal Pyramid Productions, and too old to join the Navy! So the dream faded as my world filled with various shoots, some mundane and some special. We interviewed Toby Maguire, Kirsten Dunst and Thomas Hayden Church about Spiderman 3. We interviewed J. Craig Venter, the man whose team was the first to map the human genome. We interviewed Hillary Clinton for Extra at the peak of her race. We shot at the U.S. Open for IBM.
Then, sometime in June, we got a call from a broadcast production company in London looking for a sound recordist to accompany their crew aboard the U.S.S. Stennis. Suddenly I remembered my dream. I said, “I’m your woman.”
I have worked sound at some challenging locations, including the San Diego Comic-Con, Miramar and even the NAASCO Shipbuilding yard. But none comes close to the gig on the Stennis. Imagine F18’s screaming to an abrupt landing on the flight deck, one after another. And the coning tower sending out major RFIs (Radio Frequency Interference). But I’ll get to that…
After meeting the three Brits (let’s call them Britney, Chaz and Harry) at the North Island Naval base, our guide, Lt. Denise Garcia, the Public Affairs officer, escorted us to the airfield where we prepared Britney to be videotaped as we flew on the Grumman C2A Greyhound to the Stennis which lay 100 miles off the coast of San Diego. Since we would all become “Trap One” members - that is, our plane would come to a severe landing from 160 mph to zero in five seconds, and be trapped by a “wire” on the flight deck - we were all briefed, re-briefed and briefed again about what to expect and what was expected of us. Safety first.
We boarded the transport plane along with about twenty other VIPs including CEO’s of prestigious companies and other media people. I feel like I had the best seat in the house. All seats faced “backwards” towards the tail of the plane and away from the cockpit, so I was seated in the first row closest to the tail. Even though officers had apprised the women that they must not hold their purses in their laps because it could inadvertently release their safety belt, I was allowed to hold my sound mixer. I observed that from this moment on, all personnel bent over backward for this video crew.
Once in the air, the crewmen said I could remove my “cranial” – an aviation helmet with goggles attached – so that I could listen on my headphones to Britney as he walked back into the cockpit and pelted the pilot with questions. Unfortunately, there was room for only Britney and the camera operator so I did not get a look into the cockpit.
We then needed to prepare for our landing, so we stowed the gear and strapped back into our seats, in cranials, goggles and a life preserver. My hands were curiously sweating as I mentally prepared for our landing on the flight deck, which a friend had once explained as a “controlled crash landing.” The crewman seated next to me shouted, “Get ready, we’re coming in!”
And then suddenly we were slung onto the deck and the wire pulled us back like a rubberband. My heart raced the way it does spilling down a tall rollercoaster or a fast and steep mountain bike trail. And then the world of the U.S.S. John C. Stennis flight deck came into view as the Greyhound’s tail yawned open at my feet.
Like New York City, I would find that the Stennis never slept. There were operations of all kinds ongoing at all hours of the day and night. For the next eight hours, wearing a sound mixer and carrying a boom pole, I would scramble alongside the crew as a young officer named “Photo” escorted us from the radar room to the flight deck, from the officer’s lounge to the bridge, up and down miles of ladders and narrow corridors. It was a relief when the Brits begged to be taken to the “smoking pit,” a spot next to the flight deck where they could go out and have a “ciggy”. It was an opportunity to rest and for the reality of the environment to really sink in. As I looked out at the vastness of the surrounding ocean, I was happy about two things: that I was not claustrophobic, and that I was an endurance athlete. At 53, I still ride a mountain bike 25 miles or more every Saturday.
It’s been said that working on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier is the most dangerous job on Earth, far more dangerous than catching crabs. For about an hour, we shot footage of aircraft landing and taking off, as two officers hovered about, herding us within the safety zone. I was attached to Chaz, the camera operator, by a “snake” – a cable from my mixer to his camera, so I had to follow his every move while trying to watch the levels on my mixer which I could hardly see as it was inside the fluffy white flight jacket I had to wear on the flight deck. The jacket along with the cranial made me feel like I was in a space suit. The display of power juxtaposed with the all-in-a-day’s-work routine of the flight deck personnel made this one of the most surrealistic times in my life.
After a twenty-minute dinner, an officer named John took over for “Photo” and we spent the next three hours gathering more footage of Britney as he explored the Stennis. We learned that she runs on two nuclear reactors and can go one million miles at more than 30 knots before refueling. The flight deck is 1,092 feet long and 257 feet wide. The height is 244 feet (equal to a 24-story building). She can accommodate 80+ tactical aircraft. My favorite factoid: If you lined up all the bed mattresses on the Stennis end to end, they would stretch more than nine miles.
Finally at 9:30 PM the producer said we were through for the day.
Even after a grueling day of production, I was not yet ready to meet my mattress. This was a Friday night, after all, and I am a social creature. After walking the boys back to their quarters, I told John that I wanted to return to the mess hall where I'd noticed the crew participating in a “Karaoke Night.” When he was certain that I knew how to get down there and then back to my room, he said, “I don’t see why not.” And away I went, floating down four flights of steps without any production gear.
The mess hall was packed and a young man was singing a Santana tune, “Maria Maria” beautifully as I sat down at a table next to a young crewmember. The singer finished and earned a big round of applause. Next, two men and a woman commenced to singing “Bohemian Rhapsody” as everyone cringed. It was a wonderful evening as participants sang their hearts out for better or worse. After a short internal conversation, I put in my request for a Grace Slick tune. After three more singers, it was my turn.
The emcee said, “We have a civilian guest aboard who wants to sing “White Rabbit.” The crowd greeted me warmly and when I had the microphone in hand, I told them, “I really want to thank you for your hospitality. You have been wonderful!” They all turned to watch me, some turning in their seats to get a full view, and I began to sing, “One pill makes you larger and one pill makes you small…..”
The song went by too fast and then they were applauding me for a long time until I sat back down in my seat. They had not done that for the “Bohemian Rhapsodisers!” I could tell they were impressed. It was a bright and shiny moment that I will always treasure.
Two more singers regaled us, and then Karaoke Night was over. It was time to “hit the rack.” I found my way back to my room – with some help from a few people along the way – noted that someone was asleep in the top bunk with the curtains pulled shut, and then I crawled into my “rack.” There was a light on above the sink and I could not locate a switch to turn it off; I figured that maybe it was supposed to stay on all night, and so I began my toss-and-turn for the next several hours as I struggled to sleep amidst all the sounds, the motion, the unrelenting light. It was as if my body did not trust the surroundings enough to surrender to sleep. I believe it was about 5 AM before I finally nodded off and drifted into a heavy slumber.
At around 6 AM my roommate who’d arrived from Guam the previous evening gently roused me and informed me that “Photo” was waiting outside the door. I’d dozed through Reveille! It was time to eat in the officer’s mess and get our production day started. The guys wanted a couple more shots on the flight deck, and then it was time to pack up our bags and depart the adventure of a lifetime.
As we taxied for take-off, the young crewman seated next to me grinned and said, “I love my job!” And then the adrenaline rushed as the Greyhound roared and we catapulted together, off the deck into the wild blue yonder and back home to San Diego.