My first trip to a warship. It happened that I landed right on the lead ship of the nuclear powered aicraft carrier of the mighty United States _ USS Nimitz on a sultry Sunday. The namesake had listened to sea stories from his grandfather at a small German-like town in Arizona and on seeing a Captain in uniform one day turned a sailor and led the Pacific Fleet after Pearl Harbour.
The warship, in the eye of the storm, was sailing towards the city. And we were to fly to the ship somewhere near Sri Lanka. ``There is a 99 percent chance that you will be back here,'' said Capt Gillis of US Navy, on introduction. Briefing about the ``flight'', he asked us (a dozen scribes) not to expect the ``luxury'' of airlines.
``You will be flown in a C2 - Greyhound. It is a military aircraft. It is bare. You will have to sit backwards''. Thumbs Up.
The bus took us to the tail of the runway where the two greyhounds were humming. A soldier stepped in to hand over the helmets and life jackets. Posing to the cameras, we boarded the flight through the tail. The 20 seater was truly bare. There was nothing except the twenty seats and belts. And the cockpit.
I took one of the two small windows in the aircraft. Jet Airways had to take off. The tail was closed and we sat sweating for thirty minutes. ``We are waiting for ATC clearance. Will leave shortly,'' said the other officer with a moustache. ``We will be flying over sea. In case of emergency landing (on the sea), you will have to open the door on the top and get out one by one,'' he had said earlier.
Finally, we took off. As the Greyound climbed up, the pressure went up the body felt so light. Thought of Sunita for a moment. Outside the window, there were houses, fields and lakes for few minutes. And then the East Coast. I was not sure of the location. A 90 degree small cut of the coast could be noticed. Then over the sea and soon above the clouds. By now, most were tired and sleeping.
After thirty minutes, the descent started. The sea was a brilliant blue with sparkling silvers. The other Greyhound was flying to the left below. It would land first. Landing on board Nimitz is a ``trap''. Flights at 150 miles per hour speed coming down from three storey height would catch any of the four ``steel wires'' on a massive flight deck, spread over 4.5 acres, to come to zero speed in four seconds.
``Here we go,'' said the officer on mike. With a thug, the flight came to a joltering halt. A smooth touch down. Stepping out, we saw a busy airport. F-16s and F18s were taking off every other second. Men in ``dirty'' blue, maroon and yellow were all around guiding the flights.
Straight away we were led into a VIP room. It looked like a Five Star Hotel. After the customary briefing by the Admiral and Ship's Captain, we were given a separate set of jackets and were back on the flight deck. ``You can be thrown into the sea. Don't step the lines. In case you are in the sea, pull the four buttons. We will get you before the sharks.''
The thirty minutes thereafter should remain as an unbelievable sequence in space and time in my memories. The Hornets, Super Hornets and Prowlers line up one by one for take off in a runway of 400 metres(!). The engines are on. The wings flap. The signs are shown. The pilot salutes. The tyres screech the runway. There is this silent thud in your heart. At the edge, the rockets fire and the flight takes off. In two seconds flat.
A little later you realise that the other runway in the aiport is also busy. It was amazing to watch two jets taking off and flying away in different directions. Time to move on and clear the runway for the flights to land. They did. One by one. About 20 of 'em. Except for the first one that caught the fourth (last) wire, all others were trapped in either the second or third. We are told that the flights land with full throttle to be air borne again if the tail fails to catch the wire.
Once the flight comes to a stop, the tail releases the wire. The aircraft is parked. The pilots walk past us smiling. There are girls too. ``We do it out of adventure, challenge and love for our country,'' said a girl pilot. They take out sorties in the nights also. Stunning Souls.
We are shoved in. Time to leave. It was a short trip. As you come out the cabin with the old life jacket and head gear (hurting the ears) and as you climb the stairs, you see water below. Only then you realise that you are actually in a ship. Occasionally, you feel the floating and a huge wave crashin on the walls of the 23 storey ship!
On the deck, you sense the enormity of the water around on which this mini-city is floating. To know more, visit the US Navy wesbite. Thrown back into the Greyhound with a warning, we perspire again. ``Wait for Here We Go. Sit Tight. In one-and-half seconds, we will be airborne,'' the radio in the ear-piece warns.
You can feel the full accelerator. The brakes are released. You feel like being hanged for a second. And then you are off. On air, leaving the ship and sea behind. It was like a giant eagle plucking you up by the collar, flying away, in a swift second.
``Hang on guys,'' the radio says. And you hang-on to the experience. Tired, most sleep again. I think the Greyhound is designed to sleep. Some sort of smoke comes from the sides. You sleep. The landing at the airport can't be smoother. In fact, those on that Sunday afternoon flight will never be afraid of landing or take-off in any of the airports around the world.
Shaking hands with the US Consulate officers, we salute the Greyhound's young (22 years!) pilot for flying us down. Looking very relaxed and calm, he said, ``Hope you enjoyed the flight.'' For him, its child's play. He does that day and night.