Life at Sea: A US Navy Sailor’s Perspective on the Best Perks of Being Deployed on an Aircraft Carrier, from Vulture’s Row to Racing Dolphins
‘Memories: my “Best Perks” of being deployed on an Aircraft Carrier are made in retrospect, after the passage of several decades,’ Steve Solbakken, former US Navy sailor.
Aircraft carriers are the centerpiece of America’s Naval forces – the most adaptable and survivable airfields in the world. On any given day, Sailors aboard an aircraft carrier and its air wing come to the fight trained and equipped across a full range of missions. They are ready to control the sea, conduct strikes, and maneuver across the electromagnetic spectrum and cyberspace. No other naval force fields a commensurate range and depth of combat capabilities.
But what are the best perks of being deployed on a US Navy aircraft carrier?
‘Like many first term enlistees in the early 70’s, I never considered there to be “perks” while doing my enlistment,’ Steve Solbakken, former US Navy sailor, says on Quora.
‘I did request carrier duty on my “Dream Sheet” and got it because I was just graduating from training for a critical rate that needed bodies all over the fleet. Once I joined the ship’s company, I was too busy adapting to the experience of being a sailor at sea to look for perks and then I was too preoccupied with making it to the end of my enlistment to look for special benefits. My “Best Perks” are made in retrospect, after the passage of several decades.
‘One benefit I did appreciate right away (and a big reason I requested carrier duty) was the day to day stability of an aircraft carrier when it’s underway. Smaller ships were regularly bobbing and bouncing about, even in calm seas. However, an aircraft carrier is quite large and needs to be more stable in order for jets to land. The ship’s pitch and roll movements are still there, but they’re more gradual and much less noticeable than what a destroyer or other smaller vessel experiences. I only recall becoming nauseous once in over 3 years – and we were on the edge of a hurricane and the seas were quite violent that day.
‘Another cool thing was getting to see, hear, feel and smell flight ops from Vulture’s Row. Not having to actually WORK on the flight deck, but to stand 4 levels above it and watch the dance below. The flight deck is full of men (just men back then, now men and women) in yellow, blue, purple, red, green and white jerseys, all moving as if finely tuned machine parts – each one with a specific function. All functions are necessary and constantly being done in an atmosphere filled with opportunities for disaster, yet being done incredibly well and safely, over and over, hundreds of times daily.
The teamwork necessary for everything to work right is a wonderful sight to watch in action. The pure sensory overload is an amazing, almost indescribable experience. There aren’t many sounds like the roar of a fighter jet engine at full power. You feel it as much as you hear it. The heat off the black asphalt like flight deck surface in the summer sun can be intense.
Throw in jet afterburners and you can almost feel your eyebrows singing – even though you’re a couple hundred feet back and 4 levels up in the observation area (Vulture’s Row). You never forget the smell of jet fuel and if you happen to get a whiff at an airport, your mind flashes back to watching launches and recoveries out in the bright sunlight. Unfortunately, when you live with it day in and day out, you tend to take it for granted and don’t take advantage as much as you could to savor the experience. You don’t miss it – until it’s a memory. But what a memory it is! You simply cannot get that experience serving on any other ship in the US Navy.’
‘There’s a lot of jobs on the ship where you never get to get outside. My day to day tasks were below decks, working in rooms lit only by red lights, staring at a radar screen 12 hours a day. I could go days and not see the sun because you could literally make the journey from bow to stern entirely inside, below decks. At best you could walk through the hangar deck and look out the bay doors.
But, where there’s a will, there’s a way. A carrier has steel wire nets in certain spots around the flight deck and catwalks for safety reasons. On my ship, there was one right up off the front edge of the flight deck at the bow. During times when we weren’t flying, you could crawl (sneak) out onto those nets and sit suspended 60 plus feet over the ocean and look straight down and watch the bow cut through the water. There was always a school of dolphins racing with us, jumping gracefully in and out of the water, matching our speed, never tiring and never stopping.
Other times, you could go out on the catwalks or out to the fantail and watch the sun rise or set at sea – always a beautiful sight. I enjoyed those times because it reminded me of how insignificant we really are. I knew how far away the nearest land was and what would happen if I somehow ended up in the water. I learned a new level of respect and awe for nature that I look forward to experiencing even now. When we pulled into our anchorage in ports like Athens, Naples, Barcelona and other spots it was always just before dawn and we were out at our lookout posts.
Mine was atop the island, so I could see for up to 15 miles on a clear day. We could see the lights of the cities from a good distance and watch them getting closer and closer, then the lights of dozens of fishing boats bobbing up and down, just a couple miles off shore. Then the fishing boat lights would fade out as they were overcome by the natural light of the rising sun, in all its glory and brilliance. I wish I’d savored those moments more.’
‘They told us that we would better appreciate our experiences when able to view them with the perspective you get with time and age. They were right. For me, those are memories that I now see as perks, but didn’t have the years or wisdom to appreciate 45 years ago.’