I'm strapped into my backward-facing seat on an unusually looking windowless plane. It's rather dark and I can hear the gunning of the engines and howling wind despite the huge cranial with built-in ear muffs the size of my fist strapped to my head so tight my jaw hurt.
I cinch the four-point harness holding me in place. Then I cinch it some more. When it's as tight as it can go, an air crewman walks by and yanks it so hard it squeezes the breath out of my small frame. He flashes a broad smile and gives me a thumbs up. I manage a weak nod. The hatch closes. Steam rises from the floor. "It'll be a bit different to when you guys came in," a crewman had warned. But nothing would have prepared me for what came next.
On takeoff, I was literally dangling from my seat, head first as I was held helplessly in place by only the harness. In about five seconds it was over. An end to the one of the most, if not the most incredible four hours of my life by far.
Like most ardent lovers of Hollywood action movies I've often toyed with the idea of seeing a fighter jet or a combat helicopter up close and personal. On Wednesday, the US Embassy to Sri Lanka and Maldives organized a top level delegation from the Maldives to visit a US Aircraft Carrier at sea and the subsequent realization of a dream. The mighty and quite majestic USS John C Stennis.
To put things into perspective for my fellow movie fans let me describe it like this. It's the one you see in the 2009 science fiction movie “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen”, during the film's final battle in Egypt.
The first glimpse of a COD, or "carrier onboard delivery" plane, the US Navy workhorse that ferries people, supplies, and mail to and from its aircraft carriers at sea on the runway of Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA) itself was a sight to behold.
To get to the Stennis, we flew 45 minutes to the northeast of Maldives, and then landed on the USS Stennis, decks pitching, plane wings waggling, tailhook dangling from the underside of the aircraft to catch one of four arresting cables stretched across the flight deck. Since it's not hard to miss them all, as the pilot told us as we were prepped, he will gun the engines at landing to enable an immediate relaunch.
"If I miss it only means you will have more flight time," he said jokingly. Hardly a laughing matter as it means that if he succeeds at trapping a cable we'll decelerate from 180 nautical miles per hour to zero in about one second.
After a quick briefing of the tour, we were led away up steep flights of stairs more like ladders to our first stop, the commander's bridge. The view from the bridge was quite majestic as we saw the aircrafts taking off for the first time, one by one with tactical precision as ant sized figures scurried about on the flight deck six stories below.
Just when I thought the day could not get any better, we were escorted to the aircraft hanger and rode up to the flight deck on an actual aircraft elevator. The front row seat to a hornet's arrested landing is simply indescribable. The miracle of precision, teamwork and timing involved on the deck are far from fathomable for a layman like me.
Amidst all the breathtaking war machines I could not help but notice the 5,000 or so crew members who went about rather nonchalantly with their respective duties seemingly oblivious to the fact they were living in a floating city at sea.
"We spend about eight months at sea. It takes a lot of planning on a daily basis to run this ship. We prepare 18,000 meals per day for the 5,000 or so crew members. We are always on standby and the drills you saw today are continuous," Public Affairs officer Zachary Zach said over a three course lunch which would have put any chef of a restaurant in Male to shame which was aptly applauded and complimented by Vice President Mohamed Waheed Deen who led the Maldivian delegation.
Spending months at a time away from family and friends is tough on the crew, according to Zach. "We do have internet. But as you can imagine it gets very slow as 5,000 people are looking to use it simultaneously. Sometimes we have to ask them not to use it as that disrupts the official business done via the internet."
The Stennis fitted with two nuclear reactors enabling her to travel one million miles on steam before refueling is now returning back home to the US.
“The entire crew will be in very good spirits as we are returning home,” Commander Shoemaker said jovially before our tour had begun.
He may be right and could account for the broad smiles that greeted us and warm hospitality we received from every crew member throughout our visit.
Most of the crew including Zach has never visited the Maldives. “I really would love to visit sometime,” Zach said which I'm quite certain is mutual for his fellow colleagues.
It’s safe to say I speak for the entire group that was given the honor and privilege to be aboard the Stennis, we hope that every member of the crew does indeed visit the Maldives so that the gracious hospitality and welcome we were given can be reciprocated in kind.
Note: The Maldivian Delegation included Vice President Mohamed Waheed Deen, Defence Minister Mohamed Nazim, Home Minister Dr Mohamed Jameel Ahmed, Tourism Minister Ahmed Adeeb, Police Commissioner Abdulla Riyaz and some top officers of the Maldives National Defence Force. Also US Ambassador to Maldives and Sri Lanka Michelle J Sison, Defense Attache LTC Patrick J Schuler, Indian Defense Advisor to Maldives and First Secretary of the Indian High Commission in Male P.S Karthigeyan took part in the visit to the USS John C Stennis. Haveeru along with TVM were the media contingent of the tour.