NORTHERN VIRGINIA — It’s Sunday afternoon, and as I look out on the soft rolling hills of Loudoun County, I can’t help contrasting the quiet of the wide grassy acres outside my study window with the highly choreographed hurricane of people and machinery I observed on the four-acre deck of the USS Harry S. Truman on Friday and Saturday. President Truman is remembered as “Give ‘em Hell” Harry. If you want to give someone hell, you know how. If you want to give an enemy of America hell, old Harry’s namesake is ready to deliver.
Insurance people make their money by measuring risks. Lloyds of London says that the deck of an aircraft carrier is the most dangerous working environment in the world, and it’s not hard to see why. On the deck of a Nimitz -class carrier, there is constant motion among dozens of aircraft, fuel lines, catapults, jet blast deflectors, and arresting wires. The cats launch aircraft and the arresting wires catch landings in a rhythm that recovers one aircraft and launches another in the space of about sixty seconds.
In the middle of this controlled chaos swarms a horde of sailors moving and fueling aircraft, recovering the arresting wires, loading bombs and bullets, hooking the catapults to the aircraft, and checking things over and over to make sure they’re good to go. The average age of these people is about twenty. Would you trust your life — and the safety of a multi-billion dollar ship — to a bunch of teenagers? Before Friday, I never could have. Now, having spent about 28 hours in Grootland, it seems the natural thing to do.
PRESIDING OVER ALL THIS is a wiry guy who seems to have about as much energy as the nuclear reactors that propel his ship. Captain Mike Groothousen — “Groot” to his pals — smiles a lot. He has good reason to. Carriers are graded in everything they do, and the Navy awards a “battle ‘E’” for excellence every year, department by department. How good are your pilots? The jet engine repair shop? What about your safety record? Your galleys? Groothousen’s USS Truman earned the “E” in every category. Everywhere you look, you see why. It’s the people. From the youngest purple-jacket hustling fuel to the commander of Carrier Air Wing 3, you see in each and every one the same dedication and professionalism.
Cdr. David Onstott is the eye of the hurricane. He’s the ship’s chief safety officer and, as you’d expect, his devils are in the details. I walked the Truman’s deck with Onstott, crouching between the wings of the aircraft being launched from catapults 1 and 2 on the forward half of Truman. The crew works in as safe an environment as can be devised because Onstott and his people inspect, study, and teach methodology, and catch the details of what could go wrong before it does. One of his biggest worries is FOD — foreign object damage — to the jets. One loose bolt or bootlace can cost you a jet engine. If it happens on takeoff, you can lose lives and aircraft. That’s why long lines of sailors walk the deck often, gathering up everything that doesn’t belong there. I didn’t get the time to ask Onstott what he does to relax. He probably juggles chain saws.
When it heads out to deploy, the Truman has a ship’s compliment of about 6,000 people. Chief Warrant Officer John Lukeivic feeds them. Lukeivic’s sixty galley guys and gals serve at least 15,000 meals a day, not counting the fourth meal of the day, “mid rats,” served late at night. When you come off the flight deck at 11 p.m. and want a steak, Lukeivic’s people will ask how you want it done. The food is damned good. I had breakfast in the enlisted galley on Saturday. Omelets to order, cold and hot cereal, almost anything you may desire is loaded on your plate for the asking. They even have a cappuccino machine.
Lunch was being prepared by the time we left breakfast. One young guy was stirring a huge cauldron of chili with a stainless steel ladle that looked like a shovel. The chili smelled really good. If I served on Truman, I’d have to spend a lot of time in the gyms or I’d weigh as much as the ship. Lots of the folk are there in off-duty hours. (One gal who runs the biggest exercise room told me that working out is all the Marines on board seem to want to do. She said, “They lift weights all night. And I mean all night.”) That’s not all that goes on until the wee hours of the morning.
ANOTHER COOL WIRY GUY is the CAG — Capt. Mark Vance — commander of Carrier Air Wing 3. He smiles almost as much as Groothousen. Vance’s people are as professional and intense as he is and — sorry, CAG — the younger ones have a lot more hair. (Wearing a helmet almost every day of your life is guaranteed to reduce your top thatch. It’s a badge of honor the older guys share.) Vance runs a whole air force on Truman, and watching them work is an awesome pleasure. There ain’t no Tom Cruise-like reckless jerks here. You see that on the LSO (landing signal officer) platform.
Every time a pilot takes off or lands, some of his peers are standing out on the deck observing and grading him while the big bosses do the same from the bridge. On the training cruise I joined briefly, they were practicing takeoffs and landings from noon to past midnight. Standing on the platform, the landing officer controls the final approach. In the olden days, there would be a man with huge paddles waving to indicate if the aircraft wasn’t level, was offline to the deck, or too low or too high. That’s now done with a huge light display, and around the LSO stand the off-duty pilots.
If someone makes a perfect landing - catching the third of four arresting wires smoothly at the right speed, the guys nod. If he is too high or low, he may be waved off. If he “bolters” — missing the wires altogether — he gets to do it again and again until he gets it right four or five times, and later catches a lot of stuff from his peers. (About 80% of the landings I saw caught the three wire. I saw only two “bolters” the whole time I was there.) These guys are pros. In more ways than one.
THE XO — CAPT. Charles “Ladd” Wheeler — is, like Onstott, an oasis of calm in the storm. He runs the ship with Groothousen and — as Capt. Grootousen told me — is a real pro who could take over any time. Groothousen and Wheeler are justly proud of the fact that Truman’s crew, returning from Operation Iraqi Freedom — both drank Portsmouth, England, dry of beer, and did it without any “incidents” requiring intervention by the local constabulary. Wheeler told me the secret. Apparently, the Brit sailors whose town it is gathered up some of the, ah, over-indulging Truman-ites and hauled them off to their own homes and barracks until they were capable of walking back up the gangplank. (Are the Brits great allies, or what?)
You can see all the nifty technology on board, see the air ops, and come away with a lot of lessons learned. To me, the Truman reflects the leadership of Captain (soon to be admiral) Groothousen. Groot told me about a captain’s mast he held a while ago. About seven crewmembers were caught smoking marijuana. The problem lingers in our military, but not on Truman.
The Boss assembled about 2,000 crewmen in the hangar bay, and had the potheads marched out in front of them. He told the offenders that they were not going to be part of the Navy, and that by using drugs they were indirectly helping the terrorists who get some of their money by selling drugs. Groot then had the ship’s company do an about-face, and with their former crewmates’ backs to them, the seven were marched off to the brig.
By doing that, Groothousen joined the crew in his values and his decision. That is as good a demonstration of leadership as I’ve encountered in a very long time. Captain Groothousen wasn’t able to see us off for our flight back to Norfolk. He had climbed into an F/A-18 and was up practicing takeoffs and landings with the guys.
If your son or daughter is a member of the Truman’s crew, you should be very proud. They’re doing a helluva job.
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