ABOARD THE USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT, GULF OF ALASKA -- High above the flight line, the Air Boss watched as flight deck crews, each wearing brightly colored shirts that delineate their job, moved quickly to prepare for the next launch of a fighter jet. In less than a minute, another F/A-18 Super Hornet took off, catapulted to 150 mph in less than three seconds. The boss, Scott Campbell, hadn’t spoken a word.
“Everybody has a radio,” Campbell said, “but when things are going smoothly nobody needs to talk.”
For Campbell, who is essentially the air traffic controller for the carrier, smooth means a jet taking off every 30 seconds or one landing every 45 seconds, all on a flight deck that is just barely over 1,000 feet long and 250 feet wide.
“It’s a ballet,” said Alex Diaz, the ship’s handler. Diaz is tasked with coordinating the ballet, getting planes parked once they are landed, refueled, sent to the under-deck hangar if they need repair, and positioned on the flight deck so they are ready to launch at a moment’s notice.
This was a job that was especially challenging earlier this year, when a film crew was aboard the Roosevelt for two weeks shooting the movie “Top Gun 2,” which is scheduled for release in 2020.
Diaz prefers to coordinate his ballet using what he calls a “Ouija board,” a map of the flight deck and hangars with scale-model airplanes that he and his assistants move around by hand. He places colored pins, metal washers and bolts on each plane to mark actions that need to happen to each. For a plane that needs maintenance he uses a jack, because the plane has to go up on jacks. Ones that need washed get a washer.
One level below Diaz is the commanding officer’s in-port cabin, one of the only formal places on the massive ship, which can house around 5,000 people at a time. The wood-paneled cabin is adorned with pictures, plaques and memorabilia honoring President Roosevelt, the ship’s namesake. One wall holds a row of baseball bats, a nod to Roosevelt’s famous saying, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” On another wall is a shelf with a teddy bear.
The Roosevelt is in Alaska as part of Exercise Northern Edge, Alaska’s largest military training exercise. The last time an aircraft carrier participated was in 2009, when the John C. Stennis came up.
“Having a carrier participate, along with three U.S. Navy destroyers and a replenishment ship, increases the level of complexity of the exercise,” said Navy public affairs officer Julie Holland. It also presents unique challenges to the pilots aboard the carrier, who normally have to maintain night proficiency by performing a night landing once a week.
“There’s not a lot of night flying opportunities this far north,” said Campbell, “so we’ll have to deal with that when we we get back down south.”