I can't believe I got a second chance!

Getting to shoot onboard a US Navy Aircraft Carrier is a once-in-a-lifetime treat. I can’t believe I was lucky enough to get to do it a second time last week on the Nimitz Class carrier the USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75), and I loved every minute of it! It was just a great experience all the way around, and although my shooting time was very limited, it was just an incredible adventure from begining to end.

I’m going to share some photos from the trip here, and the stories I’ll cover Q&A style, and hopefully, that will fill in a lot of the blanks. Before I dive into all that, I have to say I’m so incredibly impressed, proud, and downright amazed at the precision, dedication, and professionalism of the men and women of the USS Harry S. Truman. It’s really something to see, and I wish every American could have the experience of being a guest on a US Navy ship like this. The pride and dedication of the crew, from top to bottom, is so inspiring. I’m so thankful and grateful for their service and their sacrifice. The US Navy absolutely rocks! Here are a few shots to get us started, then I’ll throw in some Q&As:

Q. What made you want to go back and shoot on a carrier so badly?

A. It had been six years since my last carrier shoot — it was on the USS George H.W. Bush (link). On that first trip, I was over-whelmed, under-prepared, and spent the entire first day on the deck just shooting planes taking off. Gray plane after gray plane. Once I got back to my stateroom and looked at the day’s take, I was incredibly bummed.

I quickly realized that the fighter jets, planes and helos are just tools. It’s the people that make a carrier so extraordinary, and the aviators and deck crew are more interesting, more colorful, and more fascinating. They are the real story of the precision and magic that happens on the Flight Deck of a carrier, and I had totally missed it.

On my 2nd day back on the Bush, I started to settle down. I got over the rush of being on the deck, and the COD flight out to it, and I did much better, but I still left knowing I had left a lot of shots on the table. A lot. Ever since then, I’ve been dying to get another chance. It’s the type of thing you lay there at night in bed and think, “If I had only done this…” or “I should have done that…” and you replay all your mistakes and missed opportunities, and it makes you long for just one more shot at it.

Q. So how did you get on a carrier again?

A. I was the guest of NCIS (this time, and last time on the Bush, and not the TV show — the real NCIS). I was onboard with NCIS Video Producer Todd Beveridge (way cool guy, and former Navy combat photographer), who was there to do a video profile of NCIS Special Agent Afloat Dan Chaney (such an awesome, smart, funny guy, and so liked by the crew it was like going around with a celebrity. The poor guy couldn’t walk five-feet without a crewman or crewwoman stopping him to high-five, fist-bump or a hug him. He’s a total rockstar). My longtime friend NCIS Senior Public Affairs Specialist, Ed Buice arranged for me to go on the Truman (I was on the Bush with Ed last time — we had such a great, fun, awesome time). I super dig Ed (he’s a pro shooter, with a background in broadcast, and he's got such great stories and insights).

That's Dan above right in the NCIS shirt, consulting with the on-board Judge in the ship's legal dept.

Q. What gear did you take?

A. Last time, on the Bush, we showed up on the carrier without any gear at all (It had all been left back on the base in a transportation mix-up), but we were doubly sure to make sure it made it onboard this time. Here’s a quick look at my load-out (below).

Canon EOS R Mirrorless as my main body, and a new Canon 24-105mm made for Mirrorless. I brought a 5D Mark IV as a backup ( didn't have to use it). Mostly shot my 70-200mm and 16-35mm though.

Q. How did you get out to the carrier?

A. Just like last time, we took off from the Naval Base in Norfolk, Virginia on a COD (Carrier Onboard Delivery) plane. These are twin-engine Grumann C2 Greyhound prop planes introduced back in 1966 and officially retired in 1987, but apparently, they’re still safe enough to fly out to sea, land on a moving carrier deck bobbing around in that sea while getting tail hooked and coming to a very abrupt stop.

It holds around 36 passengers (and supplies) as uncomfortably as possible, and you’re seated backwards in a plane with no windows, so you’re mostly in the dark. I didn’t really know what to expect the first time, so I wasn’t that scared or concerned. Having gone through it once before, I was now reasonably nervous. Some might call me a baby. Well, Todd did anyway.

L: Me trying not to look scared before boarding the COD. R: That's Todd, former Navy guy who is actually not scared whatsoever.
That's me, with a Naval Airman behind me to make sure I don't run away. I think he had a gun. Though come to think of it, it could just be Todd. It's all a bit of a blur.
Inside the COD: You're sitting backwards facing the rear cargo door, there are no windows, and once airborne they turn off the interior lights. It's really loud, and liquid is dripping from the ceiling, and there's smoke in the cabin, but somehow it's kinda fun (well, if you find praying non-stop in the dark in a 1960s prop plane with exposed tubes and wires, fun). It reminds me of flying on USAirways before its merger with American.
Check out the in-seat entertainment system.
A COD landing on the deck of the Truman, April 3rd (Navy File Photo). I'm showing this instead of a photo of me screaming uncontrollably and yelling "mama!" during the landing. You don't really know exactly when the landing is going to happen since there are no windows, so when it hits the deck and hopefully catches the arresting cable, it's quite a disconcerting feeling. Kinda of like an atomic wedgie that you don't see coming and you're not sure when it's going to end.

They told us to expect smoke in the cabin, and oil leaking from the ceiling.

Before the flight, we were asked to sign a “Notify your next of kin’ form” (I am not making this up). I called my wife Kalebra and told her, “Well, I just signed a next of kin notification form,” and she said, “If you’re not signing a next of kin form, you’re just not having fun!” Something may be wrong with her.

Right before we board, they gave us a quick safety briefing on how to survive ditching at sea. I was hoping to hear the line used by Delta flight attendants, "In the unlikely event of a water landing" instead but that was not how it was relayed to us. The instructions included: how to put on your two-levels of ear protection, how to inflate your life vest, put on your goggles, and how to use your survival kit in the water. They also told us to expect smoke in the cabin from AC condensation, and that to expect water and oil to be dripping from the ceiling at all times (you’ll see both in the video below). In fact, they told us only to worry if we didn’t see oil and water dripping from the ceiling. That made me feel so much better that I reached up for the flight attendant call button that, of course, does not exist aboard CODs.

They also did tell us that if we get air-sick at any time during the flight, tap the person in the row in front of you, tell them you’re sick, and they’ll tap the person in front of them, and so on until it reaches the airmen up front, and they’ll bring you a black Hefty-brand garage bag. They recommend sticking your entire head in the bag, and then when you get off the COD, you have to find somebody to give this “present” to. I can’t imagine there’s a lot of volunteers lining up for that hand-off. Luckily, I didn’t have to find out. Anyway, check out that dripping oil/smoke in the short video below.

This is when I nearly blacked out

Nothing makes you feel more comfortable while flying in a retired 1960s prop plane than having one of the safety airmen on board suddenly get up from their seat mid-flight; take out a flashlight, and start searching around up in the ceiling near where the oil is leaking. I looked over at Todd. He didn’t look all that concerned, so I went back to playing Solitaire on my iPhone and praying. Mostly praying.

When the plane lands on the deck (with no warning whatsoever mind you), your engines are at full throttle so if you miss hooking the arresting cable you at least have a shot of taking back off the other end of the carrier, and not just splashing nose-first into the ocean. So, you’re sitting in the dark, facing backwards as you land really hard on the deck, and you get this instant rush of gravity, and with the engines roaring at full blast you’re hoping it actually did hook the cables, but you don’t really know if it has, or if you’ve taken back off, until they finally cut back on the power, and you realize you’re still alive, which is a relief. There are people on board that slept through this entire landing process. They are not babies. I’m not saying I’m a baby, but if there’s a next time, I’ll be wearing adult diapers.

I love this signal woman. She has nerves of steel because the fighter jets take off directly beside (I mean right up next to her) her all day long, and she never even flinches.
That jet just shot her past her. She's a boss! So is the shooter squatting next to her.

Q. How were your accommodations onboard the ship?

A. Actually, pretty sweet. We had officer’s quarters, which are like the Four Seasons compared to the tiny space an enlisted man or women gets, plus we had a decent restroom right nearby. We had more room than Ed Buice, and I had back on the Bush because we had a two-man stateroom this time, rather than a three, so our bunk beds had more headroom by far, and there was just more room in general.

Plus, they stopped the flight operations much earlier at night this time, so we didn’t have to try to sleep with jets taking off directly above us, which can only be described, noise wise, as sleeping inside a diesel engine compartment when it’s drag racing. So, we slept great, and we got to eat in the officer’s mess (aka the Ward Room), which was great.

Check out this very short (15-seconds, I believe) tour of our stateroom (below), featuring an unexpected surprise.

Note: Ed gave me those as a welcome to Norfolk. This, and many other reasons are why I love Ed.

Q: How much shooting time did you get over the two days on board?

A. For the two days, about 1-hour and 20 minutes total. Since I only had a limited time to shoot on that previous trip to the Bush, I've dreamed of going back on a carrier again. I've had a mental shot list of exactly what I wanted to get and how I was going to get it. Last time, I messed up. This time would be different. I would be prepared. I would have my Platypod with me, and wireless remotes and I'd get amazing angles, and I'd shoot at dawn and sunset. I would get portraits of the pilots and airmen and Flight Deck crew. I would be calm and focused, and I would have more time and more access. Well, that was the plan anyway.

Day One: Shooting from Vulture's Row

We were delayed getting out to the carrier, so by the time we got there, got our stateroom, and got a chance to shoot it was pretty late in the day. We didn’t have access to the flight deck (the holy grail of all shooting locations) at all, so we could only shoot from what’s called “Vulture’s Row.’ It’s a small overlook up on “The Island” (that big control tower that sticks up from the deck of the carrier). See below — that’s Vulture’s Row circled in red.

That's the deck overlook called Vulture's Row where we shot from on Day One for nearly an hour.

It is kinda cool view up there in Vulture’s Row, with a nice high perspective, but because you’re up away from the Flight Deck it’s kind of like shooting a football game from up in the stands, rather than down along the sidelines. Your view is also limited up there as well. You can shoot the jets right as about to land on the deck, but you can’t really get a clean shot of the other end where they clear the deck during takeoff. After about an hour, we had shot pretty much all we could from that vantage point, and it was getting dark, so we headed back in for some chow, and to back up our memory cards, etc. That was it for Day One — shooting from up on Vulture’s Row.

Here's a shot of Todd with a 100-400mm push/pull lens up on Vulture's Row. Probably a great choice for up where we were shooting. I only had a 70-200mm on the long end, but it was decent.
Here's a shot Todd took of me up on Vulture's Row. I don't see many shots of me that I like at all, but I kinda like this one (thanks, Todd).
When you're on Vulture's Row and you look to your right, you're facing this control tower, so you can't actually get any jets leaving the desk — just the first part of the takeoff roll.
After all the jets land back on the carrier, three rescue helos that are on patrol come back in land on the deck. Then come in at a really steep angle which is kinda cool to see (seen later in these photos).
One jet takes off, and the next one is already ready to go on the adjacent steam-powered catapult. The speed at which they can launch a deck full of fighter jets is just astonishing.

Q. Did you get to shoot down on the Flight Deck at all?

A. After our shoot on day one, we were informed that since the ship was heading back into port the following day, all the planes on board would be flying back home to the Naval Base first thing in the morning, and no non-essential personnel would be allowed on Flight Deck whatsoever. They said it’s just too dangerous because it will be crazy busy down there getting all those planes launched off one after another, including all the jets and other aircraft in the hanger down below deck, and all these jets will be maneuvering all over the deck, so for us, it was a no-go.

Well, Todd and I were pretty crushed. Well, I was crushed, and Todd was crushed for me because he knew that shooting from the Flight Deck is really where you want to be shooting on a carrier. He knew I had all these plans for what I was going to try and angles I was going to get, and maybe setting up remote cameras and all that, and it all just went out the window. We drowned our sorrows in spray cheese and crackers.

Here's another shot from Vulture's Row right before take off. The jet is attached to the catapult right in front of the front landing gear. There are crew that check every aspect of the launch every step of the way. When everybody gives a thumbs up, and shooter's give the final launch signal; the pilot gives back a crisp salute, and a second later it's in the air.

We went to bed that night thinking our shooting was over — so whatever we got up at Vulture’s Row, well that would be it. No Flight Deck shots at all, and besides all the jets would be already off the ship by around lunch, so…well…we were pretty bummed.

Luckily, Dan Chaney (our awesome NCIS Special Agent Afloat), sent emails to some his contacts on the ship, and he got in touch with CDR Shad Herrenkohl, the Flight Deck Safety Officer onboard, who worked with Lt. Cmdr Laura Stegherr, the ship’s super awesome Public Affairs Officer (who can now add “hero to photographers” to her resumé); and they were all incredibly gracious to allow us to have around 20-minutes shooting time on the Flight Deck the next day (Day Two). I was thrilled (to say the least).

It was limited access — but the Shad (very cool guy by the way) took time out to take us out on the Flight Deck and kept us safe and out of trouble on their absolute busiest day, and we were so grateful for the opportunity.

I don’t know how they do it — there is so much going on when you have to empty an entire carrier like that, catapulting every aircraft off, one right after another, but to see it all happen up close like that was really something. A true ballet of timing, precision, and teamwork. See the images below.

This is what it looks like during REGULAR Flight Deck operations on our Day One. The next shot shows the part of the deck where the guys in the green shirts are standing, but on Day Two when the jets are all flying home.
This is the tail end of the ship on Day Two (send all the jets home day). This is literally just another small part of the Flight Deck, and they are stacking up planes getting them ready to get in launch rotation. Everything is so organized and precice, and everything's handled with hand signals. Everything moves in a tight, well orchestrated pattern.
Here's another view from Day Two — again, this is one small part of the Flight Deck, kind of off to one side. Just a few minutes from when this was taken, all those jets were in the air.

Q. Any chance you have a video from Todd taken while you were shooting on the Flight Deck with Dan (our NCIS Special Agent Afloat), and you wearing a white safety jacket and helmet, when an FA/18 Hornet is moving into position right in front of you?

A. That’s an uncannily specific question, but as luck would have it, I have exactly that video (see below). It’s a short clip, but it gives you a real idea of how in the middle of it all we were when shooting on the Flight Deck that day.

That's why you need a Safety Officer standing by. Shad would grab our jacket’s and move us around, or pull us out of the way, or give us hand signals, and we’d move back and forth between right in front of The Island to right on the flight line itself, with jets taking off just feet in front of us. It was awesome, exhilarating, and just plain wow!

Q. Are there any downsides to shooting right on the Flight Deck?

A. Really just one, but it's a pretty big one. You absolutely must wear safety goggles on the deck, and you cannot remove them, even for a moment. That means, there are around two inches of goggle between you and your camera’s viewfinder, so seeing clearly through your viewfinder is just about impossible. You kind of just do the best you can, but it makes shooting like this very challenging.

You miss shots you would normally nail, and it makes knowing that you're in sharp focus more of a guessing game (and I missed focus quite a bit, which didn't happen any other time). Turning on an audio “focus beep’ is useless because it’s so crazy loud on the flight deck, and you're wearing two different types of ear protection anyway. I understand why the goggles are necessary, but it’s a drag wearing them while trying to shoot. There’s got to be some sort of solution for photographers, but I have no idea what it would be, besides a custom-made set of goggles, but of course, that would have to be approved by the Navy, and well…it’s just really challenging. Still, I’d rather shoot through goggles than not shoot at all.

Just landed (you can see the arresting cable still attached to the back).
When we were on the Flight Deck I was too close to the Grumman E-2C Hawkeye for the lens I had on (my 70-200mm, and there's no changing lenses on deck for safety reasons) so I did a quick three frame, hand-held pano. Here are the three frames (the stitched pano is below).
A pano of a Grumman E-2C Early Warning Aircraft as it lines up for the catapult to make its way back to home base.

Q. Last time when you were on The Bush, you taught class for the Navy photographers on board. Did you teach one this time?

A. I did, and I really enjoyed it. What a great group of photographers and photo editors, including some really talented shooters, and it was an honor to get to share some ideas, techniques, and some higher-level stuff with them. They were incredibly attentive and engaged and it made it a lot of fun for me. Plus, it’s just cool seeing their operations, and what they do with their images. What an amazing opportunity — to be a full-time shooter on an aircraft carrier.

Q. So what did you think of all those amazing jets?

A. They are cool, no doubt, but honestly what amazed, impressed, and literally blew me away, even more, were the people. It’s the people, not the planes. It’s a masterclass in teamwork and dedication. Here are a few shots of the crew making it all happen. These men and women are the real deal.

The Deck Crew wearing yellow are the Aircraft Handles and they direct the planes on deck.
These people are magicians.
That's some heavy metal. Sorry, couldn't help myself.

Ed sent me this wonderful quote (below) from famous photographer Edward Steichen who was hired by the Navy during WWII. Here’s what he told some of the photographers he recruited for a special project, and it is so spot-on that it pretty much sums it all up:

"Be sure to bring back some photographs that will satisfy the Navy brass, but spend most of your time making those photographs which you feel should be made. Above all, concentrate on the men. The ships and planes will become obsolete, but the men will always be there." — Edward Steichen

Q. What did you do after all the jets were gone?

A. I caught up on some work for my upcoming seminar tour while the deck crew was scrubbing and clearing the deck. Once that was done, we got permission to go out on the empty Flight Deck (didn’t even need our goggles or ear protection this time). Take a look below — this area was packed to the gills with jets just a few hours earlier. Now, it’s empty, with just some crates and boxes to be off-loaded when the ship docks the following morning. It’s weird to see it like this after the controlled chaos from earlier in the day. Again, these deck crews are so efficient — they don’t mess around — they get stuff done!

Here's how empty the Flight Deck looks after the jets, helos and E2-Hawkeyes have all headed home.
Hard to believe how fast the Flight Deck goes from Grand Central Terminal to nearly a ghost town.
Here's another shot of The Island after the jets have all gone.
Afterthe Flight Deck is empty, there's time to look at details and the art of it all.
The shadows, and colors, and lines. Stuff you miss in the midst of all the noise and movement on deck.

One for the road…

We came back into port with the ship, rather than launching off on a COD again, and I was mighty thankful about that. After I disembarked, I turned around and took this iPhone pano of the ship as some of its 6,000+ men and women got a well-deserved shore leave back in Norfolk, Virginia.

Q. Final question: What did you take away from this trip?

A. Besides learning that I’m not super comfortable flying on CODs? I was reminded very vividly how incredible the men and women of our US Navy are, and what incredible teamwork, precision, and dedication it takes to run an aircraft carrier like the Truman. The pilots who land on these carriers are nothing short of magicians, to say nothing of their night landings on a moving target. They must literally have nerves of steel.

I am so proud of the men and women on the Truman, and one thing that especially stood out to me this time was the wonderful camaraderie between the crew. They support one another. They work hard, laugh, smile, they help each other, encourage one another, and they look out for each other like family. It was really a joy to see. Also, everybody I met, from the officers to the deck crew to the Master Chief was so friendly and welcoming. I heard the ship’s Captain give a talk to the entire crew before sending everybody off to shore leave, and it was very professional of course, but it was also inspirational, and even kind. I know the crew on the ship have a lot of respect for him, and his feelings and mutual respect for them came through in his talk. I hate to say it was moving, but…it was moving.

A big thanks to my good buddy Ed Buice for making all this happen, and for another experience, I’ll never forget. Also, thanks to my new buddy Todd Beveridge. It was such a treat to spend time with someone who had spent many years in the Navy and has such love and respect for it, and its traditions. I learned more about the Navy than I ever thought I would, and if it’s possible to have more respect for the men and women who serve in our Navy, I do now. A special thanks once again to Lt. Cmdr Laura Stegherr for helping us out in so many ways. We are in your debt.

I also learned a lot more about NCIS on this trip and some of the dedicated people who serve there. Thanks to NCIS Special Agent Afloat Dan Chaney for putting up with me, for helping us get out on the Flight Deck for our shoot, for helping us wrangle all our gear, and for being such a gracious host throughout.

My humble thanks to the crew of the USS Harry S. Truman for their service to our country, and for the sacrifices they and their families make every single day. It was an honor to visit the Truman — a rare second chance to visit such an amazing carrier, with such an incredible team, and it’s an experience I’ll never forget. My hats off to you all, and thank you for the honor of allowing me aboard. You all are truly the best. #GiveEmHell

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Scott Kelby


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