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.