A Day Underway Aboard The Aircraft Carrier U.S.S. CARL VINSON (CVN 70)

A Day Underway Aboard The Aircraft Carrier


Shawn J. Dake

USS CARL VINSON underway in the Pacific Ocean on 31 May 2015. Photo courtesy US Navy.

It is a rare enough occurrence as a civilian to have the opportunity to visit a military ship in port much less go to sea on one of the largest and most powerful aircraft carriers in the world.  When that unique opportunity presented itself I jumped at the chance.  In the pre-dawn hours of December 29, 2016 I found myself at the Naval Air Station North Island, across the bay from San Diego, being welcomed aboard the nuclear-powered ship U.S.S. CARL VINSON (CVN 70), about to embark on a day cruise that would show off all the capabilities of the vessel and its hard working crew in spectacular fashion.

The U.S.S. CARL VINSON (CVN 70) as viewed from the hanger deck on the THEODORE ROOSEVELT (CVN 71).

The CARL VINSON is the third of 10 ships in the Nimitz-class of  aircraft carriers designed in the late 1960’s and commissioned between 1975 and 2009.  All were built by Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia.  Like the others, the U.S.S. CARL VINSON is 1,092 feet in length with a massive beam of 252 feet on the flight deck (134 feet at the waterline).  Maximum navigational draft is 37.8 feet.  Displacement tonnage is approximately 95,000 tons.  The ship is powered by two Westinghouse A4W nuclear reactors driving four steam turbines and four screws to generate 260,000 shaft horsepower.  Cruising speed is 30 + knots with hints that the maximum capability can exceed well over 35 + knots.  The ship has an unlimited cruising range during the 20 to 25 year life of the fuel.

Bow-on view of sister ship THEODORE ROOSEVELT emphasizing the extremely broad beam. Photo by Shawn J. Dake.

The keel of the U.S.S. CARL VINSON (CVN 70) was laid on October 11, 1975, the same day that the previous ship DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER (CVN 69) was launched.  The VINSON itself was launched on March 15, 1980 and commissioned into service two years later on March 13, 1982 at a cost of $3.8 billion dollars.  The ship is named for Carl Vinson, a 26-term congressman from Georgia who is widely credited with establishing the “Two-Ocean Navy Act of 1940” which led to the massive shipbuilding effort of World War II.  He was the first living person in Navy history to witness a namesake ship being launched in his honor.

The museum aboard the ship features the actual desk of Congressman Carl Vinson shown on the left. Photo by Shawn J. Dake.

From the end of 2005 until 2009 the ship received a complex overhaul that included some major rebuilding and refueling.  Throughout its career it has been employed in important operations all over the world and in recent years took part in some of the most noteworthy events in the Persian Gulf and Middle East.  Since 2010, the homeport has been based at Coronado’s North Island  located in the picturesque harbor of San Diego, California.  In January 2017, the CARL VINSON will be deployed on its next assignment, an extensive tour of duty in the Western Pacific region.

The departure at 0800 sailed past the nearly identical sister ship THEODORE ROOSEVELT (CVN 71) also berthed at North Island. Photo by Shawn J. Dake.

This cruise was for the benefit of Family and Friends of the roughly 5,617 member ship’s complement.  Under the command of Captain Douglas Verissimo, his crew was basically allowed a day to “bring your family to work” and showcase what they do before the next deployment.  Command Master Chief  Jeff Owejan also invited members of the Navy League to attend.  Although it is nothing like a cruise ship, on this day there were 1,985 passengers aboard.

Breakfast buffet on the Hanger Deck facing forward in this photo. Photo by Shawn J. Dake.

The morning began with a buffet breakfast in the massive hanger deck.   Stretching nearly from bow to stern and four decks in height the area normally would be filled with aircraft but today held a human cargo.  At 8 A.M. the ship slipped away from Pier Lima and headed for the sea passing the submarine base and Point Loma with its iconic lighthouse.  The weather was crystal clear and sunny, even in the middle of winter, with calm seas.  To their great credit, the Navy gave everyone aboard unfettered access to all areas of the huge ship, with the understandable exceptions of the engine room with the reactor and the main navigation bridge.

A Hornet fighter jet with the hook down about to make a landing on the carrier. Note the cables for the arresting gear on the deck. Photo by Shawn J. Dake

By the late morning hours there was a demonstration of “Air Power At Sea” on the 4.5 acre flight deck.  Helicopters arrived first showing off their maneuverability and how they can rapidly insert and extract personnel via ropes from a low-level hover.  The air wing attached to the U.S.S. CARL VINSON normally consists of 60 or more aircraft and over 2,000 additional crew members.  A considerable amount of time passed before the fixed-wing aircraft arrived but it was worth the wait.  The McDonnell-Douglas (now Boeing) built F-18 Hornets demonstrated how the aircraft could be refueled in midair and how agile they can be in a modern dogfight.  An announcement was made that one of the planes would make a high speed fly by of the ship, but they didn’t mention that it would be at supersonic speed, so the double sonic boom took everyone by surprise and was quite impressive.  Although that would normally be a tough act to follow the aerial show just got better as one plane made a carrier landing catching the hook, mere feet in front of the spectators.  This was followed up with a catapult launch as the plane revved its engines against the blast wall extended from the deck and shot off the ship in a fraction of a second soaring skyward.  It is interesting to note that the catapults are still powered by steam which rises from the deck as the planes take off.

A typical companionway among many that run in a maze through the ship’s accommodations. Photo by Shawn J. Dake.
And a directional display found above a mailbox does not provide much help either. Photo by Shawn J. Dake.

The wind blowing across the flight deck drove many inside where there were the options of watching movies, a magic show and even a BMX bike stunt show.  A large contingent of sailors also took part in a reenlistment ceremony.  A good box lunch with unlimited soft drinks and water was served, again on the hanger deck.  I utilized my time to explore the ship from top to bottom via an endlessly confusing series of ladders, stairs, hatches and corridors that never seemed to lead directly to anything.  With almost nothing off- limits each step led to something unexpected but rarely to where I thought I was going.

One of several dining halls found on the 2nd Deck. Photo by Shawn J. Dake.
A portion of another smaller dining area looking toward starboard. Photo by Shawn J. Dake.

I was very interested in seeing how the crew lived.  Beyond the flight operations these ships are home to thousands of people.  Much of the 2nd Deck was given over to galleys and a series of cafeteria-style dining rooms of various sizes.  These same spaces could also be used by those off duty to watch movies on television monitors or relax away from their berths.

The ship’s chapel facing aft. Various religious services are also hosted in the foc’sle on Sundays. Photo by Shawn J. Dake.
A recreation room adjoins the chapel and library. Photo by Shawn J. Dake.

There is also a small chapel, a small recreation room with computer access and an adjacent library aboard.  Other than the accommodations of some of the major officers, the berthing for most of the sailors can only be described as Spartan.  Bunks three levels high with a mattress, were the norm.

Typical crew accommodations provide a bed, a locker and little else. Photo by Shawn J. Dake.
Open deck at the stern while under way at 30 knots. Photo by Shawn J. Dake.

Many berthing spaces had a small common area with a table and four chairs and of course communal toilet and shower facilities.  Separate berthing sections are provided for male and female members of the crew.   At the stern there are some outdoor spaces overlooking the wake where many choose to step out for some fresh air and conversation.  Also near the stern on the hanger deck is a jet engine workshop for repairing the airplanes.

The “island” sits on the starboard side of the flight deck for commanding operations. Photo by Shawn J. Dake.
An unusual view looking up and aft at the bridges aboard the U.S.S. CARL VINSON. Photo by Shawn J. Dake

The “island” is the towering structure above the flight deck that serves as the command center of the ship.  There are bridges on several levels but the main navigating bridge is the second from the top.  From here there is a commanding view of the entire ship and the surrounding sea.  Powerful binoculars are permanently affixed to several locations on the outer decks.  The tower bristles with radar and communications antennas.

A view from the upper bridge overlooking the flight deck facing forward. Photo by Shawn J. Dake.


On the flight deck facing forward. The entire length is slightly under 1,100 feet. Photo by Shawn J. Dake.

Although this cruise did not have a destination other than the sea and a safe return to port the ship cruised along at an impressive speed of 30 knots.  During aircraft operations the jets approach the ship at 350 knots so positioning the ship in the right direction in relation to the wind and making sure they “grab the hook” on landing is critical to a safe operation.  Working on the flight deck has been called “The most dangerous job in the Navy” and all personnel have to be highly trained and continuously on the alert.  Even the smallest bits of debris on the deck can damage aircraft engines leading to a catastrophe.  There are seven types of crew members on deck each distinguished by boldly colorful shirts to identify their roles.  While each has multiple roles this sums up a bit of what is expected of them.  Blue is for the plane handlers, tractor drivers and aircraft elevator operators (there are four aircraft elevators on this carrier, three on the starboard side and one to port), Red Shirts handle crashes and ordnance, Green tasks include catapults and arresting gear hooks and handling cargo, Yellow serve as plane directors, Purple handles aviation fuels, White is for medical along with air quality, and Brown is the Air Wing Plane Captain and Leading Petty Officer.  Each job is specific and important to the overall combined operations.

An older version of the ship’s logo and slogan found embedded in the wooden railing on the bridge is slightly different than the current version. Photo by Shawn J. Dake.

The U.S.S. CARL VINSON is impressive in its size and complexity.  The motto of the ship in Latin is “Vis Per Mare” meaning “Strength From The Sea.”  The seal carrying that inscription shows an eagle with spread wings representing the power of the ship’s aircraft.  The eagle flies over a stylize letter “V” representing both the name Vinson and the shape of the ship’s hull when viewed bow-on.  Ship’s rope rings the seal with Navy anchors appearing on either side done in blue and yellow against a white background.

I certainly never thought I would be given the chance to sail aboard an active-duty aircraft carrier.  Other than what I had seen on film or television, I had no idea of what life behind-the-scenes might be like aboard this floating city with an airport attached to the top.  It is my sincere hope that this gives you a better appreciation of what life is like on board for the brave men and women who have volunteered to serve in the United States Navy and all of the branches of service.  Thank you so much to the crew of the U.S.S. CARL VINSON (CVN 70) for a day at sea unlike any other, and one I will never forget.

The U.S.S. CARL VINSON off the coast of Southern California in October, 1993. U.S. Navy photo by PH3 David C. Lloyd.

With great appreciation to a man I am now proud to also call a friend, CDR William M. Lauper USN. RET., Navy League of The United States.  And onboard the CARL VINSON, Command Master Chief  MCPO Jeff Owejan for making this all possible.

Dedicated to my Dad, Delbert Charles Dake,
Navy Corpsman, World War II.

Shawn Dake

Shawn Dake

Shawn J. Dake, freelance travel writer and regular contributor to MaritimeMatters, worked in tourism and cruise industry for over 35 years.  A native of Southern California, his first job was as a tour guide aboard the Queen Mary.  A frequent lecturer on ship-related topics he has appeared on TV programs.  Owner of Oceans Away Cruises & Travel agency, he served as President of the local Chapter of Steamship Historical Society of America.  With a love of the sea, he is a veteran of 115 cruises.
Shawn Dake

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