When you’re spending 24 hours at sea on an aircraft carrier, it’s the coming and going that can overshadow the other 23 hours and 55 seconds.
You know, going from 105 mph to 0 in just two seconds when you land, or going from 0 to 128 mph in a mere three seconds when you leave.
“Fairly interesting,” allowed Terri Elander of Missoula, who recently returned from the Pacific Ocean and the USS Carl Vinson.
While the arrested landing and catapulted takeoff were experiences she won’t soon forget, Elander’s lasting impression will be the hard work being done, and sacrifices being made, by sailors who at the moment are a long ways from any conflict.
“My biggest takeaway feeling,” Elander says, “is that we speak a lot about appreciating our service members and their sacrifice, but we usually hear it in terms of Afghanistan and Iraq.”
While not minimizing that, Elander says it’s important to remind Americans that all who serve in the military give up a lot to protect us.
In the case of the 5,000 sailors on board the USS Carl Vinson, that means months away from families, from their children, living in cramped quarters.
“What was on my mind was how do they communicate with their families?” Elander says. “There’s no Facebook, no Skype. They told me they receive mail once a month when they’re at sea. That inability to connect, especially with so many young people serving who grew up in a world of instant communication – they give up a lot to do this.”
Elander, international public relations director for the Missoula Children’s Theatre and host of “Wake Up Montana” on KTMF-TV, was taking part in the U.S. Navy’s Leaders to Sea program.
It allows civilians from the corporate, civic, government, education and nonprofit sectors to experience Navy operations at sea.
Participants pay their own way, up to and including an honorarium to cover their meals on the ship.
“What happened was last fall I got a press release saying Rear Adm. Douglas Asbjornsen was coming to Missoula to promote the Navy,” Elander says. “I said I’d love to interview him,” and set up a time to do so.
That was in her position as host of “Wake Up Montana.” As an MCT employee, Elander also wanted to acquaint Asbjornsen with the nonprofit that, among other things, sends teams around the world on weeklong residency programs to help children participate in theatrical productions.
“The military is probably our biggest client,” Elander says. This year, for instance, MCT will visit 45 U.S. naval installations, 14 of them overseas, to work with the children of sailors in weeklong projects funded by child and youth family programs on bases.
“This might sound funny,” Elander says Asbjornsen told the people at MCT, “but what you folks do contributes to national security. You’re helping families cope with the deployment of loved ones and the stress that brings, and that’s important.”
It was Asbjornsen who told Elander about Leaders to Sea, and said he’d like to nominate her to participate, if she was interested.
The opportunity to visit an aircraft carrier at sea was not something Elander had ever anticipated falling in her lap, but once it had, she didn’t see how she could pass up the experience.
It only happens when circumstances allow, and almost half a year passed after Elander sent in her application.
Then, on Feb. 1, she got an email telling her there was a spot for her to visit the USS Carl Vinson on Feb. 27.
Commissioned in 1982, the Nimitz-class – that means it’s nuclear-powered – supercarrier relatively recently underwent a three-year refueling and complex overhaul that extended her unlimited range for another quarter of a century.
Since returning to the U.S. Navy fleet in 2009, she’s made headlines several times.
In 2010, the Carl Vinson was ordered to Haiti to help with earthquake relief efforts. Three days after arriving in Port au Prince, CNN medical correspondent and neurosurgeon Sanjay Gupta was part of a medical team that removed a piece of concrete from the skull of a 12-year-old earthquake victim in an operation performed on the ship.
In 2011 the Carl Vinson became the first aircraft carrier ever to serve as the site of an NCAA basketball game. North Carolina defeated Michigan State at sea and on a court set up on the flight deck, in front of a crowd of more than 8,000, most of them members of the U.S. Navy and one of them President Barack Obama.
Also in 2011, the Carl Vinson had one of its most notable roles. The ship is where the body of Osama bin Laden was rushed after Navy SEALs killed the mastermind of 9/11. It was from this aircraft carrier that bin Laden was buried in the North Arabian Sea.
Tipped on end, Elander says the Carl Vinson would be taller than the Empire State Building.
“It’s extraordinary, the amount of training going on and knowledge it takes to operate it,” she says.
The Carl Vinson calls itself the “greenest” aircraft carrier in the Navy, according to Elander.
“They recycle everything, melt their plastic, leftover food is mulched and tossed to feed marine life, and they don’t throw any other garbage overboard,” she says. “You could tell they felt proud of the work they put into it.”
The aircraft carrier also converts 400,000 gallons of seawater into fresh water every day for use onboard.
Elander and 14 other Leaders at Sea participants – most of the others in her group were from universities, Elander says – were delivered to the USS Carl Vinson from Coronado, Calif., on a Grumman C-2 Greyhound transport plane that normally hauls supplies and mail, not people.
“We were warned the landing would feel violent,” Elander says. “You’re in a cargo plane that’s not pressurized, and you go from 105 to zero in two seconds. It’s a significant jolt, but you know, it was over before you could even think about it.”
Ditto the takeoff, in which a catapult assists the plane in getting up to speed and off the flight deck.
“It was over in a flash,” Elander says. “I’ve never bungee jumped, but the sensation seemed like what it might be when you bungee jump and get to the end of the cord and it pulls you back. It was not frightening, but it was remarkable.”
Elander didn’t experience it alone. On the trip with her was “Flat Stanley,” which originally was a 1964 children’s book but, in this case, a paper doll belonging to the granddaughter of an MCT co-worker.
As with the children’s book, “Flat Stanley” can go places other people can’t, such as into an envelope to be mailed to other places. He’s part of a Hellgate Elementary School project where the kids report on their own Flat Stanleys’ adventures.
This one climbed in Elander’s luggage for the visit to the USS Carl Vinson, and the kids – who wrote notes to be distributed to some of the sailors onboard – will soon get the cutout doll’s report on the aircraft carrier, courtesy of Elander.
Like her, Elander says Flat Stanley came away “with a greater respect for what our people in the military do.”