Friday, May 26, 2006

First Time I Landed On An Aircraft Carrier

The Oriskany, the "Big O," was taken out of service many years ago but it is the first - and only - aircraft carrier I ever landed on. In the early 60s my newspaper, the Union-Tribune, assigned me and its military reporter to fly out the day before the ship was due back in San Diego after a long deployment.

Pre-dawn we met the pilots of our two-engined Navy plane and as we struggled into bulky orange life jackets we were told what to do WHEN we had to ditch at sea. None of this "in the unlikely event...your seat is a flotation device" for these guys. It was still dark when we took off and headed for our carrier hundreds of miles offshore. They had stashed a thermos of coffee for us civilians seated in the back of the gray COD (Carrier Onboard Delivery). Well, that's what I remember it being called.

Hours later, it was light and I was craning my neck to search the sea below after the pilot had announced we were there. I saw lots and lots of Pacific Ocean with small waves and finally I spotted something about the size of a matchbox that seemed to be leaving a wake behind it. It was a very small matchbox.

We started circling down, down, down and the object slowly became larger and larger and it started to look like a ship and finally I could see that it was a pretty wide and long aircraft carrier and we were about to bump on board. The engines were screaming as we passed over the beginning of the ship and WHAP! we stopped. My ears popped.

I'd seen enough movies to know about the cable hook, etc. but the sudden stop and the complete shut down of the engines and the silence after hours of loud droning was a surprise. A pleasant surprise. Stepping onto the deck, I was reassured to be back on solid footing but in just a moment I realized my air legs now had to become sea legs as the ship rolled slightly side to side in the gentle sea.

I remember it being a very large ship with many levels and we had time to explore and discover it was a complete city with repair shops able to fix anything, food preparation areas, mess halls, and even shops - ship stores where you could buy duty free items. We were housed up forward, about as far forward as you could go, just behind the anchor chain lockers.

The rest of the day was spent recording the coordinated hustle and bustle on deck as the jets were launched off to head for inland bases and then mingling with the excited crew the night before they were to dock and see their loved ones after being away about 6 months.

I felt some of their excitement as we steamed into San Diego harbor and I snapped pictures of the sailors scampering around and their patient families waiting on the dock as the gangplanks were slowly moved into place. What a happy reunion!

A young pilot named McCain was launched from the Big O, shot out of the sky and held captive in Vietnam for more than 5 years. I worked with his younger brother who was a reporter at the Union-Tribune for a brief time.

When I came back to Charleston about 12 years ago, I went out to Patriot's Point and toured the USS Yorktown and saw an exhibit that mentioned the Oriskany had been decommissioned. That saddened me. I knew that in 1966, a few years after my first-and-only-landing, she had suffered a fire and lost a lot of sailors. A few days ago I chanced upon an article that stated she was going to be towed out to become a reef off Florida. Now I have seen photos of her last 37 minutes. She was designed to stay afloat and it took special placement of charges to change that. I wanted to share this with you. After all, Charleston is a Navy town.

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