Aircraft carriers of the world don’t come much larger than the US Navy’s nuclear-powered Nimitz-class. At 4.5 acres and stretching 1,092 feet, the flight deck of USS Abraham Lincoln dwarfs the Chrysler Building – and it’s not even the biggest around. Despite its awesome profile, however, its role is more than symbolic. The carrier can balance and mobilize a seagoing airbase of multiple strike and combat support aircraft, with a ship’s company of over 5,000 souls. It can deploy anywhere within international waters while retaining the sovereign territory of its home place of berth. Therefore, unlike an airbase stationed on foreign soil, no permission for landing or overflight rights is required.
Despite its loner appearance, however, the aircraft carrier is not without friends; it is often flanked by a more nimble carrier ‘battle’ group that can offer added protection, tactical options and extra supplies to the fleet.
Landing on a postage stamp
Despite its 4.5 acres, the carrier has limited space and planes require mechanized support to take off and land. Aircraft are spotted by tractors, readied with fuel pumped from tanks below deck and primed with missiles. During a take off the carrier speeds into the wind, causing air to flow over the deck. This acts in conjunction with powerful steam-driven ‘Fat Cat’ catapults that propel 30-ton jets with the necessary speed and lift to launch at a rate of up to four every minute.
Hitting a ‘postage stamp’ on open water, aircraft rely on 1.375-inch-thick arrest cables, suspended five inches off the flight deck, separated at 35-40-foot intervals. These cables connect to hydraulic cylinders that act as giant shock absorbers. When the tail hook connects with a cable it pulls a piston within a fluid-filled chamber of the cylinder; as it’s drawn down energy is absorbed, bringing aircraft to a halt. Smaller carriers forgo the CATOBAR system for short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL). The Royal Navy developed a ‘ski jump’ ramp at the end of the deck to help launch aircraft that require little or no forward movement to take off or land.
No man is an ‘island’
The primary flight control (or ‘Pri-Fly’) is home to the Air Boss. With a crow’s nest view of proceedings and an array of GPS receivers and radar screens to hand, he choreographs the well-oiled ritual of take-off and landings, flight-deck manoeuvres and those in-flight aircraft in proximity to the ship.
Below, the Bridge is home to the Officer of the Deck (OOD) -appointed on four-hourly rotations by the Commanding Officer (Captain). He stays at his station while ‘under sail’ and is responsible for all safety and operational decisions from navigation through to communications. With its computer-enhanced air detection systems, the nearby CDC (Combat Direction Centre) provides the Tactical Action Officer with real-time data to assist his role in supporting the CO in defensive/offensive operations.
Aircraft carrier facts
The captain’s log
The captain’s quarters double as office space and afford comparative luxury with a 30×30-foot living space. The captain, bar admiral, is the only crew member to enjoy the luxury of his own private bathroom.
Full steam ahead
Two nuclear fission reactors heat water which passes under pressure driving four steam turbines that turn four bronze propellers -each measuring 20ft and weighing 30 tons apiece – to achieve a maximum speed of 35 knots (equivalent to 40mph). The protruding bulbous bow adds buoyancy, reducing drag for enhanced handling and propulsion. It adds extra lift to the flight deck that aids in an aircraft’s launch.
Two angled flight-decks support the CATOBAR (Catapult Assisted Take Off But Arrested Recovery) system. This speeds up flight-deck operations allowing for simultaneous landing and launch of aircraft.
Crew typically endure cramped living quarters with triple-stacked bunks, often sharing compartments and toilet facilities with upwards of 60 people while navigating near-vertical stairwells and a warren of tight corridors.
Is there a doctor on board?
Yes. The medical department is located under the hangar deck to ease patient access, offer stability during surgical procedures and protection from damage under fire. On Nimitz-class carriers it operates a spacious surgical suite and intensive care unit.
Approaching 50m tall the tower is one tenth as wide at the flight deck where space is at a premium. It bristles with radar and communication antenna that can sense the proximity of the fleet, target encroaching threats and receive TV/ satellite reception.
The ‘yellow gear’
The ‘yellow gear’ supports air operations and includes: the mobile crash crane or ’tilley’ that removes flight-deck obstructions, the forklift, tow tractors for spotting of aircraft, and jet engine starting units.
Stored in magazines on the lower deck, weapons are transferred to below flight deck by bomb elevators; once assembled they are transferred to carts and the flight deck elevators where they can be manually fitted by flight deck crew.
A vested interest
Coloured vests signify flight-deck function. The whites represent safety officer and crew; blue are the aircraft handling and chock crewmen; green is the catapult and arrest crews; yellow includes the catapult/flight-deck officers; and brown, the plane captains.