SINGAPORE STRAITS: I grimace as I grip my life vest, and struggle against the four-point restraint seat belt to lean forward – what we had been told to do to avoid getting whiplash, as we braced ourselves to be catapulted off the USS Ronald Reagan in a C-2A Greyhound logistics aircraft.
We had spent all afternoon watching planes slingshot off the aircraft carrier's flight deck – and now it was our turn to leave the USS Ronald Reagan.
With my ear plugs and noise-cancelling headset, I could barely hear anything except for the roar of the engines. Perspiration begins collecting around my goggles as they fogged up.
Suddenly, a crew member in the front row yells.
“Here we go! Here we go!"
Metal shrieks and escaping steam fills the cabin as the aircraft accelerated. All of us in the cabin are thrown forward.
In the space of a second, I am hanging from my harness, weightless and confused at what was happening, as the plane shot from zero to 220 kilometres per hour in two seconds, off the 300-metre runway of the USS Ronald Reagan and over the Singapore Straits.
And then I am slammed back into the seat, as the plane climbs easily into the sky.
We were leaving behind what I can only call a small mobile city in the middle of the ocean.
A SMALL MOBILE CITY IN THE MIDDLE OF THE OCEAN
The 334-metre long USS Ronald Reagan is a formidable sight. Its 97,000 tonnes of steel, towering 20 stories above the waterline, is home to more than 5,000 people.
Seventy aircraft took pride of place on the Nimitz-class carrier’s 4.5-acre flight deck for landing, take-off, and parking.
Our small group of journalists had landed on the ship at 1pm, after a 90-minute flight from Paya Lebar Airbase. We were briefed about the dangerous environment we were about to step into, and immediately whisked away to the bustling flight deck area with our protective headsets, earplugs, and goggles on.
Dozens of crew members were on the deck, their different-coloured shirts defining their roles: The yellow shirts were aircraft handlers; the green shirts were aircraft maintainers; the blue ones, plane handlers; and people in red, ordnance handlers.
We dodged walls of hot exhaust as we made our way to one of the runways, where our hosts stressed the importance of keeping behind the red and white foul lines. I had been straining so hard to hear them above the din on the flight deck, that I almost hadn't noticed a crew preparing their plane for take-off less than 10 metres away from me.
We watched as the aircraft maintainers made their final checks on aircraft equipment before stepping clear of the flight path. Gesturing to the pilot in the cockpit, the yellow-shirted aircraft handlers too, stepped back for the jet to take wing.
Despite being well behind the foul lines, we could feel the sheer impact of the plane’s thrust, propelling it off the 300-metre runway.
But there was no time to gape. As soon as the plane was airborne, we all moved over to the other foul line where another plane was to take off. One of the yellow shirts told me that they work about 12 hours a day, regardless of the weather.
Weaving through the busy flight deck to get to the landing deck, I heard a disembodied voice over the loudspeaker encouraging the crew and saying “Let’s not work for the weekend, guys. Concentrate on the here and now!”
Four sturdy steel cables stretched across the landing deck – the so-called "arresting gear", designed to be caught by a landing aircraft’s tailhook. By catching one of the four wires, the aircraft is able to decelerate immediately – something that is extremely important, given the short runway on an aircraft naval carrier.
On this deck, crew stood by to release the cable from the planes and sweep it back to its hydraulic attachments on the deck.
One level down, at the flight deck control, we met the aircraft handler and ordnance handler who orchestrate all of these operations.
Sitting around a table colloquially called the “ouija board”, every movement of each aircraft is visualised and communicated to the tower at the top of the ship.
It must be all to easy to move things around - the warning “Do not lean on the ouija board” was displayed prominently on the table.
The bridge of the ship is where all navigation takes place, and we arrived just when the carrier was due for a starboard, or right turn. We watched as a 10-man crew cooperated to execute a smooth turn.
What struck me was how young many of the crew members were. Along with Monique Sanchez, the 20-year-old helmsman at the wheel, many of the men and women on board were young adults, between 18 and 22 years of age.
The USS Ronald Reagan may have five gyms as well as Internet access, but the three brief hours we spent on board was far from sufficient for us to comprehend what life must be like for these 5,000 people who spend six to nine months at sea, on board their home away from home.