Cross the quarterdeck, squeeze through a hatch into the belly of the USS Kitty Hawk, climb up and down innumerable ladders. Turn another couple of corners, walk down a passageway and there it is.
At first it seems out of place: a long, long row of metal steps, flanked by two rubber handgrips. But yes, it’s a hundred-foot-long escalator, right in the middle of a Navy aircraft carrier. Further aft in the ship is another.
Neither is running but at the flip of a switch, they could move sailors from one level of the ship to another, just as if they were going from one floor of a shopping mall to the next.
“When I first checked on board, I thought it was one of those ‘tease the new guy’ things,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Luke Gunderson.
“What’s that called? A snipe hunt? Some of the guys told me to go check out the escalators, and I figured it was one of those things where I’d walk around the ship asking for directions to the escalator and everyone would be laughing at me.”
It’s a common reaction. But ship officials say the escalators are on the carrier for a relatively simple reason: quickly moving aviators from their ready rooms to the flight deck. Instead of having to climb stairs or ladders in their flight suits, laden with heavy gear, the aviators get help up to the flight deck.
If an aviator had to haul up four ladders loaded with flight gear he would probably pass out before he reached the flight deck to man his jet, said Lt. Brook Dewalt, the Kitty Hawk public affairs officer.
Dewalt polled some of the ship’s old hands on the ship for information about the escalators. One of the units runs between the aft mess decks and an arresting gear machinery room; the other starts near the ship’s mail room and ends at the Dambusters flight squadron ready room.
Some crew members say there used to be a third escalator for the ship’s captain, running from the 03 level up to the bridge. They say that was removed years before.
Kitty Hawk and the USS Constellation, being the “more seasoned” — read “older” — carriers in the fleet, are the only two active ships with escalators. On newer carriers, ready rooms were built closer to the flight deck.
The practice is not without precedent in Naval history.
From 1947 to 1955, 15 Essex and Ticonderoga class aircraft carriers were modernized to accommodate the arrival of jet aircraft and nuclear-armed heavy attack bombers.
Each carrier went under the knife, according to the Department of the Navy’s Naval Historical Center. Flight decks were reinforced to handle heavier aircraft; stronger elevators, more powerful catapults and new arresting gear were installed.
To better protect aircrews, ready rooms were moved to below the armored hangar bay — and that’s where the escalators come into play.
Having given pilots a longer trip to the flight deck, engineers decided at least to make it easier. A whole class of carriers was fitted with long escalators.
And while many ships have elevators to transport supplies and munitions, the USS Iowa had an elevator installed for President Franklin Roosevelt.
Roosevelt sailed on the Iowa on his way to a war-time summit in Cairo, Egypt, in 1943.
The ship also had a square bathtub specifically installed for FDR, who used a wheelchair.