(Rob Jagodzinski/Stars and Stripes)

(Rob Jagodzinski/Stars and Stripes)

Activity on the flight deck of the USS Saratoga in the Red Sea during Operation Desert Shield in November, 1990.

Activity on the flight deck of the USS Saratoga in the Red Sea during Operation Desert Shield in November, 1990. (Rob Jagodzinski/Stars and Stripes)

(Rob Jagodzinski/Stars and Stripes)

(Rob Jagodzinski/Stars and Stripes)

(Rob Jagodzinski/Stars and Stripes)

ABOARD THE USS SARATOGA — Without guys like Seaman Apprentice Jim Sanden, this carrier's "Top Gun" pilots in their high-tech jets would fly like an anchor — straight off the flight deck and into the sea.

And if sailors like Petty Officer 2nd Class Ken Williams weren't on duty, aviators trying to land on the deck might either rip the tails off their war birds or make a deadfall off the bow of the ship.

For it's 19-year-old Sanden who controls the muscle behind the Saratoga's steam-driven catapult launcher. And it's sailors like 25-year-old Williams who set the pressure on the deck cables that planes snag when they touch down.

Sanden, Williams and others among the 3,500 sailors and aviators on board the Saratoga have been sailing in the Red Sea and the Mediterranean since arriving from Mayport Naval Base, Fla., in late August. As part of the multinational naval force in the region, the Saratoga and its escorts have been enforcing the United Nations embargo against Iraq. The carrier is also prepared to launch air strikes should war with Iraq break out.

TO STAY READY, Saratoga has doubled its normal amount of aircraft launches and recoveries, ship officials said. While on a routine float the carrier might see 1,000 trap (tail hook) landings a month, the ship has logged about 6,000 traps in the three months since Desert Shield began.

That means 18-hour days for Sanden, whose launch crew is the only one on the ship. No second shift relieves them.

"Our hours increase with the increased flights," said Sanden, from Warren, Pa. "A lot of times we'll sleep on the floors in our work centers between missions. We may not get to our racks for three days."

At work, Sanden sits in a spider hole in the middle of the Saratoga's deck. When a plane taxis into position on the launcher, he uses a table to figure how much catapult thrust the aircraft will require to shoot it off deck. The thrust varies with wind speed and the amount of fuel and ordnance each plane carries.

The Saratoga's catapult works like a long piston that rides beneath the deck. A shuttle at the end of the piston sticks above the deck and connects to an aircraft's nose wheel. The plane launches with engines revved to full bore and thousands of pounds of steam pressure driving the piston forward. This way, fighter jets fire off the deck from zero to 150 knots in about three seconds.

"But if too little steam is used, the aircraft won't reach flight speed and it could go into the water," Sanden said. "And if too much pressure is used pilots can get jerked too heavily and lose control of the aircraft." Sanden has seen only videos of such accidents.

During catapult launches, danger lies not only with the pilot but the deck crew as well.

"I'm about eight to 10 feet from the plane as it passes by on launch," Sanden explained. "Bombs could fall or missiles could fly off the fighter jets — I've heard of it happening on other ships and the guys were injured or burned."

The thunder blast of jets firing into the sky is the sound of a thousand amplified blow torches, a din that no ear plugs can shut out.

The work hours during the Red Sea deployment have been "unbelievable," Sanden said. "But the (catapult) crew doesn't have time to be tired, we put aside sleep" during the long shifts when the days blur together.

The crew's safety record has not suffered because of the long hours, said Lt. Cmdr. Ron Coleman, 40, who supervises catapult and arresting gear operations. No one has been seriously hurt on duty, the Ocala, Fla., native said, adding that such a safety record is uncommon for such a high amount of flight operations.

FOUR CABLES lie across the stern of the flight deck, and it is one of these wires that a carrier plane's tail hook must snag to fasten the aircraft to the vessel. The cables pass through the deck and are connected to a great, complicated sort of clutch that brakes the wire as a carrier plane drags it out. Williams works below the flight deck setting the dials that brake the cables for each plane that lands. The arresting gear, with its 200,000-pound breaking strength, is designed to stop planes like the Tomcat, which weighs 70,000 pounds fully gassed and loaded.

"It's a thrill to me that when a bird's coming in for a landing on the deck I have the power to stop it," the Brooklyn, N.Y., native said. But he explained that "If the (arresting gear) is set ... too low it won't stop the plane ... and if it's set too high it could tear the tail hook off the plane."

Arresting gear fills the work spaces to which Williams and his crew is assigned, and it "makes a loud screeching noise" when a plane lands. If one of the cables were to snap "It could cut a man in two," he said, adding that one of his friends aboard another carrier was killed that way.

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