Carrier Stennis heads out for pilot qualifications

In a November, 2014 file photo, Quartermaster Seaman Mikkel Jones and Quartermaster 1st Class Dave Macaraeg hoist the flag of USS John C. Stennis as the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier gets underway.


By ED FRIEDRICH | Kitsap Sun, Bremerton, Wash. | Published: January 13, 2015

ABOARD THE USS JOHN C. STENNIS (Tribune News Service) —  A bosun’s whistle shrieks through the ship’s speakers.

“It’s an absolutely perfect day to get underway,” follows a voice, overly energetic for 8:30 a.m.

It’s Capt. Michael Wettlaufer, the ship’s commanding officer. He’s always like that, crew members say.

“I need everybody absolutely focused on Job One, getting the ship away from the pier and up to Indian Island. Let’s get this right the first time.”

The aircraft carrier departed its home port of Naval Base Kitsap-Bremerton Monday morning for flight qualifications off Southern California. It was to load munitions at Naval Magazine Indian Island, near Port Townsend.

One would think protected Puget Sound would prove easy sailing for the 2,800-person crew. Not true.

“Two of the most challenging evolutions you can perform are Bremerton and Port Townsend said Capt. Kavon “Hak” Hakimzadah, the executive officer. “You cannot see the water as you go around the corner (in skinny Rich Passage).”

“It’s the most challenging water I’ve ever been in because there’s a lot of currents,” Wettlaufer said. “The Puget Sound currents are very significant.”

Wettlaufer is speaking from the crowded, windowed navigation bridge. Lt. j.g. Shannon Shaw, the conning officer, is front middle, peering through a scope and calling the shots.

“One thousand yards to turn,” she announces. “Next course oh-oh-nine.”

“Next course oh-oh-nine,” repeats the helmsman, standing behind her and cranking the wheel.

They’re under the direction of the officer of the deck and, ultimately, Wettlaufer.

“I’m listening for a continuous rhythm of communication,” Wettlaufer said.

The 1,092-foot-long carrier glides through Rich Passage uneventfully, but three huge cargo ships and a ferry clog the entrance. Looking straight at the Seattle skyline, the Stennis hacks a left.

Over the next three days, the ship will load 6 million pounds of bombs, missiles and rounds at Indian Island. Undergoing maintenance for 16 months at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility, it hasn’t been armed since returning from back-to-back deployments to the Middle East in May 2013. Carriers generally are loaded at sea.

This only will be the sixth aircraft carrier visit at Indian Island since 2000.

At one time, aircraft carriers didn’t have many weapons. They relied on ships in their strike group to shield them. Stennis is armed with two Sea Sparrow anti-aircraft and anti-missile weapons systems, two RIM-116 Rolling Airframe missile systems to destroy anti-ship cruise missiles and three Phalanx automated 20mm machine guns. They’re all controlled from a dark, blue-lit Combat Direction Office in the bowels of the ship.

The ship’s biggest weapons are its planes. It can carry about 70. There’s only one aboard now, an F-18 skeleton the crew practices moving around. Most of the air wing is based in Lemoore, California, and will fly in. The 4½-acre flight deck will be crowded. There will be 1,000 to 1,100 landings in 10 days.

“We’re pounding the deck with aircraft,” said Wettlaufer, himself a pilot.

The ship features four catapults that fling planes from zero to 175 mph in 2½ seconds and 300 feet.

“It’s like a big rubber band with steam,” said Lt. Cmdr. Scott Hudson, senior shooter, who’s responsible for landing and takeoff of all aircraft. “Our technology is simple, but it works every time.”

Pilots have to snag one of four cables on the return.

Hudson’s sailors average 18 to 21 years old, and are working with $13 million to $15 million planes.

“These kids are a cross-section of America, and they work their butts off every day,” Hudson said.

©2015 the KitsapSun (Bremerton, Wash.)
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Capt. Michael Wettlaufer, commanding officer of the USS John C. Stennis.

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