See aircraft carrier during major combat training in USS Eisenhower VR USA News Today

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See aircraft carrier during major combat training in USS Eisenhower VR USA News Today

In the middle of deployment training off the Atlantic Coast, the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 5,000 sailors prepared for a missile strike.

Dressed in flame-retardant hoods and gloves, they practiced battling fires, containing flooding and testing for chemical or biological agents.

“All hands man battle stations,” commanders instructed over the ship’s communications system as alarms blared. “Missiles inbound, brace for shot.”

Hours later, the Eisenhower’s executive officer signaled the end of the night exercise. Robert Aguilar wasn’t happy. 

“We are moving out of training and moving into combat,” he told the ship. “This is no time for smoking and joking. We are getting ourselves ready for the war that we are headed into.”

That was in April 2016. The Eisenhower and its accompanying carrier strike group, more than 7,000 sailors in total, deployed two months later to the eastern Mediterranean, where they joined the international fight to contain ISIS and served as a deterrent to threats from Russia, Iran, Syria and others in the volatile region.

Where to find “USS Eisenhower VR”

The USA TODAY NETWORK VR team and a reporter from the Pensacola News Journal visited the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to gather exclusive 360-degree video and photos during three days of round-the-clock air operations.

An interactive VR experience for the HTC Vive allows the user to explore a virtual model of the Eisenhower and discover 360-degree photos and videos from above and below deck. An interactive version is also available for Google Daydream headsets. 360-degree video features are available for smartphones or VR via the Virtual Reality section of the USA TODAY app (iOS | Android) and the USA TODAY YouTube and Facebook channels. Samsung Gear or Playstation VR users can find the videos in the Littlstar app

“Eisenhower VR” is the first time a major news organization has told a story combining 360-degree video and VR interactivity on such a large scale. 

Preparing for war

The 2016 training was the first time that Carrier Strike Group 10 — the Eisenhower, three destroyers, two guided-missile cruisers and a support ship — came together to prepare for war.

This is a 360° video experience.
Use your mouse or the arrow keys on your keyboard
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Step aboard the USS Eisenhower during the biggest combat training in recent Navy history. Experience jet launches, landings and high-stakes drills in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
USA TODAY NETWORK

The trip, which provided a rare glimpse of life onboard an active Navy aircraft carrier, was allowed under an agreement with Navy leaders to not immediately publish details about the training and subsequent deployment.

The Eisenhower later relieved the USS Harry S. Truman in the eastern Mediterranean. It was the first time U.S. aircraft carriers had deployed to the region since 2003. The Eisenhower’s pilots flew 1,900 combat flights in support of ground troops in Iraq and Syria, dropping more than 1,220 bombs.

Heading into the deployment, Rear Adm. Jesse Wilson Jr., the strike group’s commander, said the purpose of the intensive training — the largest such training exercise in recent U.S. Navy history — was to prepare his sailors for the unexpected.

“We don’t focus on fighting what happened last year or what happened during the last war, we have to be looking forward,” he said.

The carrier strike group was testing new technology with a specific focus on tools limiting electronic emissions, which can be used to track the location of the American ships.

“The enemy has new capabilities as well, and they will be flexing that,” he said.

The deployment included close encounters with Russian ships and aircraft — something not faced by carrier strike groups in previous post-Cold War deployments to the eastern Mediterranean.

In one instance, a Russian destroyer came within 1,500 yards of the Eisenhower when the carrier was conducting flight operations. The Eisenhower also had encounters with Iranian vessels and faced threats from unmanned drones, said Capt. Paul Spedero Jr., the Eisenhower’s commander.

The training was crucial in preparing the crew for those challenges, he said.

This is a 360° video experience.
Use your mouse or the arrow keys on your keyboard
to see the entire 360° view.

Explore the USS Eisenhower during combat training and see why the flight deck of an aircraft carrier is one of the most dangerous spots in the world to work.
USA TODAY NETWORK

The Eisenhower is the heart of the floating display of military might that is Carrier Strike Group 10 and its flight deck is strike group’s heart beat — routinely shooting off armed jets just seconds apart and recovering them as quickly.

Early into the pre-deployment training, eight sailors were seriously injured and medevacked off the Eisenhower after an arresting wire snapped on the flight deck. No one died, but the incident was a reminder of how quickly things can go bad during rounds of rapid-fire landings and take offs involving dozens of fighter jets.

Making sense of the chaos

Working on a flight deck is among the most-dangerous jobs in the Navy.

Carlos Vargas, a lead petty officer on the deck, said the job requires focus on the routine and fast reaction to anything unexpected.

“Your head has to be on a swivel so you make sure you are aware of everything,” he said.

Hand signals are important because engine noise makes it difficult to hear headset communications. Flight deck workers wear color-coded shirts to help organize the chaos. Sailors who handle catapults and arresting wires wear green, those who handle weapons and ammunition wear red and the “yellow shirts” direct all movement of the aircraft.

Everything on the flight deck is seen through haze of jet fuel. Heat from the jets’ afterburners radiates over the deck as the planes turn into position for takeoff. The force of the takeoffs shake anyone on the deck as dozens of fighter jets take off in rapid succession. Steam curls from the catapults after each jet launches.

Inside the flight deck operations room, Lt. Harry Adair and his crew coordinated movement of the jets on radar and computer screens. Adair also watched the “Ouija board” — an old-fashioned model of the flight deck.

The Ouija board has tiny wooden planes and multi-colored pushpins that are moved around by hand to indicate a plane’s status for takeoff or landing. It is a tribute to the earliest days of carrier aviation and could be a vital tool if a catastrophic emergency caused the ship’s electronic systems to fail.

‘Rack ’em and stack ’em’

Above the deck, Cmdr. Timothy Henry, a veteran naval aviator, and his crew coordinate takeoffs and landings.

“Anytime you have humans flying aircraft, there can be mistakes,” he said. “You have people standing all over the deck. If they get hurt, that’s the stuff that keeps you up at night,” he said.

As dangerous as carrier flight operations are during the day, they are more dangerous at night.

Air Wing Commander Capt. Jeffrey Anderson watched night takeoffs and landings on a live video feed inside the Air Operations Room. As a jet approached the carrier, it lined up with crosshairs on the screen. The vibrating thud of jets hitting the arresting wire for a successful landing could be felt in the room below.

Landing on the floating and moving carrier deck at night is among the most difficult skills for a Naval aviator to conquer, Anderson said. The pilots have to be qualified to land on a carrier during the day before they can attempt a night landing.

During the training, he evaluated his young pilots’ night landings. The training was the first time the entire air wing, comprised of 75 jets and helicopters, came together for flight operations.

“It’s good to have an extra set of eyes on things, especially at night,” Anderson said as he watched jet after jet catch the arresting wire and land.

In the Air Control Center next door, Ensign Blake Hoyt watched his radar screen showing 16 aircraft circling the carrier in a holding pattern that extended 21 miles around the ship. Other aircraft were waiting to take off.

“As soon as the last one takes off, we want the first one to land. We rack ’em and stack ’em,” he said.

The carrier is most vulnerable when traveling in a straight line during launch and recovery operations. The rapid speed of the takeoffs and recoveries is important in limiting that vulnerability.

Others in the control room continuously updated Hoyt on the status of different jets, to ensure maximum efficiency.

“Five minutes sir.” And then, “One minute sir. In position, on time.”

Hoyt was pleased with the progress.

“We are steady shooting them tonight. We are shooting them fast,” he said.

But the process stalled after a mechanical issue with one of the catapults.

“Four hundred, discontinue approach,” he told the approaching jet.

“Now we gotta circle all these aircraft back into the choo-choo train and bring them back down,” he explained.

“Five hundred, do not expect to approach this pass,” he told another jet.

Operations stalled for less than 10 minutes before things were up and going again. Jet 200 was the first to attempt a landing after the delay. A live video feed showed the jet lined up in the crosshairs and approaching the carrier.

The entire room said “bolter” as 200 approached the carrier and missed the arresting wire. Pilots are more likely to “bolt,” or miss the wire, at night.

After a series of successful landings, Hoyt turned his attention back to 200 because the jet was running low on fuel.

Hoyt ordered a fuel tanker to shadow 200 in case the pilot missed the landing on the next approach.

Earlier in the training, controllers sent pilots back to land for fuel during night operations. But the training had advanced and the air wing’s goal was to refuel the jets in the air at night.

The control center erupted with applause when 200 avoided the refueling and landed successfully on the second approach.

This is a 360° video experience.
Use your mouse or the arrow keys on your keyboard
to see the entire 360° view.

Jump aboard a chopper and hang out on the flight deck of the USS Eisenhower for a rare glimpse of a resupply mission at sea.
USA TODAY NETWORK

In a ready room below deck, the pilots of the Norfolk, Virginia-based squadron known as the Gunslingers gathered after night operations to review their flights.

Lt. Ryan Corbin and Lt. Nick Adams, both fighter pilots, were preparing for their first deployment with the squadron.

The young fighter pilots said composure was key to taking off and landing on the aircraft carrier.

“We say around here that you have to take your bolter like a man,” Corbin said.

“It’s not a good feeling when you miss (the wire),” he said. “But you cannot think about it, you have to focus on the next attempt.”

A board on the ready room wall tracked the pilots’ missed and successful landings.

Spedero Jr., the Eisenhower’s captain, is a veteran pilot and graduate of the Navy’s elite TOPGUN fighter weapons school. From his captain’s chair on the Eisenhower’s bridge, he monitored the flight deck operations below.

“We are monitoring the parameters the ship is in, wind is a big one, making sure that we have the appropriate headwind and that we are within limits for the crosswind for both launch and recovery,” he said as jets continued to launch off the carrier deck.

“We are also managing the sea space and any surface contacts. We are in a threat environment and we are managing that threat picture,” he said.

Despite his time on the command bridge, Spedero Jr. said that his favorite place on an aircraft carrier will always be the flight deck. He also likes to explore those places on the ship that were less familiar to him when he was aviator. 

Floating city to thousands

“I like being down in the plants and seeing the sailors who very often don’t get the recognition they deserve. Their work provides for everything we do topside,” he said. “About 15 to 20 percent of what is going on on the ship is up here and on the flight deck, everything else is happening below deck.”

This is a 360° video experience.
Use your mouse or the arrow keys on your keyboard
to see the entire 360° view.

For the 5,000 sailors aboard the USS Eisenhower, long days and nights are the norm. Everything from flight operations to trash disposal must run smoothly on this floating city.
USA TODAY NETWORK

The USA Today team was not allowed to visit the Eisenhower’s nuclear-propulsion plant, but the team spent time in many of the other departments that keep the Eisenhower and its crew afloat.

More than half of the Eisenhower’s crew are 26 years old or younger, most were preparing for their first deployment.

Command Master Chief Sheila Langejans oversaw many of the youngest crew members.

She watched as lines of young sailors worked to offload cargo from a nearby supply ship using ropes to bring the supplies inside the Eisenhower. She noted there was only 200 feet between the two ships.

“Out here, an extraordinary event like this can become commonplace,” she said as several helicopters hovered and cargo was moved from ship to ship.

Chief Jiamon Poe kept a close eye on the operations.

“My biggest concern right now is the closeness of the two ships. Anything unexpected could be devastating. If we aren’t able to break the lines fast, the ships could collide.”

Navy leaders say aircraft carriers are essentially floating air bases. The carriers are also floating cities, which are home to thousands of sailors for months on end.

From Starbucks to convenience stores, the Eisenhower tries to provide its sailors with the familiar.

Ashton Allen, a 20-year-old flight deck worker, ducked into the convenience store after a long shift. He left with bags of Crunch N’ Munch and Doritos and some Honey Buns.

The deployment was Allen’s first.

“This is my first time on a boat, period,” he said with a broad smile.

Petty Officer Dwayne Murray had encouraging words for all of the young sailors who entered his shop.

“We try to have a little bit of everything so they can get a little taste of home,” said Murray, who oversees the store.

“Working on that flight deck, it is hot and intense. Some do get homesick. When they are feeling that way, a Snickers bar can become a bit of heaven,” he said.

Next to the store, petty officers Jenisis Roper and Temba Bazemore run a barber shop and hair salon.

The two women also try to create an escape for the sailors.

“They can come in here, unwind and listen to some music,” said Roper, who joked that the barber shop/hair salon is the place to find out about anything important that is happening on the ship.

“We get all of the gossip,” she said.

But the library and nearby Chaplin’s office is the place where the sailors get their most important news — news from home. The library has rows of computers sailors can use during allotted time slots to connect with family and friends.

The small crew in the Eisenhower’s public information office also works to lighten the shipboard atmosphere.

In routine ship-wide broadcasts, the group spreads important information while providing a few laughs.

In late 2015, they created a viral YouTube video titled “Sea Wars, the IKE Awakens.” The video, a parody of the official teaser for the Star War movie, used a mop bucket as a droid and the fighter jets as space ships.

A hand puppet called the OPSEC Bunny makes routine appearances in the ship’s pre-deployment broadcasts. The bunny provides operational security tips for the crew.

“Loose lips sink ships. Just because you know when we are leaving (on deployment), don’t let your friends and family know the exact dates and don’t put the dates on Facebook,” the bunny told crew members.

The Great and Powerful IKE Head, a floating head from a statue of the ship’s namesake, also make frequent appearances in the broadcasts.

While the broadcasters work to boost morale, Dr. Christopher Schultheiss and his medical team look out for the mental and physical health of the more than 7,000 sailors.

From appendectomies to major trauma care, the shipboard hospital can handle anything. Emergency medical crews can reach any location on the massive ship within two minutes.

“We have the best 21st century floating hospital anywhere in the world,” Schultheiss said.

The medical crew also spends a lot of time training sailors on basic triage techniques — something that is crucial in the event of catastrophic incident.

When the arresting wire split on the flight deck on March 18, 2016, the sailors closest to the injured responded first.

“They performed exactly as trained. Within 20 minutes from the first word of the incident, we had people in the operating room,” Schultheiss said.

Injuries to the eight sailors included a broken leg, ankle and wrist, along with skull and facial fractures.

For Langejans, the command master chief, the incident was a reminder of how quickly bad things can happen on an aircraft carrier.

Langejans was below deck when the arresting wire snapped and the mass casualty call came over the communications system.

“People were scared. We had no idea how many would be coming down the elevator on stretchers,” she said. “When a wire parts like that, life and limb can be gone instantly. You have to assume the worst when something like that happens.”

She told her young sailors to prepare themselves for what they would see when the injured made it into the hangar bay for triage.

“Their response was eye watering. It was proof that all of this training actually works,” she said.

The Eisenhower is currently in port at Norfolk Naval Air Station where it is being used to train pilots for carrier landings. It is scheduled to go to a shipyard for maintenance in the coming months.

Among the small group of U.S. aircraft carriers, competition to be the best is intense. From the galley to the barber shop, sailors brag about receiving awards denoting they are top among all U.S. aircraft carriers.

Spedero Jr. said the Eisenhower is the best carrier in the Navy — period.

“It’s a bold statement, but it is true,” he said. “We are the best in the fleet.”

 

See aircraft carrier during major combat training in USS Eisenhower VR USA News Today

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See aircraft carrier during major combat training in USS Eisenhower VR USA News Today

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