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Carrier at War

Aired January 26, 2002 - 20:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

FRANK BUCKLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The aircraft carrier on the open sea. Its very presence can alter world events.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hopefully, your presence will deter any type of combat from erupting. But when it doesn't, we're here to supply that combat force.

BUCKLEY: It's a heavily-fortified floating airport, with fighter aircraft at the ready.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Our mission is power projection. We have guys flying off the ship going hundreds of miles to do the nation's business.

BUCKLEY: Bringing America's fighting power to every corner of the globe.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's the beauty of the carrier, is the versatility that you have.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Having a carrier battle group brings immediate combat power.

BUCKLEY: The Nimitz-class carrier is the world's largest warship, yet it moves at remarkable speeds.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The greatest asset these ships have is their speed and mobility. In the course of the day, you can be in a completely different area of the world.

BUCKLEY: And as the USS John C. Stennis arrives on station, all its preparation and training will be put to the test when battle transforms this ship from a carrier at sea to a carrier at war.

San Diego, November, 2001, the carrier John C. Stennis deploys on a half-year journey, two months earlier than planned. The men and women on board will spend the December holidays at war.

This super carrier arrives for battle in mid December in the Northern Arabian Sea. It relieves another carrier to join operation Enduring Freedom. The first day on station, a somber reminder of why these sailors and airmen are here and why no one on this ship is complaining about the early deployment.

This is no ordinary flag. It was found in the rubble of the World Trade Center.

CAPT. JAMES MCDONELL, COMMANDER, USS STENNIS: One of the first things that we had the opportunity to do was make the wing just right so that we could go ahead and unfurl the flag and take the time to really reflect the reason we deployed early and what we're really all about for this deployment.

BUCKLEY: For many on board, including the battle group commander, Rear Admiral James Zortman, the flag was a direct link to events that already had a personal connection.

REAR ADM. JAMES ZORTMAN, USS STENNIS: This is personal to me. My last assignment before I came here was in the Pentagon. Twenty-one of those people that were killed in the attack on the Pentagon worked directly for me. I went to a lot of funerals; I went to a lot of memorial services.

BUCKLEY: And this aircraft carrier's armaments will play a key role in this phase of America's response to terrorism.

On the flight deck of the John C. Stennis, carrier air wing nine is launching flight operations over Afghanistan.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE), which would be 73 or so airplanes that we have on board and the 1,800 personnel that support those airplanes. And our job is basically put the flying team together and go out and execute the missions that we're assigned.

CAPT. ROLLAND THOMPSON, COMMANDER, AIR WING NINE: We've got each squadron lined out here, and we take the assigned time and mission that they're going to be going over to the beach, and we line it up and then we assign airplanes to it.

BUCKLEY: And if we look closely at the aircraft going into battle, you'll see more reminders of exactly what brought them here.

THOMPSON: The F-14s, instead of pilot's names, they have policemen and firemen's names who were killed in the World Trade Center. You'll see some interesting emblems on the airplanes.

BUCKLEY: The leading F-18 fighter jet from Squadron 147 has the twin towers painting on one tail fin; the Pentagon on the other.

COMM. RUSS KNIGHT, USS STENNIS: We all have our little stickers from the New York Police Department that we stick on the bombs and, you know, deliver justice in the air defense. So -- as well as our countrymen who were working in the Pentagon. You know, we all had someone we knew in the Pentagon.

LT. COMM. SARAH JOYNER, USS STENNIS: When you go to do it, you know that you're doing something that the American people stand behind, and that makes a great difference. BUCKLEY: This is the ready room for Squadron 147, known as the Argonauts. It's in these ready rooms that every mission begins and ends.

KNIGHT: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) at any time when you prepare for any -- any (UNINTELLIGIBLE) that are out there.

BUCKLEY: Commander Russ Knight leads a pre-flight briefing. He's a veteran pilot who's flown 50 different aircraft. He has 19 years in the Navy. His wingman is actually a wingwoman, Lt. Commander Sarah Joyner.

JOYNER: I always tell them I'm the little sister they never wanted. They're a great group. If I don't hold my own, they're going to let me know. If I tow the line, then they're going to treat me like everybody else, and that's fair.

BUCKLEY: These pilots are also known by their call signs. He's Gladys, she's Clutch. They're getting ready for their first combat mission over Afghanistan. But after this flight, both are heading to shore duty back in the states. This will be their last mission from the Stennis.

KNIGHT: I (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and now I'm heading back for another job back at home. And so, this is my last flight here in the squadron.

BUCKLEY: For Gladys, this could also be the last carrier flight of his career.

KNIGHT: The whole focus is getting a squadron ready to go into combat. Here we are, we're doing it. Now it's time for me to go, but I don't want to go. So, definitely (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

BUCKLEY: Before every fight operation, there is the FOD walk. It stands for Foreign Object Damage. The crew walks the length of the flight deck, looking for anything that isn't tied down. Even the smallest piece of debris, like a screw or a tiny scrap of metal, can be sucked into an engine. The consequence could be fatal to crewmen and damaging to aircraft.

Once the deck is clear, the men and women of Air Wing Nine are ready to kick the tires and light the fires.

MCDONELL: Now what we're looking at here is an EA6B (ph) aircraft on...

BUCKLEY: Captain James McDonell watches over launch and recovery operations from the bridge.

MCDONELL: Of course, anybody that is a commanding officer of an aircraft carrier is either a pilot or an NFO (ph) by trade, and been around it a lot, done a lot of carrier operations.

BUCKLEY: For this pilot, the thrill of the launch never goes away. (on camera): As you watch something like that -- I mean, you've seen it thousands of times.

MCDONELL: Oh, you still can't -- it's still awesome.

BUCKLEY (voice-over): With so little room on the flight deck and so much noise, an elaborate series of hand signals is needed to guide the aircraft around the deck and on to a safe launch. The people in the yellow shirts are the flight deck directors who move the planes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) forward to the position I want him on the way to the beginning of the catapult. I tell him to hold his brakes and then drop your launch (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

BUCKLEY: As big as a carrier is, the runway is still too short for a plane to take off. The catapult system launches the plane off the bow of the ship and into the air. There are four catapults -- or cats, as crew members call them -- on the John C. Stennis. Each cat is steam-driven, with a long shaft underneath the deck. When released, the steam drives a piston down the shaft. Combine that with the full power thrust from the jet engines, and the aircraft goes from zero to 150 miles per hour in approximately two seconds.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) power, power, power. Check his position, he can go down (ph). (UNINTELLIGIBLE) to go.

BUCKLEY: Soon, Gladys and Clutch will be moved onto the cat to leave the ship flying into harms way.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BUCKLEY: Night ops on the USS John C. Stennis. On this deployment, they primarily fly after dark so the ship scheduled is upside down. The crew sleeps by day and works all night.

This is day two of wartime operations for the Stennis and Operation Enduring Freedom. For the next 12 hours, into the morning, planes from the carrier will fly missions over Afghanistan. There's only a faint orange light on deck, punctuated by this.

To adjust their eyes for night vision, crew members make their way through passageways glowing in dim red light. On the flight deck, a walk-over check for debris is lit only by flashlight. The dangers of the flight deck: being blown overboard by jets; sliced by propellers; or any of the hazards that are hard enough to avoid in daylight, are all the more intense at night. The intricate coordination of launch and recovery plays out as a dance in the darkness.

(on camera): The complexity of it all has been described as a ballet. And if it is a ballet, the choreographer of the flight deck is this man here. He is the handler.

FRANK QUANTAS, STENNIS HANDLING OFFICER: (UNINTELLIGIBLE). He's got problems here. I'm Lieutenant Quantas (ph) -- Frank Quantas (ph) -- I'm the aircraft handling officer on board the Stennis here. And my job, basically, is to juggle all the balls up here on the flight deck. I work with the dog (ph), which is the air wing's representative. But he has a rep from each squadron on deck that are calling in the requests.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Jason (ph), go ahead. Turn the (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

QUANTAS: And then I holler at the yellow shirts to help set up the deck. So they get their maintenance, their field, the ordinance, loads, whatever the case may be. Roger.

What we have here is a Ouija board...

BUCKLEY (voice-over): The Ouija board, as they call it, is a model of the flight deck. It shows the whereabouts of each of the Stennis' 73 aircraft. Amid all the multi-million dollar technology on the Stennis, something simple shows the status of each plane: Nuts and bolts.

QUANTAS: This is our world's famous nutology (ph) here. All carriers -- all 12 carriers want some sort of system like this. Big Silver's (ph) first launch in the morning. He's earlier than the rest of the small silvers (ph). 707's second going off, which are the nuts and the (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

BUCKLEY: The nuts and bolts of the handler's job involve constant communication with the crew on the flight deck and the managers in charge. He can watch it all on TV monitors or from his window overlooking the deck.

QUANTAS: It's a ballet. It's a controlled chaos, basically. I mean, once we start going, start up all the engines there, it gets a little crazy. Especially -- these are all machines here, and they don't always cooperate with these, so. So that's when it gets a little bit challenging.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do the flip-flop, OK?

QUANTAS: Can I get flip-flop from them?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't know. Thirty seconds, we may know here, handler.

(CROSSTALK)

BUCKLEY: Steady and unshaken even after an 18-hour day, the handler manages every aircraft until it hits the air. All in all, about 65 flights every day.

(on camera): Once the aircraft leaves the deck, it's out of your hair then, is that right?

QUANTAS: Exactly.

KNIGHT: Single deliveries, you deliver, then I'll deliver.

BUCKLEY: The low deck...

KNIGHT: Doc (ph), if you're going to remain (ph) in the spare, why don't you grab it and bring it up there, OK?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK, Sarah, start up...

BUCKLEY: It's the second pre-flight briefing of the night for Gladys and Clutch.

(on camera): Did you fly into Afghanistan last night, or will this be your...

KNIGHT: No. We were supposed to, but we got canceled because some of the mission is being cut back. But...

BUCKLEY: But this will be your first flight into Afghanistan?

KNIGHT: Yes, it will be.

BUCKLEY (voice-over): They've been given the go-ahead for a mission that begins at dawn. A couple of hours before the flight, they leave the ready room to suit up for the mission.

KNIGHT: I have a routine I go through. You know, like the way I dress. You know, you do things (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

BUCKLEY: A pilot's flight suit is a complete survival system, with oxygen mask, combat gear and flotation devices.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So it will automatically inflate when it hits the war. This is where you store all of your survival items: Hand- held GPS, hand-held compass, signal mirror, spare batteries. What's left is for the GPS.

BUCKLEY: The suit also inflates to keep the blood flowing to the brain in a gravitational force. Four Gs of flight maneuvers press hard on the body.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: As the Gs increase, (UNINTELLIGIBLE). It keeps you from going unconscious.

BUCKLEY (on camera): How much does all of that way?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Probably about 45 pounds, I'm guessing. I've never actually weighed it, but I would say at least 45 pounds.

BUCKLEY: Do you feel it when you're in flight, or do you forget about it?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Like I said, you don't notice it. You know, you just put it on, and if something doesn't feel right then you twitch it and make it fit.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you want to grab a fire box (ph) there?

JOYNER: I'll get one. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm grabbing one.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'll grab one.

JOYNER: I've got all sorts of things in mind.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Grab a fire (ph), we'll bring (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

BUCKLEY: What's your mission today?

JOYNER: Close air support.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) to help them out.

BUCKLEY (voice-over): Commander Knight is too focused on his mission to reflect on the milestone he'll reach at the end of the mission: His 900th career landing.

KNIGHT: Well, right now I'm not thinking about that. I'll think about that later on.

BUCKLEY (on camera): What are you thinking about right now?

KNIGHT: Just to get the suit on right. When I get back is where, you know, I'll think about the other things, you know? Nostalgia, maybe, but right now I'm not -- you know, it's not time to be nostalgic. Now is the time just to think about what I'm doing.

JOYNER: It very well could be the last time we fly (UNINTELLIGIBLE) on carrier. And that's huge. I think the main thing you look at is if you were in his shoes right now, that would be -- that's quite a moment, that's a great moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BUCKLEY: While missions continue above, it's dinner time in the mess decks. It's 7:30 in the morning.

CWO GORDON KEITH, FOOD SERVICE OFFICER, USS STENNIS: The first choice is steak ranchero...

BUCKLEY (on camera): OK, we'll have one of those, please.

KEITH: ... and chicken cordon bleu.

BUCKLEY (voice-over): Food Service Officer Gordon Keith is the man who feeds the masses.

KEITH: A couple thousand pounds of meat a meal. We go through probably about $20,000 worth of milk in a month.

BUCKLEY: That's more than 600 gallons of milk everyday. Add to that 180 dozen eggs and 900 pounds of fresh fruit every day. Not to mention the thousands of beans in this gigantic bat of chili.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is the tomato soup. We prepare about 400 to 600 persons.

BUCKLEY (on camera): You make soup for 400 to 600 people?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, that's right. We're feeding thousands of people every day.

BUCKLEY (voice-over): Cooking for this crew is a massive operation that hopes for quality in all of the quantity.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You know, they've got to make it for 5,000 people, so...

BUCKLEY (on camera): Is this the modern day equivalent of peeling potatoes?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'd say so, yeah. Nobody likes doing it, but it's got to get done.

BUCKLEY (voice-over): Officer ward rooms are more plush than the galleys used by the enlisted men and women. But for sailors who have a birthday this month, there's a special dinner on the mess desk.

KEITH: For all the people whose birthday happens -- happens in that month, we do a special meal for them. They get entertainment, they have cloth napkins and table service. So we try to do something to make it special for them on their birthday since they're going to be away from home.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A happy birthday to all of you. Thank you very much. Say, give yourself a round of applause.

BUCKLEY (on camera): Is it still special to celebrate it with your shipmates in this way?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You know, it really is. Especially, you know, Chief Willard (ph), the way he sang "Happy Birthday," I got pretty emotional, and it almost brought tears to my eyes. He sang it very well. And being out here with the family that I have here, you know, makes it special. But, you know, I do miss my wife and my kids at home.

BUCKLEY (voice-over): They are away from their families, but they are at sea with their shipmates, with whom they share a bond, with whom they are fighting a war.

As dawn breaks over the Arabian Sea, the squadrons return from their night missions, landing on the carrier after some six hours in the air. First, the fighter jets, the F-14 Tomcats, and the F-18 Hornets. The ordinance men, or ordies, as they're called, disarm the weapons. None of the planes on this mission have dropped any bombs.

Also on deck, this radar-jamming EA6-B Prowler (ph). This, the S3 Viking. Its primary mission in this theater, to refuel other carrier-based planes. Last on deck, the search and rescue helicopter, the Seahawk. As the green shirt maintenance crews tend to these aircraft, pilots from other squadrons get ready for the next wave of launches. Planes are refueled; their weapons prepared. And Gladys and Clutch come above deck to prep their F-18s for launch.

KNIGHT: Piece of cake. The winds are light. It takes about an hour and a half to get up there.

JOYNER: Are you guys going to dump me onto a different aircraft?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm not sure.

BUCKLEY: Gladys spots a mechanical problem and calls in maintenance.

JOYNER: (UNINTELLIGIBLE), get the (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, ma'am.

JOYNER: OK, what should be done?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If you have problems with the jet, they'll work on the jet to fix it. If they can't fix it, they'll give you another jet. Everybody knows what to do. Everybody knows how to do it, and then magically everyone just keeps happening. It's not real magic, it's just the constant training that we've done.

And they'll climb up in them and they'll go through starts. Typically, about a half hour prior to the launch time. And once the starts begin, airplanes will be going through checks. Inside, the pilots are talking to one another, making sure that all the ordinance and the weapons are working the way they're supposed to. They're programming the insides of the airplanes, their computers, to make sure they are set up for the missions that they have.

BUCKLEY: Plane Captain Horatio Sanchez, guides Gladys' plane, giving it a final check before launch.

CAPT. HORATIO SANCHEZ, U.S. NAVY: We're the first line of defense. Any discrepancies, I catch it. He may not go, and he might go, depending on the discrepancy -- you know, how big it is, how small it is.

BUCKLEY: While Gladys waits for the all clear, Clutch, in aircraft 407, moves toward the catapult. Gladys has another technical problem, putting his last flight in jeopardy. To stay on schedule, Clutch launches, along with other aircraft in the strike group, while the green shirts work things out for Gladys.

Finally, the problem is fixed, and Commander Knight launches from a carrier for the 900th time in his career, on his first and last mission over Afghanistan.

KNIGHT: Finally, I get to bring the justice that we all rightly deserve to bring to Afghanistan. We get to do it today.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BUCKLEY: Commander Russ Knight and his wingman, Sarah Joyner, continue their mission over the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan. The aircraft in air wing nine are directed from this, center commanded by the CAG, or commander of the air group.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is CAG ops or air wing ops, also referred to as current ops. This is where a lot of the execution is done -- and the planning -- future plans as well are done out of this office. And you'll see down here at nine o'clock, this is a mission that Gladys and Clutch went out on to head up over the beach.

BUCKLEY: Most of the information about these flights is classified, but here's generally how missions over Afghanistan work. For the first 25 miles from the carrier, the aircraft will be in the airspace of the carrier's air traffic control center.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) correct (ph), brake (ph).

LT. COMMANDER STEVE GOZZO, SENIOR OPERATIONS OFFICER: And what we do is we track them as they launch, we vector them away from the aircraft carrier. Outside of about 25 miles, we turn them over to strike control, which is a combat direction center, where they'll continue to get checked out, process out of our airspace and on whatever mission they're going on.

COMMANDER STEVE RAUCH, COMBAT DIRECTION CENTER OFFICER: This is CDC, Combat Direction Center. This is where, essentially, we fly the ship from. TAO, tactical action officer, he is basically the captain's representative, and he can make some decisions on what the ship is going to do.

On the other side of these monitors, he's got sections where our air intercept controllers sit. They're the guys that actually control our fighters.

BUCKLEY: During the six-hour flight, an F-18 will need to refuel as many as four or five times. Air Force tankers from the U.S. and Britain control the skies over the theater of operations.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They'll get gas as they need it. They could need to go several hundred miles -- get gas along the way and then go into a target area.

BUCKLEY: If the mission calls for it, the fighters will drop their ordinance, the bombs that were armed before they left the carrier. Once they're within 25 miles of the ship again, the carrier's air traffic control center takes over again.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) 301, Roger.

BUCKLEY: While missions are controlled from the upper decks, life on the carrier is just as active for more than 3,000 sailors who work below. Slice open the ship, and you see the various levels from the top of the tower, known as the eyelet, down to the flight deck and hangar bay, and deep down to the engine room. From top to bottom, the Stennis is more than 24 stories tall.

MCDONELL: If you start at the top of the ship, we have a whole suite of sensors and arrays up there that take care of our communications control. Right above me is the air boss. He's actually the traffic tower, if you will, for this airport that we have. Next deck down is right here, the bridge. And the bridge, of course, makes sure that the aircraft carrier is going in the right direction and the right place.

BUCKLEY: Just beneath the flight deck is the hangar bay.

MCDONELL: You can think of a hangar bay as a -- as a garage. That's our garage for doing maintenance.

BUCKLEY: Below and around the hangar bay are the mess areas, where sailors eat, and birthing areas, where they sleep.

(on camera): While at sea, these sailors have very little privacy or personal space in which to store things. This is a typical enlisted person's sleeping area. And this is about the extent of the privacy that they have -- a curtain that they can pull to shut out the world. As for storage, each person has one stand-up locker, and then they have this, the area underneath their bed. In here, they have to store their uniforms, their clothing, all of their personal effects for a six-month deployment.

What is that like -- this kind of living in close quarters?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Living conditions can definitely be difficult. It's -- it's one of the sacrifices we're making. It's difficult to get alone time, and everybody needs their alone time.

BUCKLEY (voice-over): Go deeper down in the ship, and you reach other areas that keep this place humming.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have a whole array of things from engineering auxiliaries to manufacturing.

BUCKLEY: At the bottom of the ship, the engine room and storage tanks for water and jet fuel.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We've got -- got a huge reservoir of fuel. We've got a three -- a little over three and a half million gallons of jet fuel on board to service these thirsty aircraft.

BUCKLEY: After missions that can last more than six hours in the air, the aircraft come home. The flight deck of the John C. Stennis is ready for recovery.

(on camera): Aircraft returning to the carrier have to land on a runway that is brutally short. The entire landing area is only about 450 feet long for the aircraft that is traveling at approximately 150 miles per hour. Arresting gear on the deck make the landing possible.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Basically, it's a controlled crash. BUCKLEY (voice-over): That arresting gear is made up of four cables strung across the flight deck. A tail hook dangles from the rear of the aircraft. As the plane hits the deck, the tail hook snags the cable, bringing it to a dead stop in less than three seconds. The tail hook has been around since the earliest carrier landings. And the process of recovering aircraft has been refined and perfected over decades of trial and error.

The pilot is guided to landing by the landing signal officer, or LSO. They also rate each trap, as these arrested landings are called. Any of the four cables will stop the plane; but, ideally, a pilot will trap the third cable. The runway is simply too short to handle a landing without the wires, which is why pilots gun their engines to full power as soon as their wheels hit the deck. If they miss the wires, it's a touch and go, and they speed off to try again. This, they call the bolter (ph).

The LSOs rate a landing by which wire a pilot traps, along with other criteria like how level the wings are on approach. The best a pilot can do, a grade of OK from the LSO. Lower marks work against their career average.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Most of the airplanes can latch up an automatic landing system that -- that will land the airplane for you. Most of the pilots really don't like it. They trust themselves much more than they trust the equipment.

BUCKLEY: This is in broad daylight. It gets a little hairier at night and in bad weather.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Most of the pilots will probably tell you that they've got to come land at night, that's as stressful, if not more, than, you know, actually dropping ordinance. Not to say that they're not good at landing, but, you know, that's the end of it. You know, you're tired, you've got the leftover adrenaline rush.

BUCKLEY (on camera): The amount of tension in each one of the wires is controlled by the people in this room. This is one of the arresting gear engine rooms.

(voice-over): The cables are attached to huge hydraulic engines that slow the cable as it spools out 350 feet.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK, what happens is, as soon as we get the weight of the aircraft, it's set. Our (UNINTELLIGIBLE) will tell us at about a quarter mile out that the aircraft is in the groove. And then he'll say, "Ramp," and that's when it gets right over the flight deck.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ramp.

BUCKLEY: Commanders Gladys and Clutch are about to return from their first mission over Afghanistan. For Russ "Gladys" Knight, it will mark a major milestone in a naval aviator's career. It will be his 900th carrier landing, and it could be the last of his year.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BUCKLEY: The USS John C. Stennis is the 74th numbered carrier in the history of the U.S. Navy. It is one of the newest in a line of carriers that began as early as 1910, when a daredevil pilot first launched his biplane off the end of a specially outfitted warship. A decade later, the U.S. Navy converted a coal ship into the first aircraft carrier, the USS Langley, nicknamed "the covered wagon." It served until it was sunk in World War II. Over the years, the Navy designed bigger and better carriers, building them from the keel up.

ZORTMAN: I think you could argue that the United States won the war in the Pacific against Japan because of aircraft carriers. The aircraft carrier was the thing that allowed us to take the fight to the Japanese across the big expanses of the Pacific. And, ultimately, allowed us to -- through victory.

BUCKLEY: They evolved from the diesel-driven carriers in World War II and the Korean War into the swift, nuclear super carriers of today. This Nimitz-class carrier never has to stop for gas. The nuclear fuel on the USS Stennis will last for 20 years. The carrier itself will live on long after these sailors retire. The Stennis was commissioned in 1995, and the Navy expects it to be in use until 2045.

ZORTMAN: We have aircraft carriers that we use for 50 years. The last commanding officer of this particular ship has not been born yet.

BUCKLEY (on camera): The motto of the Stennis is, "Look ahead." But here in the (UNINTELLIGIBLE), there's also a link to the past. The 30-ton anchors at the end of this anchor chain actually came from another decommissioned U.S. Navy carrier, the USS Forrestal.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NARRATOR: The worst disaster to strike a U.S. Navy ship since World War II turns the super carrier Forrestal into a floating holocaust.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BUCKLEY (voice-over): In July, 1967, on the USS Forrestal, a rocket, accidentally fired from a fire jet, struck another plane on board, knocking off a fuel tank and 1,000-pound bomb.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NARRATOR: The flames raced from plane to plane, fed by bombs, rockets and bullets. The fire raged for 12 hours. Scores of sailors were trapped in crowded sleeping quarters beneath red-hot decks.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BUCKLEY: The incident led to several safety changes in the Navy, and it's a vivid reminder of how dangerous a carrier can be.

LT. COMMANDER PHIL DAVIS, DAMAGE CONTROL ASSESMENT: We have had two fire party drills going here, and it's something we do everyday.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is a drill. This is a drill.

DAVIS: It's our primary responders sharpened and tuned. There's only so far you can go on a ship. And you can't -- you can't run away from the fire very easily. So our biggest concern is the smoke or whatever hazard is associated with casualties. If it's spread throughout the ship, it will start to kill sailors.

All throughout the ship, we have petroleum products running throughout -- throughout the piping that's going over our heads. We have electricity, high voltage electricity, hazardous material.

In a given month of constant operations at sea and combat operations like we are right now, you're going to see one or two, or maybe three actual casualties. It's just the nature of the business. Just like every Marine's a rifleman, every sailor's a firefighter.

BUCKLEY: And when there are casualties, the ship is ready. The sick bay has fully-equipped operating rooms.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And you can do any surgery imaginable. We even have complete laparoscopic. We've been out here a month and a half, and we've done, I think, 24 surgeries.

BUCKLEY: For the citizens of the floating city of Stennis, there are a few hometown amenities that keep life on an even keel. The library, where sailors can e-mail home. The barbershop, with 250 haircuts served daily. The post office, chockfull of holiday gifts from home. And with a crew of 5,000, the dirty clothes can pile up fast. Colossal washers and dryers are kept spinning 24 hours a day.

(on camera): How much laundry is generated every night on the Stennis? Well, take a look inside this room. They do about 6,600 pounds of laundry every day on this ship. Each one of these bags containing dirty clothes.

(voice-over): And to keep fit, there's a weight training room. And the hangar deck fills double-duty, as aerobic study and boxing ring, keeping the crew in fighting shape.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All right (UNINTELLIGIBLE). Let's give the proper (UNINTELLIGIBLE). Get your (UNINTELLIGIBLE) on, get them goggles down and stay ready to recover some aircraft.

BUCKLEY: The handler prepares the flight deck for a new round of aircraft recovery. Pilots Gladys and Clutch are inbound.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And we're now with aircraft 407 (UNINTELLIGIBLE) watch it, you out there, we're going to park it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Nicely done.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And let Jason (ph) know 407 is going to (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK, go ahead.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Get their (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thanks, Casey (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you.

BUCKLEY: Lieutenant Commander Sarah Joyner, known as Clutch, is about to experience a Navy tradition in honor of her last flight with the squadron.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Pilot out of 407 this is (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

BUCKLEY: Leading the squadron in, Commander Russ Knight, call sign Gladys, in the groove a quarter mile out. He traps the wire for a remarkable 900th time in his Navy career. A few minutes later, Clutch brings aircraft 407 onto the deck.

MCDONELL: Aboard John C. Stennis, good morning, this is the captain. Commander Knight, call sign Gladys, did his 900th trap and his last trap aboard John C. Stennis -- at least for this trip over -- on aircraft number 401. I know that you and Sarah Joyner conducted your last flights, and God speed to both of you. You've been awesome shipmates.

And they'd love to see it through this deployment. They know that they have other things in their professional and their personal lives. They've been relieved, but they won't be replaced.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hey, congratulations.

KNIGHT: Thanks.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Russ is a wonderful pilot and a wonderful human being. And it's almost impossible to overstate how significant his service is. He routinely touches several hundred lives a day.

BUCKLEY: They do not fire their weapons during a six-hour long mission.

JOYNER: That's what the good news is. That means that we're getting to the point where we don't have to do that. So we can move on and take care of the rest of things we need to do.

BUCKLEY (on camera): Yeah, Afghanistan's quiet.

JOYNER: Every time you finish up with a squadron, they pretty much -- they deal with what's called, basically, a wetting down. They throw water on you and haul you in. And if we were probably in the States, we'd pop some champagne or something and see you off, but we're on the boat, so...

BUCKLEY: How did that feel?

JOYNER: It felt actually really good. I had -- I had a little problem with the aircraft. It didn't have any cooling. So it was about 100 degrees. So of all the things that they could have done at that point, getting doused was pretty good.

KNIGHT: The final flight in a squadron is always an emotional event. You just don't wake up one day and say, "Gee, I'm not going to be flying an F-18 off of a carrier deck." It will take a few days for that really to sink in.

JOYNER: It's been a mission worth doing. I'd say, overall, it's a good and honorable thing that makes you feel proud to be here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think we're doing a good job of it, and it's all because of this whole team: the carrier and the air wing and the sailors and the airdales (ph) and everybody working together to make things all come together.

BUCKLEY: There's one more item before they hear a final debrief for the day, a rating on their traps from the landing signal officers.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: 401, a little jerk right on (UNINTELLIGIBLE) middle. A little flat on (UNINTELLIGIBLE). OK on the landing part. 407, a little low start, a little too much power on the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) in the middle, a little height (ph) coming down (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

Skipper.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE). Clutch. Nice. A little wet there?

JOYNER: A little wet. Just a little.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) 5.9 (UNINTELLIGIBLE) 6.0. Congratulations and welcome back.

BUCKLEY: And with that, these pilots will call it a night, toward the middle of the day.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BUCKLEY: Adrenaline is high on the flight deck of this carrier at war. With Marines on the ground in the Tora Bora cave region, these fighter jets have only been on call in supporting roles over the theater of operations in Afghanistan. Every morning the planes have come back with their rockets and bombs still attached.

MCDONELL: We don't want to come across, certainly, as warmongers. But, certainly, if our nation calls upon us to do the military aspects of the diplomacy, we're here and we're ready. And having some tangible proof that we're ready, I think, will further pump up the crew and make them realize that we're here for real.

BUCKLEY: That tangible proof would be a launch of ordinance from one of the air wings' planes. Though many of the veteran pilots have flown in combat, most of the ship is too young to have wartime experience. The average age on this flight deck: 19 years old. THOMPSON: You know, to see the youthful energy that goes on up there, yet tempered with a good, good solid degree of professionalism, it's exciting to watch.

BUCKLEY (on camera): Is there a difference when a carrier's at war?

THOMPSON: That's the amazing thing about our business is there really isn't a whole lot of difference. We train like we fight in every capacity. The only difference is, the bombs that are on the flight deck are green and not blue. They're real, they're not practice.

BUCKLEY (voice-over): Soon after dawn on this fourth day, confirmation of the ship's first strike.

MCDONELL: It's the fourth day of combat operations today bore fruit for the air wing and the ship team here. We had an F-14 aircraft drop laser-guided bombs and F-18s drop joint direct attack munitions, or J-DAM weapons, in eastern Afghanistan today. This is the first of an unknown number of strikes we'll conduct during our watch in Operation Enduring Freedom.

THOMPSON: They'll come back high-fiving and feeling pretty good about it. But it is a bit of a somber event that they're going through out here, but the biggest thing you're seeing is the intensity.

BUCKLEY: The fighter jets drop their ordinance in a coordinating attack on a convoy near the Afghan city of Khowst. The Pentagon says the convoy was Taliban and al Qaeda troops.

MARINE GEN. PETER PACE, VICE CHAIRMAN, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF: There was an attack on a convoy of leadership that was identified through various intelligence means, and that was done within the last 24 hours.

BUCKLEY: But the strikes prove controversial. Local Afghans in the convoy say it was a group of elders on their way to the inaugural ceremony for interim Afghan leader Hamid Karzai. Analysts now believe some tribal warlords may have taken advantage of American fire power by accusing rival leaders of being Taliban and misguiding U.S. intelligence.

THOMPSON: You know, the consequence of injuring or hurting somebody who's either friendly or a non-participant in combat is -- is very difficult to deal with. And we go to extreme details, and do a lot of training as well, to make sure that doesn't happen.

MCDONELL: We have dropped ordinance today, and I'm sure we'll continue to drop ordinance and do it with precision, do it with accuracy, and do it on-call, when needed, first time, every time.

BUCKLEY: As the John C. Stennis nears the end of its first week of operations in the Arabian Sea, Christmas is only a few days away. Though a choir rehearses in the chapel for a Christmas event, for the crew it's just another workday. Their first day off won't be for another three weeks.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's another day for me. When I'm out here, I don't look at a calendar, I don't think about it. I stay busy at work.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Attention Mate 2nd Class William Smith (ph).

BUCKLEY: But there are other chances for the ship to gather, like this moment of pride to honor sailors who have earned a promotion in rank. It's called a frocking (ph) ceremony.

MCDONELL: There's a sense of respect and human dignity. I think that you'll agree as you walk around this crew is there, because if we take care of one another, the whole community comes together. They fall together as a team or they win together as a team. And I always encourage them to take care of themselves, because if they don't take care of themselves then it kind of all falls apart at the seams.

BUCKLEY: The last time we saw this sailor he was washing dishes in the galley. Now he's been promoted. And pilots Sarah "Clutch" Joyner and Russ "Gladys" Knight say their final goodbyes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let's go.

BUCKLEY: Before boarding a cargo flight off the USS Stennis. They'll be home in time for Christmas.

JOYNER: Well, I've been here for four and a half years, and it's probably time to go. But I'm going to miss them. They're pretty much my family right now -- my family away from my family.

BUCKLEY: Savoring every last moment on the ship, Commander Knight rushes to the flight only seconds before the door closes.

KNIGHT: This is the best tour of my life. You know, 19 years in the Navy, it's been the best tour of my life.

BUCKLEY: For the rest of the crew, there's five more months to go in this deployment. And no one knows how long America's new war on terrorism will keep the USS John C. Stennis engaged in battle, on highest alert as a carrier at war.

MCDONELL: We continue with the pride and the professionalism we've shown to date. We can't do anything but be successful. Please make sure you take care of your ship, take care of yourselves and take care of your shipmates.

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