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Respect the Deck

Kitty Hawk: Navy calls it the most perilous workplace in the military. But the excitement found among the controlled chaos matches the risks.

November 10, 1996|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ABOARD THE KITTY HAWK — Others of their generation are back home flipping burgers or taking classes or engaging in other low-risk pursuits.

But several hundred young sailors--some of them mere teenagers who have never before been away from home--are doing a job that is arduous, exacting, dangerous and crucial to the ship's military mission.

These are the unsung sailors who work the flight deck, "the roof," the 4 1/2 acres of controlled chaos where dozens of powerful, delicate and sometimes unpredictable jet aircraft are taxied, parked, repaired, armed, disarmed and armed again in a continual cycle of launch and retrieval.

"The deck is where the action is," said Shelven Marshall, 19, of Hot Springs, Ark., as he worked on an F/A-18 Hornet. "You are never bored on the deck."

If the commander in chief decides that either Saddam Hussein or Moammar Kadafi needs a load of American firepower dropped on his front porch, there is a good chance that it will be up to the 76 warplanes aboard the Kitty Hawk to do the deed, with speed and ferocity.

And unless young deck sailors such as Lamanuel Hamilton from Mendenhall, Miss., Damien McAllister from Russelton, Pa., Salvador Ortiz from Pacoima and others do their jobs correctly, all the college-educated aviators, supercomputers and multimillion-dollar avionics will be for naught.

The Navy unflinchingly brands the deck the most dangerous workplace in the military. The Kitty Hawk's psychologist--known informally as the ship's S.O.B., "shrink on board"--says deck jobs are high-risk and high-excitement.

"The only thing as dangerous as working the deck is being a window washer in New York," said McAllister, 22, with a wide grin. "My mother says she's scared every time she thinks about what I do. She's scared but proud."

*

The ways you can get killed or injured on the flight deck are numerous and equally unpleasant: blown overboard or scalded by jet blast, run over by a 55,000-pound plane, sucked into an engine, hit by flying debris, set on fire by jet fuel, run over by an emergency vehicle, sliced in two by a broken arresting wire, and more.

"You have to have respect for the deck," said Hamilton, 22. "You can never get comfortable on the deck."

The work has to be accomplished night and day in an environment where the roar of jet engines is so deafening that most communication is accomplished by hand signals and where the wind and the pitch and the roll of the deck can make it nearly impossible to remain upright.

For all of its hardships, deck work is highly prized. To perform well as a deck sailor is to earn substantial bragging rights.

"The deck is the only place to work," said Ortiz, 20.

"I want to show people what I can do," said Cornelius Hampton, 20, from Kansas City, Mo., who joined the Navy when the only civilian job he could find was in a fast-food restaurant. "I want a challenge."

If the danger of the flight deck is apparent, so too is the racial and ethnic diversity of the work force. And, now, for the first time, women sailors are part of the Kitty Hawk's crew, including some who are destined to work the deck and are every bit as motivated as their male shipmates.

"It's an adrenaline rush you can't believe," said Tanya Howe, 19, of Buckeye, Ariz., after getting her first up-close look at the deck during an "event," which is Navy-ese for a series of landings and catapult takeoffs.

"A lot people think teenagers are lazy and no good," said Kimberly McIntyre, 19, of Palm Springs. "I'm going to show them they're wrong."

Training aboard the Kitty Hawk is relentless, an estimated 8,000 takeoffs during an average deployment in all kinds of weather and sea conditions. It is not unusual for an event to take 12 hours or longer, with little time for rest.

"We give them a lot of responsibility," Chief Warrant Officer Robin Todd, a crash and salvage officer with 23 years of service, said of the young sailors in his charge. "They grow up real quick."

*

Navy Seaman Wade Gilbert, 19, of Weatherford, Texas, had never seen an aircraft carrier until he joined the Kitty Hawk just a day before it left San Diego for a six-month deployment to relieve the carrier Enterprise patrolling the western Pacific, the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf and enforcing the "no fly" zone in Iraq.

"It's a lot bigger than I thought," Gilbert said of the Kitty Hawk.

It's a common reaction.

The 12 aircraft carriers in the U.S. Navy are the largest, most technically complex and most feared warships the world has ever known.

The Kitty Hawk rises 201 feet above the waterline, weighs 86,000 tons, has more than 2,400 compartments and spaces, and requires a crew of 5,500 officers and enlisted personnel while on deployment. Four aircraft elevators and five weapons elevators service the deck.

The flight deck is 1,065 feet long and 273 feet at its widest. But those numbers can be misleading.

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