In 2005, a film crew spent six months aboard the USS Nimitz during the aircraft carrier’s deployment to the Gulf. Below you’ll see two absolutely mesmerizing excerpts of the documentary they completed nearly three years later, after combing through and editing 1,600 hours of footage they shot on their journey.
The two ten-minute videos capture a single afternoon and evening on the Nimitz as it cruises the Indian Ocean. A thousand miles from any kind of terra-firma runway, Nimitz Super Hornet pilots practice carrier landings in the most impossible conditions imaginable: at night in extraordinarily high seas.
Cinematographer Mark Brice writes about what it was like to witness and film the “Night of the Pitching Decks”:
“Looking aft at the LSO’s (Landing Signal Officers) stationed at the stern, I saw what looked like a carnival ride. When a big swell came under the bow of the Nimitz, the stern would tip down at such an angle, it seemed everything on deck would slide into the drink. Then as the same wave made its way back, the stern see-sawed up the other way, 50, 60, 70 feet, obscuring the horizon.
“…The mere facts of a carrier landing are extraordinary — the planes approaching at 150 knots are hitting a moving landing strip a few hundred feet long, at sea. And they’re being brought to a stop by a heavy cable on the deck that catches a tailhook on the plane. They call it a controlled crash. In quiet seas, this process seems almost routine.
But now, as I tracked the first F-18 in the viewfinder, a set of big swells comes under us. As the first wave passes, the stern rises, and rises, until the horizon, and then the F-18 is obscured from view. I was shocked. The plane was on final approach not to the landing deck, but towards the ship’s stern, which is suspended in the air. As another swell comes under the bow, the stern falls away, and the LSO’s wave off the approaching F-18. The angle is too steep to land. The next F-18 manages to touch the deck, but misses the restraining wire, and does a “touch and go”. Finally an F-18 manages to land, and stops yards away from us. The pilot is ecstatic, and it’s all hugs and handshakes with his ground crew. This was emotion we never saw during the grind of the Persian Gulf. It seems that just one in five planes is able to land successfully. Pilots who get waved off or do touch and go’s, go around for a second try, a third try. Some get low on fuel and rendezvous with the F-18 refueling tanker for an airborne fill-up.
Meanwhile, on the “bow cats” more planes are being launched into the sky. Towards sunset, I realize a significant number of jets have taken off. The swell has increased further. Now the precarious landings we’ve been watching on a clear blue afternoon will be taking place at night. As we go below deck, we prepare for the most dramatic operations of the deployment, as the pilots we’ve come to know over the past four months try to reach their floating home, one by one, over the black waters of the Indian Ocean.
That night, after hours of bolters, wave-offs followed by white-knuckle landings, there is one last pilot airborne, Dave “Sex” Fravor, Skipper of the Black Aces. He’s flying the refueling tanker this evening, providing a safety net for his mates who are running low on fuel. By design, the tanker pilot is the last pilot airborne. So Fravor himself really has no safety net. If he lands, then he’ll have a cigar with the Admiral later on; if he can’t, he’ll have to eject into the ocean and ditch his $40 million jet.
In the flight control room, we watch the Platt camera monitor showing Fravor’s approach. It’s dead silent. The deck is still pitching wildly but he somehow is able to stay dead-on target. When Fravor threads the needle and lands, there is an uproar. Everyone’s made it home safe. Fravor gets that cigar with the Admiral, claiming he landed on autopilot. To this day, I’m not sure I believe him.”