The USS CARL VINSON aircraft carrier Visits Manila and I have my Top Gun Moment..
From the moment I first saw the film TOP GUN, I have been always captivated by the idea of planes being able to land on a ship in the middle of a sea. It’s been more than a decade since that discovery, but I finally just had my first personal “Top Gun” moment.
Two weeks ago, the enormous, 97,000 ton, U.S. navy aircraft carrier made famous by being the ship which dropped Osama Bin Laden’s body into the sea, docked at Manila Bay for a few days. The American Embassy in Manila organized a cocktail reception aboard the nuclear powered USS Carl Vinson, and by a stroke of good luck, I was invited along.
Late afternoon on a perfectly clear day, a few hundred guests boarded a water taxi, and enjoyed every moment of the beautiful light of the setting sun on Manila Bay, on the 45 minute journey about 6 miles out to sea to where the carrier was anchored.
The ship was in Manila for routine replenishment, maintenance of shipboard systems and to give its 6000 strong crew a few days of liberty. The crew also participated in events planned to allow them maximum interaction with Filipinos- such as sporting events and community assistance activities.
The approach to the carrier was nothing less than dramatic. At first we could only see faded silhouettes in the distance of the 3 ships making up the carrier strike group-and there was some debate as to which boat was “the one”. But as we got closer, and the silhouette’s became more crisp, the sheer size and strength of the Carl Vinson made it obvious.
The flight deck of the ship was filled with fighter jets and transport helicopters, their jagged outlines intensifying the drama of the scene. When just minutes away, everyone’s voices hushed to a whisper, and the only audible sound was the clicking of cameras.
Miraculously, the sun set into the mountains of the Bataan Peninsula just as we reached the rear of the carrier, leaving us to board the quarterdeck in the mystery of twilight.
The reception was held in the hanger bay and the US Ambassador Harry K. Thomas, Jr., the Admiral and the ship’s Captain spoke about the importance of the Philippine- US relationship to a crowd of naval officers, Filipinos from government, military, private sector, and civil society as well as Americans from the military, diplomatic and expat community.
In between enjoying food, wine, and the mingling of conversations, a platform elevator, normally used to bring fighter jets up and down from the flight deck, gave us a ride up to the deck. The night was dark, but some lights on deck and a full moon right above us helped illuminate the shadows enough to be able to differentiate one type of aircraft from another. Although my dream of seeing a fighter jet land and take off from an aircraft carrier was not yet fulfilled during this little adventure, being next to these jets, learning about the weapons they carry and how they take off and land was close enough to keep my imagination happy. As I left the ship, I closed my eyes for a moment and could swear I saw one flying by.
Watching the news today, we are filled with images of conflict and war, and talk of military strategies and bombing. It can be too easy to tune out and only pay attention when scenes of devastation hit. But I think it’s just as important to remember that the military that protects any country is made of men and women, of flesh and blood like the rest of us, but who have chosen to devote themselves to a greater cause than themselves. I have always had a great respect for those who choose to serve, and it seems those who live months at a time in what easily resembles a floating city, have certainly given up a sense of their own freedom in order to protect a larger one. An experience such as this, where you can see a glimpse into how these sailors live and work, and speak to them as individuals instead of as a concept- is something I will remember forever.