Date:12 June 2014
Many years ago, while working for a newspaper group in London, I had an opportunity to visit the US Navy’s nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the 98 000-ton USS Nimitz, while she lay at anchor in Portsmouth. I recall being slightly worried about the possibility of radiation leaks from the twin reactors, and sure enough, within weeks of my visit, a small but perfectly functional tail appeared where these appendages are usually found.
Just kidding. In fact, it was an eye-opening visit in many respects, not least because of the gargantuan scale of everything – the crew of over 5 600 (that is, the population of a small town), the onboard facilities (clerics, a resident psychiatrist) and everything else. This week, the memories came flooding back when an acquaintance mentioned that he had visited the ship during a recent “community day” event at its home port of Naval Station Everett, north of Seattle.
Aside from the requirement that all visitors needed to present government-issued photo identification upon entry, the rules specifically prohibited backpacks, pets, weapons of any kind, explosives (including fireworks) and alcoholic beverages. More evidence of the insidious erosion of civil rights? Not really: I wouldn’t want to be anywhere close when someone lets off fireworks aboard an aircraft carrier.
It’s a ship of extremes. Towering 18 storeys high and measuring just under 333 metres in length, the USS Nimitz is a very large and extremely formidable warship. Two nuclear reactors provide the heat for four turbines to produce an astonishing 190 MW, feeding the power to four propeller shafts to generate a maximum speed of over 30 knots (or 56 km/h). The ship can operate continuously for over 20 years without refuelling.
The US Navy says its Nimitz-class carriers could withstand three times the damage sustained by the Essex class inflicted by Japanese air attacks during the Second World War. The below-deck hangars are divided by heavy steel doors into three fire bays to restrict the spread of fire – a design feature inspired by kamikaze attacks.
This ship has been around. During its third cruise to the Mediterranean in 1979, it was dispatched to strengthen America’s naval presence in the crucial Indian Ocean area as tensions heightened over Iran’s taking of 52 American hostages (thanks, Wikipedia). I quote: “Four months later, Operation ‘Evening Light’ was launched from the Nimitz in an attempt to rescue the hostages. The rescue was aborted in the Iranian Desert when the number of operational helicopters fell below the minimum needed to transport the attack force and hostages out of Iran. During its deployment, the ship operated 144 continuous days at sea.”
The ship has also experienced tragedy. As Wikipedia tells us: “On the night of 25 May 1979, an EA-6B Prowler crash-landed on the flight deck, killing 14 crewmen and injuring 45 others. The carrier returned to port to repair damaged catapults and returned to sea less than 48 hours later to complete its training schedule.”
Footnote: I vaguely recall news reports from a few years ago when it was announced that the USS Nimitz was scheduled to visit Cape Town; the visit was cancelled because local anti-nuclear activists expressed themselves quite strongly and the US Navy decided it wasn’t worth the hassle. Did I get this right?