Maybe some of you won't consider this a summer-fun-in-the-sun type of activity, but you really should get down to the U.S.S. Midway (CV 41) Aircraft Carrier Museum, just opened to the public this week.
The Midway was first commissioned on Sept. 10, 1945. From her decks alone, nearly 12,000 missions flew over Vietnam, and she served as the naval flagship in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm. At 1,001 feet long and weighing 67,500 tons, Midway was the first carrier that was too large to navigate through the Panama Canal. History is what she is, and now history is permanently docked here in the San Diego Bay.
Thanks to William A. Purcell-an aircraft carrier museum safety and security patrol volunteer-I was permitted to get a sneak peak inside the ship before opening day, and all I can say is, holy mother of wow.
You don't really appreciate the enormity of an aircraft carrier until you climb aboard one. Look at it this way: You've got this enormous block of metal that weighs almost 70,000 tons and it floats on the water. The thing is so big she's like a small city: Population 4,500. It's got a hospital, a fully functioning post office, a kitchen (that serves more than 13,000 meals daily), and, of course, its very own airport.
Walking up through an aircraft carrier is like walking up through the different layers of the Earth's surface. You start at the bottom, in the maze-like catacombs of the second deck, where the many of the sailor's bunks are located. It's musty and cramped down there with a whole lotta ducking and side-winding and crawling up and down ladders. Then you climb up to the hangar bay, which is where all major repairs on the planes are made, and, finally, the moment you've been waiting for: you go up and onto the flight deck, and the whole thing explodes in an orgy of sun, wind and sea-this is the part that makes it a summer day trip. And you can't help but imagine what it's like up there during business hours, when jets are launching or landing and catapults are flinging, and everybody's running around with a specific job to do, and if you don't do your job right, somebody dies-or worse, is blown overboard, what with the ocean gales and violent blasts from jet engines.
While on board, Purcell, my host-who served on the Midway as a flight deck photographer from 1981 to 1984-pointed to these netted barriers just off the stern of the ship. "Those are called "life nets,'" he said. "They are there to catch men who get blown overboard."
Then he pointed to a section that was badly mangled. "I was here when that happened," he said, before telling the story of an F-4 that came in too low on approach and struck the stern of the ship, mangled the life net, snapped the nose gear of the plane and-this is the part that gave me chills-accidentally launched two air-to-air missiles right down the deck of the carrier, whistling past the few hundred sailors and exploding about 700 feet in front of the ship.
"The pilot was lost," Purcell said, "but the radar intercept officer was recovered."
After touring the flight deck, you climb into and up the bridge tower. The first thing you notice when you enter the bridge is the helm, which looks just like any other steering wheel, except this one turns 67,000 tons of metal in the middle of the ocean. Then you look through the large bay windows of the bridge, and get the total overview of the flight deck and the water below.
And you get the impression that it is good to be the captain.Visit www.midway.org for opening-week festivities, admission prices and hours.