This was an article I wrote originally for TAPS - Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, an organization I volunteer within, back in 2015. Often times articles don't get published, and I decided that on the occasion of James Prout Day, I'd share it on my own blog. (March 15 has been declared James Prout Day by the City of San Diego, CA as of 1996 - so Happy James Prout Day to you!!)
There was once a boy who saw Top Gun as a child and dreamed of flying in a Navy plane, doing a tail hook landing on a Navy aircraft carrier, catapulting off said carrier, and telling the tale afterward as one of the few people on earth who had ever performed such a feat.
It seemed attainable. After all, the boy’s father was an officer in the Navy, rising through the ranks to become the Admiral in command of the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier battle group, graduating Top Gun with the given call-sign “Sledgehammer”, and it wasn’t a stretch that with such experiences and credentials, the dream might actually happen at some point.
But then, there came one small wrinkle in the fabric of that dream and many others...
On May 17, 1995, that boy’s father was killed when the Navy F/A-18 fighter plane he was flying in crashed in the mountains north of Taos, NM.
That changed everything.
In the blink of an eye, life was different, in ways that every survivor family knows all too well.
The boy grew up walking the difficult road of this grief journey that many of us have shared miles together on, and the dream of the Top Gun experience faded into memory. It really was no longer important, in comparison to the ongoing pressures of life and emotional investments that must be made in doing the tough work of healing through loss. And there were certain complicating factors, such as the boy’s mother swearing to disown him if he ever joined the Navy and became a pilot, after losing her husband to a Navy aircraft mishap. And the boy never did join the Navy, which would make flying in a Navy plane a rather challenging experience to have, if one was not actually serving in a capacity where that would be required.
However, while that dream did fade, it never went away completely. And this story has a happy ending. Sorry, I should have given you a spoiler warning on that before I spoiled it!
Yes, there is a happy ending to this story!
You see, the boy we’re talking about, who dreamed of flying in a Navy plane, landing on a carrier at sea and catapulting off it again actually got to do this, thanks to TAPS and the US Navy’s Distinguished Visitor Program!!
About ten years ago, I became involved with TAPS, initially just as a survivor - wondering what all these crazy people were smiling about, as we joined together at the National Survivors Conference in Washington DC. Weren’t they supposed to be crying and wailing and looking like the saddest people on earth? What was wrong with them, as they laughed and enjoyed each other’s company?!?!
My mother actually had to bribe me to attend my first TAPS event, and I’m glad she did, because within TAPS I discovered more than a community but a family drawn together out of life’s most painful experiences, forged with the bonds of both shared pain and shared healing.
As Bonnie and Darcie and others welcomed me to the family I never asked for, I found my place – a place where I was understood, accepted, and belonged. As I grew in my grief journey through TAPS, I eventually became a Peer Mentor, and began to experience the tremendously cathartic reward in providing love, comfort, companionship, and support to others in their grief journeys. Over the years I’ve had the opportunity to participate in many activities with TAPS as a fellow survivor, group facilitator, seminar session speaker, panelist, chaplain, and as with many of us, with whatever else Bonnie asked me to do at the time. (love you Bonnie!)
As those of us who know her all know she is officially the busiest person on earth, most of the time when Bonnie gets in touch with us or when she tracks us down, it’s because there is a person who needs caring for, or a need to be addressed, and she is after our assistance. And we happily oblige her, because she is wonderful and it is a joy to pass along the love she shows all of us.
This most recent time – well, okay not exactly this most recent time, because that time she was asking me to write this article, but the time before, so let’s call that “this most recent time” for the sake of moving the story along – Bonnie got ahold of me and she didn’t ask me to do something. Wait, what? This actually happens?? I know, right?! The stars must have aligned in some special configuration, because she then asked me if I was interested in participating in the Navy’s Distinguished Visitor (DV) Program, which let people spend a day on a Navy ship and see firsthand how our military service members do their jobs.
Being a Navy brat, of course I said yes – it sounded like fun to spend a day aboard a ship. I imagined that it would be a family day cruise where we board the ship at the dock, head out for a few hours, and then return in the afternoon. And there were applications to fill out, processes to go through, blah blah blah. But at about the third round of paperwork that had to be filled out, there was a little blurb in the communiqué from the Navy that mentioned the following:
WE WOULD BE FLYING ON A NAVY PLANE TO DO AN ARRESTED TRAP LANDING ON A CARRIER AT SEA, SPENDING THE NIGHT, AND THEN CATAPULT LAUNCHING OFF TO RETURN HOME.
Well, the little boy in me just about exploded with excitement!! I was going to get to live out my dream after all, even if it was via a roundabout circuitous journey that involved quite a bit of painful mourning and loss along the way.
So one particular morning a few months ago, I found myself waiting at the main gate at Coronado’s Naval Air Station North Island with a group of 15 other TAPS family members, fellow survivors who would together be sharing this experience with me. We were nervously anticipating what we hoped would be a major road marker on our journey of healing.
We were escorted to the terminal on the base airstrip where we would board our plane to fly out to the USS Stennis, which was operating in international waters off the Western coast of Baja Mexico. We were instructed in the wearing of and use of various types of safety equipment necessary for flying in a Navy aircraft, and educated on the DV program as well as about the COD, which is the moniker assigned to the Grumman C-2 Greyhound aircraft that serves the role of Carrier Onboard Delivery (COD) which would be in fact delivering us on board!
Before we knew it, we were walking across the tarmac and loading up on the Navy plane that would fly us out in land on the Stennis, operating in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Mexico. The engines were already spinning as we strapped in. As with most military machines, it was loud and smelled of grease and paint – that singular military aroma that you find no matter that the vehicle is.
With only one small porthole on either side of the plane in the cargo compartment we were seated in, very few of us got anything remotely resembling a view for the flight. We felt the vibrations and forces on our bodies as we were carried through the air to our destination, and despite the lack of ability to even carry on a conversation because of the extreme noise, we were all excited by the prospect of becoming Tailhookers and making that landing on the carrier!
About an hour later, we got the one minute warning from the flight crew that we were about to land. We heard the whine of the engines change frequency and felt the plane pitching around as the pilots lined us up for an arrested landing... and with shocking quickness and extremely loud BANG and shudder as we were pushed back into our rear facing seats, the plane caught the cable on the flight deck and we were dragged to a stop aboard ship.
The rear hatch lowered while the C-2 was still maneuvering on deck, giving us a first view of the busy flight deck on the carrier, and the crew got our plane tucked into its parking spot and locked down while our view switched to that of the ocean and several escort ships in distant proximity.
Elated from the experience, we disembarked from the plane and were escorted up into the conning tower to the CO’s wardroom, where we were greeted by the Captain and treated to lunch, before starting our whirlwind tour of the aircraft carrier from bow to stern and everywhere in-between, which lasted deep into the night. Rather than go into great detail about everything we did and saw, let me hit some highlights:
- Standing on deck mere feet away from F-18’s actively being launched and recovered, feeling the heat while being pummeled by the sound of the engines
- Witnessing teenagers handling multimillion (or multibillion) dollar equipment with care and precision exceeding the responsibility level and professionalism in the civilian world of folks twice their age
- Exploring the depths of the bowels of the massive ship
- Wandering seemingly endless corridors, climbing up and down myriad ladders
- Poking our heads out of the foc’sles where the anchor drops, seeing the ocean carved by the massive bow
- Watching the sunset from the fantail, seeing the wake churned by the powerful underwater props
- Disarming a nuclear weapon (no, just kidding about that!)
- Getting up close and personal with the fighter planes, helicopters, weapons systems, their pilots and support crew aboard ship
- Eating with the ship’s complement in the mess, hearing the stories of the men and women who serve and why they chose to make the Navy their profession
- Visiting the chapel and seeing how the crew is able to express their faith while serving
- Getting a check up at sickbay – really a small hospital wing large than many on the mainland
- Hanging out with the Admiral on his private bridge, overseeing the flight deck operations
- Seeing the high tech CIC in action with multiple aircraft and ships engaged in exercises
- Sitting in a fighter squadron ready room while the CAG and squadron members debriefed us on typical flight ops and life as a Naval Aviator
- Familiarizing ourselves with shipboard small arms with the Master At Arms (and I gotta say, it was very cool to handle an M60!!)
- Receiving a crash course in jet engine inspection, diagnosis and repair
Some of the crew members gave us special mementos as well: squadron patches, hats, challenge coins, t-shirts... all of us in the TAPS DV group were overwhelmed by their generosity and kindness.
Most of us in the group had never met each other before, and through the day we were able to share our stories with each other – who our loved ones were in this life that had died, bringing us unexpectedly into this new family circle called TAPS. What our lives had been like before, what we had experienced thus far in our grief journeys, how we were growing and healing through new shared experiences and fellowship together with others like ourselves, walking similar paths. New friendships were formed, and I am deeply appreciative of having had the opportunity to welcome these now dear friends into my life through this adventure.
After an exhaustingly full day of a whirlwind tour of shipboard operations, one might think that we were all ready to pass out instantly, as soon as we turned in to our bunks. But the Navy had one more surprise experience for us: the same challenge the crew faces each night of trying to sleep immediately under the flight deck as the planes violently rock the deck with the noise and concussion force as they hit the tailhook arrestors and landed every 120 seconds, accompanied alternately by the vibration and screaming sound of engines at wide open throttle, with their powerful thrust impacting and vibrating the ship through the jet blast deflectors before they were hurled off the deck into the air by the hydraulic ram catapults. This action went on well into the night, and happens every night for the crew of these incredible ships.
I had prepared ahead of time and brought a set of Shure sound isolating headphones, but even with their ability to seal my hearing canals, lower ambient sound by 29 decibels and mask noises by piping pleasant music directly into my ears, the sheer vibrational forces at work pounded my chest until aircraft operations finally ceased some time in the very early morning.
After about 2 honest hours of sleep, we were awakened for breakfast, packed up our belongings, had a hasty meal, and proceeded to the disembarking prep room, getting all suited up for our return flight. The ship’s Captain met us there to see us off, and after another safety briefing we were loaded up on the C-2 Greyhound again, eagerly awaiting the experience of being launched off the deck from the cat.
Sitting next to me on the flight out was my new friend Jacob Healy, whose father Navy SEAL hero Dan Healy had been killed in Operation Red Wings. Both of us having lots of roots and connections to the Teams families, we had hit it off splendidly, and now both of us had GoPros strapped to our helmets to record our cat shot.
It came fast, and much like the arrested carrier trap landing, violent. Going from zero to 170mph in just 300 feet with the engines screaming at full throttle was truly an eye widening visceral experience. Facing backwards in the C-2, we were pushed hard against our harness straps and in just a couple of moments, felt our stomachs drop as the plane left the deck and clawed at the air to climb.
Following that adrenaline rush (and the nearly complete lack of sleep the night before), most of us fell quickly asleep for the rest of the ride back to Coronado. It was a mercifully much softer landing in comparison to the one 24 hours previously! We disembarked, exchanged numbers and emails with each other, took some last photos together and individually headed out back toward our homes, mostly overwhelmed from the emotional and exhilarating experience we’d shared.
Now... while being one of the few who can now say they’ve landed on and been shot off a US Navy aircraft carrier at sea (thanks to this experience provided by the Navy DV Program and TAPS) is definitely a highlight of the adventure for me, there were simply so many highlights of the trip, and it was such a positive experience, that even a year later it’s hard to wrap my head around it all. An emotional reminder of the Tiger Cruise I got to go on with my dad when I was twelve, a reality check of the professionalism of young military service members constantly managing high stress environments and situations with poise and precision, a chance to connect at a heart level with others also dealing with feelings of loss, an opportunity to have an experience that few others ever get. I cannot stress enough how much cathartic healing and positive vibes this adventure held for me. All the right feels. And whether it’s a similar trip on a Navy ship, or one of the TAPS adventures to Mt Kilimanjaro, or where ever it may be, if you can make the room in your schedule to do it, you should.
I know, I know. “Don’t ‘should’ on me.” Darcie would give me a really hard time for saying it. But really – you should. You totally should. This Navy brat is definitely glad he did, and I’m sure somewhere up there, his Dad is grinning from ear to ear to see his son getting a taste of what he loved so much in his professional life of service.
To paraphrase my good friend Ferris Bueller: If you have the means, I highly recommend it. It’s so choice.
Brendan Prout is a husband, dad, pastor, author, singer/songwriter, TAPS Peer Mentor, chaplain and proud Navy brat who loves cars, music, good food, all things geeky, and not driving off cliffs anymore. He can be found at brendanprout.com, @brendanprout on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
*NOTE* - MANY pictures ahead! And if you're wondering what's up with the cat...
this trip was during a time I was traveling 3 weekends a month, and my daughter didn't want me to be lonely, so she sent her stuffed animal cat (aptly named "Cat") along with me to keep me company. I took pictures of Cat wherever I visited and sent the pictures home to my daughter so she could see where we were and to see that Cat really was doing her job to keep me company, and as I posted these pictures to social media, #travelswithcat became a thing. So there you go.