John Mason-Smith flew onto the Stennis aircraft carrier aboard a plane like this Grumman.
By John Mullen
 
May 18, 2018 – Orange Beach, AL (OBA®)- Landing on an aircraft carrier is unlike any landing 99 percent of the population will ever experience. The plane is not slowing down to gently light on the runway. 
 
Oh, no. It’s speeding up, going all out just in case. 
 
“They’ve got one chance to catch the hook so you’re accelerating into your landing because they want to keep going if they miss,” John Mason-Smith of Perdido Key said. 
 
Mason-Smith was enjoying a specialty coffee at BuzzCatz Coffee and Sweets one bright morning reveling in the memories from a trip landing aboard and taking off from the USS John C. Stennis aircraft carrier. 
 
Mason-Smith’s once-in-a-lifetime experience came from simply being a fan of the Navy’s Blue Angel Flight Demonstration team. Well, maybe not a simple fan. 
 
“I follow the Blue Angels,” he said. “I’m just a huge, fanatical fan of theirs. I follow them so close – I follow all the social media for the Blue Angels, the navy, naval aviation and all that.”
 
John Mason-Smith on the John C. Stennis Bridge.
John Mason-Smith on the Stennis bridge.
He closely monitors the team’s weekly schedule and helps determine when the Blues are likely to buzz beaches on Sunday afternoons when they return to base. The Orange Beach Community Website informs fans of Mason-Smith’s findings and the result – if the Blues show – are lots of fan photos and videos of what has become a local attraction.
 
He also closely follows the Twitter account of Fly Navy. He noticed the site reached 50,000 followers and wanted to celebrate by offering to fly 16 followers to a landing on, tour of and taking off again from an aircraft carrier.
 
“Send a direct message if you are interested,” Mason-Smith read on the account. “Later that day they said out of 50,000 followers we’ve selected 16. Then I got word I was one of the 16.”
 
He thought it was over before it was to get started good. The accelerating into the landing, grabbing the hook and the abrupt stop was a more than a little unsettling.
 
“I literally thought we crashed on the deck,” Mason-Smith said. “I didn’t realize that was an OK landing. It was that bad.”
 
The flight deck of the John C. Stennis.
The flight deck is a whirlwind of activity.
Mason-Smith and 20-24 other lucky souls left North Island near San Diego on a E2A Grumman aircraft and headed out to the Stennis stationed off the coast of Baja California. At 3,000 feet the plane made two five-mile circuits of the ship before dropping into the airborne flight line to take its turn landing on the flight deck.
 
“This thing was back and forth, back and forth and then BOOM! scraping metal,” Mason-Smith said. “I thought we crashed on the deck. I thought it was over. 
 
“That was just a normal landing. Everybody’s cheering and I’m like, OK.”
 
Mason-Smith placed a Navy patch upside down on the table that was about six inches in diameter. 
 
“This is about the size that the tail hook on an incoming jet has to hit, day or night,” he said. “It’s one particular spot but they have four catching cables. They have to put the tail hook on a spot this big so they don’t miss the cable. 
 
Planes come in a full speed in case they miss the hook and have to take off again.“How they ever do it is the most impressive. I only saw two misses.”
 
The fun was just beginning. The Grumman’s landing wasn’t a celebratory one but just one of many during operations onboard that day.
 
“When we get out we are on the flight deck and it is intense,” he said. “They sent an email the day before that said it was the most dangerous environment in the world, the flight deck of an aircraft carrier. It was clearly dangerous.
 
“An F-18 Superhornet came in right behind us. We could see and hear it coming in. They unhook him and another one comes in right behind him. You’re stepping around missiles they have right there ready to strap onto the jets. I’m on this catwalk and I look down and it’s 120 feet straight down to the Atlantic Ocean.”
 
Working in this environment, Mason-Smith said, are some of the newest sailors in the Navy.
 
“I learned that if you’re 22 you’re old on that flight deck,” he said. “Everyone is 18 to 22. Everybody running those jets, everybody running the catapults are all sailors who just came out of boot camp. Right out of boot camp and right on the Stennis. I thought these are young people out here doing this crazy, dangerous work.”
 
The visitors toured every part of the ship with staff at each station taking time to explain their jobs and how everyone interacted to keep the Stennis operating. It’s a regular feature the Navy provides to visitors that not many people know about. 
 
“They have a Distinguished Visitors program,” he said.  “The Navy has been doing this program forever and actually take about 1,000 people a year out on these aircraft carriers. Almost always they are politicians, defense contractors, extremely well-connected. Some of the Twitter followers couldn’t make it at the last minute. They had openings and one of the guys who went out with us was a neighbor of the Secretary of the Navy.”
 
They are all issued standard military life vests, helmets, goggles and other equipment for the trip.
 
“Ours had the DV (Distinguished Visitors) initials to identify us as ones who do not know what we are doing,” Mason-Smith said.
 
And, if the landing was an eye-opener, Mason-Smith said the G-forces of the catapult takeoff were pretty extraordinary as well.
 
“You’re landing sitting backwards which is great for the landing,” he said. “Takeoff it’s not so much fun but landing at least you are going back into the seat.”
 
The takeoff tries to pull you out of your seat but the seat belt system has the passengers strapped in pretty tightly. 
 
“I retightened everything down knowing that I was going from zero to 150 mph in 1.5 seconds,” Mason-Smith said. “The instructors said to move your shins against the seat in front so you don’t bruise them. My consciousness did not slip but things got small. My vision tightened to a small window of view straight ahead on the metal back of the seat in front of me. I was not bodily in control whatsoever.”
 
One of his prized possessions from the trip was earning his trap landing patch which he proudly displayed on the table at BuzzCatz with his Navy welcome pack. 
 
“Going out and doing the trap landing is pretty intense,” he said. “For me, I’ve decided I’ll never afraid on an airliner again. There’s no reason to ever be afraid.”
 
For minute-by-minute details of John Mason-Smith’s experience flying to and taking off from the John C. Stennis, visit his blog “How Twitter Rocked My World.”
The inside of the Grumman airplane that landed John Mason-Smith and fellow visitors.