Paul Gilfeather principal correspondent | Aug 21, 2010 0:00
I am strapped tightly into my seat on board a C-2 Greyhound military plane preparing to land on the most sophisticated warship the world has ever known.
Landing on an aircraft carrier - in this case, the formidable USS George Washington (picture) - is the most difficult thing a Navy pilot will ever do.
This 60,000-tonne steel structure is powering through the South China Sea at around 40 mph and my plane is descending towards the flight deck at four times that speed.
My pilot only has around 150m to land - approximately the same length as the roof at Singapore's Marina Bay Sands.
This clearly isn't nearly long enough under normal circumstances.
In order to get us on to the tarmac safely, our pilot has to "snag" the plane's tailhook - a two-metre hook attached to the back of the aircraft - on to one of four arresting steel cables stretched across the deck of the carrier.
As we hit the flight deck, the pilot will push the engines to full power.
This might sound like aviation madness but if the tailhook doesn't catch any of the arresting cables then we have to be moving fast enough to take off again.
The pilot skilfully does his job, latching on to the third wire, and the aircraft - weighing about 1,800 kg and travelling at a remarkable 150mph - is brought to an abrupt halt in less than two seconds.
We hit the deck with a massive thud and then sit motionless.
I have just been involved in a highly-organised plane crash.
This is what I imagine it feels like to be in a real-life disaster and escape without a scratch.
Still slightly shaken from this once-in-a-lifetime experience, I emerge from the rear-loading door of the plane, wearing my self-inflating life jacked and a heavy-duty helmet called a Cranial, to protect my head and my hearing.
I am standing on the flight deck of the US Navy's fastest and most expensive ship - not to mention the most dangerous and nosiest working environment in the world.
The ship's commander, Rear-Admiral Dan Cloyd, shakes me by the hand enthusiastically and informs me that I am now an honorary "tailhooker" - the title bestowed on the lucky few allowed to take part in an arrested landing.
Despite being somewhere off the north-east Malaysian peninsula, I am now officially on American soil.
CITY ON THE SEA
The nuclear-powered USS George Washington is like a city on the sea with more than 5,000 Navy personnel on board.
Although there are just 100 pilots on board, there is a staff of around 2,000 in the air wing conducting and maintaining the jet, planes and choppers which are continually flying and landing on the flight deck.
There are another 3,000 people in the ship's company. They keep the carrier running smoothly doing jobs from washing dishes to handling weaponry to servicing the carrier's two nuclear reactors.
The flight deck is 305-m long and the ship 17 storeys high. Incredibly, the super carrier houses some 80 different aircraft, including fighter jets like F-18 Hornets, electronic warfare planes like the EA-6B Prowlers and Seahawk helicopters, which also carry torpedoes and missiles.
The ship itself cost a whopping US$5 billion ($6.6 billion) to build, while the fighter jets and weaponry on board total US$4 billion.
The ship has everything its residents need to survive, including a hospital with a full complement of surgeons, four dentists, post office, shops, gyms, canteens and kitchens, which serve up to 18,000 meals a day.
It's a super-slick operation, which Rear-Admiral Cloyd says has been honed to virtual perfection since work began on the first timber-built carriers at the beginning of the 20th century.
I am taken on to the flight deck and watch the carrier's aircraft take off and land at a rate of one every few minutes.
While there are aircraft constantly situated on the flight deck, many are transported in and out of the area by four elevators, each 4,000 square feet.
They are launched from the carrier by one of four steam-powered catapults which literally fire the jets and planes into the air.
Without the catapults, jets like the F-18 Hornet would need at least a couple of thousand feet to launch. The catapult means they can take off with just 100 metres of runway.
Rear-Admiral Cloyd, who joined the Navy 31 years ago, said: "We normally land an airplane every 60 seconds or so. We can compete with any international airport in the world as far as how fast we land aircraft despite the fact we are only about four-and-a-half acres in size."
He continued: "You hear people describe a flight deck in operation as a ballet. It's a lot of things moving simultaneously in many different directions under the guidance and direction of a number of different people , all of which are aligned very closely so it looks like it's happening magically.
"It's all being orchestrated by a whole bunch of very young men and women."
It's a truly impressive sight but I can't help but feel for the young men and women working on the flight deck.
WHY THEY ENLIST
The average age of the ship's staff is just 20 and for the flight deck - surely the nosiest and most treacherous working environment in the world - it is even younger.
Sailors can sign up for service at 17 and usually serve for between three and four years.
On the flight deck, it is so loud the sailors can barely hear each other talk and with some spending up to 14 hours in such surroundings, I can imagine it must get pretty depressing.
It is probably the equivalent of working down a coal mine in the 1800s.
But most of the carrier's young team is drawn from the poorest sections of American society.
The Navy is currently retaining sailors at record levels and the top brass freely admit the crisis facing the US economy is a huge factor.
It makes sense. Many of these young people must be desperate for work and I doubt many would actually choose to spend up to eight months at sea away from their families if they had other options.
Of course, some would and many will relish the opportunity to serve their country and take advantage of the wonderful training and travel opportunities Navy life offers.
Rear-Admiral Cloyd, a genuinely nice man who followed his father into the Navy's air wing, is quick to pay tribute to the men and women working underneath him.
"They are phenomenal people who make extraordinary sacrifices, along with their families, for very intangible reasons," he said.
"None of them are going to get rich and make their life savings in this particular profession. It's not because they enjoy spending months at sea away from home but they believe in what they do."
The ship is training and exercising virtually 24 hours a day so the work on board is tough.
The small concession for those working on the flight deck is that they are outdoors.
There are hundreds on the ship below deck and some go for weeks without even seeing daylight.
I am strapped into my plane for the return flight to Singapore and fired from one of the carrier's super-strength catapults.
It's a pretty violent experience and because I am facing backwards, and as we rise vertically, it feels as though I have been turned upside down.
I have been on aircraft carriers before but there is no doubt that the state-of-the-art USS George Washington is something really special.
It was an incredible experience but I can't help feeling for those young men and women I left behind.
Maybe I'm wrong, but for all the glamour which comes from the gleaming jets and preppy boy pilots, I felt there was a sadness about them.
Life on board an aircraft carrier is undeniably tough and exhausting, but I suppose it can also be exhilarating.
Good or bad, it's like no other place on earth and those who serve on super-carriers like the USS George Washington will eventually return home with a lifetime's worth of stories to tell.