Numbers reveal the hard, objective truths about a vehicle, defining its parameters and positioning it relative to its competition. When the U.S. Navy offered Motor Trend the special opportunity to ride aboard a Nimitz-class, nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, we said yes, then hit the books.
Commissioned in 1989, the USS Abraham Lincoln dimensions are usually given in football fields (more than three end to end) and acreage (4.5-acre deck surface). Breaking it down to more familiar terms, Abe stretches 1092 feet bumper to bumper, has a 206-foot height, boasts a 97,000-ton curb weight, and carries a $4.5 billion retail price. Simply put, this is the world's largest vehicle and the planet's most powerful warship, so we just had to enlist for a first-drive impression.
We would be traveling with reps from Chevrolet and a Navy Auto Source, who were onboard to boost morale by giving away a Chevy Tracker to the sailors returning home from the Middle East. This collective of land-loving car guys enjoyed a farewell dinner the night before departing from the San Diego naval base. The merriment was tempered with generous warnings about motion sickness, foot fungus, massive 300-bed bunk rooms, and other sea hazards likely to catch newbies unaware. We were now mentally prepared for the worst, expecting hardened sailors to scowl like weathered pirates at the fresh-faced landlubbers as we endured untold hardships.
What we found the next morning was a gracious crew, from ensign to admiral, that made us at home on their floating airbase. It didn't hurt that most planes had been off loaded, along with a couple thousand troops, after a 10-month tour. The ship was traveling light and spirits were high. Beyond the media stowaways, the Abraham Lincoln was hosting a Tiger Cruise program over a long weekend, allowing personnel to share the Navy experience with family members.
MT Radio Host Alan Taylor and I had come direct from the Chicago auto show, bringing a week's worth of luggage, laptops, and A/V gear with us. Photographer David Newhardt was similarly laden with a camera bag large enough to sneak ordinance off the ship. Although a couple young sailors provided bell services, negotiating the narrow hallways with the frequent stepovers and ascending the steep stairways proved a challenge. It's very hard to imagine trying to carry parts or tools through the ship in a hurry during conflict.
We had been assigned to officer's quarters that typically house fighter jocks, with accommodations for six. For the three Motor Trenders, it seemed downright luxurious compared to what we were expecting. (The previous evening's scare tactics had worked!)
Tightly arranged metal storage closets and bureaus opened to create small desks and hide a secure safe. Organizational efficiency rivals an RV, with thoughtful touches such as reading lights and even a bedside shelf for a paperback or watch. Oddly, a pair of bean bag chairs had been left behind by the previous tenants, along with Paul Reiser's book "Couplehood."
The chief luxury was the 19-inch television precariously perched on a plastic shelf. The onboard TV studio played movies around the clock and offered CNN live as reception permitted, though image quality made Web-based video streaming seem leading edge.
As the ship motored away from port, we climbed topside to the mammoth flight deck. The expansive surface seemed like a mall parking lot, home to a few token GSEs (ground support equipment, essentially little tug cars) and a single F-14 Tomcat. With the sun shining, a steady breeze, and the gargantuan ship under our feet, it was truly an exhilarating experience. The shore whizzed by as we increased speed exiting San Diego Bay. A destroyer, submarine, AEGIS cruiser, and another carrier passed us as they headed to port. Out in the ocean, with our speed nearing 30 knots, wind was calculated at 75-80 mph, making shooting video impossible and transforming the walk back into a near effortless sprint.
We headed to the officer's wardroom for dinner, joining the queue of eager eaters. We were quite surprised that the food wasn't the gruel slop movies taught us to expect. Rather, the mess hall shamed a high school cafeteria with abundant choices of fresh food. A couple entrees were offered that first night (steak and chicken nuggets), with several side dishes, fruits, salad bar, breads, and numerous beverages. Dinner was downright civilized. No surprise, as it's crucial to keep the crew satiated and nourished when they are thousands of miles from home cooking.
When carrying a full 6000-sailor complement, the Abraham Lincoln personnel consume 660 gallons of milk, 620 pounds of hamburger, 800 pounds of vegetables, 900 pounds of fruit, 180 dozen eggs, and 13,000 sodas over the course of 20,000 daily meals. Multiply that out by several months of constant duty, and that is a colossal volume of food.
After dinner, sailors were playing basketball and tossing footballs in the main hanger deck awaiting an ice cream social. After a few words from the captain, the feeding frenzy began. The servers scooped ice cream with all the zeal of third-world bazaar merchants, trying to convince each desert-seeker to try their flavor or sugary topping. Clearly, these boys have been at sea too long.
We climbed back up to our level and used a hotel-standard magnetic key card to enter our room. Due to long travel day, and expected dawn rise, we climbed into our metal bunks early. Newhardt and I read naval warfare books before switching lights to night-time red.
I awoke to the sensation of being pressed by ever-changing gravity into my bunk, with the foam mattress mimicking the ocean's undulations, transitioning from full expansion to pancake-flat compression. The ship had increased speed overnight and was facing a more active ocean. The motion was more soothing and novel than nausea inducing - at least until morning when we began our drunken walk down the corridor wearing a towel and fungus-protecting flip-flops. Use of the Spartan stainless toilet and shower aboard the rocking ship was a challenge, requiring a staggered stance and firm grip on any stable surface.
Weather advisory recommended that the ship return to San Diego to avoid sailing through the equivalent of "The Perfect Storm." After consulting charts and fellow officers, the hardened CO, Captain Doug Dupouy, ordered the Abe Lincoln to continue its mission to Washington state, navigating through the storm's center. Most crew had been onboard for 10 months, and they were naturally quite anxious to return to their families. The Ship Store could've made a killing by raising prices on the precious, lunch-saving Dramamine.
Before the weather hit with a vengeance, we went topside to tour the bridge and the air boss flight control station. Climbing the narrow stairways several stories while rocking and rolling in every direction was enough to give us each pause to keep nausea in check. The higher we ascended, the more exaggerated the effect became.
Once to the command station, Rear Admiral Phil Belial explained basic operations and invited us to sit in his chair. We were offered a chance to man the helm, with the clear realization that we were surrounded by wary officers and any steering input into the modest wheel would take minutes to have an effect. Our traditional 600-foot slalom course would be flattened by a vessel whose handling maneuvers are measured in miles. Still, it was an awesome feeling to briefly command the floating city within an armed flotilla.
As the cruise continued, the CO's wisdom shone as the seas calmed and the sun eventually broke through. A special F/A-18 Super Hornet fly-by was arranged, with two of these strike fighters making several passes close enough to practically hit with a stone. Beyond the piloting demonstration, the flight crews also treated us to an ordinance drop and Vulcan Gattling gun exhibit, sending fountains of salty spray into the gusty air at the ship's rear. As the wind again picked up, we sought shelter within the protective steel hull.
Air Boss, Commander Brian Wild, explained that in addition to taking the planes off the ship, they have also unloaded several hundred thousand pounds of ammunition. "This is a heck of a lot more motion than we're used to seeing," Wild explained. "We're pretty much a cork right now." That's certainly how I felt bouncing on my well-worn mattress at night.
Typically, Abe is laden with 65-75 planes, with about 40 on the flight deck. The others are stored in the massive hangar, packed a tight six inches apart. Bumping wings is inevitable, but precautions are taking to protect the birds. The previous tour saw 24 "crunches," though the crew was proud of only nine incidences on their current mission.
"The [crunches] I've seen that have done the most damage are ones where the aircraft spins. You're taxiing all the way up to the bow. The aircraft needs to turn as tight as it possibly can. So the nose wheel starts to turn slowly, but the tail comes around quickly. There's another airplane right there, and thunk. It takes out a $70,000 part, an aileron for example on a Hornet. For us, it's such a heart breaker. It would be like you guys bumping a car on a test drive." The air wing carries three F/A-18 Hornet squadrons, one F-14 Tomcat squadron, a four-plane EA-6B Prowler squadron, and two E-2C Hawkeye all-weather defense prop planes, as well as SH-60 Seahawk helicopters and S-3B Viking submarine fighters.
Wild said, "The Hornet and Tomcat are like the fastest, baddest sports cars you can think of. Something in the Lamborghini range. They are top-of-the-line screamers. And they are maintenance intensive, as well."
"The Hawkeye and Vikings are more like good, solid pickup trucks. They have important missions, but they're the support guys. They don't get the glory. And they're kinda ugly."
The air boss explained that the Abraham Lincoln launches 80-90 sorties per day when on post. While working in the Persian Gulf, the crew launched as many as 30 flights for a single mission.
During the course of our stay, we were treated to tours of an ordnance magazine (large room where bombs and missiles are stored), machine shop, diesel engine room, television studio, radio station, and all levels of the "island" control tower. The one area deemed off-limits was the nuclear station that houses the two powerplants that enable this massive machine to propel 4.5-acres of sovereign American territory to the far reaches of the earth. Capable of motoring under nuke-generated steam power for decades, the Abe stops are dictated primarily by crew needs, food stores, ammunition replenishment, aircraft fuel, and service overhauls.
Our designated chaperon Lt. jg Lamar Bradley proved astonishingly punctual, arriving at scheduled times within seconds of our wristwatch alarms to escort us to a meeting or tour. His efficiency was laughable, especially to us slacker civilians.
Snaking through the massive hull requires monkey-like agility skills for ascending and descending the never-ending steep stairways known as ladders. The hallways themselves demand a hop-duck maneuver to pass through the polished portals, which conjures images of a thousand space station modules connected together. Without Lamar, we would be forever lost within the massive ship. Each turn looks like the last; every floor mirrors the one above. In talking with some sailors, they too have trepidation about navigating other portions of the ship. Many stick close to the essentials: quarters, head, and job station.
Most offices have Internet access, opening up a world of information and communication that makes being at sea feel less isolating. No doubt, Web access will reduce divorce rates with Amazon.com, 800Flowers.com, and BlueMountainGreetings.com being available 24/7.
Bingo has become a popular game on the Lincoln, and this week's grand prize was a Tracker ZR2 V-6, to be awarded just in time to drive home at the end of a long deployment. Chevrolet and military car dealer Auto Source sponsored the sizable prize that clearly excited the sailors. The bingo game was played over the ship's equivalent of public access TV, with the captain, XO, and other luminaries hosting. Numbers were called and winners collected their prizes on camera, closing the day right at 10 p.m. taps.
After a hearty breakfast in the officer's wardroom, we went topside to watch a monthly weapons test. Ship-mounted, machine guns harkening from WWII, the rapid-fire 50 mm Vulcan and 20 mm cannons provide a last line of defense against incoming missiles. Termed Phalanx, these armaments are capable of both manual and automated firing. The various stations ripped off quick 100-round bursts like Jiffy popcorn once the kernels go nova. It happened so quickly, the firing sounded more like 20 consecutive shots than 100.
As the deck was cleared of non-essential personnel, we worked with the crew to transport the three onboard Chevy Trackers from a hangar bay to the flight deck for a few photos. The ship was cruising at a solid 34 knots into a head wind as we snapped on float vests and stepped on to the 3880-square-foot elevators with some trepidation and many warnings. The elevators raise two F/A-18 Hornets the 60-foot distance in a relatively swift 20 seconds. With just the light, compact SUVs on the high-powered elevator, we braced to be jettisoned upon ascension, but the motion was surprisingly smooth. The greater concern was that we might be to be blown off the side, then sucked into one of the four 21-foot propellers... before we got our photos.
Once topside, Newhardt's 40-pound camera bag was actually sliding across the drag-strip grippy deck surface, while we were leaning toward the bow at impossible, wind-tunnel angles. Looking across the deck to port, we could watch the ocean's horizon line appear then disappear while the ship pitched and rolled through the tumultuous water.
The ride smoothed out as we drew closer to the Everett, Washington, port. Final preparations for disembarking were being made, with machinery cleaned and secured, personal effects packed, and Tiger Cruise families entertained.
Over the course of our coastal cruise, we found friendly sailors eager to talk and share their experiences. The crew in the machine shop proved to be the most ardent car guys, each confessing to owning a muscle-bound project car back home and developing a few trick engine components onboard during down times.
The commitment these often-young adults are making through their service struck a chord with us. Each sailor carries a sense of honor and pride, regardless of whether they are on a kitchen detail or working the flight deck. Every sailor's actions contribute to the smooth operation of the floating city, the strength of America's global military might, and the depth of naval camaraderie.
Seeing the sailors line up shoulder to shoulder along the expansive deck filled us all with a pride, as it did for those families waiting so patiently on shore. As marvelous as the machine is, the people onboard are even more impressive.
Motor Trend thanks the USS Abraham Lincoln for extending its hospitality and thank the crew for its dedication and sacrifices to defend our freedoms.