Life Aboard an Aircraft Carrier
Credit: Chris Steele-Perkins / Magnum Photos

IV. The Catapult

"Have you ever had to eject?" I asked a pilot (call sign "Disney"), wondering, too late, if such a question broke a taboo, tempted fate.

"I have not."

"Ever got close?"

"I guess it depends on your definition of close. But I, uh, managed to salvage the situation well before I reached an envelope where I had to think about getting out."

Envelope! Love it! We'd been talking a few minutes earlier about the beauty of flying at night, as though through deep space, and now we were back within the linguistic envelope of the pilot's routinely laconic argot. And the downside of flying at night, Disney reminded me, was that you often had to land at night too.

"Nights like these where there's a moon out so you can see what's going on – that's less stressful. But a dark night with terrible weather, low cloud, the boat pitching and you can't see it till the last seconds – that is a terrifying experience. You have instruments telling you what's going on but it's just a postage stamp of a boat down there. Even with all the technology we're still very visual and what you can't see terrifies you. You'll land and have trouble getting out of the aircraft because your legs are shaking so much and you're like What in the hell am I doing this for? That was just stupid."

"How about taking off at night? Is that more straightforward?"

"In some ways I hate the night catapult shot more than I hate the night landing. You sit there, they dim the lights down but your eyes take time to adjust. They shoot you off the front end and on a dark night you've got no visual reference, no idea where the horizon is. It's like getting shot into a black hole. You only have your instruments to trust. On the way down, even on a dark night, you can often see the lights of the ship out in front of you. But when you get shot off Catapult One, the edge lights go and you're in the dark. So you climb, get your night vision on, try to figure out what's going on."

The odd thing about this was that Disney seemed completely unfazed by what he was saying. Routine, lyricism, terror – all of it was recounted in the same slow, unexcited drawl.

Everything about taking off and landing from a carrier had gotten safer but Disney said something I would hear elsewhere on the carrier. "A lot of our lessons are written in blood. It's not necessarily a dangerous business, just terribly unforgiving of mistakes."

  This is an excerpt from ANOTHER GREAT DAY AT SEA: Life Aboard the USS George H.W. Bush by Geoff  
  Dyer. Copyright © 2014 by Geoff Dyer. Reprinted by permission of Pantheon Books, an imprint of The Knopf 
  Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC.