By Richard Marshall
For many young athletes and their families, weekends are filled with drives to games, occasional team dinners and, sometimes, an overnight stay in a bland suburban chain hotel. With opponents in Hagerstown, Maryland, and Chesapeake, Virginia, and points in between, the Navy Youth Hockey Association's Midget (under 16) team has tried to make the most of their occasional weekends away by adding some exploration to their otherwise hockey-filled schedule.
While these players have the privilege of skating at the U.S. Naval Academy and sporting the blue and gold hockey jerseys similar to their host, it isn't often that they get the experience of seeing the “real” Navy. In November, though, the team was in the Norfolk area for a two-game series against the Hampton Roads Whalers, and while in town, they received a private tour of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72).
At the conclusion of their first game, the players and their families convened at the gates of the Norfolk Naval Station. Most had never been aboard an operational Navy ship before, but after a short drive through the largest Navy base in the world, they arrived pier-side at one of the largest ships in the world. Looking up at the massive, floating airport, Broadneck High School freshman James Terry said, “It is huge.”
After meeting their guides, crewmembers assigned to the Abraham Lincoln, the group boarded the ship and began their 90-minute tour in the ship's massive hangar bay. As the carrier was in port, there were no aircraft on the ship, but the players and families received an overview of the Nimitz-class carrier and life aboard the 1,000-foot-long ship that can carry nearly 80 aircraft and 6,000 sailors when fully staffed for overseas deployments.
Broadneck High sophomore Colin Bright, climbing the ladders, or stairs, up several levels within the superstructure to the Abe's primary flight control tower, joked “they need to make these ceilings higher.” Bright, who towers on the ice at 6 feet, 3 inches, is often seen around the rink wearing a Navy-themed sweatshirt with a picture and phrase that U.S. aircraft carriers are “100,000 tons of diplomacy.”
Perched six stories above the flight deck, the crew discussed the challenge of landing an aircraft on a moving ship and they shared stories about the role of the air boss and mini boss in flight operations. When asked, only a handful of the players acknowledged having seen the Naval aviation film classic “Top Gun,” but all were interested in the mechanics of the ship's mission and learning about the jets that operate from the carrier.
On the bridge, the kids took turns at the helm. Severna Park High School freshman Johnny Clements was surprised that such a huge vessel is controlled by one of the most junior sailors, who turns the ship using an unexpectedly small steering wheel. Many of the kids took turns in the captain's chair and learned about maneuvering a carrier alongside an oiler for refueling operations, and the intricacies of mooring at the pier. One of the ship's quartermasters talked about navigating a ship at sea, and described the self-defense weapons systems that keep the ship safe.
The group ended its tour with time to explore the nearly 30-year-old ship's expansive 4.5-acre flight deck. In between photo ops with the setting sun over Norfolk harbor, the players asked about the catapult systems that launch jet aircraft and the arresting cables that pilots use to stop their planes on landings.
Severna Park's Josh Vance and father of Archbishop Spalding sophomore JB Vance highlighted that the experience inspired his son. “I really enjoyed it, but more than that, it had a really positive impact on JB,” Josh said. “We spent the entire drive home from Norfolk talking about academies, Reserve Officer Training Corps, and Air Force and Navy aviation.”