For La Jolla residents Tony and Rene Gild, the start of their recent Naval Air Forces Distinguished Visitor Embark trip sounds like a heart-racing scene from a movie.
They describe being strapped via four sets of belts to the inside of a Navy jet, with two sets of earplugs, a helmet and goggles, ready to slingshot in seconds from 0 to 150 miles per hour from North Island near Coronado bound for the Pacific Ocean. The soundtrack is simply the sound of heartbeats, deep breathing and distant electrical sounds.
And yet the landing is somehow more intense than the takeoff, as they touch ground on the 150-yard-long landing strip of the USS Roosevelt aircraft carrier.
“You do what is called ‘an arrested landing’ or a tail hook landing,” Tony explained. “The carrier has to grip the cable of an aircraft that is moving. You are really in the hands of the pilot.”
The once-in-a-lifetime civilian experience comes through the invitation-only program where civic, education or business community leaders can spend 48 hours on an aircraft carrier to experience the day-to-day lives of Navy personnel — 15 at a time.
“We feel very fortunate to have been selected,” Tony said. “The wait can be up to three years. The purpose of the program is to show the pride and professionalism of the U.S. Navy at work. It was one of the most extraordinary 48 hours we’ve ever had.”
Rene added: “It gave me such great insight about what our Navy does and how hard they all work. There were many different jobs and they were all so well trained in them.
“The servicemen and servicewomen give a lot of themselves because they are out at sea for nine months to two years at a time.”
As part of the itinerary, participants viewed training exercises, observed ship and jet maintenance, attended lectures, watched flight operations from the bridge, ate with crew members and toured the hanger bays.
Tony said watching the tail hook landings and orchestrated takeoffs from the carrier “is like watching an aerial ballet on a plate of steel, the ways these pilots go in and take off again. We watched that until about midnight, when operations stop.”
And while visually stunning, the only downside was that the accommodations were right under the landing strip.
“Every time a plane landed, it was very, very loud,” Rene said, and Tony added, “It was like someone was in the room with a jackhammer.”
Participants were also told to immerse themselves with the crew. “They really look forward to meals because these provide a break and some time to bond. So to sit down with them and share a meal was really meaningful,” Tony said.
Spending the day with these men and women provided revelations for Rene: “You see people putting their life at risk to defend our country. It was emotional to meet these guys.”
When the visit was complete, the equally nerve-wracking flight to depart from the USS Roosevelt took participants back to the mainland.
As Tony explained: “You are sitting backwards, it’s hot, you have all this equipment on, there is a lot of noise. The runway is 150 yards long and you are now catapulting off and ready to do 0 to 150 in seconds. While we were waiting, every second felt like a minute, every minute felt like an hour. It was a real eye-opener.”
As to why they wanted to participate, Tony said: “I thought this would be an exciting experience and a chance to see how our tax dollars are spent. It costs a lot of money to run the ships … and being in San Diego and having them on our doorstep made it easier to see the process.”
No stranger to adventure, the Gilds said they’ve been on safari in Africa, seen gorillas in the mist, climbed Machu Picchu, hiked the Milford Track in New Zealand, and visited Rwanda and Asia.
“We both like adventure; it keeps us young,” Tony said. “There’s going to come a time when we can’t do things like this anymore, so we want to do them while we can.”
— The cost to participate in a Naval Air Forces Distinguished Visitor Embark is $60 to cover the meals. Those who wish to learn more or enter their name for consideration can click here