My day aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln
John David Mann
In Part I of this series, I describe arriving at the pier in Norfolk, Virginia, on a cold morning in January 2019, ready for my tour aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, as part of research for the serial killer thriller Steel Fear. In that piece, I walk you through some of the sights that Monica Halsey, the ambitious Knighthawk pilot who opens the book, sees in her first few hours. In this installment, we’ll pick up the story from the point of view of Finn, the SEAL with a troubled past, as Monica’s bird escorts him onto the Lincoln, for what reasons no one seems to know — including Finn himself.
“As fighter jets exploded off the deck’s bow and came screaming in aft to catch the big arrestor wires, Finn watched through the Knighthawk’s side window, absorbed in the skill of it all. According to Kennedy, a carrier flight deck was one gigantic bolt-action sniper rifle, three and a half football fields long, only instead of firing steel-tipped 10-gram rounds, it shot 25-ton fighter jets, firing and reloading at the rate of one every 25 seconds. Finn thought about the jet pilots strapped into their multimillion-dollar machines, being shot off the deck into the dark like bullets. The idea of being encased in a supersonic steel tube-like that made his balls clench.”
Finn has a dirty little secret. Yes, he’s a combat-decorated SEAL, a seasoned warfighter of exceptional achievement. Yes, he’s gone places and done things most people can’t even imagine. But he also has a problem no one else knows about. He has claustrophobia. Not the full-blown syndrome. Mostly it’s lain dormant, just beneath the surface, something he’s been able to manage and stuff back inside. Enough to get through SEAL training and all the hell that’s come after. But certain traumatic events of the past few weeks have pulled it growling and clawing to the surface as he’s about to step onto the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln. A gigantic steel tube where he’ll spend the next month, as a lethal chain of events begins closing in around him.
“The crew chief, Harris, walked him over to the edge, where they clambered downa short metal ladder onto the catwalk. Harris stepped through a hatch into the ship’s interior.
Harris turned and saw him looking back to the south, toward Bahrain. “Chief Finn?” When the SEAL didn’t respond he said, “Everything okay, Chief?”
Finn looked over at the other man. Nodded and followed him in.
Nothing was okay.”
Finn’s first stop is the Air Transfer Office shack (ATO), where he’ll be officially welcomed and briefed. The Lincoln’s ATO shack was pretty empty the day I visited in early 2019, since the ship was docked between deployments — but when Finn steps inside it’s cluttered with flight gear and helmets and boxes of shipments coming and going. “Everything on an aircraft carrier was crammed. The only spaces Finn had ever seen more tightly packed were submarines and New York City apartments.”
The ATO officers relieve Finn of his gun case, which holds his Remington .300 Win Mag, and his sidearm, a Heckler & Koch .45 semiautomatic pistol. For the coming ordeal, Finn will be armed with only his wits and his four-inch CPM steel ring knife —because his guns are going straight to the ship’s armory, where they’ll stay under lock and key for the duration.
Then he’s shown to his quarters:
“The ATO officer ushered Finn through a maze of passageways to his compartment, a tiny space tucked in a port-side corner just below the flight deck. Not too much smaller than a broom closet. Across the way, a few meters from the door, was a tiny head with a single toilet. No sink.”
Finn’s broom closet of a “stateroom” is modeled on this insanely cramped compartment I spotted not on the Lincoln but on the USS Intrepid, when Brandon and I toured that ship together in June ’18, seven months before my Lincoln visit. And here is the tiny head just across the p-way with the single toilet and no sink, where Finn will get violently ill in chapter 53. The next morning Finn starts scanning the crew, looking for likely candidates for his HUMINT (human intel) network. Best place to people-watch is the ship’s Starbucks, which like everything else aboard CVN-72 is Abe Lincoln–branded. “Jittery Abe’s,” which plays a key role in Steel Fear, is as real as your favorite local watering hole. On deployment, you can wait up to a half-hour in line for your caffeine hit.
At 0900 the 1MC (ship’s PA system) coughs out a single long tone from the bosun’s pipe, followed by an announcement: all available hands on deck for the morning’s FOD walk: the Foreign Object Debris walkdown, combing the flight deck for anything that shouldn’t be there, no matter how small. (There was no fodwalk happening the day I visited, but here is a shot of an actual fodwalk on the Lincoln in May 2017.)
“The FOD walk was serious business. It took tens of millions of dollars to put a fighter jet in the air; a seventy-five-cent bolt could ruin it.
Any foreign object — the tiniest screw or scrap of metal wire, a misplaced shoestring or boot eyelet, a dropped pen — could be sucked into a jet engine and cause catastrophic damage to the aircraft.
Not to mention the humans flying it.”
As he observes the operation, Finn sees just what it is he’s dealing with. And it isn’t good. A naval warship on deployment is normally just about as squared away as the military gets. Which is pretty damn squared away. An aircraft carrier’s flight deck is often described as “the most dangerous place in the world.” A carrier’s business is serious as a coronary. Tolerance for error — slipshod behavior, lax discipline, fudging of standards — is slim to zero. There’s a reason for the expression “ship-shape.” But that isn’t what Finn’s seeing. He’s seeing ragged lines of crew shuffling forward, guys who’re clearly hungover, one sailor slipping another a tiny envelope of pills. And people are finding way too many objects. Yes, that’s the point of the Fodwalk — but there shouldn’t be that much debris in the first place. The place is a mess. And Finn knows what that means: there’s a mess somewhere in the leadership.
“As if on cue, Finn felt the faint heat of someone’s gaze fixed on him from above. He swiveled his neck to look up. A thin angular face looking down on him from sixty feet above, standing out on the little balcony they called ‘Vulture’s Row.’ Steel-gray captain’s eyes, flanking an eagle’s claw of a nose, radiating mistrust.
Which Finn radiated right back. Duly noted.”
When I visited the Lincoln, the flight deck was pristine and empty, except for me and my two escorts. But you can see behind and above us what Finn saw. The first balcony holds the Air Boss (“all-seeing, his amplified voice booming above the din, directing everything like a benevolent Eye of Sauron”), who runs flight deck operations. Above that, bridge and primary flight (PriFly) control stations, each with their narrow exterior catwalks, the topmost of which is called Vulture’s Row.
The particular vulture Finn locks eyes with here is Captain William James Eagleberg, the Lincoln’s CO on this ill-fated ocean transit. Finn immediately senses that Eagleberg’s leadership, when tested, will fall short, with very bad results. That test isn’t long in coming. Within days of Finn’s arrival, the 1MC sparks to life again, this time with an urgent call to muster: Man overboard! A respected officer has disappeared.
As he stands at his muster station watching the crew’s response procedures unfold, Finn feels the shift in the soles in his feet. The ship is executing a high-speed mid-ocean turn. Exactly as it’s doing in this photo, which is the one Commander Hecht handed me on the morning of my visit.
In the final installment, I’ll walk you through some of the highlighted ship locations as the plot of Steel Fear unfolds to its final, fatal confrontation.
About John David Mann
John is the award-winning co-author of more than 30 books, including four New York Times bestsellers and five national bestsellers. His bestselling classic The Go-Giver (with Bob Burg) won the Living Now Book Award’s Evergreen Medal for its “contribution to positive global change.” Seven of his books are coauthored with SOFREP founder Brandon Webb, including their first thriller, Steel Fear, which Jack Reacher author Lee Child hailed as “an instant classic, maybe an instant legend.” You can order Steel Fear, and find links to interviews with Brandon and John, at SteelFear.com.
You can read Part I of John Mann’s photo essay here.
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