Dodging planes and a taste of home: life on a U.S. aircraft carrier

ABOARD USS HARRY S. TRUMAN (Reuters) - The routine begins with a raised hand waving furiously and ends, like a well-executed ballet, on one knee, arm extended forward and two pointed fingers signaling take-off.

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The flight deck of the USS Harry S. Truman rumbles as a fighter jet loaded with ordnance is catapulted into the sky, leaving behind it a trail of white mist and officers in color-coded jerseys racing back into position for the next aircraft.

“You’ve got to keep your head on the swivel,” said Lieutenant Melvin Gidden, one of the yellow-shirted catapult officers - or shooters - who launch and recover the planes through an elaborate sequence of hand signals.

“It’s busy, it’s jet exhaust blowing around, helicopter rotors twisting and turning and all kinds of stuff that’s going on.”

A U.S. naval strike force led by the Truman began sorties against Islamic State in Syria on Thursday, at the start of its months-long deployment in the Mediterranean Sea.

At 1,096-feet (333-metres), it is almost as long as the Empire State Building is tall – a city on the water for its 5,000-member crew.

But it is not like any other city. The 4.5-acre flight deck can hold 90 aircraft, including F/A-18F Super Hornet striker jets. Missiles are carried onto parked jets and sailors run on treadmills in the hangar.

On the deck, just feet away from the aircraft, shooters crouch to avoid being hit by a wing. Then there is the weather.

“Sometimes it’s stressful because of the heat, sometimes it’s stressful because of the rain,” Gidden said. “But we’re out there rain, sleet or snow. We’ve got to launch them all.”

Air operations go on for about 12 hours daily and, to maintain rhythm, each pilot flies about once a day.

With such a hectic workplace, keeping spirits high is important - from picking a film for the crew to watch to getting food with the flavor of home on board.

Lieutenant Commander Riley Secrist, who handles food services, said new requests included soy and almond milk.

“Also Italian chocolate is becoming a thing,” he said.

In the galleys, where 18,500 meals are made every day, cooks furiously prepare the day’s menu, scribbled on a whiteboard: grilled chicken barbecue, beef stir fry, veggie medley. Petty Officer First Class Hocaly Pena, who has run a navy kitchen for 15 years, knows well the importance of food.

“If somebody is upset and comes to the line and sees something that they like, it cheers them up a little bit,” he said. “It brings a little bit of home out here.”

Editing by Alison Williams