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Philippine Sea. (April 10, 2023) Few modern movies open with a more dramatic scene than Top Gun 1986 with iconic images of Sailors preparing to launch the F-14 Tomcat. Clouds of steam billowing around their ankles, navy crews their final checks before receiving a sharp salute from Tom Cruise whose Phantom screams off the deck. For civilians, launching and recovering aircraft aboard a moving aircraft carrier at sea must be the most complicated and dangerous operation imaginable.

In this photo by MC3 Hannah Kantner, Sailors perform a complicated dance to prepare aircraft for flight operations on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz. The Nimitz is part of the U.S. 7th Fleet and is the Navy's largest forward-deployed flotilla. The 7th Fleet operates with our allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific region.

In the “dance”, each Sailor (identified by color) does their part in a highly choreographed, and dangerous, process where every action must be in perfect sync. The Air Boss, perched above the flight deck, controls every movement on a carrier from helicopters to jet fighters, five nautical miles out from the carrier.

Everyone associated with the flight deck has a specific job indicated by the color of their deck jersey, float coat, and helmet. Rank is also denoted by the pattern of pants worn by the flight deck crew. For example, the folks responsible for moving aircraft around wear green while the truly dangerous jobs, such as loading bombs and fighting fires, are handled by Sailors wearing red. The Aviation Fuel Handlers, affectionately known as “Grapies” wear purple t-shirts, vests, and helmets. Junior Sailors wear Navy blue pants while chief petty, warrant, and commissioned officers wear the traditional khaki.

In the famous movie scene, Tom Cruise indicates he is satisfied his aircraft is ready for flight by saluting the catapult officer. Meanwhile, two or more final checkers observe the exterior of the aircraft for proper flight control movement, engine response, panel security, and leaks. Once satisfied, the checkers give a thumbs up to the catapult officer who then checks the final catapult settings, gives the signal to launch, and pushes the button to fire the catapult.

Launching and recovering thousands of high-performance aircraft, day, or night, in oceans all over the world  and doing so safely and efficiently is a testament to the highly skilled crews of the USS Nimitz.