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Launching planes and keeping the catapult in check a grimy job

Name: Brett Ernenputsch

Age: 21

Service: Navy

Home town: Born in San Diego. Lived in Ann Arbor, Mich. from 1995-99.

Job title: Center deck operator


ABOARD USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN—Brett Ernenputsch puts his feet inside a small hole in the runway and hides behind a thick metal hatch, facing an airplane about to take off over his head.

An EA-6B Prowler, a twin-engine aircraft that jams radar and communications equipment, comes screaming down the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln.

The flight deck begins to tremble like an earthquake. The noise is deafening. Someday, if the world comes to an end, this is what it might feel like.

Ernenputsch coils his body, ready for the blast. His hands are covered with grease and grime. Shooting planes off an aircraft carrier is a dirty job.

In a split second, the Prowler shoots over his head and soars. The force knocks him over and blows a book out of his hands.

"You ever been in a car wreck?" Ernenputsch asks, laughing. "Every time, that's what it feels like. You feel the impact through your whole body. It's a rush."

Ernenputsch is a center deck operator, one of the strangest jobs on an aircraft carrier. "It's my responsibility so the plane can leave this deck without going into the water," he says.

A catapult accelerates an aircraft from 0 to 180 miles per hour in less than three seconds. The weight of each aircraft determines the amount of thrust provided by the catapult.

What happens to the catapult after the plane is airborne?

Ernenputsch is in charge of stopping the catapult by setting up a water-braking system under the deck. He has to check the wind and the weight of the aircraft (the weights change depending on fuel and ordnance) to determine how much water pressure is needed to stop the catapult before it flies through the bow of the ship. "The cats are that fast and that heavy," he says.

Sweat trickles down his forehead. His face has a sheen of grime.

The Prowler is long gone, but Ernenputsch is left in a cloud of exhaust, which slowly drifts away.

"It's really exciting at first," Ernenputsch says. "After being out at sea for seven months, you get into the swing of things. But I feel really privileged to do what I do. How many other 21-year-olds do you know, out in the middle of—where are we again?—oh yeah, the Persian Gulf, with all this going on, launching aircraft and seeing the world?"

During his spare time, well, he doesn't really have any. He works about 18 hours a day. "When I'm not working, I shower and sleep," he says.

Sometimes, he goes straight from the shower to his bunk. "I bought one of those fuzzy blankets in Bahrain, so it makes my rack a little more comfortable," he says. "It's black with a blue dragon on it."

The flight deck looks like a plate of M&Ms. Hundreds of sailors work in different colored T-shirts that signify different jobs and responsibilities. The green shirts launch and recover aircraft, the red shirts handle ordnance, the blue and brown shirts tie down the aircraft and the yellow shirts do the directing.

Ernenputsch is a green shirt. He wears a helmet, goggles, a bright green long-sleeve T-shirt, a dark green vest and green camouflaged pants—at least, they used to be green.

He and his wife, Katie, were married eight months ago in Everett, Wash., the Lincoln's home port. A month later, he was gone. "We are going to do the big wedding thing when I get home," he says. "We rushed it because I want to keep her."

The Lincoln has been at sea since July, and no one knows when she might go home. "I miss good food, my wife, my couch and my shower. My single shower, where there aren't six other stalls. I miss drinking beer, honestly. And I miss playing hockey."

Ernenputsch was born in San Diego and lived in Ann Arbor, Mich., from 1995 to 1999. His stepfather, Wayne Schmidt, is an environmental lawyer for the National Wildlife Federation.

Ernenputsch loves his job; he loves the feeling of duty. "I put blood, sweat and tears into this ship and this job," he says. "Every day, I feel like I'm serving my country."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): ERNENPUTSCH