Starship A floating fortress of warplanes and warriors, America's flagship is a mighty example of big-stick diplomacy

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A few kilometers out from the carrier, the twin-turboprop grumman c-2a Greyhound banks and dips as it lines up its approach. Two hundred and forty km east of Sydney, a month into its journey from San Diego to the Arabian Gulf, the 17-story-high U.S.S. Constellation is a reassuring sight, a dark mass against the gray expanse of the Tasman Sea. At least that's how it must appear to the pilots. To the cargo plane's rear-facing passengers, lacking windows to orient themselves, the maneuvers are detected by a nervous gyroscope in their stomachs as G-forces, like giant hands, first compress then lift them in their harnesses. The crewmen grin at their civilian visitors' discomfort. "You'll feel a bump as the tailhook catches," shouts Petty Officer Brian Anderson, "and as the aircraft stops you'll sink back into your seats." Rather mild words to describe the impact as the plane decelerates from more than 200km/h to rest in less than two seconds.

To the untutored eye, as the Greyhound's ramp is lowered, the 329-m flight deck of the Constellation ("Connie" to her crew) is a manic ballet of men and aircraft, danced to the scream copter rotors and spinning propellers. The smell of aviation fuel is carried on burning blasts of exhaust; specks of tire rubber sting exposed flesh as incoming fighters are snapped to a standstill by one of the four arrestor cables stretched across the deck.

Nine flights of ladders above, the choreographer of this apparent chaos stands alert but relaxed beside his swivel chair to the port side of the bridge, overlooking the bow catapult launcher, a broad circular wing mirror showing the planes landing behind him. He answers telephones, issues orders and corrections to his officers, all the while sustaining an enthusiastic running commentary for his guests.

Captain Jamie Kelly, slim and silver­haired, is one of 12 carrier commanding officers in the U.S. Navy, all of them former Navy aviators. "Other captains hate that they can't command a carrier," he says. "They think they can drive a ship better than we can-and many of them can-but the rule is that to drive carriers you have to have flown from them." It makes sense: there's no doubt that a pilot landing an F-14D Super Tomcat at night in foul weather is comforted by the knowledge that the man positioning the ship has done it himself-in Kelly's case, xx hundreds of times.

Dubbed "America's flagship" by President Reagan in 1981, 20 years after her launch, Kelly's 88,000-ton carrier is often described as a small town, with its own bank and bakery, a post office (with unique zip code), a hospital and a dental clinic, a daily newspaper and a TV station. But not many small towns are so well defended. The cargo planes and SH-60F Seahawk helicopters aside, the Constellation carries three dozen F/A-18C Hornet strike fighters, a 10-strong squadron of Tomcats capable of attacking at twice the speed of sound, eight submarine-hunting S-3B Vikings, four E-2C Hawkeye early-warning aircraft; and four extraordinarily sophisticated EA-6B Prowlers, electronic warfare specialists whose high-powered jammers, says xx, lit by the glow of radar screens in the ship's combat direction center, "could shut all Sydney's communications down in a second."

Nor does Connie have the demographics of the average town. Her crew of more than 5,000 is primarily male (there are only 35 women on board), and strikingly young. "Eighteen, 19, 20 years old, working 18-hour days," says Capt. Kelly, with obvious pride. "They are the heart of this ship." The helmeted, black-goggled teenagers swarming over the flight deck wear color-coded outfits according to their jobs: purple for fuel specialists (colloquially known as "grapes"); yellow for catapult and arresting officers; brown air wing plane captains, draped in chains and hooks to secure their aircraft, looking like extras from a Mad Max film; and the ominously clad salvage crews, CRASH stenciled in black across the back of their red jackets.

In charge of 22 crash specialists is Aviation Boatswain's Mate Chief Petty Officer John Cox, who made his first cruise aboard Connie in 1976, when Capt. Kelly was a pilot flying A-6 Intruders from the carrier. He's the only man Kelly doesn't want to see working. "The skipper's happy when he does my job fitness evaluation if it says I had nothing to do," Cox says. "He doesn't want me pulling planes and pilots out of the water." An Air Transfer lieutenant in white vest leans over and adds laconically: "We try to keep the take-off/landing ratio as close to 1:1 as possible."

A couple of junior sailors are enjoying a cigarette on a tiny crowded deck outside the main hangar. There is no drinking on board, although after 45 days at sea, they say, they will be given one beer-"Worse than no beer, sir," says a marine lounging nearby-so the prospect of shore leave is thrilling. The two boys are rehearsing their comic routine for the Australian girls they hope to meet. "I'll go "Man, where are all the mountains at?'" says one, helpless with laughter, "And I go," says his friend, "'That's Austria, fool!'"

Overhead, the airport is working at a rate that would shame London Heathrow. Toward the stern, the thump of aircraft landing shakes the ceilings of the narrow passageways; further forward the sound is overtaken by the hiss and thud of the steam catapult that fires the fighters (and, to the visiting civilians' horror, the Greyhound cargo plane) from 0 to 240km/h in a little less than the two seconds they take to stop. For at least five hours a day, nothing interrupts the flying; Chief Cox says he's seen fighter engines fired up "to blow the snow off the deck." As the wind shifts direction, making landing precarious, the carrier turns with unexpected agility to compensate; its wake, like a turquoise snake on the dull sea, records each tiny correction.

"We can land planes in any weather, night and day," shouts one of the Landing Signal Officers as a Hornet catches the 2nd arrestor cable a few meters away. "The computers can match the pitching and rolling of the ship"-which can make 30 knots-"to the control surfaces of the aircraft. But the pilots still like to bring them in by hand." The aviators don't look much older than their colleagues on the flight deck, boyish nicknames-"Gimp," "Dobes," "Taco"-painted on the fuselage below their names, but they drop their fighters on the deck as though they've been doing it all their lives. Hanging over a railing outside the bridge high above, a line of spectators appraise the landings like ice-skating judges. The LSO jerks his thumb contemptuously at the gallery: "Vulture's Row, we call it."

Capt. Kelly's 21 months in command will come to an end in May, before Connie's current six-month cruise is over. "They'll drag me kicking and screaming from the bridge," he says, only half-joking, before slipping into his diplomat's role for his Australian audience. "We need each other in the big world," Kelly concludes. They are generous words, but, as the fighters flash through the sky behind him, they sound faintly hollow. This captain, his crew and their ship don't look as though they need anyone.