MULTIMEDIA

Shock and awe aboard the USS Ronald Reagan

Chiara Zambrano, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Aug 16 2019 01:46 PM | Updated as of Aug 19 2019 11:08 AM

Fondly called “supercarriers,” Nimitz-class aircraft carriers like the USS Ronald Reagan are the largest of all warships currently deployed throughout the world. Carriers are considered symbols of a nation’s military might, and where this nation wants to flex its muscle. Here is the USS Reagan anchored off the coast of Manila after patrolling - and showing itself - in the South China Sea this August. Chiara Zambrano, ABS-CBN News

“When the plane starts moving, someone’s gonna shout ‘Here we go, here we go.’ You gotta watch out for that because then you’ll get maybe 10 seconds before it happens, clear?”

No, not clear, sir. Not clear at all.

We were at a holding room at the Villamor Air Base in Manila – six journalists and a few Philippine generals – getting ready to fly to the location of the aircraft carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan.

The person speaking was the pilot of the C-2 Greyhound plane that would fly us to the carrier. He was trying his best to describe how unique the flight would be, and how it would feel on the human body. The group listened intently. But I have been on this flight before, and I know no amount of explaining will ever fully prepare you for what’s about to happen.

Philippine journalists board the C-2 Greyhound, an aircraft especially designed to conduct highly specialized takeoffs and landings over a moving aircraft carrier like the USS Ronald Reagan. Chiara Zambrano, ABS-CBN News

 

Because an aircraft carrier’s runway is roughly just one seventh of the length of a regular runway, there isn’t enough space for a normal takeoff or landing. A thick cable on the runway floor has to “catch” a landing plane by snagging a hook at the back of the aircraft, thereby “arresting” or stopping it in its tracks. This is why it’s called an arrested landing.

It all sounds simple, and pretty enthralling, to think of a plane going from 200 kilometers per hour to zero in two to three seconds. That is until you remember that you would actually have to be in it.

I look at my cameraman, Percy, whose eyes were slightly dilated from both excitement and utter confusion. This is partly my fault – before we got here, he wanted to check for arrested landing videos on YouTube but I stopped him. You need the full experience, I said, with shock and everything in it. Percy put on his flotation device and flight deck helmet, still not quite grasping what lay ahead.

Zip up the vest, tighten the goggles. Earplugs, earmuffs, helmet, check. Any other important instructions uttered after this moment were lost on the group because of our soundproofed state. A final note from the crew before we all went deaf.

“It’s going to be violent. But it’s going to be great.”

We enter the Greyhound. Percy sat somewhere in front of me. I busied myself with the 4-point seatbelt - some years ago I would have fumbled with this to the point of having someone else clip it on for me. But today I found myself putting them on without a hitch. I chuckled when I realized why – it’s not because I’ve had more experience with military-grade protective gear. It’s because my 2-year-old niece’s car seat had a similar design. Years into covering the military and I wasn’t getting more badass. I was getting more auntie.

Here is the thing that is tough to grasp: Once the C-2 Greyhound shuts its door, all time stops. Or at least all perception of it. There are no windows by which to gauge the passage of time or get a sense of place. It is like being strapped onto a dark, deafening, quivering box, with no telling which direction you were going or if you were even moving at all. Disorientation is high. The taxiing and the flying feel exactly the same. Add to the fact that it was all on mute because of the double cover on the ears.

The Greyhound is dark and practically windowless. Passengers - who board with double soundproofing over their ears - rely only on the quivering of the aircraft for clues as to whether the plane is taxiing, flying, or about to land and take off. This uncertainty adds to the surprise when g-force hits the body on arrested landing or catapult. Chiara Zambrano, ABS-CBN News

 

This is the moment, I realized later on, that encapsulates the fog over everything in this trip. How we were never even told where the aircraft carrier would be, just that it was somewhere, and that we would get there. How we were never told exactly why we were going, what exactly they wanted to say. Obviously none of these unanswered questions were enough to dissuade the journalists from going. I would even venture to guess that the mystery added to the reason we said yes.

The flight would last “maybe” 45 minutes, the pilot said. On normal flights, I would sleep this out and wait for the landing to wake me up. But this isn’t that type of flight. On the 45th minute, I was up and ready.

Again I was hit by the timelessness of everything. There were just no clues. I found myself overanalyzing every jerk and bump that didn’t feel like the rest. Was this it, were we landing? What about now? Now maybe?

Finally, a jerk that was unmistakably from the wheels coming down. Arrested landing time. I turn my camera to my face. This was something I failed to do the first time, and I’d be damned if I didn’t capture the moment this second time around.

Up ahead, there's a high-pitched sound that may have been a frantic human voice. I didn’t understand any of what he was saying, but I figured no one else had reason to shout at this time.

That was the “Here we go.”

6. I check my camera. 5. I press record. 4. I frame it and grip it tight. 3. 2. 1.

Well, good God.

An aircraft carrier’s short runway requires it to catch a landing plane by its tailhook using a thick cable, abruptly stopping it in its tracks before it overshoots the flight deck. This means the C-2 Greyhound - and all passengers in it, go from 200 kph (115 knots) to zero kph in a matter of two to three seconds. This is called an arrested landing, and here is the effect of g-force on the body when it happens. Chiara Zambrano, ABS-CBN News

I thought I had buckled up, thought I was snugly pressed against the seat, but I still got sucked back into some extra space that I guess didn’t exist before that moment either. 200kph to zero in two seconds, this was how it felt. G-force was crushing my chest and it wasn’t going away. I don’t even know why I gritted my teeth – maybe there was nothing else I could move. I could sense mounting panic that came with the recognition that this moment was beyond my control. Right, I remember this now.

Then as suddenly as it began, you are released from the grip of G-force, thrown back out into place. Landing successfully arrested. The plane slows.

Then the door opens and sunlight floods the cabin. The doorway frames the scene before us perfectly. Men and women dashing back and forth. Smoke and chains, grease and grit. Split-second bursts of gray. The largest aircraft carrier deployed in the world.

'LIKE OUR OWN CITY'

The USS Ronald Reagan houses approximately 70 different types of aircraft, sustaining all repairs and maintenance in the hangar below deck. Chiara Zambrano, ABS-CBN News

 

“Welcome to the USS Ronald Reagan!” greeted Lieutenant Commander Matt Knight, the carrier’s Public Affairs Officer who met us inside a small room a couple of levels down the carrier.

“Thanks. Where are we?”

“Well,” sighed Knight. “You flew west. And it took you about an hour to get here. So yeah, you’re in the South China Sea. But that’s about as far as I can tell you.”

The next valid question would be why we were all there to begin with. But they said that was a question best reserved for the Commander, whom we would meet in a bit.

First things first, they said: Let’s get you on a tour. Knight proceeds to usher us through a labyrinth of stairs and hallways.

“It’s like our very own city. Oh, careful there, you might hit your head on that wing.”

Knight was weaving us through a dimly-lit hangar full of fighter jets under maintenance, telling us the USS Reagan’s story while making sure no one got cut on plane parts hanging around.

“You can take shots from here, just don’t zoom in on the insides of the planes, okay?”

It was like an aircraft hospital down there. Around us, dismembered parts of different planes and helicopters were scattered, repair notes scribbled onto them with chalk. Mechanics had their heads stuck inside whatever machine they had in front of them. Jets without wings, planes without a nose, choppers with no propellers. Carts with spare parts were pushed here and there. Above us, the maddening roar of the functioning jets taking off and landing. Everything and everyone seemed to be in constant motion.

The hangar below the flight deck of the USS Ronald Reagan. Chiara Zambrano, ABS-CBN News

Still in the hangar, behind the planes, off-duty sailors were on treadmills and weights. Past a doorway, there was a very serious spinning class overlooking the ocean. Not having land is obviously not an excuse to be sedentary on an aircraft carrier.

“We have five gyms here. And a Starbucks. I’m not kidding, there’s a Starbucks,” quipped Knight, tapping into my disbelief. We continue to walk in and out of narrow corridors, up and down steep stairs until it was impossible to remember which feature was on which floor.

The USS Ronald Reagan has 20 storeys or decks, only some of which I got to see in the three times I’ve been aboard. It is, for all intents and purposes, a fortress, a floating self-contained complex. At 333 meters, it stretches longer than the Eiffel Tower, with the expanse of three American football fields. Five thousand people on board work about 12 to 18 hours a day to keep the carrier in fighting form.

To date, the Nimitz-class USS Ronald Reagan is one of the largest aircraft carriers in the world, and the largest in deployment. They are loosely called the “supercarriers,” a term reserved for the biggest and most powerful of the lot.

AMERICAN DREAM

There are around 250 Filipino-Americans working under the USS Ronald Reagan, comprising roughly 10% of its entire personnel. There are more working in the Air Wing. While they say they are out here living their “American Dream,” the Philippines remains close to their hearts, making this patrol in the South China Sea more meaningful to them. Chiara Zambrano, ABS-CBN News

They say it’s a city… and what’s a city without its share of Filipinos? Filipino-American sailors from all over the USS Ronald Reagan came out to greet us. There are about 250 of them in the USS Reagan alone – the Air Wing is a different story. This means roughly ten percent of the people keeping the USS Ronald Reagan running are of Filipino heritage. For many of them, their journey to the Reagan started with the familiar “American Dream.”

“Dream ko po kasi mapunta ng America,” (It was always my dream to go to America) said Personnel Specialist 3rd Class Elizamay La Fontaine, who is out here to make sure that the sailors aboard get their benefits and entitlements.

La Fontaine said she waited 23 years before her mother’s petition to have her follow to the US was approved. “Nung nag-sign-up ako as a US citizen, umiyak ako sa immigration,” she said. “Pero it’s still in my heart, still Filipino. But at the same time, United States of America. Dalawa na po 'yung home ko.” (When I signed up as a US citizen, I cried at the Immigration Office. But it’s still in my heart, still Filipino.  But at the same time, United States of America. I have teo homes now.)

The USS Ronald Reagan is now the second aircraft carrier La Fontaine’s been deployed in.

Personnel Specialist 3rd Class Elizamay La Fontaine, one of the Filipinos deployed on board USS Ronald Reagan, says she is still a Filipino at heart despite acquiring American citizenship. Photo from Elizamay La Fontaine

“It is my choice. Talagang gusto ko pong maging one of the sailors na mag-defend sa country. I wanna be US Navy,” (It is my choice. I really wanted to be one  of the sailors that would defend the country. I want to be US Navy.) said La Fontaine.

The impact of the USS Ronald Reagan being so close to the Philippines, being an ally to the Philippines, is not lost on her. It hit on the day she was assigned to keep watch when they arrived.

“Mag-check kami ng surroundings sa horizon (We were checking the surroundings in the horizon.). When I was there, I was like, 'Oh my God, I was in the Philippine Sea.' Like, I’m near home. Talagang nakakatindig-balahibo.” (I got goosebumps.)

Like many young people, Petty Officer 1st Class Bernard Labra first joined the Navy to satisfy his wanderlust.

“Ever since po na malaman ko na magma-migrate na kami sa US, sinabi ko sa magulang ko na eventually gusto kong sumali sa US Navy. Kasi gusto kong mag-travel sa mundo. Kasi sa Pilipinas diba, ang hirap ng buhay. Never kong iisipin na makakapag-travel ka buong mundo, na makarating ka sa ibang bansa. Parang ito na 'yung naging chance ko,” he said.

(Ever since I found out we were migrating to the US, I told my parents that eventually I wanted to join the US Navy. I wanted to travel the world. Life was so hard back in the Philippines. Never in my life did I imagine I would be able to see the world, or even another country. This was my chance to do that.)

Now he speaks of his work with much pride. “Ang trabaho po namin, electrician po ako. So, mga ilaw, mga equipment, kami 'yung nagto-troubleshoot. Saka mga top secret na equipment, kami 'yung nagpa-power up non. Parang 'yung mga nakikita niyo sa mga pelikula,” (I’m an electrician here. Lights, equipment, we troubleshoot those. Top secret equipment, we’re the ones who power them up. Just like the ones in the movies.) he added.

Labra conceded that the work is grueling. “Trabaho namin mga 15 hours to 18 hours. Tapos tulog namin mga 4 hours, 5 hours. Tapos pag may sira pa, may emergency, gigisingin pa kami. Nakakapagod.” (We work between 15 to 18 hours. We sleep only 4 hours or 5. When something breaks down, or there’s an emergency, they wake us up. It can be exhausting.)

But he also said there is nowhere else he would rather be. “Malaking pressure po para sa amin. Kasi siyempre, alam mo 'yun pag galing ka sa Pilipinas, laki ka sa Pilipinas, tapos biglang ganito 'yung trabaho mo sa US. Pero tiwala lang, lakas lang ng loob. Saka parang pangarap din ‘to eh. American dream ko ‘to eh. Masaya ako na nandito ako.” (We put a lot of pressure on ourselves. Of course, from growing up in the Philippines, to now having this kind of job. But we trust ourselves, and just be brave about it. Besides, this is my dream. This is my American dream. I’m so happy that I’m here.)

We end our meeting with endless selfies and a lot of laughter, promises to add each other on Facebook, invitations to meet if ever we did cross paths again. Beneath their accents was the strong Filipino voice. In the belly of the beast was the warmth of Filipino hearts.

POWER IN THE AIR

The USS Ronald Reagan has only 150 meters of runway by which to land the F/A-18 Super Hornets coming in at 250 kph. A series of thick arresting cables are laid out in the plane’s path, and a hook on the plane’s tail has to catch one of these cables in order for the carrier to stop it in its tracks before it overshoots the flight deck. This is called an arrested landing, causing the jets to decelerate from 250kph to zero in about 2 seconds. Chiara Zambrano, ABS-CBN News

“There will be lines on the floor. Do not cross them. They are walls,” said the person assigned to take us up to the flight deck. “You back away from these walls, and no part of you crosses it. Not your camera, not your shirt, nothing. If you don’t understand, you will feel a push. That is us trying to keep everyone alive.”

We had to suit up before heading out to the flight deck – double ear protection, flight deck helmet, goggles and all. Any object that was not attached to you had to be removed, as the force of the jet blast was strong enough to dislodge anything, and any foreign object flying out there could crash a plane or kill a sailor.

Don’t get run over. Stay aware. Don’t be stupid.
The door opens to the mayhem outside. We follow the lines that cannot be crossed, until we are at the center of the runway.

This is when one fully realizes the chilling, lethal power of the USS Ronald Reagan.

With a top speed of close to 2,000 kph, the F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets are adept at dogfighting, air-to-air, and air-to-ground combat. They make up most of the of USS Ronald Reagan’s air assets. Chiara Zambrano, ABS-CBN News

In all directions, F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet combat jets zipped and buzzed through the air, either landing, taking off, or maneuvering in tandem. These jets are experts in dogfighting and attacking ground targets, able to pack missiles and bombs without compromising dexterity. Most of the aircraft aboard the USS Reagan are F/A-18s, making the carrier capable of launching a relentless attack on a target from a distance.

The impact of an F/A-18 roar on the body almost feels like an assault. Your chest quivers with the passing engines, you wince at the melting heat of the jet fumes. The sound they make can only be described as primal, guttural - it was like meeting a monster, except made of metal. I thank the double soundproofing under my breath. My ears would never have survived this.

From where we stood, I could see a pilot in his cockpit, waiting to take off, looking at us like an aberration to his daily routine. I waved at him, he didn’t wave back, and I realize now that I shouldn’t have done that because a wave out here might mean a completely different command.

There’s not enough runway for an aircraft to accelerate on its own, so an aircraft is locked in and quite literally catapulted off the aircraft carrier by an elaborate steam-powered system underneath. An F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet accelerates from zero to 250 kph in about 2 seconds after the catapult. Chiara Zambrano, ABS-CBN News

You could tell he was about to be catapulted off the carrier by the body language of his beast. The jet was tensing, rolling back and forth a little, its roar becoming a little more enraged by the second. The heat of the jet fumes becomes almost unbearable. A panel behind the jet is lifted off the ground, meant to deflect the jet blast and protect the personnel and equipment behind it.

Within a matter of minutes, a go-signal. And the F/A-18 takes off with a supersonic boom, leaving a trail of thick white smoke that temporarily engulfs the flight deck crew as they prepare for the next sortie.

The scene is undeniably cinematic, harking back to old-time macho favorites like Top Gun, conjuring images of Maverick, Iceman, and Goose that I never even realized I still had. That’s why it was an absolute delight to have met one of the F/A-18 Super Hornet pilots, finding myself face-to-face with a petite, smiley young woman named Elizabeth.

The USS Ronald Reagan controls over a hundred flights or sorties a day, with two aircraft able to take off 40 seconds and with others making arrested landings elsewhere on the runway. This makes the flight deck an extremely fast-paced and hazardous environment, requiring absolute focus and precision of the flight deck crew. Chiara Zambrano, ABS-CBN News

 

“I think it’s just amazing. I’m doing things that maybe 40 years ago women couldn’t do, and now we’re being allowed to do it,” said Lieutenant Elizabeth Shaffer.

“So many women paved the way for me. And I’m so honored to be able to do this and carry on the tradition and show a good face for all the women everywhere. I love that aspect about it, that as long as you work hard, you can do anything.”

Shaffer knows fully well that she is living a dream, not just for women seeking fair opportunity, but for the little kid in all of us who at one point really wanted to fly.

“Hours on the ship are demanding, but aside from that, as soon as you get up in the air, all your problems just melt away.”

Every movement in the flight deck is precise. The USS Ronald Reagan manages – at least at the moment – roughly 70 aircraft, but it can house much more. This translates to around 100 flights or sorties a day. There is just no time nor room for mistakes.

Many other sophisticated aircraft and armaments share space with the Super Hornet, each of them playing complementing roles that make sure the USS Reagan stays safe and lethal. While the jets secure the surface, MH-60 R/S Seahawk helicopters with anti-submarine capabilities look out for threats in the waters below. Another aircraft stands out for its very peculiar shape – a twin propeller fixed-wing plane with a gigantic flat dish on top. It is the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye, the airborne early warning and command and control platform for the Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group.

An E-2D Advanced Hawkeye, the airborne early warning and command and control aircraft of the Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group. Hawkeyes approach and identify vessels in the vicinity of an aircraft carrier, transmit the images back to the warship for appropriate response. Chiara Zambrano, ABS-CBN News

“By having a radar at a high altitude, you can see past what the ships are able to see,” explained Lieutenant Nicholas Palmer, who flies one of the carrier's three Hawkeyes. “We’re not looking for threats, we just want to know what’s out there. With that, we are able to detect surface or air contacts out at range and give the Strike Group kind of a heads-up as to what the picture is around us.”

And should a threat be assessed as real, another type of aircraft is deployed to neutralize it in unique fashion – the EA-18 G Growlers, jets that are capable of launching airborne electronic attacks, like the jamming of systems.

On board, the carrier also has a defense system of its own. The NATO Sea Sparrow launches missiles with blast fragmentation warheads within a 10-mile radius, aimed at intercepting any anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles launched by the enemy. The RAM, or Rolling Airframe Missile Launcher, uses infrared and radio frequency homing to automatically track anti-ship missiles and fire missiles with blast fragmentation warheads within a 5.6 mile range. For good measure, its Close-in Weapon System (CIWS) – fondly called R2-D2 – can fire a radar-guide 20mm Gatling gun at an overwhelming 4,500 rounds per minute.

Running on two nuclear reactors and 4 steam turbines, the carrier is capable of being at sea, causing trouble for an enemy for months at a time. Yes, it’s gargantuan. But it isn’t the USS Ronald Regan’s size that makes it a presence out at sea; its capability to both protect itself and inflict sustained harm on an enemy is its essence.

How America wields it becomes a display of the United States’ military prowess. Where America sends it becomes telling of the nation’s intent.

THAT'S NOT US

An image of the American superhero on the wall of the ship. Chiara Zambrano, ABS-CBN News

I first visited the USS Reagan in 2015, back when it was still off the coast of San Diego, California. It was then that Rear Admiral Patrick Piercey, Commander of Carrier Strike Group 9 under which the USS Reagan was at the time, first relayed the United States’ plan to deploy the USS Reagan to the Pacific Region.

“We want everyone to understand, it’s lethal. Ultimately, this is an aircraft carrier. It is at the high end. It represents the combat power of the United States. We want anyone who will potentially challenge us to see we’re lethal, we’re ready, we’re credible,” said Piercey.

The carrier arrived in the Pacific later that year, and is now homeported in Japan to further its mission to “prevail in all operations – from peace to war.”

Problems in the South China Sea were already in full swing back in 2015. The Philippines had already filed its landmark arbitral case against China, challenging the validity of its 9-dash line. China, in turn, was on a mad dash to build and fortify the seven artificial islands it had built in those waters. Filipino sailors were being blocked and challenged. Fishers were being driven out of their fishing grounds.

On August 6, the USS Ronald Reagan sailed in the middle of mainland Zambales and Scarborough Shoal, where several Chinese vessels have been on permanent patrol. Chiara Zambrano, ABS-CBN News

Much has happened since then. The Philippines won its case in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague. The tribunal ruled that China’s 9-dash line claim is invalid, and so was its historical claim on nearly all of the South China Sea which forms the basis of its assertions. China’s artificial islands have not just been completed – they have now been militarized and used as temporary ports for Chinese government vessels patrolling the sea.

Much has happened, but in the eyes of China, nothing has changed. It has not backed down on its original claim of ownership of nearly the entire South China Sea. Its creeping assertion continues, not just in the waters of the region, but in its economies, too, luring Southeast Asian governments into softening their stance by offering billions of dollars in loans and aid. There are now more Chinese government vessels out there – China Coast Guard ships, large commercial-built vessels by their side, frigates in the distance, and more recently, an overwhelming volume of maritime militia vessels that swarm the islands occupied by the Philippines.

If anything has changed, it is that China’s hold is even stronger now.

We asked the present Carrier Task Group 5 Commander, Rear Admiral Karl Thomas, what he believes the presence of an aircraft carrier out here contributes, when China has been dominating the waters using non-military vessels precisely to prevent the world’s navies from touching them out of fear of looking like the aggressor. This is called the “gray zone” strategy, and China has been successful with it thus far.

The USS Ronald Reagan houses about 70 different aircraft at present, and can accommodate around 90. Majority of the aircraft are the F/A E/F Super Hornet fighter jets. There are also MH-60 R/S Seahawk helicopters with anti-submarine capability; the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye, the airborne early warning and command and control aircraft with a large flat radar dish on top; and, the EA-18 G Growlers, jets that are equipped for jamming systems and other electronic warfare maneuvers. Chiara Zambrano, ABS-CBN News

 

“I’m very familiar with that strategy,” said Thomas. “That’s obviously a discussion topic among a lot of countries. How we provide presence to help enforce some of the fishing rules or enforce the ability to use the maritime commons for trade.”

Thomas’ explanation seems to point out that the reason for coming is not to challenge China head on, but to be a respected presence at sea that champions international law. Perhaps the unspoken line was that it was there to remind adversaries what it would be up against should they choose to be belligerent.

“This carrier is obviously very capable,” said Thomas. “I think this shows the credibility, and what the US brings, and how important we feel this region is. It helps us reassure our partners and allies that we are out here operating with them.”

Down at the hangar, the group spots the silhouette of another warship in the distance. “That’s the USS Chancellorsville,” said a sailor next to me. This was a glimpse of the rest of the Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group in the vicinity, ready to defend the carrier from any outside threat in the air, surface, or sub-surface. The USS Chancellorsville is a missile cruiser like its tandem, the USS Antietam. With them are the guided-missile destroyers USS Benfold and USS Milius. Submarines are also part of a carrier’s set of defenders.

“What about that one?”

On August 6, the USS Ronald Reagan sailed in the middle of mainland Zambales and Scarborough Shoal, where several Chinese vessels have been on permanent patrol. At one point, this unidentified warship appeared in the horizon. Sailors of the Reagan could only say “This is not from the US.” Rear Admiral Karl Thomas later confirms to Philippine media that there were several Chinese warships around the USS Ronald Reagan as it was patrolling the South China Sea that day. Chiara Zambrano, ABS-CBN News

Another warship was in the distance – farther away and barely visible, but seemingly keeping pace with the USS Reagan.

“That one… is not US,” the sailor said.

Thomas would later confirm that indeed, Chinese warships approached the USS Reagan as it was sailing in between mainland Philippines and Scarborough Shoal.

“Many navies operate out here,” Thomas said. “Clearly the Chinese Navy is one of the larger ones, and they operate with more ships in the South China Sea. So you may have seen a Chinese ship. There were a few of them out there.”

Thomas said that while the presence of Chinese ships has become a staple of sorts in the South China Sea, the US Navy has taken extra care to communicate with them.

“I think we actually get to a point where we, if we’re gonna change a course or we’re doing something - like we’re doing a gunnery exercise - we make sure that they understand that we're training,” said Thomas. “So that there isn’t that misunderstanding. There is less chance of things happening that could cause concern.”

Even the pilots in the air have been exercising caution.

“We’re out here, this isn’t our homeland, it’s everybody else’s homeland. We’re out here just to essentially promote peace around here in the Pacific,” said Shaffer about the conduct of flights on an F/A-18.

“We try to be very respectful up in the air. We maintain our standoff distance just not to make anybody mad.”

Stretching out at 333 meters, the Nimitz-class USS Ronald Reagan is longer than the Eiffel Tower and requires 5,000 staff and crew to run it. This class of carrier is the largest deployed worldwide, and the second-largest owned by the United States (the newer, bigger Ford-class carriers are still being developed for deployment). Chiara Zambrano, ABS-CBN News

No one sees an aircraft carrier and walks away unimpressed. It is a magnificent display of how it is to be the most powerful military in the world, and it does tend to leave you with a heady giddy feeling, especially in the context of being one of the weakest militaries in the region.

But there are already some who have outgrown the thrill, who are now beginning to question the sincerity of the United States in truly addressing the problem of China’s slow and steady grabbing of the South China Sea.

The Mutual Defense Treaty – that agreement that binds the US and the Philippines into coming to each other’s defense at a time of attack – is now being reviewed, partly for its failure to elicit action from the US while China was building its massive, artificial, game-changing islands in the sea. A pro-China Duterte administration in the Philippines has been shaking the United States’ status as the biggest friend and ally. And while the US has sought to constantly remind the Philippines of its longstanding friendship, some have already begun to ask the US what its friendship is really worth.

THE CATAPULT

The USS Reagan drove into a raincloud just as the group was set to fly home. We run inside the C-2 Greyhound and buckle up, minds filled with too much information that no one really gave the takeoff much thought.

Big mistake.

I strap myself in tighter than I did on landing. After that, someone from the flight crew went around and strapped us in even tighter. As he pulled, I remember.

Percy.

I forgot to tell my cameraman what was about to happen.

I look at him, unperturbed, within my reach, but completely deaf from the soundproofing.

Whoops.

The waiting time was longer and more excruciating than the arrested landing. The Greyhound quivered and chugged as it taxied along – how long is this runway? Why are we still taxiing?

I prop my phone against my knee so it wouldn’t get thrown forward. I gripped it all the way around. All I needed to hear was that familiar, faint, and frantic sound.

“Here we go, here we go, here we go!”

Record.

BOOM.

There’s not enough runway for an aircraft to accelerate on its own, so an aircraft is locked in and quite literally catapulted off the aircraft carrier by an elaborate steam-powered system underneath. This makes the C-2 Greyhound go from zero to 200 kph (115 knots) in two to three seconds, temporarily contorting passengers under the weight of g-force. Chiara Zambrano, ABS-CBN News

It was really beyond description. It was close to sorcery, how at a snap of a finger, the whole party lurches forward, bodies contorted and frozen in place, unable to move or even think. This was far more intense than the first.

And it felt like a lifetime – okay, maybe six seconds at the least. Again, I was amazed at how far forward I lurched even after having been strapped in as tight as possible. I could not move enough to glance at the others.

Then, at another snap of a finger, we were released from the invisible grip. People got thrown back onto their seats, looked at each other, and high-fived as if we had played a significant part in what just happened. People were laughing and exclaiming on mute. That, was G-force. That, was amazing.

I look over at Percy and gave him a thumbs-up. He looked straight at me and shook his head firmly, as if saying, "no, you can’t be high-fiving me after that. No, we’re not friends, how could you not warn me."

I laughed. At least I think I did. I couldn’t hear it.

Once the euphoria died down, the Filipinos dozed off, and woke up to the door opening out to mainland Manila.

The tour, the dream, was over. The problems remain.