NORFOLK, Virginia -- There’s a saying in the Navy that the flight deck of an aircraft carrier is 4.5 acres of sovereign U.S. territory.
“It’s one of the most dynamic working environments here known to man,” said Lieutenant William Lee Tschumy.
Unlike the Army or the Air Force, this branch of the military doesn’t need a base of operations to launch missions all over the world.
“For other countries to have an aircraft carrier pull in, it just shows the might of the United States Navy,” said Commander Patrick Dziekan.
For three days in early April, FOX6 News experienced what life is like on board the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, where the nation’s defense and conflicts abroad aren’t just headlines – but daily realities.
“The nice thing is, people don’t remember that we’re at war, because we’re keeping people safe back home," said Lieutenant Chris Hanson.
The “Mighty Ike” returned December 30th from a seven-month deployment to the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf. The crew completed almost 2,000 combat missions, and dropped more than 1,200 precision guided bombs on ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria.
“You see them leaving with bombs, and then they come back empty and you’re like, 'We did something today,'" said Machinist’s Mate Clayton Komassa of the jets on board.
But even after getting back from deployment, the work continued. During our time on the ship, the sailors were in the middle of two weeks of arduous “workups” – training exercises.
“It’s been a pretty grueling schedule basically for the past year-and-a-half, and I think it’s really brought the crew together,” said Lieutenant Jr. Grade Katie Diener.
FOX6's first day featured carrier qualifications for the pilots, as a senior officer tried to earn the role of mission commander by coordinating an elaborate strike involving 27 planes.
And for every jet in the sky, there were hundreds, if not thousands more sailors on the ship involved in launching, recovering and maintaining the aircraft.
“You’ll see kind of the ballet that we have, and that takes a lot of training and it takes a lot of experience," said Commander Kevin Pickard from his view on the bridge.
On the second day, the mood on the bridge was tense as naval exercises mimicked the entire strike group passing through a narrow strait. That is when the aircraft carrier is at its most vulnerable.
“You can see all the different straits that we were going through, and you can imagine which ones are more threatening and which ones are not," said Commander Jeremy Rifas, recalling the deployment.
Mock hostiles probed the surrounding water, as helicopters from the Ike warded them off.
“We have some jets, some fighters, set to launch on alert, in case there is some sort of an air threat that comes out quickly at us," said Rifas.
It was an elaborate and expensive scenario, and one they hadn't done in a year. But it was necessary to ensure the sailors’ skills are always honed and ready.
“You try to stress the crew and stress our training and our tactics and things like that now, because then it makes it easier when we’re doing it for real," said Pickard.