The sailor makes tiny adjustments to the ship’s wheel, expertly turning the 95,000 ton vessel’s two giant rudders.
The motion shifts the USS Nimitz’s awesome mass – almost 100,000 tons, 1,092ft in length and 252ft in width – on course off the coast of Baja California, Mexico.
The driver of the flagship of Carrier Strike Group Eleven, isn’t an experienced captain or a seasoned naval officer, however.
Instead 19-year-old Undesignated Seaman Deborah Jernigan stands proudly at the wheel.
Barely out of high school, the slightly-built sailor from Darlington, South Carolina, might not be who to expect at the help.
But Jernigan is a shining example of the Navy’s training program which focuses on giving its new recruits plenty of high level responsibility.
DailyMailTV joined the crew of the Nimitz on a five-day training mission starting last weekend and got to see the young sailor working first hand.
Hands on the wheel: Deborah Jernigan at the controls of the Nimitz. Its commanding officer, Captain Max Clark told DailyMailTV that nurturing youth, like Jernigan is vital for a modern, progressive fighting force
And relax: DailyMailTV joined the crew of the U.S. Navy’s aircraft carrier USS Nimitz on a five day training mission and got to see 19-year-old sailor Deborah Jernigan at the wheel – and when she stepped away from the task
The young sailor graduated from Darlington High School in South Carolina in June 2018. She scored into the Navy and entered boot camp in August that year before graduating from the U.S. Navy Recruit Training Command in Great Lakes, Illinois. The teen joined the crew of the Nimitz soon after and works in the deck department
The warship is one of the largest in the world and flagship of Carrier Strike Group Eleven, with a 4.5acre flight deck stocked with F/A-18 Super Hornets, EA-18G Growlers and a handful of F-35C stealth strike fighters
The aircraft handlers wear yellow jerseys, blue jerseys work in the hangar bay and purple jerseys refuel the aircraft, while red jerseys handle aviation ordinance and crash and salvage
DailyMailTV witnessed the sight of hundreds of sailors and airmen on board the 117,000 sq ft warship put its four aircraft catapults through their paces
Life at sea: Deborah Jernigan’s role at the wheel of the USS Nimitz is a far cry from June 2018, when she graduated Darlington High School, in Darlington, South Carolina, where she was a star soccer player
Not just at the wheel: Other duties for junior Seamen take her around the ship. She and Boatswain’s Mate Seaman Selena Gonzalez from Stuart, Fla., clean a sliding padeye in the hangar bay
Versatility: Training means going from splicing a line to steering the ship, with Deborah Jernigan doing both in the course of her training
Sunset over the Pacific: The end of the day does not mean the tempo goes down on board the Nimitz – it is then that night operations, the most difficult and dangerous, begin
Landing: The arresting gear has brought this F/A-18 safely to a halt
Pilot’s eye view: At night, lights are kept to minimum as they would be in a war zone. On the deck, with its wings folded, an F/A-18 waits for orders
The teen was in charge of guiding the $4.5billion ship and its 3,500 personnel (5,000 when deployed) safely through the Pacific Ocean to its destination.
And Jernigan wasn’t phased a bit.
Speaking to DailyMailTV from the bridge of the Nimitz, Jernigan said: ‘I have never even paddled a canoe or driven any type of boat before, now I’m driving the world’s largest aircraft carrier and it just blows my mind.
The vessel is named for legendary fleet admiral Chester W. Nimitz (1885–1966), who helped the U.S. defeat the Japanese Navy in World War II
‘The captain is a few feet away from me as I’m driving so I have to make sure I’m focused and keep level headed so the ship can actually stay on course and maintain where we’re going.’
The bridge is the heart of the ship’s operation, where the Captain sits on a raised chair and is surrounded by his team of navigators, officers and the rest of the watch team charged with keeping the ship away from hazards.
Jernigan admits that driving the ship for the first time in this environment was ‘really nerve wracking’, but she soon mastered it.
‘You feel like, “Oh I don’t want to do anything wrong”, but after a while you get used to it and you learn who you’re working with up on the bridge and you all work as a team to properly drive the ship and get it where it needs to go,’ she said.
The young sailor was born and raised in Darlington, South Carolina, and graduated from Darlington High School, home of the Falcons, in June 2018.
She scored into the Navy and entered boot camp in August that year before graduating from the U.S. Navy Recruit Training Command in Great Lakes, Illinois, the following month.
The teen joined the crew of the Nimitz soon after and works in the deck department.
When DailyMailTV caught up with the new recruit she was flanked on the bridge by her equally young crewmates, Cassie Calderonsilvestre, 21, from San Diego, California and Raymond Gil, 20, of Longview, Texas, both of whom were assisting with driving the ship and adjusting the speed.
Jernigan says her plant worker dad is ‘really proud’ of her for joining the Navy, a decision inspired by her grandfather who served as a Corpsman during the Vietnam War.
‘When I was looking into all the different branches of the military he influenced me a lot to join the Navy because his experience was good,’ she said.
Jernigan, who is working towards getting a formal rate in the Navy, added that she wanted to sign up to ‘travel the world’ and ‘better prepare’ herself for life.
‘A little over a year ago I was in high school and my friends are really impressed with what I’m doing, where I’m going and the fact that I get to drive the ship just blows their mind,’ she said.
‘They’ve said it’s an amazing thing and some are astonished that I’ve qualified to do it.’
The huge warship left its port in San Diego Saturday for five days of routine operations and pilot qualification ahead of its deployment later this year.
The ship raised its two 60,000lb anchors and set sail from Naval Air Station North Island, in Coronado.
Capable of reaching more than 30 knots (35mph) the Nimitz-class supercarrier – one of ten nuclear-powered aircraft carriers in the U.S. Fleet – headed out into the Pacific Ocean.
DailyMailTV witnessed the sight of hundreds of sailors and airmen on board the 117,000 sq ft warship put its four aircraft catapults through their paces.
Four giant elevators brought aircraft up from the hangar deep below the 4.5 acre flight deck and F/A-18 Super Hornets, EA-18G Growlers – which disrupt enemy radar – and a handful of F-35C stealth strike fighters line up for take off.
Mini tractors tow the jets into place and the Top Gun pilots ready their aircraft.
Captain Max Clark (pictured next to the ship’s portrait of Admiral Chester Nimitz) is the Commanding Officer of the Nimitz
Inspiration: A framed picture of Chester Nimitz on the cover of Life magazine just before he was promoted to Fleet Admiral has pride of place on the aircraft carrier named for him
The ship carries the F/A-18 Super Hornet, a twin-engine strike fighter aircraft that was first introduced to the U.S. Navy in 1999 to replace the F-14 Tomcat, made famous in the hit movie Top Gun
Missiles are seen onboard the Nimitz. The F/A -18 Super Hornet’s armament includes one SLAM (Standoff Land Attack Missile), one AGM-84 Harpoon anti-ship missile and one HARM (Anti-Radiation Missile) – designed to destroy enemy radar systems – among many others
Ready for action: The steam rising from the deck is from the catapult which hurtles planes off the deck
Top guns: One pilot gets ready for take-off – a procedure which will take the plane to its limits as it is catapulted off the deck
Ready for action: An aircraft handler waits on deck for the next move. All aircraft handlers are masked and wear heat-resistant clothing; temperatures can reach well above 120F on the deck.
Airborne: A Super Hornet comes into land while one of the Viking EA-18G Growlers from the Vikings training squadrons sits on deck
Up in the air: The moments of taking off and landing involved intense heat,
The mission of many of the Nimitz sailors will be to take off and land dozens of fighter jets, helicopters and planes, sometimes within less than 60 seconds of each other
The Nimitz is also referred to as CVN-68. CV is the classification symbol for aircraft carriers, and N indicates it is nuclear-powered. The Nimitz is the the 68th carrier hull commissioned by the Navy. Before DailyMail.com went onboard it was provisioned in Coronado, California
Mini tractors tow the jets into place and the Top Gun pilots ready their powerful aircraft for takeoff. Nuclear power allows the ship to store 50 percent more ammunition and almost twice as much aviation fuel as the largest conventional steam carrier
Life on board: On the lowest level of the carrier’s tower, all aircraft operations are mapped out on a plan of the deck with miniature planes showing where each aircraft is
Under way at sea: The Nimitz is seen in 2005 on a training operation in the Pacific off California, in the formation it would go to war in – with four Super Hornets above it
Commanding Officer of the Nimitz, Captain Max Clark, gives the order and the twin engines of the F/A-18 Super Hornet build into a roar.
FAST FACTS OF THE USS NIMITZ: THE NUCLEAR-POWERED WARSHIP AMONG THE LARGEST IN THE WORLD
- The Nimitz is referred to as CVN-68. CV is the classification symbol for aircraft carriers, and N indicates it is nuclear-powered. The Nimitz is the the 68th of its kind in the U.S. Navy
- The vessel is named for Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz (1885–1966), who helped the US defeat the Japanese Navy in World War II
- Nimitz signed the Japanese surrender as the U.S. representative on September 2 on board the USS Missouri
- The Nimitz’s homeport is Naval Base Kitsap in Washington
- Nimitz can stock at least 70 days of refrigerated and dry goods and is replenished at sea when deployed – a technique first used by Nimitz himself
- Several tons of laundry is washed every day by Nimitz’s laundry, dry cleaning and tailoring services personnel
- Nimitz’s two barber shops trim more than 1,500 heads per week
- Nuclear power allows the ship to store 50 percent more ammunition and almost twice as much aviation fuel as the largest conventional oil-fired carrier would be able to
- Nimitz can hold 3.5 million gallons of fuel to supply aircraft and also its escort ships
- The ship reaches more than 23 stories high from the keel to the top of the mast
- The hangar bay extends for most of the ship’s length
- The ship entered service in 1975 but has undergone dozens of refurbishments and upgrades since
The $70million supersonic jet is catapulted from the deck with an ear-splitting blast, before disappearing off the bow of the ship in a haze of steam.
A Seahawk helicopter circles nearby in case of any accidents.
The Nimitz flight deck is awash with dedicated crewmen wearing different colored jerseys.
Green jerseys operate the jet blast deflector (JBD), aircraft handlers wear yellow jerseys, blue jerseys work in the hangar bay and purple jerseys refuel the aircraft, while red jerseys handle aviation ordinance and crash and salvage.
The whole manic scene – described by those on board as a choreographed ballet – is watched over by white jerseys.
DailyMailTV was taken on to the flight deck by aircraft ‘Shooter’ Lt Amy Blades wearing a yellow jersey with two pistols emblazoned on her back.
Lt Blades is one of several catapult officers responsible for the safe and efficient launch of the ship’s aircraft and who throws a shooting sign to tell the jets to take off – but for now she’s guiding us through this extremely dangerous environment.
‘Stay behind me,’ she screams as we duck under the afterburners of a Super Hornet.
‘The heat from those engines will take your skin off.’
Everyone on the giant steam powered ship seems on point.
Inside the ten floor, 3,000 room hull underneath the flight deck life is one slick operation.
There are several cafeterias, gyms, a Starbucks coffee shop and ‘luxury’ state rooms for ‘Distinguished Visitors’ like us.
Since it is nuclear-powered, the Nimitz – call sign NMTZ and nicknamed Old Salt – can operate for up to 20 years without refueling.
The ship entered service in 1975 but has undergone dozens of refurbishments and upgrades since.
It is the lead ship of her class, one of the largest warships in the world and the flagship of Carrier Strike Group Eleven (CSG-11) with Carrier Air Wing Seventeen (CVW-17) embarked.
The Nimitz’s homeport is Naval Base Kitsap in Washington and the vessel is named for legendary fleet admiral Chester W. Nimitz (1885–1966), who helped the U.S. defeat the Japanese Navy in World War II.
The Nimitz flight deck is awash with dedicated crewmen wearing different colored jerseys. Green jerseys operate the jet blast deflector (JBD)
The F/A-18 Super Hornet can reach Mach 1.8, which is equivalent to 1,190mph at 40,000 ft. DailyMailTV was on deck as they took off
U.S. Navy Sailors stand in respect to the United States flag while on board the USS Nimitz. For those who are struggling the Nimitz’s chaplain is on hand to offer support and counseling and prayer for all religious denominations
Crew members in red jerseys handle aviation ordinance and crash and salvage. Two of the crew are seen working on a piece. The ship reaches more than 23 stories high from the keel to the top of the mast
The Nimitz is the lead ship of her class, one of the largest warships in the world and the flagship of Carrier Strike Group Eleven (CSG-11) with Carrier Air Wing Seventeen (CVW-17) embarked
Green jerseys operate the jet blast deflector (JBD). Some of the crew work 12-hour shifts, six days a week
F/A-18 SUPER HORNET: FIGHTER JET THAT REPLACED BELOVED ‘TOP GUN’ AIRCRAFT
The twin-engine strike fighter aircraft were first introduced to the U.S. Navy in 1999 to replace the F-14 Tomcat, made famous in the hit movie Top Gun.
The F/A-18 Super Hornet can reach Mach 1.8, which is equivalent to 1,190mph at 40,000 ft.
On the Nimitz they operate alongside the older Hornet and the related Growler.
The Super Hornets’ armament includes:
- One M61A1/A2 Vulcan 20mm cannon
- The strike fighter has 11 hard points on its wings and under the main fuselage which can carry a mixture of:
- Missiles: Four AIM 9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles
- Two AIM 7 Sparrow/ (2) AIM-120 AMRAAM
- One Standoff Land Attack Missile
- One AGM-84 Harpoon anti-ship missile
- One HARM (Anti-Radiation Missile) – designed to destroy enemy radar systems
- Maverick air to ground missiles: Joint Stand-Off Weapon (JSOW); Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM)
- Bombs: Paveway laser guided bomb; JDAMs (joint direct attack munitions); freefall bombs; mines
As of 2011, 500 Super Hornets have been built on single-seat (F/A-18E) and twin-seat (F/A-18F) variations.
Walking around this vast warship you’re struck by the sheer number of young faces walking the narrow corridors and stairways – the backbone of the U.S. Navy.
The average age of sailors on board is 25 and more than half of them are gearing up for their first-ever deployment, expected later this year.
Lt. Cmdr. Eric ‘The Handler’ Alexander, the executive airplane handler, in charge of the flight deck’s high octane operations and the 600 sailors that support it, is among seasoned crew members who enjoy nurturing new recruits.
Talking to DailyMailTV he breaks off and screams ‘Rhino, rhino,’ into his radio.
The command lets the flight deck crew know that a jet is making a sharp turn and to look out for its afterburners.
Lt Cmdr Alexander, a native of Stuttgart, Arkansas, has served aboard five different carriers spanning a 25 year career in the navy, and training the new crop of sailors is one of his favorite jobs.
‘I thrive off it,’ he says. ‘You get to see them growing up and you help them along the way.’
In his room just off the deck there’s two young sailors soaking up his commands and moving tiny models of aircraft around a map of the flight deck.
The Nimitz’s Commanding Officer, Captain Clark, agrees with this philosophy – adopted right across the Navy and other military departments.
He told DailyMailTV that nurturing youth, like young sailor Deborah Jernigan, is vital for a modern, progressive fighting force.
‘You’ll find that everywhere in the Navy and I think it speaks to the caliber of young people we’re still bringing in, in terms of intelligence, motivation and people of high character.
‘You give them good training, you take care of them and you give them a mission they believe in and honestly some cool stuff to do, aviation, driving ships.
‘You package that all together and give them a little bit of ownership in what they’re doing and it’s a recipe for success.’
Philadelphia native Capt Clark assumed command of Nimitz on August 1, 2019. He began his career as a Navy pilot, specializing in anti-submarine warfare; the Nimitz is the sixth nuclear-powered carrier he has served on after deployments on the Dwight D. Eisenhower, the John C. Stennis, the Carl Vinson, the Enterprise, and the Harry S. Truman.
And when the bosun’s whistle sounded over the 1MC, the ship’s original public address system, Capt Clark gave his young sailors a pep talk, thanking them for their efforts in getting the ship underway.
‘Well done, great job,’ he said.
Life on board a carrier isn’t all plain – or plane – sailing, however.
Awesome scale: The bridge of the USS Nimitz, which also contains radar equipment and visual control over the deck is reflected in water on the main deck. Many of the Nimitz’s sailors only rarely see above deck
On the Nimitz, the F/A- 18 Super Hornets operate alongside the older Hornet and the related EA-18G Growler
The USS Nimitz can stock at least 70 days of refrigerated and dry goods and wash several tons of laundry every day for the crew members on board
The aging Nimitz, which entered service in 1975, is projected to be replaced around 2022 by the Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy (CVN-79)
There are several cafeterias, gyms, a Starbucks coffee shop and ‘luxury’ state rooms for ‘Distinguished Visitors’
A Seahawk helicopter is pictured on the flight deck. One circles nearby in case of any accidents
Hundreds of sailors and airmen were on board the 117,000 sq ft warship as it put its four aircraft catapults through their paces
Remembered: On board the Nimitz, there is a permanent memorial to the dead of the September 11 terror attacks
Never forgotten: A steel beam from the World Trade Center is on display on board the Nimitz
Action stations: At night the corridors of the Nimitz are lit in red
Moving in to place: Preparations on deck for take-off involve careful choreography. The red crew deal with weapons systems and the green with the catapult which propels the planes to take-off and the arresting gear which slows them down when they land
Nighttime take-off: Pilots practice taking off from the vast carrier’s deck in the dark, getting ready for the most difficult wartime challenge of all – combat in the dark
Ready: Deck crew take a brief respite from dealing with take-offs and landings. Their red helmets show that they move, mount and arm planes
Careful watch: As well as its escort ships, the Nimitz carries its own weapons, including ten .50 caliber guns mounted on their own turrets
Mixed capabilities: On board the Nimitz is more than just F/A-18s. Their sister planes the EA-18G Growlers are part of the Vikings training squadron, which trains aviators in electronic warfare – jamming enemy systems and performing surveillance
In sight of land: The Nimitz left port in San Diego Saturday for five days of routine operations and pilot qualification ahead of its deployment later this year.
Adrenaline-charged: The deck of the Nimitz is a dangerous place, with steam rising from the catapult which propels planes off deck and lines to keep planes in place.
Installation: One of the mighty doors on the Nimitz carries images of the different types of planes embarked – strike fighters, E-2C Hawkeyes (bottom left), which are early-warning aircraft, and helicopters (bottom right)
On deck: Two F/A-18s are tethered to the deck, part of the Naval fighter wings embarked
Fair warning: Nobody can go on deck without extensive safety warnings and there are constant reminders of the omnipresent lethal dangers
Anchor: The chain holds in place one of the Nimitz’s anchors, with a mural of naval history behind
Goodbye San Diego: Sailors watch as the Nimitz slips away from the Californian port for five days of training at sea
The manic scene of the flight deck is described by those on board as a choreographed ballet, which is is watched over by crew members white jerseys. As well as fighters, the Nimitz carries Navy SH-60 Seahawks
For those in peril on the sea: Inside the Nimitz, chaplain LL Bailey – nicknamed Baby Chaps – ministers to 3,000 sailors and air crew
Community: The ship’s bell in the chapel of the Nimitz carries the name of every sailor baptized on board
The mission of many of the Nimitz sailors will be to take off and land dozens of fighter jets, helicopters and planes, sometimes within less than 60 seconds of each other.
And in this pressure cooker environment, maintaining a solid mental and physical health can be challenging.
Regular cups of coffee are a must for a crew working 12-hour shifts, six days a week, but for most the drink of choice is Monster – the ship goes through around 500 cans a day purchased from the ship’s store.
For those who are struggling the Nimitz’s chaplain is on hand to offer support and counseling and prayer for all religious denominations.
L.L. ‘Baby Chaps’ Bailey is the ship’s chaplain and holds daily services in the chapel.
He also offers an open door policy to a common room where sailors like to hang out to watch TV or read books as well as access to dozens of computers to check their email.
Sailors are also encouraged to keep fit, get fresh air, and establish friends and support networks.
Nimitz Executive Officer, Capt. Matt Thomas, sums up the level of responsibility leveled at the new generation of sailors.
He said: ‘Our young sailors, fresh out of high school within the last two years, those are the sailors that are driving the ship, those are the sailors that are on the flight deck directing our aircraft around in a very hazardous environment and those are the same sailors who are operating our nuclear propulsion plant.
‘Very well trained, very capable and an amazing responsibility we give such young people.’
Sadly, the aging Nimitz is projected to be replaced around 2022 by the Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy (CVN-79).
The exact date of the ship’s decommissioning will likely depend on Defense Department budget considerations.
But after 47 years at sea it will be the end of a proud era.