On board the USS Hawkbill
By Vickie Usher
CNN Producer Vickie Usher boarded the USS Hawkbill from a makeshift "ice camp" in the Arctic Circle, more than 150 miles north of Alaska. Along with senior cameraman Dave Rust, she spent a week on the submarine gathering material for CNN Perspectives' documentary, "Ice Run: Submarine to the Arctic." Here is her account of the experience.
The Arctic looks like the surface of an icy moon: white and clumpy, nothing in sight but ice and more ice. It's extremely quiet -- and, of course, cold. It was minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit when we set up our equipment to watch the USS Hawkbill, a 5,000-ton nuclear submarine, crash up through the ice cap. Capt. Jeff Fischbeck told those of us gathered to witness this rare event two things: 1) if you feel the ice moving under you ... RUN! and 2) be sure and run away.
I've never seen such an awesome sight; it was a real Man vs. Nature moment. The Hawkbill seemed like a giant whale breaching the ice. The surface pulsed; it seemed like the sub was breathing. The ice under our feet cracked and groaned and continued to move for several minutes. Everyone was cheering -- except for me because I was trying to shoot the whole thing on a digital camera. Oh, and I was definitely running away!
When it was over, a few of the crew came outside to meet us and we packed up our stuff to board the sub for a week-long trip. Once on board, the temperature change and the tight space felt a bit uncomfortable -- but then Dave and I shucked the Arctic gear and were herded into the Ward Room for a briefing on submarine life. This helped me feel less disoriented, but somehow I missed the part about the showers -- mainly because I was still trying to visualize how to flush the unusual toilet. When it was my turn to hit the showers I couldn't get the water to come out, so I peeked out into the hallway, hailed an officer, and asked for help. He came into the "head" and showed me the problem. Even though we both had on all of our clothes and the door was open, my friend the Navy public affairs officer, who happened on the scene, was temporarily rattled -- the presence of a woman on the sub being a somewhat sensitive matter. Finally, though, we all saw the humor in it and had a good laugh.
We ate that first night and the next in the Ward Room with Adm. Al Konetzni, Cmdr. Robert Perry (a k a "the Captain"), several of the officers and a scientist or two. They all made Dave and me feel right at home. The sub doesn't rock or seem to move, so it felt like we were in someone's dining room having a lovely meal with fabulous service and only a few house rules that no one told me about.
Later in the trip we ate in the Mess Decks with the enlisted guys, which we enjoyed just as much. There, we were able to talk with a wider group of people, and there was no pressure to get out in 40 minutes to make room for more people. The food was good, and there was plenty of it. Only fresh lettuce and veggies seemed in short supply after the first day.
We soon made the acquaintance of a very important guy on the sub: Gary Olivi, the chief of the boat, or "COB." The highest-ranking enlisted man, the COB is basically the den mother, advocate and organizer of the crew. Olivi, who is from Tennessee, worked in the nuclear program before becoming a COB.
Some of the youngest guys on the sub were extra fun. Buckner and Erickson -- everyone goes by their last names -- and their self-described "ghetto squad" hail from Seattle. These guys have what they call the "two-oh-sick-ness" -- 206 being Seatte's area code. Buckner helped me pick up their lingo and get a bead on the younger guys on the boat. A big concern of the COB was that they'd ham it up so much that they wouldn't look like serious professionals in the show. I hope that we were able to show both sides of these guys. They know how to get the work done and have fun. As the week went on, everyone relaxed. By the end of the week, the captain was at ease enough with the younger crewmembers to ask Buckner if he was planning to "hopscotch the binkies" when they hit their liberty port in England (in the lingo of another era, this means "cruise for chicks").
After dinner it was movie time. The crew would "burn a flick" in the Mess Deck, and the captain, the officers and the admiral would pick one out for the Ward Room. There are 550 titles on board, some of them released to these guys before they reach the video store. The captain let me pick for the first night and I made a lucky choice: "Rush Hour," which I hadn't seen. Neither had the admiral. The captain had seen it, but it was one of his favorites. Score one for the new girl.
Dave's video of the sub surfacing might have been the most watched piece of tape on board the sub, though. Shortly after dinner the first night, the captain came by the stateroom to see the tape. We had a laptop player on the desk and played it for him several times. This was the most rewarding moment for me personally. He was a little choked up, but still "cool" -- and our relationship got better when he looked me in the eye and said, "I've done that nine or 10 times but I never knew what it looked like until now." I think then he was glad we were on board and was able to relax more.
I slept like a rock on the submarine. I was never once claustrophobic, and it was acutally some of the best sleep I've ever had. This did not go unnoticed by Chief Richard Calden and the other "old goats," as the chief petty officers are called. I was accused of being on the 3-M plan: movies, mattress and meals. Since Calden is a self-proclaimed great practitioner of the Rack Diet -- sleeping as much as you can -- I didn't take it too hard.
I shared an officer's stateroom with the other woman on board, chief scientist Dr. Margo Edwards. There were three bunks -- or "racks" -- and mine was on the bottom. Right on the floor, basically. It was usually the bed of an officer named Lt. Vann Walke. He was very quiet and happened to be on watch during many of the exciting moments we encountered that week. I really appreciated him clearing out to make room for me. The other two officers who lived in this tiny room were Lt. Kurt Studt and Lt. Mike Benedetto. Pictures of the women in their lives smiled at me every day. When I got to meet them later in Hawaii, it was like meeting celebrities!
As our week on the sub was winding down, I felt like I could live on board for the whole "underway," as they call the full deployment. So did Dave. In fact, he was invited to stay at least to the North Pole and to England, but CNN needed him to go to Kosovo to shoot the war going on there. Going from the sub to Kosovo was about as drastic a change for him as getting out of the sub was for me.
The day we were dropped off at Ice Camp, just a week later, was especially exciting. First of all, we got to see the surfacing from the INSIDE. A Navy cameraman had taped the interior view of the previous surfacing for us; this time it was our turn. The captain was in the control room, changing the atmosphere in there. Everyone we had laughed with all week became dead serious. As the captain began to call out commands, we could feel the sub coming up. They bring it up with almost no angle, or "bubble" -- zero bubble is ideal. We popped up a little high on one end, but it was fine. The intensity of it all really made it hard to get off the sub. It was just The Place To Be. I couldn't imagine ever going back to the grocery store or to work -- or even just driving around Atlanta. What could compare? I just wanted to stay on the sub.
Climbing the ladder out of the hatch after surfacing, I was looking forward to cooling off -- until that wind hit me. It was 70 below. Instantly, my face was red and puffy. It stayed that way for a couple of days, even after I had traveled on to Anchorage.
Being back in the world was a shock for us; but it was even more of a shock for those around us. You see, submarines have a certain smell. It's like nothing I've ever come across. It comes from a chemical in the air called amine -- the guys call it "Amy." Amine "eats" carbon dioxide so that the air being recycled inside the sub is clean. It's a totally artificial environment, and if the fluourscent lighting doesn't make a girl feel haggard, smelling like amine sure does -- at least when flight attendants and other people cringe when they get near you.
But then they'd finally ask us what we'd been doing ... and there was nothing on this Earth cooler than saying: "We've just spent a week on a submarine under the Arctic ice."