On March 20, 1922, after a two-year conversion from U.S. Navy cargo ship (USS Jupiter) to aircraft carrier, the USS Langley, was recommissioned as the United States Navy’s first aircraft carrier. This centennial anniversary prompted me to dig out of storage and re-edit 80 rolls of black and white 35mm negatives that I had taken 40 years ago as a U.S. Navy photojournalist on staff at All Hands magazine, the Navy’s official monthly publication.

The year was 1981 and the chief of naval operations had recently given a presentation to Congress on the Navy’s posture for the coming fiscal year. In his report, Adm. Thomas B. Hayward expressed his growing concern for the hardships and pressures endured by the fleet in recent years. The vital need to maintain continuous presence in the Indian Ocean, in addition to the U.S. Navy commitments in the Mediterranean and Western Pacific, had created what Admiral Hayward described as, “trying to meet a three-ocean requirement with a one-and-a-half ocean Navy. Not since World War II have we experienced such arduous operation tempos for deployed units.”

Those extended deployments in the Indian Ocean were presenting new challenges for the Navy as they began taking a toll on Navy families. Back then, mail was the primary communication between those deployed and their families back home. There was only so much a sailor could write about given the repetitive daily grind of carrier operations. And back home in the United States, their wives were taking on the sole responsibility of dealing with all challenges that come with running a household and raising the family during these new year-long tours.

As a photographer, I had an idea that a photo essay could be a way to share and help those at a home understand what the everyday repetitious grind was like for the 4,680 sailors and 500 officers deployed on an aircraft carrier on station in the Indian Ocean.

For several months, I lobbied my editors and my units’ senior staff on the merits of doing such a story, but I was getting nowhere, until a day when lunch would change everything.  I had the good fortune of being recognized by the Aviation/Space Writers Association for a story I had written and photographed on the Navy’s Blue Angels’ maintenance crew. I was honored to have the Navy’s chief of information, Adm. Bruce Newell, accompany me at the association’s yearly awards luncheon. As the event was ending, Admiral Newell asked me what I wanted to do next. Without hesitation, I pitched my idea to document life at sea. His response: “Let’s do it.”

With the Admiral’s endorsement, my editors were suddenly onboard. After a few weeks of planning, I received approval for temporary duty aboard the USS America (CV-66), a carrier preparing to leave its homeport of Norfolk, Virginia, for deployment in the Indian Ocean. On April 4, 1981, I was onboard as the ship left a pier full of waving families behind. Over the next month, we crossed the Atlantic Ocean, entered the Mediterranean Sea, and had a brief port visit in Palma, Spain. Then on May 6, the ship began a 104.5-mile transit of the Suez Canal onto “Gonzo Station” in the Indian Ocean. That Suez Canal transit was a first for a carrier since the smaller USS Intrepid’s transit before the 1967 Arab Israeli six-day war. It was also a first for a super carrier, as the canal had been modified to accommodate supertankers.

Photographer Jim Preston was given full access to document daily life on board naval aircraft carrier "USS America" in 1981. (U.S. Navy photograph by PH-1 Jim Preston)

With the full support of the ship’s commanding officer, Capt. James F. Dorsey, I had full access to document the crew and deployed airwing as they went about their daily routines. Working out of the photo lab, each day I would set out in search of something new to photograph.

In addition to taking photos, I made sure to get quotes from my subjects to complement the published photo essay, allowing the crew to share this experience in their own words.

I couldn’t wait to begin photographing air operations on the flight deck. It was unlike anything I had ever witnessed before or after over my photography career. Danger is everywhere and you are constantly aware of it, given the noise of afterburners at full blast as the four catapults send aircraft off the bow and waist cats. Hundreds of men, in green, brown, purple, red, yellow, white, and blue shirts, hustling about their respective jobs, interacting together in a well-rehearsed symphony to continuously launch and recover some 80 aircraft from a floating 1,048-foot flight deck. The shirt colors are the Navy’s way to easily identify flight deck jobs and responsibilities as the crew work together in this dangerously loud environment where normal communication is difficult. Now I was part of it, dressed in a green shirt with “PHOTO” stenciled in big black letters, capturing it on film.  

Safety training is continuous and general quarters drills are practiced routinely. There are man-overboard drills to ensure that if someone goes overboard, they are quickly rescued. As Captain Dorsey explained, “We have to drill and drill to build experience. What is impressive is that this ship is being run day-to-day by 19- and 20-year-olds. They are the backbone of this whole ship. And they are doing a damn fine job of it.” (U.S. Navy photograph by PH-1 Jim Preston)

The more experienced crew are responsible for training the newbies. One quickly learns that there is no place for compliancy in this environment. I could totally relate to the words of Aviation Boatswain’s Mate Third Class Roger Parker who said, “I was really scared the first time I was on the flight deck, but I was as excited as I was scared. I’m still excited, but you can’t forget about safety, or it will get you. Out here even the little things can hurt you.”

Each day, the flight deck crew joins up arm to arm and walks down the entire deck searching for foreign object debris (FOD), such as a screw, a piece of wire, or pen, that can damage an aircraft engine. Then, the daily symphony begins again. Redshirts loading ordinance, green-shirted crew chiefs polishing canopies and preparing their assigned aircraft, brownshirts removing tie down chains, purpleshirts fueling airplanes, and the yellow-shirted officers directing it all. The pilots begin to arrive from their briefings, inspect their planes and prepare to be launched off a steam catapult that will send them from zero to 170 miles per hour in two seconds. One after another they launch fighter and attack jets, anti-submarine aircraft, reconnaissance and observation aircraft, search and rescue, and the transports until the flight deck is nearly empty. Everywhere I turned, the action was a smorgasbord of photo opportunities.

Chief Aviation Boatswain’s Mate Don Fretwell shared, “When you think that there are only 12 other guys in the world that have this job, being a flight deck chief is really something. Everybody working up here has [a] pretty prestigious job. It’s definitely dangerous, but I never look at it that way… I’ve gotta make sure my guys are thinking safety. The one thing is that everybody is responsible for each other.”


As the last group of aircraft are launched, planes begin returning, landing on this postage stamp of a runway in the middle of the ocean. The pilots, with their aircrafts’ tailhooks extended, carefully guide their aircraft onto the deck, catching one of the four steel arresting cables, bringing them to an abrupt stop. Once on the deck, they raise their tailhook and taxi to the bow where the aircrew packs them tightly together as landings continue back on the angled flight deck. (U.S. Navy photograph by PH-1 Jim Preston)
One day I was shooting flight ops during a heavy rainstorm and as I focused on a captain, he asked me why I was out taking photos in such conditions, and I responded, “Because you have to be here.” If the crew had to work in the rain, then I needed to be working in the rain too. (U.S. Navy photograph by PH-1 Jim Preston)

Everywhere I went throughout the ship, there was something interesting to photograph. One of the things I first discovered while roaming the hangar bay was the amazing light filtering through the massive elevator openings. The contrast of light in the dark hangar bay made for powerful black and white images of the crew at work. I found this indirect light effect in the projections extending from the side of the carrier’s hull which are called sponsons. I was exploring one day when I heard a violin. I followed the music to a sponson where I found Gunner’s Mate Third Class Kevin Kirby playing in solitude. Kirby shared, “A year ago, I could have come up with a big gripe list about being on a ship, but somehow, I got used to waiting… being away from home. I still had to find a place to get away on my own.  It can get to you if you let it.”

While exploring the USS America, Jim Preston followed the sound of music and found Gunner’s Mate Third Class Kevin Kirby playing in solitude. (U.S. Navy photograph by PH-1 Jim Preston)

Here is a slideshow highlighting some of the locations through the ship I photographed:

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On the bridge I documented the captain and his team navigating the ship and conducting a general quarters drill. A few levels above the bridge, I photographed the air boss and his staff overseeing a launch. Perched high above the flight deck, in a room similar to an airport control tower built into the superstructure, they oversee all of the aircraft operations for the air wing within a five nautical mile radius of the ship. (U.S. Navy photograph by PH-1 Jim Preston)

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Another day I found my way down to the propulsion spaces where I found Boiler Technician Second Class Jerry Farrigen cleaning the inside a boiler. “Down here with the boilers it usually averages 120 to 130 degrees. You have to worry about heat stress out here in the IO. Working in the hole is hot and dirty, but I really like my job. I’d say 90 percent of the guys, from fireman to chief, will tell you they wouldn’t want to be working anywhere else.” (U.S. Navy photograph by PH-1 Jim Preston)

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In the galley, I documented the work it takes to feed 5,000 men. Senior Chief Mess Specialist Dall Bowman, “We serve 15,000 meals each day, 365 days a year, and we’re open 20-and-one-half hours a day. If somebody is having a bad day, it’s pretty likely he’s going to take it with him to chow. They never stop complaining about the food, but they’re there each meal.” (U.S. Navy photograph by PH-1 Jim Preston)

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Up in the forecastle anchor room I photographed the crew as they dropped a massive anchor during our port visit in Spain. This space is also where religious services are conducted between the huge links of chain. (U.S. Navy photograph by PH-1 Jim Preston)

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The ship’s laundry is another major operation. You put your dirty clothes separating lights and darks in mesh bags tagged with your name. The bags are washed and dried in huge bulk machines. (U.S. Navy photograph by PH-1 Jim Preston)

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The ship has an exercise room, library, and movie theater. Card games spring up everywhere to pass the few off hours that aren’t occupied by sleep. On occasion there is a formal recreation day where there are organized boxing matches. During breaks you might find a few sailors tossing a ball or playing basketball in the hangar bay. (U.S. Navy photograph by PH-1 Jim Preston)

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“We try to break up the long on station periods between port visits with things like boxing smokers, recreation days and steel beach picnics, but our alert posture here prevents us from doing these things on a regular basis,” said the Executive Officer, Captain P.B. Austin. (U.S. Navy photograph by PH-1 Jim Preston)

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With liberty ports so few and far between, mail, more than ever before, was one of the biggest factors contributing to morale on these extended tours. “Most of the crew are under the impression that they should get a letter every day, but we have to rely on the operation and scheduling of ships and airplanes, and out here that is always subject to change." (U.S. Navy photograph by PH-1 Jim Preston)

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Underway replenishment (UNREP/VERTREP) is another exciting activity to photograph: Tanker ships deliver fuel and cargo ships resupply food and spare parts. Rigging lines are set between ships as they cruise side by side to connect to fuel lines and send across pallets of supplies. Helicopters are also critical in replenishing supplies, ferrying large pallets of supplies and crew between ships. (U.S. Navy photograph by PH-1 Jim Preston)

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“With the intensified underway replenishment schedule we have to maintain out here, it really compounds the daily workload. Sometimes we have unrepped as many as five ships in four days with some of them running up to eight hours,” said deck department division officer, Commander John R. Rolland Jr. (U.S. Navy photograph by PH-1 Jim Preston)

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I found each of the crew has a unique perspective about their job and working in this environment. “Being non-rated, we pay our dues by spending 90 days mess cooking. As a job, washing pots for 12 hours really stinks, but somebody has to do it.” (U.S. Navy photograph by PH-1 Jim Preston)

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Back on the ship’s fantail I found the U.S. Marine detachment during weapons training. (U.S. Navy photograph by PH-1 Jim Preston)

Shooting for a magazine, you must always look for potential cover photos that will tell the whole story. I wanted to visually show just how many people it takes to operate this floating airbase. I wondered if we could get as many people up on the flight deck as possible for a group photo. I pitched my idea to the captain and with his approval, a time was set to make it happen.  Advance announcements were made over the PA system several days prior. On the day of the shoot, crew began filling the bow of the flight deck. But it was a bust, as the helicopter I was on experienced engine problems as we were about to take off. Rescheduled a few days later, it was scrubbed again due to a heightened alert status for the carrier task force. I was beginning to get some jabs from the crew about the idea. Finally, we pulled it off, but on this third try I realized that the multiple attempts were like crying “wolf” too many times. A good number of the ship’s crew did not make the trip topside for the shoot. The resulting photo was not what I had hoped for, but fortunately it was enough to still make a cover image for the magazine.

After several months in the Indian Ocean, I caught a flight off the carrier onboard a delivery aircraft, better known as a COD. I returned home having shot over 120 rolls of color and black and white film. My first task for the magazine was to publish a story about America’s historic Suez Canal transit, a passage that had both saved fuel and time en route to the Indian Ocean compared to the time it took to sail around the African continent. 

America and her crew returned home to Norfolk that November, once again benefiting from a northbound Suez Canal passage. My black and white photo essay was finally published in March 1982. From the 3,000 images I had shot, 30 made the final edit and were printed over 12 pages, accompanied by quotes from America’s crew. And the aerial portrait I had set up was selected as the issue’s cover. The essay’s title, “Life at Sea, the Thirty-Hour Day,” was taken from a quote I got from Captain Dorsey who said, “We usually have enough time in a 30-hour day to get everything done.” 

A month after publication, I got a call from a woman who said she had just seen the essay while waiting for an appointment at a Navy medical facility. She said it brought her to tears, expressing how much she better understood what her husband, now deployed in the Indian Ocean, was going through and how much a letter from her might mean to him.

Over the past few months as I prepared to write this blog to commemorate the Navy’s Carrier Centennial, I realized as I began re-editing my 40-year-old negatives that there were so many more telling images that captured the carrier experience. And with today’s technology I could now utilize the web and social media channels to share them.

To that end, I have published 348 images of aircraft carrier life in a photo album on the National Air and Space Museum’s official Flickr.  View them all.

In today’s Navy, the jobs being performed by the men and women serving on aircraft carriers are not unlike the ones I captured on film 40 years ago. In honor of the contribution and critical role that U.S. Navy aircraft carriers and their crews have played over the last 100 years, again I share a quote from Captain Dorsey:

For most of us, our decision to join the Navy was in some way affected by the opportunity of seeing the world. Here we don’t get much chance for that. The large expanses of ocean conflict with the convenient liberty schedule for the troops. Now, the distance to our liberty ports is some 12 days steaming. That’s a long way to go for a cold glass of beer. What a sailor gets out of a deployment like this is something he may never forget. He has the ability and confidence of knowing that he can operate in a very demanding environment and get the job done. The great American bluejacket is alive and well, and he’s doing a real fine job.

Aircraft carrier USS America (CV-66) at sea.


Jim Preston is a Supervising Photographer at the National Air and Space Museum.

Related Topics Aviation Aircraft Military aviation
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