DANVILLE — From the sun-drenched back porch of his home, Ray Hammond scrolled through more than 200 photos and 20 videos from his recent cruise. But instead of palms, scuba diving and world-class spas, Hammond spoke of catapults, traps and Hornets lifting off at unfathomable speeds.
Hammond, a retired Centre College professor and administrator, enjoyed the most exclusive — and most memorable — ocean cruise he has ever taken, traveling from Honolulu to San Diego aboard the USS Carl Vinson.
Hammond, 69, boarded the ship, one of the most renowned Navy aircraft carriers, last month and hugged his son, Jason, for the first time since Jason's Hammond's November deployment to the Arabian Sea near Afghanistan.
"I don't get to see him that often, so it was great," Jason Hammond said of the trip last month. "We had a full day. It was just the two of us there in Hawaii, so that was awesome."
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Hammond and his son then spent five nights and six days on the "once-in-a-lifetime" Tiger Cruise with nearly 1,000 "tigers" — family and friends of crew members, although spouses and significant others are not eligible under Navy regulations. The tigers were given the rare opportunity of experiencing life aboard the USS Carl Vinson, named for a Georgia congressman who was known as "the father of the two-ocean Navy."
Launched in 1980 and commissioned two years later, the 90,000-ton USS Carl Vinson has participated in the United States' most critical deployments of the past two decades, from Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom. It has hosted an NCAA basketball game and buried at sea the body of Osama bin Laden.
Lt. Cmdr. Erik Reynolds, the public affairs officer who operates the Facebook page for the ship, said he posted breathtaking aerial photos as the Vinson approached Hawaii and set off on its weeklong "cruise."
"As a photographer, you do see a lot of strong emotions," Reynolds said.
Although social media has increased communication between deployed sailors and their families, Reynolds said, the Tiger Cruise is just as special as it's always been.
Jason Hammond, 41, said the reunions never get old, especially the one with his wife, Julie, and their 11-month-old daughter, Jaida, with whom he reunited at end of the cruise.
"The real reunion, not going to lie, was the one where I came back home," he said. "That was a real tearful one, if you will."
Jason Hammond is the carrier's operations officer. As third in command, he oversees all daily operating projects, including takeoffs, landings, issues with the ship's defense system and weather predictions.
"Sandstorms are a big problem in that part of the world," he said. "They drop the visibility, which means my air controllers have to do a lot more work, and it's a lot more difficult to bring the airplanes back aboard the ship. We have to have good weather prediction and understanding so we don't launch and not be able to get them all back."
Ray Hammond and the other tigers got to see their loved ones hard at work.
He said most astonishing was the attention to detail his son and the crew exhibited. For example, in addition to all the officers on deck preparing to catapult a plane into the air, he said, even more people were underneath, operating steam cylinders that accelerate the plane from 0 to 170 miles per hour in two seconds, accounting for weather conditions, model of plane — even down to the amount of fuel in the plane.
On the morning before reaching San Diego, Ray Hammond said, he saw more than 50 planes take off from the carrier, one after another, in the span of two hours.
"It has to be without error," he said. "It is a well-orchestrated ballet. A precisely orchestrated ballet. And yet this is a ballet not of men and women dancing around in tutus. This is a ballet of 150-million-dollar aircraft."
Jason Hammond originally was hooked on flying, not leading, when his father brought astronaut Franklin Story Musgrave to dinner when Jason was 12.
Jason Hammond earned his wings in 1994. As he advanced through his career, he gravitated toward higher command roles.
Jason Hammond is at home with his family in Coronado, Calif., until training begins for another deployment.
While the younger Hammond appears to take the work his crew does on the Carl Vinson in stride, he's always reminded how much of a treat it is when they have tigers on board.
"The Navy's ability to do what we do with aircraft carriers is certainly unique in the world, and you forget about that until you get tigers out there who are just like, 'Wow, this is amazing.'" Jason Hammond said.
Although he touted the "proficiency" of the carrier, he said the 4,300 people onboard were the true attraction of the cruise.
"The most impressive part of the aircraft carrier is really all the people who work so hard and so diligently to take care of it," Jason Hammond said. "That was the part that was most rewarding to be able to show people."
Scrolling through the photos on his laptop, Ray Hammond, clicking open one after another, said it was tough to describe what it was like being on that ship. Even with hundreds of photos.
"Old guys, you know, we have our bucket lists — and this was No. 1 on my bucket list," he said. "When you are standing there and you hear the roar of a Hornet off that deck, that's called the sound of freedom."