Saying showbiz is full of perks is like saying there are swamps full of alligators down in Florida. And by perks I’m not talking about the swag or that choice table at a Sunset Strip steak joint. I’m talking about experiences related to the job. I’ve been lucky enough to scuba dive for treasure off the coast of Cuba. I’ve been limousined around Paris with a supermodel, one of the world’s great con men, and a case of Dom Perignon. I still can’t believe I was actually paid to spend time in the tower at JFK airport to learn how millions of tons of commercial aircraft seamlessly take off and land.
Still. None of my adventures were quite as memorable as my twenty-four hours aboard the Navy aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Nimitz. I’d been introduced to PR officer Lt. Brad Fagan by a manager pal of mine. The Navy was inviting me to screen my upcoming movie on board the ship. Talk about had me at hello. It wasn’t so much about saying yes. It was about when and where.
“San Diego,” said Lt. Fagan. “March. The Nimitz and the fleet will be off the coast on a training mission.”
“How far off the coast?” I asked.
“Far enough so that you won’t be able to take a boat. You’ll have to tailhook on. Hope that’s not an issue.”
Tailhook? Seriously? Like I’d actually get the opportunity to fly over the ocean and land on the deck of an aircraft carrier? Sign. Me. Up!
“Hey. Any hot girls in the movie? You know, that you can invite?” asked Lt. Fagan. “Crews always like that.”
I thought about it for a moment. Both Rumer Willis and Michelle Horn were still under eighteen. And Lt. Fagan confirmed their ages as a definite Navy no no.
“How about a Bond Girl?” I asked.
“You got a Bond Girl in your movie?” said Lt. Fagan. “Damn. You gotta bring her.”
“No promises,” I said. First I’d have to inquire with the Bond Girl. I hadn’t a glimmer if she’d be available, let alone inclined. So I dialed her.
The Bond Girl in question was Dr. Molly Warmflash from The World is Not Enough, aka actress Serena Scott Thomas. Over the past year, we’d become fast friends. She’s both a knockout and a saucy minx of a lady. I thought she might be game. But who knew how she’d react?
I explained the situation. The screening. The Nimitz. Flying across the ocean. Landing on the postage stamp deck of the aircraft carrier.
“Darling. You know I’m terrified of flying,” she said. “I mean, not scared. But stone petrified.”
“Oh,” I said. “So I guess that’s means you’re a no.”
“Not in the least,” Serena continued. “It means I have to do it. Gotta face my fears.”
“Facing your fears is one thing. Tailhooking onto an aircraft carrier is another.”
“You don’t get it,” she said. “You don’t know the story. I have to do it because of my father.”
Yeah. Her father. Serena’s old man, Lieutenant Commander Simon Scott Thomas, was a fleet aviator in Her Majesty’s Royal Navy. When Serena was young, but not so young that she couldn’t remember, her father was killed while at the stick of his fighter jet. Tragic doesn’t describe it. But that wasn’t the end of her trauma. Her mother eventually remarried. But not to just any old chap. Serena’s mother married another man named Simon. This one was Simon Idiens, another navy pilot. Commander Idiens went on to adopt both Serena and her sisters. Then one day, the awful news arrived that their stepfather had been killed on a training flight.
“So now you get it,” Serena said. “I absolutely have to do this. I have to do it for my fathers.”
Right. I had my Bond Girl. Now we had to survive our Navy mission.
Fast forward a few weeks to early one morning on San Diego’s Coronado Island, home of the CNIC Naval Base and home to the Navy’s Pacific Fleet. After a night of liquor and laughs, Serena, myself, along with actor Jonathan Tucker and producer David Wally are packed into a twin propeller-driven C2A Greyhound, otherwise known as the COD—or Carrier On Delivery—designed specifically for ferrying goods and personnel onto our military’s aircraft carriers. The near windowless design is fit with four rows of steel-reinforced passenger seats, all facing backwards with the kind of criss-crossing shoulder harnesses you’d expect in a NASCAR rig.
There were no in-flight safety speeches from former cheerleaders-turned-flight-attendants because we’d already been schooled for three hours in how to survive ditching into the fifty-eight degree ocean. There were no lighted paths to exit rows with inflatable slides nor were there easy-to-find floatation devices fixed under our seats because those emergency life vests were already strapped to our shivering bodies.
But that’s okay. We should’ve had warm feelings in reserve from having already signed the waivers which absolved both the Navy and the United States of America from all liability in the case of our untimely deaths.
Now, the physics of landing on an aircraft carrier had been described to us thusly: though the carrier is a thousand feet long from bow to stern, the distance between the three retention cables—one of which the COD must tailhook to in order to stop the aircraft—is only ninety feet. For you baseball players, that short distance is the exact length between home and first base. Because we’d be landing on seas with an average swell of ten feet at the carrier’s fulcrum, the ship’s bow and stern would have a rise and fall of up to sixty feet. Therefore, in order for the pilot to catch the all-important retention cable, he must have the aircraft descending at a steep angle and accelerating when the COD impacts the deck…
“Impact?” I asked, thinking I’d get a laugh.
Yes. The ground instructor had actually used the word “impact” appropriately because of some Einstein-like scientific energy displacement principal blah blah blah… My head was swimming. Just give me a Xanax, please, and wake me up when I’m in the Officers’ Lounge.
“And why are we accelerating at the landing part?” Serena asked.
“Accelerating because,” said the ground instructor “If—and only if—your pilot misses all three retention cables—the COD will retain enough airspeed to take flight again. Otherwise, you’re in the Pacific Ocean.”
Cue the quick refresher of our ocean survival training lecture. Gulp. Shudder. I nudged my Bond Girl and asked if she still wanted to tailhook. And though she nodded, I could read the anxiety trying to eat away at her determination to honor her two Simons.
All that was left was a last call bathroom break before we were strapped into the COD and found ourselves swiftly airborne. So ear-rattling was the aircraft that we were issued hearing protection that made it nearly impossible to converse in anything but sign language. It seemed we’d begun our final descent only moments after liftoff. Not that we could see a thing. We were in a clattering tin can and facing rearward. All we had to guide us were the angle of attack and the revs of the massive, twin Chrysler engines.
Then came a pain in my left arm. Searing. Like hot steel driving through flesh. Yes. It was Serena’s grip. Okay. So her fingernails didn’t quite draw blood. And I didn’t say a word. In moments it would be over. We’d be either dead or on the deck of the U.S.S. Nimitz.
“ARE YOU OKAY?” I shouted over the horrible din.
Serena nodded. Her eyes were slammed shut. Jaw clenched.
Steeper came the descent. Faster the aircraft accelerated. And because our seats were rear facing, it felt as if we were falling ass first out of the bloody sky.
Any moment now, I thought. Any moment and I’d feel the wheels slap onto the deck. Whap. Instead, sometime between forever and eternity, the pitch of the COD shifted like the wheels bottoming out of a rollercoaster. The engines whined and we were suddenly catapulting skyward.
I glimpsed a Navy crewman circling his finger overhead in the international gesture of we’re going again. I caught Serena mouthing, “What happened?”
“WE MISSED,” I shouted.
“YOU’RE FUCKING KIDDING ME!” she screamed.
This is when it happened. One, Serena released her death grip on my arm. And two, she let loose a huge, cackling laugh that cut through both the engine whine and the rattling. Hers was a release full of irony and fatalistic joy that I will never forget.
Take two at landing on the Nimitz was no better than the first. The same steep angle of descent, acceleration, terror, another big miss, and once again soaring skyward with Serena laughing like a hysterical roller coaster freak.
Two misses, I wondered. One for Serena’s father, Simon Scott Thomas. The other for her stepfather, Simon Idiens.
Of course, our third attempt was the charmer. We felt the impact with the carrier and, before we could even recall the ever-too-brief training, our bodies were jolted backward into reinforced seats as the retention cable braked us from one hundred and fifty miles per hour to zero in less than two seconds.
The cargo doors slowly cranked open as the COD was rolled off to make room for an incoming F-18. In a matter of moments we graduated from potential Spam-in-a-can to bearing witness to blue sky, the Pacific Ocean, and the military precision of Navy personnel escorting us across a very busy flight deck. We’d landed. We were dry. And our adventure had only just begun.
NEXT WEEK. PART 2 OF MY TAILHOOK WITH A BOND GIRL.