When I think about nuclear powered aircraft carriers (which isn’t often) I marvel at the array of sophisticated technology fortifying these floating air bases. They’re replete with integrated warfare control systems, enhanced flight deck electronics and some really advanced cup holders. But the most important of all these technologies, the one that actually launches the $57 million F-18 Super Hornets, is perhaps its’ least impressive. I’m referring to that most primitive form of propulsion – the Steam Catapult. Even the name Steam Catapult does not inspire much confidence. Didn’t Hannibal use this contraption to throw big pointy rocks at his enemies in the Punic Wars? Compared to the leading edge technology hard-wired into a carrier’s DNA, the Steam Catapult is a special needs amino acid.
The Steam Catapult combines the primordial power of steam with the medieval precision of a catapult, prompting cocky pilots to shake their heads and comment, “My Hot Wheels set was more high tech.” Sling shot technology applied to the vital mission of the United States Navy. It makes one wonder why more fighter jets aren’t flung directly into the drink, like a poorly skipped stone.
The Navy recruits special ensigns to operate the Steam Catapult. In fact (and I just discovered this from the revelations of NSA stoolie Eric Snowden) the crews that run the Steam Catapult Control Room are hand selected by the Admiralty and Naval protocol demands all operators must have an “outie.” The Navy is serious about their navels. Secondly, operators must pay tribute to the primeval power of the Steam Catapult before each shift. While outfitted in snazzy hooded robes, they chant “Oculus Steamisco” in front of a little scale model of Stonehenge. And you thought the DaVinci Code was hard to follow.
I’m incredulous. Actually I’m Presbyterian but that’s another story. The Steam Catapult operating on our most advanced nuclear powered aircraft carriers? C’mon. It’s skeet shooting technology modified to launch our vaunted fighter squadrons into the ethers? Spit balls are powered by this same elastic force. Wasn’t the Steam Catapult Jules Verne’s technique of launching travelers into space in “A Trip to the Moon?” And wasn’t this evil Chilean General Pinochet’s preferred method of disappearing his enemies? Supposedly the ever-thoughtful General would even send surviving loved ones a thrill ride snapshot of the “participant” just milliseconds before they were hurtled into low earth orbit.
Apparently the Navy understands my incredulity more than my pastor because they, along with the contractor General Atomics Co, devised an Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) which speedily propels an aircraft down the flight deck and launches it into the air without benefit of rubber bands or mechanical systems. It is believed the General Atomics Co. may have made a profit from this work. Look for EMALS in your grocer’s dairy case or in the new generation of Gerald Ford Class super carriers coming soon to a Fleet Week near you.
Except for the part about Stonehenge, Presbyterians and your grocer’s dairy case, I’m not making this stuff up. Alright except for everything except the Steam Catapult I am making this stuff up. The point is we’ll soon retire the steam catapult to the Smithsonian Institution and place it in the Antiquities Building next to Eli Whitney’s Cotton ‘Gin and Cyrus McCormick’s Reaper. Until then I’ll be out there trumpeting the majesty of MAGLEV (magnetic levitation) propulsion systems while simultaneously trying to find the last American using a rotary phone.