Many years ago, I had the good fortune to spend 12 hours aboard an aircraft carrier.
The USS Abraham Lincoln was doing training exercises 100 miles off the coast of southern California in preparation for a six-month deployment to the Persian Gulf. Emerging from the C-2 Greyhound aircraft that had brought me there on a warm sunny day, I paid close attention to my handler, who told me when and where I could walk on the very active flight deck.
Standing there, I was overwhelmed by the sight and sound of U.S. Navy fighter jets simultaneously landing on and taking off from the carrier. It was sensory overload. And so is Aircraft Carrier: Guardian of the Seas, an action-packed IMAX film that just had its world premiere at the National Air and Space Museum. Heaving catapults, the high-pitched whine of turbine engines, tailhooks snagging arresting cables: It’s all here. The only things missing are the smell of jet fuel and the spray of tarmac grit as another aircraft slams down on the deck.
Twelve years in the making, Aircraft Carrier was directed by Canadian director Stephen Low, who has been a naval enthusiast since he was a boy. Much of the film was shot during Rim of the Pacific, a training exercise in which 22 nations, including the United States, Japan, and Canada, test their latest naval technology. “The exercise is as close to actual warfare as is peacefully possible,” says Aircraft Carrier’s deep-voiced narrator.
In the film, Low’s camera seems to have an almost omniscient point of view as it documents the activities aboard the USS Ronald Reagan, a Nimitz-class super carrier. We see the commanding officer, Captain Craig Clapperton, handing out orders from the bridge. From high above, we see a swarm of sailors walking the length of the 4.5-acre flight deck in search of loose objects that could be ingested into a jet engine. Low’s camera even shows a man slicing roast beef in the cramped kitchen of a nuclear submarine participating in Rim of the Pacific (its role is to defend the carrier and other surface ships from attack).
In places where the film crew wasn’t allowed to go (presumably for security reasons), some slick computer-generated imagery stands in, leading us into the bowels of the ship to unveil two uranium-fueled nuclear reactors, which create steam to spin giant turbines that propel the ship. “The top speed remains highly classified,” intones the film’s narrator. (An online search says a Nimitz-class carrier can cruise at 35 mph.)
The reactor-generated steam also serves the carrier’s catapult aircraft-launch system: The steam powers boilers that move pistons down 300-foot-long tubes. Even the most jaded viewer couldn’t be unimpressed by the fury of a steam-powered catapult, which can launch an aircraft from 0 to 160 mph in three seconds. Because this is such a thrilling sight, director Low wisely shows us a quick succession of four or five F/A-18 Super Hornet launches. Small cameras placed inside the cockpits of the fighter jets reveal the pilots getting slammed around from the 4Gs of force they endure during take off.
The most spectacular thing you’ll see in Aircraft Carrier is the U.S. Marine variant of the F-35 taking off. But, wait, there’s no catapult. The badass F-35B doesn’t need one. The aircraft’s short-takeoff-vertical-landing engines are so powerful, the 30,000-pound jet requires almost no takeoff roll. The film’s shots of F-35Bs virtually levitating from the flight deck are shocking—almost spooky.
Gamers, gearheads, and military buffs will all love Aircraft Carrier. But anyone longing for a behind-the-scenes look at the risky business conducted by the U.S. Navy should go see the film.