Wilson returns from JFK with new found pride

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 18, 2004

For 11 days, it was all about Dan Wilson.

In past years, he had visited the Air War College in Montgomery, attended two separate Air Force change-of-command ceremonies, and flown in the cockpit of a C-130.

With experiences that only served to churn his boyish enthusiasm, Wilson set his sights on another military adventure.

Email newsletter signup

“I told Rear Admiral [Bryan Whitfield] Compton that I wanted to visit an aircraft carrier,” Wilson recalls.

On Feb. 12, in a manner of speaking, Wilson got the call. He had been invited to visit the USS John F. Kennedy — a naval aircraft carrier located about 200 miles from Daytona, Fla., in the Atlantic Ocean.

From the time he got word from Rear Adm. Compton (Ret.) until Feb. 23 — 11 days — everything was about Wilson. He would fulfill every adventurer’s dream of flying in a military plane and landing on a strip of runway floating perilously among the ocean’s roaring waves. He would feel the grip of a cable arrest; the power of a steam catapult; the respite of a prop engine headed safely back to land.

“It was the most amazing thing you’ve ever seen,” Wilson says of the landing. “You’re flying in there and you go from 150-to-zero in 800 feet and less than two seconds.”

Wilson and seven other “guys from across the fruited plain” were invited to the carrier as members of a “Distinguished Visitor” program. They sat backwards in the cargo plane so the force of the landing would send them into their tightly bolted chairs.

“They don’t sound-proof those military planes and you couldn’t hear anything,” Wilson laughs. “We had on goggles, a life vest and helmets, and the only way we knew we were about to land was one of the officers signaled us by waving his hand in the air.”

As the wave ended and the plane began its descent, Wilson remembers “a thousand things going through my brain.”

Would the plane miss its landing? Could he swim?

“But before you can really think of all the problems that might happen, you just stop,” he says. “The force is so strong you can’t move, and you feel like the entire world is pressed against you.”

Then the pressure ended. So did the 11 days of Dan Wilson and his preparation for that once-in-a-lifetime experience.

The Atlantic Ocean’s average depth hovers somewhere around 12,000 feet, and when Wilson stepped off that cargo plane, any ounce of selfish fulfillment quickly touched the bottom.

Wilson, who spent 34 hours on the aircraft carrier, slept a total of two hours during the trip. “Nothing was off limits to us, and I wasn’t going to miss anything.”

He didn’t miss the young man who heard about the visitors on the plane.

“This sailor came up to our group and asked, ‘Who is Mr. Wilson?’ I raised my hand.”

The interrogating sailor was from Jasper, Ala.

“He was so excited to see someone from Alabama,” Wilson says. “So were the guys from Decatur and Cullman. And each one of us had common friends.”

Immediately upon arrival on the JFK, the trip turned from an adventurer’s paradise to an admirer’s Eden.

“We were on a ship that was 23 stories high, 1,052 feet long, 257 feet wide and had 5,200 heroes on it,” Wilson says. “The precision and pride they show in their work is incredible. Everything on that flight… it’s amazing.”

It didn’t take long for Wilson to digest the enormity of his time or place on that ship.

He realized the danger of the job. “People fall over the ship — they just fall off. You hear horror stories of what happens on those ships.”

He also gained a compassion for the men and women who stand along water’s edge risking their lives every day.

“The sacrifice they make for their families to preserve our freedom is sometimes written off as military spending,” Wilson huffs. “Bull. Those ships are made up of people whose purpose it is to ensure the freedom and keep the peace. These people have families, and they are away from them just for us.”

For all the things Wilson remembers about his 34 hours aboard the JFK — for Adm. John H. Fetterman and for the men and women and the danger they face every day — one of the greatest impacts made on the Demopolis businessman happened shortly after he stepped off the plane.

“They told us we have to see Jesus,” he says, obviously moving another story forward.

Among the many jobs on an aircraft carrier, one of the most difficult takes place in the engine room where sailors work daily in 100-plus temperatures.

“There’s a mural on the wall — probably 40 feet long — that shows Jesus and his disciples on the Sea of Galilee,” his eyes almost closed. “Jesus is reaching toward a portion of the sky that is clear.”

The mural was drawn by sailors for the men and women who work in the engine room.

“It gives them solace,” Wilson says. “And when we saw it, I stood there in total silence. It took my breath away.”

The memories Wilson took from his brief stint on the JFK could take hours to record. But if there were one image, one moment that painted the lasting picture inside his mind, Wilson recalls the surreal seconds he stood at the top of the ship looking down a runway that disappeared into the rocking waves.

“I was standing on the flight deck, watching the ship bob up and down in 15-foot seas,” Wilson whispers. “At that moment, I realized I was standing on top of a city that is totally dedicated to me and my fellow Americans to ensure we remain free.”

With that image, Wilson and the seven other visitors loaded on the cargo plane headed back to Jacksonville, Fla.

Soon, the trip again became a personal event for Wilson. A steam catapult shot the cargo plane in the air, away from the city of citizen sailors.

“Going from zero-to-200 mph in less than two seconds is about all the pressure you can stand,” Wilson says. “But then the plane drops out of the air because it can’t keep up with the speed of the catapult.”

As the plane lost its speed and headed toward the ocean — as is normal during a take-off from an aircraft carrier — Wilson felt the relieving hum of the prop engines kicking into gear. And during the 40-minute flight back to Jacksonville, the trip became Wilson’s latest adventure into the U.S. military. And for almost an hour after landing in Jacksonville, his quest into the raging ocean transformed into a personal accomplishment.

“But as I was waiting in the airport to return home, four soldiers from the 101st Airborne came walking up,” Wilson smiles. “They were sitting together and after a while, I decided to walk up and thank them.”

Wilson soon learned those four pilots were boarding his Southwest Airline flight, and Wilson asked one of the airline employees if the Air Force pilots could board the plane first.

“She told me they had something better planned,” he recalls.

Sure enough, Southwest boarded all the civilian passengers first.

“Then someone came over the speaker as these four guys were boarding the plane,” Wilson says. “They were introduced to the flight, and everyone stood up and started clapping.”

Dan Wilson will be clapping for quite a while. Not because of another realized personal adventure. Rather, he’ll clap for freedom and a true-to-life experience with the men and women who would die to keep it.