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At Sea: Photographer Captures Life on a Naval Aircraft Carrier

By:  Scott Kelby Mar 20, 2014
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Salute

"Ever since my older brother served in the Navy, I’ve been fascinated with aircraft carriers," said professional photographer Scott Kelby. "It’s always been my dream to do a photo shoot on a carrier, but as you might imagine, if you’re not in the Navy, actually getting on one is tricky at best."

But dreams can come true, and when Scott was finally able to realize his, he gave us a Q&A on his unique naval experience.

Click here to see a slideshow of Scott's photos from the trip.

How were you able to make this happen?

It took me eight years of trying. I was close a couple of times, but then a man named Ed Buice of NCIS (not the TV show -- the real Naval Criminal Investigative Services) contacted me about a specific assignment. He was going aboard the aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush which was already at sea, and invited me to come and assist with his shoot. Even though it was only three days' notice, I jumped all over it. 

Ed is the public affairs officer for NCIS, and he needed shots of Special Agent Afloat Sam Bush (each carrier has an NCIS agent on board). We spent two days following Sam around the ship photographing his day-to-day duties. We did everything including posed portraits, shots of Sam conducting interviews, interacting with the ship's security detail, dusting for prints -- you name it. 

How did you arrive at and leave the carrier? 


We took off from a naval base in Norfolk, Virginia, on a twin-engine Grumann C2 Greyhound supply plane that holds about 40 passengers as uncomfortably as possible (and seated backwards). We landed (and got tail hooked) right on the deck of the carrier, which was actually really cool and not as scary as everyone had warned me about.

When it came time to leave the aircraft carrier, they shot us off with the same catapult they launch the F/A-18 Hornets with. It was intense, but it was over in three seconds, and the rest was just a regular plane ride. Except it's louder than both a monster truck and tractor pull.

So, how'd your photo shoot go?

Honestly, I totally blew it on day one. When I stepped out, there we were getting blown around by jet wash while jets were rolling by us and taking off. I was so overwhelmed, pumped and plain excited, I just started firing. I took a ton of shots of planes taking off and landing, but you just wind up with a bunch of very similar-looking photos of gray planes. No color, no people, just lots of gray planes. 

The second day improved dramatically. I had gotten used to the jet wash, the roar of the jets, and the fact that I might be dragged in different directions at any time to keep from being run over by a jet taxiing on the flight deck. Besides that, I knew that for more interesting shots, I needed to include the human factor, and I needed to include color, which honestly was everywhere because the flight deck crews wear different solid-colored vests and helmets for quick visual ID.

How were the accommodations on the aircraft carrier?

The actual sleeping part was kind of challenging because our room was just two decks below the flight deck and operations run all night long. Close your eyes and picture you've somehow fallen asleep in a port-o-potty, then a semi pulls up so close to your port-o-potty that it touches the door and revs the engine for 15 seconds; then the driver jumps out, takes a baseball bat and hits your port-o-potty so hard it shakes the whole thing; then he starts a running chain saw for another ten seconds. It was exactly like that. Only louder, and about every minute or so. Weird thing is, you somehow get used to it.

What did you learn from this trip?

I learned that the sailors and Marines who work on the George H.W. Bush are an incredible team. The flight deck is a miracle of precision, teamwork and timing, and however thankful and proud I was of our men and women in uniform, after seeing what they do, my respect for them went up another big notch.

My humble thanks to the crew of the George H.W. Bush for their service to our country, and for the sacrifices they make, and their families make, every single day. It was an experience I'll never forget.


Scott Kelby

Scott Kelby is the Editor and publisher of Photoshop User Magazine and President of KelbyOne.com. He is the co-host of the highly acclaimed weekly videocast The Grid, and teaches photography, Lightroom and Photoshop workshops around the world.

Scott is an award-winning author of more than 50 books, including The Digital Photography Books, The Adobe Photoshop Book for Digital Photographers, The Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Book for Digital Photographers, and Light It, Shoot It, Retouch It: Learn Step by Step How to Go from Empty Studio to Finished Image

For more on Scott, see his blog www.scottkelby.com.

Scott is part of The Opener, an exclusive, invite-only contributor network that will bring the best food, culture, and innovation writing to the pages of Coca-Cola Journey.