NORFOLK, Va. (WHNT) - Huntsville may be an Army Town, but not all who enter the Armed Forces choose to join the military's largest branch.
For 24 hours, WHNT News 19's Chris Davis and Photojournalist Gregg Stone got rare, unrestricted access on board the U.S.S. Dwight D. Eisenhower Aircraft carrier.
Like a symphony on the high seas, each member of the U.S.S. Eisenhower's fight deck crew is a vital instrument to ensure harmony, and in this specific case, safety, while performing rapid takeoffs and landings in the middle of the ocean.
With each landing, ours included, crews capture the tailhook using a series of cables, bringing the plane to an abrupt stop.
High above the flight deck, lifelong Huntsville native Darien Fletcher performs on a different kind of instrument - a camera - that helps document the flight deck crew's every move.
“I just capture that and we put it out to the whole ship," says Darien Fletcher, an Interior Communication Electrician on board the "Mighty Ike."
The feed broadcasts across screens all over the ship, but the hope is it shows a tempo that doesn't miss a beat.
"It’s very vital because you would want a record just in case anything goes bad or just in case something happens on the flight deck that somebody needs to be recalled about," says Fletcher.
Loud engines and wind make conversation nearly impossible on the flight deck, so the colorful crew relies on hand signals to communicate.
Each jersey color signifies a different member of the team:
Yellow - the maestro of this melody - flight and catapult directors, guiding each plane to its proper place
Purple - refuels the planes
Red - loads the ordinance
Green - among other things, maintenance and quality control
That's where Darien comes in
"Not everybody gets to see this," says Fletcher.
While Darien says joining the Navy brought him some of the happiest days of his life, his decision to enlist came on one of his worst.
"I lost my grandfather in 2007 and he was basically my idol. So it was just like, I wanted to be like my grandad so bad," he says.
Like so many of us when we lose a loved one, Darien set out to learn more about his grandfather, which led him down a journey, he never expected.
"I never knew until the day that he died that he was in the military, and then it was like, if he turned out this great, like, I wonder how I might turn out. And it was like, I’m going to have to go with it," says Fletcher.
Over the last two years, Darien has seen flights at all hours and in practically all conditions, but the most memorable will always be his first.
"And I was walking, I guess the aircraft was coming down and landing and it sounded like the biggest explosion and I’m just like, in the corner of the P-way, just like, what is this and nobody is helping me but there’s somebody behind me laughing," he says.
That apprehension faded as training, and an 8-month deployment, molded Darien into a seasoned sailor.
The images he transmits back are vital to the mission, but it's pictures of his three-month-old that keep him going despite being hundreds of miles from home.
"Not being able to see her change every day, that’s something that kind of tears on you. But my wife keeps me updated and sends me pictures," says Fletcher.
Darien knows, at some point, he'll walk off the "Mighty Ike" for the final time and begin a new career.
"I really want to become an English Literary teacher," Fletcher told us.
Like his decision to join the Navy, Darien's next chapter is also derived from his past - a life changing lecture from his English teacher at New Century High School.
"She was like, when it hits you, it's going to hit you on the top of the head and it’s going to start flowing and you’re going to noticing a whole bunch of things and I kid you not the same day she said that, it happened," he says.
Once he gets to a classroom, Darien will have incredible stories to tell. While the delicate dance on the top deck can be exhilarating and exhausting at the same time, Darien stays motivated by knowing his grandfather would be bursting with pride.
"I know right now he’s looking down on me, smiling about it, cuz he knows I’m doing well off here," says Fletcher.
WHNT News 19 is giving you a glimpse on board the U.S.S. Dwight D. Eisenhower all week long. Tune in each morning, to WHNT News 19 This Morning, during the 6 am hour.