Airman Warner lives high-pressure life
2006 Steamboat graduate makes her mark as plane captain on aircraft carrier
June 26, 2008
Steamboat Springs — The first opportunity Airman Justine Warner had to set foot on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. John C. Stennis came just moments after her first carrier landing.
That isn’t how it usually works for sailors with Warner’s E-3 status.
Most sailors heading out on their first deployment arrive aboard their new ship via a giant elevator in port. But Warner, a 2006 graduate of Steamboat Springs High School, was catching up with her shipmates for the final two months of an eight-month deployment at sea.
The U.S. Navy flew her to Bahrain where she boarded a twin-engine plane for the flight to the carrier deck.
“I saw all of the craziness happening on the flight deck and it was shocking,” Warner said. “When I got off the plane, I was the only person on deck in civilian clothes and one of only a few women.”
Gender roles in the workplace may seem passe, but it hasn’t been that long since aircraft carriers were exclusively a world of men.
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“Ten years ago, women were not permitted on an aircraft carrier,” Warner said. “Of 250 people in my squadron, we’re lucky if there are 20 women.”
Thrust into a dangerous job, Warner, 20, has made her mark in a short time. After her last deployment, she was awarded the Navy Achievement Medal, an honor usually reserved for enlisted Navy personnel of more senior rate.
“I’m the only E-3 airman in the history of my squadron to get one. This was a big deal,” Warner said. “I was so surprised to get this I almost cried.”
Warner received the distinction after a senior Marine petty officer critiqued her after she went through the pre-flight inspection she makes of her strike fighter jet prior to every takeoff. She explained each step she took to display her knowledge of the aircraft’s critical systems to the examiner. The result was a spotless report.
“She performed flawlessly, the daily inspection practical exam,” the chief petty officer wrote.
That’s pretty heady praise for a young woman whose only mechanical experience prior to enlisting in the Navy was re-painting her automobile after she cracked it up.
Warner found herself contemplating her future midway through her senior year in high school. She was interested in college but felt it was too late in the year to apply. Influenced by a classmate, she enlisted in the Navy in March and left Steamboat for basic training in September 2006.
“I was surprised by her decision at first,” said her father, former Routt County Sheriff John Warner. “We’ve enjoyed attending her graduations from basic training and mechanics school.”
Following basic, Justine Warner underwent five months of training as an aviation structural mechanic at Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida.
However, the Navy doesn’t anoint new mechanics until they have paid their dues – sometimes on the flight deck of a carrier like the Stennis.
Plane captains such as Warner work grueling shifts in a job that is inherently dangerous. And the workplace is chaotic. They are typically among the most junior personnel aboard ship, and they are given the heavy responsibility of ensuring the aircraft is safe for takeoff.
According to the Navy News Service, the plane captains – no matter what their rate, or rank, is – control the jet until they clear it for takeoff. First, the “brown shirts,” as they are known, check fluid levels and prepare the cockpit by removing safety pins on the ejection seat. They look for dangerous debris around the aircraft, among a long list of safety procedures. At every step of the way, they use hand signals to communicate with the two-person flight crew and let them know another system has passed inspection.
“The noise is ridiculous,” Warner said. “You learn to communicate with people using your hands, very well.”
Finally, just before launch, they remove six tie-down chains and hoist their 72 pounds onto their shoulders. It was at just such a time, when she was loaded down by the heavy chains, that Warner had her scariest moment aboard the U.S.S. Stennis. The ship rolled and the pilot in her aircraft was forced to compensate by powering up early. The jet blast caught her and blew her between the fuel tank and the fuselage of another jet. It was the tire of the jet that blocked her from being blown overboard.
“Safety is paramount. We’re told that all the time,” Warner said.
“The jet blast is the No. 1 danger. It’s strong, it’s hot and it will knock your butt to the ground really fast.”
Yet, her job routinely requires her to walk beneath the jet blast of her strike jet multiple times a day.
Warner clearly is devoted to her job, but also looks forward to being promoted to the role of aviation structural mechanic, where she would work on the hydraulic systems that control the movements of flight control panels and landing gears on planes.
Ultimately, she plans to use her Navy college benefits to continue her education.
Airman Warner will be in Steamboat Springs for another week before leaving for a pair of extended training stints. She ships out again with the Black Knight Squadron aboard the U.S.S. Stennis (CVN 74) in January 2009.
Anyone interested in discussing a naval career with Warner may reach her at (970) 819-0102.