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Navy's classroom

Michelle "Rogue" Zundel's C-2 Greyhound touched down on the landing deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln about 100 miles off the Southern California coast Tuesday morning.

Zundel, principle of Ashland High School, was invited aboard the aircraft supercarrier through the Navy's Distinguished Visitors Program, allowing her a rare opportunity to tour and stay overnight on the ship.

Her "ticket in" came from Navy officers: Capt. Kevin Meenaghan, Lt. Dan Metz and Petty Officer 2nd Class Greg Amorelli, who are sailors aboard the Lincoln and graduates of AHS. "It was like visiting a completely different culture or new country," said Zundel, who picked up the nickname "Rogue" during her stay on the ship. "I consider myself so fortunate. "… They don't let many civilians board their carriers or any of the vessels, so to be invited into that sort of thing was just incredible."

Sailing from its home port in Everett, Wash., the Lincoln stopped in San Diego for a few days to re-certify about 140 fighter pilots, as it prepared for a six-month deployment to support the war in Afghanistan.

"It was an amazing display," said Zundel. "Into the wee hours of the night they were running fighters probably every three minutes."

To land on the 1,092-foot carrier, pilots must drop a tail hook from their jets — like landing gear — to snag one of four drag lines stretched across the short runway, or they will have too much speed to land.

Once hooked, the hydraulically controlled drag lines reduce an aircraft's speed from about 105 mph to zero mph in 2 seconds.

"It's so choreographed to watch "… everyone has a job and they know how to do it, and that's all they do. It's just impressive," Zundel said. "And it's a very dangerous place to be. "… I remember them telling me 'If somebody grabs you on the flight deck, don't fight them, go with them, because they probably just saved your life.' "

To take off from the ship, a steam-powered shuttle below the deck catapults an aircraft from a standstill to about 130 mph in three seconds.

"You are lifted out of your seat and your feet come off the floor, and the only thing holding you in is the harness," said Zundel. "It was better than any Disney Land ride that I have ever done."

The Lincoln has the capacity to carry 90 aircraft, storing most below its deck in a massive hanger. Four large elevators are used to lower and raise the aircraft to and from the hanger.

The ship returned from its latest deployment in the U.S. Fifth Fleet area of responsibility, which covers the entire Persian Gulf, last March. There it supported operations New Dawn in Iraq and Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. Operation New Dawn is the operation in Iraq that began the U.S. troop withdrawal, which ended Wednesday.

The Lincoln also is the ship that former U.S. President George W. Bush landed a fighter jet on in 2003 to deliver his famous "Mission Accomplished" speech, heralding the end of major combat operations in Iraq.

A part of Carrier Strike Group 9, the Lincoln is heading to Hawaii, then Guam, with a stop in Thailand, before it drops anchor again somewhere in the Persian Gulf. It will return to the U.S. in May.

"The sacrifices they make are extraordinary ... they are gone, stuck on a crowded ship for most of the year," Zundel said. "We civilians have a pretty cozy life on shore."

In addition to being a captain, Meenaghan also is a EA-6B pilot and spent most of his career in the Pacific Northwest, at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Wash.

EA-6B Prowlers are used primarily for intelligence gathering and disrupting enemy radars.

A 1982 AHS graduate and 26-year Navy veteran, Meenaghan is responsible for all aspects of planning and operations for the strike group's eight ships.

"Life in the Navy," said Meenaghan, in an email he sent from the Lincoln. "I do it because this job allows me to make a difference for our country and our world. "… It is extremely rewarding."

Ashland native Lt. Dan Metz didn't join the Navy immediately after his 1991 AHS graduation. After getting his degree from Willamette University, he worked in the Mail Tribune advertising department for two years, then in advertising and public relations until 2001 in Portland.

As an aviation supply officer, Metz supports the nine aircraft squadrons embarked on Lincoln with the repair parts, supplies and logistics they need to maintain mission-capable aircraft in support of Operation New Dawn and Enduring Freedom.

Metz has plans to earn a master's degree in business administration when the Lincoln returns from deployment.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Greg Amorelli, a 1996 graduate of AHS, is a search and rescue swimmer with one of Lincoln's helicopter squadrons. For safety reasons, whenever there are aircraft flying from the deck of the Lincoln, rescue helicopters always are the first to take off from the ship and last to come back.

Both Metz and Amorelli attended Willamette University; Metz graduated in 1995 with a degree in English and political science, and Amorelli in 2000 with an art degree. Both were in the Kappa Sigma fraternity.

Zundel said she had the opportunity to visit with each of the AHS alumni and many of the other sailors during her stay. "I'll never forget those experiences," she said.

Zundel said she asked Amorelli about the weirdest thing he has ever seen while sailing, and he told her about bio-luminescent fish in the Persian Gulf that make the entire side of the ship glow. "And despite what you may think, they are not allowed to fish from the boats in the Navy," Zundel said.

Reach reporter Sam Wheeler at 541-499-1470 or email swheeler@dailytidings.com.