Hit the Deck! Four Wheelin’ on the USS Hornet

Categories: Gatherings 

Story and photos by Phillip Thomas

After ducking our noggins through the low-hanging bulkheads and nests of pipes of the Essex-class aircraft carrier USS Hornet, the open top of our Jeep® Gladiator was a welcome treat. Unlike anything else out there with a truck bed, the Gladiator has a removable roof, which gave us a wide-open view of Oakland to our right and San Francisco to the left from the deck of the USS Hornet.

jeep vehicles and aircrafts on an aircraft carrier

The Jeep® Brand was here to celebrate the Hornet’s role in humankind’s chase for the moon. Culminating with a trio of intrepid fighter pilots strapping themselves atop a 363-foot-tall cocktail of kerosene and liquid oxygen to be hurtled at the lunar surface some quarter-million miles away, the Apollo missions were as dramatic as they were inspiring to watch unfold. And the USS Hornet was home to the Apollo 11 and 12 veterans for their first weeks back on Earth after being plucked out of the ocean.

The specially built obstacle course began with a 30-foot climb that thrilled the event’s many guests with a view like an astronaut’s being shot off the launch pad — nothing but sky! As the nose of the Gladiator crested the climb, its hill descent control took over the brakes to bring us down in a slow crawl.

Without having to worry about rolling off the deck, we came down the first obstacle with our next challenge just ahead: the articulation ramps. A series of off-set ramps made the front and rear axles do a kind of four-wheel yoga, and the Gladiator teetered a little bit. “Remember this,” our expert driver told us. “We’ll come back around with the sway bars disconnected.” The Jeep® Brand’s industry-exclusive sway bar disconnects give their toughest 4x4s solid footing on pavement while also providing the necessary articulation to tip-toe over off-road axle-twisters without a single gripe.

jeep gladiator driving on a course

The next hill-climb through a quick rock garden showed off our Rubicon-trimmed Gladiator’s 11.1 inches of ground clearance as it quickly stormed through the pipes, shattered cinder blocks and began tackling the final challenge. While it looks innocent from afar, the 27-degree bank of the final turn means that the passenger window was completely filled by the weathered boards of the Hornet’s massive deck, while the driver’s side rose three feet higher. While it felt like one strong wave could rock us onto our roof, the Gladiator calmly dropped back to level as easily as it’d roll out of your driveway.

The USS Hornet welcomed both historic Jeep® 4x4s and military-themed Jeep® concept vehicles to hang out alongside its regular collection of historic aircraft and Apollo artifacts during the July 26-28 event. Surrounded by F-86 Saber fighter jets and T-28 Trojan warplanes, the iconic flat-fendered Jeep® 4x4s looked right at home on the Hornet’s deck — and there were still what felt like miles of hallways and compartments to explore below it.

The USS Hornet was active in the WWII offense before suffering major typhoon damage that pulled it out of the theater of war just before the Japanese surrendered the Pacific shores it fought for. It returned to duty for both the Korean and Vietnam wars before performing what may be its most memorable role: recovering Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin (better known as Buzz) Aldrin Jr. after their smooth jaunt to and from the moon. After the astronauts were pulled from the Pacific by helicopter, they were returned to quarantine with the Apollo capsule. Because of concerns about bringing unkillable bacteria or disease back from the moon, the trio was locked in a modified Airstream travel trailer for three weeks as scientists determined that there was little-to-no risk in reintroducing the astronauts into Earth’s environment.

military jeep vehicle

Ultimately, humankind survived all six of its trips on lunar soil despite a multitude of challenges and sacrifices with every step. Both the deck-top thrill ride and the chance to wander the USS Hornet Sea, Air & Space Museum during the Jeep® Brand’s Heroes Drive Event were great ways to remember and honor the Apollo 11 anniversary and the grand tradition of U.S. space exploration.

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