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Amid calm seas and bright blue skies in the Gulf of Oman, just off the coast of Pakistan, the nuclear-powered, Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan cruises along at 30 knots. To the stern, the Reagan's four screws churn a wide, white-watered wake as the rest of Carrier Strike Group 7 follows on the distant horizon. The most advanced instrument of war in the U.S. Navy is, for the moment, a picture of placidity this idyllic September morning.

But the tranquility of it all is shattered with the first deep roar of an F/A-18E Super Hornet warming to life for the day's first cycle of flight operations, a powerful reminder of both the region's volatility and the gravity of the Reagan's mission. Soon the glassy waters of the gulf belie the wartime mayhem just 60 feet above.

The deck becomes a blur of organized chaos as $40 million fighter jets accelerate to 165 miles per hour in 2.5 seconds over 300 feet with the aid of steam catapults. By now, the Reagan has turned into the wind to help these warplanes gain loft as they take off, each bound for Afghanistan. And by day's end, more than 60 sorties, or missions, will have been flown by the most modern and lethal maritime air wing in the U.S. Navy.

The Reagan, whose motto is "Peace Through Strength," is effectively a mobile war zone when under way, and muscle & fitness lensman Ian Spanier and I are right in the middle of it. Watching the calculated calamity unfold, it becomes apparent why the crew of nearly 4,300 considers a commitment to physical excellence as central to its mission. In this fast-paced, high-stakes environment far from the comforts of terra firma, there exists no margin for error and even less room for excuses.

The Reagan is a floating marvel of military might and, as we learn firsthand, its strength is eclipsed only by its crew's commitment to the same.


This is what Armageddon will look like, I think as I peer at the dimmed, sand-obscured sun above Manama, Bahrain, as U.S. Navy 5th Fleet Public Affairs Officer Lt. Stephanie Murdock drives us to the airfield. Ian and I had already booked a full day of travel -- I arrived from Los Angeles, Ian from New York, both of us via London -- so my enthusiasm for today's two-segment, 3 1/2-hour ride out to the Reagan for a story on how the crew keeps fit at sea has long since diminished.

The C-2A Greyhound is the Navy's only carrier on-board delivery (COD) aircraft. It's designed to transport high-priority cargo and passengers to and from aircraft carriers, and we're on the next one out. After placing what I'm certain is the world's least comfortable helmet over my head, Ian and I walk across the runway, single file, with about 10 other passengers. We head up the COD's cargo ramp into the cramped, stuffy fuselage and grab a seat, all of which are -- distressingly -- facing backward.

There's a reason the Greyhound isn't part of the Virgin Atlantic fleet: It may just be the least luxurious mode of flight since Jean-Marie Le Bris's horse-pulled glider made headlines in the 1850s. The four-point harness buries you in your seat and there are only two small windows, neither of which is in my row. After a brief lecture, including instructions on how to ditch safely, the mouth of the cargo hold slowly closes. As we grab some lift from the runway in Manama, the cabin still retaining some of the 108-degree F heat from the tarmac, I drift off to sleep.