Airman Peter von Szilassy knows what it's like to be sucked toward the blades of a 66,200-pound propeller and survive.
He knows the terror of falling 90 feet from a flight deck and crashing flat on his back into the Arabian Sea.
And he knows one of the first things you do after surviving such horror is to pull out your shark repellant.
Von Szilassy, a 1999 graduate of Stafford High School, was blown off the side of the USS Theodore Roosevelt in December during the first deployment of his career.
Yesterday, while visiting his father's Argyle Heights home, the 20-year-old discussed his brush with death and his desire to become a Navy pilot.
Von Szilassy is an aviational instructional mechanic egress--someone who works on the cockpit of F-14 fighter jets. He was deployed with the 5,500-member crew of the USS Roosevelt that left Norfolk Sept. 19 and returned March 27.
The aircraft carrier was in the Arabian Sea Dec. 21 when von Szilassy took his plunge--an experience his colleagues later teased him about by writing "Arabian Sea High Dive Swim Team" on the back of his float coat.
Von Szilassy had taken a power cable beneath the starboard side of one of the F-14s and was coming out on the port side when he slipped on some hydraulic fluid.
He fell in front of the huffer--the unit that starts the jet engine--and was blown by its hot blast of air onto a chute used to discard jet bombs.
He dangled there briefly, trying to hold onto the cable and climb back up the side of the deck.
"I couldn't hang on. It was way too hot," von Szilassy said.
Falling backward, the last thing he saw were the eyes of a friend who had rushed to his aid. And then he had one thought: "I'm dead."
Instead, after hurtling into the water, he sank about 20 feet and slammed twice against the ship's side as the force of the propeller tried to pull him to his death.
The first strike turned him around. The second time, he used his legs to direct himself behind the ship and away from the blades that threatened to slice up his body.
"I pushed off as hard as I could and swam like a madman," von Szilassy recalled. "I don't know how I did it. I honestly don't."
After he worked free of the propeller's tug, he got a second jolt of its fury.
"It shot me back like a rocket," the airman said, describing the backlash behind the carrier.
But once there, von Szilassy knew he had survived.
He gave a two-thumbs-up signal to the men now looking desperately for him from the flight deck. And then he released his shark repellant and floated patiently as rescuers on a hovering helicopter prepared to retrieve him.
A sailor falling overboard isn't a common occurrence. But with more than 80 aircraft coming in and taking off, it's a recognized risk, said Lt. Patrick McNally, a Navy Department spokesman.
That's why there are precautions: helicopters standing by, a ship that trails the carrier and protective nets encircling the flight deck--except at the bomb chutes.
"I would have loved to have gone where the net was," von Szilassy said with a smile. "I would have been scratched and had broken bones but I wouldn't have cared."
Von Szilassy's plunge coincided with a visit from Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The airman said he didn't get in trouble for his mishap and didn't get to meet the general, but Myers called the next two days to check on his health.
Von Szilassy survived with little more than bruises and was back on duty the next day. He didn't, however, go back onto the flight deck for four days.
Von Szilassy said the experience hasn't dimmed his desire to get his college degree through the Navy and become a combat pilot.
He's gotten a glimpse of the career as he's helped prepare fighter jets for service and he's seen videos of the bombing runs carried out in retaliation for the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11.
He even got the chance to send a personal greeting from the folks back home.
On one of the bombs dropped in Afghanistan, von Szilassy wrote: "Dear bin Laden. This is for you from Fredericksburg."