Baltimore-area pilots rely on faith in God, planes, warship crew

Two academy graduates dodge Serbian missiles as they attack Yugoslavia

May 24, 1999|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

They grew up in suburban Baltimore and graduated a year apart at the U.S. Naval Academy, two midshipmen enduring a regimented life in the same huge stone dormitory. Now, they are warriors cloistered below deck on an aircraft carrier in the Adriatic Sea.

Praying.

For Chris and Aaron, fighter-bomber pilots on the carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, their first combat mission began on an early-April night in the closet-sized chaplain's office one level below the flight deck.

The senior pilots were the first chosen for combat, launching into the inky blackness and arcing toward targets in Yugoslavia. Chris and Aaron prayed aloud, reciting the names of each pilot.

"We prayed for their safety and whatever [missiles] came up from the ground they could see," Chris recalled in a phone interview from the Roosevelt last week. "We also prayed for their success."

For security reasons, the Navy would not allow their full names to be used. Chris, 27, a 1993 academy graduate, grew up in the Parkville area and graduated from Loch Raven High School. Aaron, 26, a 1994 academy graduate, was raised in Crownsville and went to Old Mill High School.

When the carrier arrived in the Adriatic in early April there was a mixture of emotions. "Anxious, excited and nervous," Chris said.

During grim briefings they were told about the dangers of the Yugoslav air defenses. The country was peppered with surface-to-air missiles, or SAMs, many of them mobile and difficult to detect unless their radar was turned on. With their well-honed tactics, the Serbs were far more formidable than their Iraqi counterparts.

When their turn came to roar off on their first combat mission, what was running through their minds?

Aaron admitted it wasn't the chance of being struck by a Serb SAM -- but the likelihood of having his picture taken.

A news photographer had been snapping away at his jet on the flight deck. Aaron waved -- just as the photographer turned and strolled away. "I was a little disappointed in that," he said dryly.

Concern for accuracy

Chris said he was more concerned his 800-pound missile properly homed in on a Serbian radar site and destroyed it. Although he had targeted with simulators many times on training runs in Nevada and Florida, he never fired.

Chris never found out if he was successful that night, because he fired the missile from miles away. It was the task of intelligence officials to find out.

Over the past two months they have made many flights, sometimes twice a day, into Yugoslavia, striking at command headquarters and airfields, surface-to-air missile sites and oil refineries. Now they are concentrating on the Serbian ground forces inside Kosovo, troop concentrations and tanks.

While Navy officials won't allow each pilot to detail the number of sorties he has flown, the estimated 70 aircraft on the Roosevelt -- including F-14 Tomcats and radar-jamming EA-6B Prowlers -- have flown 1,700 missions.

Flying night and day

Chris and Aaron fly their F/A-18 Hornets day and night, using night-vision goggles and an infrared detector to pinpoint targets that glow on a dashboard console. "It's one of our best ways to ID targets," said Chris.

Cloudy weather does not prevent the Hornets from taking out fixed military sites, such as parked aircraft or headquarters buildings, with 1,065-pound missiles guided to their targets by a global positioning system.

An Air Force radar-evading stealth plane was shot down early in the NATO campaign, supposedly by a Serbian missile, but none of the carrier's planes has been the victim of hostile fire. Still, the possibility is constantly discussed during preparations for their missions.

Inside the cockpit high above Kosovo, Aaron and Chris scan the landscape for a puff of smoke on the ground accompanied by a tiny flare, the tell-tale sign that a SAM has been launched. It looks like a miniature shuttle launch. "When you see the missile launch, it does scare you," Chris said. "They're unmistakable. You know exactly what they are."

The Hornet's sensor systems and its pilot's evasive action keep the 15-foot missiles at bay.

Both pilots said combat has been a combination of boredom and excitement. They prepare up to 10 hours for one flight. At times they can't locate their targets and return with their bombs.

And when they land with a jolt on the carrier deck, their day is not over. They brief the intelligence officials about what they hit and what tried to hit them. They are graded on their landings by signal officers.

"We debrief [the] maintenance [crew] on what worked and what didn't," said Aaron.

Sharing `the glory'

Sometimes they take a videotape of their airstrikes into the ready room, inviting some of the Roosevelt's unsung crew for a viewing, because the pilots get "all the glory," said Chris. "We're proud when we come back and accomplish our mission," he said.

Besides their own videos, they are able to keep up with the conflict by watching CNN on the carrier's many TV sets. They see the civilian deaths caused by errant missiles and bombs.

"I think we're all concerned with it, and we're conscious of it," said Aaron.

The pilots said they don't drop their bombs unless they can positively identify a target either visually or with radar. Chris said he doesn't know if the Roosevelt is responsible for any of the mistaken hits.

"There is no pressure on us to drop our bombs," he said. "There is pressure on us not to drop our bombs."

Both pilots are married, each the father of a 5-month-old son. Between bombing runs they keep in touch with their families by shipboard e-mail, an electronic morale boost that will have to suffice until September, when their cruise is to end.

When not bombing or e-mailing, Chris still clasps his hands and asks for success and safety. "I continue to pray a lot."

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