Launching of airstrikes a display of precision

Navy: Crew aboard USS Carl Vinson were calm as they prepared for the carefully planned mission, but tension grew as attacks became imminent.

War On Terrorism

The World

October 08, 2001|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ABOARD THE USS CARL VINSON - The night was humid when the white hot afterburners from lethal strike planes lit the starry sky above the North Arabian Sea.

It was a night when a ground crew glowed in the dark with protective clothing and worked hour after hour, preparing bombers, resetting catapults, marching back and forth across a 4 1/2 -acre piece of steel real estate as an aerial armada was assembled and launched.

And it was a night that the USS Carl Vinson joined a global war against terrorism, launching strikes against Afghanistan from a ship nearly as long as the Empire State Building is tall.

This was part payback for the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the United States that were allegedly masterminded by Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida network, and part stunning display of U.S. naval precision.

It began after dusk, a few minutes after the horizon was lit by a glow from a volley of Tomahawk missiles shot off from the destroyer John Paul Jones.

And then, at 6:30 p.m., a long gray line of more than 20 refueling tankers, long-range surveillance craft and strikers were catapulted from the deck.

Included in the wave were six F/A-18 Hornets and four F-14 Tomcats - attack planes that were laden with bombs.

Sailors pumped their fists on the flight deck. But for the most part this was a sober exercise, carefully planned and executed.

The aircraft, racing hundreds of miles to their targets in Afghanistan, needed four hours to complete their mission.

"To me, tonight was about giving America back the confidence," said Biff, the commanding officer of Fighter Squadron 213.

The pilot, who comes from Cocoa Beach, Fla., cannot be fully identified under Department of Defense rules because of security concerns. But his squadron can be named: the Fighting Black Lions.

Within an hour of returning from his 1,300- to 1,400-mile round-trip flight, he and his co-pilot, Paul, spoke about the mission over Kabul, the Afghan capital.

They had shared an F-14 Tomcat and now shared their thoughts about the night:

After their Tomahawks were fired, the pilots said, the plane came under attack from anti-aircraft and surface-to-air missiles. "Like sitting in the tree having a kid shoot bottle rockets at you," Biff said.

View from above

From the air, the pilots saw a striking landscape, shorn of people in the heart of Kabul.

"We've done a lot of study of the area," Biff said. "We were on night vision goggle devices. You pick up illumination of the city and the area.

"You read about the dispersal of the refugees. They haven't gone that far."

The dark-haired, square-jawed pilot said avoiding civilian casualties was important.

"There were a number of targets that were pulled off the list due to collateral damage estimates," he said.

"You see, the initial start of this campaign was all aimed at their hardware. People were not purposely targeted tonight."

And then, to get home, the plane needed to be refueled for apparently a second time.

They did not say if this was according to plan, just that they needed fuel.

"We had a lot to think about," said Paul, the co-pilot, who heard about the birth of his son only two days ago.

"We were 2 1/2 hours from recovering" - reaching the Carl Vinson - "and we were low on gas."

`Tip of the sword'

Preparations for the mission were calm and determined, the floating city busy with activity.

Planes were readied. Pilots received their final instructions. Final approval for mission arrived a few hours before the strikes began.

"It's interesting to be at the tip of the sword," a senior officer said hours before the attack took place.

The Carl Vinson has been deployed since July and was in the Indian Ocean when the terrorist attacks took place in the United States.

The carrier then traveled closer to the region and was one of at least two carrier groups operating in the Arabian Sea.

Activity increased during the day, especially in the tower, where Brian of Perry Hall, known around here as Mini Boss, was working with Ed, known as Air Boss, an air department officer.

Like choreographers at a ballet, they directed the aircraft as the build up continued during late afternoon.

"You've got 70 high-performance airplanes from 4 1/2 acres of steel with 19- and 20-year-olds running the show," Brian said.

"That's what makes it so spectacular."

Tension grew as it became clearer that an attack was imminent.

"This is like being in the Chicago trading pits, only we don't get paid as much," Ed said.

Before leading his pilots, Biff delivered a strong message, telling them, "This is an historic event. This will go down in history. This event will be remembered for a long time."

Carefully planned

The Sept. 11 attacks in America have clearly affected the ship's crew.

"We took the time, God knows," Biff said. "The immediate reaction was like, `Hey, we thought it was going to be quick.'

"We took the time, thought it out. I think you'll see a well-thought out execution campaign. It wasn't a knee-jerk reaction like some of the people probably expected."

Calm commander

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