Strikes bring sense of relief to carrier

Crew welcomes action after weeks of preparation

War On Terrorism

Military Response

October 09, 2001|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ABOARD THE USS CARL VINSON - Wing commander T.C. Bennett succinctly described his job yesterday as he held court in the war room of this nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in full roar during a second day at war. "I own all the planes," he said.

Bennett's planes were busy as the USS Carl Vinson unleashed its firepower, adding daylight raids to the nighttime action over Afghanistan. From 30 missions Sunday, all under cover of darkness, the workload increased yesterday to 50 missions, Bennett said.

Strike craft took off in the sun and searing heat of the day and again in the evening, making the 1,200- to 1,400-mile round trip from the North Arabian Sea, over Pakistan, to targets in Afghanistan and back.

After waiting for weeks, preparing relentlessly and trying to come to grips with the terrorist attacks in the United States on Sept. 11, there was a palpable sense of relief and mission. "When you are getting called to action initially you'll have a bit of apprehension that is quickly taken over by excitement and the thrill to be able to serve your country and do what you've been trained to do," said Bennett, a captain.

That buzz passed through the crew even as sailors went about routines ranging from posting letters home to shopping in the ship's store. It wasn't as if everyone was itching for a fight, but people want to win decisively. "Everyone recognizes this is not a finale," said a chief engineer known as Hydro. "There is not a sense of `we've done it.' It's that we've started it."

The pilots follow the lead of mild-mannered Bennett. The 24-year Navy veteran wears glasses and looks no more ferocious than a Midwestern businessmen. He oversees more than 200 aviators in an air wing composed of 64 airplanes and eight helicopters.

"I love each and every one of the people under my command," he said. "It's a hard thing to order someone into combat. It's something that weighs very heavy into your heart. But you know that this is our course. This is our destiny. We do what the commander in chief tells us to do, and we do it willingly."

Bennett flew an F/A-18 Hornet in the second mission to Afghanistan on Sunday night. The first bombs were being dropped by the United States against the terrorist network headed by Osama bin Laden, the suspected mastermind of the terrorist attacks.

"You brief a mission, and then you have about a 30-minute period of time before you actually take off from the carrier," Bennett said. "During that period of time you don't know whether to run around, sit down, relax, breathe, pray. You don't know what to do. I think everybody does a little bit of everything. But once you strap the aircraft on and come to full power on the catapult, it's a very focused, very determined mission."

"You take off and do it exactly as we briefed it. It's like a dance out there. We choreograph a way to do the business to get in and out as quickly and as effectively as possible."

He said his target was a command-and-control facility at Kandahar air base and said his mission was successful, 10 hits with 1,000- and 2,000-pound guided bombs.

How did Kandahar look, and were the strikers expected?

"Dark and no lights," Bennett said. "They sure didn't bake us a cake."

Even from the air, Afghanistan seemed a forbidding place. Ask Lieutenant Commander Beacon and Lieutenant Pooh, code names for two members of the "Warhawks" squadron, who flew Hornets yesterday to protect other aircraft. Their mission lasted six-and-a-half hours.

"Very desolate, very extreme," Pooh said of the harsh Afghan landscape. "Normally, land masses have color and look unique. Everything is just brown. There are severe cliffs, mountains and desert. And it all seems the same color."

"Looks like part of the American West," Beacon said.

"I don't think we fear the Taliban military in them being able to target us," Bennett said. "The fear for most pilots is that you're flying your multi-million dollar machine up there, and you just hope it holds together."

"When you do it, you do it well," Beacon said of going to war. "There is nothing to gloat about. War is a terrible thing. It's the last resort. People die - good and bad."

The pilots do their jobs with deliberation. They go through the preparations not knowing whether a mission will take place or be canceled by the flight deck. A lieutenant from VFA94, a squadron nicknamed the "Mighty Shrikes," came to the ready room, a comfortable space with 22 seats, two television sets, a white message board and Halloween decorations on the wall.

"The only other thing I need to do is check my pistol out," the lieutenant said, placing it in his flight bag. He headed down a long corridor, walked through open hatches and turned left into the paraloft, a room where fliers suit up.

"Did you watch any of the launches last night. Did you see that?" he asked, slipping into his flight uniform, survival vest and G-suit. "This is quite a routine to get all the right stuff in the right place."

Another pilot chimed in, "This is half the battle, just getting in your gear." The gear includes a helmet, protective night-vision goggles, flashlight and ear plugs. But all the equipment in the world can't mask the confidence of the pilots. "I'm off to the races," a pilot preparing for a mission said to no one in particular. "Time to get some soon."

The last stop before the flight deck was the maintenance desk to review the plane's maintenance record.

The pre-flight check on deck was a moment of calm amid noise, heat and the scent of fuel and steam. The pilot gently touched the skin of his Hornet, prodded the nose and peered into the air intake. "There's always a natural excitement," the lieutenant said. "That goes on. That's a healthy thing."

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