Despite training, real war is different

Navy flight crews get first taste of combat in sorties to Afghanistan

`Gets your heart racing'

War On Terrorism : The World

October 11, 2001|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ABOARD THE USS CARL VINSON - Twenty-two years in the Navy and Monday was his first combat mission, the one where he packed a pistol and a peanut butter sandwich, and flew off a carrier deck in the Arabian Sea and on to Afghanistan.

His country might own the skies above a foreign land but the Navy captain, first name Chuck, admitted that this was different, unlike training. He was fully loaded with live bombs now, heading north over Pakistan and into the night.

"The tension," he said later. "The tension. The great big unknown. You can train for it all you want."

And then comes reality.

The moon had not yet risen when the captain and his F-14 Tomcat streaked into Afghanistan with another Tomcat. Below them was the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar and an airbase with two juicy targets, a pair of old Soviet-era MiG 21 jets, parked in the open.

The American pilots locked on to their targets simultaneously, the captain said, blasting the MiGs with 500-pound laser-guided bombs.

"Remember when you watch the movies and you see the explosions that they have with the big fireballs and smoke coming up?" he said. "It looked kind of like that. It was pretty wild."

Four days into America's war against global terrorism and another generation of pilots like Chuck has gained its first taste of combat experience.

Yesterday, the captain, 44, talked about it all, sitting in an office, his voice calm and measured, flecks of gray in his hair.

After flying a second straight mission Tuesday night, he hadn't flown last night, he said, because others needed the experience.

Of the 101 pilots on the ship, he said, only 10 or 15 had combat experience before the current conflict. The others wanted to get their experience before the enemy got too much of his.

"The first time you go on a combat mission and you get shot at, it's a real eye-opener, and we want to make sure that everybody that has potential for flying a combat mission and getting shot at gets that done before the other guy gets real smart," he said. "We want to protect our guys."

The captain has trained half his life to get to this one moment.

Growing up, he said, all he wanted to be was a jet pilot.

He is now the deputy wing commander of Carrier Air Wing 11. He wears the wing's patch, a black background, white star and a pair of dice that hit lucky 11.

He's like a lot of pilots on this ship, easygoing yet confident, serious and focused. It's a feeling that permeates the pilot's ready room, where the pistols are checked, the missions gone over.

Pilots preparing for their flights have a serious look about them, eyes filled with intensity. The ones returning from missions have their oxygen masks dangling just off their shoulders, their faces flecked with sweat.

What's it like to fly the high-powered attack jets? Well, it sure isn't like a commercial flight.

"It's about a million times more difficult to do a flight for five hours with a load of bombs, come back and have to land on a runway that's only 500 feet long. I sort of take this for granted now," said a lieutenant from Seattle.

And what's it like to get shot at? Just ask a 28-year-old lieutenant named Ken from Oak Harbor, Wash., after he encountered anti-aircraft artillery on a recent mission.

"I was eating Twizzlers when the 57mm started coming," he said. "I've been peppered before hunting pheasant, but that doesn't really compare to getting shot at. It was surreal."

For the captain named Chuck, encountering the peppering that the pilots call Triple-A - anti-aircraft artillery - was an unnerving experience.

"The first time you look down and see the Triple-A coming up at you, it really gets your heart racing," he said. "But then you realize, hey, they don't have my name on it so it's going to be all right."

He ignored the anti-aircraft barrage and, along with the radar intercept officer who sits in the back seat of the Tomcat, pressed on to the target.

There's no telling why the MiGs were parked on the ground. But whatever the Taliban had for an air force, at least eight of them have been struck by jets from this carrier, the captain said.

"Maybe they were going to fly them," he said. "I don't know what the Taliban air force is thinking these days. They were there and we took care of them."

What if the MiGs were airborne?

"Let's put it this way - we would have liked to have seen them airborne because it would have been a professional satisfaction to have shot one down in the air," he said.

"But they weren't in the air. Blow 'em up on the ground, blow 'em up in the air - that's the way it goes."

On the return home, the captain and the radar intercept officer began to talk.

"Well, got that one over with," the captain said, recalling the tone of the conversation.

"It was kind of OK, we've crossed that bridge. Now we have to go back and tank [refuel], so let's refocus on getting that airplane set up to tank and get our gas.

"And then coming home, when we got back into the Pakistani airspace and started working back out toward the water and that little adrenaline surge of, `OK, we're back over good guy land.' And we're on our way back to the ship. Kind of relaxed for a while. We didn't really joke around too much."

The captain ate his peanut butter sandwich. The radar intercept officer was fighting with a cockroach that had somehow slipped into the cockpit, probably a stowaway in a box when the carrier was resupplied.

So there were three combat veterans in the cockpit: the two-man crew and the cockroach.

"Not anymore," the captain said. "He's a dead cockroach."

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