Carrier: world unto itself

Warfare: Flight squadrons and ship's company depend on each other to ensure safe, successful missions.

War On Terrorism

Military Response

October 28, 2001|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ABOARD THE USS CARL VINSON - Past midnight, no moon, no radio. Cmdr. Brian Reeves, the No. 2 officer in an aircraft squadron called VFA 94, the Mighty Shrikes, is searching for an aircraft carrier, a flat strip of steel, cruising the calm Arabian Sea.

Reeves is piloting an F/A-18 Hornet strike jet that is low on fuel, loaded with bombs and returning an hour late from a raid hundreds of miles to the north, in Afghanistan.

The night is steamy and close, as if he had been shoved blindfolded into a closet. There is no horizon to focus on. His two radios have unaccountably failed, and Reese has no way to communicate with his ship, the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson.

He flies the 30-mile approach 10 feet behind the wings of his wingman, who has swooped ahead to guide him to the carrier. They descend together at 170 mph, Reeves still tucked behind - 20 miles out, 15 miles, eight miles, signaling each other with flashlights.

Then the wingman sweeps left and heads back into the night. And Reeves flies on, alone, looking at his instruments - no moon, no radio - through the darkness to the ship's light. Down, down, down.

The air war in Afghanistan, which enters its fourth week today, is being fought by Navy pilots such as Reeves, an 18-year veteran, and squadrons such as the Mighty Shrikes, forged in the 1950s.

On television, it looks like a pushbutton war with video clips of airfields, tanks and barracks soundlessly destroyed by perfect weapons dropped by invisible planes. On the carrier the war is anxiety, heat, noise and imperfect weapons carried by fallible aircraft.

Jets catapult off the deck to race hundreds of miles north to Afghanistan, refuel in midair, bomb their targets, then charge back for a "controlled crash" - engines running at full throttle as the planes are either caught by giant cables or scramble off the deck for another attempt.

Two societies

The carrier is a self-contained world with two largely self-contained societies - the ship's company and the aircraft squadrons.

The ship's company numbers more than 3,000 men and women and remains with the carrier for years. It makes sure the millions of parts are melded into one: that the toilets work, the food is cooked, that the nuclear reactor is providing the power that gives the carrier life.

The aircraft squadrons are different. They train in separate locations and fly in for a six-month cruise. They include pilots, about 200 workers who arm, maintain and lavish thousands of hours of attention on the aircraft, and their own intelligence officers and administrative staff.

Eight squadrons composed of various aircraft make up the Vinson's air wing. An air wing strikes, defends, roots out submarines, provides early warning and destroys targets.

It's these squadrons that are carrying the fight to Afghanistan, squadrons such as VFA 94, the Mighty Shrikes, based in Lemoore, Calif. The V stands for Aviation, the FA for Fighter Attack.

Motto: "No Time for Losers." Colors: orange and black. Symbol: shrike bird wings with an elongated beak.

They fly Hornets, single-seaters in which the pilot seems to strap the plane to his back to fly off at up to 13 1/2 miles a minute. Some liken flying the jet to driving a high-speed, high-performance truck, equipped with laser-guided weapons.

"It's easy to fly," Reeves says, perhaps understating what it must be like to fly a 27,000-pound jet loaded with 15,000 pounds of fuel, thousands more pounds of bombs and traveling faster than the speed of sound.

That's Reeves' manner. He's calm and professorial, a native of the American West, 41 years old, his brush haircut revealing flecks of gray, accentuating a prominent nose and cheekbones. He speaks in a measured way, sentences building, information layered on bit by bit.

Becoming a pilot wasn't a lifelong dream for Reeves, more a burst of inspiration from seeing an ad for the Air Force while he was in college. He wanted to fly and went after it, officer candidate school, pilot's wings, handling different craft, becoming an instructor, rising in the ranks and, in March, being inserted as an executive officer of the squadron.

Home away from home

He loves the job, enjoys handling the Hornet, feeds off the friendships and shared experiences of training, and now digests the experience of going to war for the first time.

"I like the ready room atmosphere," he says. "I like the camaraderie. It's a great bunch of guys. Most are smart. Some are scary smart. Everyone comes from different places. Everyone has a different talent."

In the ready room where the squadron's 16 pilots hang out, just beneath the flight deck, they like to show off a picture of a real shrike, devouring a blood-stained rat. On the side of the photo is a vivid description of the scene: "A small but ferocious bird that impales its prey on thorns."

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