Carrier's airborne `gas guys' keep fighters over Afghanistan

Former sub-hunters now refuel strike jets at 170 miles per hour

War On Terrorism

The World

November 01, 2001|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ABOARD THE USS CARL VINSON - Their jets sound like souped-up vacuum cleaners and their mission is as unglamorous as it is important. They are the VS-29 Dragonfires, the gas guys who fill up the bombers so they can make their runs to Afghanistan.

The gas guys fly 25-year-old S-3B Viking jets, part of a string of airborne "gas stations" that are the New Jersey Turnpike rest stops of the sky for the bombers taking off here in the Arabian Sea.

They can be found walking around a pilot ready-room waving a water pistol, offering Halloween candy to a visitor or wearing a Norse helmet and blond locks as they prepare for a catapult off an aircraft carrier.

Without the gas guys operating from the Vinson and other places across the region, the United States would have a hard time sustaining an air war hundreds of miles away in Afghanistan.

"We're like the Eveready bunny: We keep going and going and going," says Cmdr. Bruce Lindsey, who leads tanker squadron VS-29 on the Vinson.

Lindsey's squad is easy to spot. Their stubby, four-seater S-3B Viking jets have a dragon breathing yellow fire on the tail and a "Need gas?" sign on the tanks.

"They call us `Hoovers,' because we sound like a Hoover vacuum cleaner," Lindsey says. "They call us the `War Hoovers' or `Dragons.'"

The gas guys pilot the first jets off the flight deck in the morning. They're the last to return at night. During their 2 1/2 -hour missions, they circle, wait and ferry, refueling other jets that often travel in pairs.

Strike jets such as the F/A-18 Hornets and F-14 Tomcats have all the gadgetry and firepower, but they couldn't do without the slow and steady tankers like the Vikings and the dogged crews who fly them, maintaining and patching together aircraft built in another age for a different purpose.

Lindsey calls the current mission "not glorious but necessary."

Rear Adm. Thomas E. Zelibor, commander of the Vinson carrier group, agrees. The other day, he joined a tanker crew for its mission, sitting in the No. 2 seat next to the pilot while two jets refueled.

"I think some of the biggest unsung heroes here are the S-3 folks," Zelibor says. "We're flying very long missions, and fuel becomes a critical part of that. Those guys ... may have five or six of their airplanes up there at one time doing front-end tanking for a lot of our strike aircraft, so that we reduce the amount of strain we're putting on all the strategic tanking. They just keep on charging."

The ship's eight S-3B jets may be old, but they're still reliable after hours of hard work put in by maintenance crews. The jets are averaging 2 1/2 missions per day, about double the other aircraft on the ship. When the planes sit, that's when the problems start.

"I think our jets talk with each other," says Isaac Sampson of Baltimore, who is on the maintenance team. "The more the jets fly, the better they work."

In the old days, the S-3B was on the Cold War's front line searching for Soviet subs. Later, the jet was transformed from use for anti-submarine warfare into a tanker to refuel faster fighters. It's a shift that Lindsey has experienced first-hand. The 1982 U.S. Naval Academy graduate came to the region 15 years ago to hunt Soviet subs in the Indian Ocean as U.S. forces launched a raid against Libya. Now he has returned to the Arabian Sea for the air war on Afghanistan.

"It's like a roadway up there," Lindsey says of the current mission that sees American jets engage in missions akin to flying round-trip from Los Angeles to Denver.

The strike jets guzzle fuel at up to 5,000 pounds an hour on sorties of 1,200 miles or more. Imagine a pit stop at the Indy 500, only they're fueling jet to jet, usually less than 20 feet apart, at around 170 miles per hour. A "basket" floats back from the tanker plane, and it's up to the pilot of the strike jet to get into position to insert a probe into the basket to take on fuel.

It takes five minutes for a 4,000-pound fill-up of JP-5 fuel. The amount of fuel being consumed by aircraft from just one carrier, the Vinson, during this war is breathtaking - around 3 million gallons since the start of the air war Oct. 7.

To get strike jets operating off the Vinson to Afghanistan and back, the military has essentially set up a string of refueling points, using the S-3B Vikings near the carrier, and larger, land-based KC-10 and KC-135 Air Force tankers inland. A similar system is used for the other carrier in the region, the USS Theodore Roosevelt.

"We call it a bucket brigade," says Admiral Zelibor. "You have tankers at the beginning point to ensure our aircraft have what they need to get to the strategic tankers, the big-winged tankers."

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