Airstrike crews rack up record hours

By Andrew England

Associated Press

ABOARD THE USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT — The bombing campaign in Afghanistan has been a record-setting test of endurance for the crew on board this U.S. carrier, with fighter jets storming into the skies for up to nine hours a day.

Flying dozens of sorties each day, F-14B Tomcats and F/A-18C Hornet fighter jets have pounded Taliban and al-Qaida targets with about 1 million pounds of bombs since arriving in the northern Arabian Sea on Oct. 17, officials said.

The fighters are supported by four Whidbey Island-based EA-6B Prowlers, four E-2C Hawkeyes and six helicopters.

During other missions, such as Operation Desert Storm in 1991, the aircraft would not spend more than three hours flying.

"A year ago, if I had been told we would be flying as intensely as we are right now … I would have said it might have broken the bank," said Capt. Richard O’Hanlon, the Roosevelt’s commanding officer. "It’s been a test of endurance."

The sorties have been long because the carrier’s aircraft must fly hundreds of miles across Pakistan to their targets in Afghanistan.

The operation has strained people and equipment.

Pilots have been forced to get medical clearance to let them exceed the monthly limit of 65 hours of flight time.

In November, the ship’s VFA-82 "Marauders" flew 1,296 hours, a one-month record for a carrier-based F/A-18 Hornets squadron, said Lt. John Oliveira, the ship’s spokesman. It would normally be about 480 hours for the squadron’s 16 pilots.

The ship’s three other fighter squadrons are flying similar hours to the Marauders.

Cmdr. Roy Kelley, of the VF-102 "Diamondbacks" Squadron, who has flown an average of 90 hours per month, said the task initially looked overwhelming. But, he added, as people got into a routine and early glitches were ironed out, the operation has been largely trouble-free.

"It took us about a week to say we have to change the way we are doing business," said Kelley, who is originally from Newark, Ohio. "The biggest fear has been complacency because the air crew know the country (Afghanistan) so well. … You have to realize people down there are trying to shoot you, trying to kill you and it’s not a training exercise."

The Diamondbacks’ 10 Tomcats flew a record 1,182 hours in November, Kelley said.

Also supporting the fighters are the flying tankers, the S-3B Vikings "Maulers" Squadron, which has pumped more than 3.4 million pounds of jet fuel in aerial refueling operations since the Roosevelt left its home port of Norfolk, Va., on Sept. 19, Oliveira said.

In contrast, the eight-plane squadron pumped 2 million pounds of fuel during the entire six months of its last cruise.

In the carrier’s hectic hangar, maintenance teams have faced 30 to 40 percent more work than unusual as aircraft parts that have never broken fail under the stress.

"It’s been an increased management challenge because of the quantity of work. We’ve been constantly on our toes," said Master Chief David Kennon, adding that he had not experienced such intensity in 26 years in the Navy.

Since Sept. 19, the maintenance teams have needed five new Hornet engines at $1 million each, and two Tomcat engines at $2 million each, said Kennon.

The parts are flown to the carrier from the United States, and the supply line getting the spares onto the Roosevelt has been crucial to enable the fighters to help pummel the Taliban and al-Qaida into submission, Kennon said.

U.S. Navy

Copyright ©2001 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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