Pilots learn the art of war on the job

By Megan Stack

Los Angeles Times

ABOARD THE USS CARL VINSON – Awesome in its monotony, the Afghan countryside spreads beneath the bellies of the jets: A brown, barren wash, scored by infrequent roads, skinny rivers and irrigation ditches. The pilots have stared at this landscape for hours. They cross mountain ranges with trepidation, scan fields for airports, planes and military bases.

“It’s moonlike,” said a Navy pilot, 29, from Gaithersburg, Md. He calls himself Buzz. “The lack of vegetation is absolutely amazing. I’ve never seen land like this.”

On Saturday afternoon, the pilots came upon their target: the rooftops of an Afghan military airport, flanked by a cluster of parked aircraft. There wasn’t much time to look.

The jets dropped their load: 1,000-pound bombs, guided by lasers. Towers of black smoke erupted from the earth as they hit. The U.S. planes turned tail and sped south over Pakistan to the sea, to the deck of the aircraft carrier that Buzz calls home.

It has been a week since the bombing began. Aboard the USS Carl Vinson, a massive maze of bunkrooms, repair shops and stepladders, the sailors and pilots are getting used to war. When they set sail from Bremerton, the Navy men and women planned to be at sea until mid-January. These days, nobody’s thinking that far ahead.

“It’s going to be a long, drawn-out affair. We’re pretty much settled in now,” said Capt. T.C. Bennett, who commands the ship’s 101 pilots. “When we first started out it was, ‘Do three days of this, four days of that.’ I don’t know about these phases anymore.”

On Friday, while the Muslim world observed a wary, quiet day of prayer, the United States let up on its bombing raids. On the Vinson, it was a chance to nap, to run practice flights and to nibble on fresh strawberries and kiwi flown in by cargo plane. It had been weeks since the sailors last tasted fresh fruit.

But when day broke Saturday, it was back to the air. From noon to midnight, the dull thud of the flight deck’s catapult sent quivers through the ship. Jets shuddered off the deck, headed for Afghan skies. They soared back hours later. In all, three teams of planes – with from two to 12 planes on each team – took off from the carrier on missions Saturday.

It’s a daunting assignment. The round-trip flight can last a grueling seven hours. The pilots are jetting farther and longer than they’ve ever flown before, cramped into a one-seat plane. The cockpit is sweltering before takeoff and frigid aloft.

Until the strikes began last week, a 34-year-old pilot who calls himself Edge had spent just two hours at a time in the F/A-18 Hornet. “I wouldn’t say it’s getting easier, but I would say I’m getting a little more accustomed to it,” he said. “If you’ve never flown that long, it’s foreign.”

Even the flight path to Afghanistan, which cuts through Pakistani airspace, presents a tricky negotiation, given the delicate nature of the coalition supporting the anti-terrorism campaign.

A week into the strikes, on a flight deck where the average age of a crew member is 20, the strain is showing. Still, as the planes winged home Saturday night, quiet settled over the Vinson. A young man stooped in the yellow lights of the hangar, alone, practicing scales on his trombone. Down a corridor, a woman sawed a jig from an accordion.

It was the Navy’s 226th birthday.

Talk to us

More in Local News

Cars move across Edgewater Bridge toward Everett on Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2023, in Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Edgewater Bridge redo linking Everett, Mukilteo delayed until mid-2024

The project, now with an estimated cost of $27 million, will detour West Mukilteo Boulevard foot and car traffic for a year.

Lynn Deeken, the Dean of Arts, Learning Resources & Pathways at EvCC, addresses a large gathering during the ribbon cutting ceremony of the new Cascade Learning Center on Thursday, Sept. 28, 2023, at Everett Community College in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
New EvCC learning resource center opens to students, public

Planners of the Everett Community College building hope it will encourage students to use on-campus tutoring resources.

Everett Police Chief Dan Templeman announces his retirement after 31 years of service at the Everett City Council meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Everett police chief to retire at the end of October

Chief Dan Templeman announced his retirement at Wednesday’s City Council meeting. He has been chief for nine years.

Boeing employees watch the KC-46 Pegasus delivery event  from the air stairs at Boeing on Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019 in Everett, Wa. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
Boeing’s iconic Everett factory tour to resume in October

After a three-year hiatus, tours of the Boeing Company’s enormous jet assembly plant are back at Paine Field.

A memorial for a 15-year-old shot and killed last week is set up at a bus stop along Harrison Road on Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023, in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Teen boy identified in fatal shooting at Everett bus stop

Bryan Tamayo-Franco, 15, was shot at a Hardeson Road bus stop earlier this month. Police arrested two suspects.

Fatal 2-car crash closes Highway 99 in Lynnwood

Police closed off Highway 99 between 188th Street SW and 196th Street SW while they investigated.

Mike Bredstrand, who is trying to get back his job with Lake Stevens Public Works, stands in front of the department’s building on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023, in Lake Stevens, Washington. Bredstrand believes his firing in July was an unwarranted act of revenge by the city. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Lake Stevens worker was fired after getting court order against boss

The city has reportedly spent nearly $60,000 on attorney and arbitration fees related to Mike Bredstrand, who wants his job back.

Chap Grubb, founder and CEO of second-hand outdoor gear store Rerouted, stands inside his new storefront on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023, in Gold Bar, Washington. Rerouted began as an entirely online shop that connected buyers and sellers of used gear.  (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Used outdoor gear shop Rerouted finds a niche in Gold Bar

Seeking to keep good outdoor gear out of landfills, an online reselling business has put down roots in Gold Bar.

Naval Station Everett. (Chuck Taylor / Herald file)
Everett man sentenced to 6 years for cyberstalking ex-wife

Christopher Crawford, 42, was found guilty of sending intimate photos of his ex-wife to adult websites and to colleagues in the Navy.

Most Read