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.