Congressional Record 24 February 1994 [Page: S1853]
Mr. WARNER. Mr. President, almost every evening on the news we see the U.S. military protecting American interests around the globe. More often than not these American military forces include naval forces.
A year ago, it was Navy carrier-based aircraft that were keeping the pressure on Saddam Hussein in Iraq. A few months later it was an American aircraft carrier sent to the coast of Somalia to provide protection to American and other U.N. peacekeeping troops. That same aircraft carrier also operated off the coast of the former Yugoslavia, ready to provide military muscle to back up diplomatic efforts to achieve a ceasefire in war-torn Bosnia.
For more than 50 years, America's interests have been served by aircraft carrier battle groups deployed around the globe.
I am pleased that President Clinton has included a request for funds to build a new aircraft carrier in this years' defense budget. The President and the Secretary of Defense understand the military and diplomatic necessity of maintaining strong naval power to protect America's interests into the next century.
This week's edition of U.S. News and World Report contains a cover story on one U.S. aircraft carrier and follows the ship through its most recent deployment. The article is entitled: `The Big Mean War Machine' and is subtitled: `Diplomacy's Gunboat.'
Mr. President, this article provides great insight not only into the military and diplomatic capabilities of an aircraft carrier, but also into the tremendous dedication and commitment of the men and women who serve aboard our Navy ships.
I urge my colleagues to read this article and I ask unanimous consent that it be printed in full at this point in the Record.
There being no objection, the article was ordered to be printed in the Record, as follows:
Petty Officer Jose Mora and his wife, Loretta, finish a late dinner at McDonald's and slowly walk the few blocks to the pier where his floodlit ship is docked. He hugs her, feeling her swollen belly pressed up against him. They part, and he begins walking toward the towering ship, waving his pass at the sentry and crossing over to the other side of the chain-link fence separating sailors and their families. He tries to look back over his shoulder but his sea bag blocks his view, so he keeps on. His wife--eight months pregnant, her hands resting on her stomach, fingers interlocked--watches and then starts walking, alone, back to the car.
The next morning, the aircraft carrier USS America pushes away from the Norfolk pier, turns up Hampton Roads amid a flotilla of small craft that have come out to see it depart, passes the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel and sets out across the Atlantic. The ship carries a crew of 4,700 sailors, including 20-year-old petty Officer 3rd Class Mora, who services the ship's 14 F-14A fighters. During the next six months, the America's pilots will crisscross the skies over Bosnia, its crew will pass through the Suez Canal en route to Somalia, and its planes will enforce the United Nations no-fly zone over southern Iraq. For different intervals during this 39,982-mile cruise, the America also will play host to a U.S. News reporter, photographer and graphic artist, who in the following pages examine one of the most powerful warships ever built, its crew and its changing missions.
For 50 years, the United States has counted on big carriers like the America to show the flag, to respond to crises and, until recently, to keep the Soviet Navy at bay. Carrier-based aircraft bombed Korea, Vietnam, Lebanon, Libya, and Iraq. Helicopters launched from the USS Nimitz tried to rescue the U.S. hostages in Iran; fighters from the Saratoga, which now patrols the Balkan skies, helped nab the terrorists who hijacked the cruise ship Achilles Lauro in 1985.
To an adversary, an aircraft carrier, its seven-story island protruding from the flight deck that sits 65 feet above the water, is an imposing offshore city that can appear overnight. Its 70-plane air wing is equipped to kill in many different ways: A single A-6E Intruder, small enough to take off and land on a ship, can carry 9 tons of bombs--more than twice as much as World War II B-17s, the Flying fortresses, could carry--and deliver them to a target 500 miles away without refueling. F-14 Tomcats can fly 600 miles, then shoot down enemy planes 60 miles away with their Phoenix missiles. The airborne jammers aboard an EA-6B Prowler can wreak electronic havoc on enemy command centers and communications, turning television screens to snow.
Aegis guided-missile cruisers, part of a carrier battle group that also includes attack submarines, destroyers and supply ships, have sophisticated air defense radars, antiaircraft missiles and 122 tubes capable of launching unmanned Tomahawk cruise missiles. `It has the most awesome war-making potential in any one place,' says Rear Adm. Arthur Cebrowski, the commander of the America's 14-ship task force. `And we're ready to fight on arrival.'
All this firepower does not come cheap: A new carrier costs taxpayers $4.4 billion; its operating costs are $440 million a year. And with the United States no longer facing a global rival, defense spending declining and the nation more concerned with foreign markets than with foreign militaries, the Navy is scrambling to find new roles for its carriers. In order to keep 12 of them in service, the Navy is cutting its force of surface ships by 65 through 1999, letting go about 100,000 sailors and changing the way it uses aircraft carriers. The blue-water Navy that once prepared to fight the Soviets on the high seas now sends its carriers along coastlines and into confined spaces such as the Persian Gulf and Adriatic Sea.
The Navy's efforts to adapt to new circumstances will produce a number of firsts on this cruise of the America: It is the first carrier to sail with a three-ship Marine Expeditionary Unit, or MEU, as part of its 14-ship battle group; it is carrying more than 200 marines; and before it returns to Norfolk it will, mostly by happenstance, have become the first carrier to bring women into a combat area.
But on this August day in Norfolk, the sailors, aviators and marines aboard the America are not thinking about politics or military strategy. They know that while they are gone, babies will be born, parents will die, Christmas and Thanksgiving will come and go, cars will break down and wives will give up on Navy life and leave their absent husbands. But as sailors have always done, the America's crewmen are turning their backs on the land to face life at sea.
It is a hard life for the officers and aviators whose work revolves around the America's flight deck and a harder one for the crew members who will spend most of the next six months below decks, away not only from home but also from fresh air and sunlight. With its 1,048-foot length and 80,000-ton displacement, the America is bigger than the average oceangoing cruise ship, but there are no portholes and it is claustrophobic.
Below the open, sunlit expanse of the 4 1/2 -acre flight deck is a small city: Most sailors eat, work and sleep on one of the ship's 10 decks, surrounded by white-painted steam pipes, water lines and air ducts that run along bulkheads and hang above desks and beds. Only two passageways run the length of the ship; 250 bulkheads, the walls that form the ship's skeleton, divide the America into the cramped, watertight, fireproof compartments that are its offices, mess decks, bathrooms and berths. Even the huge hangar bay can be partitioned by steel doors that are so big they echo throughout the ship when they close.
The ship's sailors and aviators divide their lives into compartments, too, It is their way of passing the months at sea, far from home. Pilots must block out fear and land a plane with one engine. Fathers who miss their families and sailors whose wives move and leave no forwarding address must forget about home. A month before the cruise, says Capt. Bill Deaver, the America's air wing commander, he begins distancing himself from his family, immersing himself in flying and shipboard life. `You start building the wall, one brick a day,' he says.
Thoughts of home are reserved for bedtime: In cramped berthing spaces throughout the America, sailors, aviators and marines tape photos of their families near their pillows. Before they turn out the light, those pictures are the last thing they see.
Navy families back home also must
cope. Two days before Chaplain Gil Gibson set sail in August, his wife found a lump in her breast. She didn't tell him about it until after he was at sea and the lump had been declared benign.
As they go about shrinking the Navy and the Marine Corps, Pentagon officials are mindful of the morale and well-being of sailors, marines and aviators. The Navy and Marines fought then Secretary of Defense Les Aspin's proposal to cut the Navy from 12 to 10 carrier task forces and Marine troop levels from 177,000 to 159,000: Fewer ships and people would mean sea tours longer than six months for the remaining ships and people. `If we go to eight-months cruises, we'll lose a lot of people,' says Lt. Cmdr. Brian Scott, an aviator on the America.
The Navy insists that peacetime deployments will be held to six months. `Forces won't stay ready if you deploy them too much,' says Adm. Jeremy Boorda, NATO's southern forces commander in Europe, who can up through the enlisted ranks to earn his four stars and is now a leading candidate for the Navy's top job, chief of naval operations. `Six months is an arduous amount of duty; it's a long time away from home if you have a family.' Aspin was convinced.
Even so, there is not room for everyone in the new Navy. On this September day, Lt. Jerry Leekey, and F-14 pilot with the America's Diamondback squadron, is waiting to learn whether a personnel board will let him stay in the Navy. `This is the best possible job, even with all the time spent away from my wife,' the lanky, freckled redhead says after a morning of dogfighting with an F/A-18 `I signed up to race around at Mach 1.'
Although he serves on active duty, Lieutenant Leekey received his commission through the Naval Reserve rather than the Naval Academy or the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps. It cost the Navy $800,000 to teach him to fly his Mach 2 fighter, but now it is letting go its active-duty reservists. Cmdr. Steven Collins, Lieutenant Leekey's squadron commander, has orchestrated a letter-writing campaign, endorsed by the task force commander, to retain his young officer. Leekey can only fly and hope.
For a pilot, getting up in the morning means another day to break the sound barrier. For most of the America's crew, however, especially the 18-year-old enlisted sailors, the shrill whistle of the boatswain's pipe that announces reveille each morning at 6 o'clock ushers in another day of drudgery. Time stands still in the 120-degree heat of the engine rooms. Seaman Ryan Hall sits on a bucket under an air vent for two four-hour shifts a day, struggling to stay awake as he monitors a generator in one of the engineering spaces, where oil-fired boilers make steam to turn the shaft of one of the ship's four 69,000-pound propellers.
The America needs constant attention. Commissioned in 1965, it is showing its age. A month before leaving Norfolk, a senior enlisted crew member complained to his congressman: The ship was operating on only two of its six electric generators, without radar and unable to pump fuel. This would be its third six-month cruise in three years, and without the standard 18 months at home for repairs, salt water and full steaming had taken their toll.
Seaman Hall, and the men who spend three months at a stretch cleaning clogged toilets or working mess duty, say the cruise is like the movie Groundhog Day. Each morning begins the same day all over again. A sailor can let a week pass without climbing the steep ladders to the flight deck and squinting at the sun. Sometimes the menu serves as a calendar: Pizza for dinner means it must be Friday.
Crewmen learn to beat the boredom. Petty Officer 1st Class James `Elvis' Alexander doesn't always wait for reveille to get up in the morning; with 20 showers in his 296-man berthing, he sometimes rises at 5 to beat the lines. After working 16 hours in the ship's jet engine shop, Alexander tunes his guitar and props open his songbook. The Memphis native, who grew up 6 miles from Graceland and worked as an Elvis impersonator--he even kept his long sideburns as a Navy recruiter--leads a bluegrass trio with fiddle and banjo.
Most nights they make music on the ship's fantail, surrounded by finicky, foil-wrapped jet engines waiting to be repaired. Here, at the stern, the musicians can look at the ship's wake and see where they've been; in the daytime when the carrier steams at full power,
the wake lingers all the way to the horizon. As shipmates gather, Petty Officer Alexander sings of a journey by train: `Engineer reach up and pull the whistle, Let me hear that lonesome sound. For it blends with the feeling that's in me, The one I love has turned me down.'
At the far end of the America's wake, in Virginia Beach, Marita Cheney is lonesome, too. She is showing her two children a videotape before bed, one she made of her husband, Eric, a bombardier and navigator with the America's A-6E Intruder bomber squadron, reading bedtime stories to Michael, who is almost 3, and Kyle, nearly 1. `They love to watch Eric,' she says. In the past year, Lieutenant Cheney has spent a total of 43 days at home. `The boys are growing,' he says. `When I come back from this six monther, I'll be nothing but a picture.'
In the Cheneys' family room, a chain of rings made from construction paper stretches around three walls. Every night, the children take down one link, shrinking the chain and getting that much nearer to the day their daddy comes home. `It gives the kids a concept of time, an end point,' says Marita. But gimmicks that work for the children don't help their mother. `When he left, I came home and cried and cried and cried. It all of a sudden hit me. And since he's an aviator, you think the worst can happen,' she says. `You have to put it in the back of your mind or you'd go crazy.'
Eleven days ago, on October 7, Marine Col. Jan Huly was awakened by a telephone call at 4:30 a.m. in his stateroom aboard the helicopter carrier Guadalcanal. President Clinton had decided to reinforce U.S. forces in Somalia after the failed raid in Mogadishu that left 18 Army Rangers dead, and the Guadalcanal had been ordered to leave the America and speed south from the Adriatic through the Suez Canal to Mogadishu.
The marines had crossed the Atlantic in August as part of the America Joint Task Group--an early test of an effort to repackage U.S. military might, mixing and matching the capabilities of carriers, marines, Army helicopters and Ranger units and even U.S.-based air forces. The America had left Norfolk with some 235 marines and their four CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters in place of three aircraft squadrons.
The marines ordinarily sail with five ships of their own, but this time they had left two ships and their equipment behind at Camp Lejeune, in North Carolina. In exchange, Huly had been promised that his marines would have air support from the America.
But integrating the carrier's and the marines' missions had proved difficult. It had been hard to fit Marine helicopter training into the carrier's busy flight schedule: The marines' CH-46s had to be launched from the carrier's landing area, and a breakdown could shut down Navy flight operations for precious minutes. Some Marine missions, such as the rescue of a downed pilot, could not be launched from the carrier because the America did not carry the right mix of helicopters. Finally, says Bravo Company 1st Sgt. George Mason, a carrier typically operates too far from shore, so the marines and their helicopters would have had to leapfrog to shore via other ships.
Now, arriving off the coast of Mogadishu without the America, Colonel Huly is having fresh doubts about the Joint Task Group concept. As he ponders the prospect of leading his men into war-torn Mogadishu, Colonel Huly misses the two ships he left behind. His battalion is without many of its wheeled and tracked vehicles, it is short of attack helicopters and half its artillery pieces are back in North Carolina.
Sharks in the water
But the ship Colonel Huly misses most is the one that would be carrying his air-cushioned landing craft, or LCACs, which can drive onto a beach and unload men and equipment. Somalia's beaches are very shallow, so the landing craft the marines have brought will bottom out 200 yards from shore, forcing the men to wade through 3-foot-deep water. And as Huly's staff scout the coastline for amphibious landing points, they discover that the Russians once operated a slaughterhouse along Somalia's coast and dumped carcasses in the water. The area is shark infested. `We are going to be running around in rubber boats and wading through all this,' says Huly.
As Huly's dilemma suggests, the shrinking U.S. military is facing a choice: It can either send smaller, less capable units abroad or deploy larger units less often. `We're going to have fewer forces, less money,' says Huly. `But over here where you're getting ready to go into harm's way, whatever you have is not enough. You always want more.'
Adm. Paul David Miller, the architect of the Joint Force Packages at the U.S. Atlantic Command in Norfolk, says the America Joint Task Group is just a `steppingstone.' The real test, he says, will come later this year, when another Joint Task Group, this one headed by the carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower, will sail, Admiral Miller will propose that for the first time since World War II, the United States not keep a carrier in the Mediterranean. Instead, the carrier and a Marine Expeditionary Unit may sail separately.
The Eisenhower may precede the marines by as much as two months. After six months, when the carrier is ready to head home, the marines may remain. Admiral Miller proposes that the marines sail with an attack submarine, armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles, and an Aegis cruiser; with its sophisticated command and control systems, to provide them with added firepower after the Eisenhower departs.
After 47 days at sea, the F-14 Diamondback pilots from the America, fresh from flying missions and taking cold Navy showers, are not about to go ashore and take a tour. Traditionally, at a liberty port, squadrons set up an `admin,' a home base ashore, where fliers can spend nights away from the ship. The Tailhook sexual harassment scandal has tamed aviator admins. So when they arrive in Tel Aviv, the Diamondbacks find a hotel through the U.S. Embassy. An embassy staffer takes the squadron representative to a small hotel nearby; 20 guys lay out $50 each and the owner gives them an entire six-room floor.
But the owner fails to tell the night manager about the new guests. Early one morning, after the last of the pilots roll in at 5 a.m., the night manager is appalled by what she finds in one room: clothes and bottles strewn everywhere, a half-dozen junior officers sprawled in chairs and beds. She protests to the embassy, but an official there sides with the fighter pilots. `You don't understand,' he tells the night manager. `These guys are just like a rock band.'
Liberty for the men is no fun for their loved ones at home, who wonder what their husbands and boyfriends are doing. The rule is: What happens on cruise stays on cruise. Unspoken fears are bound to be magnified as the Navy prepares to allow women to serve on combat vessels, including aircraft carriers, later this year.
`I think it's going to be a big adjustment for the wives at home,' says Marita Cheney, who finds a letter in the mailbox from husband Eric, the A-6 navigator, every other day. `Their husbands are on the ship and they're at home thinking: `There are other women out there, what's going on, is my husband going to still want to be married to me when he gets home?' If I had any doubts about Eric, that would drive me out of my mind.'
Tracy Carr's husband doesn't want his wife, a petty officer first class, serving on a ship with 4,700 men. But that's where she is. Although the Navy says women will not begin sailing on carriers until later this year, the first eight women assigned to a carrier in a combat zone are members of the squadron that flies the America's on-board delivery aircraft, which bring mail and visitors. They are usually stationed in Italy, but when the
America left for Somalia at the end of October, the squadron with its eight women was brought on board.
One deck below the ship's hanger bay, a sign announces: `Female Berthing.' Until the eight moved in, the rooms were used for medical isolation; the four-person spaces have showers and toilets but no lockers for the women to stow their belongings. `They weren't ready for us,' Petty Officer Carr says of the ship's crew. Men in towels walk past the women's berths on the way to the showers. `If we went out in the passageway in a towel, we'd be called up to see the skipper,' says Petty Officer 2nd Class Laura Leigh Johnson. And they still endure catcalls from some men.
But conditions have improved since the women came aboard. `There's still a lot of guys who haven't worked with women,' says Petty Officer Johnson. When an engine panel on the C-2 aircraft pops open, Johnson, an electrician, turns down offers of a ladder and pulls herself up through the hatch in the top of the plane. Then she crawls out onto the wing and fixes the panel. `Once you earn respect and trust, the attitude starts to change,' says Carr.
Petty Officer `Elvis' Alexander, his guitar tuned and ready, has brought a little bit of Nashville to France. With the America in port for the holidays, 80 people gather around a Christmas tree in the lobby of a Marseille hotel to hear Alexander's trio play three hours of bluegrass Christmas carols. On the way back to the ship for the night, Alexander skips down the stairs of a subway station to the train platform and finds a pay phone. He dials home and reaches his wife, Barbara, and their new baby, Taylor, who was born in September--a month after her father sailed.
In one ear Alexander hears a loudspeaker announcing something in French. He finally hangs up the phone, depressed to be missing his daughter's first Christmas, and climbs the stairs to the street.
A locked gate blocks his way out. It is Christmas Eve and the subway has shut down for the night. After two hours of calling French police, Elvis finds someone who can speak English and is released from the subway.
Christmas in port and good food at Thanksgiving--turkey, ham, roast beef and fixings--only remind the men that they are far from home. Back in Norfolk, the families of the F-14 Diamondbacks held their children's Christmas party during the first week of December, allowing time to mail videos to the dads at sea before the holidays.
Loretta Mora, who had been eight months pregnant on the night her husband, Jose, boarded the ship in the heat of August, was there smiling, dressed as Santa and cradling 11-week-old Justice Antonio Mora, dressed as a very tiny Santa. Her pregnancy had been hard; Loretta developed toxemia, and her labor lasted 27 hours before the doctors performed an emergency Caesarean. But she was buoyant amid the din of children waiting to see Santa. The Moras had picked the name Justice together; he wanted his child's name to begin with the same letter as his own but figured there are enough Joses in the world.
Loretta offers another reason. `We had a lot of problems when we first got together because he's Puerto Rican and I'm white,' she says. `Jose always wanted to serve his country.' The name Justice fit. On the America, tacked on the ceiling 1 foot above the pillow in Jose's rack, are his son's first booties. `I don't know the boy,' he says. `I want to see my wife. I want to meet my son.'
Cruises run in cycles. In the first weeks, sailors learn to leave home behind. During the holidays, they feel they may never get home. On this January day in the Adriatic, five months after setting sail from Norfolk, Capt. William W. Copeland Jr., the America's skipper, senses that his crew members think they're home already. They are scheduled to leave the Adriatic in three days, turning over responsibility for enforcing the Bosnian no-fly zone to the Saratoga, which is steaming across the Atlantic to relieve them. During flight operations, planes are touching down on the 750-foot landing area every 37 seconds. It is all becoming too routine, and the captain fears his crew may be getting complacent.
Even in peacetime, flying jets off carriers is hazardous duty: Every year there are 50 to 60 major accidents involving Navy aircraft. `We're out here just trying to keep guys focused so they don't fly into the back end of the ship and kill themselves,' says Commander Collins, the leader of the Diamondback F-14 squadron.
January 11 does seem snakebit, a day of minor woes and near misses. An F/A-18 loses it radio. After catching the wire that jolts them to a halt, two aircraft blow tires as they skid across the landing area. Two more planes, including one of Collins's F-14s, lose the ability to control their wing flaps. The Diamondback Tomcat has to land with its flaps up rather than down. When the flaps are down, they allow the plane to fly at a slower speed; this time the fighter has to approach the ship too fast. To compensate, the America steams hard into the wind. As the plane touches the deck, the ship-made breeze slows the 50,000-pound F-14, preventing it from tearing the arresting wire and hurtling over the bow of the ship into the water. Later in the day, another F-14 touches down safely after its primary and backup visual landing guides fail.
Into the danger zone
Lt. David `Boog' Powell's January 11 begins routinely enough. Ten minutes before launch, he runs through a preflight checklist as his F-14 idles at the most powerful of the ship's four catapults. A former high school baseball player, Powell liked playing catcher because he wanted to be in on every play. Now all eyes on deck are on him. A red light on the carrier's seven-story island signals four minutes to launch; two minutes later, when the light turns amber, a green-shirted crewman, crouching alongside the jet's nose wheels, signals for Powell to inch the plane forward and locks it into the catapult's shuttle. The light turns green.
Lieutenant Powell looks out to his left at the yellow-shirted catapult officer, the shooter. With his right hand pointing at the pilot, the shooter holds his left hand aloft, two fingers extended, signaling Powell to go to full power. Then, his stomach rumbling from the force of the fighter's engines, the shooter holds his hands open, palm out, as if to slap a high-five, the sign to go to full afterburner. In the seat of his pants, Lieutenant Powell can feel each of the five stages of his afterburner ignite, one at a time.
Ready to fly, he snaps a quick salute and leans his head forward, bracing for the catapult shot; the shooter salutes back, bends his knees, touches two fingers of his left hand to the deck of the ship and gestures forward, like a hunting dog pointing to its prey. On the shooter's signal, a goggled crewman on the catwalk to the plane's left presses the button that fires the catapult, hurtling Powell's F-14 from a standstill to 150 mph in two seconds. `It's the one time you don't have control of your airplane,' Lieutenant Powell says.
Midflight, during a mapping mission over Bosnia, a light in Powell's cockpit signals a stall in his left engine, a routine annoyance in the F-14. He clears it, finishes his mission and heads back to the ship. It is late afternoon and the clouds are heavy, so the planes follow nightime, low-visibility landing procedures. Circling 8,000 feet above the Adriatic, 23 miles from the ship, Lieutenant Powell sees ice, like frost in a freezer, forming on the leading edge of his plane's wings.
Powell hates circling in this stack of planes, four at 8,000 feet, another four 1,000 feet above that, and on up, with no radio communications or radar. Earlier in the cruise, when he had barely 25 carrier landings under his belt, he would spend the 20 long minutes in the holding pattern thinking about landing his jet on the tossing deck of a ship at sea at night: `Why the hell did I ask to do this job? I want to be home with my wife,' he remembers thinking. `I kicked myself in the ass every night to go do it.' For the first two months, his knees shook after every night landing.
Five months into the cruise, he is confident. He begins his approach to the ship, slowly descending to 1,200 feet 8 miles out. Four miles from the ship he hears a bang, like a balloon popping. Immediately the stall warning light flashes and the plane yaws sharply left. He has lost power in his left engine.
Powell thinks of everything that could go wrong: He is low on fuel, the weather is bad, it is a long way to an alternate landing field. Taught to fly first, then navigate, then communicate, he pulls the plane's nose up, corrects the yaw that has taken him off course and begins talking to his radar-intercept officer (RIO) in the back seat. Together, they run through the Navy checklist for single-engine landings and prepare to land their plane. He flies a slow right turn, 360 degrees, to get the plane back in line with the ship, alerts the America of their situation, then stays off the radio the rest of the way in. `We treated it like a normal approach,' Powell says later.
Rather than slowing him down, the loss of an engine means Lieutenant Powell is going to have to land at high speed, with full afterburner on his good right engine. That way, if he misses one of the four wires that will bring his plane to a halt, he will have enough power to get airborne again. But in the
F-14, with a good 9 feet between the two engines, throttling to full power in the right engine with none in the left could make the jet swerve dangerously to the left.
A good pass
The landing isn't just safe; it looks good, too. Powell and his RIO step out of the jet, which is surrounded by flight-deck crew ready to tow it out of the landing area. `I flew a good pass,' he later recalls. `It was awesome, I was on deck.'
Good pilots crave the chance to beat the odds. `There's a satisfaction when something happens and you're the one who's going to have to bring it down safely,' says veteran pilot Andy `Slim' Whitson, the America air wing's landing signal officer and a former flight instructor whose green Jaguar, bought with his flight bonus, carries vanity tags that read BLWN BKS, for blown bucks.
`They've all got big egos and big watches,' Captain Copeland, an F-14 pilot himself, says of the pilots he commands. In the Diamondback's ready room, a tailhook bolt hangs by a string from the ceiling over one pilot's seat; he was the last to `bolter' that day, meaning he missed the wires while landing and had to make another pass. On one wall is the `greenie' board, where each pilot's every landing is graded. `They're so competitive, they like being graded,' says A-6 navigator Eric Cheney.
Lieutenant Leekey, the red-haired pilot, flew some 75 flights without boltering. When he finally missed, he was overheard on his radio: `Impossible,' he said in a mock spanish accent. Commander Collins, the Diamondback squadron commander who flies in the back seat, ribs his pilot if they bolter: `Hey, wasn't that our stop back there?' Television sets throughout the ship carry live pictures of flight operations. Pilots, waiting to fly, sit and razz other pilots for ugly landings.
But the challenge is making the extraordinary look routine, not making the routine look extraordinary, and veteran aviators calculate how much slack to give junior officers. `If you go to war thinking you might get shot down, you're going to be overly cautious,' says Capt. Vance Toalson, a former wrestler and the America's yellow-shirted Air Boss. `The confidence is necessary, but
also the professionalism. If you have some cavalier aviator out there, then he needs to find another job. We don't have Tom Cruise in naval aviation.'
While the lieutenants are battling to land safely, the captains and admirals have been dusting off plans to conduct airstrikes in Bosnia if NATO leaders in Brussels give the order. Later tonight, two of the carrier's four E-2C Hawkeyes will begin monitoring Bosnia's skies around the clock. Half the day's flight operations have been canceled so that pilots and flight-deck crew members who might have to work all night can sleep during the day.
Captain Copeland and his air wing commander, Capt. Bill Deaver, have just sat down to dinner about 9 p.m. when the phone hidden under the dining table in Copeland's quarters rings. There is a fire in the hangar bay: An E-2C Hawkeye aerial surveillance plane, the type that is to fly later tonight, is reported to be spitting sparks. Copeland and Deaver scramble down three ladders and find the fire extinguished. It has not reached the E-2C.
After six months at sea, the time has come to start tearing down the walls between shipboard life and home, one brick at a time.
For some, it will be hard to let go. `When I'm out here,' says Chaplain Gil Gibson, `I miss home. When I'm home, I miss here.' Home cannot supply the camaraderie or the challenges of life at sea.
For Marine Colonel Huly's operations officer, Lt. Col. Jeff Christman, the six months away from home have been an eternity: He has numbered each of his 70 letters home, and when he felt low, he played `Danny Boy' on the bagpipes in a corner of the Guadalcanal's flight deck. But he wouldn't trade the life: `I guess there's always people who wanted to be a professional soldier. I have a realistic but a romantic view of what I do. I have no illusions. But still, I like the life. I've gotten to do what I wanted to do when I was a little boy.'
For Lieutenant Leekey, the red-haired F-14 fighter pilot, the end of the America's cruise means he must give up the life he has always wanted. The Navy
has rejected his appeal to stay in. Leekey is slated to be discharged in June; his wife, Iris, is due to give birth to their first child on March 29. Leekey has flown since he was 13 and earned his pilot's license at 17. He doesn't know what he will do next. `My lifelong dream was to fly fighters,' he says. `I don't do anything else.'
As the America steams toward Norfolk, these warriors must become fathers and husbands again. Navy counseling teams came aboard in Spain to remind the men that loved ones change, grow independent, in six months without husbands and fathers. `It's pretty tough to go steaming into the house and say, `You, get a haircut; you, clean up the back yard,' says Colonel Huly. `There has to be some sensitivity. I know that. Of course my family will say I don't, but I know that.' His wife, Patti, a veteran Marine spouse, takes a more philosophical approach: `If Robert Redford didn't get on the boat,' she advises young wives, `Robert Redford isn't getting off the boat.'
Six months can be a lifetime. Almost three weeks after his father underwent routine surgery, Cmdr. Vic Cerne, the executive officer of the carrier's squadron of EA-6B electronic-warfare aircraft, received an emergency Red Cross message from his wife, Cindy: There were complications. He packed a small bag and flew home from the carrier to Norfolk, where he telephoned his mother at the hospital in Oklahoma. His father came on the line, the husky man's voice sounding weak. Cerne told his dad he loved him and promised he'd see him the next day. `I'll never forget what he said next,' recalls Cerne. `He said, `Vic, hurry.' The Cernes caught the first flight out of Norfolk the next morning, but his father died before they landed in Oklahoma. `I never left on this deployment thinking I wouldn't see him again,' says Cerne.
Cerne's parents had planned to meet the ship when it came in; his father had thought surgery would make him strong enough to travel. Cerne returned to the ship after burying his father. His mother will meet him at the pier.
Norfolk still seems very far away. Every other day during the 11-day Atlantic
crossing, at 7 p.m., the crew must set their watches back and relive 6 o'clock all over again. Even two days before the ship is due in Norfolk, Petty Officer 1st Class Grant Gorton, the F-14 flight-deck coordinator, cannot relax: He is responsible for preparing all 14 of his squadron's aircraft for the next day's fly-off, when the aviators will head home a day before the ship docks. `I won't be able to sleep tonight,' he says. `We have to get every one off.'
Gorton has learned all the ways 50 planes idling or taxiing can kill a person: He avoids walking near an F-14's air intakes or an E-2C's propellers. He leans his body into the hot jet exhaust that can blow one overboard. His hearing has worsened in his 12 years in the Navy, despite wearing the Mickey Mouse-ear headgear required on the flight deck; after a 14-hour day of flight operations, his ears are sore from the gear. Gorton is nervous: If any of his F-14's can't fly tomorrow, a crane will have to lift them off in Norfolk.
The next day, every plane gets off as planned, the flight-deck crew waving good bye as the last A-6 Intruder departs. In the bright sunshine, with the crew wandering about the suddenly empty flight deck, the booming voice of Air Boss Vance Toalson orders them to clear Catapult 3. The America's senior shooter, Lt. Bill Clock, unties and removes his boots and in his stocking feet walks to the catapult, where his boots are tied to the catapult's shuttle. On the Boss's order--`Shooting the boots'--the catapult, which has just launched a 60,000-pound bomber, propels Bill Clock's boots, tied together, off the carrier and into the Atlantic. The America is almost home.
Loretta Mora has written Jose that she will wear red to the homecoming so he can find her on the crowded pier. She does: a red winter coat, a short-sleeved, tailored red dress and red high heels. Standing in the heated `mommy tent,' where many of the 85 women who have given birth since their husbands sailed in August wait, Loretta stays dry in the driving rainstorm that has soaked the more than 5,000 people waiting for the America.
The big ship is tantalizingly close, with hundreds of enlisted crew members standing shoulder to shoulder along the bow and the starboard side in dress blue uniforms, and six tugboats puffing black smoke turning it toward the pier. After the America pulls alongside and the lines are fired to secure it, Loretta leaves the warmth of the mommy tent, pushing the baby carriage through shoe-deep puddles, and waits alongside the ship. In the hangar bay, Jose musters with the other new fathers, all weighed down by the clothes and souvenirs stuffed into their duffels. In his pocket, Jose carries his new son's first blue booties.
An hour passes. On the pier, Loretta removes her red coat, places it like a tent over the baby carriage and stands in the downpour in her short-sleeved red dress before finally retreating for shelter. Finally, the new fathers pass the quarterdeck, salute their ship and walk the length of the pier, through the crowd, to the mommy tent, where Jose Mora embraces his wife and meets his son.
The America has brought home every one of its sailors and aviators, a remarkable feat: An F-14 and an F/A-18 from the carrier Saratoga will collide in midair a week after the America reaches Norfolk. Two of the America's sailors will die in a late-night auto accident on the day it docks in Norfolk. The ship is scheduled to sail again in August 1995, on what may be its last cruise before it is taken out of commission. Jose Mora will spend his son's second birthday at sea.