THE U.S. NAVY'S F-14 TOMCAT IS a swing-wing, twin-engine fighter capable of speeds over Mach 2-twice the speed of sound. In its 30th year of service, the Tomcat is older than many of its pilots and the aircraft carriers it lands on. It was a mainstay of the Afghan air war, stalking the skies 24/7 with updated night-vision technology and launching laser- and satellite-guided "smart bombs."
The young men (and a very few women) who crew the Tomcats-a pilot and a Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) fit in each-are the most highly motivated, talented, trained, and unabashed patriots Americans could ever hope to have. Fighter pilots today get paid to do what they would gladly do for free, driving a bullet around the wild blue. It's a feat 99 percent of all young men could only dream of, and most would lose their lunch if they tried.
One of the pilots, nicknamed K-robb, is a Naval Academy graduate who set foot on the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis in the Arabian Sea just eight days after graduating from Tomcat school. The Stennis is a floating steel office building, apartment, airport, and hangar rising 18 stories above the waterline with a flat, 4.5-acre anti-skid steel roof. The Stennis is home to 5,500 souls dedicated to the support of up to 80 fighter planes, and it's a bigger stick than Theodore Roosevelt ever dreamed of when he announced his soft-spoken strategy for international relations.
Three weeks after arrival K-robb was sitting in the cockpit of his F-14, the sharp end of Roosevelt's stick, one shaped like a spear point when its wings are swept back. K-robb was ready for his first combat mission as a member of Navy squadron VF-211, called the "Fighting Checkmates." There were plenty of reasons for a raw rookie or even a veteran to be afraid. All had heard the dire media warnings about a faraway, hostile land with legendary Afghan warriors unsubdued by external force since Alexander the Great. Every fighter crew had heard of the sporting games the enemy played with the severed heads of their Russian foes in an earlier war.
When K-robb entered the fray the enemy was holed up in an area of the Hindu Kush mountains in eastern Afghanistan, some of the most hostile mountainous terrain in the world. Over such territory one enemy missile, one bullet, one loose nut, or one broken turbine blade out of hundreds spinning at 1,400 rpm in an aging engine built by the lowest bidder, and K-robb and his RIO could experience a "nylon letdown" into their worst nightmare.
But such fear gets willed into the subconscious on the catapult aboard the aircraft carrier, which sends the Tomcat into the air with a six-G kick-six times gravity-that drives the stomachs of the pilot and his RIO into their spines. In two seconds the plane accelerates past 150 knots, trailing thunderous twin blowtorches. In K-robb's words, "A cat shot is the greatest roller-coaster ride you ever had-times 20."
The route to the target was not a two-hour sight-seeing trip, especially for a new guy. K-robb's fear of "messin' up" exceeded his fear of the enemy. He was part of the operation launched March 1, 2002, to drive Afghanistan-based terrorists out of their last and most formidable mountain stronghold. In the airspace in the vicinity of an eight-mile box of geography more vertical than horizontal, dozens of fighters and bombers orbited in holding patterns waiting for directions from "Bossman." That was the call sign of an airliner-sized command post loaded with electronic gear and controllers called AWACS-Airborne Warning and Control System.
Air warfare today is an immensely complex choreography with a web of instantaneous audio and visual communication links between earth, sky, and outer space reaching all the way to the White House. The Tomcats were flying air support for the small, "crazy brave" teams of Special Forces troops, called Forward Air Controllers (FACs), who had infiltrated the snowbound, thin-aired terrain to find the enemy and the caves in which they hid, and to direct air strikes on them. With such information, the Tomcats were able to stay 5,000 to 25,000 feet above their targets and five to 10 miles away, while delivering weapons with more accuracy than a Vietnam-era fighter pilot delivered from 50 feet above the target.
The RIO is the human factor responsible for that incredible accuracy. Managing the smart-bomb deliveries, analyzing the imagery, punching in target coordinates for the Tomcat's JDAMs (satellite-guided bombs), or fixing the target in his laser crosshairs for GBU-12s (laser-guided bombs) is no easy task, especially while hurtling through space as a cramped, heavy-breathing passenger maneuvering in three dimensions and fighting the vertigo induced by G-forces that assault inner-ear balance mechanisms.
The RIO's window on the world is a square computer screen with multiple shades of green, the product of infrared sensors creating a picture, in daylight or darkness, of what is on the ground. That screen and the instruments surrounding it feed him vast amounts of information that he must interpret and react to as quickly as possible with a delicate touch on his laser control. The difference between being the best and being a close second can mean life or violent death for an American soldier on the ground or for an innocent bystander, the enemy's cover of choice.
While "collateral damage" is a non-issue for our foes, the sanctity of one innocent life still drives America's rules of war, even when that puts our own soldiers at greater risk. It is drilled into the head of every airman who pickles off a bomb, and it's a major part of the stress under which he works. One mistake can end a career. Two Air National Guard fighter pilots are currently facing a court martial hearing for accidentally killing four Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan. If convicted of all charges they could spend up to 64 years in prison.
Every veteran Tomcat crew has an anguished tale of a rich target that was passed up because of nagging doubts as to authenticity or possible collateral damage. All of them have heard the FAC on the ground frantically calling, "Abort, abort," just seconds before they were to drop a bomb because of a change in the fluid chaos of the battle. There are few trades that demand so much of a person. In a press conference Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said, "We have some incredibly gifted young men."
K-robb's inaugural run went well, but his day was far from over. He had to find another tanker plane over the northern Arabian Sea and fly his refueling probe into a 20-inch-diameter basket-a giant metal badminton birdie-at the end of the tanker's refueling boom angling down from below its tail. With the Tomcat's big twin tail fins poking up into the tanker's slipstream, K-robb had to close in precisely and then match the tanker's airspeed as the Tomcat got heavier and heavier with fuel. Every six- to nine-hour mission in support of Operation Anaconda took at least three refuelings.
K-robb's hardest task came when he was exhausted: flying the Tomcat from 150 knots down to zero in two seconds as he came aboard the carrier. Unlike a committee-driven airliner gliding from over the horizon onto two miles of stationery concrete, a flight of Tomcats arrives 800 feet overhead the carrier at 500 knots. In 15-second intervals each plane smartly banks 80 degrees, making a U-turn onto a racetrack-landing pattern, a thrilling sight for the crews working on deck. Turning onto final approach at 150 knots with wings swept wide like a gliding goose, the Tomcat driver aims at a 600-foot-long runway moving forward at 30 knots with a small sideways vector because of the carrier's angled landing deck. It also has a vertical vector, bobbing up and down as much as 20 feet, depending on the seas.
The pilot must land on that moving runway so that his tailhook snags one of four arresting cables-ideally the third-spaced 40 feet apart beginning 60 feet from the blunt end of the ship. There are no other options aside from trying again, so the instant his wheels hit the deck the pilot jams his throttles full forward so that he still has flying speed, should his tailhook bounce and miss the cables, a not uncommon occurrence. Success is a jarring deceleration with two tired, sweat-soaked bodies straining against seat belt and shoulder straps-sweet pain indeed. And the Tomcat and crew have earned the right to do it again tomorrow or tomorrow night. With all the turmoil in the Middle and Far East, the end of such tomorrows is not in sight. c
-J.D. Wetterling was a fighter pilot in Vietnam