F-14 Tomcats Over Afghanistan
A Navy Fighter Pilot
The following e-mail message was passed by the Association of Naval Aviation to the Naval Aviation Foundation. It was dated 28 January 2002. It was from an F-14 Tomcat fighter pilot deployed on an aircraft carrier in the Arabian Sea which is carrying the air war to the Taliban and al Qaeda Islamic terrorists in Afghanistan.
Subject: The Record and a NYFD, Ladder 37 Request
Belated Merry Christmas and Happy New Year everybody. Sorry to take so long to get you this update but I’ve been really, really busy procrastinating.
Ships TV had the NFL playoffs on last weekend live! Loved the small taste of home that comes with watching football. I just don’t dig the late hour that the games come on over here. Rolling out of the rack at 0400 to catch the Patriots-Raiders was brutal, but screw it. Loved seeing the snow storm – made me long for Sunday River. Oh well, next winter. Speaking of home, got to chat with Sara, Mackenzie and Delaney for 20 minutes via a video teleconference set that the ship made available to our squadron just after the New Year. Awesome to see the girls – Sara looks great, Mackenzie is getting tall, and Delaney is a crawling/cruising machine! Sara spent the entire 20 minutes managing toys, coloring books, snacks, sippie cups and Delaney’s repeated escape attempts, all the while trying to conduct a conversation with yours truly. Don’t worry Sara, relief is on the way; I’ll be home in a few months!
As you can probably gather from all of the news reports, things are still busy on deck in Afghanistan but it’s a wee bit slower right now for the air assets. In fact, the last real big push involving air power was just before Christmas up at Tora Bora, a mountainous region bordering Pakistan, just south of Kabul. As the Taliban continued to ‘fight this war to the death,’ with many of the cowards bravely throwing their hands up in the air to surrender, a few fellas made the fatal mistake of deciding to hunker down in the caves and tunnels up in that vicinity. As those cave complexes were essentially the only show in town, a majority of the air support was sent up there to get some work and get ‘worked,’ it did. I would rather have been a Derek Jeter jersey toting New York Yankees fan in the Bleachers at Fenway Park than a Taliban soldier forced to survive in those caves. After weeks of relentless air strikes, pockets of the Tora Bora started to look like the surface of the moon, a burning moon, that is – you could see the smoke billowing from 30 miles away. Secretary Rumsfeld’s comment made from Bagram, comparing the fires burning up at TB to the still smoldering ruins at the WTC, were right on.
The Afghanistan countryside has come alive of late, although the word ‘alive’ may be a little strong. Basically, the ‘cities’ have more lights on at night, the paved roads have more traffic on them and civilians are now poking their heads out from under the covers and moving around more in the daylight. Snow dominates pretty much every peak over 5,000 feet north of central Afghanistan with the mountains surrounding Kabul reminiscent of the Sierra Nevadas this time of year. I wonder if I could get some heli-skiing in? Never mind. Land mines and deep powder are a tough mix.
The flights over Afghanistan, minus the bomb dropping part, remain the same: long transits to and from country, lengthy on station times, book-ended (is that the right word?) with the never-ending search for Air Force tankers in the south. Here is a standard OEF flight: launch, transit to the tanker, hold, hold, hold, hold, hold, hold, top off at a tanker, hold, hold, hold, hold some more, hit the tanker again, come home for a night trap. Our mission now is equivalent to that of a relief pitcher hanging out in the bullpen, warming up, ready to go on a moment’s notice. If he gets the call, his mission is singular, deliver the bean-ball. It was much more fun being the starter, but such is war. You may find this hard to believe but these OEF flights I would now classify as boring; a far cry from all of the action pre-Christmas. With the recent slow down, I find myself checking by watch every 2-3 minutes to see exactly how many days we have left on deployment (more on that later). Broken glass chewing and self-mutilation have surfaced as excellent hobbies to help kill the time! That said, it is extremely rewarding to fly over an area that, only 5 weeks ago, was getting pounded with laser guided bombs, and to see it now covered with USMC helicopters and US personnel brings a smile to my face. Through it all, the search continues and I hope that I get the call for one last bomb drop in Afghanistan, a bomb that drills Bin Laden right in the chest.
Had a few scary weeks during the last days of November. Was it the AAA, surface-to-air threat, night tanking, night traps? Nope – we almost ran out of piddle packs. For those of you who have never experienced the ‘cheese sandwich,’ let me explain. Imagine flying for 8.5 hours – let’s say from Boston to LA non-stop – on an airliner with no toilets and ‘movement about the cabin’ is not only frowned upon, it is prohibited (you can see where I’m going here). When nature calls, the answer is the piddle pack – a small 20-ounce tough plastic bag with a ziploc top, ergonomically designed for cockpit usage, if you get my drift. Well, the word goes out late November that the ship’s piddle pack inventory is running dangerously low, a timely re-supply is unlikely and in-flight relief generally needs to slow down, that is unless you were comfortable relieving yourself airborne on yourself.
Panic shot through the squadron and, as usual, we had some folks overact, acting like peed-out piddle pack junkies gong to any means to get their hands on some of the last remaining piddle packs: stealing, looting, begging, chicanery, hanging out in bathrooms and dark passageways looking to trade sex for piddle packs, you name it. One guy was found with TEN piddle packs in his helmet bag during the height of the Piddle Pack Depression and was beaten to within one urine drop of his life by a mob of angry pilots and RIOs, all recently forced to make an arrested carrier landing with a full bladder. Ruthless stuff. My squadron, in keeping with the theme that desperate times require desperate (i.e. moronic) measures, survived these dark days by adopting a completely unsafe personal dehydration plan coupled with the procurement of several emergency in-flight relief vessels/urine storage devices – Gatorade bottles – for those times when bladder evacuation at 32,000 feet was just plain unavoidable. As an aside, donning the ever reliable DEPENDS undergarment was momentarily discussed but instantaneously dismissed. We were all in agreement that the image of a downed Navy fighter pilot in Afghanistan, paraded in front of the cameras on CNN, wearing only DIAPERS would only serve to heighten the fighting spirit and resolve of the Taliban and al Qaeda network world wide.
This six month deployment (referred to as a ‘cruise,’ ironically enough by the Navy) continues to slog along. Beer Day #3 is this Saturday which means that we will have been at sea for 135 consecutive days. NO ONE on the ship has ever seen a third beer day and that includes all of the salty buggers who have been doing this for 20-25 years. After the accounting collapse of Beer Day #1, the Heavies put in place a rock solid program to insure that everyone received ONLY TWO BEERS during Beer Day #2 back in November. Unfortunately, their plan worked, thus crushing my long held belief that it is virtually impossible to keep an ingenuitive American Sailor from getting just two beers on Beer Day. A challenge has been put forth for Beer Day #3 to beat the system and I think we are up for it – there is no way the Man can continue to keep us down.
We are also on track to break another record this deployment, one that has been in place for 30 years. If we do not have a port call by February 21, we will break the record of 154 consecutive days at sea without a port call. It appears there are two chances of us having a port call before that date: slim and none – slim was on life support, but I believe his ‘plug’ was pulled this morning. Doing the ENTIRE 6 month deployment without a port call is also a distinct possibility at this point which would place this deployment into the Cruise Hall of Fame: epic amounts of flight time, dropping live bombs, 4 beer days, no port calls. Don’t recall seeing those last three items in the brochure at the recruiter’s office.
Amazingly enough, morale on the ship is still very, very high. People are still smiling, telling jokes and more importantly doing their jobs just as professionally as ever. With only 8 no fly days in the last 3 and ½ months, once again, the young enlisted maintainers continue to amaze me at how hard they continue to work up there on the flight deck.
Having just reread my ‘wanking’ paragraph, let me set the record straight. Dropping live bombs on hostile country in the defense of our nation is the culmination of many years of training (11 in my case) and a dream come true for every one of us out here, officer and enlisted alike. Loss of port calls and time away from family is a small price to pay when your country comes calling with the bill!
One last story for you. Just before Christmas, I received a large manila envelope from Ladder Company 37 (Bronx), New York Fire Department. Inside was a collection of wake cards and programs from the funerals of 14 NYC firefighters killed on September 11 as well as a note from LT John Gormley (former F-14 guy) with a special request. He wrote, ‘I wanted to know if you could do us a favor and spit these wake cards out of your speedbrake on one of your flights. We are real proud of these guys and we want to make sure those greasy Taliban scumbags know exactly who they are dying for…/we know you guys are kicking ass over there and the support of the whole country is with you. Be safe and keep up the great work. We are all counting on you.’ The note was signed by 15 other firefighters ( I will frame and hang that letter on my wall when I get home). Here it was two weeks before Christmas and I’m looking at the names and faces of 14 firemen, killed in the line of duty on the 11th. Choked up? Oh yeah.
I immediately knew exactly where I would drop these; these men were bound for Kandahar, the cultural (that word is used extremely loosely) center of the Taliban movement. ON the day of the flight, I stuffed all of the cards/programs into a big envelope marked ‘PLEASE GIVE TO ANY TALIBAN MEMBERS’ and headed up to the flight deck to coordinated getting it tucked under my speedbrake. The speedbrake is a 4 foot by 4 foot flight control surface on the aft portion of the jet that protrudes from the upper and lower surface of the fuselage. They are deployed anytime you need to slow down in a hurry (I think Maverick used them to make the bandit ‘fly right by’ in the movie TOPGUN – sorry, forgive my cheesiness) or when landing. The key is that they are controlled by the pilot, so anything placed beneath them will come out with the flick of a thumb-switch. Enough with the F-14 systems lecture.
Just before the Flight Deck Chief climbed up on the back of the jet to stash the envelope, he opened it to look at the contents. Looking down from the cockpit onto the flight deck, I witnessed yet another sight that I will not soon forget: 10 young enlisted men, dirty and tired, methodically looking at each of the wake cards, gazing at the faces of 14 fallen heroes, many of whom were the same age of those sailors. Judging by the looks on their faces, I would surmise that they had the same reaction that I did when I first opened the package.
Off to Kandahar. Night hop, so finding the city was easy. Lights off, just in case any Taliban AAA gunners were up late. Dropped down to an altitude lower than I probably should have but I didn’t care. Rolled inverted and, while staring ‘downtown’ Kandahar right in the face, popped open the speed brake. On December 11, 2001 at approximately 8:30 p.m., Kevin Owen Reilly, CAPT William F. Burke, Jr., Durrell V. Pearsall, Jr., Michael Scott Carlo, Nicholas P. Rossomando, Peter A. Bielfield, Raymond Murphy, Hector Luis Tirado, CAPT Terry S. Halton, Archie E. Davis, Thomas J. Foley, LT John F. Ginley, Thomas G. Schoales and Michael Helmut Haub had one last flight, destination Kandahar. If things start heating up again, those names will be on bombs next time.
I want to share one more thing with all of you. One of the pieces of literature not in Kandahar was a pamphlet memorializing the life of Michael Scott Carlo. It contained family photos and a variety of essays written by his mom, dad, and brother about their son/sibling and on the very last page was a photocopy of a handwritten note that was hanging over this young man’s desk the day he died. Written by Mark Twain, it read: ‘20 years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones that you did. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.’
You can count on it, Michael.
Until next time, JJ