ABOARD USS HARRY S. TRUMAN, in the eastern Mediterranean—One flew into the night. The other followed hours later, taking off into the gleaming sunlight.
One was making his first combat flight. At 27, Lt. Michael A. Picciano of Haddonfield, N.J., was still a "nugget"—older pilots joked that he needed polishing—but he wasn't scared. "Most of the guys are just nervous about not wanting to make any mistakes," he said.
The other had flown plenty of missions over Iraq. Lt. Cmdr. David Dorn, 32, born and raised across the Delaware in Northeast Philadelphia, had learned a thing or two, including this: "Dropping bombs is an impersonal business."
"Psycho" Picciano and "Rags" Dorn fly F-14 Tomcats, airborne versions of muscle cars that scream through the sky at twice the speed of sound.
Their Tomcats are flung off the carrier's deck by giant catapults that take them from zero to 150 miles an hour in two seconds. In 12-hour missions, including before-and-after briefings, they fly to Iraq, refueling in midair three times from tanker planes, and drop bombs weighing up to a ton on bunkers and terrorist camps and Iraqi command posts.
And they love almost everything about it.
"Who wouldn't want to be a fighter pilot? It's the best job in the world," said Picciano.
He'd been studying mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech when a frat brother took him up in a Cessna, a plane "as small as they come." They soared over the red clay of Georgia and "I just fell in love with it," Picciano said.
He graduated from college in 1997 and two weeks later was in officer candidate school.
Dorn had wanted to be a pilot since the fourth grade, when he interviewed one for school. Though Dorn suspects it was the uniform that hooked him, "from then on, there was never any doubt about what I was going to do." After getting a mechanical engineering degree from Drexel, he reported to the Navy.
Out of Dorn's ROTC class of 28, three were selected for pilot training. He's the only one who finished. In his next "winging class" of 13, he was one of three picked to fly jets. Of the three, only Dorn is still flying.
Most pilots like combat exercises best, training for a midair dogfight. They like to come in fast and low, to do crazy turns and "pull a lot of Gs."
The only part no pilot really likes is night carrier landings. "It's the most unnatural thing," Picciano said. "You're flying on instruments. The boat is dimly lit. You don't even see the landing area until 10 seconds before you hit, and that's on a clear night."
To come roaring in just feet above the stern of the carrier, thumping down, hoping that a hook on the rear of the plane catches one of the arresting wires—all the while gunning the engine in case the hook DOESN'T catch and they have to take off the other end—is something that still plays with their nerves.
Landing, every foot the jet is too high on its approach means it will be 16 feet off on the deck. "If you're 5 feet high, you just missed all the wires," Picciano said.
But this is what they want to do, what they're compelled to do.
"There are moments of clarity up there," Dorn said. "You get a bright, sunny day, puffy clouds here and there, and you kind of leave the plane behind. It's like you're flying alone." At night over the ocean, accompanied by the moon, "it's like being in space."
And now, they were flying bombs into enemy territory.
At briefings before their missions, the pilots sit in huge airplane-style chairs in the "ready room," their squadron's sword logo plastered everywhere. On the wall is mounted a bed-sheet-size calendar wives have made with photos of their children and families.
Rage Against the Machine blares from speakers as they don helmets and flight vests and night vision goggles and zip themselves into desert survival gear.
They don't focus on whether they might be hurt or killed or whether their bombs might hurt or kill someone. They're Navy officers on a mission; this isn't a time to be philosophical.
With today's more accurate bombs, there's less angst about civilian casualties.
Still, Picciano wondered if his first combat mission would be a watershed. Two weeks ago, he'd never killed anyone. "I wondered if I'd feel anything about that," he said, "anything bad or somber."
The answer came several days later.
Picciano and Dorn, on separate missions, flew to northern Iraq. To Picciano, the countryside looked like Nevada, where he'd trained. Everything went just as it had during training and yet there he was, dodging anti-aircraft fire, seeing explosions to the south in Baghdad. It was hectic and stressful and surreal, he said.
Picciano kept in contact with a ground soldier and could hear the excitement in his voice: "Great hit! Direct hit!"
Only when Picciano was headed back across Turkey toward the carrier did he begin to relax and think. "I can only think that us going out there and doing that saved American lives," he said later. "You can't think of it as going out there and killing somebody.
You think of it as, `All right, we did our job; we hit our target.'"
He added, "I didn't feel the least bit bad about it.
Once the war starts, people are going to die. The best thing you can do is end the war as decisively and quickly as possible."
Likewise Dorn. "We all want to make a difference," he said. "Every single mission we fly, and every bomb we drop, I honestly feel it saves lives."
Returning, if they have enough fuel, they fly fast. The sooner they get back, the sooner maintenance crews can ready the planes for their next sorties.
Tomorrow, in all likelihood, they'll do it again.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq+pilots+30