ABOARD THE USS HARRY S. TRUMAN IN THE EASTERN MEDITERRANEAN—Nineteen jets took off from the deck of this aircraft carrier Friday night for their first bombing run against Iraq.
The planes, including F-14 Tomcat fighters and FA-18 Hornets, carried 2,000-pound satellite-guided bombs and Sidewinder air-to-air missiles. Their destination was not disclosed.
For the 5,500 people aboard the carrier, the takeoff climaxed a deployment that began in December, when they left homeport in Norfolk, Va.
Crews began preparing the Truman's warplanes at midafternoon Friday by bringing load after load of six-foot-long bombs to the hangar bay. They positioned them in place under planes that were painted with pilots' nicknames: Speedy, Smoke, Rags, Doogie, Psycho.
Other crew members took pictures or posed in front of the action. "I'd like to put my name on one of them," a crew member said as he passed.
On a deck below, some crew members watched a TV news report of war protesters mobbing a car in San Francisco. Others watched the movie "Top Gun."
A few hours later, desert camouflage-suited pilots gathered in their ready rooms to be briefed on weather and flight conditions, Iraqi air defenses and other details of where they would fly and what they would do.
Then, after nightfall, firefighting equipment lined up on the flight deck and pinpricks of blue lights marked the runway. Pilots climbed aboard, checked their systems, adjusted their night-vision goggles and gave the thumbs up.
With a wham, the carrier's steam-driven catapult shot each plane off the flight deck.
The war was expected to change the routine on the Truman only a little. Jets take off and land at all hours during a deployment. But in war, a major difference is that they will return without their ordnance.
Chief Warrant Officer Darryl Howard, 49, noted that most people on the carrier do not experience battle. "The pilots see it. We see it on TV, what they do," he said in an interview Thursday. "You feel it in your heart when you think about it."
The first-timers "think it's exciting, thrilling.
But in the end, or during the interim, someone's losing a life," Howard said.
His job is to make sure planes take off safely, which all of the Truman's did Friday night. "Then I'll keep my fingers crossed until I see them come back," Howard said. "I don't want to lose a soul, whether it be from war or mishap."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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