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Handler on carrier deck keeps all the ship's pieces in play at once

ABOARD THE USS HARRY S. TRUMAN IN THE EASTERN MEDITERRANEAN—"Let's have a great day," the voice over the intercom blares. "Let's go to war!"

As if on queue, Lt. Cmdr. R.D. Jones whooshes into the room, fresh from his latest workout and a power nap under his favorite Philadelphia Eagles blanket. It's 1:30 a.m., and the Truman is about to launch another "package," another group of planes to fly bombing missions over Iraq.

"Whooooo!" Jones says, grinning and rubbing his hands, willing himself to alertness, calling for coffee. "Oh, man!"

Jones, 44, born and raised in Philadelphia, is the handler, the one they say "owns" the flight deck of this 97,000-ton aircraft carrier, longer than the Empire State Building is tall.

That makes him the biggest real estate mogul aboard, and the deck he tends constitutes about four acres of prime shorefront property.

Nothing on it moves without his say-so.

Of the roughly 80 combat and support aircraft on it, he knows who comes, who goes, where they are now and where they're supposed to be later. He's got to make room for a helicopter here, make sure a broken plane isn't in the way over there.

At any given time, two to four planes might be readying to take off, another batch maneuvering into place behind them. It's like trying to make it across the room to the hors d'oeurves table at a party, except everyone else is moving, too.

Zeus-like, Jones watches it all happen on what they call the "Ouija board," a six-foot long scale model of the deck. A crew member in headphones listens to chatter from the deck and moves the board pieces—four-inch plane cut-outs—to reflect what's happening.

As one taxis to the catapult, he moves the piece slowly into position. When it takes off, he removes it and puts it at the side of the board, like a captured chess piece.

In a relentlessly high-tech Navy, the board speaks a simple language. A plane with a wing nut placed on it needs its wings spread. If it has a washer, it needs washing. If it has a purple nut, it needs fuel.

Colored push pins identify it as being for this launch, for the next launch, in line to go to the hangar bay for service, whatever.

"Third-go shooters. Roger," Jones says to the officer he's relieving. "He leaves what time? We have enough room to get the other guy up there?"

Here on the ground floor of "the island"—the tower part of the carrier—the room glows alternately red and blue with the night-vision lights. Overhead, miles of electrical wires criss-cross the ceiling.

On one of the multitude of televisions, the NCAA basketball playoffs are playing half a world away. Other TVs show views of the flight deck, the hangar deck, the flight plan. Jones can scan five TV screens, plus his computer screen, from his big chair. He works a handheld radio and three phones.

More than a dozen people have huddled here ahead of the launch, and about eight conversations merge, diverge and swirl.

Chief warrant officer Darryl Howard, of Yeadon, Pa., the assistant flight deck officer, is talking about a cheese steak the galley made for him.

"Awesome!"

Jones nods appreciatively and mutters to himself, "A 2:20 launch. Yessiree. Yessiree."

Senior Chief Dan Reece, of Louisville, Ky., the flight deck maintenance coordinator, is barking into a phone: "Swing her red. Swing her red. She's got 411 loaded."

Howard: "Peppers. Onions. I couldn't even pick it up!"

Jones, into the radio: "Hey, make sure they got huffers to the Tomcats. They need `em."

Another group veers off into a discussion of someone's new "cranial," the term for the deck crew's head protection. They decide it is a "MOAC, the Mother of All Cranials," and laugh.

Now the game has been turned off. Time to get down to business.

Jones peers out a window at a downpour. "Oh, it's rainin' nasty cats and dogs. We're going' in stealth, baby!"

Reece has gotten notice of some mechanical problems. "Sir, 105 and 104's going to shoot," he says, referring to planes that will be catapulted. "107 won't make it."

Jones scans the Ouiji board again, intent. He's been known to growl as he studies it, plotting a strategy. "Grrrrrr. Grrrrrr." Then he calls out, "Who are my gypsy shooters? Who's my spare?"

The phone rings. "Air Boss!" Jones exclaims, greeting the officer in charge of the launch. "I'm doing great, how are you? They're interrupting my routine," he banters, "so we need to get this war over with."

He hangs up. "We're positive today. We're very positive."

The thing is, he means it. Positive is Jones' mantra.

He reads leadership books and works out twice a day to maintain his attitude. "I come to work pumped up, charged up."

He grew up in the Germantown area of Philadelphia, graduated from Martin Luther King Jr. High School and remains rooted to the neighborhood. Most of his relatives live there. He wears a patch from Engine Co. 19—"The Pride of Germantown"—on his flight jacket.

When he was young, before he married the girl down the street on Brush Road, he watched movies like "Tora, Tora, Tora" and "In Harm's Way."

"I always knew I wanted to join the Navy," he says. "I knew I wanted to work in aviation. I knew I wanted to be an officer."

He's been in the Navy 26 years now, and the Truman is his seventh aircraft carrier. "Me? I'm living a childhood dream."

It has meant being separated from his family for months at a time.

"It's tough," he says. "The hardest part is saying goodbye," especially this time. His children are 9, 16 and 19, and he feels keenly the passage of time. But then he smiles. Mr. Positive returns: "The beauty is coming back."

A niece is with the ground troops, and she tells everyone her uncle is the handler on a carrier. "To think that she talks about me," he says, shaking his head, "when she's out there. She's the hero. Man."

Now the room is humming even louder. People are moving in and out, pulling on raingear, fiddling with their headphones, adjusting their goggles.

"Let's launch some airplanes," Jones calls out over the buzz, simultaneously making hand signals to someone on the deck peering in his window. "Let's get down!"

And they do.

From high in the tower, the voice of the air boss comes over the loudspeaker: "Clear to shoot the Vikings."

A jet engine howls. The catapult slams. The room shudders.

At 2:25 a.m., the board-tender picks up a tiny plane and moves it to the side. "707 airborne," he says.

Now, the planes are coming one after the other.

"We're green for all the go-shooters," Air Boss bellows again.

"Shoot `em if you got `em."

One after another, pilots and their jets get hurled off the bow.

Their lights wink as they bank, turning east.

"Yeah, baby," Jones says, finishing a radio call, scanning the board. "Afterburner lights up the night sky. This is great. This is great!"

Less than an hour later, it's over. About a dozen planes have launched. The room grows quiet. People breathe normally again.

Someone switches the television back to the NCAA.

Jones still has the rest of the night and most of the day to go. More launches are planned. He hopes he can get in lunch and another power nap somewhere along the way.

But for now, he's leaning back in his chair and grinning. "Another day on the world's most powerful warship, yes sir!" he says. "God, I'm hungry."

———

(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ+CARRIER

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