In the populous acreage of an aircraft carrier, the corner occupied by helo pilots is small, scrappy, and loud.
- By Carl Hoffman
- Air & Space magazine, January 2006
(Page 2 of 4)
After the brief, the crew heads up to the searing hot flight deck, crowded with airplanes and dozens of helmeted, goggled figures engaged in the complex symphony of launching and recovering supersonic jets. As soon as the last jet is recovered, a helo lands and Persiani and crew head to the gray aircraft. Its rotors are still turning even as it gets refueled. “No reason to shut down a perfectly working helicopter,” shouts Persiani. Often the machines go 14 or more hours without shutting down. As the previous crew exits, Persiani and Chambley climb in front, the two air crewmen in the back, one of them bearing a rucksack containing wetsuit, snorkel, mask, and fins. The two deck crew unfasten the chains securing the helo, pull the chocks from its landing gear, and run to the front of the helicopter, holding them up for Persiani. “I see two chocks and chains,” he says, and up we pop.
Moments later we fly 150 feet above royal blue water at 90 knots, hot humid air pouring through the open door. After 30 miles, we see the destroyer. Persiani tries to call it on the radio, but he doesn’t get an answer; the destroyer is mute. “I don’t know what’s going on—maybe they’re dead or something as part of the scenario,” he says. This is a war game, after all. The carrier, known as “Mom,” instructs Persiani to head 40 miles south to a missile-equipped cruiser. We bank hard and blast off again. The cruiser tells him to stand off to port—it’s about to shoot something. But before we do, the carrier radio tells Persiani to go identify another target, but stand off as soon as he does so he doesn’t get shot. Off we go again, another 20 miles. Persiani sees it’s another cruiser and reports his finding; wary of getting hit, he does not go closer. Get the hull number to be sure, the carrier tells him.
“Roger that,” says Persiani. Avoiding the cruiser’s weapons, he drops to 70 feet and comes in with the sun at his back. Nine miles is close enough: He IDs the ship and we turn around. Suddenly the destroyer is talking, giving us a coordinate for the sub, another 30 miles to the north. We scream to the spot, Persiani drops low and hovers, and the sonar operator deploys the sonar. The listening device has descended only 30 feet deep when Persiani is told a new coordinate. We reel in the sonar and scream away again. Four miles from the new coordinate, Persiani is told to come back to the carrier. Almost four hours have passed, and the sun is low on the horizon. Persiani is running low on fuel, and after dark he’ll need night-vision goggles.
“Crazy out there today,” he says in the ready room a few minutes later. “But normal. People know we’re available. No one ever tells the jet guys to change their mission from bombing. But we’re ready to do anything.”
The carrier is a warren of never-ending passageways and small rooms behind closed doors, each one a world unto itself. HS-3’s world is the ready room, 23 reclining leather seats lined up in rows by seniority (most senior to the front), each bearing an aviator’s name. Two video monitors show the action on the flight deck. White boards displaying the day’s mission schedule and weather line the walls. The smell of coffee is omnipresent. Any hour of the day, the ready room is full of pilots talking, studying, and checking e-mail on the room’s three computers, helmets and life vests of the crew on alert draped over their chairs. “Way to go Tomcat!” shouts someone, watching the video monitor as an F-14 fishtails and snags in the trap. “Way to foul the flight deck!” It’s a young crowd; nearly all but Fitzgerald, the grand old man at 42, are in their 20s.
There are four other rooms just like this one for the fixed-wing pilots; the two worlds rarely interact, except sometimes in the wardroom when jet and helicopter aviators share a meal or game of cards. The helicopter squadron is smaller in every way. There are, after all, just six helos on board and 23 helicopter aviators, versus 22 F-14s and 22 F/A-18s and 65 fighter jocks, each with attendant maintenance and logistics needs. Indeed, there are 1,700 fixed-wing personnel compared to 195 working rotary wing.
Truth be told, most Navy pilots enter training with dreams of catching tailhooks, not flying helicopters. “Seventy five percent of guys in flight school want to fly jets,” says Lieutenant Kevin Colon, 28, cradling a mug of coffee. “But every jet has one pilot and every helicopter two. There are a lot more helicopters in the Navy than jets, and not a lot of people recognize that.” Like all Navy pilots, they enter flight school and amass 120 hours in fixed-wing aircraft—T-34s—including aerobatics and formation flying. And then the moment comes. Where they end up is largely dependent on their grades, with higher-graded students getting first dibs on the fewer fighter slots. “You sit at a big round table with an officer, and he opens a file and proclaims your future,” says Persiani. “I wanted to fly jets, of course.”
Lieutenant Dan Boutros, 26, is unusual: He wanted helicopters from the beginning. “I never liked jets,” he says. “In school, I’d spent a month with a carrier helicopter squadron and thought they were the sexiest thing on earth.”