IT IS LATE AFTERNOON SOMEWHERE IN THE ATLANTIC OCEAN, but it doesn’t really matter what time or day it is. Time on the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt has little to do with the sun or the moon or the hands of a clock, and everything to do with the launch and recovery of aircraft from a ship plowing through the sea at 30 knots. Airplanes come and go 24 hours a day; on the Roosevelt they are the sun and moon. The helicopters hovering just off the Roosevelt’s starboard side? “We are pilgrims in an unholy land,” says Lieutenant Matt Persiani, “the booger on the air boss’ flight deck that he just wants to flick off so his jets can fly.”
Persiani is one of 23 Navy helicopter aviators in the Roosevelt’s HS-3 squadron, which flies six helicopters, Sikorsky SH-60 and HH-60 Seahawks. No jet launch or recovery takes place on the carrier unless one of those six are flying. In every flight cycle, helicopters are the first to take off and the last to land, ready to pluck an unfortunate jet driver or seaman from the drink. “The jet guys think they’re badass, but they fly an hour and a half and all they do is fight and bomb,” says Persiani, 26. “We fly four hours straight. When the jet guys go to sleep we’re on alert all night”—24 hours a day, a helicopter and crew can be in the air within 30 minutes.
The helo pilots never know what their flights will bring. In the past two days of training, Persiani has blown up a mine, hunted submarines, flown a night rescue, and patrolled the waters around the carrier for such terrorist threats as small boats, ready to blow them out of the water. One day he might be flying passengers from ship to ship, another ferrying bombs and garbage, another inserting SEALs deep into hostile territory. “We’re the ship’s jack of all trades,” he says.
The Roosevelt and its carrier air group are undergoing sea trials before deploying (exactly where and when is classified), and airplanes are flying in two-hour cycles, each broken by a half-hour pause. The helicopters never rest, however, landing just long enough to take on fuel or a fresh crew.
Whenever a carrier’s airplanes are airborne, one helo is always up and poised for rescue, flying within 20 miles of the carrier during the day, 10 miles at night. Every flight carries a diver ready to leap from the helicopter to rescue a downed aviator. The other primary mission is killing submarines—perhaps a carrier’s greatest threat, especially now, with the proliferation of cheap diesel subs operated by countries like Iran and North Korea. “There are a lot of them, and they’re hard to detect,” says Commander Tom Fitzgerald, HS-3’s skipper. “Especially in local waters where they know all the tricks. One of them could sink a carrier easily, and they cause a lot of anxiety.”
In this afternoon’s exercises, the carrier air group’s destroyer, 20 miles away from the carrier, has made contact with a U.S. sub pretending to be a bad guy somewhere below. Persiani’s job is to find it, and, if he can, kill it—“put ball to bat,” in anti-submarine warfare lingo. The SH-60F helicopter employs the AN/AQS-13F dipping sonar, which is lowered and retrieved via a 1,575-foot cable. The sub hunt starts after the battle group’s destroyer or a Navy P-3 Orion turboprop provides a coordinate. Once the helo is there, hovering 60 feet above the water, the sensor operator in back “dips the dome”—lowers the sonar, a three-foot-long black tube, through a hole in the helo’s floor and into the sea. The operator submerges the device to a depth of up to 1,500 feet, depending on intelligence and sea conditions, activates it, and waits for data to display on a small screen. The AN/AQS-13F is a long-range omnidirectional active sonar that works by transmitting and receiving sound waves: Objects within range of the sonar will reflect a transmitted sound wave back to the receiver, and the object’s distance is determined by the time it takes the transmitted sound wave to return. The AN/AQS-13F can also determine an underwater target’s bearing, as well as the rate at which it is traveling toward or away from the helicopter.
After the initial dip, the SH-60F goes “dip to dip,” with the sensor operator repeating the process of lowering the sonar, activating it, retracting it, and dunking it into another spot, trying to close on the submarine based on the sonar returns. The pilot and sensor operator work in tandem to dip as quickly as possible to home in on a prey that might be traveling at about 35 mph. If Persiani wanted to attack an enemy sub, he could launch the SH-60F’s two sonar-guided MK-50 torpedoes.
“Okay,” Persiani says, leaning over the back of one of the pilot’s leather chairs and facing his copilot, Lieutenant (junior grade) Kevin Chambley, and two other air crewmen in the squadron’s ready room. “We’ll be on a dedicated [anti-submarine warfare] mission today. There are two Kilos [super-quiet diesel-powered Russian attack submarines] out there. Are you guys ready to go kill ’em? Don’t know exactly what our tasking is, but we’ll be doing dip-to-dip so the flight maneuvers will be abrupt. Don’t know if they’ll use countermeasures. We’re not dedicated SAR [search and rescue], but the chance always exists; the swimmer deployment will be ten-ten”—with another helo assigned to guard airplanes, Persiani will be called for SAR only if necessary, and will be ready to put a diver in the water at an altitude of 10 feet and a speed of 10 knots.
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.