“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.”
“I’d never even set foot in a helicopter,” says Persiani, “and three weeks after flying the T-34, I’m flying one. But I have no regrets. None. I’d pick ’em now.”
After six levels of rotary-wing training, helo pilots become qualified to fly their most dangerous missions: strike-rescue flights deep into enemy territory, at night, flying the HH-60H version of the Seahawk, which is equipped with laser-guided Hellfire missiles, chaff dispensers, and machine guns. Carrier pilots are the only ones in the Navy to fly the HH-60H, and Persiani spent a month in Fallon, Nevada, and a week in Norfolk, Virginia, training with F-14 Tomcats, F/A-18 Super Hornets, and SEALs and honing his low-altitude skills. “You’re flying at night in goggles in hostile territory and it’s intense and difficult,” he says. “You’re right over the trees, almost dragging your wheels on the ground, rotor tip to rotor tip, with the jet guys in F-18s guarding you and F-14s controlling you, and the [need to maintain] situational awareness is almost overwhelming. We don’t have a single light on and our goal is to land on a survivor within the arc of our rotors and be gone within one minute. That’s strike warfare and only carrier helicopters can do it.”
It’s just after noon the next day when Kevin Colon and his copilot take off for another flight. We hover off the side of Mom for a few minutes, then dart away, eye a nearby freighter, then check a Perry-class frigate against a reconnaissance information card all helicopter pilots carry. “See any other surface contacts out there?” says Colon.
“I don’t see jack!” says the copilot.