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Aboard the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower aircraft carrier, a Boeing writer gets a firsthand look at how the U.S. Navy, with support from Boeing, is conducting important missions in the Arabian Gulf – and defending freedom. This is the second in a two-part series.
Standing side-by-side in the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower’s pilot equipment room and stepping into their flight suits, U.S. Navy lieutenants and F/A-18 Super Hornet pilots Brad Whittington and Michael Stengel are quiet.
Both have an eight-hour flight from the aircraft carrier to Afghanistan ahead of them. It’s a time to think and focus.
“When it comes right down to it, we know we’re doing real combat operations,” said Stengel. “We take it seriously.”
In addition to F/A-18s, many Boeing products are supporting this mission, which will take the pilots over Afghanistan’s rugged terrain to support U.S. and coalition ground forces deployed in Operation Enduring Freedom.
Whittington and Stengel both strap on Combat Survivor Evader Locators (CSELs) built by Boeing Network and Space Systems. The sophisticated CSEL survival radios enable rescue teams to locate a downed pilot using Global Positioning System technology. The system increases survivability if a pilot ejects from an aircraft during a mission.
“Definitely, we know what its capabilities are, and hopefully it’ll get us picked up in a hurry if we ever have to use it,” said Stengel as he slid the walkie-talkie-sized radio into its olive green pouch on his flight vest.
The pilots also use Boeing’s Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System, a space-age-looking visor that gives flight crews the ability to rapidly acquire and designate multiple targets simply by looking at them.
“The cool thing about it is it’s really good for air-to-ground operations,” said Whittington. “It allows you to see your target designation just by looking out the canopy.”
Suited up, both pilots make their way to the flight deck walking through the cramped corridors of the aircraft carrier and past the Radio Communications Center that will be their link to the ship while they fly their mission. It’s in here that crew members are responsible for all data and voice transmissions within the carrier’s battle group. A satellite system called the UHF Follow-On, also built by Boeing Network and Space Systems, supports the U.S. Navy’s global communications network, which connects the carrier group to other naval forces.
“Attention to detail is crucial in this radio room,” said Navy Chief Warrant Officer Don Adams. “Any second we have lost communication with an aircraft – that’s considered a safety issue. We want to be able to bring them home.”
Next-door in the Combat Direction Center, rows of technicians monitor every mission and movement of the USS Eisenhower in the Arabian Gulf. The sweep of a radar screen illuminates a young intelligence officer’s face as he tracks a target.
Life on this U.S. warship can be demanding. On-guard 24 hours per day, USS Eisenhower crew members reach out to loved ones back home whenever they can. If children are involved, the time and distance away from them becomes even more bittersweet.
U.S. Navy Mass Communications Petty Officer 2nd Class Gina Wollman knows that firsthand. Her son Ayden is living with her sister while she is deployed.
“When I go to bed at night, I hold a picture of Ayden,” said Wollman. “He’s the last thought on my mind, and it helps me to sleep better.”
Through a program called United Through Reading, the USS Eisenhower’s crew can digitally record bedtime stories read into a camera in the ship’s TV studio and send them to their children a world away. United Through Reading for military personnel is funded by individuals and groups such as the United Service Organization (USO).
“When you have those first moments that you miss – your child’s first game when they play soccer or your daughter’s first dance recital – those are things you can’t bring back,” said Navy Commander Tommy Crosby, a public affairs officer on the ship. “At least through programs like this, you have a way to stay connected.”
Super Hornet gets high marks
It’s almost noon and the piercing Arabian sun is overhead reflecting off the polished canopy of a waiting Super Hornet. A maintenance team readies the jet which carries two 500-pound bombs equipped with Boeing’s Joint Direct Attack Munition guidance kit. The system enables precise targeting for pilots who use the bombs to support ground forces in Afghanistan. Pilots with Carrier Strike Group 7 speak confidently about the aircraft that soon will take them into hostile airspace and back. The USS Eisenhower’s 48 Boeing-built F/A-18 Hornets and Super Hornets deliver the carrier’s primary punch.
One Navy pilot interviewed about the performance of the Boeing fighter jet said “there’s nothing better than taking an aircraft that performs as well as this one does and flying into combat….because it always works.”
Factory floor to front line
From the commander’s deck six stories above the flight deck, the sheer force of the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower is clearly visible. Rows of F/A-18s are lined up and in position for launch.
Captain Dee L. Mewbourne, who commands the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, scans the horizon.
A world away from the factory floors and men and women of Boeing who build the F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jets in St. Louis, the aircraft are being prepared to launch on another round of sorties in the skies over Afghanistan – each on an eight-hour mission to support U.S. and coalition troops keeping peace in a sometimes hostile place.