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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 first in a two-part series.
Somewhere in the Arabian Gulf
A U.S. Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet strains to stay still as its 44,000 pounds of thrust tug at the catapult keeping the jet locked in place on a sea-based runway. A helmet- and goggle-clad deck sailor ducks underneath the fighter to inspect the nose gear and perform the final safety check.
Waving his arms in carefully choreographed motions, the sailor finally signs off and stretches his arm forward pointing to the Arabian Sea off the bow of the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, giving the signal for takeoff.
With a single snap salute from the pilot, the fighter rips from its mooring, and the steam-assisted catapult helps propel the Super Hornet from zero to 180 miles per hour in just two seconds, pushing the jet on its way toward Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
It’s just another day at the office for the men and women of the USS Eisenhower, or “Ike” as they call it. The nuclear-powered aircraft carrier is on patrol at the “tip of the spear” for the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, and is currently patrolling international waters off the coast of Pakistan.
“We are able to provide some stability in the maritime domain simply by our presence,” said U.S. Navy Capt. Dee L. Mewbourne, commanding officer of the USS Eisenhower.
“Our primary mission is to support the ground war in Afghanistan, but we also provide support to fight smuggling and piracy.”
The Navy’s Fifth Fleet carrier strike group, which is now lead by the USS Eisenhower, rescued commercial sea captain Richard Phillips from Somali pirates last year. The Boeing-Insitu ScanEagle, a small, 40-pound intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance unmanned aircraft, flew above a pirated life boat and fed live video to U.S. Navy SEALs as they engaged the pirates and freed the captain.
“That was our strike group that was involved in that,” said Mewbourne from the captain’s chair on the carrier. “It took a lot of assets, including ScanEagle, to rescue him.”
The USS Eisenhower is a formidable presence in the Arabian Gulf and is responsible for flying nearly 30 percent of U.S. air support missions into Afghanistan. At 95,000 tons and with a flight deck the length of three football fields, Ike’s four catapults launch 48 Boeing F/A-18 Hornets and Super Hornets and 13 assorted support, communications, and intelligence aircraft into action daily.
Home sweet home
Below decks, the Ike is home to more than 4,000 crew members who keep the ship mission-ready 24/7. Deployments can stretch for months, and having some comforts of home makes the isolation at sea more tolerable.
There is a post office, a non-denominational chapel, and even a mini-mart the size of a modern-day convenience store where crew members can buy everything from iPods to toothpaste and deodorant.
U.S. Navy Ensign Tabitha Hodges, who manages the store, says floor traffic is always heavy.
“They look for whatever they might find at a 7-Eleven, maybe a Walgreens drug store,” said Hodges. “This carrier is home, this is where we live, so we need to make it comfortable.”
It may be home to the crew, but make no mistake about it – this is a U.S. warship, and Operation Enduring Freedom missions are launched around the clock.
After dark, the aircraft carrier takes on a whole different feel. White florescent lights are replaced by the ambient glow of red lighting above and below decks to help crew members’ vision adjust to the nighttime surroundings.
The thud of planes pounding onto the flight deck as they return from their missions can be heard, and felt, throughout the ship all night, sending shuddering vibrations throughout the carrier.
During peak hours of operation, an aircraft is launched every 60 seconds and recovered every 45. It’s up to the maintenance crews aboard Ike to keep the ship’s aircraft, known as Carrier Air Wing 7, mission-ready.
“It’s all about keeping these airplanes ready for action and keeping our flight crews safe,” said U.S. Navy Lt. John Pilotti. Describing the capabilities of the F/A-18 Super Hornet, the safety officer added, “The design and flexibility of the jet itself, with its ease of maintenance, makes our job look easy.”
Maintenance crews also get help from Boeing Field Service Representatives (FSRs) who are deployed with the carriers and provide 24-hour, on-site technical expertise, including parts and logistics support, to the air wing.
“The Boeing FSRs help a lot,” said U.S. Navy Senior Chief Guillermo Marizalde, a production control supervisor. “Time is critical out here. We have to make decisions on the go, and they are onboard to respond right away.”
The average age of the Ike’s crew is 18 to 24 years old, and the spirit of motivation and dedication is evident. On the bridge, a 19-year-old is steering the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier through the Arabian Gulf as an 18-year-old sailor scans the horizon for threats using binoculars.
“Our crew aboard the Ike is absolutely amazing,” said Capt. Mewbourne. “I wish Americans got to see through my eyes what I see every day. This is an important mission for the safety and security of the region and the world. I can’t think of a better crew to carry it out during these uncertain times.”