Date: 6/13/2009 8:05:51 PM
Subject: Naval Air Operations in Afghanistan
This is me in the cockpit and my large Martian helmet. The weapon that is out on the right wing of the aircraft is a 500-lb laser guided bomb. On the other wing that you can't see is a 500-lb GPS guided bomb. That is our standard load out on these missions.
I just wanted to send another update to let you know how things are going out here on the good ship USS Eisenhower. We're in our seventh week of deployment and have 108 days to go. We began combat operations on March 21st and have been flying over the beach almost every day since then. This is the most flying that I've done in all my 17 years. Naval aviators are limited by instruction to 30 flight hours a month and, to exceed that, you must have a written waiver by the Flight Surgeon. As of today I have 65 hours in the last 29 days.
Our missions are regularly 6 hours long. Its an hour transit to and from the ship just to get on station in southern Afghanistan . All the air traffic travels up a common air route that we call The Boulevard that traverses Pakistan and crosses the border into Afghanistan. All the traffic on the boulevard is either Naval aircraft from our ship or Air Force tankers coming from Qatar.
Most of our missions thus far have been in southern Afghanistan near the city of Kandahar. That is where a lot of the poppy harvest is taking place right now and that is where a lot of the enemy forces are dug in. On a typical mission, we check in with a Joint Tactical Air Controller (JTAC) on the ground who is part of a ground unit. The JTAC is trained to communicate with aircraft and if necessary call in for air support in case some shooting starts. They used to be called Forward Air Controllers.
Thus far I have worked with American Special Forces, British Forces, Australian and Danish Forces. It is very interesting to see the mix of troops on the ground. But its nice to see that all the procedures are very standardized no matter what nationality that you are supporting. On most of our missions we provide Armed Reconnaissance, which has us watching over a friendly ground patrol, in vehicle or on foot, and looking ahead of their route of travel to try and find enemy fighters or potential spotting positions.
A few days ago I was watching over an Army Special Forces unit. There were about 15 to 20 guys all riding four wheelers in the hills overlooking a small village. We do most of our searching using our FLIR camera which is an infrared camera that has the ability to zoom in pretty close. The JTACS on the ground can also link up with our FLIR camera and see what we are seeing on their laptop computer.
We look for bad guys in groups digging or potentially placing roadside bombs. A lot of times the JTACS give us coordinates of known bad-guy locations and have us watch for movement or activity.
A few nights ago I was talking to a JTAC and I could hear the gunfire over the radio and he calmly said they were taking fire from an unknown locations and wanted us to scan the hills surrounding them for any activity. On average our Air Wing drops four or five bombs a day or conducts a few strafing runs on enemy positions.
We also do a lot of Shows of Force which is simply a high speed low-altitude pass over an enemy position to get them to stop shooting or even run. Although I haven't yet gotten a chance to drop a bomb, I can say that I'm not in a rush. My time will come. I did have a wingman who conducted a strafing run on two individuals who were digging at a roadside intersection. It was at night so the complexity of shooting bullets from an aircraft moving 500mph at a small moving target in the dark is absolutely amazing.
I enjoy working with the guys on the ground. I think it’s a comforting feeling for them to know that we are overhead and can deliver a devastatingly accurate blow within seconds of asking for it. Even if we don't find bad guys, I feel a lot of job satisfaction just being up there and talking to the guys on the ground. These guys are pretty amazing. I will hear them say something like, "We are taking fire from an unknown location so we are going to get out of our vehicles and move into the open so we can try to locate where the fire is coming from." Amazing bravery. Our team is killing a lot of bad guys right now.
Some of the most harrowing parts of our mission is refueling . . . particularly in the dark or in bad weather. On a typical 6-hour mission, we refuel off of big wing Air Force tankers three times.
This is my wingman tanking from an Air Force KC10.
There is a point on the boulevard that once I cross it I know that if I have a problem with my tanker, that I do not have enough fuel to get back to the carrier and would have to divert to one of the three occupied airfields in the country. The tankers all hold at specific points and altitudes around the country.
I know before I launch what my tanker's call sign is, what point he will be at, what time I'm supposed to be there, what altitude he will be at and what frequency I will talk to him on. There is an overarching control agency that runs the tanker plan and it is constantly changing usually based on the fight that is going on the ground. A lot of times tankers get pushed over an area where there is fighting so that the airborne assets don't waste time trying to get to their tanker and back into the fight. Once one tanker moves it starts a domino effect that effects almost everyone. Its like a shell game. They are constantly shuffling tankers around. I don't think I've launched on a single mission and hit all my tankers that I was originally scheduled for. I have tanked off American and British Air Force tankers.
Two days ago I was on a tanker and two French Rafael fighters were waiting in line with me at 22000 feet for their gas. When the mission is over we hit the tanker one last time before exiting the country and fly the boulevard south and the hour flight back to the carrier. When its all done then I get to look forward to that night carrier landing.
Luckily the North Arabian Sea is calm and the weather has been good. No pitching deck out here so far. By the end of the mission I'm usually starving. I try and take food and water with me in the cockpit and typically I get a chance to eat and drink something on the trip back to the carrier at the end of the mission. But you don't want to drink too much because that presents a whole new problem for a single seat cockpit.
Thank goodness for altitude hold. The cockpit gets pretty crowded with all of our extra gear. We have our standard issue gear for going in country which includes our pistol and two magazine clips, our blood chit which is basically a piece a paper that we use in case we find ourselves on the ground that is written in several different native languages and basically says "I'm an American and you will be paid if you help me return to friendly American forces." We carry a camelback* full of water that is sewn into our flight vest.
* plastic collapsable bladder with drinking tube, commonly worn on the back - S.L.
On every mission we go on, we have a stack of papers that have coordinates and radio frequencies. I also have my new helmet-mounted targeting system which is a new visor that clips to the regular helmet and projects vital information on my visor (I've attached a picture of me wearing that helmet in the cockpit.) It looks like a Martian helmet, but it is honestly the best piece of gear that I carry with me. I can type in the coordinates for a friendly unit on the ground and then look outside the cockpit and diamond will be projected on my visor directly over the position of that unit on the ground. It's very useful in locating things on the ground, but it also helps me find things in the air.
Yesterday I saw my tanker from 28 miles away because my helmet puts a box around the radar contact that I have locked up so I know exactly where to look. Pretty cool. I also take a pair of NVGs on every flight. Night-vision goggles are absolutely necessary once the sun goes down. The ground units use a lot of infrared lights to help mark their positions or the positions of enemy units and I can see all of that from 20000 feet with my NVG's on.
Well I've written way more than I should have. I hope I haven't bored you. I know many of you have asked what I'm doing over here. This email was to try to help you understand what I've been doing. It in no way is meant to be tooting my own horn.. The guys on the ground are the real heroes. I'm simply a supporting element to the fight.
I want to say thank you to all of you who have sent Care packages. They were very much appreciated by me and all the guys in my ready room. Keep watching the news. If you hear about airstrikes in Southern Afghanistan there is a good chance it came from my Air Wing.
This is me flying in Aircraft 401 taken two days ago.