It was not a raucous New Year's Eve for the Navy pilots of the Bounty Hunters, an F-14 squadron based on the USS Constellation in the Persian Gulf. They had a five-and-a-half-hour flight over southern Iraq the next day to prepare for.
A few of the squadron members spent a quiet evening smoking cigars on a small deck at the rear of the aircraft carrier. The thought of getting shot at — as they often are these days when patrolling the southern no-fly zone of Iraq — did not seem to weigh on them as much as the discomfort they expected from spending over five hours sealed in their cockpits. "My ass is going to be killing me," one pilot said.
As part of Operation Southern Watch, these men are among of a small group of pilots who are encountering and returning fire from Iraqis on a regular basis. They are a friendly, jocular bunch, but at the same time very competitive. They are ranked on their performance each flight out, and they take their rankings seriously.
"Torso," a lieutenant and member of the Bounty Hunters who asked to be identified only by his call sign, allowed ABCNEWS to follow him around on New Year's Day. This is the second tour in the Persian Gulf for the 27-year-old Annapolis graduate from Pennsylvania. He was last patrolling the southern no-fly zone in August of 2000, his first deployment.
With more experience under his belt this cruise, Torso is less nervous and more confident. But the situation has changed dramatically from the summer of 2000. Now, there is a very real prospect of war.
"There's a lot more tension, a lot more electricity in the air," he said. "There's more of a sense of purpose now."
Torso spends just as much time briefing for flights as he does flying. After waking up at 10 a.m., the first briefing of the day was a Strike Planning session at 11:30 in the Carrier Intelligence Center (CVIC).
Intelligence officers briefed Torso and the other pilots on their mission. They have known about their mission for some time, but this meeting was to "make sure everything is good to go. Cross the T's and dot the I's," Torso said.
There will be four other briefings today. One is a mass coordination meeting for all of the pilots from different squadrons who will be flying out tonight. Another is a smaller one just for those in Torso's flight group, followed by one for just him and "Bobby," a fellow F-14 pilot who will be flying side-by-side with Torso on the mission, since all F-14s fly in pairs. Finally, when he returns from his flight, Torso will be de-briefed by his commanding officers.
Torso and Bobby will be flying Defensive Counter Air (DCA), charged with defending the other strikers from attacks from Iraqi planes or other enemy aircraft. Flying DCA puts more pressure on "Thum", the Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) who flies in the back seat of the jet with Torso. Thum will be the one watching the radar for enemy planes and preparing the weapons systems for launch.
The Ready Room
When not in a briefing or in flight, Torso can be found in the Ready Room, which serves as a homebase for the squadron. It is a briefing room, Internet café, and movie theater rolled into one. Each of the over 30 pilots and officers has his own plush chair — a recliner reminiscent of a first-class airline seat from the 1980s — labeled with his call sign.
The pilots play cards (Euchre is the game of choice), check e-mail, drink coffee, and trade barbs with each other. Torso will be in and out of the Ready Room all day, between briefings and checking on the laundry he is doing.
A giant cloth calendar made by the squadron wives back home in Virginia Beach hangs on one wall. For each day there is either a picture of the wife for the married pilots, or a magazine clipping of a scantily clad model for the single guys.
On another wall are the rankings. Each time a pilot lands after a mission, he is graded on his landing by a group of fellow pilots not scheduled to fly that day. Since the carrier runway is so short, landing planes have to catch wires which bring them to a stop. There are four wires about 15 feet apart. The goal is to catch the third wire with the plane's tailhook. If you catch the first wire, known as the Ace, you came in too short, and may have risked flying into the front of the carrier. If you catch the fourth wire you came in too high and risked missing the runway.
If you catch the third wire you got it just right and get an OK pass, the best you can get, which earns you a 4.0 on the pilot GPA scale. If you catch an Ace, you get a No Grade, or a 2.0. The goal is to finish in the top 10 out of the 100 or so pilots on board for a 25-flight cycle. When you do, you get a Top 10 patch. Torso has three Top 10 patches stitched into his jacket.
"It's very competitive," Torso said. "No matter what people tell you about it, people care about the rankings and want to get a patch."
After Torso's name on the big board is a series of OK passes, but on his last flight out he caught an Ace on the landing for the first time, a No Grade. He hopes to get back on track tonight.
"The Walk," the process in which a pilot gets dressed and works his way to the flight deck, lasts an hour and fifteen minutes for Operation Southern Watch flights.
At 4:30 p.m., a senior officer reminds Torso to remove a patch from his shoulder with his name on it. "In case I get shot down," Torso explains.
He then heads to the Parachute Rigger shop, where he puts on his flight suit. Weighing almost 20 pounds, the suit is less than comfortable.
The leggings are tight in order to prevent too much blood from flowing to the legs as a result of G Forces, and since the suit is meant to be worn sitting down, it forces the pilot to hunch over slightly. He compares it to wearing a very heavy corset. Torso cleans and adjusts his night vision goggles.
Torso now has to sign out for his F-14, a $38 million machine. He is given the plane's book, which has all of the past and present maintenance problems for this specific plane in it so he knows which issues to look out for.
The plane he is taking out only has small problems, it says, like fading displays in the cockpit. Torso signs the plane out to himself: "I'm just borrowing it."
Back in the Ready Room, Torso picks up the final items to be taken with him. Laid out on a table are a pistol, some rounds of ammunition, and a radio with a Global Positioning System chip inside for each of the pilots. Torso has a colleague load his pistol for him and tuck it into his flight suit.
At 5:45 p.m., Torso is launched from the USS Constellation by a steam-fueled catapult piston. He goes from 0 to 150 mph in 1.5 seconds, covering a distance of 290 yards in that time, almost three times the length of a football field. A force of about 4 Gs pushes in on him. "It's a rush," Torso says of being launched.
Once in flight, it became clear that some of Torso's equipment was not working properly. He could not give details on the nature of the problem. More airplanes are usually launched on these flights than are needed for the mission, so if there is a problem on board, that plane can turn back.
After only an hour-and-a-half in the air, Torso has to cut out of the mission and come back for a landing, without ever making it to southern Iraq. Night landings are the hardest of them all, since the carrier is difficult to see at night, with only a few small lights leading the way.
Tonight's landing did not go as Torso had planned. He caught the Ace for a second time in a row. "It was pretty crappy," he said. "I guess I'm on a bad streak now."
Noticeably disappointed after his flight, Torso unwinds by working out and catching up on e-mail with friends and family. A few hours after his aborted mission, he can look back on it and be slightly more upbeat. "I'm disappointed I didn't get to go," he said. "But there are going to be plenty more flights."