In Their Own Words #5: Eleven Stories For Veterans DayCDR John "Germ" Geragotelis, US Navy, is commanding officer of the VAQ-131 "Lancers," an electronic-attack squadron of EA-6B Prowlers based at NAS Whidbey Island, WA, that is part of Carrier Air Group Two assigned to the USS Constellation (CV-64). In addition to Operation Iraqi Freedom, CDR Geragotelis has flown combat missions in conjunction with Operations Southern Watch over Iraq and Deny Flight and Deliberate Force over Bosnia.
The first A-Day (Air Day) strike of Operation Iraqi Freedom, on the long night of March 21, had elements of the routine to it, but weird things come to mind while sitting on a catapult at night. There's no doubt in a Tailhooker's mind that if something goes wrong during that stroke, he is merely along for the ride.
I tossed and turned for five hours, then at 15:45, it was time to get out of the rack. The brief would be for the most important event of my career, the opening strike of the "Shock and Awe" campaign in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). If I smirk at the term shock and awe, it's because an Air Force guy coined it, said it was an essential "kick off" tactic for any war. As you know, the ground campaign preceded the air campaign by two days, proving once again that you should never use yesterday's tactics to fight tomorrow's war. After a quick bowl of oatmeal, I head to the Ready Room to check on our aircraft status and make sure everything is still on track for the big night.
Background for non-military readers: We get most of our information from TV, same as you. When the ground war started, we got the word that A-Day would be two days later. It just so happened that Commander CVW-2, my air wing, was given the overall lead for the first A-Day strike (commander of CVW-2 is called CAG, a hold over from the days when it was a carrier air group vice air wing). As all of you who have jobs know, stuff rolls downhill. So I took charge of the entire suppression effort. That's the Prowler specialty -- keeping the enemy's air defenses, their surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and radar, from targeting our strike aircraft. Our first wave had about 80 aircraft directly involved. That's huge. To provide protection, we planned for EA-6Bs from five different squadrons (three from aircraft carriers and two shore-based), lots of anti-radiation missiles from Navy and Air Force jets, and lots of stand-off weapons deployed from outside the SAM engagement ranges. Of course, the plan looked great on paper, but no one knew how Iraq would counter. War is like a football game -- lots of reacting, improvising, and changing on the fly. The pre-game planning was done. We were ready to go.
16:45:00: CAG starts the brief right on time even though the admiral hasn't arrived. Our shoe admiral is fighting a different war. He is charged with defending over 100 Coalition ships in the Arabian Gulf. That keeps him busy. He arrives late and sits beside me in the front row. CAG's brief has evolved into more of a pep talk. He's longwinded, but I somehow manage to keep paying attention. There are some bigwig reporters in the room.
18:00: It's time to walk. I sense that my crews are a little concerned. I'm flying with Creepy, Jersey, and Donny. We've trained long and hard, worked up since June, and yet no one knows exactly what will happen. I have a very competent squadron, so I'm not worried. I tell the SDO to can the REO Speedwagon and put on the old stand-by, AC/DC -- oh yeah!
18:20: I salute my plane captain (PC) and preflight my jet. Realize it is pitch dark out, so even with my state-of-the-art, government-issue D-cell flashlight, I can't see much. The flight deck is a hazardous place, especially at night. My jet is parked so close to the round-down (the back edge of the carrier) that I dare not even walk under the tail for fear of slipping over the side. How embarrassing would that be? "First casualty of war: Clumsy Navy pilot falls off USS Constellation, lost at sea, CNN footage at 11." So I carefully climb into my jet and wait.
18:35: Exactly 40 minutes prior to launch, I hear the loudspeakers blare the mantra that brings kinship to every past and present Tailhooker. It is more of a prayer than a warning. "On the flight deck, aircrews are manning for the Event 1, Case 3 launch [Case 3 means night or bad weather -- unrestricted climb off the catapult]. Time for all unnecessary personnel to leave the flight deck. Those remaining get in complete and proper flight deck uniform, helmets on and buckled, goggles down, sleeves rolled down. Check one last time for chocks and chains and loose gear about the deck. Check your clothing and pockets for FOD. Now start all the go birds. Start 'em up!"
I close the canopies and light off the engines. At night, the PC and I communicate via light signals. My eyes haven't fully adjusted, so I see only his wands. After checking our systems, we are ready to go. The yellow shirt (yellow wands at night) signals our taxi. The ambient light from the superstructure aids in judging motion, but it is still very treacherous, moving a 27-ton aircraft around without any perception of depth or speed. I move slowly at night, especially since the non-skid has worn off from five months of flight ops. It's not unusual to slide about ten feet before stopping. I follow the director's wands to Cat 4. The Prowlers will launch first tonight; the mighty Lancers will kick-off Operation Iraqi Freedom for the Constellation Battle Group.
19:10: Weird things come to mind while sitting on a catapult at night. Very few things frighten me. Of course, I'm not counting those loser boyfriends my daughters dated, but luckily just the sight of a groomed, employed father scared them off. Perhaps helpless is a better description of how I feel, even after 300 night cat shots. There's no doubt in a Tailhooker's mind that if something goes wrong during that stroke -- engine failure, generator failure, gyro failure, etc., or worse yet, a catapult malfunction -- he is merely along for the ride. Most daytime catapult emergencies would be child's play for us Navy flyboys. But at night, if my copilot God doesn't grab the stick, our skill probably won't be sufficient to fly away from the water.
19:14:25: The director's yellow wands signal "take tension" to the catapult officer, and I feel the tug of the shuttle on my launch bar. I smoothly advance to full power and hear the roar of my two engines. "There's one, two, three good wipe-outs, oil and hydraulics in band, RPM, EGT, fuel flow in limits. Ready? [Consent by silence from my three ECMOs] Lights are on!"
I signal my launch by turning on the exterior lights, "touching the deck" as I watch the Shooter dip his wand down to signal our shot. "Here we go," I say just prior to bracing.
There's nothing outside, so I fixate on my attitude indicator and grunt "good shot" as we get slung into black. I can tell a good shot, because my head and torso are pressed into my seat so hard that I can't lean forward. It's the most comforting uncomfortable feeling in the world. "We're climbing," I call after I rotate the aircraft, still staring at my instruments.
In fact, there's no reason to look outside until I am well above 2,000 feet high. That's also when I start to breathe again.
19:20: Northwest bound with wingman in tow. We have an appointment with a tanker about 250 miles away. I can see tons of aircraft while driving up the "ocean parkway" (the name given to the route we take to Iraq). A few years ago, I would have been able to see only some stars and oil platforms. But now, we all fly on night-vision devices (NVDs). We call them goggles. Don't believe the movies; it is nothing like seeing in the day, and goggles don't work through clouds either. Everything appears greenish. Light sources can be seen for miles. They are sensitive enough to pick up headlights, campfires, etc. from miles away. I can see other aircraft from over fifty miles. On a moonlit night, it's easy to make out ground features, such as fields, roads, rivers, etc.
20:15: We arrive at our exit to the tanker track. There are planes all over the place. That's the downside with goggles: you can see everything. It used to be nice not knowing what was out there -- the old "ignorance is bliss" thing. Anyway, rendezvousing on the tanker is usually the most dangerous part of the mission. There is high potential to collide with someone else, because lots of planes are arriving from different altitudes and directions. It gets real sporty when the weather is bad, but tonight is clear. I locate our tanker, avoid a few planes, and join up on the portside, number four in line for gas.
20:35: Finally, my turn behind the KC-10. I "smoothly" make a last-minute full cross-controlled rudder slam to get the fueling probe into the basket. That's my trademark. Not only does it impress the guy/gal watching in the tanker, but it also wakes up my three ECMOs. Just kidding, of course. Tonight they are wide-awake, and all our radar- and communications-jamming systems are checked and readied. "Fill 'er up." Yeah, that's what I say. Pretty corny, huh? 10,000 pounds of JP later we are topped off and on our way north -- next stop Baghdad.
21:15: Somewhere just south of Baghdad. There are scattered clouds below us, but I can clearly see the capital. I can see bright Tomahawk cruise-missile explosions all throughout the city. To the right and left, I can see trails, like Roman candles, streaking toward Baghdad. I cannot see the aircraft launching the missiles, because at night we turn our lights off. We go "midnight" so the enemy can't optically target us from below. Although I cannot see any of the friendly aircraft, I know where they are. We originated from all over the world, from afloat and from land, travelling hundreds of miles, some thousands. We culminate as one tremendously lethal strike force -- on time, on target, on Baghdad. Fox News shows bombs exploding randomly for hours, and it may appear to be a free-for-all, similar to a "food fight." But there is very little randomness in the military. In fact, the larger the strike, the more precise. As I watch six bottle rockets (anti-radiation missiles) fired from two Hornets 10 miles to my right, and as I see the Tomcats above me tapping burner to accelerate at the ingress point, I know our execution is on time. I also know there is no evil empire on this earth that can defeat our awesome Jedi forces. All is good and right.
There's still plenty of work left for my crew and I as we watch streams and streams of anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) rising from downtown and suburbia. We see numerous SAMs being launched. None will guide because ten venerable Prowlers are obliterating all enemy radar with a relentless storm of 'trons. But it is still unnerving, especially when we see a salvo of SAMs launched near us. My heart stops beating until we determine that nothing is tracking us. Seconds later Creepy calls, "Break left," directing me to turn the plane as hard as aerodynamically possible. Seems as if a barrage of AAA was exploding outside our starboard canopy. For over one-half hour we jammed, dodging fountains of AAA and sporadic SAMs, watching explosions decorate Baghdad like mosquitoes flickering into a bug zapper, protecting Coalition brethren from all over the globe. It seemed like only minutes.
22:20: There's not a lot of cockpit chatter on the way home. Of course, the radios have been squawking non-stop all night. The hundreds of planes airborne tended to make our controllers very chatty. I fly quiet. The satisfaction of surviving is enough to keep us comfortable as we head out to sea. Feet wet, I remove my goggles to regain 100% night vision, because I need all the help I can get on night traps. If I were only in the Air Force, aside from not knowing my parents, I would have no problems, just a simple landing on a two-mile-long runway. After de-goggling, all I see is black. Tonight there is no Commander's moon, as the JOs call it. In fact, it's darker than fresh cow dung on a moonless prairie night, darker than a dead witch's hat, darker than a black hole, darker than the backside of the moon -- not my lines, but you get the point. It's damn dark.
22:56:00: "503 commencing, altimeter 2-9-8-7," calls Donny, as we push downhill out of the marshal stack.
I ease our rate of descent as we pass through 5,000 feet. I don't want to add my name to that sad list of navy pilots who started their approach too soon and flew right into the water. Believe me, it's not a far stretch. There's nothing to see outside except black, so I padlock on the instruments. I level off at 1,200 feet. Jersey asks, "Hey, Germ, do you have your cheaters on?"
I guess he was sleeping when I announced that 20 minutes ago. After my laser surgery, I could see 20-15 in both eyes, but it's been three years, so I need cheaters (glasses) to see 20-20. Around the boat, vanity is not a welcome sidekick.
They've done studies on stress and found that night carrier landings increase a pilot's heart rate more than any other flight task. No! (Your tax dollars at work.) You think it would be cake after eighteen years, but in truth it was easier when I was young and fearless. At least now I am smart enough to know I'm not great, so I don't believe the seat of my pants (it will kill you at night), and I listen to paddles, the landing-signal officer (LSO) who watches and "waves" us aboard.
I am only ten miles behind the boat, but Donny doesn't see it. After lowering the flaps and landing gear, we slow down to 136 knots (about 150 mph). I drive into three miles and begin my descent. Donny says, "I got the boat. We're lined up a little left."
"Thanks, Donny. Let me know when we hit centerline."
Donny can look out the windscreen at the laser line-up lights, as well as the carrier droplights, which depict centerline. I have to "stay inside" on the instruments. Every night carrier approach is like landing with near-zero visibility, because there is no horizon, no approach lighting, and no frame of reference. Try turning off all the lights, then staring at a small point source. It will start to move, or does it? Or are you? That's why I stay inside on the instrument approach needles until just prior to touchdown.
"503, on glide slope, on course, three-quarter mile, call the ball," says the approach controller.
In case you were expecting the "Maverick has a ball" quote from Top Gun: "503, Prowler Ball, 6.8" is the correct call as Donny states our side number, aircraft type, Ball (meaning he sees a source light, or "meatball," on the glide-slope lens), and fuel state (6.8 thousand pounds). I stay inside on the needles but start peeking outside. When I can't stand it anymore, I look outside and tell my crew, "I've got a Ball, three down and locked."
I'm looking at a postage stamp with blinking centerline lights. I work my butt off to stay on speed, line up, and glide slope. I hear paddles click the mike, and before he even asks for "a little power," I've already jumped on the throttles. Now I'm too high and fast -- better than low and slow, but still not pretty. I squeak off some power until I see the ball starting to settle lower. Experience tells me I'm over the ramp. I don't spot the deck, much. (Spotting the deck means looking at the landing area instead of scanning meatball. Spotting the deck leads to ramp strikes. Those are bad and deadly. The night carrier landing is actually a surprise if done correctly. The pilot flies by scan until the plane crashes into the deck.) I add some power to break my descent, accepting a slightly low ball so I don't bolter. The jet touches down. I go to full power while simultaneously getting thrown forward into my harness straps. In seconds we come to a stop and get tugged back by the wire. I quickly turn off the lights and raise the flaps and hook. As we taxi out of the landing area, I finally take a full breath and tell my crew, "Good job, guys."
Knowing we did a good job is all the gratitude any of us need.
23:30: After post-flighting for battle damage and thanking our fine sailors, I make my way downstairs. Smiling ear to ear, I get stopped by a group of reporters in the P-way. If you saw the clips, you know it's true.
"What was the scariest part of the flight?"
"How do you feel?"
"I'm hungry. I've been waiting all night to grab a slider."
A slider is a hamburger, and it's tradition to eat a slider after a tough night trap.
00:55: "Double cheeseburger?" I ask at the kitchen counter.
There's a powerful energy throughout the ship. No one is watching the perpetually re-run ship movies, just news channels, and everything is going well. We will be launching and recovering planes until this afternoon: 18 straight hours of flight ops, and we'll get up and do it again and again. No planes shot down yet. That's what I care about. Slider and freedom fries on plate, I take my seat. Smiling, messy haired, red mask-faced, sweaty-collared pilots are enjoying lunch. The wardroom is bustling with combat accounts, wristwatches being shot down in all directions. Old folks like myself take it all in, while big-eyed twenty-somethings struggle to contain themselves. This is what carrier aviation, the Tailhook Navy, is all about. It is a night to remember but not a night to dwell on. "Hit the sack Donny. We're on again tomorrow."
"Aye, aye, skipper. Good night."
Footnote: One Long Night in March took place on the 21st. On April 17, the day I wrote this, we transited the Straits of Hormuz, leaving the Arabian Gulf behind. In cruises of the past 12 years, many carriers slipped out of these straits, happier with the fact they were departing than with the job they accomplished. I am here to tell you, this is not the case with us.
In the middle of the night on March 19, two days before the "Shock and Awe" air campaign even started, the VAQ-131 Lancers launched on short notice to support a Presidential-ordered strike deep into Baghdad.
On March 21, the Lancers were the first CVW-2 jets to launch off the USS Constellation for the opening air campaign of OIF. The Lancers flew 90 sorties in less than four weeks support of OIF. No enemy radar-guided missiles targeted coalition aircraft.
CVW-2 strike aircraft (F/A-18s and F-14s) flew over 1,600 sorties, dropping over 775,000 pounds of ordnance, destroying nearly 800 targets in less than four weeks of support of OIF. No collateral damage was attributed to CVW-2.
CDR Geragotelis was also kind enough to provide a declassified after-action report of "A-Day," reprinted below with jargon intact [definitions added].
ATO O, 21 March 2003 (A-Day) Package OBS
Per CFACC [Combined Forces Air Component Commander] direction, A-Day opening strike Package OBS Mission Commander (CVW-2) was also placed in charge of coordinating Package OCS due to the proximity of target time and location in the Super MEZ [Missile-Engagement Zone]. As SEAD [Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses] Commander for OBS, VAQ-131 (2 EA-6Bs, Callsign Owl 08 and 01) seized the opportunity to coordinate the SEAD efforts of Packages OCS and ODS/OES (follow-on strikes to targets north of Baghdad). Together, the coordinated SEAD assets from Packages OBS, OCS, and ODS/OES synergistically yielded a sanctuary for over 60 strike assets, 31 from OBS including 13 "stealth" and 6 conventional aircraft which flew directly over downtown Baghdad.
As SEAD Commander, Owl 08/01 coordinated stationing of 10 EA-6Bs (3xOBS, 3xOCS, 2xODS, 2xOES) and Package OBS ARM [anti-radiation missile] support from 4 F-16CJs, 2 F/A-18Cs, and 4 [UK Tornado] GR-4s including 32 Pre-emptive ARM shots and 6 retained for Reactive targeting. Owl 08/01 also deconflicted standoff weapon employment (stationing and frequency) of 2 F/A-18C (2 SLAM-ER), 8 F-15E (16 AGM-130) and 6 F/A-18C (18 JSOW) employment, and helped deconflict TOTs [Time On/Over Target] for all 28 OBS strikers, originating from 5 different locales including bases as far away as Whiteman AFB [Air Force Base]. OWL08/01 ensured proper jamming alignment for ingress and egress routes of 13 stealth and 6 conventional strikers on deep penetration missions over Baghdad. To ensure best possible accuracy of JDAM, Owl 08/01 devised the early destruction of Iraq's premier long-range ATC [air-traffic control] radar (LP-23) with a SLAM-ER, in order to alleviate the requirement for Band 6 jamming after its successful takedown.
After TLAM initial wave (TOT 1800-1810Z) Owl 08 and 01 were on station from TOT 1815-1845Z jamming in support of not only the 13 stealth and 6 conventional aircraft (OBS) which penetrated the heart of the Baghdad Super MEZ, but also protecting over 30 aircraft employing stand-off weapons, ARM and direct munitions in vicinity of Baghdad and Al Taqaddam. Concurrently, 8 other EA-6Bs surrounded Baghdad, in accordance with the overall SEAD plan, to completely obliterate Iraq's extensive array of EW and cueing radar, throughout the entire frequency spectrum.
At the time of A-Day, Iraq possessed over 70 radar SAMs, the majority of which were unlocated inside and outside the Super MEZ. Due to jamming and ARM, none of these SAMS were able to lock-on and guide on a coalition aircraft.
While on station within 30NM of Baghdad (FL260), Owl 08 and 01 were surrounded by AAA [antiaircraft artillery] for over 30 minutes and in numerous cases, had to maneuver to defend/avoid artillery bursts. On several locations, ballistic SAM launches were observed in the area. No strike/support aircraft except for stealth and conventional strikers with targets in Baghdad, were stationed longer or nearer to Iraqi air defenses (AAA, rockets, SAMS) than Owl 08/01 and the other EA-6Bs. Each aircraft held station until all strike/support aircraft (OBS and OCS) were safely clear of any threats.
Since Operation DESERT STORM in 1991, there has never been a "Shock and Awe" first strike that compares to the large-scale magnitude of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM A-day on the evening of 21 March 2003. The awesome responsibility of expertly planning and aggressively executing the takedown of the Baghdad Super MEZ was flawlessly orchestrated by Owl 08 and 01.
JDAM: Joint Direct Attack Munition
JSOW: Joint Stand Off Weapon
SLAM-ER: Standoff Land-Attack Missile-Extended Response
TLAM: Tomahawk Land Attack Missile