Soon after this aircraft carrier arrived here for its Middle East deployment, two F/A-18 Super Hornets catapulted off its deck for a 6 1/2 -hour bombing run toward Islamic State targets in Iraq. In one of the fighter jets was Navy Lt. Michael Smallwood, 28, call sign “Bones,” and in the other was his friend and roommate, Navy Lt. Nick Smith, also 28, call sign “Yip Yip.”
For a minute or two that day in May, the Hornets were right next to each other in the sky, but then Smith’s plane had engine trouble and began to lose altitude. Over the radio, Smallwood could hear his friend turn around, try to land back on the carrier and then eject into the Persian Gulf. The $60 million Hornet crashed into the sea.
Smallwood found himself fighting to keep his mind off the fate of his friend, but his orders were to continue climbing and fly on to Iraq. On many such missions, he simply loitered in the skies, dropped no munitions and headed back to the carrier.
This is the life of the modern day U.S. fighter pilot – long periods of monotony, combat missions that end with bombs still intact to avoid hitting civilians, occasional moments of fear. It is a long way from “Top Gun,” the iconic 1986 Hollywood blockbuster that made Tom Cruise a household name and Navy fighter pilots the heroes of adolescent boys everywhere.
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But these real-life pilots – the elite of the elite, trained to routinely land on moving aircraft carriers and to refuel in midair, two of the most difficult maneuvers in aviation – are some of America’s main warriors against the Islamic State. In the year since airstrikes against Islamic State militants began, U.S. pilots have assumed a huge bulk of the war effort. They have conducted more than 4,700 airstrikes since August 2014 – 87 percent of the manned flights by the U.S.-led coalition – and provided air support for Iraqi security forces and Kurdish peshmerga fighters on the ground.
The Islamic State may have shoulder-fired, heat-seeking missiles, commonly known as MANPADS for Man-Portable Air Defense Systems. But at the moment, the militant Sunni group does not appear to have the capability to bring down U.S. fighter jets. A Jordanian plane that crashed in Syria in December, leading to the capture of the pilot and his eventual immolation by the Islamic State, is widely believed to have gone down because of mechanical failure or pilot error, and not because it was shot down.
“Quite honestly, the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marines own the skies,” said Maj. Anthony Bourke, a former Air Force fighter pilot. “So even though pilots dream of dogfights, the biggest risk now is small-arms fire, and if you stay above 10,000 feet, you’re not going to be hit.”
Engine troubles are not the only risk at 25,000 feet. The F/A-18s today require more G-forces than the planes of the “Top Gun” era, and pilots today pull 9 Gs instead of 4 or 5 Gs. It is the difference, they say, between feeling that your head weighs 90 pounds instead of 40 pounds. (Most people’s heads weigh around 10 pounds.) So pilots have to be physically fit – not dehydrated or hungover from drinking and crooning the Righteous Brothers to Kelly McGillis at a bar the night before.
Beyond that, Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria are often in heavily populated civilian areas, which limits the air war to small, remote targets: single trucks, weapons caches and even individual machine guns.
Despite the precautions the pilots say they take, there are civilian casualties from airstrikes, although the number is in deep dispute. Officials with U.S. Central Command, which overseas U.S. military operations in the Middle East, recently said that they had received reports of 31 episodes involving civilian casualties since the airstrikes began and had dismissed 17 as not credible, with six still under investigation. One report, investigated for more than six months, led Centcom officials to conclude that two children were probably killed by a coalition airstrike.
Monitoring groups say the command’s figures are a gross understatement.
“When you’re called in to deliver a weapon, general world opinion swings very violently against you when you start killing the wrong people,” said Capt. Benjamin Hewlett, 46, call sign “Pizza,” who is the commander of air wing aboard the Roosevelt. He said that in the war against the Islamic State, bombs hit their intended targets almost all of the time. A big part of the reason, Hewlett said, is that there are no U.S. troops on the ground.
“So we don’t feel that we have to rush in,” he said. “The natural tendency is, our guys are under fire, I’ve got to get in there. But when you rush a bad delivery, people get hurt.”
Pilots and weapons officers spend a lot of their time in the air watching patterns of civilian life, to determine whether a movement on a road just outside of Ramadi is a truck full of Islamic State fighters or a pickup with civilians. They fly over designated grid areas, typically 60 square miles, searching for fighters, artillery and other signs of the enemy. They very often return to the Roosevelt with all of their bombs still strapped to the planes.
Certainly there are no Mavericks in the sky conducting barrel rolls over suspicious-looking enemy pilots in MiG fighters. “That is not tactically viable,” said Capt. Kyle Wilson, 29, call sign “Betty,” a Marine pilot on the Roosevelt.
There remains a lot of camaraderie. Back in May, Smallwood did not know the fate of his roommate when he finally landed back on the Roosevelt just after 11 p.m., after his 6 1/2 -hour strike mission.
As he bolted out of his plane, Smallwood was told that his friend had survived, fished out of the water by rescuers.
“But I still had to run down to the room to see for myself,” Smallwood recalled. “First thing I did was hug him.”