Deployed in support of Operation INHERENT RESOLVE since June 2016, the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Dwight D Eisenhower, or “The Mighty Ike”, has been conducting daily strike missions against so-called “Islamic State” in both Syria and Iraq, from both the Arabian Gulf with US Navy 5th Fleet and more recently from the Mediterranean Sea with US Navy 6th Fleet.
To achieve the end goal of projecting US Naval power anywhere on the globe, the USS Eisenhower relies on the teamwork, professionalism and commitment of over 5,000 sailors. Flying from NSA Souda Bay in Crete to join the ‘Ike’ shortly after the ship entered the Mediterranean, AeroResource present this second report on US Carrier Air Power. Details of the Eisenhower’s involvement with Operation INHERENT RESOLVE can be found in our first article.
History of the USS Dwight D Eisenhower
Launched on October 18, 1977, the USS Dwight D Eisenhower (CVN 69) is the second ship of the Nimitz Class, after the class leader USS Nimitz (CVN 68). “Mighty Ike” takes its name from Dwight David Eisenhower (or “Ike”), who served as the Supreme Commander of Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe during World War Two, and later would go on to become the 34th President of the United States of America. The ship’s logo pays homage not only to its nuclear powerplant, but also to Eisenhower’s role as a ‘Five Star’ general – with an image of the ship surrounded by five silver stars and stylised electrons orbiting an atom.
Ike’s maiden deployment was to the Mediterranean in 1979, where the embarked Carrier Air Wing conducted 79 days of operations, logging 19,674 flying hours and 8,580 arrested landings. Since that time, the ship has conducted numerous deployments to theatres around the world, notably participating in Operations Eagle Claw during the Iranian hostage crisis, and Desert Shield during the First Gulf War. More recently, the USS Dwight D Eisenhower has deployed to the Mediterranean and the Gulf in 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010 and 2013. Following a two-year refit from 2013 to 2015, the ship completed yard work and returned to sea on August 28th 2015. Departing port on May 26, 2016 for deployment, the USS Dwight D Eisenhower reached its area of operations with US Navy 6th Fleet on June 8.
Carrier Strike Group Ten
For the 2016 deployment in support of Operation INHERENT RESOLVE, the USS Dwight D Eisenhower is operating as part of the Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group – Carrier Strike Group 10. As well as the carrier from which the group takes its name, CSG-10 includes the guided missile destroyers of Destroyer Squadron 26, two guided missile cruisers (rather than the usual one) and a fast combat support ship for replenishment at sea.
- USS Dwight D Eisenhower CVN 69) – Nimitz Class Aircraft Carrier
- USS San Jacinto (CG-56) – Ticonderoga Class Guided Missile Cruiser
- USS Monterey (CG-61) – Ticonderoga Class Guided Missile Cruiser
- USS Stout (DDG-55) – Arleigh-Burke Class Guided Missile Destroyer
- USS Roosevelt (DDG-80) – Arleigh-Burke Class Guided Missile Destroyer
- USS Mason (DDG-87) – Arleigh-Burke Class Guided Missile Destroyer
- USS Nitze (DDG-94) – Arleigh-Burke Class Guided Missile Destroyer
- USNS Arctic (T-AOE-8) – Support Class Fast Combat Support Ship
Carrier Air Wing Three
Carrier Air Wing Three (CVW 3), known as the ‘Battle Axe’ and based out of Naval Air Station Oceana are currently assigned to the USS Dwight D Eisenhower. CVW 3 is comprised of a total complement of nine aircraft squadrons (listed below), maintaining a complement of around 66 aircraft (55 fixed wing and 11 rotary) across nine squadrons.
- Strike Fighter Squadron 32 (VFA-32) – ‘Swordsmen’ – 12x Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet
- Strike Fighter Squadron 86 (VFA-86) – ‘Sidewinders’ – 11x Boeing F/A-18E Super Hornet
- Strike Fighter Squadron 105 (VFA-105) – ‘Gunslingers’ – 12x Boeing F/A-18E Super Hornet
- Strike Fighter Squadron 131 (VFA-131) – ‘Wildcats’ – 11x Boeing F/A-18C Hornet
- Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron 12 (VAW-123) – ‘Screwtops’ – 4x Northrop Grumman E-2C Hawkeye
- Electronic Attack Squadron 130 (VAQ-130) – ‘Zappers’ – 5x Boeing EA-18G Growler
- Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 7 (HSC-7) – ‘Dusty Dogs’ – 6x Sikorsky MH-60S Knighthawk
- Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron 74 (HSM-74) – ‘Swamp Foxes’ – 5x Sikorsky MH-60R Seahawk
- Fleet Logistics Support Squadron 40 (VRC-40, Detachment 4) – ‘Rawhides’ – Northrop Grumman C-2A Greyhound
Whilst Detachment 4 of VRC-40 is assigned to CVW 3, it is just as likely to see the unit’s C-2A Greyhound aircraft off the ship, as their role involves shuttling crew and supplies from ports near to the ship’s current location. For the Eisenhower’s deployment in the Mediterranean, the supply location is predominantly Naval Support Activity Souda Bay, in Crete. NSA Souda Bay provides support to US, Allied and Coalition forces whilst deployed in the European Command (EUCOM), Central Command (CENTCOM) and Africa Command (AFRICOM) areas of operations, and has been one of the key facilities in support ongoing allied strikes in Operation INHERENT RESOLVE.
Flight Operations from an Aircraft Carrier
Whilst the air assets onboard the USS Dwight D Eisenhower are clearly the mechanism by which the aircraft carrier is able to project air power, the route towards being able to do so is a complex one, and involves all of the 5,000-plus strong crew of the ship. One of the most fascinating support activities on an aircraft carrier is the Air Operations flight deck team. Unlike a conventional military airfield, space on a carrier is a commodity in short supply and when coupled with the time constraints of starting, taxiing, launching and recovering multiple aircraft, requires a very different method to safely and efficiently conduct flight operations.
Aircraft Carrier Deck Roles
The deck of an aircraft carrier is an incredibly noisy environment, and aural communication is not as effective as in a quieter setting. To help overcome this, the different “trades” on the flight deck wear different colours to allow rapid identification of their role.
- YELLOW shirts denote those directly involved with aircraft movements – whether that be arriving or departing the aircraft, taxiing to and from the catapult or landing strip, or general arrangement on the flight deck.
- BROWN shirts are the aircraft captains, who are generally assigned to one of the squadrons of the embarked Carrier Air Wing, and act as Crew Chiefs for individual aircraft.
- PURPLE shirts denote those responsible for refuelling and defueling aircraft.
- RED shirts are responsible for all weapons and ammunition on the flight deck, including loading and unloading aircraft.
- WHITE shirts are responsible for all safety related activities, and include Quality Assurance, Air Transfer Officers (ATOs) and Landing Signal Officers (LSOs).
- GREEN shirts, conduct all maintenance activities, as well as being responsible for operation of the catapult and arrestor gear.
- BLUE shirts are responsible for ancillary activities such as operation of aircraft elevators, driving tractors and tugs and moving chocks and chains.
Aircraft Carrier Deck Cycles
Flight operations on the USS Dwight D Eisenhower are conducted in cycles, each typically lasting 1 to 1.5 hours. During a cycle, aircraft are launched in a specific order to safely allow completion of operations. Prior to fixed wing operations, anti-submarine and search and rescue helicopter assets (MH-60R and MH-60S) are launched, and take up positions within a 10-25 mile radius of the ship. If a C-2A Greyhound is required to arrive or depart in support of Carrier Onboard Delivery (COD) tasks, this will occur ahead of the remaining fixed wing operations. Following the C-2, one or multiple E-2 Hawkeyes will depart to begin airborne command and control tasks for the carrier strike assets. The strike aircraft are the final launches, following the departure of a pair of tankers – F/A-18E or F/A-18F models equipped with external fuel tanks and a ‘buddy’ air-to-air refuelling system.
The USS Dwight D Eisenhower is equipped with four catapults (two at the bow and two at the waist of the ship) which can be used to launch any fixed wing asset assigned to the CVW. Each catapult must be set to provide the appropriate force and acceleration for the weight and aircraft type required, and verifying that the correct weight is input is one of the tasks of the Green shirts before departure. Eisenhower‘s catapult system has valve interlocks that prevents both waist or both bow catapults from firing simultaneously, as the catapult headings would put aircraft on an intercept course.
With the advent of the Super Hornet variant and the gradual phasing out of the Hornet, fewer flights require reheat/afterburner during take-off. The Primary Flight Control office in the superstructure of the ship keep a chart dictating the weights of which fighters must use Combat Rated Thrust (CRT – or reheat) during departure. This applies to the tanker aircraft, and also to aircraft heavily laden with ammunition and stores.
Following all departures in a cycle, the aircraft airborne from the preceding cycle (if there was one) prepare for landing. No instructions are passed to those returning by the carrier authorising them to land, and it is down to pilot judgement as to when the deck is clear for landing. To accomplish this, aircraft waiting to land stack up in 1,000ft intervals above the carrier and take up a holding orbit whilst the aircraft on deck depart. The system sounds complex and risky, but such is the cooperation between the teams (both on the ground and in the air) that as soon has the deck been cleared for landing, the first returning aircraft is on approach. Aircraft land with intervals of 55 seconds, which gives enough time to ‘trap’ aboard and then marshalled into a safe zone before the next aircraft touches down.
As with the catapults, the cables must be set to allow the correct extension to stop the current aircraft type at the landing weight. During pre-deployment workup on board the USS Dwight D Eisenhower in March 2016, an E-2C of VAW-123 narrowly avoided ditching in the sea after an incorrectly set cable snapped on landing. This was however an isolated incident and marks an exception on the otherwise superb safety record. Each cable is able to take approximately 125 landings before it is required to be removed for maintenance. The deck is set as such that pilots aim to hit the third cable (often referred to as ‘the wire’, but formally known as a cross-deck pennant), but if this cable is removed the optical landing system (known as ‘the ball’) can be calibrated to direct pilots to target a different wire.
Whilst on the deck of the aircraft carrier it may seem like there is little oversight of flight operations, all deck activity is carefully coordinated and controlled from Primary Flight Control, under the watchful eye of the ‘Air Boss’. Primary Flight Control is responsible for organising each flight cycle and ensuring that the flight operations continue efficiently and safely. Every member of the flight deck team is aware of the specifics surrounding their role, as well as the dangers posed by flight operations in such a confined space. To an outsider the process is seemingly random (and rapid!), but every motion has a purpose and a place.
Aircraft carriers are popularly known for their fixed wing, fast jet assets, but one of the most crucial roles is the Search and Rescue (SAR) role provided by the SH-60R and SH-60S Seahawk variants assigned to the ship. The SH-60R is primarily set up as an Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) asset, and the SH-60S is primarily a SAR asset – although both variants are capable of performing both roles. The SH-60S is flown with a crew of four – Pilot and Co-Pilot, Crew Chief and Rescue Swimmer, and aims to rapidly respond to an incident, provide primary care and transfer the patient(s) to either the Eisenhower or a shore facility if deemed necessary. Thankfully, real world incidents are few and far between given the safety of the operations protocols on the Eisenhower.
Once aircraft have safely departed, they are controlled by airborne control assets – typically the E-2 Hawkeyes assigned to the aircraft carrier. Hawkeyes are the largest aircraft to operate from a carrier, with a wingspan of 80ft 7in – the width of the landing deck is just 90ft! Flying the E-2 is considered more challenging than flying the Super Hornets, as the E-2C has no form of heads up display. Flying an approach is therefore a much more manual process, requiring constant adjustments of attitude and power to maintain the glideslope (a task which is trickier at night). Unlike the Super Hornets, E-2 crews can find night ‘catshots’ to be more challenging than landings, as without a HUD there is little to distinguish between sea and sky following the catapult launch from the ship.
Aircraft Carrier Night Operations
Night operations are a matter of course for pilots onboard the USS Dwight D Eisenhower, and offer significant challenges beyond those encountered flying during daylight hours. Approaching an aircraft carrier in the middle of a dark sea at night presents little in the way of visual reference, except for a few lights onboard the ship to guide the aircraft in. The flight deck is lit by dim floodlighting, tinted a red-yellow or blue-green colour to help preserve the night vision of flight deck personnel and pilots alike.
Visually, night departures of heavily laden fighter aircraft from an aircraft carrier are phenomenal to experience as the reheat of the General Electric F414 engines on the Super Hornet sends vibrations through the entire flight deck and superstructure, and the plume of the afterburner glows a fierce blue against an otherwise black sky and sea. It is very eerie to see this jet of flame surrounded by steam from the catapult, only to vanish as the aircraft leaves the ship and disengages the reheat.
As aircraft return from a sortie, the lights on the ship are extinguished (with the exception of some on the prow to assist with handling aircraft on the deck) to allow the pilots to better focus on the centreline markings on the flight deck. Landing on a carrier at night is one of the most challenging feats of aviation possible to perform – indeed, tests in Vietnam showed Naval Aviators had a faster heartbeat and higher blood pressure during a deck landing at night than whilst being shot at in combat. To be able to perform this task speaks volumes for the training not only of the pilots, but of all other personnel involved in the landing – it really is a team effort to return the aircraft safely.
Of course, the flight deck is only half the story on an aircraft carrier the size of the USS Dwight D Eisenhower. Whilst the mission of the ship is executed from the top deck, an endless flow of support work is conducted from underneath the landing and departing aircraft. The Nimitz Class carriers are equipped with a three bay hangar deck, which runs from the forward of the ship to the aft. Aircraft and equipment can be rapidly moved between the flight deck and the hangar deck by four large aircraft elevators – each large enough to carry up to two Super Hornets.
All aircraft on board the aircraft carrier can be maintained in the Hangar bay – with maintenance typically split into three categories – these being Phase, Visual and In Depth. A Phase Check is performed typically every 200 flying hours, with around 75 man-hours of work needed to complete it. All maintenance effort within Phase maintenance is performed on aircraft – with visual checks performed on components removed from the aircraft (such as the engines, which are checked and tested in the Engine Bay at the rear of the ship). In Depth maintenance is only performed on components highlighted as requiring corrective maintenance during the visual phase.
Whilst the aircraft carrier does have some technical support from major Original Equipment Manufacturers onboard, any serious issues can require the aircraft to be authorised for a one-off flight to a land facility for overhaul. Moving to the Super Hornet fleet from the legacy Hornet has seen a reduction in maintenance required to support the new types, due in part to the improved maintenance-centric design of the newer jet, but also due to the legacy fleet becoming long in the tooth. That being said, the procedures for maintenance are so thorough that even with the older F/A-18C fleet, there are no examples of individual airframes acquiring ‘personalities’, or known persistent deficiencies that must be countered by the crew.
Aircraft Carrier Command
At the top of the structure that keeps the aircraft carrier forging onwards is the Captain. The ‘Ike’’s commander is Captain Paul ‘Speedy’ Spedero Jr, who has been in command since November 2015. As is a requirement for all aircraft carrier commanders in the US Navy, Captain Spedero served as a squadron commander with Strike Fighter Squadron 86 prior to being selected for training as a potential aircraft carrier Commanding Officer (CO).
The pipeline that leads towards the eventual command of an aircraft carrier is not a simple one, and following Squadron command, Captain Spedero reported to Aviation Nuclear Officer training programme to learn the specifics around the operation of the nuclear power plant at the heart of Nimitz Class carriers. After successful completion of the school, Captain Spedero served as the Executive Officer onboard the USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70), and later as the CO of the USS Peleliu (LHA 5) before finally arriving at his current command onboard the Eisenhower. Now that he’s here, Captain Spedero believes that the day to day management of the 5,000 sailors who make up the USS Dwight D Eisenhower is made simple by the initiative and competence of the crew:
For me, it’s not all that challenging because I have tremendous leadership between me and my most junior sailors. In each department I have a head of department who’s been hand selected, has years of experience and is a highly effective officer who is more than capable of not only conducting the business of their department, but integrating their mission objectives and their tasking with all the different departments. They have to integrate that process to make all this happen, so my Air Boss has to talk with Engineering because they maintain a lot of his gear, and everyone has to be integrated with Reactor, who’s providing us our propulsion. I’m here when things don’t go as planned. When there’s a crisis or a decision to be made – when they need guidance or commanders intent, that’s my biggest role. Day to day business is largely taken care of by the executive officer and the heads of department.
As part of a Carrier Strike Group, Captain Spedero reports to the Commander of the Group. For CSG-10, this is Rear Admiral James J. Malloy. As the flagship of the Strike Group, Rear Admiral Malloy has quarters onboard the Eisenhower, although he is responsible for the operation of all ships within the Group. As the Strike Group Commander, Rear Admiral Malloy provides directive and governance to operations of the ships in the group – which can be spread across the world (indeed, during AeroResource‘s visit, one vessel was in Norfolk Virginia whilst the Eisenhower was in the Mediterranean). Much as Captain Spedero trusts the efficiency and competence of the sailors who work for him, Rear Admiral Malloy uses the experience across the Strike Group to best perform his taskings:
I have warfare commanders that functionally operate in their area, who work for me. A surface warfare commander, submarine warfare commander, air warfare commanders. A strike force commander. They have the functions within their elements – within their tasks – they’re responsible for. I’m not as smart as any of them – I provide broad guidance and defined end states, applications to the fleet commanders guides, how I want to meet his end states and his goals, and then the warfare commanders underneath me will say “got it boss, this is how I’m going to take this piece of mission and execute it”. So we’ll sit and I’ll have a lot of feedback on that plan, provide maybe some small rudder, but I have the easiest and best job onboard the ship and onboard the Strike Group. Everyone underneath me has set the standard higher, has exceeded expectations in every measureable way, and so my job is to unleash them and let them loose to run their mission area, because usually I’m hanging on for dear life because of how well they do their jobs, and the people that work for them do their jobs.
Aircraft carrier operations are all about teamwork – generating up to 360 flights in a week (since June 1, the Eisenhower recorded 8,544 ‘trap’ landings – averaging 294 per week), every week for months takes the cooperation of all 5,000-plus personnel on board. We asked Rear Admiral Malloy what the most impressive aspect of the ‘Ike’ was for him and his admiration for the sailors was immediately evident:
I’m new to the aircraft carrier, and this never stops impressing me. But the thing that impresses me more every time I see it, is what goes into those aircraft going up and coming back. The pilots when they fly, they’re flying into harm’s way every single day and I worry about them – no mission is completely safe and they’re flying into an area where evil exists. They’re doing their duty against that evil, so I go to sleep when they’re all back on the ship at the end of the day. When you see the level of effort that goes into what it takes to get those airplanes up, every time I go visit a ready room, or a maintenance wing, or the engineering plant on board this ship and see the people who actually make this all work, I’m impressed every single day. So it’s not an “aha” moment for me – it’s a million of them. So when I get to walk the ship, which I’m doing tomorrow, and get to go get lost amongst this sea of humanity – that’s when I’m most impressed.
AeroResource would like to offer our sincere thanks to Rear Admiral James Malloy, Capt. Paul Spedero, Lt. Cmdr Rebecca Rebarich, Lt.Cmdr Rob ‘Shooter’ Stochel, Lt.Cmdr TJ ‘Ring’ Browning, Lt. Aaron ‘Shetland’ Trodahl, Lt. Kristina Fontenot, Lt.J.G Katie Diener, CPO(SW/AW) John Osborne, PO1 Nathan Babauta, PO2 Tucker Moore, PO2 Ganesh Arjun, PO3(SW/AW) Robert Baldock, PO3(SW/AW) Nathan Beard, Seaman Takory Hardy and Seaman Breanna O’Kelly, as well as Jacky Fisher and Lt Amy Hession. Without the combined assistance of all parties, this article would not have been possible.
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