Fighter Control’s Duncan Monk returned to his Naval roots, and flew out to visit the USS Ronald Reagan/CVW-14 currently deployed on Operations in the 5th Fleets area of responsibility.
Named after the 40th President of the United States of America, The USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) was the ninth Nimitz class Nuclear Aircraft Carrier to be built, and was commissioned on the 12th July 2003. Receiving her flight deck certification on May 8th 2004, she sailed on her maiden deployment on the 6th January 2006 to conduct Operations in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Maritime Security Operations in the Persian Gulf.
The USS Ronald Reagan set sail from her home port of San Diego on May 28th 2009 to relieve the USS Dwight D Eisenhower (CVN-69) of her duties in the 5th Fleets area of responsibility, just 12 months since her last deployment to the same area. After taking command of Commander Task Force 50 (CTF 50) on the 6th July, the embarked Carrier Air Wing Fourteen (CVW-14) immediately set about conducting sorties in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, over Afghanistan.
The Naval Task force is made up of the Guided Missile Cruiser USS Chancellorsville, Guided Missile Destroyers USS Dacator, USS Gridley, USS Howard and the Frigate USS Thatch.
Based at NAS Lemoore CA, and under the leadership of Captain Thomas P. Lalor, CVW-14, whose motto is ‘Fortune Favours the Brave’, is made up of the following elements:
|HS-4||Black Knights||SH60F/H||NAS North Island|
|VFA-25||Fist of the Fleet||F/A-18C||NAS Lemoore|
|VRC-30||Providers||C-2A||NAS North Island|
|VAW-113||Black Eagles||E-2C||NAS Point Mugu|
|VFA-115||Eagles||F/A-18E /F||NAS Lemoore|
|VAQ-139||Cougars||EA-6B||NAS Whidbey Island|
The embarked Air Wings tasking in support of Operation Enduring Freedom is impressive, contributing to a third of all missions flown over Afghanistan. On average, CVW-14 is flying 360-380 sorties a week. Combat missions are not a short hop, as they involve a long transit through Pakistani airspace en route to their operating areas. Sortie lengths are anywhere between 4-7 hours, and can involve three visits to a tanker to top up on fuel.
This was the ships second deployment to the same area within 12 months, virtually unheard of until now, yet nobody onboard seemed to be too bothered about this.
The overall feeling you get from the men and women of CVN-76, is that they are at war. Although most of them are far removed from the frontline, you get a feeling of harmony and togetherness and a great team spirit – ‘The Spirit of 76’ as they call it onboard.
When one Naval Officer was asked when they would be heading home or taking a break from Operations, he said: “There are guys getting shot and killed everyday up there in Afghanistan, and as long as that happens, we have a job to do to support them, so we will stay on station until we are told otherwise or another ship comes to relieve us”.
The aircraft launch and recover in what are known as ‘deck cycles’. These are generally about every 1 hour 30, and can last from anywhere between 15 minutes to 1 hour depending on how many aircraft are required to launch and recover.
The crews on deck are working long hours in blisteringly hot conditions day in day out, with temperatures over 40 degrees and humidity at 80%. Having spent at most 1 hour on deck at a time, I was completely fatigued by the time I had reached the sanctuary of the air conditioned interior of the ship. It was no surprise to see the amount of food being consumed at meal times. Plates were piled high and the crews working topside are consuming upwards of 4000 calories per day, plus litre upon litre of fresh water.
During one particular ‘deck cycle’ 16 Hornets of varying models and one EA-6B were launched using 3 catapults simultaneously. On completion of the cycle the next wave of aircraft were moved into position for the impending launch and room made for those returning. The pace is relentless. Watching these aircraft being manoeuvred around the deck is pure theatre and a highly choreographed routine that is performed flawlessly and safely time after time, day after day.
The USS Ronald Reagan, is at the time of writing, the worlds most powerful aircraft carrier, with a highly trained and committed crew. They have a huge can do mentality, which is a credit to the ship, its Captain and the US Navy. The ‘Gipper’, as she is affectionately known, is rumoured to be remaining on station until mid September, and returning to San Diego sometime in late October, via a few moral boosting runs a shore.
My thanks go to Lt Cdr Ron Flanders and his team onboard the USS Ronald Reagan who went out of their way to fulfil my requests. I would also like to thank the 5th Fleet’s PAO and his deputy for making the necessary arrangements and organising the trip.