The Constellation Pilots Get Their Mission

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When Admiral Timothy Keating entered the hangar deck aboard the U.S.S. Constellation, the initial cheer was a little tired. It had been ordered, in advance, by the ship's master. But as soon as the Admiral boomed out a cheery, "Good Morning Constellation," the shouts and whistles were of genuine delight."I have come to thank you for two things," Keating began. "For what you have done. And for what you're going to do. "

[an error occurred while processing this directive]What they are going to do, most likely, is go to war with Iraq. Keating did not say was when a battle was going to start. It could be hours just hours away. But he feels his sailors are ready. "We have worked for about a year on a very sophisticated, complicated plan. We are going to minimize collateral damage, try to achieve zero non combat casualty," he said. "But when the President says 'go,' look out. Its hammer time."

It was a brief stop, but a visit from the Admiral does mean something. Most of the boys looked impressed. "He is great," seaman Felipe Sanin said. "He picks everyone up. He motivates everybody."

The ship has been battle ready for months, and could use a little motivation. It was four in the morning on the Persian Gulf when President Bush's televised address warned that force would be used if Saddam and his family did not leave Iraq within 48 hours. But almost everyone on the USS Constellation was awake, and watched their President in silence. Relief followed. Damage Control Chief Daniel Marsch, walking past the sailor's ward room, summed it. "I have been expecting that speech for a long time now."

For two days, while Bush and his allies tried a last attempt at diplomacy, the USS Constellation was on vacation. The Captain had ordered two days of Stand Down, without flight operations, so that the planes could be brought to the Hangar Deck and fixed up to be ready when the orders came.

As soon as the 48 hour deadline was announced, pilots of the four primary strike squadrons disappeared into classified briefings. The single seater F/A-18C Hornets are the primary strike force with squadrons Kestrels, Vigilantes and Death Rattlers. There is also the Bounty Hunters, the single squadron of Top Gun star F-14D Super Tomcats. The tell-tale red light was on outside all the squadron ready rooms, announcing "Brief in Progress." Pilots were told where to go, the targets each of them would strike. None of them were surprised. Admiral Barry Costello told journalists that the first four days of strike had already been planned in advance.

The tired carrier, after months of being at sea, suddenly began to buzz with excitement. The planes were being polished, the fuel tanks pull down, the bombs loaded. Officers lined up their men, talked about the importance of war. "Every man on this ship is crucial to make sure those planes go out there, do their job and come back safely," said Petty Officer Ward Scott. It is important to send that word down to the sailors, to motivate them, because they sometimes feel neglected. On a carrier, the pilots are the stars.