• Oregon sailors, pilots train on USS Constellation for possible war with Iraq
ABOARD THE USS CONSTELLATION Ñ Twenty-year-old Petty Officer 3rd Class Kyle Thomsen spends most of his time several levels below deck in a noisy space filled with compasses, gauges and all sorts of electric gadgets that run this 4 1Ú2-acre warship.
He works the 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift and rarely sees daylight, much less gets above deck. There, fighter jets are launching and landing nearly round-the-clock in preparation for the ship's six-month deployment to the Arabian Sea to possibly fight a war with Iraq.
Thomsen is one of a handful of Oregonians stationed on the $400 million aircraft carrier that will be deployed Saturday, more than four months earlier than scheduled. The speeded-up departure is part of the Pentagon's push to amass a large force of troops to be ready to strike during the winter, deemed the optimal time Ñ before heat and sandstorms set in.
Thomsen takes the changed schedule in stride. He and the rest of the freshly minted sailors in his unit pass the time playing chess, watching DVDs and talking of the tattoos they will get once they drop anchor in Hong Kong and Singapore. They seem a world away from any perceived danger or apprehension of war.
'It's not like I fire guns or anything,' says Thomsen, a U.S. Navy sailor for 2 1/2 years who was born in The Dalles and has lived in various cities throughout Oregon. 'I'm just an engineer. If I was a Marine, I'd be more intimidated.'
Adds his crew mate, 19-year-old fireman Brendan Woodrow of Portland: 'I just fix phones on ships. I'm not too worried about anything.'
The Constellation and its battle group of more than 8,800 sailors currently are cruising the calm waters 100 miles off the coast of San Diego. They're engaged in the final two weeks of war games before their departure this weekend.
The giant floating city, which holds 72 aircraft, will be the third U.S. carrier in the region when it arrives in mid-December.
But along the way, the threat of danger Ñ either by enemy fire or accident Ñ is all too real.
Already, one of the Constellation's port stops in Thailand has been canceled, deemed too high a security risk for U.S. troops after the bombing in Bali.
Last Friday, one pilot died and another survived when their two U.S. Air Force F-16 planes collided during combat training exercises above the Utah desert.
A week earlier, four California-based Navy pilots died when their two F/A-18 Super Hornets, participating in dogfighting exercises, collided over the Pacific Ocean. A day after that, a crewman on the flight deck of the Constellation was knocked overboard by a jet blast. Miraculously, he survived seven hours in chilling temperatures until being rescued. He is recovering in a San Diego hospital.
'No one likes war'
Thomsen's and Woodrow's nonchalance Ñ whether a sign of inexperience, machismo or true confidence Ñ is a far cry from the passionate antiwar demonstrations being staged by thousands of protesters in Portland, Eugene and other cities around the globe.
People have been gathering in Portland every Friday for months to protest possible military action against Iraq. Their anger is directed not only at President Bush but at local military personnel as well. This past weekend, a group vandalized a Navy recruiting office in Northeast Portland.
But military officials say they, too, are divided.
'I hope war doesn't happen, but if it does, I hope it'll be very quick,' says Capt. John Miller, commanding officer of the Constellation, or 'Connie,' for short. 'No one likes war less than war fighters.'
Adm. Barry Costello, who oversees the Constellation battle group, sees a strike by U.S. forces as increasingly more inevitable. 'The president says that inaction is not an option and that disarmament is a must,' he says. 'Our job is to be ready to execute the president's task, and we'll see what happens as we proceed forward.'
A sense of duty
It's close to midnight, and F/A-18C Hornet pilot Rick 'Lucky' Thompson takes a break from his endless briefings in the 'Ready Room,' where pilots hold classified briefings, discUSS training missions and gear up for flights.
'Everyone has a heightened sense of awareness about the war against Iraq,' says the 34-year-old Thompson, a pilot of 12 years who has a wife and two young children in Clackamas.
A member of the VFA-151 Vigilantes squadron, Thompson participated in Operation Southern Watch in the Persian Gulf in 1997, enforcing no-fly zones and other United Nations sanctions. Since Sept. 11, 2001, he has flown with 'more of a sense of purpose,' he says.
His family constantly worries about his safety as a top gun, but it's his sense of duty that keeps him flying, he says.
'I don't think anyone's eager to go drop bombs on anyone, but there's some satisfaction to use the skills you've acquired,' he says. On Wednesday, he intercepted 'enemy' planes as part of a training mission; the next evening, he was to fly to a test range in Yuma, Ariz., and drop 500-pound bombs for target practice.
In the past two weeks of training, Thompson has flown one or two such flights per day. During wartime, he will be flying round-the-clock.
His job isn't for the faint of heart. Once he climbs inside, the engine on the $24 million jet roars, relaying its war call with a thunderous ripple and hot blast on the flight deck.
He follows signals from dozens of color-coded crewmen on the flight deck. At the precise time, the plane is catapulted by steam-powered pistons off a 250-foot runway, going from 0 to 150 mph in under two seconds. An equivalent land-based takeoff would require nearly 6,000 feet of runway.
The ship's four catapults can launch a plane every 30 to 45 seconds. Hornets can top speeds of Mach 1.7, nearly twice the speed of sound.
During the landing, Thompson says he never tires of the adrenaline-pumping feeling of his plane being caught by what looks like a giant rubber band on the flight deck. The arresting gear grabs the plane's tail hook and brings it from 160 mph to a halt within about 300 feet.
Although he'd wanted to be a pilot since he was a little boy, the wartime pace gets 'grueling,' Thompson says. It doesn't help that winters in the Arabian Sea average about 100 degrees. Like many sailors from the Northwest, he says he just misses Oregon's green space and rain and longs to be at home.
Family gets e-mails
Thompson isn't the only one thinking of home, considering the average age of the enlisted sailor on board is 19. Many are homesick and still adjusting to the confined spaces and regimen of the ship.
'I'm pretty anxious to get it over with, so I can go back home,' says 24-year-old Aviation Mechanic 2nd Class Tim Edwards of Gresham, who joined the Navy five years ago to 'stay out of trouble.'
On board, Edwards spends his days changing tires, fixing hydraulic lines and performing other bodywork on planes in the giant hanger that adjoins the flight deck.
He says he relishes the fact that the work pace is still slow enough that he has time to write e-mails to his two children and his wife, a Navy sailor based at Lemoore Naval Air Station near Fresno, Calif. He also plays a lot of cards, watches movies, works out in the ship's gym and plays a Navy SEAL game on his PlayStation 2.
'Out here we're playing pretend war games,' he says, 'trying to get ourselves ready to go to that next level.'
He chooses not to watch the news, although many do keep tabs on CNN for updates on the diplomatic action surrounding war.
While the Navy has changed his life, Edwards says he isn't sure yet whether he will re-enlist after this deployment. He is considering moving his family to Florida and becoming a police officer.
When the 42-year-old Constellation returns next summer, it will be the end of its active duty as well. It will be decommissioned at a naval shipyard in the Puget Sound, to be replaced by the USS Ronald Reagan.
'We're the second-oldest ship in the Navy, with 41 years of sea duty, 21 years of that spent away from home,' says Miller, the ship's commander. 'I think we got a pretty good return on our investment.'