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The Florida Times-Union
Getting Ready For Battle On The JFK Bombs Away Range Runs Give Carrier's Crew Realistic Practice
By GREGORY PIATT, The Times-Union
March 11, 2004
ALTOONA -- A radio squawks from a tower overlooking the Navy's Pinecastle bombing range as an Air Force special operations master sergeant listens. As the forward air controller, the sergeant asks the pilot what he will drop.
"MK-82s," responds the voice on the other end.
As the sergeant describes to the pilot the terrain of the range, his two Air Force comrades search the wild blue yonder for the Navy F/A-18C from the Jacksonville-based aircraft carrier, the USS John F. Kennedy.
They point to the sky as the strike fighter emerges from clouds coming in fast and low.
The plane's 500-pound packages fall like darts.
Destruction from above comes in a fiery flash, a rising cloud of smoke and thunderous ground-shaking sound that can be heard for miles around.
It's because of these characteristics that dropping bombs can't be done in just any neighborhood. That's why Pinecastle, in the middle of the Ocala National Forest, has become critical for carrier training since the Navy closed its bombing range on the Island of Vieques in Puerto Rico last year, said Rear Adm. Donald Bullard, the admiral in charge of the JFK.
Now, the Kennedy's strike group is undergoing a war game scenario that incorporates the strike group's ships and planes. During the exercise, pilots from the JFK drop live or dummy bombs to raise pilot bombing skills at Pinecastle, Avon Park in Central Florida or Eglin Air Force Base in the Panhandle.
But the Navy's bomb dropping doesn't begin and end when the ordnance goes boom. It begins below the decks of the JFK.
'MAGRATS' FIRST UP
Stacks of practice bombs along with live 500- and 1,000-pound bombs and air-to-air missiles sit on racks or in cases in the magazine. When the order to use live or dummy bombs comes, the sailors who assemble the ordnance begin their work, said Lt. Woody Woodfin, the Kennedy's bomb assembly officer. They're known as Magrats.
In the magazine, the team of about a half-dozen sailors pulls out the tools and attaches a tailfin assembly to a warhead. Several members of the team watch while others turn wrenches. Whether it is a guided munition or a dumb bomb, the team attaches the appropriate fin and fuse to the warhead.
"It's like car manufacturing," said Chief Petty Officer Scott Merritt as he watches his sailors assemble a bomb.
Petty Officer 3rd Class DeAnthony Williams said he likes to put bombs together.
"I like assembling stuff," Williams said. "Inserting the fuse needs attention to detail."
Even though it could be dangerous, Williams said he trusts his fellow team members "not to do anything stupid."
"We keep an eye on safety," said Petty Officer 3rd Class Jose Hernandez, the bomb assembly team's leader.
"Yeah, 'oops' is something we don't want to hear," Merritt said.
Once the bomb is ready, they roll the ordnance on a cart called a skid to the elevator, which will take it up to the JFK's hangar deck.
On this night, the bomb comes up to the dark hangar deck illuminated by the lights in the elevator shaft. Petty Officer 1st Class Andrew Edwards yells "clear" to make sure sailors won't get in the way as the bomb comes on deck. Edwards waits for it as it comes up the shaft.
"Tell Ordnance Control that we received it on deck," Edwards yells again.
Like an air traffic controller, the JFK's Ordnance Control keeps track of all bombs and missiles moving around the ship.
Edwards will find out whether the warhead will be kept on the hangar or moved up to the flight deck. If it is moved to the flight deck, it is put in the bomb farm, the small portion between the tower and starboard side of the Kennedy. That's where the the plane squadrons take charge of it.
READY FOR TAKEOFF
As dawn breaks, bombs fill the farm while birds fill the deck -- F/A-18Cs and F-14s interspersed with each other line the aft and bow portions.
Squadron ordnance crews move in and out of the bomb farm pushing skids with one or more bombs. The different crews move busily with their bombs like lemmings over the giant flight deck.
As the ship pitches and rocks in rough seas, five or a half a dozen sailors lift the bombs up under the wings to strap them to the planes. They hook the unguided bomb, which costs around $1,000, to the plane by using the suspension lugs, heavy metal eyelets that are on the warhead.
"It's a pain to keep the bomb steady," said Petty Officer 2nd Class Scott Domingue of Strike Fighter Squadron 83 from Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia.
But rough seas don't stop the crew.
"We deal with the conditions," said Petty Officer 2nd Class Andre Santo, also of Strike Fighter Squadron 83. "We do what we do in all types of weather."
Working close to the edge of the flight deck, it appears that these crew members could go over the side since they work on the rocking deck with these 500- or 1,000-pound bombs. But it's not their worst worry.
Nor is dropping one of these 500 or 1,000 pounders, the crew members said.
It's the small 25-pound practice bombs that can hurt the ordnance crews, said Warrant Officer 2 Donald Ellis.
"They have a charge that if dropped will send fire shooting up into your face," Ellis said. "That will burn your face off."
While squadron ordnance crews ready the plane on deck, pilots watch a TV screen to learn about the weather over the target or how low they will fly over Pinecastle below the flight deck in the fighter squadron's ready room.
Maps cover the walls, showing the fictitious countries used in the war game exercise. As they sit in comfy armchairs, the pilots are told what ships are the enemy and what their air task will be on this day.
Lt. Cmdr. John Delaere from Strike Fighter Squadron 83 then briefs two other pilots about their mission over Pinecastle. He stands by the layout of the live bomb impact area drawn on a dry erase board and points their approach.
"One hundred and 30 degrees," he says.
Delaere goes over procedures they will use, the fuse on the bombs, the formation they will fly in and that other planes will come in right after them to drop.
"We'll go straight to the target and then tank up afterward," Delaere tells the two pilots about midair refueling after the bomb drop.
He points to the lines, circles and boxes drawn on the board and says, "Pinecastle is a good real-world area to conduct exercises in."
To add a sense of reality, Delaere then pulls out a model of an F/ A-18 mounted on the end of a stick and shows the angle of the plane when it should drop a bomb.
"However, if there is any doubt on the target, then do another pass," said Delaere, just before the pilots were to go on deck to check the bombs on their planes and eventually take off. "Live bombs are always a big deal."
DOWN ON THE RANGE
Live bombs that don't explode are a big deal for the members of the range maintenance team. That's the first thing they need to deal with before putting the targets on the range back together again.
The team members search for the unexploded bombs and once found they strap plastic explosive to the bomb and blow it up, said John Childers, the director of operations for the Pinecastle range.
Once that it is done, the team pulls the gnarled metal from destroyed targets. They put it in piles that punctuate the road bordering the range. Then they lay the spent inert bombs in nice neat rows or stack them in racks along the road.
Driving on the road in a sport utility vehicle, Don Heaton, an electronic equipment specialist at the range, points at the pile and said the metal and bombs will be eventually recycled.
Heaton said the targets are made from junk vehicles or old metal shipping containers.
As he drives farther down the range's road, there is another clearing and Heaton said it is the staging area for junk car targets. But there is only one vehicle in the area.
"They're destroying them faster than we can get them," Heaton said.