Father's Day17 June 2012
The US Navy has named an F/A-18C Hornet after Specialist Chazray Clark, who was killed in action last September in Afghanistan. The jet bearing Chazray's name is now flying combat operations over Afghanistan and may well be fighting as you read this.
Much of the air support in Afghanistan comes from the Navy. F/A-18 Hornets launch from aircraft carriers, and they make their way over Pakistan to landlocked Afghanistan where they provide air support for troops below. The days and flights are long. After launching from the pitching deck in the Arabian Sea, they fly over to Afghanistan and conduct multiple midair refueling cycles from American and NATO tanker aircraft to provide troops with airborne artillery on call. When the call does come, they drop their bombs with pinpoint accuracy and shoot their cannons, even during the night with Night Vision Goggles. Many times, they don’t fire a shot during a mission but provide reassurance to the Soldiers and Marines that if they need to call, the Hornets are only minutes away. After the mission is complete or they are "Winchester" they make the long trip back to the carrier, never having touched down in Afghanistan.
The Navy F-18s, along with many other aircraft, provide cover seven days a week. After you have been in Afghanistan combat long enough, it is no longer necessary to look up when you hear a gun run. You can recognize the guns from an F/A-18, or from an A-10, or the thumping from an Apache.
When an F/A-18 Hornet rolls in, even when you know it is up there, it can still often hit by surprise. The roaring aircraft overhead could be orbiting the battlefield. Then it just disappears. If you are the enemy, a disappearing F/A-18 could be a very good thing, or a very bad thing. Afghanistan will teach you to never trust a Hornet that flies away.
The Hornet disappears up there somehow. It can disappear even if you are not in the middle of a firefight and can concentrate on the sky. Even when you know that the pilot is lining up for a gun run -- you know because the radio is right next to you, and you can hear the pilot warn everyone --and you know that the plane is coming in one minute, and you know the direction that it is coming from, it can still be hard to spot. The Hornet paint scheme delivers that magical disappearing act as it climbs above the battlefield and seems to vanish. That light grey blue tint that all Navy F/A-18 are painted helps the pilot quickly escape the surface-to-air threat and allows him to return from a different direction, thereby surprising the enemy and forcing him to react.
So the Hornet disappears. But you know that it is coming in because you just heard the pilot say that he is lining up. He seems to cut his engines, and the aircraft seems to go quiet. It is broad daylight, and none of the Soldiers can see it. Everyone is looking. Finally somebody says, "There he is," and they point, and then you see the growing speck, and the Hornet is quiet, and you wonder how in the world can a jet that big hide in the clear blue sky?
Then the pilot kind of drops his nose, glides and you see a silent puff of smoke. He has just fired the M61 Vulcan 20mm cannon, a six-barreled air cooled beast with the pilot capable of selecting either 4,000 or 6,000 rounds per minute (the aircraft defaults to 6,000 rounds) but there are no tracers. The jet only carries 578 rounds, meaning the pilot has 5.78 seconds of trigger time before going "Winchester." Each pull of the trigger lasts about two seconds. Longer and the gun starts to overheat.
When you see that puff of smoke, he seems to hit the throttle hard, and jerk up his nose and start doing some Top Gun thing -- he must be pulling some G's -- and then flares pop out and bullets start hitting the target. It is quick. The sound reaches you, first the firing RIIIIPPP
, and then the sound of the bullets striking bblbbblllllamammama
, and the roar and whine of the jet and the strange noises made by its wings. A gun run is a strange mixture of already strange noises, and words can never capture it. You must either be there, or someone with great audio gear must catch it, and play it back on good speakers.
The bullets seem to hit all at once and explode. If there is moon dust, a cloud will go up like the detonation of a small bomb. During World War II, our planes hosed out the bullets. Today, they fire so quickly that it is more accurate to say that they splash the target.To read this and other dispatches, visit MichaelYonOnline.com