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Eisenhower Strike Group readies for deployment

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on November 24, 2009.

Navy Capt. Dee Mewbourne spoke quietly in the handset, his low voice still the loudest thing on the red-lit bridge of the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Five minutes had passed between the launch of the penultimate jet and the final one, and the commanding officer wanted to know why.

As he spoke, officers and enlisted sailors bustled about the darkened space: Plotting courses, checking radars, keeping busy.

General quarters had been sounded moments before, and throughout the vast hulking mass of the aircraft carrier, Navy personnel took care of simulated tasks such as fighting fire and real-life jobs like launching aircraft.

It was the first week of training for the Norfolk, Va.-based Eisenhower, practice designed to prepare the ship and its crew for deployment early next year. During the exercise, known as a Composite Training Unit Exercise, each part of the ship had to deal with various emergencies, from suspicious packages left by harbor pilots to flights that needed to be gotten off the deck in mere minutes.

"It's as realistic as it gets, " said Lt. Bill Major, serving that night as the tactical action officer. "I think we have the opportunity to be even better than we were before."

About 20 ships, including some foreign vessels and three from Mayport Naval Station, took part in the exercise about 80 miles off the coast, either serving with the strike group or acting as opposing forces.

The training is designed to help the various pieces of the carrier strike group jell - the air wing, the destroyer squadron, various other ships and submarines, thousands of crew members.

"The biggest part is coordination, " said Cmdr. Dave Clement, the ship's navigator. "Things fall apart if you're not communicating."

For many aboard the Eisenhower, the exercise didn't come that long after they were doing such things for real. The carrier and its strike group returned from deployment to the waters off Iraq and Afghanistan at the end of July.

Although much of the crew is experienced, about 20 percent is new. With a few months home, it's helpful for everyone to knock the rust off, said Cmdr. John Newcomer, the ship's gun boss.

"It's hard, " said Newcomer, who has family in Yulee. "That's what it's all about - getting the team back together."

Such practice is vital, considering the precision many of the tasks require. Getting an aircraft aloft, for example, requires dozens of sailors handling scores of tasks to near perfection sometimes at night, sometimes in inclement weather.

"You have to focus a lot, " said Petty Officer 2nd Class Arnist Rowe Jr., one of the purple-clad sailors - known as "grapes" - responsible for fueling the carrier's jets. "You don't pay attention, you spill some fuel, that's a bad thing."

As the crew members rushed around on the deck getting jets into the sky, high above them, the air boss peered out on the commotion, combining the low-tech tool of simply seeing stuff with the flood of information pouring in more technical ways.

"They're trying to stress the system, " Cmdr. Pete Matisoo, who's responsible for all aviation operations within 5 miles of the ship, said about the exercise. "They'll give us just about the hardest challenges they can find."

How was it going? "I'm pleased, but I'm not satisfied, " he said. "But we'll be ready. That's what they're training us for."

One deck below the air boss sat an equally stressed Lt. Cmdr. James Winfrey, the handler, who was keeping track of the condition of the various aircraft on a model-filled table known as the "Ouija board."

Each of the small aircraft on the board were adorned in various ways depending on their situation, from stripes that denote major problems to pins that show particular sorts of work to little purple nuts that proclaim the plane needs fuel.

Getting that purple nut removed from the aircraft model requires a "grape" to handle the fueling. Meanwhile, out on the deck and below in the hangar, a rainbow of other colors scurried hither and yon- red-shirted sailors handling armaments, green shirts taking care of mechanical work, yellow shirts watching out for safety.

"It's a whole different world, " said Lt. Cmdr. Bob Novotny, a "shooter, " a P-3 pilot whose job on the plane was to send each aircraft aloft. "These guys are very, very focused."

Up on the bridge, those running the ship were concerned with a related set of tasks getting the ship where it's supposed to go and doing so in a way that allows for aircraft to be launched and recovered.

Aircraft take off from the front of the carrier deck into the wind and land at the back. The ship must maintain as precise a position as possible for inherently dangerous flight operations to remain as safe as possible.

"You have to have a feel for the ship, " said Petty Officer 3rd Class John Lambert, a master helmsman, who is steering the ship based on the orders of the conning officer. "It's really tricky."

Meanwhile, much of the rest of the 5,000-plus crew take care of much less flashy but just as necessary tasks. For the roar and tumult and complexity of flight operations, at its base the floating city the planes sit on is a feat of engineering with plenty of its own needs and requirements.

"It's an old ship, " said Lt. Anthony Oxendine, the ship's repair officer. "There's so much to get done."

That work will continue as the carrier and its strike group wraps up the training over the next two weeks and the ships head home for a brief break before deploying.

When it does, it will be ready for whatever it has to face, said Rear Adm. Philip Davidson, commander of the Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group.

"It's a culmination of things I've been doing for 27-plus years, " he said about the mission. "The things that you have tried to build as a leader: Now we can put them into execution."



About

This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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