Naval Aviators Claim the Night
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
ABOARD THE USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT, June 24, 1999 When F-14 Tomcat and F-18 Hornet pilots don night vision goggles and catapult from the deck of this 97,000-ton, nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, they claim they own the night.
"When you put those goggles on, night becomes day," said Rear Adm. W. Winston Copeland Jr. "You can see more on a clear night with goggles than you can in the daytime. It's phenomenal. When you put them on, the clarity is amazing. We feel like we own the night -- it's ours."
The admiral knows exactly how it is. The carrier commander nicknamed "Mad Dog," is a veteran fighter pilot. He said he earned the moniker "doing things he shouldn't of been doing" during training.
Copeland has flown over 300 combat missions, made 1,200 arrested landings and logged 4,800 flight hours in 30 types of aircraft, including the F-14, F-15, F-16, YF-17 and F-18. He proudly notes that the first F-14 ever made is still among the Teddy Roosevelt's combat air wing.
During NATO Operation Allied Force, Copeland and his 5,000- member battle group launched more than 3,000 sorties, including about 1,700 strike missions. Naval and Marine aviators took off from the floating, 1,000-foot-long flight deck in the Adriatic and Ionian Seas to link up with ground-based U.S. Air Force and NATO planes to strike Yugoslav military targets in Kosovo.
Copeland described the allied effort as truly phenomenal." The American aviators and NATO counterparts worked together in the air without ever having been briefed together on the ground.
Copeland said NATO's air-power only policy also made it a "tough fight" for the allied pilots. The allies had no set procedures for this kind of battle, he said. "We had to learn how to do that. It wasn't a natural thing for us." U.S. and NATO pilots don't train to fire munitions from high altitudes without ground forward air control, the admiral said. In Kosovo, there were no friendly ground forces. Thus, allied pilots had to rely on airborne forward air controllers."
Mother Nature was the main adversary the aviators faced at the start of the air campaign, Copeland said. "The weather really beat us up pretty severely in April and the first half of May," he said. About a third of the missions flown from the ship had to be aborted because of weather.
The carrier's offshore position had some advantages, however. "There were days when Aviano [Air Base, Italy] was socked in for weather and we were flying," he said. Plus, using our night vision goggles, we were able to fly virtually every day and every night. This is an important takeaway -- not all the air forces fly with goggles."
Strong Yugoslav opposition confronted the allied airmen, Copeland pointed out. "When we first started the war we did not have air superiority," he said. "It was fleeting at best. One of the first strikes we went out on actually got turned away by a lot of SAMs. A group of F-18s got within about 10 miles of this particular site we were striking at night. We had about eight SAMs shot at us. We were lucky to get out of there unscathed."
NATO's goal of avoiding collateral damage put pilots under added stress, the admiral said. When accidents did happen they were played up in the press and everyone felt horrible. No one wanted to be responsible for bombing a school or bus and causing civilian deaths. As a result, pilots were extremely cautious.
ollateral damage could also be caused by weather, Copeland explained. "If you lase a target and a little wisp of a cloud goes by, the laser will lock onto the cloud and you won't know where the bomb will go. You've got to be very careful."
The carrier sustained a high operational tempo, but few sailors complained and morale remained high, Copeland said. "When you're at war, you're at war," he stressed. "The crew here is very cognizant of what's going on. We keep them informed. They know that putting airplanes off the pointy end of this ship with ordnance and striking the target effectively is their job."
Sailors focused on doing their part to halt Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's ethnic cleaning policy. The true tragedy of what occurred in Kosovo, Copeland pointed out, remains to be told. "I don't think the story's out yet. We see mass graves from the air. Just mass graves."
Milosevic severely underestimated U.S. and NATO resolve, the admiral said. The Serb dictator knew what NATO could do, but didn't believe the 19-member alliance would do it," he said.
"If we'd walked away from this fight, it would have been the beginning of the end of NATO. To let a despot, a war criminal like Milosevic, run free -- no way. I believe our resolve bought us another 50 years of stability in Europe."
After about six weeks in the Adriatic, the battle group commander actually turned down a port call. "I called the Sixth Fleet commander, and said, 'Boss, the crew doesnt want to go into port. They've got a job to do here. So leave us here for 30 some days and then we'll go into port. When you've got a job like that, you've really got be aggressive and go at it with all the gusto."
In late June, the USS Theodore Roosevelt took liberty in Palma, Mallorca, largest of the Balearic Islands off the southern coast of Spain. From there, the battle group was to return to the Adriatic to support NATO peacekeeping in Kosovo.
Overall, Copeland said, the crew felt good about what they had helped accomplish. "Someone was looking out for us the nine weeks that we fought this war," the admiral remarked. "I thank the Lord because not one airplane was hit by any shrapnel. We got bumped a couple times from the concussions, but there were no holes in any airplanes. All the pilots came back safe."