2006 – Tomcat’s last cruise

01 Roosevelt title976

by Didier Kories and Gilles Denis
photographs by Didier Kories

02 CVN-71After a three-month wait the dream finally came true. A message in my mailbox from Lt Sevicello, Public Affairs Officer of the US VI Fleet, informed me that I was granted permission to visit the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt in the Aegean Sea. This was on Thursday 16 February and I had to be in Marmaris, Turkey on Monday 20 February at 20h00. This left me only a few days to organise the trip to Turkey. First task was to book the flight to Dalaman, which is the closest airport to Marmaris, situated on the southern coast of Turkey. The return flight had to leave from Chania, on the island of Crete as I would sail aboard the Roosevelt from Turkey to Crete, one day and two nights at sea.

I arrived in Marmaris late in the evening of Sunday and when I came out of the hotel the next morning I was pleased with the wonderful sight of the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71), moored in the bay of Marmaris. After a warm welcome that evening by Lt William Kuebler, PAO of the Roosevelt, ten lucky photographers and myself boarded the carrier where 5.700 sailors (among whom 16 % are women) live and work every day.

Marmaris060220 USS Theodore Roosevelt CVN71 USN 01.jpgFourth carrier of the Nimitz class, and fourth one carrying the name of a US president, the Roosevelt is also known as the “Big Stick”. Construction of the ship began on 31 October 1981 and she was commissioned five years later, on 25 October 1986. Since her first cruise in 1988, the Roosevelt always served in the Atlantic Fleet, taking part in operations Desert Shield, Provide Comfort, Deny Flight, Southern Watch, Deliberate Force, Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom among others. She has already made six cruises with Carrier Air Wing 8 (1988-1995, 1999, 2003), one with CVW-3 (1996-1997) and one with CVW-1 (2001-2002). For her ninth cruise, CVN-71 left Norfolk Naval Base in Virginia on 1 September 2005, bound for the Persian Gulf with once again CVW-8 on board. This cruise was somewhat special as it was the last one for the legendary Grumman F-14 Tomcat. Embarked with CVW-8 were the following squadrons:

  • VF-31 “Tomcatters” with F-14D (AJ-1xx)CVN71060221 F-14D 164342 AJ-100 VF-31 02.jpg
  • VF-213 “Black Lions” with F-14D (AJ-2xx)
  • VFA-15 “Valions” with F/A-18C(N) Hornet (AJ-3xx)
  • VFA-87 “Golden Warriors” with F/A-18C(N) Hornet (AJ-4xx)
  • VAQ-141 “Shadowhawks” with EA-6B Prowler (AJ-5xx)
  • VAW-124 “Bear Aces” with E-2C 2000NP Hawkeye (AJ-6xx)
  • HS-3 “Tridents” with SH-60F and HH-60H Seahawk (AJ-61x)
  • VS-24 “Scouts” with S-3B Viking (AJ-7xx)
  • VRC-40 Det. 1 “Rawhides” with C-2A Greyhound

CVN71060221 SH-60F 164451 AJ-611 HS-3 01.jpgDuring this cruise, CVW-8 took part in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, and conducted maritime operations in the Persian Gulf and in the surrounding waters from the end of September 2005 till mid February 2006. The carrier left the area and entered the Mediterranean Sea on 15 February.

21 February is THE day. After a good breakfast and a safety briefing by Lt Justin Cole, the Assistant PAO of the Roosevelt we climb on the flight deck. I can only say that it is HUGE. Length: 333 metres (1.092 ft), width: 78,3 metres (257 ft), area 18.211 square metres (4,5 acres). Business has already started : aircraft are readied for flights – 19 take-offs are scheduled – and catapults and arrestor cables are tested to ensure they work properly. Adorned with a white jersey, a helmet and protective goggles, I take advantage of that “quietness” to photograph the aircraft on deck with a particular attention to the F-14 Tomcats. They will perform their last operational flights today.

06 CVN71060221 deck 0307 F-14D 02Designed to replace the F-4 Phantom in the air-to-air role, the prototype of the Grumman F-14 took to the air for the first time on 21 December 1970 with company test pilots Robert Smythe and William Miller in the cockpit. The first unit to receive the aircraft was VF-124, the Fleet Readiness Squadron based at NAS Miramar, California and formed to train the future Tomcat crews. Since then, a total of 37 squadrons flew the Tomcat, either the A, A+ (later designated B) or D versions. Today, most of the units have been disbanded or have converted to the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. The last two squadrons to fly the F-14D, equipped with digital avionics, an AN/APG-71 radar and General Electric F-110-GE-400 engines, are VF-31 “Tomcatters” and VF-213 “Black Lions”.

VF-31 Tomcatters

After World War II, VF-3A took its present designation of VF-31 in August 1948. 08 VF-31The squadron flew successively F8F-1 Bearcat, F9F-2 Panther, F2H Banshee, F3H Demon, F-3B Demon, F-4B and F-4J Phantom II. The “Tomcatters” took delivery of their first F-14A in January 1981 and switched to the F-14D in 1992. They took part in the following cruises along the years:

3 cruises with USS John F Kennedy (CV-67)1982-1984CVW-3F-14AAC-2xx
5 cruises with USS Forrestal (CV-59)1986-1992CVW-6F-14AAE-2xx
2 cruises with USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70)1994-1996CVW-14F-14DNK-2xx
4 cruises with USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72)1998-2004CVW-14F-14DNK-1xx
1 cruise with USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71)2005-2006CVW-8F-14DAJ-1xx

 

VF-31 came back to NAS Oceana, Virginia from its last Tomcat cruise on 10 March 2006 and will fly the F-14 until September 2006. It will then convert to the F/A-18E Super Hornet.

VF-213 Black Lions

Established on 22 June 1955 at NAS Moffett Field, California, VF-213 flew F2H-3 09 VF-213Banshee, F4D Skyray, F3H-2 Demon and F-4B Phantom II before getting F-14A in September 1976. They upgraded to the F-14D in 1997. The Black Lions deployed their F-14s aboard carriers as listed below:

1 cruise with USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63)1977-1978CVW-11F-14ANH-2xx
2 cruises with USS America (CV-66)1979-1981CVW-11F-14ANH-2xx
6 cruises with USS Enterprise (CVN-65)1982-1990CVW-11F-14ANH-2xx
2 cruises with USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72)1990-1991CVW-11F-14ANH-2xx
2 cruises with USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72)1993-1995CVW-11F-14ANH-1xx
1 cruise with USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63)1996-1997CVW-11F-14ANH-1xx
2 cruises with USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70)1998-2002CVW-11F-14DNH-1xx
1 cruise with USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71)2003CVW-8F-14DAJ-1xx
1 cruise with USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71)2005-2006CVW-8F-14DAJ-2xx

 

CVN71060221 E-2C 164496 AJ-601 VAW-124 02.jpgCapt William Sizemore, commander of CVW-8, completed the last F-14 combat mission on 8 February 2006 in a VF-213 Tomcat. During their final deployment with the Roosevelt, VF-31 and VF-213 collectively completed 1.163 combat sorties totaling 6.876 flight hours, and dropped 9.500 pounds of ordnance during reconnaissance, surveillance, and close air support missions in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Like VF-31, the Black Lions of VF-213 returned to NAS Oceana in March 2006. They started their conversion to the F/A-18F Super Hornet in April 2006.

Flight operations are about to start so we position ourselves on the balcony of the island. The view of the flight deck is incredible. First movement of the day is the landing of a C-2A from VRC-40. It is quickly followed by the take-offs of an E-2C Hawkeye and an S-3B Viking. I then move to the next photo location, which is on the flight deck itself, along catapults 3 and 4. 11 CVN71060221 crew 02Aircraft are launched into the sky on my left while others taxi to my right on their way to catapults 1 and 2. This is a very dangerous environment and safety measures are tight. We have to stay close together and our movements are very limited. I witness the take-offs of F-14Ds, F/A-18Cs and EA-6Bs. With a length of 94 metres (308 ft), the catapults can launch a plane by accelerating it from 0 to 296 km/h (160 knots) in just two seconds. The speed varies according to the weight of the aircraft. I am surprised by the number of men working on the flight deck, but everyone knows his job. They wear coloured jerseys indicating their exact duty on the flight deck:

  • Yellow shirts are movement directors, a/c handling and catapult officers
  • 12 CVN71060221 crew 01Blue shirts are tractor and elevator operators; they also chain a/c to the flight deck
  • Green shirts are catapult and arresting gear operators
  • Brown shirts are the a/c crew chiefs
  • Purple shirts are the refuellers, affectionately called “Grapes”
  • Red shirts are in charge of weapons and they also form the crash and salvage teams
  • White shirts are safety and medical personnel plus anyone who does not normally work on the flight deck

The flight deck is a very noisy environment, especially during take-offs and landings. Therefore the only way to communicate is by hand signals, via the intercom or with loudspeakers.

We are authorized to stand next to the LSO (Landing Safety Officer) platform to photograph the landings. Unfortunately there is enough space for five persons only. We have to wait for our turn. Landing is the most delicate phase of flight operations. About 1.000 metres (3.300 ft) from the ship, the pilot is guided by the LSO and the “Meatball” which sends light signals using Fresnel lenses. As soon as the plane touches down, the pilot puts the engines back into full power so that he can safely take-off again if the tail hook fails to catch one of the four cables stretched across the deck. These cables are 3,5 cm (1,38 in) in diameter.

13 CVN71060221 FA-18C 164631 AJ-312 VFA-15 0114 CVN71060221 FA-18C 164628 AJ-407 VFA-87 05

I decide to photograph the last landings of the afternoon from the island. From the LSO platform, we have to go down, through the hangar situated below the flight deck where Tomcats, Hornets, Hawkeyes and Seahawks are stored and maintained. Every little bit of space is used. The crew also uses the hangar bay for recreational activities. In the early evening, I witness the take-offs of F-14s and F/A-18s and their night landings thereafter. We finish the day by a visit to VF-31 and VF-213’s briefing room for the traditional badges and T-shirts sale. We are even proposed a movie night, complete with popcorns, tacos and sausages!

CVN71060221 S-3B 160143 AJ-700 VS-24 02.jpgThis cruise was also the last one for Sea Control Squadron Twenty-Four (VS-24) and its S-3B Vikings. Established on 1 January 1943 as Bombing Squadron Seventeen (VB-17), it flew off the deck of the USS Bunker Hill (CVS-17) and USS Hornet (CVS-12) during World War II. It changed designation several times before becoming Antisubmarine Squadron Twenty-Four (VS-24) on 8 April 1960, equipped with the S-2 Tracker. In August 1975, the squadron transitioned to the Turbofan-powered Lockheed S-3A Viking and adopted the B version in 1989. In 1993 its designation was changed to Sea Control Squadron Twenty-Four (VS-24). The unit is currently based at NAS Jacksonville, Florida and is scheduled to be decommissioned in 2007.

On the morning of Wednesday 22 February we have a last opportunity to take pictures on the flight deck soon after sunrise. The USS Theodore Roosevelt is now berthed in the port of Souda Bay, in Crete. She will take to the sea again in a few hours and, after another stop in Corfu, she will cross the Atlantic, heading home. It is time for me to do the same as I disembark the ship.

16 CVN71060222 flag 07
17 F-14D 04

This visit on board the USS Theodore Roosevelt was a really fantastic experience. Being able to witness flight operations aboard an aircraft carrier is something I will remember forever. For this, I would like to thank Lieutenant Sevicello, PAO US VI Fleet, Lieutenant William Kuebler, PAO USS Theodore Roosevelt and especially, Lieutenant Justin Cole, Assistant PAO USS Theodore Roosevelt and his team for escorting and looking after me during my stay aboard the “Big Stick”.

 

18 Last cruise

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