It had already been an eventful deployment. The carrier George H.W. Bush had cruised alongside a Russian carrier in the Mediterranean in early 2014 as they forcibly at country annexed neighboring Crimea, then shot down a civilian airliner over Ukraine, all before the Americans' first port call.

Then it was on to the northern Persian Gulf, to provide security for Afghanistan's April presidential election. But things really ramped up one day in June, when members of the air wing returned to the carrier and realized something was different.

"While the higher-ups might have known what was going on, the JOs up here, we literally found out from CNN that we were headed to Iraq," an E-2C Hawkeye flight officer assigned to Carrier Airborne Command and Control Squadron -124, out of Norfolk, said. told an audience at the annual Tailhook Reunion Sept. 12 outside Reno, Nevada.

Mission planning began immediately and two days later, they were flying missions over Iraq against the brutal Islamic State militancy.

"We knew what we were planning was real, so that was really cool," she said to the audience of several dozen fellow carrier fliers. "It meant a lot of responsibility for us."

The E-2C NFO, a lieutenant, spoke on a panel with eight fellowother junior officers about their combat experience, who asked not to be identified by name in print due to concerns about their personal safety; Militant leaders have continued to try to incite attacks against American troops at home. security concerns.

The junior officers were featured as part of Tailhook's "Year of the Junior Officer" theme," sharing their successes and frustrations, including the ever-present peril of a nighttime carrier landing and the Hornet's lack of satellite communications equipment.

"As the former strike group commander from George H.W. Bush, prior to this deployment that you're going to hear about today, we had no idea what we would do," said Rear Adm. John Aquilino as he introduced the panel.

As the only American assets on station, the pilots and flight officers of Carrier Air Wing 8 were the first to fly into Iraq's air space, 45 days before other American or international assets joined in.

For the nugget aviators — on their first cruise in their first fleet squadrons — things went from business as usual to flying by the seat of their pants very quickly.

They started with reconnaissance missions and planned airstrikes, but the rules of engagement were strict.

"We literally needed presidential approval before anything was going to happen," the NFO said. "So about six weeks after this, we come back from a port call, and a couple of different things had happened that raised the situation concern and kinetic events were approved."

The learning curve was steep, she added, but over the next few months the air wing adapted to their new area of responsibility and carried out successful strikes against Islamic State fighters and positionsover Mount Sinjar, the Mosul and Haditha dams, and then the first strikes into Syria and those that followed.

'Longest 20 seconds of my life'

A Strike Fighter Squadron 31 F/A-18E Super Hornet pilot with 600 flight hours at the time got his first taste of chance at combat over the Mosul dam in September on his tenth flight into Iraq.

He'd only ever flown with laser-guided Joint Direct Action Munitions in a simulator before that deployment, and on that day in Iraq, he took off from the carrier strapped with two.

"On that specific day, that was the day — if you guys remember — when [the Islamic State group] ISIS basically took over the Mosul dam and threatened to destroy it," he said.

On the ground, Kurdish Peshmerga forces were pushing back against the ISISslamic State fighters. With nowhere on the ground to stop for fuel, the two pilots had been on station for 20 minutes when it was time for a second in-air refueling courtesy of an Air Force tanker.

The lieutenant was waiting for his lead to finish up and scanning a Peshmerga convoy when a joint tactical air controller came over the radio.

"Keep in mind that since we had no troops on the ground, this JTAC was actually at Fort Bragg, North Carolina," he said. "I get the call to get my sensors on a potential vehicle that has been shooting mortars at this Peshmerga convoy."

An Air Force Predator had eyes on an ISIS vehicle stacked with mortars.

"I could tell by the tone of the JTAC's voice — normally you can kind of tell whether this was going to be an employment or not," he said. "It was very quick. We got authorization almost immediately that we were going to go ahead and employ on this vehicle."

The team decided to simultaneously fire.

"I'd honestly never fired a Maverick or anything off the jet. When that thing came off there, it was frickin' loud," he recalled. "It was a big, big frickin' flame coming off of my right wing there. So [it] kind of startled me a little bit. I'm watching this thing come off my jet and I'm like, oh s---, I still have to fly my jet."

He leveled off from a dive, he said, "and the next probably 20 seconds were the longest 20 seconds of my life, as I'm wondering where the heck this Maverick is at."

It was a mission accomplished.

Another Super Hornet pilot on station that day, from VFA-213, recalled the aftermath.

"When you looked at the video afterward, they had 20 or 30 mortars lined up, so essentially there were secondaries going off for the next hour or so," he said.

New rules

The CAG 8 members all emphasized how different things were for Operation Inherent Resolve, as the missions against the Islamic State group mission were dubbed, than the Afghanistan mission they'd prepared for and were carrying out before things changed.

"The biggest difference, I think for me personally, was just the command and control C2portion of it," said another VFA-31 pilot. "In Operation Enduring Freedom, OEFit was very established, as far as communicating to the agency there, getting your fuel."

In Iraq, they were directing their own show and learning the rules as they went.

"We always talk about geopolitical boundaries and urban close air support CAS, but we only get to experience that with [the Dare County Bombing Range in North Carolina]Navy Dare," he said. "As a JO, it's eye-opening to have to think about very real geopolitical boundaries, a very real attack axis."

The Bush Carrier Strike Group made its way back to Norfolk in October, as the carrier Carl Vinson and Carrier Air Wing 17 picked up where they left off.

One VFA-94 F/A-18C Hornet pilot got his shot to prove himself about halfway through that cruise, in a pre-planned strike over Iraq.

"Somehow, someway they convinced the powers that be to let us take our small-motor [F/A-18] Charlie, single-seat with 4 [missiles] up north," he said. "It was a heck of a cat[apult] shot. I don't know if anyone's gotten to fly with a 2,000-pounder on a Charlie before — but it flew great, once we got a little air speed."

They were knocking out roads and bridges to set up for defensive operations the following day.

"It was a lot of fun dropping those things," he said. "It feels like you're dropping a Volkswagen off your wing, which you pretty much are."

Despite the thrill of seeing combat so early in their careers, there was still the reality of how dangerous it was.

"I just want to say that night traps still are really scary, even though we have [heads-up displays] HUDs and velocity vectors," said another VFA-94 pilot. "Some of my combat experiences were, I was thinking about the boat the entire mission."

Ending a sortie will be a lot more straight-forward when Maritime Augmented Guidance with Integrated Controls for Carrier Approach and Recovery Precision Enabling Technologies — better known as MAGIC CARPET — makes it to the fleet.

While the Hornets dropped the bombs, EA-18G Growlers provided support not only for CAG 17 but for coalition forces.

When news broke in February that Islamic State group fighters had murdered a captured Jordanian pilot, jets from Electronic Attack Squadron 139 were was called up.

"The Growler was specifically asked to go and fly side-by-side with coalition Jordanians to go up there and unleash havoc in revenge up at Al Raqqa," said one electronic warfare officer.

One complaint, though, from the E-2 NFO and the pilots was the Hornet's lack of satellite communications. When , meaning when radios weren't enough, the JTACS would have to go through the Hawkeye to talk to the fighters, or Air Force assets were tasked because they had the right equipment.

Aquilino assured the audience and the JOs that Rear Adm. Mike Manazir, the Navy's director of air warfare, has made that a priority.

"It's tough in the budget environment. We need it, we know we need it. It's on the list," he said. "I think [Manazir] Nasty and the Air Boss will get it to us, just not as fast as we want it."

For now, the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike group has taken Vinson's spot in the gulf, continuing to launch air strikes. As of Sept. 11, they'd flown more than 1,500 missions.

Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.

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