For USS George Washington maintainers, Valiant Shield 'just a little faster'
ABOARD THE USS GEORGE WASHINGTON — Whenever an aircraft carrier takes visitors for a tour during an exercise like Valiant Shield, the flight deck is the main attraction, and the F-18 fighter pilots are the stars.
The cameras are trained on the excitement of arresting-wire landings, or the afterburners firing on takeoff.
Off camera, there are a lot more sailors working long, loud hours to support flight operations on the deck and in the hangar below.
For all the talk of an increased operational tempo at Valiant shield, where 18,000 servicemembers from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines are fighting together, sailors say their underway tempo in the Asia-Pacific region is already very high, almost all the time.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Brian Haynes’ job is to move aircraft around on the cavernous but tightly packed hangar deck.
It might seem mundane, but one nudge in the wrong direction can cost millions of dollars in airplane parts, something that Haynes, of Walterboro, S.C., thinks about “all the time.”
For him, Valiant Shield means sending more aircraft than usual up the carrier’s open-decked elevators.
“Otherwise, it’s always fast-paced on the GW,” Haynes said.
Just as the majority of an air squadron’s personnel don’t actually fly, the majority of an aircraft carrier’s sailors aren’t exclusively tied to attack fighters. Besides those who run the ship, there are maintainers for air roles like electronic warfare, surveillance gathering and rescues, among other functions.
Last year, the USS George Washington gained the HSM-77 Saberhawks, a helicopter strike squadron that can fight submarines.
Ask a group of helicopter maintainers what the exercise has been like for them, and they all agree that it’s busy and unpredictable – in other words, not too different from normal days.
“We’re so used to it, we don’t think about it, really,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Justin Nixon, of Smyrna, Tenn.
Keep asking, and after a while they smile and talk about that first time, when they each went up topside and arrived on a moving flight line in the middle of the ocean.
“You’ve got jets with missiles loading up around you, the wind is going crazy and everybody is running,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Michael Moore, of Whidbey Island, Wash.
At any given time, there may be a dozen aircraft landing and taking off in quick succession, while sailors like Nixon and Moore are prepping their MH-60R Seahawk for a mission. Even though the ship is often likened to a floating city, it’s only 1,092 feet long. Space is at a premium and everyone has to stay alert, according to the sailors.
“The big safety thing is to always keep your head on a swivel,” Nixon said.