ABOARD THE USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN — Bringing the Navy's newest airborne technology to the fight in Iraq, the first two-seater Super Hornet strike fighters arrived in the war zone Monday to bolster air power as U.S.-led troops push toward Baghdad.
Two F/A-18F Super Hornets from the inaugural wing aboard the aircraft carrier Nimitz soared out of midafternoon haze and onto the deck of this sister aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf.
The F-series jets are making their maiden voyage with the San Diego-based Nimitz, which will take over for the Lincoln soon when the lead warship gets its orders to head home. But four Nimitz Super Hornets -- the two Fs, plus two single-seat Es -- were sent ahead to operate off the Lincoln to become familiar with the war's terrain.
Super Hornets are larger, more advanced variants of the F/A-18 Hornet that can fly farther and faster and carry more fuel and more munitions. The F-series is also equipped with an advanced version of forward-looking infrared radar that allows the two crew members to independently designate and verify targets.
While the front-seat pilot focuses on flying the aircraft and watching for threats, the back-seat aviator, known as the forward air controller, launches the weapons when positive identification is made. Lasers guide the munitions to their targets. In contrast, other fighter aircraft must consult with ground or airborne coordinating units for authorization to launch their weapons.
"One reason we've been sent is to augment the number of forward air controllers in the theater," Lt. Cmdr. Mark Weisgerber, one of the F-series Nimitz aviators who landed on the Lincoln on Monday.
Coalition planes continue to strike at Iraqi weapons caches, troop placements, air defenses and other military assets with hundreds of bombing runs each day. Most of the carrier-based strike fighters have lately been deployed to provide close-air support for advancing ground troops.
The Super Hornets' expanded fuel capacity allows them to penetrate deeper into hostile territory from the Persian Gulf than other Hornets, aviators here say, and enables them to remain over enemy territory for several hours to be available for airstrikes on targets designated on the run. Super Hornets can also refuel other aircraft.
The Nimitz, which is expected to arrive in the gulf early this month, carries about a dozen of the F-series Super Hornets and is the first of the Navy's 12 active-duty carriers to deploy with the new aircraft.
With more than 350 carrier-based aircraft already in the war zone, and hundreds of other planes deployed by the Air Force and coalition partners, aviators said the F-series Super Hornets' second crew member will be valuable in helping manage air traffic-control issues.
The F-series allows pilots to stay far from the hostilities while launching their weapons. "They're able to designate a target at longer range. That adds stave-off capability," said Chad Esquivel, a technology representative in Orange County for Raytheon, which manufactures the F-series' sophisticated ATFLIR radar equipment.
In the highly competitive community of naval aviators, the arrival of the first four F-series pilots, plus the two other Nimitz E-series pilots, spurred locker-room banter among the Lincoln fighter jocks about to be upstaged.
"They're gonna work for me and I'm gonna make sure they know it," Cmdr. Jeff Penfield, skipper of the "Eagles" Super Hornet F/A-18E squadron that was the aviation elite before the F-series arrived, joked as the six Nimitz flyers squeezed into his ready room.
The F-series Super Hornets are replacing the F-14 Tomcats that have been the backbone of naval combat aviation since the Vietnam War. Those still piloting the F-14D concede nostalgia at the prospect of the planes' fading into history when the transition is complete in three years.
"When the F-14 showed up in the Vietnam War, it was so far advanced from anything anyone had seen before that it just blew everybody away," said Lt. Cmdr. Dan Sullivan of the Lincoln's Tomcat squadron. "As corny as it sounds, movies like 'Top Gun' made it a household word. But it's not only the most recognizable aircraft, it's truly a fantastic machine."
The Super Hornet's fuel-carrying capacity and its ability to tank up other aircraft will also edge out the aging S-3 Viking tankers, which are making what is believed to be their last cruise with the Nimitz air wing, said Weisgerber. The Lincoln squadron plans to reduce its Vikings from eight to six by the next deployment.