ABOARD THE USS CONSTELLATION—Until this week, missions for pilots and crew aboard Navy carriers in the Persian Gulf had gone well, with Iraqi air defenses penetrated and no planes downed.
But beginning over the weekend, a string of accidents and shootdowns brought home the risks of warfare to carrier squadrons.
On Thursday, a Navy F/A-18 Hornet jet from the USS Kitty Hawk was lost, the announcement coming just hours before reports of an Army Black Hawk helicopter also shot down nearby in central Iraq.
Earlier in the week, the crew of a Navy F-14A from the Kitty Hawk had to be rescued after ejecting over land, while crew members from an S-3B Viking returned safely to the USS Constellation after ejecting when their plane slid off the ship's rain-slicked deck.
Defense Department officials said they were investigating the possibility that the Hornet was shot down by an American Patriot missile. Meanwhile, other officials said it was unclear what brought down the Black Hawk. Six soldiers were killed, four were wounded and one was missing after the incident.
The wreckage of the Hornet has been located, military officials told The Washington Post, but the pilot of the single-seat aircraft was missing. The paper said senior Navy authorities were said to be furious that the Patriot, an Army weapon, had apparently failed to distinguish the Hornet from a faster-moving missile.
In the steamy ready room of the VFA-151 Vigilantes squadron aboard the Constellation on Thursday night, a grim reminder of the new realities of the air war was as plain as the blue writing on a white marker board: "HORNET DOWN."
Coordinates listed the Kitty Hawk plane's last known location over Iraq, and a summary of the anti-aircraft events recorded nearby was also posted.
"SAME AREA! WATCH OUT!" the board warned.
"Don't get complacent," warned Lt. Cmdr. Brian "Goz" Goszkowicz, one of the Vigilantes Hornet pilots briefing the night's ground support mission. "Guys are still getting shot at. We lost a Hornet, lost a Tomcat, lost a Black Hawk, all in one week."
The other two aviators flying with Goszkowicz--all senior pilots--listened quietly to the warning.
"Believe me, after something like this happens, the next time you get into the cockpit you think about it. But then you quickly get back to your routine," Capt. Mark Fox, commander of the Constellation's air group, said Wednesday, shortly after two of the carrier's pilots barely escaped as their Viking refueling jet fell off the carrier's deck into a tossing sea.
The key, he advised his pilots, was concentrating on the task at hand.
"We're in the middle of a war right now and I think it's important to understand that you've got to be able to put things like this in context," Fox said. "We're flying in combat; there are people shooting at us. You still have a war to fight and you've got operations to conduct, and that's the mind-set that we're in right now."
Amid the passageway bravado that follows successful bombing runs against Iraqi military positions, pilots concede that the week's shootings and accidents have prompted sober conversations, and that a lot remains uncertain about their missions.
"We tell each other to keep your game faces on. Be aggressive but be smart," said Marine Corps Capt. Nate "Corky" Miller, a Hornet pilot in the VMFA-323 Death Rattlers squadron aboard the Constellation.
"Things happen so fast, you've got to be on your game."