TKE Beta Pi Alumni Serving in the Middle East
Michael Picciano (beta pi 1054, ME '95) is flying F-14 Tomcats for VF-32 "Swordsmen" aboard CVN-75 USS Harry S Truman which is in the Mediterranean. Mike normally lives in the Norfolk area. E-mail him at piccianoma @ vf32.navy.mil (sorry about the spaces but we're trying to foil the screen scrapers).
Here is an article about what Mike is doing.
THE U.S. NAVY'S F-14 TOMCAT IS a swing-wing, twin-engine fighter capable of speeds over Mach 2-twice the speed of sound. In its 30th year of service, the Tomcat is older than many of its pilots and the aircraft carriers it lands on. It was a mainstay of the Afghan air war, stalking the skies 24/7 with updated night-vision technology and launching laser- and satellite-guided "smart bombs."
men (and a very few women) who crew the Tomcats-a pilot and a Radar Intercept
Officer (RIO) fit in each-are the most highly motivated, talented, trained,
and unabashed patriots Americans could ever hope to have. Fighter pilots
today get paid to do what they would gladly do for free, driving a bullet
around the wild blue. It's a feat 99 percent of all young men could only
dream of, and most would lose their lunch if they tried.
weeks after arrival K-robb was sitting in the cockpit of his F-14, the
sharp end of Roosevelt's stick, one shaped like a spear point when its
wings are swept back. K-robb was ready for his first combat mission as
a member of Navy squadron VF-211, called the "Fighting Checkmates."
There were plenty of reasons for a raw rookie or even a veteran to be
afraid. All had heard the dire media warnings about a faraway, hostile
land with legendary Afghan warriors unsubdued by external force since
Alexander the Great. Every fighter crew had heard of the sporting games
the enemy played with the severed heads of their Russian foes in an earlier
war. When K-robb entered the fray the enemy was holed up in an area of
the Hindu Kush mountains in eastern Afghanistan, some of the most hostile
mountainous terrain in the world. Over such territory one enemy missile,
one bullet, one loose nut, or one broken turbine blade out of hundreds
spinning at 1,400 rpm in an aging engine built by the lowest bidder, and
K-robb and his RIO could experience a "nylon letdown" into their
The route to the target was not a two-hour sight-seeing trip, especially for a new guy. K-robb's fear of "messin' up" exceeded his fear of the enemy. He was part of the operation launched March 1, 2002, to drive Afghanistan-based terrorists out of their last and most formidable mountain stronghold. In the airspace in the vicinity of an eight-mile box of geography more vertical than horizontal, dozens of fighters and bombers orbited in holding patterns waiting for directions from "Bossman." That was the call sign of an airliner-sized command post loaded with electronic gear and controllers called AWACS-Airborne Warning and Control System.
today is an immensely complex choreography with a web of instantaneous
audio and visual communication links between earth, sky, and outer space
reaching all the way to the White House. The Tomcats were flying air support
for the small, "crazy brave" teams of Special Forces troops,
called Forward Air Controllers (FACs), who had infiltrated the snowbound,
thin-aired terrain to find the enemy and the caves in which they hid,
and to direct air strikes on them. With such information, the Tomcats
were able to stay 5,000 to 25,000 feet above their targets and five to
10 miles away, while delivering weapons with more accuracy than a Vietnam-era
fighter pilot delivered from 50 feet above the target. The RIO is the
human factor responsible for that incredible accuracy. Managing the smart-bomb
deliveries, analyzing the imagery, punching in target coordinates for
the Tomcat's JDAMs (satellite-guided bombs), or fixing the target in his
laser crosshairs for GBU-12s (laser-guided bombs) is no easy task, especially
while hurtling through space as a cramped, heavy-breathing passenger maneuvering
in three dimensions and fighting the vertigo induced by G-forces that
assault inner-ear balance mechanisms.
Every veteran Tomcat crew has an anguished tale of a rich target that was passed up because of nagging doubts as to authenticity or possible collateral damage. All of them have heard the FAC on the ground frantically calling, "Abort, abort," just seconds before they were to drop a bomb because of a change in the fluid chaos of the battle.
There are few trades that demand so much of a person. In a press conference Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said, "We have some incredibly gifted young men." K-robb's inaugural run went well, but his day was far from over. He had to find another tanker plane over the northern Arabian Sea and fly his refueling probe into a 20-inch-diameter basket-a giant metal badminton birdie-at the end of the tanker's refueling boom angling down from below its tail. With the Tomcat's big twin tail fins poking up into the tanker's slipstream, K-robb had to close in precisely and then match the tanker's airspeed as the Tomcat got heavier and heavier with fuel. Every six- to nine-hour mission in support of Operation Anaconda took at least three refuelings.
K-robb's hardest task came when he was exhausted: flying the Tomcat from 150 knots down to zero in two seconds as he came aboard the carrier. Unlike a committee-driven airliner gliding from over the horizon onto two miles of stationery concrete, a flight of Tomcats arrives 800 feet overhead the carrier at 500 knots. In 15-second intervals each plane smartly banks 80 degrees, making a U-turn onto a racetrack-landing pattern, a thrilling sight for the crews working on deck. Turning onto final approach at 150 knots with wings swept wide like a gliding goose, the Tomcat driver aims at a 600-foot-long runway moving forward at 30 knots with a small sideways vector because of the carrier's angled landing deck. It also has a vertical vector, bobbing up and down as much as 20 feet, depending on the seas.
must land on that moving runway so that his tailhook snags one of four
arresting cables-ideally the third-spaced 40 feet apart beginning 60 feet
from the blunt end of the ship. There are no other options aside from
trying again, so the instant his wheels hit the deck the pilot jams his
throttles full forward so that he still has flying speed, should his tailhook
bounce and miss the cables, a not uncommon occurrence. Success is a jarring
deceleration with two tired, sweat-soaked bodies straining against seat
belt and shoulder straps-sweet pain indeed. And the Tomcat and crew have
earned the right to do it again tomorrow or tomorrow night. With all the
turmoil in the Middle and Far East, the end of such tomorrows is not in
Here're a few words Mike has to say about life at sea waiting for something to happen:
left on 05 December, but for AT LEAST 6 months. There is a scheduled return
date, but I'm not buying any summer clothes yet, if you know what I mean.
I really hope we make it back in time. I am truly looking forward to the
summer at the beach and taking a lot of road trips. Nowadays I take road
trips, not in a Mustang with enough bass to blow your head clean off,
but in a 70K pound Tomcat with afterburners loud enough to blow your head
clean off. Plus I can cover a lot more ground. However, staying sober
enroute is a requirement.
Here is an article about Mike and the other pilots flying off the Harry Truman. The article appeared recently in the Philadelphia Inquirer:
on Thu, Apr. 03, 2003
SANDY BAUERS / Inquirer
ABOARD USS HARRY S. TRUMAN, in the eastern Mediterranean - One flew into the night. The other followed hours later, taking off into the gleaming sunlight. One was making his first combat flight. At 27, Lt. Michael A. Picciano of Haddonfield, N.J., was still a "nugget" - older pilots joked that he needed polishing - but he wasn't scared. "Most of the guys are just nervous about not wanting to make any mistakes," he said.
The other had flown plenty of missions over Iraq. Lt. Cmdr. David Dorn, 32, born and raised across the Delaware in Northeast Philadelphia, had learned a thing or two, including this: "Dropping bombs is an impersonal business."
"Psycho" Picciano and "Rags" Dorn fly F-14 Tomcats, airborne versions of muscle cars that scream through the sky at twice the speed of sound. Their Tomcats are flung off the carrier's deck by giant catapults that take them from zero to 150 miles per hour in two seconds. In 12-hour missions, including before-and-after briefings, they fly to Iraq, refueling in midair three times from tanker planes, and drop bombs weighing up to a ton on bunkers, and terrorist camps, and Iraqi command posts.
And they love almost everything about it.
"Who wouldn't want to be a fighter pilot? It's the best job in the world," Picciano said.
He'd been studying mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech when a frat brother took him up in a Cessna, a plane "as small as they come." They soared over the red clay of Georgia and "I just fell in love with it," Picciano said. He graduated from college in 1997 and two weeks later was in officer candidate school. Dorn had wanted to be a pilot since the fourth grade, when he interviewed one for school. Though Dorn suspects it was the uniform that hooked him, "from then on, there was never any doubt about what I was going to do." After getting a mechanical engineering degree from Drexel, he reported to the Navy. Out of Dorn's ROTC class of 28 people, three were selected for pilot training. He's the only one who finished. In his next "winging class" of 13, he was one of three picked to fly jets. Of the three, only Dorn is still flying.
Most pilots like combat exercises best, training for a midair dogfight. They like to come in fast and low, to do crazy turns and "pull a lot of G's." The only part no pilot really likes is night carrier landings. "It's the most unnatural thing," Picciano said. "You're flying on instruments. The boat is dimly lit. You don't even see the landing area until 10 seconds before you hit, and that's on a clear night." To come roaring in just feet above the stern of the carrier, thumping down, hoping that a hook on the rear of the plane catches one of the arresting wires - all the while, gunning the engine in case the hook doesn't catch and they have to take off at the other end - is something that still plays with their nerves. During landing, every foot the jet is too high on its approach means it will be 16 feet off on the deck. "If you're 5 feet high, you just missed all the wires," Picciano said.
But this is what they want to do, what they're compelled to do.
"There are moments of clarity up there," Dorn said. "You get a bright, sunny day, puffy clouds here and there, and you kind of leave the plane behind. It's like you're flying alone." At night over the ocean, accompanied by the moon, "it's like being in space."
Now, they were flying bombs into enemy territory.
At briefings before their missions, the pilots sit in huge airplane-style chairs in the "ready room," their squadron's sword logo plastered everywhere. On the wall is mounted a bed-sheet-size calendar that wives have made with photos of their children and families. Rage Against the Machine blares from speakers as they don helmets and flight vests and night-vision goggles and zip themselves into desert survival gear. They don't focus on whether they might be hurt or killed or whether their bombs might hurt or kill someone. They're Navy officers on a mission; this isn't a time to be philosophical. With today's more accurate bombs, there's less angst about civilian casualties. Still, Picciano wondered whether his first combat mission would be a watershed. Two weeks ago, he had never killed anyone. "I wondered if I'd feel anything about that," he said, "anything bad or somber."
The answer came several days later.
Picciano and Dorn, on separate missions, flew to northern Iraq. To Picciano, the countryside looked like Nevada, where he had trained. Everything went just as it had during training and yet there he was, dodging anti-aircraft fire, seeing explosions to the south in Baghdad. It was hectic, and stressful, and surreal, he said. Picciano kept in contact with a ground soldier and could hear the excitement in his voice: "Great hit! Direct hit!" Only when Picciano was headed back across Turkey toward the carrier did he begin to relax and think. "I can only think that us going out there and doing that saved American lives," he said later. "You can't think of it as going out there and killing somebody. You think of it as, 'All right, we did our job; we hit our target.' " He added: "I didn't feel the least bit bad about it. Once the war starts, people are going to die. The best thing you can do is end the war as decisively and quickly as possible." Likewise Dorn. "We all want to make a difference," he said. "Every single mission we fly, and every bomb we drop, I honestly feel it saves lives." Returning, if they have enough fuel, they fly fast. The sooner they get back, the sooner maintenance crews can ready the planes for their next sorties.
Tomorrow, in all likelihood, they'll do it again.
Some photographs sent by Mike on Sunday 06 April 2003:
Daniel Prochazka (beta pi 1087) flies E-2C Hawkeyes for VAW-115 "Liberty Bells" aboard CV-63 USS Kitty Hawk and is in the Gulf or in the Arabian Sea. This vessel's home port is Yokosuka, Japan. E-mail him at Daniel.Prochazka @ cvw5.navy.mil (sorry about the spaces but we're trying to foil the screen scrapers).
A photo found after "extensive" research (Dan on the far right...)
An article about the kind of work Dan and his crew do:
Date: April 07, 2003
Here are a few words Dan sent back recently:
everyone, I know that I have been pretty bad about staying in touch with
most of you. Here is my attempt to fill you in on my whirlwind life over
the past 6
********This is probably going to be a long message not sure how long it will turn out so beware*********
I went on a day flight to Korea shortly after arriving. This turned into a Gilligan's Island trip. We couldn't get an engine started while we were there so I ended up getting stuck there for a few days. It was pretty interesting. The city was pretty small, but there was a lot of shopping aimed mostly at Americans. I bought a leather jacket got a suit made- that kind of stuff. It was also my first introduction to South East Asia nightclubs(read shady scene). This may go a little above PG so read at your own risk. Well there are a lot of places that hire girls from other countries-Philippines, Russia, Korea, Thailand- they pay them very little and almost force them into acts with customers. These girls get trapped somewhat , there are stories about there passports getting taken, but they send money back to there families. There was not much discretion at these places, they sit down next to you, very forcibly and then ask you to buy them drinks - a shot of orange juice for about $20, and there are older Korean women who continue to ask you about every two minutes. You have to be pretty forcible when blowing them off. This is definitely a shock, and to see some guys who are eating it up buying drinks for these girls to talk to them and whatever else makes you a little uneasy. Well enough of this junk.
summer I went and spent just under a month in Guam. It is an island about
1800 miles south of Japan. It is an American territory, this is nice because
you can use dollars, and they have some American staples that go unappreciated
in the States. For example Denny's, TGIFridays, K-Mart (though it is picked
clean by locals and Japanese tourists). The island is a lot like Puerto
Rico I hear. There are a couple of military bases and one nice section
of beach and resort and the rest is pretty poor. It continually gets hit
by typhoons, so that doesn't help. There are incredible places for kayaking
and snorkeling. The scuba diving is pretty good too, but since I was flying
everyday I can't dive and fly in the same day (it could cause a really
bad physiological reaction). There was a coffee shop right next to our
hotel which was a nice piece of home also. I will probably take a couple
of more trips there in the coming years. We are able to do some really
good training there. I went to Iwo Jima for a few days at the beginning
of fall and then again in January of this year. Iwo Jima is the island
where the famous
Japan is pretty incredible. The culture is pretty different from the US. It is the safest place that I have ever been. You could leave your wallet open on the street and nobody would touch it. This is nice if you end up getting split from your friends while out. The train system is pretty extensive and we use it all the time to get around. When you around a big city there are a lot of signs in English, but when you get farther away from the city the signs are mostly in Kanji-the main Japanese writing system. This makes getting around a little tough some times, and ordering from restaurants can be pretty comical. More than once I have had to walk out to the display case with the waitress and point to the picture of what I want. I also have gotten pretty good at international hand signs. There are more than the one extended finger. I went to a concert this summer, somewhat like Lollapalooza. It was a three day concert headlined by the red Hot Chili Peppers. My buddies and I had a good time, we camped out for a couple of days. We went and saw some Japanese punk bands, but it was tough to get into the slamming around with the people because we would have hurt someone, I definitely feel tall here. I also went and saw Sheryl Crow when she came. In between songs the Japanese got really quite, patiently waiting for the next song. It was a pretty big buzz kill. Of course this gave the annoying Americans in the crowd, namely my friends and I , the opportunity to yell such eloquent comments as "We love you Sheryl" This was only topped by two things. We made a banner saying "US Naval Aviators love Sheryl Crow" Thinking that this might draw attention and we could go back stage, needless to say this didn't happen. I later learned that she is a pretty big pacifist and not exactly pro military. In case this wasn't enough, about half way through the concert we realized that the sign actually said : "US Naval Aviators love heryl Crow" Yeah, the "S" didn't get colored in on the train ride. Well an amusing anecdote at least.
out at sea right now. This is the second time that we have gone out. The
first we sailed for a few weeks, at the end of it pulling into Hong Kong.
It is a very unusual place. It is part of communist China, but there is
definitely a huge western influence. We went to bars that had been in
James Bond. The tailors that we went to had pictures from years of US
servicemen that had been coming. A Chinese/British accent is pretty neat.
Of course there is a great night life, taking water taxis to go out is
pretty unusual. We met people from all over the world. This is the same
when going out in Tokyo. There are people from all over. This is one of
the most exciting parts of going out. You never know how the night will
turn out. It is not uncommon for me to use my broken Spanish and one of
friends speaks native German, so he is always a favorite with the Europeans.
They can always speak multiple languages, this is very embarrassing being
a monolinguistic American. I am trying to learn some Japanese, but I hardly
ever use it. I am surrounded by Americans and on the boat there is no
outlet. My buddy, Olli, and I are trying to get an apartment in Tokyo.
The plan is to have one place by our base to live in and a place in Tokyo
for the weekends. Once we get back this is going to be first on the to
do list. You have to put some effort into getting out into the culture
and society. There are a lot of people who spend most of their time on
base and never really get a good sense of Japan.
My family is doing pretty well. Many of you know that my mom has been sick for a few years. She had a really bad time a little over a year ago, but she is doing much better as of late. My dad retired and is taking care of her most of the time. My little sister is driving ( holy crap). My little brother Billy got engaged over Christmas. His fiancé is great and they work really well together. I hope that I can make it back for the wedding. I am dating a girl that lives in DC. Many of you met her in Raleigh. She is finishing up her Masters right now, and will be done at the end of the semester. I wish I had an answer to the question that many of you are thinking right now. I will say that she is great and will probably come visit Japan this summer. After that ???
As for the way that things are going in the world right now... Well I can officially say that the "Kitty Hawk battle group has been deployed to the Central Area of Responsibility". But I am sure that CNN will give much more information than that. Though I pray for peace I am ready to do the job that I have been training so many years for. Freedom is not free and we need to ensure that justice and liberty are not catch phrases dropped at a cocktail party in DC but ideas that are spread throughout the world. Enough of my soapbox.
Well if you have read this much and not fallen asleep a couple of times than I applaud you. I would love to hear from you and learn how things are going. Even if it is a two line email (not the book that you just got through). I am very limited in my internet access so this is my best email. Because of this I am not able to get at a lot of emails that I have on my Hotmail account. If this email did not get to someone ensure them that it is not personal, rather a matter of the email addresses that I was able to get. If you would like to get postcards from some of the more exotic and some of the farthest thing from exotic places in the world send me you address. I hope that this email finds you in good spirit and in good health.
Copyright © 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003 by the Beta Pi Chapter of Tau Kappa Epsilon. All rights reserved.