Springfield State Journal Register

April 5, 2003

Central Illinois native is Tomcat pilot in the war


ABOARD THE CONSTELLATION - For as long as he can remember, Jonathan Vieley wanted to fly.

And during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, while only 17, the Central Illinois native urged his parents to let him join the military, but they refused.

Today, Lt. Jonathan "Buttons" Vieley is a Navy fighter pilot, flying combat missions into Iraq in the powerful F-14 Tomcat from this aircraft carrier sailing in the northern Persian Gulf.

It is the realization of goals that started with childhood experiences with his father, Vieley said.

"My father was an Army aviator," he said. "He never pushed me into the service," but sparked an interest when he would explain things about military aircraft while they watched the history channel, Vieley said.

Born in Springfield, Vieley lived there until he was about 6, when the family moved to Arizona. They moved back to Illinois years later and settled in Morton.

His parents, Larry and Marilyn Vieley, still live in Morton, where his mother is a high school teacher. His father works in Peoria.

Vieley played baseball and football at Morton High School, graduating in 1992. He then went to the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. After graduating in 1996, he joined the Navy, went through officer candidate school at Pensacola, Fla., and then started pilot training there.

He also met his future wife, Michelle, in Pensacola. They were married just after he earned his Navy wings following jet training at Kingsville, Texas. She is waiting for his return in Virginia Beach, Va., near his home base, Oceana Naval Air Station.

He is assigned to Fighter Squadron 2, a historic Navy unit that now flies the twin-jet, swing-wing Tomcat, which was celebrated in the movie "Top Gun." The squadron is part of Carrier Air Wing 2 aboard this San Diego-based carrier, which has been operating in the Persian Gulf since Jan. 19.

Vieley said he flew the first night of the air war into the Baghdad area, where the sky was full of what he called "triple A" and "SAMs" - anti-air artillery and surface-to-air missiles.

He said he is "flying pretty much every day, six- to seven-hour missions" during the 16-day-old conflict.

Although the focus of the strike missions in the early days of the war was on fixed targets, including air defense, command and control and Iraqi leadership facilities, the emphasis has shifted to mobile targets among the Iraqi ground forces.

Those current missions are in direct support of "the guys on the ground," commonly called close air support, or CAS, which is a popular mission with the strike pilots, he said.

"It's nice to help the ground troops," Vieley said. "They're really the ones who take a lot of the beating."

Although designed primarily as a fighter to defend the carrier, the Tomcat is very good at ground attack missions because it can fly farther and carry more bombs than the other fighters on Constellation, the F/A-18 Hornets.

It also has a second person, the radar intercept officer in the rear seat, who can find targets with radar or a forward-looking infrared sensor and can back up the pilot in other tasks.

The second set of eyes also makes the Tomcat a good platform for airborne forward air controller missions, in which they help other fighters find ground targets to attack, he said.

But the Tomcat is a relatively old airplane and is being retired.

"It's going to be sad to lose it," Vieley said. "It's a great aircraft."

After this deployment, VF-2 will transition to the new two-seat version of the F/A-18, called the "Super Hornet."

"As soon as we get back, we'll pack up and move west," to Lemoore, Calif., where the Hornets are based, he said.

In addition to his duties as a pilot, Vieley also is a landing signals officer - called the LSO or "paddles" - who helps other pilots land safely aboard the carrier.

After five years in the Navy, Vieley believes he will make it a career.

"I love the Navy," he said. "You'd think this far in the cruise I'd hate it, but I still like what I'm doing."