Union Tribune

June 1, 2003

Venerable carrier managed to save the best for last


WASHINGTON For an old lady out for what probably will be her last dance, the Constellation put on quite a show.

The Navy's second-oldest active warship set an example for ships half its age starting early, staying late and meeting nearly every commitment during the air war against Iraq.

The San Diego-based aircraft carrier hurried its pre-deployment preparations and left home ahead of schedule on Nov. 2. It is scheduled to return tomorrow, a month later than expected.

Reprising its earlier role in starting the air war against North Vietnam in 1964, the Constellation and its aircraft supported the opening strikes against Baghdad on March 19.

The Constellation's crew had been alerted to the start of the war by Vice Adm. Timothy J. Keating, 5th Fleet commander, who told sailors and Marines gathered in the hangar bay: "Get ready. It's coming."

Petty Officer 3rd Class Michael Fadide of La Mesa, a towering figure in the purple shirt of the flight deck refueling crew, replied: "The sooner the better for us to do our job and get back home."

Sgt. Monroe Barvella, a maintenance administrator in Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 323 from Miramar Marine Corps Air Station, had a tougher response: "We're eager to get this started. I'm looking for a little bit of revenge here for 9/11."

As the ship prepared to start the attack the next day, Airman Michael Cornett, an ordnance man from Fallbrook, admired the weapons he had helped assemble and said: "America's flagship is here to do her job," using the nickname that President Reagan gave the Constellation in 1981.

The next evening, Capt. John W. Miller, the carrier's 30th skipper, told his crew they had just launched the ship's first strikes in the war against Saddam Hussein's regime.

"I am absolutely confident we are ready for this important duty," he said.

The Constellation crew went on to launch more than 1,500 sorties during the conflict, including hundreds of strike missions that delivered 1.3 million pounds of ordnance onto targets in Iraq.

The air wing's jets also spread millions of leaflets over Iraq, many of which were produced in a printing operation that was unique to the Constellation.

Aircraft and ships from the Constellation battle group also took part in operations to capture Iraqi oil transfer platforms that could have been used to pollute the Persian Gulf, to rescue captured U.N. workers, and to stop Iraqi vessels apparently attempting to spread sea mines in the Persian Gulf.

To do all that, the 4,800 sailors and Marines on the Constellation went more than two months without a port visit, with many of them working long days.

Army Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of the war's forces, saluted the Constellation and its battle group for their "accelerated deployment" and contribution to the war.

"I have no doubt your efforts directly hastened the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime," Franks said in a message to the task force.

Despite the Constellation's extended deployment, the grinding schedule it maintained during the war, more than 8,600 total flight operations and 26 challenging at-sea replenishments, no major injuries or significant equipment failures were reported.

It lost one aircraft, an S-3B from Sea Control Squadron 38.

Morale remained high, as indicated by a re-enlistment rate of 83 percent.

"I really think this crew is different from all the other carriers I've been on this is my sixth," Miller said late in the cruise.

Although the 41-year-old carrier is scheduled for retirement Aug. 7, Miller said the ship is ready to continue to serve.

"Our objective has been to ensure that if the Navy needs to keep the Constellation around another year or two, it was in good enough material condition that it could do that," he said.

However, Adm. Vern Clark, the chief of naval operations, has indicated that the Navy probably will not have the money or personnel to keep the Constellation in service. If the carrier is decommissioned, it would be put in "mothball" status at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard.

Most of the crew members already have their transfer orders.

Miller was still waiting for his next assignment. But after four previous commands two squadrons and two ships he said of his tour on the Constellation: "I can't imagine a more rewarding job. . . . It's been a tremendous experience."