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Lack of Carriers Affecting Military Exams

March 9, 2003

MERIDIAN NAVAL AIR STATION, Miss. (AP) _ Landing at more than 120 mph on the deck of a moving aircraft carrier is the ultimate test of who becomes a Navy fighter pilot and who doesn’t.

But these days, with Navy carrier battle groups being assigned to the Middle East, simply finding one of those massive ships to practice on has become its own challenge.

This week, about a dozen Navy and Marine Corps student aviators and their instructors from Meridian Naval Air Station will climb into their T-45C jet trainers and fly all the way to Southern California so they can practice landing on the USS John. C. Stennis. A second group will head west on commercial airliners to share the trainers.

Normally, these students would have made much shorter and cheaper flights to a carrier in the Atlantic Ocean, but those flattops have been deployed for a possible war against Iraq.

``It has been a challenge, yes,″ says Capt. Mark Needler, the commodore in charge of flight training at Meridian.

Making 10 successful landings on an aircraft carrier is a requirement for apprentice aviators to win the Navy’s gold pilot wings.

So far, no graduations have been delayed and training hasn’t been disrupted. The Navy is taking the changes in stride since pilot training has always been subject to the unpredictability of weather, equipment malfunctions and availability of carriers.

Instructors say they will start to worry if aircraft carriers become scarcer. Last week’s departure of the USS Nimitz from San Diego meant half of the Navy’s 12 carriers were in or on their way to the Middle East.

The student pilots heading to the Stennis from Meridian will be joined by a class from Kingsville NAS in Texas, Needler said.

``We’re loading them up because we don’t know if there’s a boat″ available later, said Cmdr. Rob Trafton of Virginia Beach, Va., executive officer of Training Squadron Seven at Meridian.

Needler said weather off the California coast will probably not be ideal for students, since the area is notorious for low clouds. But he emphasized that no students ever go out to a carrier unless their instructors are sure they’re ready.

Normally, 85 percent of the students qualify on a carrier, Needler said.

Student pilot Lt. j.g. Madison Woo says he and his fellow students haven’t been psyched out by the prospect of having to travel farther to perform what some pilots call ``controlled crashes″ on a carrier deck.

``It’s kind of that good nervous feeling,″ said Woo, of Augusta, Ga., whose stepfather and uncle also were naval aviators. ``Everybody is a little nervous, but definitely excited. It’s a once in a lifetime thing.″

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On the Net:

Meridian NAS: https://www.cnet.navy.mil/meridian/

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