An American-French training exercise taking place off the East Coast is aimed at boosting the fortunes of naval forces of both countries, but participants say it is succeeding on a deeper level.
Operation Chesapeake is strengthening personal bonds between war-fighters whose countries today fight together in Syria and Iraq, continuing an alliance established by their ancestors who came together at Yorktown nearly 240 years ago.
The exercise aboard the Norfolk-based aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush is seeing French fighter jets land on a U.S. aircraft carrier along with their American counterparts.
Operation Chesapeake began over land in Virginia on April 3 before recently shifting to the Bush at sea. It will end later this month.
The exercise has a very practical benefit for the French, whose only aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle, is temporarily out of commission due to a midlife overhaul.
Rafale fighter pilots can use the Bush to establish or re-establish their carrier landing qualifications, which can only be done by completing a series of catapult launches and arrested landings.
After achieving carrier qualifications, pilots from both countries will take to the skies for more complicated flights, concentrating on tactics and mission-oriented goals.
But the training goes beyond takeoffs and landings.
As pilots and crews from different countries bump shoulders in the hangar bay, eat together in the mess, and interact professionally throughout the ship, they are finding some differences in how they conduct business. But they are finding more in common.
"It's kind of funny," said Lt. Brandon Rodgers, an F/A-18 Super Hornet pilot. "Any fighter pilot from any country, it seems, is the same. We're a little bit full of ourselves, but we love flying. That's the commonality between all of us -- getting together, talking about fighting, that's where we all have that common bond. It's something kind of special."
That bond can exist even when technology creates a divide. Chief Petty Officer Philip Mina helps maintain the Hornet and Super Hornet. It uses a different engine than the Rafale.
But if a pilot is a pilot ...
"An engine is an engine," he said, "and we're mechs. So if they'd come down, we'd be more than happy to help."
And if a Rafale engine were to suddenly be available for inspection, that would be awesome. Expect Mina and his men to try poking around in it.
"Any engine that comes our way that we haven't worked on, we get kind of interested," he said. "Old or new, if you haven't seen it yet, you still want to look at it. We're wrench monkeys. We just want to see what's going on."
Maybe that's why a French flight officer like Stephane -- French policy requires personnel to give only first names -- can't say enough about U.S.Navy hospitality. He's the commander of an E2-C Hawkeye squadron. The E2-C is an American-made early-warning aircraft, which the French fly and have tweaked a bit for their purposes.
Earlier last week, the French E2-C was briefly out of commission, so a French pilot flew with American crew.
"That's great," he said. "That's the first time in training we've used that. I've had wonderful support from the squadron, from the U.S. Navy in general. Believe me. It's not just because you are Americans (that) I say that. It's true."
It took about a year to plan Operation Chesapeake. French and American pilots have shared notes and tips on what to expect when their aircraft and pilots get together. The Rafale and Super Hornet are similar, but each have differences to keep in mind.
Consider this handy safety tip for personnel working on the flight deck:
In the Hornet, the jet exhaust blows straight out. It is common to see flight deck personnel bend down when a Hornet turns on the deck, avoiding the hot exhaust. In a Rafale, the exhaust is directed down and hits behind the aircraft.
Bending down is something you shouldn't do behind a Rafale.
There is somewhat of a language barrier, especially when it comes to American acronyms and vernacular. But both sides minimize the differences.
"We expect that it is going to get better and better," Stephane said.
Capt. Jim McCall, who commands U.S. Carrier Air Wing Eight, said they've had to make adjustments for Rafale air speed in flight patterns above the ship. But similarities far outweigh differences, he said. Doing a year of advance homework helped smooth things out.
"Their procedures mimic ours, so it should be seamless," he said. "But until you actually go out and do it, I think we'll learn some lessons there."
Big ship, little changes
The French remark at the size of the Bush, the last of the American Nimitz-class carriers built at Newport News Shipbuilding. The Charles de Gaulle is also a nuclear-powered carrier, but has only two catapults, not four like the Bush.
"Bush is bigger," said Nicholas, a French master chief who works as a maintainer on the French Hawkeye. "But what is really different is that you can recover aircraft on the flight deck and launch at the same time."
"It's a little bit noisy compared to the Charles de Gualle," said Stephane. "What is impressive is the number of aircraft we can handle here. But except that, with the procedures, the way to work, it is very similar to a French carrier."
The Bush has made some accommodations. Some are minor, like French-language signs. Others are more substantive.
Lt. Cmdr. Winston Cotterel oversees the "ouija board," a tabletop model of a carrier with toy-sized aircraft that allow him to track movements of planes. It's low-tech but has worked for years. For Operation Chesapeake, the ouija board features cutouts that are identical to delta-winged Rafale.
"This gives us a good experience," he said. "If it is for real, whether in the Persian Gulf or anywhere else in the world, and have to bring Rafales in, we'll have the experience to deal with their aircraft, be able to turn them around and kick them back out."
Pilots on both sides say they are looking forward to the next phase of the at-sea exercise, when the aircraft do more mission-based training. Rafales and Hornets have already "fought" each other during the land-based portion of Operation Chesapeake, which was based at Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach.
Rodgers, the Super Hornet pilot, said the experience has been helpful to him.
Think of a fighter pilot as a boxer, he said. If you always go up against the same sparring partner, you tend to know strengths and weaknesses and it's more difficult to be surprised. The Rafale -- the name comes from the French word meaning "gust" -- is super-fast.
"When it's light, it can pretty much stand on its tail and go straight up," he said. "When you're on deck and you see them go straight up -- all right, I guess I can't do that with you."
Ultimately, both sides expect to learn from the other. Even Nicholas, who has spent 32 years in the French Navy, said the best part of being on the Bush is learning new things.
"You have to learn every day," he said. "It doesn't matter if you are a young sailor or an old sailor like me."
This article is written by Hugh Lessig from Daily Press (Newport News, Va.) and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.