Jet Girl: My Life in War, Peace, and the Cockpit of the Navy’s Most Lethal Aircraft, the F/A-18 Super Hornet

Posted on November 19, 2019

by Caroline Johnson with Hof Williams

In the following excerpt from Jet Girl, F/A-18 Weapon Systems Officer Caroline Johnson gives an intense and thrilling account of her first contact with ISIS in Iraq.

Launching off the USS George H. W. Bush into combat.

August 8, 2014; Embarked USS George H.W. Bush, North Arabian Gulf

Since I’d just been on duty for twenty-four hours, crew rest regulations mandated that I could not fly for eighteen hours after finishing my all-nighter. Still, after getting a good morning of sleep, I went up to the Ready Room to stand my short duty of the day in the tower, surprised to find the place was abuzz.

“Dude, today’s the day! It’s going to happen.” I heard someone shouting from the horde of JOs hovering around the duty desk. “That artillery piece is definitely going to cross the line.” Standing on tiptoe, I saw that the SDO had all his screens dialed into the live feeds from Iraq. Crocket read from a classified chat room, reminiscent of the days of AOL Instant Messenger, except all the transmissions were top secret. He rattled off the feeds like a seasoned NFL commentator, calling the play by play. “Hellcat 23 is overhead in the town of Irbil . . . an ISIS artillery piece is aimed at the city. Two F/A-18s are circling high above the target, standing by, with weapons solutions on the artillery, waiting for clearance from Washington, DC, to strike it . . .”

Who was flying in-country? I wondered.

I quickly checked the schedule and saw that Bobcot and one of our lieutenant commander WSOs were flying as Hellcat 23 for the day. Bobcot, one of my classmates from the Naval Academy, joined the squadron a few months before me. He was not your stereotypical fighter pilot. He was, however, your stereotypical nerd. At the Academy, he’d been a member of the Navy marching band, called the Drum and Bugle Corps; as a matter of fact he was the king of the D&B, aka, the drum major. While we weren’t necessarily good friends in school, in the squadron, I’d come to know him as one of the good guys. He was the technically inclined JO in our squadron who fixed the computers that ran our planes, programming and coding them himself. He was brilliant, and flew with finesse. Later, he would go on to become one of the Navy’s best test pilots, but in that moment, he was in the spotlight in Iraq.

Bobcot hadn’t been handpicked to fly that day. He was just in the right place at the right time. Crocket read aloud from the chatroom feed, “ISIS is encroaching on Irbil.” A call came in. President Obama finally authorized the use of lethal force.

We watched live from a drone feed on our secret network as a bomb, released from Bobcot’s wing, tore across the sky and struck its target—an ISIS artillery piece.

When the bomb’s blast cleared and the artillery piece was barely recognizable, looking like a pile of bent paperclips in a crater, cheers erupted across the Ready Room; our celebrations were as loud as a Latin American soccer stadium screaming, “Gooooooooal!”

Finally, we could fight.

* * * * *

Fresh out of the jet as a standby participant for the first strikes on Syria. The US news stations were covering our strikes before the jets even returned from their mission.

In a surreal media-age twist, before Bobcot even landed back at the boat, the Pentagon had declassified the footage and pushed it to news stations across the world. News sources stopped their normal programming and began reporting on the first bomb to strike ISIS. We all knew what it meant. That first strike signaled a renewed commitment to the people of Iraq and to destroying ISIS. When Bobcot and his WSO stepped into the Ready Room, their first stop was to pause in front of the TV for a photo we took of the two aviators with their footage scrolling on  CNN.

In that moment, I watched Bobcot with a mix of feelings: gratitude, excitement, a bit of awe, and even a little envy. We had all wanted to be the first to bring the fight to ISIS. Now, he had been the first man to drop bombs on ISIS. I wanted to be the first woman to do the same.

* * * * *

The following morning felt electric. As usual, I woke up early to get a cup of boat joe and a little alone time so I could read news and emails in peace. At the top of my inbox was an email from a familiar sender. I opened it and read the single line: Caroline, go get some. -Me.

The world was watching . . . and apparently that world still included the Minotaur, who had seemed to have dropped off the face of the earth in the past five months. He was back, at least, to wish me well. As for the rest of the world, the media now had finally shown in detail some of the carnage we’d been witnessing. Across the world, and especially in the US, people were rooting for the USS George H.W. Bush to relieve the citizens of Iraq from the horrors of ISIS.

Before my brief, I made my way down three decks to the vending machines to buy a cold bottle of water and a Gatorade. It was so hot that I had to replenish electrolytes so my body chemistry didn’t get thrown off, making me sick in the jet. Hopping off the bottom rung of the ladder on my way downstairs, I took off at my normal speed-walking pace. I rounded the corner and almost slammed into Admiral Bullet. He was leading a small group of Arab men, a special group of VIPs from Saudi Arabia, on a tour of the carrier.

“Good morning, Dutch!” he said. “I’d like you to meet the executive assistant to the royal crown prince of Saudi Arabia.” He gave me the man’s name and then introduced the distinguished group. I smiled and shook hands, gulping air as I tried to catch my breath from racing down the ladder wells.

“Gentlemen,” Bullet said to his contingent. “This is Dutch. She’s one of our F/A-18 weapon systems officers. That means she controls all the missiles and bombs in our fighter jets. Dutch, I’m just showing these gentlemen around. Care to join?”

Of course I did. I loved any chance to spend time with the admiral, and I had a knack for hosting visitors. My back was killing me. The nonstop flying had taken its toll, and I knew if I wanted, the admiral would change my flight schedule that day, giving me another day of rest and a chance to escort the royal contingent around the Bush. But I had a feeling . . .

“Sir,” I looked him in the eye. “Normally I’d love to, but I’m getting my dream shot today. I get to fly in-country! I can’t pass that up.”

“Dutch, no explanation needed,” he said, beaming. “Go get ’em!”

* * * * *

I flew north with Cardboard, Crocket’s roommate, for almost two hours, all the way up to Mount Sinjar in northwest Iraq. Cardboard was one of the good guys: helpful, but a little bland and quiet, hence his call sign.

During our intel brief Cardboard and I received reports that ISIS had trapped thirty thousand to fifty thousand Yazidis atop a mountain. The Yazidis, one of the oldest ethnic minorities in Iraq, are believed to have descended from the Zoroastrians, and their traditions blend Christian and Islamic beliefs. The hardline ISIS militants consider Yazidis devil worshippers, and had already massacred some five thousand Yazidi men, women, and children.

Once we were finally on station talking to a JTAC, we searched the area looking for nefarious activity around the mountain. As we searched, Party 45, another section of jets (i.e., two jets—a lead and wing) from the Bush, joined us. All four jets hunted bad guys, dropping our sensors in different areas, searching for suspicious activity.

Cardboard and I were running low on fuel and about to head to the tanker when, like a hunting dog on point, one of the other jets alerted us to a potential threat. I dialed my sensors into the location. Looking outside and then down on my targeting screens, I realized my eyes weren’t lying to me. I really was witnessing two tanks shooting fireballs from their main turret. On the screen we couldn’t tell what they were aimed at, so we looked outside, seeing clearly that the explosions from the tanks were going into a village on the side of the mountain. We listened to Party 45, the lead jet of the section, call the situation into the JTAC, but as we did so, Cardboard and I had to go. Since all four of the jets on station would be refueling from the same tanker, we had to cycle through so that the next aircraft could follow us and the conga line didn’t get backed up. We called the process yo-yoing because like a yo-yo, one jet always left and returned before the next plane could do the same. It ensured that all the aircraft could get gas, but at least one was over the action, keeping eyes on the enemy at all times.

As we flew toward the tanker, I dialed him up on our front radio but kept the tactical frequency up on the back radio. After my check-in to get gas, I passed the tanker frequency and comms over to Cardboard, so I could listen and track the situation at Mount Sinjar. I looked down at my kneeboard at my notes tracking the action and saw goosebumps on my wrist. Party 45 and our wingman had found two ISIS-controlled armored personnel carriers (basically tanks that also carried people), and an up-armored Humvee with a mounted rocket launcher. The men in these vehicles were lobbing grenades and rockets at a village on the north side of Mount Sinjar. Prior to departing for the tanker, Cardboard and I had seen the initial blasts with our eyes, but now the jets had gotten their sensors on the village so they could see people running from explosions—kids, old men, women—zigzagging every which way, down, across, and up the mountain.

Once we reached the tanker, Cardboard worked his ass off in the front cockpit, precisely maneuvering our jet to get the two-foot-long probe on the nose of our plane into the tanker’s basket. This was no easy task, flying within fifty feet of the gigantic supertanker, bouncing around in turbulence. Cardboard got the probe in the basket and kept it there for the ten minutes we needed to top off with jet fuel. Since the tanker track was almost fifteen minutes away from the action and we couldn’t have our sensors on while refueling, I had to keep track of the engagement with notes on my kneeboard and by marking up a chart I had of the area. It was a total mind game at this point. I was intent on mentally staying in the fight—listening to the radio, visualizing the movements on the ground, logging and inputting coordinates into our system—so that as soon as we got back overhead, we’d be ready to go.

After what seemed like the longest tanker evolution of my entire life, we were finished gassing up. I double-checked my weapons and made sure they were ready. I reprogrammed my sensor so we were dialed in, should we be given the green light.

Check, check, check. Everything good to go.

I signed off with the tanker and switched our radios back to have the JTAC on primary frequency and our wingman on the secondary radio.

“Recommend gate,” I calmly said to Cardboard, meaning that he should go max blast—as fast as the jet can go. I’d never recommended that before, but with every second that passed, I knew there were Yazidis on the ground getting shot up. We needed to be in the target area with our sensor and weapons ready.

“Sorry, Dutch,” Cardboard said. “I won’t gate. Don’t want to waste the gas.”

Even though he was an ever-boring pragmatist, Cardboard was right. In combat we flew at two speeds: max endurance, the slowest we could fly to preserve the most gas, or tactical air-speed, the speed we used to employ weapons and fight battles. Gas is life when flying fighter jets. We never have enough, and we have to be extremely careful how we use it. If we ran out over northern Iraq, at the very least, we’d be forced to visit the tanker, and at worst, we’d have to eject and risk capture by ISIS.

While he still didn’t go full throttle, Cardboard bumped it up a bit, and  I got the ATFLIR—the infrared targeting pod on the side of our jet—warmed up and calibrated for the environmentals in the area. As the day wore on and we started reaching the heat of the afternoon, we were constantly having to adjust our sensors and recalibrate the pods so we could see better during times of thermal crossover.

Still far away on the south side of the mountain, I could no longer see the tanks but I listened to the comms. We crested Mount Sinjar, and a few minutes later—jackpot! I spotted them again, preparing for their next volley of shots. I waited for a lull in the comms between the JTAC and the jets who were still on station and then called, “Hellcat 26, established Angels 19, captured,” checking in with the JTAC and the special ops guy on the ground who was coordinating the planes in the area. I told him we rejoined the close air support stack, the cluster of Hornets and UAVs buzzing over the area, and that we had our sensors locked on the enemy. Along with the other jets overhead, I followed the tanks from where they’d been shooting to where they were parked on a highway, noting that along the way, they’d stopped and loaded the personnel carriers up at a small gas station, and we’d counted sixteen men between the three vehicles. The JTAC passed us a nine-line—the instructions for attacking the vehicles—so now, with the tanks retargeted, all we were waiting for to save the Yazidis was the authorization of lethal force.

It was only day two of kinetics in Iraq and little did I know, the weapons release authority was still held by the secretary of defense. So while we sat overhead, watching the bunch of jihadists massacring villagers, the JTAC’s request was being routed all the way back to Washington, DC, and up to the honorable Chuck Hagel. I could imagine him, in a meeting in his office in Washington, receiving a phone call on his classified line from one of the admirals in the Pentagon, getting briefed, and authorizing the employment. President Obama had cleared Bobcot’s strikes the day before, and now SECDEF was authorizing the use of lethal force.

As we waited, communications between the Special Forces JTAC and our jets became unreadable, but luckily there was a drone circling low over the target that relayed the radio calls for us. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the word came. Our lead jet, Hellcat 25, was on the tanker, and the two Party jets were getting desperately low on gas waiting for the employment. The JTAC ordered the Party flight to go refuel and authorized us, Hellcat 26, to employ.

“Hellcat 26, cleared hot, cleared hot.”

Those were the magic words I’d been waiting for. Cardboard and I now had authorization to employ two GBU-54 laser-guided JDAM bombs. Game on!

Cardboard momentarily widened the circle we were flying until he reached the apex and banked the jet sharply around, pointing our nose at the target. My bombs dialed in, I gave my French braid one last tug for good luck before the acceleration pressed me back in my seat. I had already recorded the setup while we were overhead and was perfectly targeted on the two tanks as we pushed inbound. But then, both of the vehicles started to drive off. The laser-guided bombs could hit moving targets, but I couldn’t get them both if they were too far apart. 

Which tank do I hit first? Or should I drop a bomb in the middle of the two? I had milliseconds to choose. Nope, definitely the lead vehicle.

Perched in the back of a Super Hornet, racing across the blue sky at close to five hundred miles per hour, I watched the tanks move on the black-and-white screen in front of me. In my hands were controllers that looked like they belonged to a high-tech PlayStation. I guided the crosshairs on my screen with a tiny joystick controlled by my thumb, basically playing the most important video game of my life, where I had to keep my pipper—the dot at the center of the crosshairs—on the lead tank. Delicately moving the joystick, I noticed a small cloud of dust rising behind the tracks of the tank. The plane wobbled twice, and I felt each bomb release. I glanced up from the pipper to the impact countdown.

“Hellcat 26,” I said over the radio. “Thirty seconds.”

The five-hundred-pound bombs, packed with 480 pounds of TNT, were literally at my fingertips. I focused as hard as I could on my screen, making sure they struck the lead tank at just the right spot.

Boom boom.

The bombs impacted.

The lead vehicle was blown up entirely, and the second vehicle flipped, partially destroyed in the blast.

“Hellcat 26 impact,” I said as the shock waves reverberated out and back from the point of impact.

“Hellcat 26, good hits! Good hits!” the  JTAC relayed through the drone. Coming back a second later, he gave further instructions. “Hellcat 26 authorized immediate reattack, your target is the up-armored Humvee. Cleared hot!”

“Hellcat 26,” I said calmly, acknowledging his call.

I was cleared to go after the technical vehicle that was armed with a rocket launcher, which was still smoking from its recent attacks. On my left screen, I stayed locked onto the first bomb site, stepping through different modes and zoom settings to ensure we got adequate proof of the attack to bring back for intel. On my weapons display to the right, I selected the laser-guided maverick, or LMAV. I knew it would take the missile’s internal brains nearly thirty seconds just to spin up, so I did not hesitate. The plane vibrated, the Gs slamming me back in my seat.

Grinding across the sky, the plane let out a metallic growl as we arced around the circle, reminding me that while I worked the brains of the jet, Cardboard was flying it, setting us up for the attack. Noting our position in the overhead pattern, I moved the joystick to find our next target.

“Hellcat 26 is in, in 30,” I said once the target was under the pipper, letting them know I’d employ the missile in thirty seconds. At the ranges we were employing the LMAV, we didn’t need to calculate the time of flight because the missile traveled so fast. Once the missile left our wing, it would impact the target less than a few seconds later.

I felt a shiver. This was fast. Very fast. It would be nearly impossible for a single-seat jet to reattack a new target with live ordnance that fast. That’s why two-seater F/A-18s are so deadly. It’s the teamwork. We can go after these f*ckers because while Cardboard bent the jet in the sky, I could target terrorists, ready the weapons, and guide them in for a kill shot.

 I’ll be your wingman anytime. In the fighter community we rarely fly alone. We always try to be good wingmen and support our team we’re flying with.

I had the missile on and ready, the codes were set. Laser on, laser code set. The RADALT, the piece of equipment that kept us from flying into the ground, was set to the heads-up display and dialed in.

Check, check, check. I flew through the steps, keeping one eye locked on the FLIR (the targeting pod that would guide the missile) to ensure I was slewed, or locked, on the truck.

“Captured, checks complete,” I said over the ICS, letting Cardboard know we were locked on the target and the systems were ready for weapons delivery.

The Gs intensified as Cardboard tightened up the circle and prepared for our roll-in. Tracking a truck while rolling into a dive in a jet was like playing Call of Duty on a roller coaster. I wrapped my pinky and ring fingers around the hand controllers to stabilize myself while my thumbs and trigger fingers targeted the vehicle. I braced myself for what came next. Cardboard unloaded the jet, overbanking 135 degrees, simultaneously rolling inverted and pointing our nose at the target. A millisecond later we plunged into a nosedive, our fighter hurtling toward the ground at more than four hundred miles per hour. I didn’t look up from the targeting pod, knowing that if I did, I’d have a face full of ground in the windscreen. No sky. This maneuver defies logic and delicately dances with physics. There’s math behind it, and you need to keep track of the numbers so you don’t die, but in that moment, there was no time to think about dive angles and offset degrees. We had to make sure we got the missile on target.

A half second later, we rolled back upright. Sticking my tongue out, like I do when I concentrate, I strained to center the pipper on the truck and its rocket launcher, and pulled the diamond over the target, the whole time squeezing the left trigger as hard as I could, unconsciously white-knuckling the hand controller. In an instant, like a super-powered magnet, the laser-guided maverick locked on the target and the symbology changed.

“Good spot,” I tell Cardboard. “LMAV locked!”

Whoosh. The LMAV roared, accelerating ahead of the plane, and I nearly jumped. Normally you don’t hear noises outside the jet, but the LMAV, screaming as loud as a ten-foot bottle rocket in your ear, is hard to miss. You never get used to the sound. In such a steep dive, the cursor tried to rise up and off target, but I kept the crosshairs right on the truck’s gas tank, ensuring extra explosive capacity so that we didn’t just get the vehicle but the gun mounted in the bed, too. The plane moved again, the Gs crept up my body as Cardboard started to pull out of the dive. The pullout on an LMAV delivery needed to be gentle, otherwise the missile could lose the laser energy, thus going dumb and spiraling out of control.

“Don’t mask, dooooon’t mask,” I cautioned Cardboard in a soothing, low voice.

Schwack! My entire display disappeared into a white and black mushroom cloud. I tried to zoom out and then realized I was already zoomed all the way out. Holding the cursor on target, I stole a quick glance outside at the real-life explosion ballooning up from the pile of wreckage. Smoke roiled black and red as gases combusted in the cloud.

Whoa, well that had the intended effect. I smiled.

As we pulled up to fly out of the missile’s fragmentation envelope, Cardboard gently stood the jet on its left wing to keep our ATFLIR on the target. The job wasn’t over yet; we had to record the entire explosion, getting it in all different modes of the sensor. There was no way to sugarcoat the aftermath. Bodies spilled out of the Humvee, taking herky-jerky steps like zombies before collapsing dead on the desert sand. More mangled bodies scattered around the tanks, and still more inside, incinerated in the smoldering vehicles. I knew the dead were many, and only later, back on the boat, would I learn the official estimated count— sixteen. Sixteen enemy killed in forty-five of the most intense seconds of my life.

Our wingman polished off what remained of the second armored personnel carrier with another laser-guided bomb, and once we were sure there were no survivors left to terrorize the Yazidis, we headed back.

CAROLINE JOHNSON was an F/A-18 Weapons Systems Officer (WSO) in the US Navy. During her deployment aboard the USS George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier, she flew missions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria and was one of the first women to neutralize ISIS. Later during her Navy career, Caroline became a Senior Leadership instructor at the United States Naval Academy. She is now a professional speaker in the private sector.

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