Iraq-bound pilots make do with old technology

Pilots of strike aircraft aboard this aircraft carrier, which recently headed toward the Persian Gulf for air operations over Iraq, routinely rely on commercial handheld Global Positioning System receivers to help navigate their older "Tomcat" fighters not equipped with built-in military systems.

Captain Rick McHarg, commander of the ship's formidable air wing, which includes F-18 "Hornet" and F-14 Tomcat strike aircraft, said the lack of built-in military GPS systems on some of the aircraft aboard reflects what he called "the cruel reality of [budget] dollars."

McHarg, who straps a commercial Garmin Corp. GPS receiver into the cockpit of his Tomcat, described it as "the best thing we can have to know where we are.... It's the best guarantee that the airplane and its [internal navigation system] are aligned."

The Pentagon generally discourages the services from buying commercial GPS receivers, as opposed to military-standard equipment, because they are not as reliable as military equipment, and they are more susceptible to jamming.

But McHarg dismissed such warnings, saying his Garmin provides him with "the best situational awareness" he can get in the cockpit of an aircraft not equipped with integrated, military GPS systems.

Lt. Drew Basden, a pilot who works as the ship's landing signals officer, said squadrons on the ship have been using internal funding to buy the commercial GPS receivers, which he described as "squadron band-aid kits. They provide basic [navigation and]...they're better than [the internal] aircraft systems" on the older aircraft.

McHarg said the aircrews aboard this ship use a variety of handheld GPS receivers, but the aircrews rely primarily on a series of Garmin handhelds, primarily because of those devices' built-in map displays. McHarg added that many of the pilots also fly with a second handheld GPS receiver in their flight suits, to help rescue aircraft locate the pilots in case they are shot down or have to eject. "These are just [junior officers] buying receivers" with their own funds, Basden said.

Pilots aboard the Kitty Hawk have no recourse to commercial systems to replace outdated survival radios.

Deployment of the GPS-equipped Combat Survivor Evader Locator (CSEL), which would allow downed pilots to contact rescue teams instantly with their exact position, has been delayed because of research and development problems, forcing pilots here to operate with Vietnam War-era survival radios.

Basden, informed that the CSEL failed a Pentagon test last year, due in part to its hard-to-operate, menu-driven interface, said he too would flunk any system that used such an interface.

"If I'm down and hurt, I don't want to push a lot of buttons. I might only have the use of one hand," he said.

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