Local grad pilots Navy's newest jet

Steve Dane, 1991 graduate of Oak Harbor High School, takes time out from his busy life aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln to stand by one of the Super Hornets he flies. Some day soon he will have his own name painted on one of them. - Jim Larsen
Steve Dane, 1991 graduate of Oak Harbor High School, takes time out from his busy life aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln to stand by one of the Super Hornets he flies. Some day soon he will have his own name painted on one of them.
— image credit: Jim Larsen

ABOARD THE USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN — With a roar of thunder and a flash of fire, Steve Dane flies off the end of the USS Abraham Lincoln, piloting his Super Hornet out over the deep blue sea and up into the wild blue yonder.

Quite a contrast to his days at Oak Harbor High School, when he was not known as one of the best and the brightest, as he is now as he serves his country in the United States Navy by piloting the newest, most versatile jet in the service.

“My teachers would be surprised. I didn’t do so hot in high school,” said the soft-spoken Dane between practice flights last Thursday. In those days his hobby was fixing and driving trucks. Today, he’s traveling much faster.

Dane spent his four high school years in Oak Harbor, graduating in 1991. He still considers Oak Harbor his home town and he’s engaged to his high school sweetheart, Rebecca Martin.

“All my life I wanted to be a pilot,” Dane said. “It’s difficult to describe, growing up around airplanes.”

Dane signed up for four years as an enlisted man. Near the end he was picked for an officer training program. He worked hard and achieved his lifetime ambition of becoming a Navy pilot.

Today, at the age of 28, Lt. j.g. Steve Dane pilots the F/A-18E/F, known as the Super Hornet. It’s the newest U.S. tactical fighter to enter production, and Dane’s squadron, VFA-115 based at Lemoore, Calif., is taking the Super Hornet through its first operational cruise. “It’s a great jet,” Dane said.

Dane is as new as the Super Hornet. “It’s my first time on the Lincoln, too,” he said. “I’m the resident new guy. You start getting salty after you’ve done a cruise.” Sailors are still waiting to learn where the Lincoln will go on its next cruise, schedule to begin later this year.

Dane didn’t look nervous, but he should have been. After spending much of the day taking off and landing from the massive deck of the Lincoln, he was facing his first night landing, always a milestone in a Navy pilot’s career.

Jeff Penfield, squadron executive officer, said the young pilot is “brand new, but everything’s been good. His big test is tonight’s night landing.”

Dane had landed at night as part of his training, but Penfield said this particular night was special. “It’s his first time in the real world,” he said. “There’s high adrenalin, high anxiety, everybody’s looking because you’re the new guy.”

Penfield, a veteran with 20 years of flying behind him, expected Dane to feel nervous. “If he’s not anxious, he’s not in the right frame of mind,” he said.

Dane wasn’t acting nervous, however. Pilots were scattered around the squadron headquarters, some chatting and others watching TVs from their chairs, which looked like they’d been taken from airplanes. Dane was gracious to a visiting reporter and escorted him to the enormous below-deck hangar, where planes were tightly parked, some getting worked on before their next elevator ride to the flight deck.

Dane pointed out the differences between the old Hornet and new Super Hornet, and noted the names of pilots on each plane. “My name isn’t on one —- yet,” he said, fully expecting that situation to be remedied soon.

The Super Hornet is 33 percent larger and better outfitted than the original version, but it isn’t the fastest plane on board. That honor still belongs to the F-14 Tomcat, which can exceed Mach 2.0 (twice the speed of sound).

“The Super Hornet’s not really made for speed,” Dane said. “Mach 1.7 max.”

But he said the Super Hornet can carry more weapons, return with more unused weapons, stay in the air longer, and even pump fuel into other jets in midair. It’s capable of both air-to-air and air-to-ground combat missions.

Dane made a number of flights off the carrier during the day on Thursday, but it’s not something that ever becomes routine. The roar of the jet engines and the power of the catapult that throws the plane off the carrier is too impressive to ever become routine. “It’s very nerve racking,” Dane admitted. And he’s always careful to quickly and efficiently carry out his job. “I minimize my time on the flight deck because it’s so dangerous up there.”

So he was nervous about his night landing. He finally admitted it, but not until Penfield and the other pilots were well out of ear shot.

How did he do? Well, the USS Abraham Lincoln was bound for Alaska to take part in the Northern Edge 2002 military exercise. Maybe when he gets back he’ll let us know.

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