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Flight crews gear up

Flying an EA-6B Prowler aircraft involves much more than taking off and landing, according to Lt. Tre Costello, a Prowler pilot with VAQ-133, a squadron that’s leaving for Afghanistan this month. From arriving at the squadron before a mission, it could be almost three hours before a crew reaches their plane.

A preflight brief lasts two hours followed by a discussion of maneuvers to be done. After that it’s time to look over the maintenance records for the aircraft to be flown, then flight crews must put on 40 pounds of survival gear before heading out to the plane for a walkaround. Survival gear must fit precisely to be effective. It’s hot and heavy too. But Costello and other flight crew don’t mind the heft or the heat.

“In training, we were told uncomfortable is safe,” Costello said as he climbed into the first layer of gear: a G-suit. The fluid-filled suit laces up the legs and fits girdle-like at the waist. When the Prowlers start experiencing gravitational forces, the fluid forces blood from the legs into the torso and head, keeping pilots and crew members conscious.

Costello learned another truism during flight training: Don’t complain or you’re out. So he wore an too-small helmet until he reached his squadron. There he received a large, custom-made helmet and earned the call sign “Bucket.”

“Everyone said I wore a bucket for a helmet,” Costello laughed as he checked his Leatherman tool, a multi-use tool that includes knives, screwdrivers, pliers and wire-strippers. Costello also carries a Buck knife which was left to him by a grandfather, “For Luck and just in case,” he said.

Leg restraints are fastened to prevent breaking his limbs should he have to eject.

Costello’s torso harness, parachute and survival gear are the bulkiest to wear. His survival gear vest contains flares, signals, markers, a radio and a flashlight. Costello also packs a person survival kit with additional first aid supplies and a very light survival blanket. And he wears a Camelbak, a 50-ounce, water-carrying backpack.

All the flight crews’ gear must be stitched a certain way to be effective, Costello said. He credits the parachute riggers (Aircrew Survival Equipmentmen in Navy-ese) with keeping everything shipshape.

“We have great people in our squadron who can work miracles with what they have,” Costello said as he grabbed his notepad which straps to his leg and his navigational bag with charts before heading out to take command of the Prowler. In 20 minutes he would be over Eastern Washington, training for flying in Afghanistan.

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