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A return to Iraq for Virginia Beach-based fighter pilots

President Barack Obama's order to begin airstrikes against militants in northern Iraq meant returning to an old mission for seasoned fighter pilots aboard the Norfolk-based aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush.

Nearly three years have passed since the end of U.S. combat operations, when the last Navy fighters flew off carriers to drop bombs in Iraq. The return to a familiar flight route on Friday didn't necessarily stir nostalgia among the pilots tasked with carrying out the order.

The sorties against Islamic State fighters in Iraq are not unlike the combat flights Navy pilots have routinely made over Afghanistan in recent years, said Capt. Dan Martin, deputy commander of Carrier Air Wing 8 aboard the Bush.

Pilots "prepare the same way every time they get in a jet," Martin said Monday, speaking from the captain's stateroom aboard the Bush during a phone interview. "They don't get caught up in the particular route we're flying."

Preparations for this mission began last year during training flights over Virginia Beach before deployment, Martin said. Each of the four squadrons of F/A-18 Hornets and Super Hornets aboard the Bush is based at Oceana Naval Air Station.

Martin could not discuss specifics, including how many combat sorties had been flown or how many bombs had been dropped since Friday.

As recently as Monday, according to the Pentagon, fighter jets from the Bush bombed several vehicles that were part of an Islamic State convoy moving to attack Kurdish forces in the northeastern Iraqi city of Irbil.

Aboard the ship, hundreds of miles from the fighting, sailors are aware they're supporting an important mission, the Bush's commanding officer, Capt. Andrew Loiselle, told The Virginian-Pilot.

"We work really hard to convey the message that every person aboard this ship — from my chaplain to the shirt presser to the cook to an aircraft maintainer — contributes to that final product," Loiselle said. "It takes every single person aboard that ship to achieve that."

On Monday, the Navy posted raw footage of red-shirted Bush sailors -- aviation ordnancemen -- assembling laser-guided bombs to be attached to fighter jets and dropped in Iraq.

The Bush entered the Persian Gulf in June, as the Islamic State took control of vast regions of northern and western Iraq. Its fighter squadrons had been flying surveillance flights over Iraq for at least two months before Obama issued the order to strike.

The carrier left Norfolk in February for what was scheduled to be a nine-month deployment. The Navy has not said if the turmoil in Iraq could delay its return.

mike.hixenbaugh@pilotonline.com

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