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After a long night of launching aircraft from the USS Kitty Hawk, aviation boatswain's equipment mates catch some sleep at 5 a.m. before doing maintenance on the waist catapults. The crews typically work 16-hour days.

After a long night of launching aircraft from the USS Kitty Hawk, aviation boatswain's equipment mates catch some sleep at 5 a.m. before doing maintenance on the waist catapults. The crews typically work 16-hour days. (Kendra Helmer / S&S)

After a long night of launching aircraft from the USS Kitty Hawk, aviation boatswain's equipment mates catch some sleep at 5 a.m. before doing maintenance on the waist catapults. The crews typically work 16-hour days.

After a long night of launching aircraft from the USS Kitty Hawk, aviation boatswain's equipment mates catch some sleep at 5 a.m. before doing maintenance on the waist catapults. The crews typically work 16-hour days. (Kendra Helmer / S&S)

Petty Officer 2nd Class Eric Klostermann, an aviation boatswain's equipment mate, gives the thumbs-up for an aircraft to launch off the USS Kitty Hawk on Saturday.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Eric Klostermann, an aviation boatswain's equipment mate, gives the thumbs-up for an aircraft to launch off the USS Kitty Hawk on Saturday. (Kendra Helmer / S&S)

Airman Kevin Barton, an aviation boatswain's equipment mate, dials in the weight of an aircraft in the arresting gear engine room on the USS Kitty Hawk.

Airman Kevin Barton, an aviation boatswain's equipment mate, dials in the weight of an aircraft in the arresting gear engine room on the USS Kitty Hawk. (Kendra Helmer / S&S)

ABOARD USS KITTY HAWK — Petty Officer 2nd Class John McFadden doesn’t even bother trying to explain his job to people back home.

As a deck edge operator, he pushes a button that catapults multimillion-dollar aircraft off the flight deck. He says that while it’s a cool gig, he didn’t realize what he was getting into: 18-hour days, seven days a week.

“I just try to grab a catnap here and there,” he said, looking a bit tired after several hours of launching planes headed for Iraq to support ground troops in Basra.

Throughout Friday night and until 4 a.m. Saturday, about 100 planes, loaded with GPS and laser-guided ordnance, thundered off the flight deck.

And things were to get busier the following days. Flights were to increase by about 30 sorties Saturday, said Lt. j.g. Nicole Kratzer, Carrier Air Wing 5 spokeswoman.

While the increased flights mean a faster pace for many of the 5,500 sailors on the carrier, it didn’t necessarily change the working hours for the catapult and arresting gear folks.

“War or no war, this is our life,” said Sonny Lopez, day maintenance chief petty officer. “Eight hours of sleep, that’s our goal.”

There are more than 200 aviation boatswain equipment mates who work with the catapults and the arresting gear — a wire that is 1 and 7/16-inches thick that “catches” the 60,000-pound aircraft when they land. Since Jan. 20, the carrier has launched more than 3,150 planes, originally as part of Operation Southern Watch.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Eric Klostermann, 22, recently pulled a 24-hour shift during the massive air campaign, making sure the catapults were always ready.

At 5 a.m., as he planned maintenance after the flights had ended, several sailors slept on couches and on the floor in a nearby lounge.

“You have maybe half an hour to grab food, but there’s always a line,” said Klostermann, 22. “When my parents write to me, I ask for food.”

Despite the long hours, Klostermann said he enjoys the job.

“Why sit behind a desk and look at the same wall?” said. “I get to see the sunrise, the stars at night.”

While the catapult crew has been putting in long hours, the arresting crew actually got a break when the air campaign started.

Chief Petty Officer Fred Malavolti’s 30 sailors normally pull 18-hour shifts. But Malavolti took advantage of the extended time in the Gulf before the war to better train his crew.

“Our problem was we hadn’t had a lot of sea time,” he said. During the two straight months they’ve spent at sea since leaving Yokosuka, Japan, several sailors have gotten qualified to work more arresting gear jobs.

Instead of one crew, Malavolti now has two crews working 14-hour shifts, four hours less than normal.

“You want your guys alert,” said Malavolti, who asked for the shift change a few days ago.

At 2 p.m. Saturday, Petty Officer 2nd Class Jeremy Frost, 21, was finishing up a shift that started at 11 p.m. Friday.

“We’re making sure there’s a place for [the pilots] to come back to,” he said of the four wires the planes can grab when they land.

Frost said the long hours are worth it, even though there’s no end in sight.

“We’ll be in cycles like this continuously until we’re told otherwise,” said Lt. Cmdr. Mike Brown, spokesman for the Kitty Hawk battle group.

— Kendra Helmer is embedded on the USS Kitty Hawk.

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