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ABOARD THE USS KITTY HAWK — An aircraft from the USS Kitty Hawk went down in Iraq shortly before midnight Wednesday, perhaps a victim of another “friendly-fire” incident, although there were reports of enemy anti-aircraft fire in the area.

News reports said a Patriot missile may have knocked the F/A-18C from the sky and a Central Command official was quoted as saying he would not dissuade anyone from making that report, but he refused to confirm it. Iraqi television was showing images of a downed aircraft on Thursday.

It was also reported that the pilot ejected near Kabala, about 50 miles south of Baghdad. A search-and-rescue effort was under way and was still unsuccessful 18 hours after the aircraft went down Wednesday at 11:45 p.m. local time.

“We typically don’t talk about ongoing search-and-rescue missions,” said Lt. Brook DeWalt, a spokesman on the carrier afloat in the Persian Gulf. “If this person is trying to evade capture, it puts him in far more danger.”

It was the second fighter the air wing lost in as many days. Two Tomcat pilots were rescued after safely ejecting from their F-14A when it suffered mechanical failure over Iraq early Wednesday.

Few pilots on the carrier wanted to discuss the latest incident.

“Everyone’s pretty shaken up,” said Lt. j.g. Collin Kightlinger, 29, an EA-6B Prowler pilot from Kingwood, Texas.

While stateside air wings often live on opposite coasts, Carrier Air Wing 5 members are based at Atsugi Naval Air Facility, Japan.

“We all live together,” Kightlinger said. “We’re like a family.”

He was flying a mission over Iraq when he heard of his colleague’s downing.

“We jetted over there to help out with the rescue mission,” he said.

The Prowler crew focused on the mission, jamming enemy radar threats in the area as a combat search-and-rescue team searched for the pilot.

Kightlinger knew right away about the incident, but most of the nearly 5,500 sailors on the Kitty Hawk didn’t hear about it until they saw it on the news Thursday morning. Sailors were noticeably quieter, growing silent when they heard their carrier mentioned on the television.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Richard Heller heard about the incident from a teary-eyed fellow sailor. The mess management specialist works in the wardroom where many pilots dine. On Wednesday, pilots were celebrating the safe return of the two Tomcat pilots. It was more somber scene Thursday.

“There’s usually laughter,” said Heller, from Emmaus, Pa. “It’s a lot quieter.”

Chaplains made their usual deck-plate ministry rounds throughout the ship.

“There’s a sense of somberness, but it’s a hopefulness,” said Cmdr. Gary Carr, command chaplain.

The ship’s commanding officer, Capt. Thomas Parker, spoke about the crash in his afternoon address that goes out over the ship’s intercom.

“I notice there’s a rightful sense of solemnity on the ship, and I think that’s entirely appropriate under the circumstances. … However, in any case, we’re going to continue with our mission,” he said. “All the folks going over the beach tonight, be careful, and we’ll be thinking about you.”

— Kendra Helmer is embedded on the USS Kitty Hawk.

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