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ABOARD USS KITTY HAWK — Whether they’re fixing a holster or scrambling for a radio, parachute riggers can be a pilot’s best friend.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Robert Humphrey passes a bracket for night-vision goggles to one pilot while adjusting the pistol holster for another.

“Have a good flight, sir!” Humphrey calls out as the pilots head toward their F/A-18 Hornets bound for Iraq.

The squadron parachute-rigger shop is the last stop for the air crew members before they walk to the flight deck. Humphrey and his crewmates live by the parachute riggers’ motto, “the last to let you down.”

PRs, as they’re called, don’t just install parachutes in ejection seats. They make sure air crew members properly don survival gear that isn’t expired, broken or damaged.

“We’re pretty much the final quality assurance before the flight,” said Humphrey, 20.

PRs for the nine Carrier Air Wing 5 squadrons embarked on the USS Kitty Hawk are busier than ever. Pilots fly as many as 130 sorties a day, some of which drop ordnance to support ground troops in Iraq.

After every flight, PRs check the gear, tracking down anything missing and fixing anything broken.

“That’s our weapon,” Humphrey said as he nodded toward a sewing machine named Charlene.

Earlier this week, Humphrey, one of three PRs for about 20 pilots with Strike Fighter Squadron 192, was running short on radios. The last thing Humphrey wants to do is stress out a pilot. He hurriedly put on a float coat to rush up to the flight deck and get a radio from a returning Hornet.

“Everybody’s got a lot on their mind,” said Humphrey, who ensures a pilot leaves the PR shop confident that he has everything necessary to survive if he has to ditch the plane. “They’ve got so much stuff they already need to worry about.”

Because of their intimate knowledge of the pilots’ survival equipment, the PRs get to know the officers better than other enlisted sailors.

They learn the preferences and pet peeves of each air crew member, from what extras they want in their survival vest to how they want gear stored.

“We know everything down to the last four digits of their Social,” said Humphrey of Oak Hill, W.Va.

“We get to know the little things, the way they want their gear hung on the hook.… Some like Lysol sprayed on their mask because they like the pleasant smell.”

There’s always a PR on duty on the Yokosuka, Japan-based carrier. Airman Evan Bagley works nights for Sea Control Squadron 21. At 3 a.m. on a recent night, he climbed into an S3-B Viking, its interior illuminated by a full moon shining through the canopy.

Switching on a flashlight, Bagley, 19, checked the parachute releases on the four ejection seats to make sure they were connected correctly.

Back in his PR shop, Bagley double-checked the 50 or so survival vests. Each includes a pocketknife, compass, whistle and flares.

Just then, a pilot walked in after a five-hour flight.

Bagley and Petty Officer 3rd Class Ryan Cox, 21, jumped up to help him out of his gear, hanging his helmet and vest on the wall.

“I can feel my lower half again,” joked the pilot, stretching. He chatted with the PRs about his flight, during which he saw Tomahawk missiles.

“You get the scoop on stuff,” said Bagley, who comes from Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. “You get to interact with officers and see them as people.”

PRs say they look forward to the interaction, even if it’s not always pleasant.

“If they’re having a bad day, we have a bad day,” said Airman Anthony Kulhanek.

Pilots say they trust their PRs.

“If we ever, God forbid, need to eject out of a plane,” said Lt. Doug “Buzzard” Gray, 26, a Hornet pilot from Mililani Town, Hawaii. “I have 100 percent faith in them.”

— Kendra Helmer is embedded on the USS Kitty Hawk.

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