US Navy Pilot in the Gulf gets a taste of Iowa home

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  • By Sioux County Capital Democrat
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United States Navy Lieutenant Thomas De Jong, native of Orange City, nosed his fighter's fuel inlet into the drogue of a KC-135 tanker on over Iraq on Tuesday afternoon, Nov. 8, and found himself flying in tandem with a little piece of home.

Thanks to De Jong's wingman, he's got photos of the connection. De Jong's F/A-18+ Hornet was taking fuel from a plane flown by a crew from the 185th Refueling Wing, based in Sioux City, a place where he spent a lot of time as a youth dreaming of the day he would fly fighters himself.

He's flying daily missions over Iraq and Afghanistan from the aircraft carrier CVN-77, USS George H.W. Bush, in the Persian Gulf. On November 8, he was supporting operations in Iraq. His fighter is assigned to Strike Fighter Squadron Eight Seven (VFA-87), known as the "War Party" and based from Naval Air Station Oceana, Va. De Jong's squadron is part of Carrier Air Wing Eight assigned to the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier.

De Jong has been deployed since May 10, and will return to port at Norfolk, Ma., at the end of the year. The ship, says De Jong, carries a crew of 5,500, "roughly the same amount of people as the inhabitants of Orange City. We have everything you can think of on this ship -- post office, barber shop, convenience store, library, chapel... you name it."
De Jong's squadron has been active in the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet area of operations in the Middle East, more specifically in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation New Dawn in Iraq. The majority of De Jong's sorties have provided close air support to coalition troops on the ground in Afghanistan.

The weapons he's fired to date in this deployment, De Jong says, have been against the Taliban in Afghanistan who have engaged with coalition troops. In Iraq, he say, "I'm providing armed overwatch for our convoys as they head south as part of our troop withdrawal. Basically, my job is to use the jet's infrared target pod to find insurgents further down the road setting up IEDs [improvised explosive devices] and call out their position for our convoys so they don't get hit." IEDs, De Jong says, are the number-one killer of coalition troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

The flights originate from the carrier in the gulf and take on fuel from tankers to extend missions. "An F/A-18 fighter jet can fly for two hours between refueling, so our typical mission length of six to seven hours requires three separate rendezvous
with an Air Force tanker," De Jong says.

"As a kid, I loved going out to Col. Bud Day Field [Sioux Gateway Airport] to watch the F-16s from the 185th fly," says De Jong. "Watching those jets fly was my favorite thing in the world, and I feel fortunate to have made my goals a reality in becoming a naval aviator flying jets off of an aircraft carrier."

De Jong is a graduate of MOC-Floyd Valley High School, class of 1997. After high school, De Jong got a degree from Minnesota State University in Mankato, Minn., in 2001. He worked as a civilian pilot and was flying for Business Aviation/McKennan Hospital in Sioux Falls, S.D., when he was accepted for Naval Officer School in Pensacola, Fla., in 2005. He was commissioned as a U.S. navy officer in 2006, completed Navy flight training in 2008, and has spent the last three years flying the Hornet.

"Flying combat missions off of the ship both day and night has been challenging," he says, "but very rewarding. After six months of hot Middle East temperatures, though, I'm looking forward to some chilly Iowa weather when I get back.

"Joining up on the KC-135," he says, "with the 'Bats' logo and 'Sioux City' on the tail was just like seeing a piece of home, and really made my day."

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