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Commander in Chief lands on USS Lincoln

President Bush with pilots just after arriving on the USS Abraham Lincoln.
President Bush with pilots just after arriving on the USS Abraham Lincoln.

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ABOARD USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN (CNN) -- President Bush made a landing aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln Thursday, arriving in the co-pilot's seat of a Navy S-3B Viking after making two fly-bys of the carrier.

It was the first time a sitting president has arrived on the deck of an aircraft carrier by plane. The jet made what is known as a "tailhook" landing, with the plane, traveling about 150 mph, hooking onto the last of four steel wires across the flight deck and coming to a complete stop in less than 400 feet.

The exterior of the four-seat Navy S-3B Viking was marked with "Navy 1" in the back and "George W. Bush Commander-in-Chief" just below the cockpit window. On the plane's tail was the insignia of the squadron, the "Blue Wolves."

Moments after the landing, the president, wearing a green flight suit and holding a white helmet, got off the plane, saluted those on the flight deck and shook hands with them. Above him, the tower was adorned with a big sign that read, "Mission Accomplished."

Bush said he did take a turn at piloting the craft.

"Yes, I flew it. Yeah, of course, I liked it," said Bush, who was an F-102 fighter pilot in the Texas Air National Guard after graduating from Yale University in 1968.

"Great job," said Bush, a wide smile stretched across his face as he posed for photographs with crew members who gathered to get their pictures with the president. He draped his arms around some, slapped the backs of others and shook hands with many.

To others, the president said, "Thank you," and " 'preciate it."

At one point, he looked up to the observation deck and held up both arms to the roar of hundreds of sailors who had crowded the area.

The landing came just hours before Bush is to tell the nation that major combat operations in Iraq have ended. The speech will be delivered from the carrier's flight deck at 9 p.m. EDT. (Full story)

The picture-perfect landing, covered live on television, marked the latest effort by the White House to showcase Bush as commander in chief. The president's address about the success in Iraq comes as Bush's domestic agenda is under renewed fire by Democrats, especially by a flock of White House hopefuls.

"The president's going out to an aircraft carrier to give a speech far out at sea ... while countless numbers of Americans are frightened stiff about the economy at home," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Massachusetts, who is seeking his party's presidential nomination.

In his speech to the troops Thursday night Bush will thank the U.S. military for their efforts in Iraq. "Your courage -- your willingness to face danger for your country and for each other -- made this day possible," according to excerpts of the Bush speech released in advance. "The transition from dictatorship to democracy will take time but it is worth every effort. Our coalition will stay until our work is done."

Bush was taken in by plane because the Lincoln was too far off the California coast for a helicopter to bring him aboard.

His four-seat S-3B Viking has the safest flight record in the Navy's jet fleet. The turbofan jet performs targeting and surveillance functions for naval carrier groups.

The aircraft's pilot, Navy Cmdr. John Lussier of Orlando, Florida, said the president "enjoyed the heck out of" taking the controls and doing a couple of maneuvers.

A second pilot and a Secret Service agent were in the rear seats of the plane when it landed.

"We picked two mature pilots that also are very good landers," Capt. Kevin Albright, commander of the Lincoln's Airwing 14, said Wednesday.

Bush wanted to swoop onto the deck of the Lincoln aboard an F-18 Hornet, but the Secret Service nixed the idea -- they didn't like leaving the president unguarded in a fighter jet that only has space for the president and a pilot.

Bush had left from Naval Air Station North Island (San Diego) after being brought there from Washington via Air Force One. Just before he left for the carrier, Bush was briefed on what he would have to do to eject in case of emergency.

Officials also told CNN that in preparation for the flight, Bush underwent water survival training, which involves sitting in a simulated cockpit that fills up with water, then spins around, while the person inside has to escape and come up for air. To pilots, the training is known as "panic in a can."

White House Chief of Staff Andy Card, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and White House spokesman Ari Fleischer were also on the flight deck, brought in on planes ahead of the president.

Back in Washington, Vice President Dick Cheney watched from his West Wing office as Bush landed. "He watched with a big smile," a Cheney aide said.

The Lincoln, currently en route to NAS North Island, has been at sea for nearly 10 months, after participating in both the Afghanistan and Iraq war theaters. The president is scheduled to spend the night on the aircraft carrier, which is based in Everett, Washington, but is stopping in San Diego first.

Bush will leave the carrier before it berths at North Island Friday. The ship will return to Everett on May 6.

The S-3B Viking, in service with the Navy since 1974, has logged more than 1.6 million flying hours, with an accident rate of 2.6 mishaps every 100,000 flight hours. The accident rate for a carrier's planes was even lower -- 1.89 per 100,000 flight hours (1990).

A Viking slid off the deck of the USS Constellation on April 1; the plane's two pilots were quickly rescued and the cause of the accident -- an unspecified malfunction, the Navy said -- is under investigation.

The versatile plane, originally an anti-submarine craft, performs a wide range of targeting and surveillance functions -- including tankering for mid-flight refueling -- for Navy carrier groups. Some are cleared to carry AGM-84D Harpoon and AGM-65F Maverick missiles; the Navy plans to install the capability in all its S-3B Vikings.

The S-3B Viking's participation in the Iraq war marked two firsts for the 30-year old plane, the Navy said -- the first time it was sent on an overland strike and the first time it had fired a laser-guided missile in combat.

The Lincoln's flight deck spans 4.5 acres, and the ship can power enough electricity for 100,000 homes. Among the aircraft aboard the carrier is the F/A-18E Super Hornet, the Navy's sophisticated strike fighter.

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