The fly in
By lex, on July 12th, 2004
I was invited to a fly-in a few months ago by a former squadron mate, one of my department heads when I had command of an FA-18 squadron. Their carrier was returning from deployment, and all the several FA-18 squadrons were collaborating on a formation fly-by of the field, prior to breaking up to land. Waiting for them would be their families and friends, wives and children, champagne, beer and sandwiches.
It was nice to have been asked, and fly-ins are always a lot of fun, even if they are rather emotional. In the event I couldn’t break free. But there’s a picture above my desk of my first fly-in; myself the Hobbit and Son Number One, himself aged four, huddled together in one long embrace. You can’t see any of our faces, our heads are down together, and I’ve got my arms around them for the first time in six months. It was ages ago.
It was yesterday.
I’ve made seven deployments in my time; seven cruises of six or more months in duration. And I’ve flown-in for four of them. For the first, I was too junior in the squadron – we had 17 pilots, and only 12 jets. As always, a strict seniority system was in effect, and I walked off the brow when the ship moored. For the last two deployments, I was ship’s company, and again walked off after seeing the carrier safely in port. I’ve written here about a ship entering port.
But today I want to talk a bit about deployments, and fly-ins.
Six months is a long time to be away from home. For my first several deployments of course, we didn’t have access to email, so snail mail had to suffice. We only got the mail intermittently, whenever we were in range for a transport plane from ashore, and only when that transport wasn’t being taken up by higher priority cargo, such as aircraft parts. The announcement of “mail call” on the ship’s loudspeaker was always a moment of cautious exuberance. Exuberance because of the chance to hear from home. Caution because the vagaries of the mail system being what they were, you never knew if you’d get anything.
Everyone who got a letter would retire to his personal chair in the ready room, or to his stateroom, and go for the space of however many pages read however many times, to a place far distant than that of a warship at sea, far from home. No one would disturb him until he had finished, and only rarely was anything in a letter shared aloud.
Sometimes you’d receive several letters, and you’d try to force yourself to ration them out against those days when nothing would arrive. You’d never succeed though, sheer hunger for news from home would overcome such sterile prudence. The normal time it took to get a letter home was three weeks or so after it had been posted. Three weeks again for a letter in reply meant that the thoughts of the moment were already a faded memory: The crisis of the day, whatever it may have been, was long past, any helpful advice from the uttermost part of the world useless. We would all have to grow accustomed to strange, disconnected conversations, and talking past one another.
The separation is hard, and not just for the adults – one friend of mine came back home and sat on the couch getting re-acquainted with his young children until their bed-time. When that time came, mom told the kids to kiss daddy goodnight and go to bed. My friend was stunned to watch the kids jump off his lap, run into the kitchen, kiss his own photo tacked up on the refrigerator, and then run past him to bed without another word.
For the last six months, that had been kissing daddy good night.
When the bow eventually pointed back to the north east, and the carrier commenced her great circle return route to home port, touching briefly on such liberty ports as Perth, Australia, Hong Kong or Singapore, and finally the last before California in Pearl Harbor, the excitement would rise day by day into an almost unbearable pitch. Too, the ship would cross a time zone meridian every other day or so, such that sleep patterns were very much disrupted by the day of the fly-off. We called it “channel fever,” the inability to sleep the night prior to a fly off. This would lead many a sage veteran to note that a fly-off was frequently the most dangerous evolution of any routine deployment.
Which is saying a lot.
And even considering the fact that no one got to sleep until the early morning hours, fly-offs are nevertheless always scheduled for the early morning hours: Brief at 0430 for a 0600 launch to give the ship a chance to scrub the flight deck, dump the catapult water brakes outside 50 nautical miles from shore for environmental reasons and make herself presentable to enter home port. It served as well to give a few critical hours of time to aircraft maintenance crews, so that they might have the chance to work on any jet that stumbled on the launch, time to remedy some emergent discrepancy which would prevent a plane from being safely flown home over the long ocean distances.
Aircraft maintenance status was always a wild card. Some jets would have become “hangar queens” over the deployment, un-flyable for some serious discrepancy that was either beyond the capability of local maintenance to rapidly repair, or not worth the disproportionate expenditure of personnel resources which would have been required. Gradually these hangar queens would become spare parts lockers for the other flyers in a process known as “cannibalization.” Maintenance crews would avoid the lines at Supply Issue, or worse, a lack of spare parts on the shelves, by robbing components from the non-flyer to fix a jet that might be turning on deck, waiting for the catapult. This process was officially discouraged since rebuilding a thoroughly cannibalized aircraft often requires heroic measures from harried maintenance men who are also distracted by their own thoughts of home. Discouraged though it may have been, it was also very common. The maintenance department head would be the officer chosen to fly the most fragile aircraft – it gave him a personal motivation to ensure that quality work had been done.
And in single seat fighters, a fly-off maintenance decision was always a real integrity check. Each man was left to his own conscience to determine whether an aircraft was safe for flight. Sure, you badly want to get home after a long deployment. But you also want to get home – and like the old saying goes, “if you want it bad, you’ll get it bad.”
Often there is a fly-over of the ship after the launch, the several squadrons joining to bid farewell to the ship’s company, and the thousand or so sons, brothers, fathers, uncles and friends (but not wives, no, never wives) that would have joined in Hawaii for the short leg home. I remember distinctly launching off into a grey, overcast morning, with the clouds at a 1000 feet over the ship, and joining my squadron commanding officer circling overhead at the agreed upon rendezvous altitude. I assumed that we would skip the briefed, two squadron fly-over because of the weather and head on home directly. After all, the rule of thumb was to never do a descent into weather at low altitude with more than a flight of two, since the wingman must avoid looking at their instruments to focus their full attention on formation (and collision avoidance) with their flight lead, relying on the lead as a horizon reference. A three-ship descent into the weather would be pushing it, but at least each would have the (hopefully) smooth flying lead to reference for his attitude. A four-ship descent through weather was out of the question, since at least one wingman, dash-four, would have to fly off a wingman who was himself flying off another aircraft. The deviations tend magnify, and if the man in the middle loses sight of his lead, there’s no safe place to go.
So imagine my surprise when we joined the other squadron, formed up in our “diamond of diamonds,” and started our descent back into the weather over the ship. All 24 of us.
No one said anything, and neither did I – that’s not how it’s done. A wingman’s job is to fly formation, and the only words that are expected from him in flight are, “Two,” “Mayday,” “Lead you’re on fire, eject,” and “I’ll take the fat one.”
OK, that last one is for fighter sweeps on liberty rather than airborne, but you get the picture.
Anyway, for my own part, I wondered how impressed the civilians and Sailors on the ship would be if we clacked into one another in the goo and their resultant view of the fly-over would be one of watching FA-18′s cart-wheeling out of the clouds on fire. Yes, I am cursed with a rather vivid imagination. It all went fine however, and we re-emerged on top (my lead pulled away to starboard after we entered the clouds on the climb, and in a now more relaxed formation, I was gratified by the sight of five other four-ship diamonds popping eerily out of the unbroken clouds below us at random intervals.
All’s well that ends well.
Heading towards home now, your every fiber is screaming to push the throttles up to afterburner and get there as fast as you can go. But the families have been told to expect you at a certain time, so your lead checks the nav and make it work. A long, quiet, hopefully uneventful flight, each man alone with his own thoughts. Some will be taking vacations when they get home, some will use the money saved at sea to buy a new car. No few will coming home to divorce papers. Not everyone is built for this life.
The field now in sight, you’ll rejoin for another fly-over, the senior CO leading his squadron’s twelve-ship. Not a good time to look down for your family car, not the moment to let down your guard after all that you’ve gone through. Not much longer now.
Breaking into four-ships now, you roll out on runway heading, and let the throttles up. The airframe starts to hum when the FA-18 starts to go fast at low altitude, and we’re all humming along with it. Your lead breaks hard to the left, the vapor clouds spilling from his wings as the throttles come back to idle and the g-onset slows the jet down. After a few short seconds you follow, get the gear and flaps down, run through the landing checklist. No hook this time! And turn the anti-skid on for the brakes, a system that hasn’t been used in six months. Hopefully it’ll work. Don’t want to blow a tire, and foul the landing area for everyone else. It feels a little strange at first to just touch down, and keep rolling. For the last six months, a landing has always been followed almost instantly by a violent stop as you trap aboard the flight deck. This time you’ve got to keep controlling the jet down from 160 miles per hour to a full stop, on brakes that have not been used this way in half a year.
Once clear of the runway, you taxi in in formation with your lead, back to your flight line. Wait for the other squadron to land, take your mask off, wipe the sweat from your cheeks, try to find the familiar faces waiting on the ramp. All twenty four aircraft formed up facing each other in long ranks, the senior CO calls on the radio, “Shut ‘em down.” Forty eight jet engines suddenly go shockingly quiet, and then “canopies.” Twenty-four canopies raise as one. “See you on deck.”
You form up in ranks, Sailors from the home guard hand bouquets of roses to the married men. In 1989, my first fly-in, I heard the Hobbit’s voice above all the crowd while we stood there at attention. Suddenly SNO broke ranks along with another boy and raced across the ramp to find his dad. He got half-way there before realizing that he couldn’t tell which of the tall, mustachioed men in green flight suits was his father. He ran back confused and sobbing to his mother’s arms. And then moments later, when we’d been released from ranks, someone took that photograph that sits above my desk.