By lex, on Wed – February 9, 2005
And stowing for sea.
I appear to be heading some horrible bathroom spiral. Not knowing where it will end, but hoping that this story satisfies the demon for yet a little while longer, please bear with me while I recount a rather absurd sea story.
The year is 1998. Monica is out of the White House, but all over the headlines. Your humble scribe is at sea, in the North Arabian Gulf (which is what we call the Persian Gulf, in order, I suppose, to tweak the Persian nose.) Having spent a small number of days biffing the Iraqi armed forces during Operation DESERT FOX in consequence of something or other to do with UN sanctions (I think), we have reverted to flying missions up country for Operation SOUTHERN WATCH. Which was in support of a whole other set of UN sanctions. As I recall.
Now, it turned out that in between biffing the Iraqi armed forces and flying SOUTHERN WATCH missions, came the holiday of Ramadan. For various reasons having to do with national strategic policy ‘n stuff, it was considered inappropriate for us to be flying around southern Iraq during Ramadan, so close to our most recent spasm of bombing. So we took the month off, in celebration of the holiday.
For his own part, in celebration of the holiday, Saddam made busy moving all kinds of surface-to-air missile systems into the places we used to fly. We watched in growing alarm as the “Box” we had constructed to keep us clear of danger got progressively smaller and more restricted. And as we pondered the increasingly restricted airspace allowed to us for maneuver each day, we wondered, as folks on the front line are wont to do, who the hell was in charge, up there, and why this was being allowed to happen.
This was my third deployment in support of SOUTHERN WATCH since the 1991 Gulf War ended. I had begun to believe that my grandchildren would be flying CAP missions in support of SOUTHERN WATCH. The only thing that appeared to change from deployment to deployment was 1) how many times we were shot at, and 2) how near those shots would come to hitting us.
Now, Winston Churchill is reported to have said that there is nothing quite so exhilarating as being shot at, and missed. While this is no doubt true in the thick of the fray, it is a little different when you fly over bad guy land day in and day out, waiting to see what happens next. We worried a bit about the golden BB – the unaimed round that eventually was going to bring one or more of us down, into the warm embrace of the Iraqi state. There are no good places to ditch the jet and go for a walk, but some are worse than others.
In those days, if you got shot at (and they missed), a complex chain of events could result in you shooting back, or not. We apparently believed that thumping anti-aircraft artillery tubes somehow demonstrated resolve, and I suppose that’s true. Anyone who received a laser guided bomb warhead on his forehead would therefore be highly resolved never to shoot at the Yankee air pirates again.
All that preamble to take you back to a place and time when we weren’t at war, and yet were still shooting back at people who were shooting at us. No use looking for moral clarity in any of that.
Another mission brief for my flight is in the can – we’ll refuel at both ends of the mission, and tour southern Iraq in between, while trying not to get shot at, and if getting shot at, trying very hard not to get hit. It’s all the more important because I and my trusty wingman are tasked to escort an EA-6B Prowler, an electronic warfare jet, into the “Box.” A four-place jet, the Prowler is an exceptionally valuable family station wagon, with jamming pods and wings. Since they’re essentially defenseless, fighter escort is required when in country – today the task fell to us. I finished my fourth cup of early morning coffee, strapped on my survival gear and 9MM pistol, and headed to the roof to man up. A little less than an hour later, I was rattling off the front end and into the insubstantial air. Grumbling out the departure radial, climbing on course, and finding the tanker track on radar.
Joining the swirling madness of the rendezvous circle on the USAF tanker in the northern refueling lanes, I felt the familiar sensation of the bladder over-pressure light illuminating. Not to worry. I’ve got my piddle packs. Two, in fact. Which is a good thing, because I’m only half an hour into this four and a half hour flight, and am acutely aware of the risks of “pulling the plug” so early in the mission. But necessity, apart from being the mother of invention, can also be a stern task-mistress. The first piddle pack was one of those new fashioned designs, with a chemical powder to fix the solution in place, rather than my more accustomed dried-out sponge. Seemed to work OK, though and soon the deed was done, and all made ready for combat. Because it simply wouldn’t do to have a piddle pack floating adrift in the cockpit if push came to shove.
Through the tanker, topped off and reformed, we headed into the Box. I passed the lead to the Prowler pilot, as I and my wingie rode up and aft in shotgun position, looking for threats on radar, on our radar warning receivers, and visually. A pretty quiet day, so far. The Prowler pilot herself was one of those special individuals who somehow managed the not-inconsiderable task of maintaining her femininity while on deck, and morphing seamlessly into a steely-eyed killer airborne. She was young, and she was brash, and she led us a little closer to the places were supposed to avoid for our safety’s sake than your humble scribe would have preferred in a more nearly perfect world.
Say that city Y has a missile system at location X with a maximum range of Z. Your average bubba, trolling the margins of the fight, would be willing to add a certain padding factor to range Z. Not a lot – just a little for mom and the kids. Just in case the missile system operator didn’t know his system as well as he himself did. Save everyone a lot of excitement, in the long run. The shooting, and being shot at, and shooting back.
Because the devil you know may be better than the one you don’t, but it’s stupid to get shot down by him.
But not my escort. She was up there against the margin, almost daring to get biffed herself. And I, being an FA-18 pilot, in an aircraft immensely more maneuverable, could hardly find it within myself to speak up. And yet we were close enough that I didn’t much appreciate those legs where I was on the inside of the turn, and that tiny bit closer. But. Devil take the hindmost, and all that.
But the crazy thing was that after an hour or so of this, that old over-pressure light came on again, and I was left to manage the correction over southern Iraq. It isn’t like you can ask to be excused to Saudi Arabia for a while. Duty calls, dudn’t it?
I would have felt rather foolish if one of those mobile surface-to-air missile systems we’d been briefed about popped up under my nose while my hands were otherwise occupied, because I couldn’t readily imagine a condition in which I’d less want to be captured. But I was out of options. Between the certainty of a terrible accident in the cockpit, and the potential risk of getting bagged by a SAM, I reached down deep, and pulled out my back-up piddle pack. Thankfully the deed was soon done, and all my attention could be focused back upon Danger Girl. At the end of the day, no one shot at us and we headed home to Mom, after stopping once again in the tanker track for a little more go-juice.
Tanking complete, I took the lead to bring my cohort back to the ship. We had forty-five minutes to go before the ship was ready for us, so we held up high, well overhead the ship, saving gas. When that damn over-pressure light came on for the third time.
Which as it turns out, was one more time than I had piddle packs. I will spare you the tale of how I tried to balance the load of my third attempt between the two packs. I will not share with you the discovery that the chemical-laden piddle pack had ZERO excess capacity once it had been used. Nothing at all will I say about the ship turning into the wind twenty minutes early to catch us, necessitating a hasty, agitated descent from high holding. I will not try to describe the challenge of balance out the load between two over-full piddle packs while flying in a spiraling descent down towards the ship, holding the stick between your knees, and using your elbow to bump the throttles back and forth.
No. You don’t need to hear about any of that.
Nor do you need to know about how Danger Girl, wondering what the hell was going on in there, closed in and stepped up in formation, in order to look into my cockpit, in order to see what was going on. You just don’t need to know about that either.
What you do need to know is that somehow just about everything got accomplished, and nearly everything stowed for sea, and all at the last possible moment. Closing the over-full piddle packs was a treacherous job, but allowing one to break open on the arrested landing, or “trap,” and spilling its contents all over the cockpit and its associated electrical components would have been considered very bad form indeed. Somehow I got it all done, and felt very proud of myself – into the break, six G’s and landing checklist to follow.
WHAM! In the wires, taxi clear and up to the bow. Take the last turn, park the jet, chocks and chains. Mission complete, another job well done. Shut her down, climb out, step back onto the flight deck. Feel the cool breeze as you unlimber. It feels good somehow. It feels right. It feels better than right.
Flight Deck Chief Petty Officer: “Sir, did you forget something?”
Me: “Er. What? Did I leave the ejection seat armed?”
Antic gestures, giggles, people pointing. Down below the beaded handles of the life preserver girding my waist. But above my G-suit clad legs. Right there where the breeze seemed especially fresh.
“Eh. Chief – no need really for anyone else to know about this, right?”
“Right, XO. It’ll be just our little secret.”
The full lasagna was waiting for me when I got downstairs, and the junior officer mafia was already busy creating a list of new callsigns.
“Franks and beans!”