By lex, on May 27th, 2004
A tale in three parts, this being… the last!
“A little power Power… POWER… WAVE-OFF, WAVE-OFF!”
You flinch a bit, as though you had been struck. To have stepped on that transmission would have been very bad form indeed, but while you are momentarily grateful for your training in radio discipline, you also wonder what the hell is going on down there…
No time for that.
You’re passing 4000 feet now, 18 miles behind the ship, gradually descending down to 1200 feet. The final bearing is 355, fifteen degrees right of your holding radial. You reset the course line on the horizontal situation display, and take a 30-degree turn to port to intercept. Now 2500 feet, 2000 foot per minute rate of descent. You nudge the throttles up a bit, to maintain a shallower descent angle, and 250 knots. Too heavy to land, but now committed to the approach, you turn the fuel dump switch on. In the darkness behind you, two vent masts on the vertical tails spew long feathers of wispy white jet fuel, all unseen.
The instrument landing system (ILS) needles pop into your HUD field of view. They would direct you to fly right, fly up, but it’s too soon to follow them. Twelve miles, now level at 1200 feet and in the clouds, you fight the urge to ease the throttles back, to slow everything down. Your strobe lights flashing on the vertical tails causes the clouds to flicker quickly, gray and red – you’d like to turn the strobes off, but aren’t sure you could get them on again after breaking out of the weather underneath you, and the LSO’s will need to see them. The flickering can induce vertigo, disorientation, so you turn the canopy bow mirrors up and away – it is the best you can do. Your eyes are glued to your instruments. If this were a simulator, you’d ask the instructor to hit “freeze,” and give you more time to think. But another pilot is five miles behind you on his own approach, and if you collapse the interval, one or both of you will get waved off, and have to execute the approach again. You hear a loud click in the cockpit, so loud it startles you, immediately followed by Bitching Betty’s voice – “Bingo, bingo.” The fuel dump switch has clicked off at the quantity you’d preset in marshall – you briefly curse at yourself for dropping it out of your scan, but the switch had worked as it was designed to.
At ten miles it’s time to “dirty up,” so your hand reaches to lower the landing gear and flaps – the hook is already down. Just as you are about to lower the gear, approach calls you and tells you to “hold your dirty until 8 miles.” You resent this – you still want to slow down, but apparently there is too much space between you and the man in front of you, or too little from the man behind. So you do what you are told.
Eight miles, and the gear and flap handles finally go down – the ambient noise increases markedly as the gear fall out of their recessed bays and into the rushing air, thumping sounds as the over-center locks fall into place. Three green lights at your left knee mean the gear are safely down and locked, and you fight the slight tendency of the jet to climb as the flaps fully deploy. You slow to approach speed, and much more power is now required to fly the jet in this configuration – the engines add their voice to the hoarse moan of wind stream.
Harness – Locked
Gear – Three down and locked
Flaps – Full
Armament and dispenser switches – Safe
Anti-skid – Off
Nosewheel steering – Engaged
Six miles, now five. You fight to trim the jet on-speed, drift left, correct back on course. Four miles and it’s happening too fast. The ILS needle starts to drop – at three miles and 1200 feet you’ll be on glide slope. You are momentarily distracted by the sound of the LSO’s on the radio, “Bolter, bolter.” Someone has failed to land successfully, missing all four wires – they’ll have to try again.
Three miles – tip over point: ease power, just the slightest bunt on the nose to keep the jet on speed, and start her down the pipe. Breaking free of the clouds at last at 2.3 miles, you see a scatter of lights in front of you, impossibly small. Back on the gauges. Above glide slope, coming down. Catch it.
The ILS needle starts to drift left – slowly at first, then suddenly much faster. You double check that your wings are level, wonder briefly if the system is failing, and then hear approach call all aircraft, “Ninety-nine, mother’s in a starboard turn, new expected final bearing 359.” The winds have shifted, and the ship is seeking them – it’s only a four degree turn, but at two miles you are now displaced 200 feet off course, on a night that’s darker than six feet up a cow’s ass, and you’ve got 30 seconds to correct and get stabilized before the ball call. An angry voice that you will later reflect sounded like your own at age 10, rises in the back of your mind to shout, “that isn’t fair,” and it struggles with another voice of indeterminate source that protests, “this isn’t possible, it can’t be done,” and a third voice that you think of as your own tells both of them to “shut the hell up and we’ll talk about it later.”
You wrestle the jet back to centerline, and try to ease the death grip you’re holding on the stick. The throttles under your left hand run a quick step dance up and back, up and back, movements measured in centimeters and never stopping as you attempt to control the rate of descent, maintain air speed, stay on glide slope, stay on course.
At a mile and 25 seconds from touchdown she still looks impossibly small, a mere jumble of lights, nearly without context. Mere seconds later the approach controllers voice in your headset, a slow, southern drawl, “Raider 525, three-quarters of a mile, call the ball,” and you wonder, “will he’ll ever stop talking and let me say something,” and the finally he does and after double checking your fuel state (6200 pounds) you say, in what you hope is your saltiest, most confident (but not too confident, not as who should say “over-confident”) tone, “Raider 525, Hornet ball, six point two.” And then you remember that this is supposed to mean something, so you quickly glance back at the ship and see that, yes, there is indeed a ball visible on the glide slope indicator.
And what you most want to do at this point is just stare at it, like a moth stares at a candle, because somehow, magically, it is right there in the center of the horizontal bar of green datums, and maybe if you stare at it, it won’t move. But there’s also line-up to maintain and angle of attack and as your ten year old voice tries to pipe up, “not the simulator,” the LSO’s are saying something, and it’s “Right for line-up!” because you’ve allowed the jet to drift left, which is where they stand, and they’re not standing for that, so as you’re taught you dip the wings to starboard, but unlike the way you were taught you forget to nudge the throttles up to compensate for the lost lift, so the LSO’s voice comes on again saying, “Power,” so you add power, but you don’t want to add too much, because if you did you might bolter, so you sneak it off again and hear “POWER!” and now you cob the throttles, not quite to the firewall but you are pretty much functioning at the brain-stem level, and a man you don’t know 300 feet away has your life in his hands and is essentially flying your jet for you because you’re too close to wave off and suddenly, WHAM and there’s that car crash feeling as your body surges against your restraint harness and you’re on deck and you run the throttles up to military power, but you’re a little excited so they go all the way into afterburner, but the wire has you and you’re not going anywhere and for a long moment you simply don’t believe it.
Until the air boss comes on the radio saying, “Lights on deck,” and you don’t know who he’s talking to and you can’t remember what that means, until he says in a stronger voice, “Throttle back 525, lights on deck, we’ve got you!”
So you turn the external light switch back off again, since you’re safe on deck, and you pull the throttles back to idle, and the director is waving his wands at you, taking you back up to the bow again where the catapult awaits.
Because you’ve got five more of those to do, before you can climb out of the jet, go to bed, and try to sleep.