By Lex, on November 16, 2006
So said Captain James Lawrence, the mortally wounded CO of the USS Chesapeake as he was being carried below. Our infant Navy had grown a bit impetuous perhaps after USS Constitution under Isaac Hull battered HMS Guerriere to bits and after her next CO, William Bainbridge sent whatever bits of HMS Java hadn’t burnt down to the bottom of the deep blue sea not much later.
Chesapeake was another of the American heavy frigates that had given Britania such a case of the hives during the War of 1812, and under Lawrence met the Royal Navy’s Captain Philip Broke of the HMS Shannon shortly after getting underway with a fresh and unworked crew from Boston harbor in the summer of 1813. Lawrence declined the advantages obtaining to the weather gage – including passing up an opportunity to rake her with a broadside from stern to stem – the better to shorten sail and duke it out with Shannon at close quarters, broadside to broadside. No doubt he thought to make short work of the somewhat smaller British frigate.
Broke, however, was a fighting captain as well as a wealthy one, having many times dipped into his own pocket to keep his gun crews plying at their trade more often than the Admiralty would have authorized all on their own. The net result of his largesse was that the gun crews aboard Shannon gave a fair bit better than they got in what ended up being a brutally short action. Broke believed in winning too, none of your gentleman’s duels and doffed caps: He directed his gun crews and marksmen to focus their efforts on the American ship’s quarterdeck, sweeping it clear of officers again and again until the fight had gone out of USS Chesapeake, her officers dead or wounded and her helm shot away. He could well afford to tip it the generous after Chesapeake had struck her colors.
For all of his “don’t give up the ship” rhetoric, Lawrence’s crew couldn’t fight longer than they could be led, nor could they run away to fight another day with a helm that wouldn’t answer. Not long after he was sent below, Shannon’s boarders made short work of what was left on the weather deck of the USS Chesapeake. Lawrence died an honored prisoner a few short days later.
Which all reminds me of a time I was leading a two-ship element of strikers against the Bravo 17 airfield complex at NAS Fallon, Nevada. Must’ve been sometime in the summer of ‘88 or so. The terrain is mountainous in the vicinity of Fallon, which is a strike fighter pilot’s dream because it allows him to run in at low altitude behind the dirt with a bag of knots and a bad attitude, a-hiding of himself from any surface-to-air-missile systems that might seek to shove a warhead into his forehead on the way to the target.
If there’s anything more fun that can be done fully dressed than running around with a wingman at 540 knots carrying hell and death (or 25-pound practice bombs, anyway) a couple of hundred feet above the deck, secure in the knowledge that you are invisible to radar, I don’t believe we’ve been introduced.
The problem is that while you can spring upon a target pretty much unawares by using the terrain to your advantage, popping over the last ridge with maybe 45 seconds to go to the target, it can be damned hard to find your precise aimpoint flying that low. It has to do on the one hand with a natural desire to avoid tying the low altitude record and all of the attention span that takes, and on the other hand about the lack of visually significant vertical development on airfield-type targets. A characteristic that – especially when you’re hauling the mail – makes it hard to just lay down a string of bombs willy-nilly and nevertheless find the correct impact point, not to mention the reduced delivery accuracy that comes with not having any dive angle on the jet.
So what is a motivated strike fighter pilot to do? He’ll perform a pop-up maneuver, gentle reader, like he’s been taught. Haul back on the stick at the prescribed distance before reaching a reversal point and, having reached an apex altitude whilst upside down and hopefully acquiring the target visually by looking over his shoulder, pull the nose back down below the horizon at a prescribed g and defined dive angle, putting the target in his sights and moving the jet around in three dimensions, like. With chaff and flares if it do ya. On account of the dreadful vulnerability that’s in it.
You see, once you break the horizon on a pop attack, any properly motivated gomer in your flight path with the presence of mind could lie down on his back with his AK-47, shoot straight up in the air and maybe do you a profound dis-service if his ammunition lasts and you take a 7.62mm round in the wrong spot. Which while we’re on that topic, there aren’t any right spots, but anyways. And all that’s before you get to the MANPADS threat: Man portable air-defense systems – hand-held infrared guided missles like the Stinger or the various Eastern Bloc equivalents. Any one of which, take it in the tookas, could result in a prolonged stay at a Glorious People’s Re-education Center for Yankee Air Pirates, complete with a steady diet of fish heads and pumpkin soup. Which I’m reliably informed, Atkins or no, gets rather tedious after a bit.
So what do you do? Well, having dutifully gone on government time for the duration of the bomb run and coming off target making good time, you keep her moving a bit until you’re out of range. Make it hard on the bad guys. Stay unpredictable until you’re clear.
Which is exactly what I did, beating hell out of myself in the cockpit what with all of my jinking and jiving and running for the deck, the better to hide myself again mere coward that I was, not wanting to be bagged even if it was only a training flight in Fallon, Nevada in the summer of 1988.
Safely clear of the target I eased g and looked around with casual curiousity, wondering how we’d done. Which is the exact point that the Stinger operator on the target centroid got me in his sights and pulled the trigger because it turned out that I wasn’t actually clear, not quite yet. Capturing the whole thing on video tape for my later edification in the debrief. The bastard.
But I learned about flying from that. As I was reminded that we don’t give up the plane ship.