In the ready rooms below, the crews are wrapping up their final briefs before going to the parachute locker to strap their g-suits and harnesses on over their flight suits. The squadron XO goes to his squadron duty officer and draws a 9mm pistol and two magazines. He reflects upon the words his first CO told him when he was a lieutenant: “Always carry a weapon over Indian Country. If you get shot down, the war isn’t over, it’s just that the tactics have changed.” He smiles briefly at the thought of that old man, wonders where he is now or if he’s even still alive – he was one of the old breed, that CO: He was what they called “Old Navy,” back before that became a clothing brand. He burned it hard at both ends, left it all out there on the field, no matter what the endeavor. The XO’s smile fades as he looks at the pistol in his hand, feels the purposeful hardness of it, thinks about why he needs it. The war is supposed to be over, but it’s not, and where he’s going, not everyone is friendly.
1115 – On the flight deck, what appears to the unschooled observer to be a an experiment in multi-colored chaos (with airplanes) continues in a heat that has gone from merely suffocating to near-murderous as the carrier races downwind. Everyone on the flight deck sweats profusely, continuously sipping water from their camelbacks, by now resigned, almost philosophical – they know that in the next several hours it will only get worse. The yellowshirts bark orders back and forth at their retinue, emphasizing with hand signals; the tractor drivers towing the fighters, the blue-shirted, tie down chain-carrying wing walkers whose job is at this moment to ensure safe clearance from parked aircraft on either side, the broiling, brown-shirted plane captain riding brakes in the cockpit. Red-shirted ordnancemen, the “BB stackers,” stand listlessly by the aircraft’s intended parking place, waiting to finish the final checks of bombs and missiles. The directors blow police whistles blow from zone to zone above the wild animal scream of the straining tractors, signaling for “brakes on,” bringing entire combinations of aircraft, tow bar and tractor into a trembling balance, acted upon now too by the urgent thrust of the ship through the greasy, rolling cross sea of the Arabian Gulf.
Up in Primary Flight Control, or Pri-Fly, the Air Boss watches the spectacle unfold below him, looks at his wristwatch for the fifth time in the last four minutes, knows that the pilots for the 1200 launch will start to appear from the various flight deck access points at any minute, helmeted, bulky in their flight gear, strolling the decks like modern day gladiators – which were the heavily armed ones? Ah, yes – the mirmallones, he thinks. They will swagger the deck looking for their steeds and when they find them still being towed aft, unchained, themselves unable to preflight, he knows they will look up the island structure to his glassed-in aery with questioning, pointed glances. He looks at his watch again. Close, it will be so close.
In the CO’s At Sea Cabin, the ship’s Captain, still wearing his coveralls, has thrown himself across his rack for the first of the handful 10-15 minute naps he will use to get himself through the day. It is a survival technique of necessity, one learned after one after another night of too few hours of rest, too often interrupted. The Navigator had watched him leave the bridge with sad, tired eyes as the bosun mate of the watch’s shouts his obligatory of “Captain’s off the bridge!.” The rest of the deck watches breathe out a collective sigh, a kind of ever-so-slight relaxation of the rigid formality of watch aboard a warship at sea. He’ll be back soon – time enough now to flex one’s knees, shift the weight from side to side, exchange silent glances with ones neighbor – even, perhaps – exchange words in hushed tones. Private words unconnected to the safety and navigation of the ship. A luxury.
Well below the instantly sleeping Captain, on the O-3 level, in an eight-man junior officer berthing, a young lieutenant junior grade wakes up bleary eyed, unfocused, wondering where he is: Ah, yes. The ship. He grimaces, thinking of the circus show he’d put on the night before, trying to get aboard – four bolters, two wave-offs (including one for technique) and two trips to the tanker made him the last fixed-wing pilot aboard, apart from the tanker crew who’d spent half the night “hawking” him. A regular old “night in the barrel,” and wrestling with the thoughts of it afterwards kept him awake until 4 A.M. He frowns privately at the thought of it, of the shame.
He wonders what people are saying behind his back, behind their sympathetic smiles and well-intentioned offers of flying advice. He’ll have another chance to excel tonight, he thinks, realizing suddenly that his right hand is clenched against his thigh. He makes a conscious effort to relax it. Too soon to start stressing, he thinks. Plenty of time for that later. He’s young, and affable and inexperienced and so far the combination has kept him off the griddle, but he’s painfully aware that landing aboard the ship at night is a core competency of a naval aviator, and that he’s not doing it very well. The more he thinks about it, the harder it’s getting to be and lately he’s been thinking about it a lot. From the thoughtful glances he gets from the senior leadership, he knows they are thinking about it too. He knows that he is under a kind of cool, unemotional assessment. He knows that ultimately, perhaps in the not-too-distant future, a decision will be made that will affect the rest of his professional life, and that this decision will be neither revocable, nor subject to appeal. The lieutenant junior grade has succeeded, even excelled at every thing he has ever tried in life, and can’t imagine how it has come to this, that he find himself standing on the brink of failure.
The squadron XO finishes suiting up in the parachute riggers shop. G-suit went on first, over the flight suit. Harness atop the g-suit and across the chest. He saws the straps from side to side, tightening all down, feeling it in his thighs, across his shoulders. The survival gear zips closed in front of his chest, atop the harness. Finally, he shoves the unloaded 9 mm in between the harness and survival gear, trying vainly to secure it for flight – the Navy has never developed an adequate holster for pilot-carried weapons, he thinks. The image of an out of control ejection and the heavy, hard-edged pistol breaking free during parachute opening shock, only to tear at his helmet and face flickers into the forefront of his consciousness briefly before he stuffs it away again with a grimace.
He checks that his water bottles in his right g-suit pocket are full, then checks to ensure his piddle packs are in place in the left g-suit pocket. Can’t have one without the other, not on a four hour mission. Time to go.
It’s already hot inside the air conditioned passageways, but as the XO approaches the outer hull, the temperature rises perceptibly, and he feels the first bead of sweat roll down from under his helmet, down his collarbone. He reaches the outer hatch, opens it and almost reels backwards from the heat that hits him like a dull, flat hammer. His body breaks out in an instant of itching as every pore opens and he wonders, as he has for the last three weeks on the line, how the flight deck sailors can possible survive in such an environment, much less do hard physical labor. He’ll be strapped in and turning in 15 minutes, with his fighter’s air conditioning system already running at full capacity. The deck apes will be here all day, scarcely a break. Impossible, he thinks, even while knowing that they keep doing it anyway.
He finds his jet, happy to see that his at least is chained and chocked in an appropriate spot for the launch. He performs his preflight inspection almost automatically, eyes flickering from spot to likely spot after thousands of hours in this model. He doesn’t touch any exposed surfaces though – too hot, far too hot to even think of touching with one’s bare hands, and the XO doesn’t wear gloves. The 500 pound GBU-12, a laser guided bomb is under the port wing, in the shade, and even had it been hot, he’d have still forced his hands to run over the fuzing wires and suspension gear, however. He casts a gimlet eye over the 1000 pound JDAM, a joint, direct attack munition on the starboard wing. The JDAM is GPS guided and exceptionally accurate, but he hates the weapon cordially. An LGB requires a skilled pilot to find the target on his forward-looking infrared system, using funnel navigation from larger features to smaller as he approaches the target. An LGB requires a kind of master. The JDAM, on the other hand, is nearly pilot-proof, designed that way. It’s not a very long walk from the JDAMs to the Home for Retired and Obsolescent Fighter Pilots, he thinks. His preflight done in minutes, he looks up at the open cockpit with something as close as possible to loathing for a professional pilot who loves his work. Imagines the pain of sitting down on that burning seat, puts away half-humorous thoughts of frying bacon, sizzling in a pan. Hits the boarding ladder with a grunt, climbs up and settles in. Damn, that’s hot, ow-ow-ow!
In Pri-Fly the Air Boss shrugs. Well, we almost made it. We can shoot the catapults and clear the deck that way. Not perfect but good enough – can’t wait any longer. He reaches for his belt mounted mic switch, clears his throat, begins his accustomed speech: “Ooooon the flight deck, aircrew are now manning for the 1200 launch. All unnecessary personal must clear the flight deck, everyone remaining on deck must be in a full and complete flight deck uniform: Life vests on and securely fastened, helmets on and buckled, goggles down, sleeves rolled down. Take one last good look around the flight deck for loose gear and FOD, stand clear of all prop arcs, intakes and exhausts. Stand clear of huffer exhausts, tow bars and tie-down chains. Let’s start the go aircraft, start ‘em up.”
—> Part XVI Day cat launch