“That’s right, 104. He’s trick or treat, the hard way. He doesn’t know it yet, but he has to land here – we’re out of options. We’ll give him one look at the wires, then rig the barricade if we have to. If that doesn’t work we’ll eject him alongside, fish him out with a SAR helo. You worry about you, and that fouled store.”
“Oh, and 104?” the Captain added, “He doesn’t need to know about this.”
“Copy that, sir.”
No, thought the JG. He certainly doesn’t.
On the darkened, breathless bridge, the Captain turned to the J-Dial phone, picked up the handset, punched in the four-digit number to CATCC: “This is the Captain – CAG, please.” After a brief pause, “Hell of a bind, CAG. The tankable recovery is almost complete, we caught all the fighters and the Prowler while 311 was getting his gas. All I’ve got left is the Hummer and the sour tanker. The Hummer can wait, and we can divert the tanker to the beach if it comes to that. But there’s no way to shoot from the bow with the last recovery on deck – hang on – JOOD, tell the Air Boss to stop buzzing me, I’ll get back to him in a second. Anyway CAG, I’ll call away the alert 15 tanker, but the way I see it, this will all be over one way or another before we can spin him up and get him airborne. Uh, huh. Right. Concur. Well, it’s all up to paddles and your boy now. You bet. I agree, we’re all going to look pretty stupid if the young man can’t put her down in the spaghetti. One way or the other, we’re probably going to have to go in and debrief the admiral on this after it’s over. Maybe better we get our stories straight before we head in there, what do you say? OK. I’ll see you in CATCC after it’s over. Bye.”
The Captain rang off, feeling suddenly old, unspeakably weary. After twenty-six years of personal sacrifice, markedly superior performance, exceptionally hard work, arduous duty on the empire’s outer arc, and steady advancement through a vigorous professional winnowing process he had finally arrived at the pinnacle of carrier command. Now he found that he had arrived there only to have everything he had ever said, or done, or achieved –his entire professional career – trembling at the intersection of a decision made at the end of 19 hour day and a stroke of singular misfortune. All that stood between his fondest dreams and darkest professional nightmares was now one single approach by a struggling nugget aviator whose first name he did not even know. The UHF radio to the left of his sacred chair sputtered into life, breaking in upon this melancholy reverie: “Approach, Three-one-one, abeam, state 2.9.”
“Three-eleven, approach, roger. Maintain angels one-point-two, expect a four mile turn to final,” came the deceptively cheerful response.
In his darkened cockpit, the JG frowned within his mask. A four-mile hook. Approach probably figured they were doing me a favor, but a four mile turn to final will only give me maybe 15 seconds or so to get stabilized on final approach course before starting my descent. I could use a little more time. Don’t want to sound like a non-hack though. Ah, screw it. “Approach, 311, I’d like a six mile hook, if you don’t mind.”
“311, Approach, roger, expect a six mile turn to final,” agreeably.
In CATCC, on the bridge, in the cockpit of an FA-18 undergoing radio maintenance on the flight deck well forward, the air wing commander, the ship’s CO, and a second class avionics technician all breathed the slightest bit more freely: Good for him, they thought – at least he’s still in the game, still thinking. Come aboard when you’re ready. You’re only going to get one look. Might as well make it a good one.
I wish I didn’t know, the JG thought. I wish I hadn’t listened in. A chorus of shouts in the back of his head suddenly thrust themselves right forward, into his consciousness: Not fair! Too hard! Not possible!
I can do this! the JG shouted back, shoving them aside and hearing “311, Approach, six miles, turn left to the final bearing 355, maintain angels 1.2, report bullseye.”
“311 roger, left to 355,” and now a small voice in the back of his head, a venomous whispering, I’m not so sure you can do it. You couldn’t do it last night.
“311 bullseye up and right,” pilots do this all the time. It’s what we do.
“311, Approach, concur, fly your bullseye,” followed immediately after by, “311 approach, lock-on at 3.5, say needles.”
“Approach, 311, needles on course, fly slightly up.” It’s what they do. You haven’t been doing it so well, have you?
“311, Approach concur, fly your needles, approaching tip-over at three miles.”
“311.” But it’s only a matter of believing in yourself.
“311 Approach, three miles, on glideslope going slightly left, right two.”
“311.” You can believe that pigs have wings, but that won’t make them pigeons.
Barricade if you go around again. Hit the net and trash the jet, all because you weren’t good enough.
This is not my fault! Shut up!
“311 on course, on glideslope at two miles.” See it’s not so hard.
“311,” more a grunt than a response. But this isn’t the hard part, is it? It’s those last five seconds, you have to get off the instruments and fly the ball, you have to keep her lined up even as she’s trying to crawdad away from you to the right. You’ve got to keep her on speed – paddles won’t take you slow, saw that last night, didn’t we? “Eat at Joe’s” lights they call, them, but it means a wave-off and though they haven’t told us so, we know that means a barricade for sure, and maybe the Martin-Baker let down if we’re not careful, good, and lucky. And how have you liked your luck, recently?
“311, going slightly right of course, slightly above glideslope at a mile and a half, left two.”
“311,” Shut up! and I’m not going to say anything else until I call the ball, she’s sluggish in these turns back to the left. I wonder if it’s going to hurt, that ejection? People have broken their backs. I wonder if there are sea snakes? I’ve seen them from the gallery deck, all white and awful and they say that they’re deadly poisonous. I wonder how long it will take for them to find us? What if the chute drags us under? What if we drown?
SHUT UP! SHUT UP, SHUT UP!
“311, three quarters of a mile, call the ball.”
“311, Hornet ball, two-point-five useable.”
“Roger ball, Hornet, you’re just a little underpowered now. A little power, back to the right,” the voice of the LSO, smooth, caressing, careless. Another day at sea, for all his voice might give it away, but how did I get low? The power coming up and catch it, catch it on line-up – don’t chase it. Almost there, don’t lead it – Now, a little power back off, half of it back on again to catch it, rate of descent is looking good. Looking good, but wait, drifting a little “a little right for lineup,” said the LSO, the JG responded, silently cursing, I saw it, I was just about to “a little power” the LSO again, throttles up but not too far, for God’s sake don’t bolter. “Easy with it,” the LSO said and a part of him wanted to cry that there was nothing easy about it, but he stuffed it aside and he was almost there, crossing the ramp, one more correction, a little power off – no: ON and a little left wing down and WHAM!
On deck! On deck, by God! And the joy in his heart, the engines screaming at military power as the wire ran out, went taut, held hard, the jet bucking like a trapped beast in a snare and there was the Air Boss on the radio, saying something, something to him, repeating it again, again with emphasis and finally the words making sense, “Lights on deck 311, lights on deck. We’ve got you, throttle back. We’ve got you.”
—> Part LII – Shutting down