“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.”
Everything afterwards seemed a blur to the lieutenant junior grade – lights out, hook up and out of the wires. Come forward. Right turn. Left. Come forward. Stop. The usual crazy jumble of fighters packed on the bow after the last recovery of the night, no need to keep a bow cat clear for the next recovery. The strange, almost feline waaooow sound of the E-2 trapping right behind him, its props biting at the night air. The dizzying feel of the ship turning out of the wind in perfect darkness – the gradually increasing heel, his inner ear insisting on lateral motion, but his eyes unable to confirm it. Hold brakes. On chocks and chains.
He raced through his post-landing checklist, securing all electronic equipment, IFF, radar, ICLS, ALS, beacon, prime radio and aux. There was the yellow shirt standing beside the jet, signaling a dual engine shut down, throttle lifts up, throttles off, the sound of the dying engines somehow mournful, full of soft, diminishing regret.
He sat for a moment in the suddenly silent darkness, the parking brake set but his legs still shaking on the rudder pedals. Holding the wheel brakes until the adrenaline surge faded, not yet trusting his legs to lever him out of the jet. The plane captain looking up at him with a young, tired, questioning face – thumbs up?
He raised the canopy even as the PC lowered the boarding ladder. Unstrapped from the seat, first the shoulder harness, then the lap belts, then the leg restraints, thigh and ankle. Tried to stand up, got pulled back down – ah, the O2mask was still hooked up. Sat back down, released the catch, noticed with a grimace that the ejection seat was still armed. Stifled a curse – pretty dumb way to die at the end of a long day, at the end of a long hop: Tangle yourself up in the ejection handle of an armed seat getting out of the jet and it’d be a short but violent ride, with no parachute to break your fall. Stupid.
The outside air was still warm, but no longer the shockingly hot blast of the early afternoon. With the last aircraft shut down, the deck had an almost funereal feel, tired sailors moving around the deck waiting for instructions on the re-spot for the alerts, for tomorrow’s launch. They talked in hushed tones, accompanied by the strange wind-chime sound of the cooled rotor blades of a dozen fighters spinning in the breeze, and the sound of the dark, greasy sea washing against the great warship’s hull, sibilantly whispering promises it would not keep: promises of peace, promises of sleep.
“How’s the jet, sir?” asked the plane captain once he’d stepped down from the boarding ladder.
“Good jet, bad drop tank on the right,” he replied, suddenly exhausted. What a day. What a night.
“Roger that, sir. Powerplants is on the way up for a de-fuel, remove and re-install.”
“Anything else, sir?”
“No,” he said tersely, lost in his own thoughts. But something in the PC’s question pulled back into the moment, back into his duty, and he added, “No. A good jet. How are you guys doing up here? Hot day, yah?”
“Oh, you get used to it, sir,” the PC replied, easing the spigot of his CamelBack hydration device into his mouth for an ostentatious sip of water. The JG smiled inwardly – you were nobody on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier in the Arabian Gulf unless you wore a CamelBack.
“I guess,” the pilot concluded, adding, “but I’m not sure how. You guys are heroes in my book.”
The plane captain looked away suddenly, looked towards the jet – Too much? the JG asked himself. Trying too hard? Looked around, saw one of his squadron’s jets on the port side, cat 2 – an avionics tech in the cockpit apparently absorbed in his work, headset to his ears. Williams. That was his name. AT2 Williams. Saved him going down on the cat last week for that radio gripe. A good tech. Caught his eye, gave a friendly wave – got a thumbs up in response, a white-toothed grin flashing in the darkness.
No more putting it off, he thought. Better go below, debrief, get it over with. Take my lumps if I have to. God alone knows why I should have to, but then again he never seems to.
Stop it. Just. Stop.
Dark on the roof after the last recovery, he thought, the lights going down, going dim. He felt as much as saw his path aft to the island, giving the jets as wide a berth as he could, what with their grasping tie-down chains, and greedy refueling hoses and clutching electrical cables. Down the starboard catwalk, down into the darkness, opening the blast hatch and in to the ship herself, each hatch opening him up to more light, cooler air, the drying sweat tickling his neck.
The ship’s intel center first, CVIC – a young intel officer there, a squadron “spy”: Where did you go, and what did you do, and did you take on any fuel at all? Did you dump? How was your IFF? Secure comms? Any contacts of interest? No? Good night to you, then.
Making his way aft – the passageways darkened. It’s after taps, he thought. Half the ship’s already asleep, and half the rest are getting ready for it. I wonder if I’ll sleep tonight? It’d be so nice to sleep a full night’s sleep. It’d be so nice not to have the demons pop out of their boxes at 0300, asking their insistent questions: “Are you good enough? Can you do it? Are you sure?”
“I did it tonight!” he said aloud, alone in the passageway leading aft, surprising himself. Talking to yourself now, is it?
Yes, talking to myself. But I did. I did it tonight. Landed on my first go, once the deck was clear.
And now here were the LSO’s, swaggering down the starboard side passageway in their white float coats. The CAG LSO caught his eye, grabbed “the book” from one of the squadron LSO’s, turned the page, found the JG’s name: “First pass, a little too much power in the middle, a little high in close, wave-off, foul deck. Second pass, a little not enough power on a drift left start, a little low, lined up left in the middle, nice correction. A little drift left in close, a little high/flat at the ramp, come-down on line-up at the ramp. OK three wire.”
“Thanks, paddles,” the JG replied, relieved – so many deviations, but all of them labeled “littles.”
“Nice job, pardner,” said the CAG LSO, eyeing him appraisingly.
The JG left the gaggle, moved aft along the O-3 passageway, embarrassed. This is what you’re supposed to do, he thought. Land it on the first go-round. Before he arrived at the athwartship passageway leading to his ready room, he met his sister squadron’s XO coming out of CATCC.
“Nice work there, young man!” the XO beamed. “Sometimes you’ve just got to put her down in the spaghetti, and tonight was your night. Well done.”
Wonder if anyone’s left in the ready room, the JG thought. Wonder if the movie’s over. He debriefed the chief petty officer at maintenance control, explained what he’d tried to do with the right drop tank, signed the maintenance action form, entered his flight time in the laptop computer. “Good job bringing her back, sir,” the CPO offered at the end of their exchange.
“Thanks, Chief,” the JG replied, wondering inwardly – it wasn’t like this particular chief to hand out praise to junior officers. Not like him at all.
Back to the pararigger’s shop to take off his flight gear, leave the sweaty harness, G-suit and helmet on the peg. Headed forward again to the ready room, the site of so many recent silent, disappointed degradations. He waited in the passageway a moment with his hand on the doorknob, gathering his moral strength before walking in. Surprised to find his entire junior officer cohort in the room, smiling at him broadly, the duty officer slapping him on the back, and then they were all around him with questions, and congratulations, shaking his hand and telling him not to let it get to his head, it was no big deal, and that wasn’t so hard, now, was it? About time he’d figured it out.
The JG looked forward in the ready room to see his squadron CO and XO break from a closely whispered conference – his CO looked him in the eye even as the JG tried to answer the questions of his brother JO’s. The old man pursed his lips, narrowed his eyes, raised his chin pugnaciously – and then nodded, almost imperceptibly. Nodded at him. Well done.
Turning his smiling face back to his brothers, it was all the young man could do not to weep.
—> Part LIII – The end
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