Oh, I’m ready to land, am I? the wingman thought grimly. I guess I’d better be. Anyway, ready or not, here I come.
“311 flight break-up now,” a new speaker, the smoothly cool voice of an air traffic control petty officer, “These will be vectors for a Mode II approach, turn left heading 175 for downwind, descend and maintain angels one-point-two.”
“311 roger, left to 175, angels one-point-two.”
“311, approach, final bearing 005, Gold Eagle altimeter two-niner-niner-five.”
“Copy two-niner-niner-five,” too quickly, it was all happening too quickly, the JG thought, scrambling to catch back up on his penetration and approach checklists, feeling the cockpit start to press in on him again.
His lead’s voice on the aux radio now, cheerily, “Lead’s detaching. See you on deck.” Everyone’s trying to buck me up, the wingman thought. Wish I could be as optimistic as he’s pretending to be.
“See you on deck, skipper,” the JG replied, trying to sound confident, mentally adding, “I hope.”
See you on deck,” the CO replied, thinking, I hope so, boy-o. I hope so.
The JG put flipped his pocket guidebook open, trying to catch up, to ensure that he’d completed his penetration and approach checklists, even as he thumbed the speed brake out on the throttle grip, lowering the nose to maintain airspeed, but dramatically increasing his rate of descent into the inky, waiting darkness. Almost immediately, the radar altimeter’s female voice spoke into his headset, “Altitude, altitude,” so calm and reassuring in tone, so maddening in effect. Like every single-seat pilot, he’d been taught to use all of the tools the jet provided to back himself up, and he’d set the warning software at 5000 feet during his initial climb after departing the ship. But the rule of thumb was that the altimeter should never catch you by surprise. If it went off and you weren’t expecting it, you were “behind the jet.” Like I didn’t know that already, he thought.
He thumbed the boards back in, easing the nose back up to shallow his rate of descent.
On the O-3 level of the carrier, a second class avionics technician finished his brief at maintenance control, and headed outboard to the topside ladder, carrying his headset. He’d heard the maintenance senior chief petty officer behind the desk in quiet conversation with the maintenance control officer. For once, they weren’t talking about the jets on the roof or in the hangar bay requiring maintenance for the next day’s schedule. They were talking about 311’s pilot in hushed tones. The AT2 listened casually, pretending not to overhear. But that was one of his birds up there, coming down with a gripe. And one of his pilots too.
Easing his way out into the darkness, the AT2 paused on the up ladder for several moments, sweat starting on his brow, under his cranial protector, under his “float coat,” running in a sudden river down his spine. Two salt-encrusted, exhausted red shirts pushed by him brusquely, headed below, their work complete after a 16 hour shift, too tired to feign civility. The AT2 checked the blue lens on his flashlight, confirmed for perhaps the third time that he had all of his tools properly accounted for in his tool pouch ” it’d be hell to pay if one came up missing later ” and strode up into the lethal darkness, picking his way past turning jet engines, landing area foul lines, invisible, murderously spinning propellers and the trip hazards – the snaking fuel hoses and ghostly tie-down chains, working his way to aircraft 306, his “patient” for the evening. He climbed up the boarding ladder, lowered the canopy, plugged in. He was home. He pulled out the maintenance instruction manual, thought for a moment, put it aside. Turned on the good radio, the one he hadn’t come to repair, tuned it to final approach, listened quietly. “311 approach, six miles, turn left to the final bearing three-five-five, intercept the bull’s-eye.” Yeah. This was the right frequency.
“311 roger, left to 355,” replied the JG, still “killing snakes” in the cockpit with the control stick, trying to force the bulkheads back out, trying to get breathing space. Twelve hundred feet at six miles in a left turn, he thought – dirty up once established on final. He intercepted the final bearing, or approach course, threw the landing gear and flaps down, felt the jet bobble up, settle back, decelerate. Too much! Cursing, throttles to the firewall, the engines shouting at him, the angle of attack increasing almost to stall tone, pressuring the stick forward, but “Altitude, altitude” and there was Betty talking to him again as he settled down through eleven hundred feet. More curses and wishing suddenly that he was somewhere else, doing anything else. Got to get this right the first time. Don’t bolter. Don’t get waved off.
We still have time, he told himself, still have time to get this right, but there was the “tadpole” flashing on his HUD and the controller’s voice, “Three-eleven, approach, lock-on at 4 miles, say your needles?”
“311, fly up, fly right,” forcing himself to speak slowly, in a deep, measured voice. Controlled.
“311 approach concur, fly your needles, Mode II approach,” unpersuaded.
Well, the JG thought. I might not be good, but at least I sound good. To me.
Above him the big FA-18E tanker received vectors on tanker freq from the departure controller, acknowledging them and descending down out of the holding pattern into the velvet black to “hawk” aircraft 311. If he did his work properly, and the young guy got waved off or boltered, the tanker would be waiting for him at 1 o’clock on the go, basket out, couldn’t be easier. He listened quietly on the approach frequency, captured 280 knots at six miles, heard the approach controller tell 311 he was at 3 miles, nodded grimly. Perfect.
The tadpole and ILS needles matched, swam up towards the JG’s velocity vector on the HUD and at three miles joined that symbology, representing his aircraft’s flight path ” time to start down. Throttles back a quarter throw, bunt the nose, set up the rate of descent, there: -700 feet per minute. Drifting left, the needles and bulls-eye chastised him first before the controller chirped in, “311, on glide slope at two miles, going left of course, right two,” and no need to reply now, no expectation of it really, every fiber straining to fly the jet, work back to final bearing, maintain on-speed angle of attack, maintain the proper rate of descent and there’s the ship out there, a tiny light bobbing in the infinite darkness, back on the instruments, one minute and maybe 40 seconds to go.
Overshooting now, too far right and that full drop tank on the right side was fighting him as he tried to level his wings and get back to course line, the controller getting interested now, he could almost hear the petty officer’s eyes narrowing, sensing the struggle, trying to help, and then feeling the LSO’s waiting on the flight deck down there below him, and everyone else down there, 5000 of them watching, waiting, judging. “311 now right of course, left two going below, slightly below glide slope at a mile and a half.”
The JG pulled the nose up abruptly, going slow. Great he thought, almost on the ball and I’ve only got lineup, glide slope and AOA to worry about, but fortunately I’ve porked away all three. In an act of will, he drew the image of a pressing hand and pushed the gremlins back into their box, themselves squealing in protest. He allowed himself a brief smile under his mask: this could get to be a habit.
Down on deck the AT2 hearing the controller’s exchange on his headphones shook his head quietly, frowning. Thinking, not good. Kid’s not doing good. At two miles, the tanker pilot was thinking much the same thoughts, visualizing the geometry, stabilized now. Ah, well. Trap or don’t. Either way he’d be ready.
Down on the flight deck, a pregnant silence, all the jets shut down now, the props still. The LSO’s standing ready on the port side aft, wave off “pickles” over their heads, acknowledging a foul deck. The arresting gear operators had maybe thirty seconds now to report the gear set to catch an FA-18C, or they’d pickle him. In the tower, the Air Boss’s mouth worked, lips puckering, frowning. Come on, he thinks. Call it. Gear and lens set. A bone-weary blue shirt stumbles aft along the starboard foul line in the darkness, headed towards down-traffic on the elevator, full fifty pounds of tie-down chains draped over his shoulders, himself feeling like some sweat-besotted, helmeted Marley’s ghost, a heavy wheel chock in either hand. He’s been on the job for eighteen hours.
“311 approach, on course, on glide slope, three-quarters of a mile, call the ball.”
“311 Hornet ball, 2.5 useable.”
“Roger, ball,” the LSO’s replying now, trying to sound soothing, the air traffic controller backing silently out. “You’re just a little high,” and behind him one of the backup LSO’s chanting, “Foul deck. Foul deck.”
It feels like forever, but after only a moment, “Gear and lens set Hornet!” the deck edge operator cries, and almost simultaneously the deck status light right aft at the round down turns from red to green before them. They drop the pickles to their side, tensing in every muscle like setters on point. Here’s where they do their job. Here’s where they earn their hazardous duty pay.
The tanker pilot now at a mile and a half, eyes fixed on his potential “customer.” Exquisitely attentive, almost vibrating with intensity.
The young JG wrestling with his jet even as he wrestles with his demons, the seconds clicking past like cards in a Vegas shuffle. A half a mile, ten seconds.
Silence in CATCC, twenty men breathlessly willing the JG to land.
Silence too in the squadron ready room, his brother JOs aware of everything hanging in the balance, their department heads watching with pursed lips and narrowed eyes, waiting to pass judgment.
Quiet in the tower, and on the bridge too, as even the bone-weary Captain strains his neck around aft to try and see, before blinking rapidly, and settling on the pilot landing aid television right forward.
A quarter mile to go, almost there, five seconds, all the world he cared about a-tiptoe, holding its breath. The big tanker pulling abeam the fighter on approach.
The blue shirt working his way aft to the deck edge elevator, tripping across an night enshrouded tie-down chain, reeling suddenly to his right, arms grasping for purchase in the darkness, legs churning underneath him, fighting for his footing, stumbling across the foul line before falling to his knees, head bowed. Disgraced.
The arresting gear officer facing forward on the starboard side aft, his back to the approaching Hornet, seeing the blue shirt fall across the foul line and taking his thumb off the dead-man switch, like he’d been trained.
The deck status light turning from green to red. The sudden shout on the LSO platform, “FOUL DECK!”
The momentary pause, considering, rejecting, releasing: “Wave-off, wave-off. Foul deck.” Hitting the pickle switch’s guarded button, the red lights flashing on their backs. Regretfully. Nothing to be done ” just the way things are.
An explosive, unitary curse on the bridge, in the tower, in the cockpit of the AT2″s jet undergoing maintenance. A chorus of disbelieving shouts and curses in CATCC, in the ready room, in maintenance control, across the ship.
Full power and catch the AOA, harsh language in his mask before taking a ragged breath and keying the mike, “311 airborne.”
“311 approach, roger. Take angels one-point-two, your tanker at right one o’clock and one mile, report plugged and receiving.”
—> Part L – Another trip to the tanker, bad news