Down in CATCC, the XO gathered himself before speaking into the UHF radio handset, “Good news, Skipper – we’re taking you guys first – you need to head down to angels six to take a couple hundred pounds off the tanker – if that doesn’t unstick 311’s drop tank, have him stop transfer on the left. The trapped gas there will put him back in asymmetric limits for the landing. Worst comes to worst, he can use that gas after he bolters on the way to Shaikh Isa.”
“304, roger,” replied the squadron CO before switching to his aux radio. “Good news, pard – they’re taking us first.”
“311, roger,” answered the wingman, suddenly realizing that in the gloomy tension of his cockpit, his right hand had been “squeezing the black juice” out of the control stick while he had been waiting for the invisible and unknowable forces that governed his fate to come to a decision – any decision – about the next half hour of his life. Or maybe, he reflected, about the rest of it. “Good news.”
“Let’s head for the tanker.”
“Two.” The wingman switched his aux radio to the tanker freq, remaining up Departure Control in his prime radio. “Tanker, posit?”
“Texaco’s at angels six, approaching point, ah… three.”
“Roger, point three,” the wingman replied, mentally painting the picture. On the four point rendezvous circle, point one was overhead the ship, and point three would be abeam the ship downwind on a reciprocal heading. With his CO in easy cruise formation on his starboard side, he checked his position referenced to the ship on the horizontal situation display between his knees, drew an imaginary five mile circle tangential to the ship’s port side, turned right to go to lag outside the circle for safe separation. He simultaneously eased the throttles back for his descent down to six thousand feet. A flicker of movement in the inky darkness at his starboard side caught his eye. It was the CO, bobbing up and down, trying to remain in position while inside the turn in a descent at idle power. Ugh, the wingman thought: With no throttle left to ease, he’d been feathering the speed brake in and out, using it to control his airspeed, to keep from flying out in front. He grimaced at his poor flight leadership. You always have to leave your wingman some throttle to play with, he thought. He sensed the familiar, drowning waves of self-recrimination starting to rise in the back of his mind, but suddenly remembered his friend’s advice from earlier in the day. Shake it off, he thought, adding a physical shake of his head to lend weight to the mental effort inside the suddenly cramped cockpit. Put it away. He bumped his own throttles up a bit, saw the engine nozzles pucker closed on the engine display panel, a couple per cent more ” there, that should give him some power range to play with. He stuffed the negative energy down, put it away in a mental box to look at later. No time for it now. He felt the cockpit bulkheads expanding again, exhaled, breathed easier.
Approaching angels six, the wingman put his throttles up to level off, headed back in a left turn to join the rendezvous circle. He acquired the tanker on short-range radar approaching point one now, nearly back overhead the ship, the silence on every radio only heightened by the sound of his own breathing in the O2 mask. He entered the circle tangentially, as he had been taught, eschewing the temptation to rush things by pointing straight at the tanker, a maneuver that would all too probably – especially at night – result in a close aboard, high aspect pass with no turning room: A blown rendezvous, wasted time, wasted gas, a hammering in the debrief.
Only once established in the circle could he safely point directly at the tanker, get the rendezvous started, establish closure, there: 300 knots Vc. Focused on the tanker’s target aspect, range and range rate while flying his own jet in the murk, he was still obscurely aware of his CO crossing from starboard side to port, getting away from the tanker side of the rendezvous, keeping both the JG’s aircraft and the tanker itself on the same side of his own jet. At two miles to go, with closure building and beam target aspect, the JG eased his angle of bank, allowing his flight path to slide aft of the tanker, going to lag, watched the closure diminish. There. Better. Wrapping it up again in a hard left turn, nose now in lead pursuit, fuselages more nearly aligned. Inside a mile now, 60 knots Vc, three thousand feet, 30 Vc. almost home. Stabilized.
On aux freq: “Nice rendezvous, 311. The tanker pilot’s voice. The JG felt almost absurdly gratified, although he knew that it was no big deal, night formation rendezvous was a core competency, and the only performance standard that would prevent a “debrief point” from any flight lead after the mission was perfection. The tanker pilot was apparently aware of the wingman’s situation though, and was being generous. Doing what he could to build the wingman’s confidence. Well, the wingman thought appreciatively, knowing all that was on the line. Couldn’t hurt.
The in-flight refueling hose was already trailed behind the big FA-18E, a plane the young pilot, who hoped one day to fly it, thought of as the “new Hornet,” and his lead, who knew he probably never would, thought of as the “fat Hornet.” A red-lensed flashlight moving in a circle fashion in the tanker’s cockpit, silently indicating that the tanker was ready for his approach. His lead broke the normally comm-out process to inform the tanker, “We’re just going to give him three to five hundred pounds or so, see if we can get his starboard drop tank un-stuck,” a message acknowledged by a terse, “Roger” from the tanker pilot.
The wingman eased his throttles back, sliding aft on the tanker, reached down and found the in-flight refueling probe switch in the darkness, threw it forward to deploy his probe from within its position stored flush beneath the skin of the fighter’s nose. As it deployed out to the refueling position, the wind’s song around his canopy, usually a sibilant hiss of white noise as familiar and unnoticed as ones own breathing, raised its voice to a low, rushing roar, an ambiguous sound of applause or condemnation, as though coming from a sports arena several blocks away. Radar to stand-by, switches safe, a wing dip right, and he slowly slid in behind the big fighter, lining up on the streaming basket, waving a bit in the 250 knot wind stream. Throttles up a bit, there. Closure commencing, a little right, up a bit, not too much, almost there. As his probe came within a few feet of the tanker’s basket, the “bow wave” effect from his own fighter’s approaching nose shoved the basket up and right, but he was ready. A bit of right rudder, don’t chase it – in! His probe locked home, and he pressed the probe and drogue assembly back, back towards the tanker’s refueling hose receptacle. A yellow light in that pod extinguished, illuminating a green one as a replacement to confirm the tanker pilot’s words on aux, “Good flow.”
The green light was almost immediately extinguished, however. “That’s five hundred pounds, 311,” the tanker pilot reported, and the wingman replied, “Roger,” almost regretfully. It had seemed a lot of work to get here, just to get five hundred pounds. And although it seemed a strange notion, his current position, bobbing along in the big fighter’s noisy wake, plugged and receiving gas represented a kind of safe harbor. Here time stopped, here the world stopped and waited a bit. Over.
“Clear starboard, two,” his CO’s voice, “and let’s see what we did.”
The young JG did as he was instructed, stowed the IFR probe, heard the wind resume its softer song, checked the fuel page on his digital data display. The left tank now indicated 400 pounds of gas, he was back within symmetry limits for a carrier approach. The right tank sullenly reported 2200 pounds ” still full.
“No joy on the transfer, skipper.”
“Roger, let’s switch approach on prime, tac on aux. You have the lead on the right, but I’ll handle the comms until flight break-up.”
“Two, lead right, switching,” the wingman replied, rolling the frequency knobs on first his prime, then his aux radios as directed. On prime he heard his lead’s voice already speaking, “… luck on the tanker, got his gas, but it looks like we’ll be bringing him aboard with the fuel trapped in his starboard drop.”
“Roger that, skipper. Confirm he’s back within limits for approach.”
“That’s affirmative,” the squadron CO replied.
“Is he ready to come down?”
Oh, I am, 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.”
—> Part XLIX – A night approach, the world awaits