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Part LIV Epilogue

The ship’s Captain stood by his chair on the bridge in his Service Dress Blues, his binoculars fixed on the channel marker just outside the carrier turning basin at Naval Station North Island, California. He briefly suppressed, and then just as briefly gave in to the temptation to sweep the pier with the binos, looking for his wife and children. Seven months. It had been such a very long seven months. There were thousands of people thronging on the pier, waving flags and signs – “Welcome Home, Son!” and “We Missed You Mommy!”

The civilian harbor pilot stood just to his right, in amiable but meaningless conversation with the Officer of the Deck – this was an experienced crew, and the pilot’s main purpose was to control the three tugboats that brought the great warship alongside the pier after it had made its final turn, gliding in.

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Part LIII The End

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 they 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.

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Part LII Shutting Down

“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.”

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Part LI The final approach

“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.”

“104, roger.”

“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.

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Part L  Another trip to the tanker, bad news

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.”

“311.”

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Part XLIX A night approach, the world awaits

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.”

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Part XLVIII  Tanker rendezvous, and troubleshooting

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.”

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Part XLVII Decision Made

In the CATCC gallery, each of the senior squadron reps sat in the darkness, looking at the naked and anticipatory flight deck on the closed-circuit television, each avoiding eye contact, most of them secretly pleased not to be a part of this decision.

“I want to give him a shot,” the CO repeated.

“Roger that, skipper. I’ll take it to CAG.”

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Part XLVI Decision Time

External tanks were rather alarmingly expensive – there were only so many spares in the carrier’s hangar bay – and hurling them into the sea regardless was considered very bad form. Keep that sort of thing up and pretty soon the FA-18Cs were out of the fight. Like most of his breed, the squadron CO was not a “path of least resistance” kind of guy.

“OK, I’m on step 4 now, checklist page E51: Bleed air knob ” Cycle through “Off” to “Norm.”

“Two.”

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Part XLV  Troubleshooting

There it is: Left external tank nearly empty, 300 pounds of fuel. Right tank completely full – 2300 pounds. Quickly did the math: Two thousand pounds of unusable gas, also meant fourteen thousand foot-pounds of lateral asymmetry. Out of landing limits, or nearly. And a lot less gas than he’d thought he’d had, just a moment ago.

Thought for a moment, keyed the throttle-mounted radio mic switch down, flight admin frequency, just him and his lead: “Dragon one, Dragon two.  I’ve got a right external transfer failure.”

“Dragon one,” came the thoughtful reply.

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