It was a dark and stormy night. Nah. It was dark. I remember that distinctly.
We had been at sea for a couple of weeks and flying exercise after exercise. Crews were tired, the pace of operations was taking a toll on man and metal.
Joe and I were in the ready room as the alert tanker crew. There was only one tanker left in an up status, the other three had died of various ailments during the day. We were sitting in an empty ready room, sharing the space with the duty officer. It was late, the movie was over. The denizens of Ready Four had moved on to other habitats, a game of cards, letter writing, maybe a grease burger in the forward mess. Maybe an early rack time, perchance to score a full night’s rest without interruption, a rare event during workups.
Joe was new to the boat, the USS Constellation, new to our A-6 squadron. I had shared with him his first daytime trap not too long ago, and he had yet to be exposed to the nether world of night ops. We briefed the flight as if we were going to launch in the next few minutes. Never can tell when the call will come. Joe already had the daytime experience, albeit just a few day traps. Night ops were a different game, and I tried my utmost to pass on all the knowledge needed to fly and survive on the dark side.
The call to man up came just about the same time I was running out of pertinent items. Grab the helmets, kneeboards, and nav bags, head for the flight deck, might be time to launch.
Our KA-6D was spotted just forward of the island on the starboard side. Rather than being right on the flight deck edge with the tail jutting out over the ocean, the plane was tied down inboard somewhat, with the nose pointed right at the landing area. We preflighted the bird with our red lensed flashlights. No white lights on deck. Night vision is precious.
We preflighted the ejection seats and strapped in. The maintenance chief appeared at the top of the boarding ladder and passed on to me what the gouge was. There was only one airplane left to recover from the last launch of the day, an F-14, and he boltered on the first pass. No other tankers, we are to be insurance if the lad continues to have problems.
No sweat. One bolter doesn’t tell the story, odds are we won’t even start up. We close the canopy and look around us, our eyes adjusting more and more to the night world.
The blackness was…black. Can’t describe it any other way. An overcast sky took away the stars. Joe and I could see the landing area ahead of us in the dim red light and not much more. There were Intruders on either side of us, the ones closest showing vague details of the big nose and trademark refueling probe, the ones farther away sharing less and less conformity with our aircraft, morphing into yellow grey blobs toward the bow and stern.
To our left we heard and then saw an F-14 in the last seconds of his landing pass. The big turkey looked good for a three wire. A cinch, I thought.
Then the big jet appeared to stop his descent and went long over the wires, missing the 3 and 4 wire, dragging his hook in a rooster tail of sparks down the centerline of the landing area and then off the deck and into the blackness again. Bummer. Too much power in close, this guy’s adrenaline is pumping.
I shared my observation with Joe. He didn’t have much to say in response. This was his first time on the carrier deck in the dark.
A few minutes later the F-14 emerges out of the darkness on our left again. Good pass, I think, and then the mysterious too much power over the wires happens again. This time the turkey’s main mounts and hook barely touch down near the end of the landing area. Again the F-14 rotates and disappears into the dark of the night.
What the hey? That was a bit worse than the first pass we saw. What’s going on with this guy?
Joe and I discuss what we had just seen. While we are talking I pick up the lights of the SAR (search and rescue) helo aft of the ship beyond the LSO platform. The helo is doing odd things, going up and then down, up and then down. Weird. Must be bored and doing some sort of drill. I point this out to Joe and he looks at the same lights going up and down.
Then Joe asks me, “Isn’t the helo stationed on the starboard side of the ship? Behind us?”
Holy crap. Joe is correct, I’m not thinking. The lights I am looking at belong to the plane guard destroyer aft of the ship! Why is he going up and down like that?
Then the neurons in my brain pan kick in and make connections. A glance at the VDI, the main attitude indicator on the instrument panel in front of me, confirms what I had not picked up on. The Connie was moving. Up and down. As I watched the attitude indicator we went left wing down, then left wing up, then left wing down again. Crap, a pitching deck. I point to the VDI and let Joe in on my sudden revelation. As we go left wing down the plane guard’s lights climb up in the blackness, then back down as the Connie’s bow goes below the horizon.
We watch the VDI. The F-14 returns for another pass at the deck. Joe and I scan the F-14 and the VDI at the same time. The F-14 is just about to touch down and the VDI display shows us in an increasing right bank. The deck falls away from the F-14 as the bow of the Connie plunges, the tail hook passes over the 3 and 4 wires with room to spare. There is another brief shower of sparks from his tail hook as he barely touches the end of the landing area and then the Tomcat flies away into the night.
The plane captain’s wands light up, one of the yellow cones point at my left engine, the other cone points upward and the plane captain makes the light twirl with his wrist. Time to start engines and get ready to go. We light off both engines and make sure all systems are online. We wait for the light signals to undo the tiedown chains and taxi to the cat. It’s showtime for us. I tell Joe it looks like we are going to have to launch into the night and be in position to pass fuel to the Tomcat, he can’t have much left.
We are ready. The plane captain’s wands are crossed above his head, stay put with the brakes on is the signal.
Joe comes up on the ICS. “Bob,” says Joe. “If we are the only tanker left, who will give us fuel when we can’t get aboard?”
Ya know, Joe was smart. Perceptive. Thinking ahead. He voiced what I hadn’t even thought about. Now I was a confident fellow, sure of my abilities, but a pitching deck adds so much to the pudding of uncertainty.
Joe had a point. I thought for a second or two, not quite so sure of myself in light of (or in dark of!) what I had just seen and what Joe had said.
There was an answer. “Joe,” I said. “This is where we pray for the guy in the F-14. Pray that he arrives when the deck isn’t on the way up or down and that he grabs a wire on the next pass.”
What I didn’t say was pray that we don’t have to cat off the pointy end of this boat into nothingness to help someone and then hang around until he gets aboard. Then try to outsmart the pitching deck ourselves.
Don’t know that Joe prayed or not, we were silent for a while. I mentally had a short and sincere one way talk with the One In Charge Of Things.
The F-14 appeared above the stern again, a ghostly image in the dim red lights of the deck. I looked at the VDI, we were wings level.
The turkey hit the deck and came to a stop just in front of us, his engines howling against the stopping force of the arresting wire caught in his tail hook.
The plane captain dragged one of his wands across his throat. The shutdown signal. I pulled back the throttles past the idle detent and around to the shut off position.
We weren’t going to have to answer Joe’s question tonight.