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Part XLIV   En route to station, a fuel discrepancy

Committed now he rested his helmet back against the seat box, braced the throttles up against the stops with his left arm, raised his right hand to the canopy rail handle and waited for the shot which came, as it always did, with unexpected, almost unimaginable violence.

In a screeching mist of noise and steam, shaking and bouncing in the cockpit like a rag doll as the jet went from a standstill to 165 MPH in two and a half seconds, he fought against the acceleration to look at his HUD, hoping to see three numbers in the airspeed box. With three numbers he could fly, said a prayer so abbreviated that the only word in it was God and finally she fell off the edge, released by the catapult and he was flying, flying, flying. A good shot.

“311 airborne.”

“311, Departure, roger. Passing angels 2.5 switch Red Crown, check in.”

“311.”

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Part XVIII A nugget’s night cat shot

On the bow cats, the lieutenant junior grade saw a yellow-shirted director walk up to his jet, with a single light want pointed up: “Is your jet up?”

The JG took his red-lensed flashlight out of his chest harness, fumbled for a moment before turning it on and then moving it in a rapid circle: “Up jet.” The director responded with an upward thrust of his wand, followed by brushing motions across his forearms: “Off chocks and chains,” followed by crossed wands over his head: “Hold brakes.” The young pilot felt his heart jump in his chest. He’d heard that in the old days, during Vietnam, there had been an experiment wherein the attack pilots were wired to measure their pulse during combat, as a way of determining their stress levels. It had surprised the flight surgeons to discover that, almost to a man, all of the pilots had manifested higher pulse rates during their approach to land aboard the carrier at night than they had during final attack run of a defended target under flares, with the terrain rushing up to meet them as they refined their targeting solutions in 45 degree bomb runs, the altimeter unwinding crazily even as the SAMs and AAA rose up to meet them. He didn’t have any idea how that might have felt, the JG reflected. But he knew that his heart rate had to be at least a hundred and twenty just at the signal to break down the jet’s chocks and chains. Once he started rolling forward, he’d be committed to the cat. Once on the cat, he’d have to launch. Once airborne, he’d have to land. And he hadn’t been landing very well lately. He knew he didn’t have many more chances to prove that he could. You either hack it or you don’t, he thought. Sooner or later, non-hacks get scraped off. Nothing personal. Just business.

A Hornet rattled down Cat-3, afterburners shouting in the darkness. ‘departure, 304 airborne,” said his commanding officer.

“Roger 304, passing angels two-point-five, switch Red Crown, check in.”

“304.”

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Part XLII The night launch continues

Bobbing in the wake aft of the enormous jinn which had materialized out of the darkness, hands gripping tight on the gunwales, Farokh gave thanks to God for his unmerited deliverance, checked the compass and once more shaped his course southwest, towards Bahrain. There was a trade to make.

Damn, that was close, thought the squadron CO as he taxied aft. His legs were still shaking on the rudder pedals and it took extra concentration to follow the director’s signals. Finally he was passed off to the Assistant Fly-3 Petty Officer, who’d seen none of what had just transpired up on the bow and was in any case a rather phlegmatic sort. Got to take it easy now, one step at a time, get back on the checklist. It’d be nuts to save oneself from falling into the sea on a heavy roll, only to omit some critical step and meet the same fate off the catapult. Life’s short, he thought, paraphrasing John Wayne, and adding “it’s shorter if you’re stupid.

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Part XLI A near miss

“Boats, five short blasts,” the OOD had cried, his voice trembling as the dhow neared a mile, right forward on the bow, almost under the shelf of the bow catapults, almost out of sight. Once out of sight he would not be able to tell which side of the ship the dhow was maneuvering towards, if in fact it was maneuvering. At that point it would all be in God’s hands.

“Bosun’s mate, aye-aye,” replied the BMOW and the sound of the ship’s signal whistle sounding its hoarse cry of emergency and distress brought the ship’s Captain now fully out of his chair, shouting “Officer of the Deck! We need to maneuver the ship!” followed rapidly, too rapidly by, “Aye, Captain – CONN, left full rudder!”

“CONN, aye – Helm, left full rudder!”

“Helm, left full rudder aye!”and spinning of the ship’s great wheel to the left before being countermanded by the Captain himself, “Belay that! Ease your rudder to left ten! Officer of the Deck, what’s the ship’s speed?”

“Ease my rudder to left ten, aye!”

“Twenty knots Captains, winds were light for launch,” the OOD replied, quailing under his CO’s fierce and red-eyed glare: Above 15 knots, use of full rudder was restricted due to heel, but they were in extremis even if aircraft were taxiing and launching. Even as the Helmsman eased his rudder back to ten degrees left the ship dug into the turn, heeling well to starboard, the physics of mass and momentum at war with the two great rudders biting into the frothing sea. In Flight Deck Control the Handler cursed before screaming into the 5MC flight deck announcing system, “Head’s up on the flight deck, turning port, heel to starboard!”

On the bow cat the squadron CO’s heart leapt suddenly into his throat as he felt the ship heel over, port side rising into the air before him as the starboard fell away behind him. He swore violently into his oxygen mask as the throttle setting for taxi power became suddenly insufficient to move forward against the sloping deck – she slowed, she stopped, she started rolling backwards, back towards the parking spot, back towards the deck edge, back towards the invisible, waiting sea.

“Bosun’s Mate of the Watch, sound the collision alarm!” cried the Captain.

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Part XL In extremis

“Unknown vessel in vicinity of twenty-eight degrees, forty-two minutes north, fifty degrees, forty-five minutes east, course 190, speed 5 knots, this is a United States Navy warship ten miles off your port bow. I am engaged in flight operations and restricted in my ability to maneuver. Request you contact me on this frequency and alter your course to the southeast to maintain a safe distance, over.”

Down on the flight deck, the CO and his problematic wingman sat in their turning fighters thinking their private thoughts.

Of the drama playing itself out in slow motion on the bridge, they had no knowledge.

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Part XXXIX A contact on the bow, and walking for the night go

The Junior Officer of the Deck walked to the port side chair, and with the OOD looking over her shoulder started her report, “Captain, JOOD, I have a contact report.”

“Go ahead.”

“Captain, we’re on course 345 at 12 knots. I have a contact twenty degrees right of the bow at 24,000 yards. Contact has a target angle of five degrees left with a slight right to left drift. Closest point of approach is in 20 minutes at 1500 yards off the left beam. Recommend coming right to course 000 to open the CPA.”

The Captain considered this for a long moment with his eyes still closed before asking, “How long until the next launch?”

“Fifteen minutes, sir.”

“And where are the winds?”

“Um. 340, sir,” she replied, reddening slightly, grateful for the darkness. Altering course to starboard would only bring the contact back to the bow when the carrier turned into the wind for the launch.

A long pause: Reflection? Rebuke?

“Call him.”

“Aye-aye, Captain.”

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Part XXXVIII Sunset

Have you never seen the sun go down at sea? Never been in middle of that vast, moving wasteland which is our ocean home and felt the bittersweet pull on your heart as the last limb of the sun winks out below the infinite horizon? Surrounded only by the men and women who work the ship with you, this mechanical beast of steel, your island home?

Then you’ve never known the faces of those around you as they bleach from sun-baked red to khaki in gradual steps before momentarily turning into a frozen, sepia-stained tintype as the last colors wash out. Never heard the clatter through the ship as darken ship fittings are set, hatches clanging shut as sailors rush to prepare leviathan for the watches of the night.

When the sun goes down at sea, time seems to stop moving for moment – it is though the world has asked us all to stop, to take a picture. Yellow shirts, the royalty of the flight deck, stand mutely next to brown-shirted plane captains, men wearing multiple arrays of 20-pound tie-down chains flung over their shoulders and who look like nothing so much as galley slaves thus attired, all of them staring now with round, grateful eyes. The sun touches, sinks, and winks out, finally – almost reluctantly, taking with it the last of the summer’s shockingly brutal heat. Another day is gone. One day closer to home.

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Part XXXVII Attack pilot introspection

It’s 0200 and the young lieutenant from Nebraska lies in the middle tier of a three-stack coffin rack, eyes wide open in the darkness as his roommates sleep, seeing nothing but the ephemeral shooting stars one’s imagination creates when he stares into the darkness and there’s nothing to see, nothing there at all. Of sounds there are no few by contrast, the gentle snoring of the JG in the top rack, the heavy breathing of his best friend and liberty buddy in the bottom rack, the working of the hull in a gentle sea. Just outside the stateroom door is the more or less continuous sound of footsteps, the occasional slam of a hatch, bluff and hearty voices inappropriate to the hour, but for whose owners the day is just starting, bubble up and then fade away. And always there are the mechanical sounds, a warship at sea never truly sleeps – there is the tireless tintinnabulation of a hammer striking something on the flight deck, the wheeze of hydraulic pumps and air circulation ducts. Worst of all were the sounds of the re-spot going on over his head, the weary yellow shirts moving the jets from the last recovery into position for tomorrow’s first launch. They’re coming to the end of it by now, almost ready to turn in for the evening and get their four to five hours of rest before it all begins again – they at least will not have trouble sleeping. The straining groan of the aircraft tractors towing jets from the bow to the fantail has been replaced in order by the ghostly swish of tie down chains dragged aft and finally the ritual spiking of eighty-pound tow bars to the flight deck. This last is the worst of it, and the lieutenant has come to half believe over the course of the deployment that there is a cross-hair mark directly above his stateroom with blocks of text beside it indicating “Slam tow bar down here.” It is probably untrue that exhausted and envious yellow shirts conduct this ritual every evening as a kind of class warfare tactic, with the express purpose of waking up the pampered and privileged pilots slumbering right below the flight deck, but there is a sizable minority of aviators that isn’t quite sure that it isn’t so.

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Part XXXVI Post-flight with the BB stackers

The pilot breathes a sigh of relief and pulls the right throttle off, makes sure there’s no loose gear around the glareshield before he opens the canopy, finds the switch under the rail to raise and OH MY GOD IT’S HOT OUT THERE!

The wingman settled down to the baking flight deck with a heavy thump, carrying his helmet bag with loose gear and 40 pounds of survival gear webbed into his restraint harness. Liberated from the secret places it had been pooling, sweat sprung immediately out from under his helmet and ran into his eyes. Suddenly every pore on his body seemed to open up, and he felt an itching he couldn’t reach under his restraint harness as he wondered, not for the first time, how anyone could tolerate working in such an environment. In moments he would be below decks, in the ship’s air conditioned core – but not the men laboring here on the flight deck. Far too few moments of respite for them. It seemed impossible.

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Part XXXV Landing – a fair pass, taxi to the bow

Established now on downwind now the timeline seems to accelerate, and the wingman races to complete his landing checklist, dial his radar altimeter warning bug down to 400 feet (the LSO warning: “Never go below 400 feet without a ball” flits in his head). His abeam distance is 1.3 nm – a little tight – and he drops the right wing for a moment to build some separation before reversing back to the left to start his descending approach turn as the carrier’s fantail goes by, this time in the opposite direction.

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