Going from the general to the specific.
As a young LSO in training, in the summer of 1987, I decided to stroll up to the platform, in order to watch the last recovery. It wasn’t my team’s night to “wave,” but the more experience you get the better you are, and it showed motivation and individual effort. Both of these were considered good to show.
It was a dark night (you’ll never know how many sea stories start this way) with no horizon and poor visibility – standard fare in the North Arabian Sea in the summer time. But the air wing was experienced at the mid-cruise point. Most of the rough spots had been smoothed out. There were one or two exceptions: Your humble scribe, only recently reported aboard, and a Tomcat pilot from ours sister squadron, who arrived on the same transport plane.
The Hornet is a forgiving jet, which patiently awaits your apprenticeship. When you are ready for it, she will take you to the next level, and then the level after that. You never get the sense that you have fully explored all her capabilities. A mere mortal of exceptional talent may explore her depths in one mission area, but nymph-like, she will dance away from him in other specialties. Always she beckons, always awaits, never grows impatient. She’s like the good wife, who will bring you home safely, even when you’re forked up.
The same can not be said for the F-14A Tomcat.
The Tomcat is an impressive looking airplane – hulking with potential, brooding with malice. If the engines in the A-model had been explicitly suited to frighten aviators into premature old age, they could not have been more carefully and lovingly designed for the purpose. Cross-grained and stubborn as a mule, the Tomcat demands that you fly her way. And when you’ve reached a certain level, she holds you back jealously, unwilling to see you advance beyond her capabilities. She’d kill you in a heartbeat, given half a chance, and spit on your grave.
And to land? At night, aboard the carrier? Sheer madness.
Those awful, awful engines, with their ridiculous spool-up times and non-linear throttle response, were a threat to aviation principles. Textbooks had to be re-written. Her flight controls were made to make a surgeon look like a plumber – at landing angle of attack, a right wing dip for a line-up correction would first, through dutch roll, result in the nose yawing left. Only after that had dampened out would she grudgingly respond, back to right – and only at what seemed to be a lifetime later. The angle of attack gauge was much given to lag, and with an airplane that big, subtle differences in AOA could result in hugely disparate glideslope indications.
An F-14 pilot might, in time, grow to respect his airframe. He might well never come to love it.
But the F-14 community had a certain panache – not everyone had to face what they had to face, night after night behind the boat. Not everyone wanted to. But this adversity built inside the Tomcat squadrons a sense of shared experience. Especially with the Radar Intercept Officers, or RIO’s – those brave, desperate souls who gave their fate over each night to the “nose gunner” up front. Who talked him through the approach. Who sometimes talked him down. Who were helpless spectators to the wild machinations in the front cockpit. Oh, bravery.
Much metaphorical blood and no small amount of ink has been spilled over the course of the years in discussions between single-seat and multi-seat aviators of the relative merits and demerits of their various platforms. The F-14 might be harder to fly, but the FA-18 pilot was doing it all on his own. The F-14 might have greater capability at the extreme range of his sensors, but the FA-18 had a reliable expectation of success.
Teamwork could be a huge force multiplier in the F-14 cockpit – or a significant degrader. For a brief window of perfection, two equally skilled, equally aggressive aviators might be teamed together, and make the airplane sing. And then they would both move on – the pilot to train the next junior RIO who checked aboard, the RIO to train the next junior pilot.
The FA-18 pilot knew that if he didn’t do it, it would not get done. And that his mastery of the jet would only increase in time, and through patient application. But thought he might look longingly at the camaraderie the Tomcat crews shared, never did he envy them their airframe.
Have you heard enough background then? Are you ready to return to that dark, horizonless night in 1987, in the North Arabian Sea?
The ship is moving through the greasy seas, a battleship grey leviathan of 80,000 tons who shoulders the waves aside unthinkingly. On the flight deck, all sensation of movement comes through the soles of the feet and in the inner ear – no visual confirmation can be found on this hot, humid night. The plane guard destroyer in the wake transcribes her own arcs as she heaves and pitches through the swells. We stand there in our white float coats and flight deck jerseys, talking quietly in the way that men will in the time before the game begins. Before their fullest concentration is demanded of them. Before lives hang in the balance. Static on the radios, and then the first jet checks in at 12 miles.
There are eleven jets to recover, and the E-2 Hawkeye. It has been a long, long day, and everyone is tired. The Tomcats come down first – a good thing, since the noise of their engines helps the LSO’s on the platform evaluate how the approach is coming. Should any number of aircraft have landed in front of them, but not yet shut down, the screaming of their engines would overcome this critical contributor to LSO awareness.
The first lands without a problem, but tangles her arresting hook in the landing gear. Critical moments pass while the pilot re-cycles the hook to no avail, trying to shake the wire free. Too much time elapses, and his wingman, a “nugget” aviator only now joining the squadron, receives a “foul deck” wave-off. He reports to the Carrier Air Traffic Control Center “Airborne,” with his fuel state. Which is less than it should be. He is a nugget.
The rest of the story, or as much of it as you need to know, you read last night. A bolter. A wave-off for technique. A trip to the tanker. Additional attempts.
The RIO tries to hard to talk him down, as the pilot’s confidence erodes gradually, then catastrophically. “Water – water – water – STEEL!” he announces on the intercom, informing the pilot that the deck is made, asking him, begging him, to do some of that pilot stuff. The pilot drops the nose, cuts the power and makes a play – the terrified LSO’s on the platform scream, “POWER, POWER!” as the huge fighter drops out of the sky towards them.
But landing short of the wires, and with suboptimal angle of attack, the arresting hook will skip all four wires. And the engines, slowly spooling up from their near-idle condition, will barely milk the Tomcat airborne again. And the RIO will call “Airborne,” and CATCC will assign angels one-point-two, and give him the vector downwind.
Up on the carrier’s bridge, the Captain and the Navigator are in a huddle – the ship is steaming at 20 knots straight into shoal water. If the F-14 doesn’t get aboard, and quickly, 80,000 tons of sovereign American territory will soon be aground on the Masirah shoals. “Give him a short hook,” the Captain relays to CATCC.
The pilot turns in at three and one-half miles – too close to get get comfortable out of the turn. He has vertigo now on this dark, moonless night.
Now the carrier must turn, or forever lose the chance. Everyone else is aboard but this one crew, and the tanker supporting them. And when the tanker gives the F-14 his last bit of excess gas on the downwind run, everyone is committed. Nothing else remains.
They must succeed.
This recovery went on for nearly three hours. I witnessed it. The pilot had eleven unsuccessful attempts to land, before he finally got aboard. And when they got him out of the aircraft, he was nearly catatonic with exhaustion. They poured him out of the jet, and into his stateroom.
And there, someone poured him some medicinal alcohol. Quite informally, from a legal standpoint.
And he’d had his night in the barrel, and it had been an epic one.
And because we’re that kind of company, he got to try it again on the next night. Because we’ve always believed that hurling yourself against that which you fear most is the only way to overcome it.
He did fine.