0540 – The Officer of the Deck checks his watch again. He’s been looking at it ever 90 seconds or so for the last half hour. Within the last 5 minutes, this rate has increased to every 15 to 20 seconds. He scans the Captain’s night orders by the binnacle light once more. He watches the second hand sweep round. Again. Thirty seconds to go, he picks up the phone receiver, but holds the cradle in the down position – Finally: At exactly 0545 he rings the Captain in his at-sea cabin.
The Captain has been dreaming of the wooden deck he’s going to lay in on the back porch – it will stretch out from the master bedroom window, allowing him and the missus to take in the morning paper with the sunrise and a cup of coffee. In the dream he feels the roughness of the wood against the calluses of his hands, but he envisions the sanding and staining which will render it smooth to the touch – this is an art he knows well, and he smiles in his sleep to think on it. It is only a fragment of a dream, though – he got to sleep well after 0100, and was, as usual, awoken several times through the night for traffic reports from the bridge, or systems report from Combat, or engineering reports from Damage Control Central. A warship at sea never sleeps, and its Captain sleeps only a very little – there is much to do, an he is responsible for everything. He can delegate his authority to his subordinates – the accountability for the execution of the mission and the safety of the ship rests always with him.
The ringing of his wake up call brings a moment’s disorientation as he awakens to the darkened cabin – the room is barely lit by the ghostly glow of two radar repeaters, covered with red lenses. One is is a repeater of the commercial Furuno radar, and shows surface traffic that might hazard the navigational safety of the ship. There are the great oil tankers heading into and out of Bandar Abbas, often crewed by only one monoglot merchant sailor on the bridge who might or might not know and obey the rules of the road. There are the small dhows that have plied the water for time immemorial, whose pilots put their faith in their God for the safety of the vessel and it’s crew, ignoring all other hazards – including 100,000 tons of American diplomacy which might suddenly loom up from the darkness at 20 knots. There are every size and shape of sea-going vessel in between.
The other display is a repeater of the tactical display down in CDC, the same picture the TAO is looking at. The same picture the third class operations specialist is helping to maintain. That display is also designed for the safety of the ship, but the threats it will highlight will be of an altogether different and more malignant sort than those displayed on the navigation radar. Surface and air traffic will be analyzed against their electronic emissions. Air traffic will be evaluated by altitude, airspeed and proximity to known air traffic lanes. The mass of Iran looms no great distance to starboard, and at the coast the rugged terrain of the Zagros mountains thrusts rapidly up into the air, hiding any low-altitude air threat east of that range behind its radar shadow. All throughout the deployment in these waters, many pairs of watchful eyes will flicker again and again to that seam.
The Captain struggles fully awake, his dream already fading and in a moment lost to the cares of the day. After a brief shower, he dons his coveralls, walks forward the dozen paces to the bridge, and hears the bosun’s mate of the watch make his customary announcement, shouting, “Captain’s on the bridge!” The Navigator awaits him on the starboard side, if anything more tired than the Captain himself. He walks a respectful pace behind the CO as he takes his place in the sacred chair on the bridge’s port side. Two cups of coffee are provided. A brief report.
Below them, on the waist catapults, an E-2C Hawkeye thrums and throbs on deck, waiting to launch. They are the dawn patrol, and will serve to extend the eyes and ears of the battle group as the sun rises over the Zagros to the east. The Air Boss in his tower some sixty or seventy yards back mashes an annunciator button on his console, “requesting the deck,” requesting permission to launch the E-2. The Captain checks the winds – right down the angle at 27 knots – nods in satisfaction and presses his own button in return. Permission granted.
On the island, a flashing red light is replaced by a flashing yellow one. Down on the flight deck below, a throng of tired, patient Sailors, until moments before as frozen as statues in anticipation of this moment, suddenly come to life. Their pores open in the dawn’s dead heat and sudden movement, rivulets of sweat drip down from under their cranial protectors, past the eye guards and down their turtleneck jerseys – they know, in a resigned way, that much worse is to come as the day wears on.
The yellow-shirted director gives the come-ahead signal with his lighted flashlight wands. Green shirts scuttle under the nose gear, guiding the launch bar into position, white-shirted quality assurance reps give the E-2 once last look-over as the wings spread gracefully, and lock. Blue shirts stand by like stolid beasts of burden with wheel chocks in their arms and tie-down chains looped over their shoulders.
The light on the island turns green, and in one smooth, practiced gesture, the flight deck director signals the deck-edge catapult operator to take tension, and signals the pilot to go to full power and release brakes. The throb of the E-2′s props turns to a loud moan, and vapor traces swirl from the spinning disks of the propellors. The catapult shuttle pulls at the aircraft’s launch bar, adding its thrust to that of the engines – forward motion is checked by the holdback fitting, behind the nose landing gear – the yellow shirt passes control to the catapult officer – in the cockpit the pilots agree that their machine is airworthy and in the back, the flight officers strapped into their seats hold onto their harnesses in the unrelieved darkness and think their private thoughts as the airframe bucks and fights against all the forces which collide in shivering opposition. The pilot salutes the cat officer even as he turns on his exterior lights, signaling agreement to launch. The cat officer salutes back and once more checks that the airspace in front of the catapult is clear, that the deck edge operator stands with his hands in the air, approving of his settings, but for the moment safely away from the launch button itself, that the troubleshooters are all showing thumbs up, meaning that no mechanical flaws have been discovered. Satisfied, the cat officer takes a knee and touches the flight deck with his wand – when he raises it again and points it down the deck, everyone will be committed. This has all taken perhaps 15 seconds to elapse.
Up it comes. The deck edge operator looks forward, aft and down – he mashes the launch button and the E-2 goes rattling down the catapult track, into the humid light now peeking in from the east. Once clear of the deck, the pilot actuates his radio and calls Departure Control: “Departure, 601 airborne.”
The Captain in his chair checks his watch, even as the bosun of the watch rings four bells and announces “Reveille, reveille – all hands brace out and trice up. The smoking lamp is lit. Reveille,” on the 1MC announcing system. It’s 0600. The captain nods – so far, so good.
The day is just beginning.