0630 – The alarm goes off in the squadron commander’s stateroom. His hand flails around in the darkness, trying to find it, trying to silence it. It is absurdly early for a carrier pilot at sea to wake up – he landed at 2330 last night, finished debriefing at 0100, wrote a brief email home at 0125 and fell into a restless sleep at 0145. Being on flight status, he is required by regulation to get eight hours of uninterrupted rest whenever possible, and from the way he feels right now, he knows that he is well short of that number.
He finds the alarm and shuts it down, he drifts back towards the land of nod. Just when he is at the point of no return, he remembers: He is charged with conning the carrier alongside the oiler today for an at-sea refueling. He must be on the bridge by 0715, ready to take the conn. He must be awake when he does so: When the carrier is alongside the oiler, separated by 150 feet of tensioned span wire and refueling hose, 175,000 tons of grey-hulled steel will be a half lob wedge away from each other, and he will be responsible for ensuring that they neither close to putting distance, nor open to wedge range. The one would lead inevitably to a collision at sea, while the other would result in snapping high tension wires and maimed personnel on deck. Both would lead to professional oblivion, for himself, and every other officer on the bridge. Including the Captain – a grave, inscrutable, almost fearsome man.
Not for the first time, the squadron commander wonders why it is necessary for a career FA-18 pilot to conn a ship alongside. After all, there are black shoes, surface warfare officers, who are paid to do that very thing. He is a brown shoe – more than that, he is a strike fighter pilot, paid to put warheads on foreheads, to bring the heat to the foe at five bills, to wield the hammer from above, to swagger down main street. He’s better than this.
Except that the company does not agree – no, not at all. The company thinks that he is a by-God naval officer, and naval officers ought to be able to conn ships. So that one day, if called upon, they might responsibly command them. The company feels this very strongly. So strongly that if he should fail to achieve this simple qualification, he will be un-promotable – his career will be over. He is not sure that he knows what he wants to do when his twenty is up. He might fly for the airlines. He might teach high school. He might stay in and try to make captain. He doesn’t know. What he does know is that that he wants to have a choice.
So he curses quietly but vehemently, earnestly. Turns on the light. Sits up. Rubs his face. Looks again with jaundiced eye at the alarm. Sighs, and moves towards an inner door – today, for the first time this cruise, he’ll beat the ship’s operations officer, with whom he shares a connecting bathroom, to the shower. He takes no pleasure in this fact.
Clean, dressed in his flight suit and fed in the wardroom (ham and cheese omelet, side of bacon, wheat toast, grits and black coffee – what the hell, he muses: He never eats breakfast anyway – might as well live a little – anyone who lands fighters on aircraft carriers at night and worries about heart disease is an irrepressible optimist) he heads up to the strange, almost hostile territory of the bridge. Being a mere commander, he is required to wear headgear while on the bridge – it feels strange to be covered inside the ship, at sea. No one on the bridge welcomes him – he is not of their tribe, he is an aviator (and not even ship’s company!). He does not stand watch. He looks the bosun’s mate of the watch in the eye, and receives a neutral, “Good morning, sir.” No hint of warmth, all respect a mere formality. He understands – he has not yet earned it.
The Captain is in his chair on the port side, wrapped in the austere mantle of his absolute authority, impossibly distant, almost imperial. The very light around him seems to hide, he seems to be in the shadow of some dark, electric storm. Seeing him, the squadron commander’s lips move silently as he quickly runs down the memorized checklist of commands he will use to set the ship up behind the oiler, to bring her safely alongside, to check her forward motion, to stabilize her position. Seeing him, the squadron commander, an expert in his chosen field, selected from among his peers for excellence to command, feels the first moment of real doubt he has felt in a number of years. Seeing him, the squadron commander hopes that he is up to this unfamiliar task, in this strange and unforgiving environment, in front of people who are not his friends.
To regain some sense of the familiar, he walks to the Navigator’s chair on the starboard side, looks down to the flight deck some 60 feet below. There he sees one of his squadron’s aircraft cocked and locked in the alert row, ready upon the drop of a hat to be launched from the deck into the sky to defend the strike group against any and all threats. Something doesn’t look quite right, so he borrows a pair of binoculars from the junior officer of the watch. With these in hand, he discovers that the lieutenant sitting in the alert seven aircraft is sound asleep, mouth open, apparently snoring.
The squadron commander is pissed. More than that, he is frustrated – there is nothing he can do in this environment to wake the pilot up which will not redound to his own discredit. Lips pursed, he vows to have an old-fashioned ass-chewing contest when he gets off the bridge at the end of his watch. Smiling pleasantly on the outside, but burning on the inside, he turns to say good morning to the Navigator.
Well below him, down in the bowels of the ship in Combat, the operations specialist third class races his trackball’s cursor across the radar display to a glowing slice of target video. He checks IFF modes, airspeed and altitude. Nodding slightly, he updates the HAFU (hostile – assumed hostile – friendly – unknown) symbology covering what appears to be the scheduled Tehran-to-Dubai shuttle, and looks once more through sad eyes at his wristwatch: Two hours, forty minutes to go. He is so very tired.