… In CDC, the third class operations specialist picks up his gouge card, and reads the first warning on Military Air Distress, a frequency that all tactical aircraft are required to monitor: “Unidentified aircraft 30 miles southeast of Bushehr, speed 500 knots, heading 250: You are approaching U.S. naval warships operating in international waters. Your identity is unknown, your intentions are unclear. Request you alter course to the south to maintain a safe distance.”
The Bosun’s mate of the watch bellows on the 1MC: “Emergency breakaway, emergency breakaway, starboard side.” Down on the refueling sponsons, what had been yet another scene of stolid passivity as the aviation fuel pumped gradually aboard turns in an instant to an noisy, but ordered frenzy as instructions are shouted and relayed from supervisors to line handlers. The refueling probes are quickly unseated, and run a short distance back towards the oiler, where waiting crews haul back on the messengers to bring them safely home. The high-tension span wires are slackened, and pelican hooks tripped, as wires, cables and haul ropes return back aboard their respective ships in an accelerated but controlled reverse of the order in which they came over. When the last lines are in the water between the two ships and nothing is left connecting the one to the other, the Captain nods to a shaken squadron commanding officer, who thanks his stars that had rehearsed this very scenario in his head before resuming his watch: “All engines ahead flank, indicate 129 RPM.”
To which the lee helmsman will respond, as he must: “All engines ahead flank, indicate 129 RPM, aye, sir,” followed moments later by, “Conning officer, all engines are ahead flank, 129 RPM indicated and answered.”
“Very well. Come left, steer course three-three-five and one-half.”
To which the master helmsman will respond, as he must: “Come left, steer course three-three-five and one-half, aye, sir,” followed nearly as quickly by, “Conning officer, steady on course three-three-five and one-half.”
And with such gradual course adjustments and the rapid increase in speed, each combining with the until the carrier’s fantail is safely clear of the oiler, finally the Captain can breathe a sigh of relief. The watch is walked from aux conn to the pilot house, where the squadron CO gratefully turns over to an actual surface warfare officer, who briskly calls to the helmsman, “Helm, come left, steer course three-one-nine,” receiving the obligatory responses in return as he maneuvers 100,000 tons of steel diplomacy into the wind. The squadron CO reflects upon the watch he has just completed with a newfound admiration for the professionalism of the surface forces – a Nimitz-class carrier is no sports coupe, nor anything like so nimble as a fighter – 150 feet alongside an oiler seems very close indeed. And as slowly as it moves, it also does so with a sense of dread finality, he thinks. Unlike aviation mishaps, where you are often dead before you know you are in trouble, in warships there is often time enough to lament your fate, but not enough to change it. He goes below, relieved to be relieved.
The catapult is already manned and ready as the lieutenant gives his yellow shirt a thumbs-up, indicating readiness to taxi. The taxi director immediately gives him the “hold brakes” sign above his waist, followed as quickly by a signal to the blue shirts to break down the chocks and chains which restrain the FA-18 in place. The lieutenant looks over to his wingman, and is grimly satisfied to see that he is still chained in place, probably awaiting a full alignment of his inertial navigation system. That would be safer of course, to have a full alignment. But the lieutenant rationalizes that it is a beautiful day, the alignment will continue in the moments while his chains are being unfastened and chocks removed, and in any case he can complete the alignment once safely airborne. But in the back of his head he knows that if he is beaten to the catapult by the other squadron’s pilot, especially after he’d been napping in an alert status, then he would look bad in front of his brothers. And as any fighter pilot knows, it’s better to die than to look bad. Besides, what were the odds?
In four minutes from the time the alert was announced on the topside 5MC and the plane captain pounded on the fuselage, the FA-18 is moving towards the catapult. The wings are still folded with all the parked aircraft on the roof, and it’s an especially tight fit with all the starboard side jets pushed inboard, away from the refueling side deck edge. The lieutenant races through his take-off checklist, while keeping a careful eye on his director in the tight maneuvering space alloted – it would not do to taxi into another jet in his haste, and miss the launch, and yet the time to get through the checklist is rapidly diminishing. Finally he is complete, except for the wingspread. In moments he gets the signal, even as he is directed forward into the shuttle. He repeats “wings, wings” over and over again to himself, to remind himself to check that they are in fact locked down before giving the cat officer a salute. With a moment to himself as the launch bar goes home, he visually verifies that the wings are down and locked, and runs his hands around the cockpit one more time, one last check of all switch positions. With a curse, he recognizes that the ejection seat arming handle was in the up, or “safe” position. He was only moments away from the cardinal, and perhaps even mortal sin of going flying on an unarmed seat. It might be better to die than to look bad, but the lieutenant snatches his eyes away from the impatient gesturing yellow shirt to do one more formal trip around the cockpit on the take-off checklist – there: Now he was truly ready.
Seconds later his engines are at full power, screaming behind him. The jet squats down as the tensioned catapult shuttle wars against the restraining holdback fitting. Feet off the brakes, he salutes the catapult officer, who salutes in turn and gestures to the deck edge cat operator. The cat fires and the lieutenant rattles down the deck and into the morning air, whooping with the savage joy of an alert launch in a tactical environment, of a good, hard catapult shot, of being first airborne, of flying fighters, of being young. The Air Boss clears him to cross the bow, and he reverses his from his left hand clearing turn (“Right off the bow cats, left off the waist”), raises the gear and flaps and deselects the afterburners: No sense wasting fuel on the front end.
The E-2 ACO is awaiting him on tower frequency and takes control: “Hobo 404, hot vector 045, take station Casper, Hot Dog Red at 35 miles.”
On the bridge, the CO checks his watch, and nods. Very well done. He calls down to the TAO in Combat, “Probably ought to spin up the alert tanker, while we’re on this course – work it through TFCC.”
Around the corner from the TAO, the third class operations specialist turns his gouge card over and proceeds to his next warning: “Unidentified aircraft 20 miles south of Bushehr, speed 500 knots, heading 250: You are approaching U.S. naval warships operating in international waters. Your identity is unknown, your intentions are unclear. You are standing into danger…”