In TFCC the Battle Watch Captain turns to the admiral and says, “Well, that seemed to go pretty well.”
“Just about textbook,” the admiral concurs.
In Combat, the third class operations specialist looks at his relief with a gimlet eye, passes down the status of the air systems, threat and weapons posture. Turns the console over and walks away without saying good-bye. Port and starboard watch – he’ll see the guy again in six hours. Hungry. Hungry and tired. Wonders which one he’ll work on first. Maybe a bite to eat.
On the bridge, the Captain calls down to Air Ops: “Where the hell are those alert fighters and the E-2? Sure would be nice to have them on deck so that we can finish the re-spot.”
In a squadron ready room, the executive officer concludes his briefing, releasing the close air support crews to do their individual and crew briefs on their own. They’ll walk in 30 minutes.
It’s going to be a hot day…
1030 – the mercury is rising on the flight deck, both literally and metaphorically as the yellow-shirted directors, the Air Boss and the Captain visually scan the skies overhead for the alert launch. The landing area is open for their recovery, and with such a small launch airborne, there’s not much other room on the flight deck besides. No room to move jets on the bow. Next to nothing on the waist – just room enough to stuff the fighters as they land – the E-2 will be pushed back into the “Hummer hole” aft of the island.
A hot breeze runs down the angle deck, offering little in the way of comfort to the assembled flight deck crew. Finally, a rising thunder astern, and there: Four miles aft, a flight of two arc down from overhead holding to the extended centerline of the landing area. The two are locked in tight parade formation and making good time – at least 500 knots. On the LSO platform, port side aft, the air wing landing signal officer grimaces slightly, shakes his head. They’ve been on the line long enough for the pilots to get confident, and attempt “shit hot” breaks to downwind for landing. All well and good if they do it right, but easy to pork away if the crews get complacent, or exceed their capabilities. Over the course of his years on the LSO platform, he’s had many opportunities to use LSO shorthand to grade hot breaks thusly: “B – JWIB SPIG,” which translates in people-speak to, “Bolter – John Wayne in the break, Slim Pickens in the Groove.” The LSO looks up and feels a rivulet of sweat run down from his head into the upturned collar of his flight deck jersey. Going to be a scorcher.
The lieutenant checks the HUD: 500 knots, 600 feet. Cool – good thing they got some gas off the alert tanker. He’s two hundred feet lower than the pattern altitude, but this allows him to be “louder” in the break, as well as keeps him from needing to bleed off another 20 knots or so in a post-downwind descent. He’s going fast, but in the turn he’ll slow down fast. He needs to lose 250 knots just to get to gear speed. His heart is thumping in his chest with the excitement, knowing that a good break will earn him an “OK” grade, no matter what wire he lands on, while knowing that a bolter or unsafe approach will only earn him ignominy. But he wasn’t particularly satisfied with the way the F-4 intercept went earlier in the day, and he thinks he needs this. Anyway, it was an empty landing pattern. Time to have a sack. Better to die than look bad.
Over on his starboard wing, his wingman is holding on for dear life, squeezing the black juice out of her control stick. Low – low and fast, much faster than she’d like to go. She’s junior to the lieutenant, and lacks his brashness. She keeps her eyes glued only to the lead aircraft, no time to look outside, no room to check her engine instruments: Keep the starboard missile seeker on his ejection seat headbox, square off the exhaust pipes, try to relax – wiggle your toes. At least she’s going second, she thinks. She’ll have 19 seconds after he breaks to motor upwind, slow down and regain her composure.
The lieutenant watches the fantail disappear under his nose, waits a moment, then flicks the fighter up on the left wing , hauling aft on the stick, simultaneously pulling the throttles to idle and deploying the speedbrake between the tails. It’s seven g’s he’s getting, and he has to hold the switch aft or else the speedbrake logic would lower it back out of the breeze. The engineers built this jet to fight, knowing that a pilot who’s pulling high g’s is always bleeding airspeed and almost always resenting it. They didn’t build the speedbrake logic for a “shit hot break.” They are engineers.
The lieutenant can only pull that hard for 90 degrees of turn or so, otherwise, with the FA-18′s turn radius he’ll be far too close abeam the ship to make a safe approach once the gear and flaps are down. In order to make it look good, he eases his angle of back just a bit to catch some lift, and pushes on the top rudder to hold the fighter’s nose above the horizon. He’s still doing 325 knots, still too fast – when he’s close to his abeam distance, he applies another hard pulse aft on the stick, and his wings are clouded by vapor as the airspeed bleeds instantly away under the high angle of attack. There: 250 knots, gear and flaps full, landing checklist, quick-quick, keep the turn in, don’t overshoot. On the gauges, no peeking, still too fast: feather the speedbrake aft again, counteract the pitch bobble with a bit of forward stick, not too much. Checklist complete, still fast, damn, high out of the turn and floating, a full ball and a half high, got to get it on speed, got to get her down. There it comes, catch it, oh God, the engines won’t spool up, been at idle too long, please! There! Don’t over-correct, where’s the ball? “Right for lineup!” from the LSO and he dips his wing automatically like he’s been trained, but grinds his teeth – he must have let his scan break down just a bit. Almost there, one more cough on the throttles and WHAM! he’s in the wires and the throttles are going to full, engines screaming and the jet kicking like a bucking bronco at all the mutually opposed forces acting on it until it finally settles down, himself thrown against his harness in that reassuring car-crash sensation that is the end to every successful flight.
He finds the director up ahead and to starboard, on the other side of the foul line, sees him pass the “off brakes” and “hook up” signal as the arresting wire pulls him aft a few feet to release the wire. Once the cable drops away, the director gives him an emphatic “come ahead” signal and raises one foot in an “ass-kicking” movement to really add some emphasis as the lieutenant hears his wingman’s voice on the aux radio, “Keep it moving.”
She doesn’t know how she got so tight on her lead but she did, and she’s rolling out on final approach after having done a really nice job on the approach with the ball in the center and lined up just a little left, looks down the landing area and sees her lead still in the wires, only now starting to move. She’s got 18 seconds left to her approach, but the LSO’s won’t give her all of it if it’s even close, and if he doesn’t scamper across the foul line, she’ll get waved off, never mind whatever wire he’s only now released from his tailhook getting reset to in-battery position. All karma now, just fly the best approach you can and hope for the best. Wonder if the wave-off lights are going to come on? Almost too late for them now, isn’t it? “A little power,” from the LSO’s and she curses softly in her mask but blips the throttles up, thinks, “That could cost me my OK, and I’ve been busting my ass lately trying to make the Top Ten,” and WHAM! she’s on deck and thrown against the harness and now it’s all in the LSO’s hands. At least I didn’t get waved off. She clears the landing area, looks aft and sees the E-2 on final, making his approach. That can’t be easy, she thinks to herself. Props, p-factor, torque and a huge airplane to land in a narrow spot.
She’s taxied forward, run up into the mess on the bow, “Hold brakes” and chocks and chains. Finally, “Shut down,” and she pulls the throttles to the cut-off position. Cracks the canopy and feels hot air rush into the cockpit – is someone blowing their exhaust on me? No – just another hot day in paradise. Wonder what’s for lunch?
The tanker pilot lands last, and makes it look routine – none of the lieutenant’s drama for him, not with five external fuel tanks on a hot day. He’s no sooner trapped than the Officer of the Deck up on the bridge calls for a speed reduction, all engines ahead one-third, followed by a right standard rudder order to turn 100,000 tons of diplomacy downwind: An hour and a half to make some sea room for the next launch. The Captain in his chair catches his eye and nods approvingly, and the OOD feels his chest expand with a rush of pride. From this Captain, that amounts to high praise indeed. He stands a little taller, looks around around his watches once to make sure that everything is as it should be. He’s satisfied.
When the last jet shuts down, the waiting yellow shirts are already swarming over the flight deck, hooking tow tractors up to the launch bars under the “go birds” for the 1200 launch. Engines gunning, whistles blowing, the flight deck suddenly becomes like a disturbed anthill, a boiling mass of activity which seems to the unschooled eye to lack any coherent plan. Up in his aery, the Air Boss looks down on all the activity and nods appreciatively. Just so. We might just make it. He turns to his assistant, the “Mini Boss,” and not for the first time says to him, “Aren’t they amazing? Just look at them, and in this heat.”
In the ready rooms below, the crews are wrapping up their final briefs before going to the parachute locker to strap their g-suits and harnesses on over their flight suits. The squadron XO goes to his squadron duty officer and draws a 9mm pistol and two magazines. He reflects upon the words his first CO told him when he was a lieutenant: “Always carry a weapon over Indian Country. If you get shot down, the war isn’t over, it’s just that the tactics have changed.” He smiles briefly at the thought of that old man, wonders where he is now or if he’s even still alive – he was one of the old breed, that CO: He was what they called “Old Navy,” back before that became a clothing brand. He burned it hard at both ends, left it all out there on the field, no matter what the endeavor. The XO’s smile fades as he looks at the pistol in his hand, feels the purposeful hardness of it, thinks about why he needs it. The war is supposed to be over, but it’s not, and where he’s going, not everyone is friendly.