“Ooooon the flight deck, aircrew are now manning for the 1200 launch. All unnecessary personal must clear the flight deck, everyone remaining on deck must be in a full and complete flight deck uniform: Life vests on and securely fastened, helmets on and buckled, goggles down, sleeves rolled down. Take one last good look around the flight deck for loose gear and FOD, stand clear of all prop arcs, intakes and exhausts. Stand clear of huffer exhausts, tow bars and tie-down chains. Let’s start the go aircraft, start ‘em up.”
This script breaks the oppressive, heat-hammered silence on the flight deck and is followed hard by a flurry of hand signals from broiling plane captains to suffocating aircrew – start auxiliary power units. The APUs are small jet engines carried internally by the FA-18′s and used to spin the main engines, the larger General Electric F404s. The APUs themselves are kicked over by hydraulic accumulators which have stored energy from the previous flight, or God forbid in this heat, laboriously pumped up by crimson-faced plane captains. Of all the aircraft on the flight deck today, only the EA-6B Prowler still needs a “huffer,” a kind of low tow tractor with its own windmilling starter engine, hooked up by a telescoping hose to the Prowler’s belly.
The low, almost ghostly moan of the Hornet APUs starting across the flight deck breaks out first here, then there, and then together in a kind of eerie, keening chorus. As they come to full speed, the pilots signal to the plane captains, “Start 2″ – starboard engines power the jet’s brakes, and thus are always the first one’s brought on line, followed quickly by the number 1, or port, engine. As soon as the pilots have both engines on line, they close their canopies to capture bleed air-powered air conditioning airflow, in the plain if stoic view of the plane captains, for whom no comfort will be found until their charges have left the deck in half an hour or so. For now the PCs follow around the aircraft’s exterior, somehow immunized to the deafening maelstrom of idling jet engines, as the pilots exercise their primary and secondary flight controls, the stabilators, ailerons and rudders, the flaps and speedbrake. Tailhooks and launch bars are tested for function, as are the inflight refueling probes, even as the pilots warm their radars and internal electronics, align inertial navigation system, entering critical latitudes and longitudes, double checking their position for validity on the digital map projected on a display between his legs. The pilots will verify that their external ordinance registers properly on the weapons display, and enter delivery and fuzing programs into the stores management system. It will be a very busy 15 minutes inside plexiglas cockpits that, for all the howling of the air conditioning, are only slightly less brutally hot than the air outside. Their cockpits will not really cool down until the aircraft are airborne, engines operating at full efficiency and climbing to an altitude that even the oppressive Arabian sun cannot blast and bake. In fifteen minutes though, all cockpit tasks are complete for aircraft that have no malfunctions, and the pilots of these jets either loll their helmeted heads on their hands, elbows braced on canopy rails, or else compulsively check and recheck checklist items, depending upon their personal disposition.
Around one or two of the on-deck fighters, a flurry of activity breaks out as faulty systems are identified, and repairs attempted. White-shirted squadron trouble-shooters, the best technicians of their rate and looking for all the world like helmeted gunslingers, swarm the affected areas with nothing but the tools they carry in low slung waist pouches, years of experience and a competitive desire to make it happen. These same enlisted men will serve as final checkers for the jets as they make their way to the catapults, looking for any sign of materiel defect, leaking hydraulic or engine oil – anything out of place. They are far removed from the pilots in life experience, years and pay grade – a nearly unbridgeable social gap – but if the “shooters” call the jet down for maintenance, no one, not even the squadron commanding officer, will overrule them. If they say you’re down, you’re not going anywhere for a while.
Close at hand in other jets with engines turning are the spares, manned by lean and hungry pilots who have briefed with the “go” aircrew, but will not ordinarily launch. They wait wolfishly if patiently – having gone through all the pain of flight preparation of briefing, and manning up on a broiling flight deck, they stand by against the chance that one of the go-birds breaks and cannot be repaired in time for the launch. The spares don’t exactly hope for the go-pilots to go down, but they are anything but disappointed if this in fact happens: You go through the pain, you want to go flying – it’s only human nature.
The yellow-shirts, the aircraft directors, lords of the flight deck strike casual attitudes in the blazing sun and then at some unseen signal, consult closely cribbed launch sequence cards and make their casual way towards selected aircraft. The squadron XO, as the close air support event lead, will be the first to taxi if his jet is up. He looks up from his weapons display to see an angular yellow-shirt standing in front of his fighter’s nose with arms thrust forward, shoulder high, thumbs pointing inward towards each other from within clenched fists, like some Roman emperor at the point of deciding whether the gladiator should live or die. The XO quickly gives the yellow-shirt a thumbs-up, and sees the yellowshirt first repeat his signal, and then, arms now below his waist, passes a signal – as though alternately brushing dirt of first his left, then his right forearm, followed by the heels of his fists together, thumbs now pointing outward, fists now separating laterally – to the waiting PC and blue-shirted chocks and chains men: Off tie-down chains, pull chocks. They swarm under the jet and the XO raises his arms above the canopy rail for the yellow-shirt to see: Visual proof that he will not either intentionally or accidentally actuate any of the aircraft control surfaces while there are men underneath his jet. These control surfaces are powered by a 3000 psi hydraulic system, and actuation by mischance could easily maim or kill the unlucky maintenance-man who gets caught up in them.
Finally the PC and blue-shirts are clear, and the director signals the XO, “off brakes,” and “come ahead.” The XO gets that sudden spike in heart rate that comes with first motion towards the cat – a welcome excitment in the daytime, often much less so at night – and carefully eases out from between the two jets on either side, mere inches away. As he starts to roll, he reaches down with his right hand and arms his ejection seat, simultaneously glancing up automatically: Good – no overhanging antennas or island structure – if he had to, he could safely eject without being immediately murdered by interfering equipment. This is always a relief. Pulled out thirty or forty feet, the yellow-shirt gives him, “hold brakes,” followed by “spread wings” and “tailhook down.” The XO cools the seeker on his Sidewinder missile as the wings come down to spread, and red-shirted ordnancemen verify that the ‘Winders are functioning properly (the XO probably won’t need them), while the trouble-shooters check his tailhook for smooth operation (he’ll definitely need that). He checks trim, flaps radar and altimeter warning setting: Take-off checklist complete, holding on the wings.
All satisfied, he folds his wings and raises the hook again on the director’s signals, and starts forward again. The yellow-shirt, still taxiing the fighter forward, looks back over his shoulder, and seeing the Fly 2 yellow-shirt standing amidships with one hand held high, turns back to the XO, points to him, and then makes a deliberate and exaggerated throwing signal forward, like a forward pass. He is in fact passing aircraft control to the midships director, who “catches” the pass, and immediately starts giving directions to taxi the XO up to catapult three. The carrier starts a broad, arcing starboard turn, and the XO now leans left in the cockpit as the 100,000 ton aircraft carrier heels over to port.
Passed off again to a yellow-shirt standing athwart the catapult track, wisps of steam rising between his legs. A blue-shirt shows him the weight board, 42,000 pounds – the XO grimaces inside his mask, swallows a curse, raises his hand, palm up: 43,000. Again: 44,000. The XO shoots a thumbs up, and the weight board is turned to the center-deck catapult operator for final calculations: Weight, wind over the deck, temperature, air density, catapult elongation. Precise, agonizingly precise movements are now required, and the XO, while fixated now on his director’s signals with passionate intensity, is aware at some almost precognitive level of the other aircraft maneuvering around his own in the tight space of a first-launch flight deck, aware of trouble-shooters ducking under his jet, running their hands down the panels, moving away. The catapult shuttle comes running back from its parked position right forward on the cat track, passes quickly beneath the cat director’s legs, runs under the fighter’s nose like a mouse running into a hole. “Brakes on,” followed by “launch bar down” and finally “spread wings.” The XO watches the wings come down, locks them down, finishes his take-off checklist, nods. “Come ahead,” and “slowly.” “Hold brakes.” “Full power – take tension.”
The XO feels the jet squat as the catapult shuttle, attached to his launch bar, makes war with the holdback fitting on his nose landing gear. He hears the scream of the GE engines winding up to full power, begging to be released. Check: Engine instruments – all in the green. Flight controls: Wipe ‘em out, don’t forget the rudders. Re-check: Seat armed – good to go. Looks outside, sees that the yellow-shirt has passed control to the Catapult Officer, waiting impatiently for the XO’s signal – the XO salutes the Cat Officer, who salutes back, looks forward, aft: All clear. He kneels and strokes the deck with his outstretched hand: Launch.
The XO braces himself in the ejection seat with his right arm locked on the canopy bow towel rack, left arm braced against the rail, holding the engines at full power. He puts his head back against the seat, peeks to his left at the deck-edge cat operator and catches him just as he fires the catapult. The XO bites down on a scream of mingled primal joy and physical strain as jet bounces up and down the long catapult stroke. His body is pressed against the seat by the g-forces as even his eyeballs flatten, making the flight instruments in the HUD momentarily unreadable. But after a long moment, it is over and his heavily laden fighter wallows, rather than springs into the air on this hot day in an Arabian Gulf summer.
Airborne, by God.