“Pre-contact,” the XO calls when he’s aligned behind the basket. “Cleared to engage.” The XO bumps the throttles up, cautiously – the key is to keep flying formation on the big jet, while steering the probe right into the center of the basket. The key is to have confidence, to know that you can do this, that it can be done. The key is not to be afraid…
Thirty minutes later:
Well, that was a freakin’ goat rope, the XO fumes. He looked into the mirrors over his canopy bow to check the close air support package’s formation behind him. He ought to be looking at seven other attack jets, but he can only see five. That knucklehead in 304 was heading back to the ship of course, and no great loss apparently; not with the flying skills he’d just demonstrated. But his wingman was escorting him back due to the nature of the damage, and that was a pretty big deal – they’d be down two strike fighters if the ship couldn’t work a miracle: The CAS package had to push into Iraq immediately or else there would be a gap in the fixed wing air support. Most times these missions were deadly dull, but when the guys on the ground got in a pinch and called for air, you sure as hell wanted to be able to give it to them right away. But now the package would have to enter the kill box down two jets – by the time 304 landed back aboard ship, it’d be too late for his wingman to catch back up to with the rest of them, and no one goes “in country” alone.
The XO had already notified the carrier, which was even now turning back into the wind for an emergency recovery. If he gets lucky, maybe they can get one of the spares that didn’t launch back in his jet and shoot him to join the 304′s wingman back to the tanker and into the box. Maybe.
The XO swore again inside his mask. It had all gone so smoothly at first – getting his own gas had been routine after so many years of practice, and he cleared briskly to the right wing of the USAF tanker to await the others. The second and third jets were quickly joined up on the left, and after no time the regular queue was all formed up: One Hornet in the basket, getting his gas, the others strung out on the tanker’s port wing, each flying formation, his attention fully fixed on the man in front. Each patiently waiting his turn.
But then came 304, joining the party late and damn near spoiling it. Man, that had been close. Back on deck, 304′s pilot had struggled to get his jet launched due to maintenance troubleshooting. Several of the aircraft system’s, including the ordnance system, had been acting up and he almost missed the launch window. Finally getting airborne, and running behind, he had hurried himself to the rendezvous circle, rushing through his climb checklists and breaking all the XO’s carefully briefed safety procedures along the way. He came in co-altitude, with a bag of knots on the jet and far too many angles to solve, just as the big-wing tanker started a turn into him. At that point, any sensible pilot would have bailed out of the rendezvous, executed the “under-run” procedure that they had all been taught since the earliest days of formation flight in flight school. Ease throttles, speed brake out, lower the nose, cross below and behind the formation until the dynamics settled out. Nothing to brag about, doing an under-run, and the boys would certainly give you a hard time later. But it sure beat the hell out of a mid-air collision, which was the option running hard for second place.
But no, 304 had tried to polish the turd, wrapping the jet up in a high angle of bank turn, losing sight of the formation and damn near wiping out the other three guys waiting on the tanker’s left wing. The XO hadn’t seen it coming until it was too late to do anything. He’d been waiting for the rest of the package to finish refueling, sitting on the starboard wing fat, dumb and happy until he heard someone (The boom operator? One of the FA-18F weapons systems officers?) breathe, “Holy shit!” on the prime radio. By the time the XO had assimilated, almost against his own will, the image of 304 thundering in on them from the port side, almost out of control – belly up, vapors clouds shredding from the wingtips – and falling in on the formation like some crazed, blind, avenging angel, there was nothing to do but wince and grimace, and hope for the best.
No time to say anything, and no words to say if he’d had time. Would he have said, “Don’t be stupid” to 304? That wouldn’t work, or else there wouldn’t be any stupid people in the world. Or how about, “Say a quick prayer, make it a good one,” to the guys on the port wing? Those guys all had their eyes fixed on the tanker itself or the man in front of them in the queue, and were therefore blithely unaware of their impending doom. A “head’s up” call would only make them look around in confusion and they’d probably clack into one another in their instinctive and uncoordinated attempts to get out of the way. If they didn’t eject out of pure, instantaneous terror. Even fighter pilots, men who go to work with laughter in their hearts and death in their hands, nurture their private fears in the dark of the night, although they do not speak of them. And as for those fears, a blind-side, never-saw-it-coming, multi-plane, midair collision while carrying tons of high explosive ordnance on the tanker just about sums them all up.
The fact that 304 didn’t hit the guys waiting to port either validated the “small plane / big sky” theory or proved that God does indeed love the Marine Corps, the XO thought. His CAS package was headed to the Al Anbar region of western Iraq, where the Second Marine Expeditionary Force was doing God’s work, and apparently the Big Guy decided that they should get some air that day, just in case, and 304′s buffoonery notwithstanding. So they’d gotten lucky and dodged a bullet, and after a brief-but-exciting, one-way conversation between the XO and 304′s pilot on the aux radio, things had settled back down again.
For a while, that is – at least until it was 304′s turn to refuel. Maybe the kid was having a bad day, but his attempts to get his refueling hose into the tanker’s basket reminded the XO of nothing so much as a drunk pig trying to make love to a greased football. On his first attempt, he lunged and missed and then shrunk himself as small as he could, trying to almost hide in his cockpit while screwing his head up to stare at the intimidating sight of the Iron Maiden’s basket floating right above his canopy, right above his head. Daunted, on the next approach he worked up enough courage to get almost to the sticking point, then stalled at the gate, two meters away from closure. The XO had a quick internal debate on whether or not he should say something to get the kid moving, but thankfully, resisted the temptation.
Thankfully, because when he finally got her moving again, 304′s pilot made another of his deeply stupid lunges at the Iron Maiden. The XO watched in horror as the heavy refueling basket, after being lipped on the top half of its circumference, counter-reacted by smashing back down into 304′s fuselage. The XO could immediately tell that something had come off (an AOA probe, most likely) and gone down 304′s right engine. Whatever it was, it immediately caused the motor to chug out a compressor stall, complete with an impressive display of sparks and flames out the exhaust pipe. 304 immediately began to lose altitude and dropped back as the pilot bent his head to deal with his loss of thrust and the numerous lights, alarms and female-voice warning system alerts that went along with it.
The formation of fighters on the tanker’s right wing ruffled like a flock of pigeons being chased by a child on a city sidewalk at this alarming spectacle. Criminy, the XO thought: I need to get rid of this guy before he kills us all.
The XO called 304′s wingman on the aux freq and told him to escort the crippled jet back to the ship. After a few terse words of advice, “Throttle idle on the bad motor – if it keeps chugging, for God’s sake shut it down. If he can’t maintain altitude on the one motor, don’t let him forget to jettison his stores someplace safe. Join us if you can after getting him aboard the ship – we’re not waiting though.”
Man, what a mess. “Hammer’s, switch Sabre on prime. Liberty, the Hammer package is going feet dry, minus two.”