Time to turn, he thinks – this is as far as we should go. Time to head back north. “In place right, go.” An automatic check of his fuel state, engine instruments, radar warning receiver. Another turn on CAP, the boredom setting in. His wingman returns him his previous favor, and locks the XO up as his nose comes round, setting off his radar warning gear. “Buddy spike, six,” the XO says automatically. He rocks himself gently in his ejection seat, fore and aft. Trying to stay alert. Trying to stay ready.
Back aboard the carrier, a squadron duty officer receives a phone call from the Air Boss in the tower. He listens much more than he talks, replies, “Yes sir, right away,” and hangs up. He looks around the ready room quickly – no one here but a nugget lieutenant junior grade, the same guy who’s been having so much trouble getting aboard at night. Well, the SDO thinks, it’d be better if I had someone more experienced to send up to the tower, but this doesn’t require any skills the kid doesn’t already have. He’ll have to do until I get someone else to relieve him. He calls the JG over: “I need you to grab a pocket checklist and hump it up to the tower. Three-oh-four had a basket slap on the tanker and is coming back early, single engine. The Air Boss wants a squadron rep in the tower to handle the phone calls. You’re it.”
The JG starts in his chair, thinks, Oh, great – one more chance to excel, asks the SDO aloud, “Isn’t there someone, you know… more senior?”
The JG grabs the checklist and heads out the door at a run and immediately collides with a portly civilian tech rep who blusters for a moment before considering the dynamics of the situation and getting out of the way. The JG continues his weaving way to the ladders going up to the tower, some six decks above the ready room, moving at a pace as close to a run as is appropriate aboard an aircraft carrier at sea. It’s a kind of frantic shuffle, as he vaults knee-knockers every few steps, head weaving and bobbing away from air ducts and overhead piping, hips dodging the many things that project out of naval bulkheads on either side: power junction boxes, valve fittings and the ubiquitous firefighting gear. To these fixed objects are associated moving ones as well, Sailors in the passageway. These last are familiar with the look they see in his eyes, familiar with urgency and its reasons even if not of the specifics. Most of all, being men who use the sea, they are aware of costs and consequences. They throw themselves against the bulkhead to get out of his way and the passageway rings with their shouts of “Make a hole,” as they inform others to clear a path. The JG is junior enough to be momentarily surprised at this treatment – no one has ever cleared a path for him before – but even as grateful as he is, he does not hesitate to express his gratitude.
Around the ship, phone circuits are buzzing. The ship’s Captain is on the line to the Air Boss in the tower, who is in turn on conference call with the Air Operations officer down in the ship’s air traffic control center, and the Aircraft Handling Officer down in his cubicle off the flight deck. The Air Ops officer is in communications with 304 and his wingman – at their current distance from the ship, they are still in his airspace. The Handler is pleading with the Air Boss to take 304 last, after the launch for God’s sake, if he’s ever to have a chance of getting the next launch off the deck at all. The alternative is to clear the flight deck landing, now spotted with the better part of a dozen aircraft awaiting the next launch, by means of an emergency pull-forward: Harassed flight deck crews would run tractors to the aircraft spotted aft and yank them out of the landing area, with every focus on speed of movement, none of the usual deliberation and safety procedures. After the work he’s already done this morning recovering the alert launch, a second perturbation runs the risk not merely the usual “crunches” as jets are pulled aside in random order, nor even of the occasional personnel injuries that such haste sometimes engenders, but also the one thing that all Handlers live in fear of: A locked deck. A locked deck is a a kind of flight deck gordian knot: Aircraft, tractors and tow bars flung together in such cross-grained disorder that nothing can be done, not launches, not recoveries, not even a proper re-spot. A locked deck will characteristically take far more time to sort out than the dwindling reserves of airborne fuel in the waiting recovery overhead the carrier will support. A locked deck can happen in a moment, and would be the Handler’s ultimate disgrace. A locked deck haunts his dreams.
The JG arrives in the tower gasping for air having taken the six steep ladders at an all-out run. The Air Boss notes his squadron patches as he arrives, knows why he’s here and passes him a radio handset while still balancing a phone in either ear. The Air Boss’s eyes linger for a moment on the single silver bar embroidered on the JG’s shoulders, his insignia of rank, and purses his lips. His eyes drift down to the JG’s name patch, and of their own accord narrow in recognition, and at the associated memory of the circus show behind the ship the night before, that long, long night. He looks up now into the JG in the eyes themselves, and cocks his head as if in evaluation. He notes the new shade of crimson layering itself upon the JG’s face, itself already flushed from his earlier exertions. The Boss shrugs mentally: “304 – talk to him, find out what he’s got, what he needs, get me a fuel state. I need to know how long he can wait before recovering.”
In short, rapid bursts of communications, the JG talks to 304 and his wingman, gets a sense of the larger issues: Single engine, right motor out, but landing gear are down and locked. Flaps are set at half, that’s approach flaps for single engine recovery, good. Stacked up flight control cautions due to the lost angle of attack probe, but handling qualities seem adequate. Insufficient thrust with the wheels down to maintain level flight without using afterburner on the remaining engine, which, even apart from the effects on fuel consumption has deleterious effects on Vmc – minimum controllable airspeed in single engine flight. The JG sorts the information he has received in this rapid exchange into internal priority bins – this is a task at which he excels – and correctly relays to the Air Boss the most critical piece of information: “He can’t maintain altitude on the left motor, not with all the trash he’s hauling. He’ll have to jettison his external stores – the bombs at a minimum – but he’s over 50 miles from the designated bomb jettison area, and it’s in the wrong direction anyway.”
The Air Boss nods, turns one phone down against his shoulder, speaks to the Captain on the other one. He pauses, listening. “Roger that, skipper.” Turning to the JG, the Boss says, “The CO says to have 304 jettison right where he’s at, but check the area clear below him – No oil wells, ships or dhows.”
The JG speaks into the handset, relaying this to 304 and his wingman. Listens. Replies, “That’s great, good news. Say your state.” He consults his checklist, running his finger down the single engine performance curve, cross-checks against temperature and density altitude. Lets out a low whistle. He turns to the impatiently waiting Air Boss: “He jettisoned successfully, and the bombs didn’t go off high order – good splashes. He says he can maintain level flight now at military power and he’s got nearly 9000 pounds of gas.”
“What time does that put him on deck?”
“Should be good to go for a recovery at…” the JG pauses, running the math again in his head, rechecking the performance charts – got to keep in mind that he’s dirty: gear and flaps down will increase fuel consumption, “No more than 45 minutes or so, to be on the safe side. Put him on deck with three-point-oh.”
“Three point oh? Doesn’t give him much of a margin for error!”
“That’s about the max he could make an attempt with, as hot as it is. Any more than that and he won’t have single-engine wave-off capability. It’ll be tight as it is.”
“Man,” the Air Boss exclaims, “This just keeps getting better and better.” He turns and picks up a phone again, buzzes the Captain.