“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 no matter what.”
“Man,” the Air Boss exclaims, “This just keeps getting better and better.” He turns and picks up a phone again, buzzes the Captain.
She bucks hard with a mechanical “TOC! TOC!” sound, rocking quickly back and forth from side to side as 1500 pounds of taxpayer financed, pilot jettisoned ordnance goes tumbling in sequence from his wings, down to the waiting sea below. Although Kestrel 304 seems relieved to have shed the weight and drag of the 500-pound laser guided bomb and JDAM, she is still no rocket ship with three air to air missiles, two external fuel tanks and a Forward Looking Infrared targeting pod. The FLIR is bolted to the airframe and can’t be jettisoned, while air-to-air missiles can be hazardous to jettison. As it is, the pilot is only able to just maintain level flight on his one good engine with the gear down and flaps at one-half. He knows that as he gets lower he’ll get more usable thrust with the increased air density. But he also knows that with that increase of air density will come an increase in fuel consumption, courtesy of the tyranny of partial pressure formulas and constant fuel-air ratios. Until he knows what time he will land, fuel will be his main concern. That is, if now new thing arises.
But at least he’s flying again, instead of settling into the waiting sea. He lets a ragged breath out that he didn’t even know he was holding, starts to relax just that little bit. He’s finally starting to feel like he’s caught up with the jet, which is wonderful thing: For the better part of the last hour and a half, ever since he had hasty repairs effected during the last launch and ended up getting shot into the air late he has felt like he’s been holding on to the jet’s horizontal stabilators with his nails, body flapping in the slipstream while the jet tried to race away from him. Now that he can maintain level flight, the second hand has stopped racing around his watch and once again he has the aviator’s necessary feeling of being in control of his environment.
He rocks a wing up, into the operating motor, just in time to see the jettisoned bombs splash harmlessly below him in the greasy, pewter colored Arabian Gulf some 15,000 feet below. He’s grateful both for the wingman’s help in clearing the water space below of traffic and for the unexpectedly confident voice of the squadron rep, a mere lieutenant junior grade, on the radio back at the ship. Good for him, with the problems he’s been having, the pilot thinks – and then remembers the naval aviation adage about the Fourth Law of Thermodynamics: “If the heat’s on somebody else, it not on you.” Well, after today’s fiasco on the tanker, culminating just now in the act of casting expensive warheads intended for enemy foreheads into the indifferent ocean, it will take a Herculean display of airmanship from this point on for the pilot not to become a permanent heat sump. He has committed himself to flying the very best single engine approach that anyone has ever seen, and even if that does not wipe clean the shame of the basket slap, or having to jettison his bomb load, it will at least ease the sting.
He wearily recognizes that he’s almost certain to have earned a new call sign by the time today is over, he’s been around long enough to know the drill: He can see his brothers in arms, those wickedly inventive, irreverent and unremittingly cruel members of the Junior Officer Protection Association even now, and can imagine the wheels eagerly turning in their pointy little heads. As a matter of decorum, the JOPA will wait until he lands safely of course (it never occurs to the pilot that he will not land safely) and then there will be an unseemly scramble to the whiteboard, fighting over free-space and markers as his best friends in the world twist the blade in his ribs again and again with their inventive recommendations for a new handle, names like, “Slick,” and “Slap,” or maybe even “Stone Hands.” He does not quite blame them for this, knows that it is part of the tribal culture, that he’d do the same in their shoes with equal glee. But now it’s time to put that in a box of its own. There will be plenty of time to rummage around in it later, after this ordeal is done. He still has his hands full with the jet, which, rather than the silky smooth, cool and responsive FA-18 Hornet he has come to know and love, is sulky, crank and cross-grained in the baking Arabian heat combined with the loss of half her accustomed thrust. There’s the squadron rep on the radio:
“304, rep, the Boss says he can take you last, at the end of the recovery. I’m showing you at about 3.0 at that point, do you concur?”
“Wait one.” The pilot checks his numbers on the fuel flow, notes how many aircraft are to launch at 1330, calculates his consumption rate against what he’s carrying on board, grimaces. “I’m showing about 2.8 at time 1345, close enough – can I go first?” He knows that this will be awkward for the flight deck – with his right motor off line, his normal brakes will be inoperative and he’ll have to leave his tailhook down after he lands to be towed out of the arresting wires by a tractor driver – that will take time, precious, irreplaceable time, the most valuable thing in the world to an aircraft carrier at sea and the fire we all burn in.
“It’s a small recovery, just you and your wingman and the overhead tanker, Boss says go for it,” the rep passes, and the pilot has to concede again that the kid was doing a pretty good job. Too bad he can’t fly the ball to save his skin.
By now he’s closing in on the ship, has changed to Tower frequency and checked in with the Boss. He watches the second launch make its leisurely way into the sky, the bow cats firing for the first time that day, both waist cats steadily adding to the flow. He reflects again upon the dissonance of a launch as it is experienced, and a launch as it is observed: From up here it looks so peaceful, so quiet, almost balletic – no hint at all of the shocking noise and violence associated with hurling 25 ton fighter aircraft into the air one after another, using mere hundreds of feet steel flight deck and steam powered catapults. As he turns above the carrier at 1200 feet, he sees the last two fighters headed to the catapults, one to the waist cat, one to the bow and is not surprised to hear the Boss on the radio: “304, take it out to five miles, set up for your approach.”
The pilot does a last airspeed and angle of attack crosscheck with his wingman alongside. With the starboard side AOA vane missing, the system is giving spurious inputs and he’ll have to fly by indicated airspeed alone. He knows how crucial the correct angle of attack is to a successful landing – everything from the proper setting of the Fresnel lens glideslope indicator on the ship, linear response of the remaining engine to his throttle inputs, the separation of his tailhook from the flight deck as he crosses the ramp, his hook’s ability to snag a wire, and the wire’s ability to absorb his aircraft’s kinetic energy for a safe landing are intimately tied to his ability to maintain proper speed and AOA.
He feels his heart rate race at this as his stomach tries its best to flip over, but he struggles to stay in control, to stay on top. Not much longer now, one way or the other, but there’s no way to escape the fact that he is on the margin of every performance limit: Usable thrust, available fuel, hot day, density altitude. A shadow crosses over his canopy, and he looks up in a momentary flash of alarm, only to relax a bit as he recognizes the FA-18E tanker high and to his right, coming out of the sun. The tanker is “hawking” him: Makes sense, he thinks and is grateful to the ship for taking care of this. If he were to bolter or get waived off for whatever reason, the tanker will be right there waiting for him, just ahead and to his right with the refueling basket streamed. It’s a sensible precaution with so little fuel remaining. He looks to his left, and there’s the wingman, stepped up in formation, feathering the speedbrakes to stay in place, hovering like a guardian angel.
He starts his turn back in towards the ship, always turning left, into the good motor. As he rolls out on extended centerline the second hand starts racing again, his fuel seeming to evaporate from his internal tanks and the miles flashing by like streetlights on an interstate. It’s happening faster than he would like and he surges his mind to catch up with it, to get back into the cockpit, back in control of the moment. Landing checklist complete.
The instrument landing system crosshairs come up in his HUD, and soon it’s time to start down. He cracks the left throttle back experimentally, feels the jet decelerate and pressures the stick forward ever so slightly. Three miles. On speed.
She starts to descend and he analyzes his rate of descent: 400 feet per minute, not enough, crosschecks the HUD and ILS needles: Yes, going above glideslope. Another minute reduction of the throttle, a nervous dance on the rudders, an unaccustomed requirement due to the asymmetric thrust. Scan the airspeed: Slow. Bunt the nose again, a little more nose-down trim, check line-up: Lined up right, a little left wing down, just a little. Two miles. A little slow.
Rate of descent, 800 FPM. That should bring us down and yes, approaching glideslope. Now throttle up a bit and level the wings. A bit more throttle. Ugh – it’s on the firewall now and a clammy wave of fear threatens to wash over his consciousness, he can’t slow the rate of descent! A mile and a half.
He needs burner, maybe just a squirt (God, let it be just a squirt!) and make sure we’re not slow, no need to go through that again. Good, that did the trick, in fact we’re leveling off which won’t do either, crack it back (maybe feather the speed brake? – HELL no!) a mile and it’s time to…
“Call the ball,” says the LSO on the radio, and his voice is startlingly loud against the sound of his own hoarse breathing, 15 seconds now.
“304, Hornet ball, 2.7, single engine,” sounds pretty cool, he thinks, sounds in control. Better to die than look bad.
“Roger ball, single engine, you’re just a little high.”
And so he is, but he’s been burned before and now he hesitates just a bit to ease any more throttle and bunts the nose a bit instead, but now he’s fast as well as being over-powered and the ball is rising, and that won’t do. He thinks, a bolter would be much worse than a 1-wire with stall and thrust margins so reduced I might not get her airborne again, don’t care what the performance charts say, and a little voice in the back of his head chips in that a ramp strike would be worse than either a bolter or the ace, five seconds.
So he cracks the throttle back and just the slightest bit of forward pressure on the stick, a little right wing down, a touch of right rudder and as the ball stops rising but before it starts to come back down again he jams the throttle to the firewall and hopes he’s done the right thing. Could go either way. Almost there, three seconds.
The ball starts falling towards the center but it’s moving too fast, he’s going to shoot through the glideslope, he can hear the LSO key the mike, and he knows that “Paddles” is going to scream for “POWER” so before that can even happen he plugs the throttle into blower (just a bit? a bit more? how’s that?) and when the LSO finally does call “POWER!” on the radio what seems like an eternity later the pilot mentally shrugs, thinks to himself, you bet, that’s all I’ve got and there’s nothing at all left over, and he feels strangely calm knowing that he’s done what he can do and there’s no card left to play. The ball sags below the datum lights and he hears the LSO key the mike again…