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…
The radio speaker crackles, “304, Hornet ball, 2.7, single engine” and up in the tower, the lieutenant junior grade, having done all that he can do but stand by and await events, looks up from his performance charts to scan the landing area. The deck is all clear, and the four arresting wires and their massive under-deck restraining engines are in battery to catch eighteen tons of a half-flap Hornet moving at 160 mph on a hot day, their readiness signaled by the green deck status lights right aft on the fantail. The JG looks up to the pilot landing aid television, or PLAT to watch the pilot’s approach and landing. With its centerline mounted micro-cameras, the PLAT, with its cross-hairs showing glideslope and line-up errors, will be more accurate than his own vantage point in the tower.
Captivated as he is by the drama playing itself out just beyond the tower’s thickly fortified glass, the JG doesn’t hear the heavy blast hatch open and close behind him, and is not at first aware that the voice asking about 304′s status is that of his squadron commanding officer, joining him. Without turning back, he murmurs, “He’s on the ball.” In a moment, the heat rises up his collar and he feels his ears turning pink as he recognizes the voice at last, casting an anxious glance of confirmation behind himself before appending, “Sir.” The Air Boss is transfixed with the approach as well, and ignores the exchange entirely.
Their eyes are drawn irresistibly to the PLAT display, and as one, the three of them frown slightly as the jet on final goes high and fast – a hard correction to make on a hot day, harder still when single engine. As they see the jet stop it’s upward vector and start to head back down to glideslope, the left hands of the Air Boss, squadron CO and even the JG all tighten on unseen throttles as they urge 304 to catch it, catch it! The radio crackles again, with urgency this time as the LSO calls for “POWER!” and the three of them wince slightly as though they had been lashed. Kestrel 304 looms large in the TV screen with unsettled dynamics and each of them realizes that it will all be over one way or another in the next few moments. Each feels the unwelcome (and to the JG, all-too-familiar) sensation of being out of control of events and unsure where the next few seconds will take them, a feeling of dreadful potential bordering just on the edge of disaster.
The radio crackles again, the LSOs again, talking together, almost tripping over each other: “Easy with it!” “Right for line-up,” and “A little attitude,” as they strive to get the FA-18, now starting to flatten out its descent again under the application of all remaining throttle, safely on deck and in the “spaghetti.” At the moment of truth (the wire cannot tell a lie) the tail hook snatches the number three cross-deck pendant on the fly and the jet heaves and bucks as the wire pays out, slowing the Hornet down, stopping it, the lone motor screaming like a wounded beast, the 20 foot-long flame of a fully staged afterburner streaming behind like Vulcan’s blowtorch.
The radio crackles again, and it’s the ship’s CO, who like hundreds of other people throughout the massive flagship has only now realized that he was holding his breath, keys his handset and says, “Nice job, 304 – welcome back.” The Air Boss changes a switch setting on his belt control to change his mike from external radio to internal communications and says with evident relief in his voice, “Super job paddles. On the flight deck we’ve got two more to catch, lets get 304 chocked and get a tow bar on him. Move people.”
Flight deck crewman swarm out to 304, still holding power up against the wire to keep his hook from spitting it’s grip until the brown shirts can get chocks beneath his wheels, get a tow tractor attached, pull him clear. Sweat runs like rivers down their faces, between their shoulder blades and down their legs as senior petty officers shout and swear – two more to catch, get moving, let’s go!
Satisfied for the moment, the Air Boss at last looks behind him to see the JG staring thoughtfully at the flight deck and the swarm of effort surrounding 304. In turning back the Boss sees the squadron CO attempting to catch his eye: The CO raises one inquiring eyebrow and tilts his head towards the JG, silently asking, “How did he do?” As silently, the Boss purses his lips thoughtfully and nods his head affirmatively – “He did well.” Both senior aviators turn their glances on the JG now, eyes narrowing thoughtfully, the age old machinery of leadership calculation grinding, sifting, weighing. Aware finally of the weigh of their collective attention, the JG turns to look at them. At first he blushes again and looks way, embarrassed by the attention. But only for a moment before he turns silently back to them, and returns their gaze directly. Although he is not aware of it, his chin is infinitesimally upthrust and his shoulders squared, his entire carriage displaying what is only just barely on propriety’s side of the naval definition of defiance. The JG knows that this, at least, he has done well. Both of the older men hold his gaze for a moment thoughtfully, eyes narrowed, before nodding silently and turning away.
The CO undogs the massive blast hatch and steps out of the tower and onto the weather deck, the JG following after. Stepping out of the air conditioned tower, the mid-day sun slaps at them with a blow of almost petulant physical brutality, and their pores stream open, itching. Just before the blast hatch slams shut, the JG catches the Air Boss’s eye, hears him say, “Well done. See you on the ball tonight.” The JG turns to follow his CO, momentarily gratified to have received such praise from a man not known for giving any. His pleasure gives way to mild dismay as he reflects that with a hundred pilots in the air wing, it is unfortunate that the Boss should not only know him by name, but also know that he’d be flying again that night. He sighs, shakes his head, dogs the hatch and goes below.
Racing down the ladders with the careless athleticism of youth, he catches the CO two ladders down and holds back a respectful difference before deciding on a whim to change destinations and await 304′s pilot on the flight deck, rather than heading immediately back down to the ready room. It’s only 110 degrees in the shade behind the island as the last two aircraft recover, engines screaming, but the sweat pours off him even as he lurks guiltily, aware of the fact that he should be wearing flight deck protection but not caring for the moment. After a few minutes, 304′s pilot walks wearily aft and the JG joins him in the starboard side catwalk, heading below deck and inboard. Once inside the skin of the ship, to temperatures that drop 10 degrees with every hatchway they traverse, the pilot turns to the JG, mops his face with a bandana and says, “Thanks, man. You really helped up there today. I was as busy as a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest, and you made a huge difference.”
“Oh, it wasn’t anything,” the JG replies, nevertheless pleased – praise has been hard to come by lately – “But that was an awesome job you did getting her on deck – single engine, hot day, flight control cautions, single AOA. Wow.”
“You think so?” the pilot asks, “I felt like I was killing snakes in the cockpit. And anyways, you don’t win any Air Medals for good landings after self-inflicted damage. Is the skipper pissed?”
“At you? I don’t know. I can’t read the man. But seriously man, great work – how did you do it, what were you thinking about?”
The pilot stops thinking about the trouble he’s in for a moment and looks at the JG, evaluating what he’s asking against what he really wants to know: “Why is it that you can you do this with your jet all messed up, when it seems that I can’t do it all?”
Three-oh-four’s pilot doesn’t consider himself given much to introspection, far less to rah-rah coachifying. But he also knows that the JG has been suffering recently, has watched the nightly circus show, sees the strain in the younger man’s eyes, shrugs: “Dude, look – when you’re all messed up – especially when it’s your own fault? – all you can do is try your best and believe in yourself. Because you know what? That’s not enough to make it happen, not by itself. But if you don’t do that? You haven’t got a chance. You’ve got nothing. I know you’re trying. Trying is good, but you’ve got to do more than try. You’ve got to believe.”
“Easy for you to say.”
“And hard to do, I know. But you aren’t the first guy ever to struggle at this. Most people do. It’s hard, man. Sometimes it’s harder than Chinese algebra. But it’s like: The moment you think you can’t do it? You can’t. Flip side is that the moment you believe you can, you will. If you didn’t have the monkey skills, you wouldn’t have gotten this far. You’ve just got to, you know: Take the leap.”
The JG looks into the pilot’s eyes warily. If only it was so easy…
Just inboard of them, behind the vault-like doors of the carrier intelligence center, or CVIC, a first class intelligence specialist monitoring a chat room in the Multi-Source Integration cell reads a few lines of text and sits bolt upright. “Sir,” he says, calling to one of the targeteers, “I think you’d better have a look at this.”
The targeteer, an intelligence officer with the rank of lieutenant lets out a low whistle, beckons for a runner, “We need to convene the TST cell.” He then picks up a red radio handset, keys the mike and says, “COPS, MSI – stand by for words on a time sensitive target.”