“Marshal, 405, 407 checking in on your 340 for 50, low state base plus two.”
“405, Marshall, continue, call ‘see me’ at 10 miles.”
Closing in on the ship, the wingman stays in a defensive combat spread formation, close enough to easily maintain sight of his lead, far enough away, to keep his own radar and visual scan moving. The airspace around the carrier is “uncontrolled,” and they are responsible for their own separation from the next launch in the cycle. Other flights are returning, either from their cap stations in country, or from training missions around the ship. He checks his fuel state again, double checks proper transfer from the external tanks – sometimes fuel gets trapped in one or the other externals, causing problems in useable fuel for recovery and potentially putting the aircraft out of limits for landing asymmetry.
At 25 miles, the ship is plainly visible on the flat brown horizon. She looks long and low, mechanically menacing broadside to, halfway through her turn into the wind. There’s a churning abaft the beam as her wake is grows increasingly turbulent, as sharply defined as a scar across the flat and pewter-colored Northern Arabian Gulf. The Officer of the Deck has clearly already rung up the necessary engine orders to generate winds over the deck sufficient to launch heavily laden aircraft into the breathlessly hot afternoon sky, back into the airspace just vacated by the recovering cycle. As they approach the high holding pattern overhead the ship, the wingman moves closer to his lead, gently massaging the throttles aft, falling back from his tactical position into an administrative cruise. The lead lowers his hook wordlessly, and the wingman, briefed and ready, instantly lowers his own. The XO looks to him briefly, gives him a gloved “thumbs up.” Your hook is down.
“Marshall, 405 sees you.”
“405 Marshall, roger, go button three, update state.”
“405 low state base plus one-five, switching.”
Over to tower frequency, the wingman quickly rolling the comm. knob over, dividing his scan between his now much closer lead and comms control panel. At this distance, there’s time to share between internal cockpit tasks and maintaining position, but not much. Quickly, the wingman executes his penetration and landing checklists, at least as far as he can with the wheels and flaps up. Once they go into low holding, he’ll be in parade formation, with very little time to look at anything but his lead’s wingtip, some 20 feet away. He’ll finish the checklist after they break up, before they land. Make sure to set the radar altimeter, he thinks. It will either save your life some day, or it will not.
The wingman eases out a bit and looks down at the carrier now coming fair into the wind, still accelerating. Even from this high altitude he can see the steam wisps leaking out of her catapult tracks, sees the fighters stacked up for the waist and bow catapults, the E-2 throbbing on Cat 3, the first to go. Twelve to shoot, he thinks again, making continuous, tiny formation with the stick and throttles, maintaining precise position. Should take about 15 minutes, maybe a hair less. If it was me, he thinks, looking at the time display in his HUD, I think I’d start her down right about now.
The XO apparently agrees – he passes the visual signal of a descent, stabbing downward with his right hand towards the ocean, palm held flat. Anticipating his throttle reduction, the wingman eases his own power back, hears the declining pitch of the engines behind him, jockeys for position in the to and fro, stabilizes – no. He’s surging ahead a bit. Ugh – back on the idle stops, little or no useable power to play with. He must keep position, can’t surge out in front of the lead as airspeed builds up in the descent – it will use more fuel but there’s no choice and he feathers the speedbrake out between the tails, hears the wind rush increase, the very slight pitch bobble as the flight control computers compensate, adds power to push through the additional drag. The XO looks over at him inquisitively, and the wingman gives two small thrusts forward with his head – more power, please – it is a request. The XO acknowledges and brings his own throttles up – the wingman sees the lead’s exhaust nozzles dilate, hears the engine pitch increase, adds power, thumbs the speedbrake back in, pulls power back, stabilizes. Better.
It’s a long descent abaft the ship, down to the low holding altitude. During the descent, they will use hardly any fuel at all, and the launch will be continuing. At half the remaining altitude from high to low holding, the lead will start a standard rate turn back towards the ship, following the wake. If he’s done his work well, the wingman thinks, and the ship gets the launch done quickly, we’ll only have to do a lap or two in low holding. You burn so much gas in low holding.
Moving slowly now, at max conserve airspeed, the two-ship turns up the carrier’s wake, eyes out for traffic, stomachs tightening at the task ahead.
For the lead, a day landing is no great challenge anymore. For the wingman, it is still not quite routine – not as hazardous certainly as a night trap, but not exactly tiddly-winks either. And landing the first time is a core competency issue, speaking to an aviator’s professionalism. He has been told all throughout his training that a great mission is only as good as the final landing – he has had a good day today so far, he thinks. Just a little more work left and then it’s done. No bolters. No wave-offs. No damned one wires…