The pilot breathes a sigh of relief and pulls the right throttle off, makes sure there’s no loose gear around the glareshield before he opens the canopy, finds the switch under the rail to raise and OH MY GOD IT’S HOT OUT THERE!
The wingman settled down to the baking flight deck with a heavy thump, carrying his helmet bag with loose gear and 40 pounds of survival gear webbed into his restraint harness. Liberated from the secret places it had been pooling, sweat sprung immediately out from under his helmet and ran into his eyes. Suddenly every pore on his body seemed to open up, and he felt an itching he couldn’t reach under his restraint harness as he wondered, not for the first time, how anyone could tolerate working in such an environment. In moments he would be below decks, in the ship’s air conditioned core – but not the men laboring here on the flight deck. Far too few moments of respite for them. It seemed impossible.
Grimacing, he dropped his helmet bag, shook his head and wiped his eyes with his hands so that he could see the plane captain waiting stoically by the jet for a material condition debrief. Streaming with perspiration, red-shirted ordnancemen were already on his starboard wing, clearing the now empty pylon where four and a half hours ago, a one thousand pound JDAM had patiently waited for tasking. The ordie chief walked over and handed him the JDAM fuze arming wire, retained at release and proof at least that the weapon had left the jet armed. The chief grinned in the heat before shouting over the noise of fighter engines still turning on deck, fighters still landing aft, “Thought you might like a souvenir, sir – How’d she work for you?”
“Like a charm, Chief, “the lieutenant shouted back, “Shack hit. Tell the guys thanks from me.”
“Oh, we’re the ones should be thanking you, lieutenant – we always prefer it when the pilots download the ordnance. Saves us a lot of effort back on deck. What’d you hit?” By now the other ordies were clustering around, listening in above the high frequency background din. The edged the the plane captain aside, not unkindly, but this was their time: They built all varieties of weapons up, routinely working around explosive ordnance large and small, both the bombs themselves, any one of which could blow a hole in the flight deck large enough to put the ship out of commission if mishandled, and the smaller cartridge-actuated devices – the CADs which served to boot the weapon off the wing at release and could blow the hands off of the unwise, or unwary. Ordies were a little crazy, the lieutenant reflected. They had to be.
After building the bombs and carting them to the flight deck, they’d hoist them tenderly, almost lovingly up on to the wing pylons, and carefully tended to the proliferation of computer umbilicals and arming wires. And then, if the bomb wasn’t used, they’d take it all down again, waiting for the next opportunity to repeat the process. They owned the weapons in a more intimate way than did the pilots themselves who released them.
“Oh, I ah,” bellowed the pilot awkwardly, “I don’t… I mean. It was a time sensitive target, is really all I know.” The younger red shirts exchanged glances, wondering how to react to this. The lieutenant, suddenly aware that he was not satisfying his audience continued, “Somebody on deck talked us on, sounded like he needed it real bad. He was really happy with the results, too. Said, ‘great job, Navy.’ I think maybe we saved some good guys today.” Nods and smiles all around – this was better, and a kind of easy informality moved through the small crowd gathered around the lieutenant like a fresh breeze in the stultifying heat. He was bemused and somehow flattered to find himself at the center of this kind of attention – it was no very great thing that he had done – just a JDAM.
“Too bad you couldn’t drop the LGB, sir,” one of the younger guys offered up hoarsely – not much more than a kid, really, but like most of the red shirts whipcord strong. And like all of them, seemingly almost dead with heat exhaustion after spending all day laboring in the oppressive heat of an Arabian Gulf summer’s day, amplified by the black non-skid of the armored flight deck.
“Maybe next time,” the wingman cried out gamely in return, “See what I can do. Great work fellas, thanks.”
At this the ordies smiled happily, backslapping and shoving each other like brawny puppies before turning back to the port wing to download the GBU-12. After a few short, shouted words with plane captain, “She’s a good jet,” the pilot went aft along the row of fighters being turned around and serviced for the next launch, and checked his watch: Yep, that’d would be a good hop to be on, if you had to fly at night – day cat shot, night landing.
The young lieutenant entered the starboard side catwalk entering into the hull itself still thinking about the young men he had just spoken with, men who labored in almost unbearable conditions for long hours at half his pay so that he could go aloft in the glory of his youth to fly a strike fighter jet in support of forces ashore. Armed as he was by the sweat of their brow, he could put the fruits of their labor into exactly the spot calculated for maximum effect. Having done so, he would receive moderate accolades and increased respect. They had been so very pleased at his few, awkward words of thanks, these men. So cheered by his casual recognition of their labors. It certainly hadn’t cost him anything to give and it had seemed to mean so much to them.
All through flight school, even back at the Academy, the lieutenant reflected – it had always been all been about him – his training, his preparation, his success. But none of what he had just completed doing would have been possible without the efforts of the ordies, or for that matter the plane captain or jet engine mechanics or metalsmiths, or anyone of two hundred odd people in the squadron who labored day and night in what might as well be anonymity so that he might have the opportunity to do this thing and claim it as his own. Hell, what about the ship’s company guys? The cat operators, or the Sailors in the arresting gear engine rooms? The blackshoes on watch on the bridge, the engineers in the main spaces, or even the cooks? None of it works unless all of it works.
It really isn’t about me, the lieutenant thought – I’m just the last guy in the line. He found himself ashamed to admit that, apart from the ordie CPO, he didn’t know one of the red shirts names. Well, that was his flaw, his failure.
He could fix that.