Have you never seen the sun go down at sea? Never been in middle of that vast, moving wasteland which is our ocean home and felt the bittersweet pull on your heart as the last limb of the sun winks out below the infinite horizon? Surrounded only by the men and women who work the ship with you, this mechanical beast of steel, your island home?
Then you’ve never known the faces of those around you as they bleach from sun-baked red to khaki in gradual steps before momentarily turning into a frozen, sepia-stained tintype as the last colors wash out. Never heard the clatter through the ship as darken ship fittings are set, hatches clanging shut as sailors rush to prepare leviathan for the watches of the night.
When the sun goes down at sea, time seems to stop moving for moment – it is though the world has asked us all to stop, to take a picture. Yellow shirts, the royalty of the flight deck, stand mutely next to brown-shirted plane captains, men wearing multiple arrays of 20-pound tie-down chains flung over their shoulders and who look like nothing so much as galley slaves thus attired, all of them staring now with round, grateful eyes. The sun touches, sinks, and winks out, finally – almost reluctantly, taking with it the last of the summer’s shockingly brutal heat. Another day is gone. One day closer to home.
The last ray of light winks out and the spell is broken – there is a launch turning on the flight deck, readying themselves for the catapults. Back to work.
Down below the flight deck, in Ready Room 3, the dying of the light holds neither joy nor relief for a young lieutenant junior grade. Instead it brings a kind of inchoate dread, an in-the-belly emptiness that is almost nausea and which will grow over the next few hours into actual fear, if history is any judge. He is being briefed by his squadron CO on the tactical execution of one-v-one air intercepts, but he knows that the real reason he is on this flight, with this flight lead, has nothing to do with proficiency at radar intercepts. Rather, it has everything to do with the fact that he has not been performing well “behind the boat” lately. He thinks about the first night carrier landing lecture he received as a student in the fleet replacement squadron from a salty landing signal officer:
“You may or may not go into combat on any given day at sea. You might or might not drop a bomb, in anger or in training. It is possible, though unlikely, that you will have the opportunity to flame a MiG. But you will be launched, and that means that you will have to land. And you will have to do it well. Landing aboard the heaving, pitching deck of a ship at night in a fighter moving through the air at 145 knots is the hardest thing that anyone can be routinely asked to do. But you must learn not only to do it; you must learn to do it well. Because doing it poorly means that you could lose the airplane. Doing it poorly means that you could lose your lives. Do it poorly, just the once, and you might take the lives of many others with you.
“This is the Navy: You might go to war. You will go to sea, and once there the catapult crew will shoot you into the air – all you have to do to get airborne is hold on. But you will need to land.”
“Landing aboard ship requires skills, and these I am here to teach you. It requires confidence, and this you will gain in time. It requires courage, and gentlemen: Whether or not you have that is what we are here to determine.”
The JG keeps eye contact as his CO continues to brief, nodding at all the right moments but only half-listening. He has never, he reflects as the CO continues speaking about attack geometry, weapons parameters and execution, done this very well.
Up on the bridge the Officer of the Deck looks away from his tasks to let his eyes linger for a melancholy moment on the setting of the sun and what it means to him: The requirements of heightened vigilance – no one will see the unlit dhows which dot the Arabian Gulf hull up on the horizon if and when they traverse the ship’s path – they will have to be sensed in other ways, small targets detected on radar, plotted rapidly, courses projected, decisions made. He looks at his watch and thinks, “Sunset – two more hours and I will be relieved. Two more hours and I can go below.” Just to his left the carrier’s CO sits in his port side chair and watches as well with eyes red-limned with weariness, all thoughts momentarily subsumed by the brown buzz at the back of his brain, the one that has been there all day, crying out, begging for sleep, blessed sleep, rising from a insistent burr in the background of his consciousness to a triumphant foreground shout as the darkness falls. But not yet, no – no quite yet. A fragment of poetry comes to mind, “Miles to go before I sleep.” Asks himself: Who was that? Frost, I think. Yes, Frost: “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Not quite the thing, he thinks with an amused grunt. The Officer of the Deck looks at him quickly, searchingly, but no – the old man is lost in private thoughts for now, he has not detected anything amiss. Relieved, he turns back away from the bearing of the now vanished sun and returns to monitoring the performance of his watch team.
The Junior Officer of the Deck had her face buried in the surface search radar repeater – she stood up looking slightly troubled. Seeing this, the OOD asked, “What’s up?”
“Traffic, bow on at 12 miles. Radar CPA is less than two thousand yards.”
Ugh. Closest point of approach less than a mile required a report to the CO even in the daytime – “OK,” he replied, “Are you ready to give the Captain a contact report?”
“One minute.” The CO was a stickler for precise verbiage in traffic reports, and the JOOD wanted to rehearse her lines mentally one more time. “Ready.”
She walked to the port side chair, and with the OOD looking over her shoulder started her report, “Captain, JOOD, I have a contact report.” The CO glanced at her impassively for a moment before looking out the bridge glass right forward.
“Go ahead.” Closing his eyes. Seeing it.
“Captain, we’re on course 345 at 12 knots. I have a contact twenty degrees right of the bow at 24,000 yards. Contact has a target angle of five degrees left with a slight right to left drift. Closest point of approach is in 20 minutes at 1500 yards off the left beam. Recommend coming right to course 000 to open the CPA.”
The Captain considered this for a long moment with his eyes still closed before asking, “How long until the next launch?”
“Fifteen minutes, sir.”
“And where are the winds?”
“Um. 340, sir,” she replied, reddening slightly, grateful for the darkness. Altering course to starboard would only bring the contact back to the bow when the carrier turned into the wind for the launch.
A long pause: Reflection? Rebuke?
(to be continued…)