“Boats, five short blasts,” the OOD had cried, his voice trembling as the dhow neared a mile, right forward on the bow, almost under the shelf of the bow catapults, almost out of sight. Once out of sight he would not be able to tell which side of the ship the dhow was maneuvering towards, if in fact it was maneuvering. At that point it would all be in God’s hands.
“Bosun’s mate, aye-aye,” replied the BMOW and the sound of the ship’s signal whistle sounding its hoarse cry of emergency and distress brought the ship’s Captain now fully out of his chair, shouting “Officer of the Deck! We need to maneuver the ship!” followed rapidly, too rapidly by, “Aye, Captain – CONN, left full rudder!”
“CONN, aye – Helm, left full rudder!”
“Helm, left full rudder aye!”and spinning of the ship’s great wheel to the left before being countermanded by the Captain himself, “Belay that! Ease your rudder to left ten! Officer of the Deck, what’s the ship’s speed?”
“Ease my rudder to left ten, aye!”
“Twenty knots Captains, winds were light for launch,” the OOD replied, quailing under his CO’s fierce and red-eyed glare: Above 15 knots, use of full rudder was restricted due to heel, but they were in extremis even if aircraft were taxiing and launching. Even as the Helmsman eased his rudder back to ten degrees left the ship dug into the turn, heeling well to starboard, the physics of mass and momentum at war with the two great rudders biting into the frothing sea. In Flight Deck Control the Handler cursed before screaming into the 5MC flight deck announcing system, “Head’s up on the flight deck, turning port, heel to starboard!”
On the bow cat the squadron CO’s heart leapt suddenly into his throat as he felt the ship heel over, port side rising into the air before him as the starboard fell away behind him. He swore violently into his oxygen mask as the throttle setting for taxi power became suddenly insufficient to move forward against the sloping deck – she slowed, she stopped, she started rolling backwards, back towards the parking spot, back towards the deck edge, back towards the invisible, waiting sea.
“Bosun’s Mate of the Watch, sound the collision alarm!” cried the Captain.
The squadron CO pressed hard on the top of his rudder pedals, thighs bunching under the strain, squeezing the wheel brakes, but no – on the greasy and worn non-skid of a mid-cruise flight deck, the jet continued to skid backward, back towards the deck edge, back towards the scuppers. The CO knew that as heavy as his jet was, nearly 22 tons prior to take off, the slightly raised edge of the scupper would be no barrier to him. In the moments as he slid backwards in the darkness, out of control, the whole scenario played itself out in nightmarish clarity: He’d feel the bump as the scupper went under the main mounts, feel more than hear the crunching grind as the wheels left the flight deck and the jet’s belly caught the deck edge, as it started over the side, caught and hesitated- only for an instant – in the deck edge netting before that too gave way, and he cartwheeled backwards over the side, down to inky sea, the waiting darkness. He could still eject and maybe he’d be all right – but there was nearly 25 knots of wind over the flight deck, and the island structure looming right aft with all of its spear-like antennas made an ejection an iffy proposition. But once the jet had started to settle, once she’d passed from level to falling backwards, it would be over.
This wasn’t taught in the emergency procedures simulators, but the CO refused to die easy. His left hands shot the throttles forward, much higher than taxi power – he wordlessly launched a prayer that there were no flight deck crewman behind him – and the General Electric F404 engines responded lustily to his command – the engines sang, they shouted – his backwards slide slowed, it stopped – he had control. Just then the starboard heel eased a bit, rewarding the helmsman’s eased rudders as the ship settled out. He slapped the throttles back to idle, stood on the rudder pedals with his hams off the seat, willing the jet to hold – hold fast! To not run across the deck into the fighters parked across the way.
On the flight deck, the yellow shirts and plane captains, men who had between them a quarter century of time standing on the most dangerous piece of real estate known to man exchanged shocked glances – none of them had ever witnessed anything like what had just happened. The lead yellow shirt heard a query from the Handler on his headphones, responded: “All good on Fly-1, Handler. No crunches. It was close though.” And then looked to his friends on either side, shaking his head, trembling.
On the bridge, the Captain of the ship and his officer of the deck leaned out of the open windows of Aux Conn, starting down and right forward – there! A light. A light so close aboard it seemed to almost touch the hull. A single face looked up at them out of the darkness, a hundred feet below, glowing in the cockpit light. The light bobbed, it passed abeam, it passed aft.
They’d missed the dhow. Exactly how, the Captain would never quite know. He turned to his OOD and said to him quietly, but with an evident strain in his voice: “That was far, far too close. A bad spot. Next time let’s try to come up with some better ideas, earlier. ”
The OOD, surprised not to have been sent below, relieved of his watch, stripped of his qualifications, sent from the bridge in disgrace, nodded silently, momentarily unable to speak until the CO spoke to him again at last, “Let’s get her back in to the wind. We’ve a launch to make, and a recovery to catch.”
Back on the flight deck, the lieutenant junior grade, parked beside his flight lead, still chocked and chained and wide-eyed at what he had just seen and heard, momentarily considered asking his CO if he was all right before setting the thought aside – If he needs to hear from me, he will speak to me, the wingman thought. Beside him, shivering now from the effects of the adrenaline still coursing through his veins, the CO considered momentarily keying the radio mic, and sharing some obscenity with his wingman. But no, it wouldn’t do – cursing would be a sign of shock, shock came from fear, fear was weakness. He’d curse silently into his oxygen mask instead.
The moment passed.
His director uncrossed his lighted wands, gave him the signal, “Come forward,” followed by, “Turn left.” He flicked his wands in a pointing gesture to the waiting petty officer amidships, on Fly-2, who took command. “Come forward,” and “Easy.” The launch resumed.
Bobbing in the wake aft of the enormous jinn which had materialized out of the darkness, hands gripping tight on the gunwales, Farokh gave thanks to God for his unmerited deliverance, checked the compass and once more shaped his course southwest, towards Bahrain. There was a trade to make.