On the bow cats, the lieutenant junior grade saw a yellow-shirted director walk up to his jet, with a single light want pointed up: “Is your jet up?”
The JG took his red-lensed flashlight out of his chest harness, fumbled for a moment before turning it on and then moving it in a rapid circle: “Up jet.” The director responded with an upward thrust of his wand, followed by brushing motions across his forearms: “Off chocks and chains,” followed by crossed wands over his head: “Hold brakes.” The young pilot felt his heart jump in his chest. He’d heard that in the old days, during Vietnam, there had been an experiment wherein the attack pilots were wired to measure their pulse during combat, as a way of determining their stress levels. It had surprised the flight surgeons to discover that, almost to a man, all of the pilots had manifested higher pulse rates during their approach to land aboard the carrier at night than they had during final attack run of a defended target under flares, with the terrain rushing up to meet them as they refined their targeting solutions in 45 degree bomb runs, the altimeter unwinding crazily even as the SAMs and AAA rose up to meet them. He didn’t have any idea how that might have felt, the JG reflected. But he knew that his heart rate had to be at least a hundred and twenty just at the signal to break down the jet’s chocks and chains. Once he started rolling forward, he’d be committed to the cat. Once on the cat, he’d have to launch. Once airborne, he’d have to land. And he hadn’t been landing very well lately. He knew he didn’t have many more chances to prove that he could. You either hack it or you don’t, he thought. Sooner or later, non-hacks get scraped off. Nothing personal. Just business.
A Hornet rattled down Cat-3, afterburners shouting in the darkness. ‘departure, 304 airborne,” said his commanding officer.
“Roger 304, passing angels two-point-five, switch Red Crown, check in.”
The squadron CO rolled to Red Crown, the check-in frequency for the strike group’s air defense commander, “Red Crown, Dragon 304 up for a parrot/India.”
‘stand-by Dragon,” came the controller’s reply, followed shortly by, ‘say posit?”
“Red Crown, Dragon 304 is Mothers, ah…” looking down at the horizontal display between his g-suited legs and verifying the TACAN data, “Mothers 340 for 7, passing angels six.”
‘dragon 304, Red Crown, sweet and sweet, cleared to proceed.”
Back on the flight deck the JG raced through as much of his take-off checklist as he could with the wings still folded:
‘sEAT” ” Armed, the ejection seat was a handle pull away from blowing the canopy off over his head, catapulting him into the sky before the rocket motor fired, vaulting him further in to space before the ballistic firing of his drogue “chute, which in turn would pull his main parachute out of the headbox behind him. This would carry him safely back to the flight deck, where in 25 knots of wind he would be dashed against something sharp or unyielding, or flung into a propeller, or into the waiting sea below, ensnared in his parachute lines and gasping for air. No, he though. Let’s don”t eject on deck if we can avoid it.
“RADALT” ” set at 40 feet. If the radar altimeter went off and he wasn”t positively climbing it’d mean he’d somehow lost thrust or taken a soft shot ” it’d be time to stroke the blowers and jettison external stores, maybe even eject depending upon the rate of descent. Which was always hard to tell at night.
“TRIM” ” trim set 16 degrees nose up on the stabilators, rudder and aileron neutral, rudders check for 30-degree toe-in. The nose up trim sets the rate of capture for optimal flyaway angle of attack. With a properly trimmed jet, it would be a hand’s-off cat shot, with the flight computers setting the climb attitude.
“HARNESS” ” check locked. The FA-18 cat shot is a rowdy ride, and if he wasn”t strapped in he’d be sitting sideways at the end of the stroke and there was the yellowshirt with lighted wands beckoning to him, “Come Ahead,” followed by “Turn Left,” and “Harder” finally “Hold left brake!” and the jet sharply pivoted down the starboard side of the bow, the wind over the deck helping to push his aircraft’s nose through the darkness before “Hold Brakes!”
Knowing what was coming next the JG quickly flipped a switch to cool the AIM-9M sidewinders on his wingtips and now another series of signals from the director, ‘spread wings,” “Hook down,” and finally “Hands up.”
With the wingspread engines shaking the jet slightly he selected IR missile on the stick-mounted weapons select switch to hear a reassuring, sibilant hiss in his headset, the sound of a cooled seeker head, before throwing the hook handle down and raising his hands and arms above the canopy rail. There would be troubleshooters under his jet, manually checking his tailhook prior to launch, and his raised hands were their guarantee that the hook would not be raised while they were entangled, maiming them.
An ordnanceman passed a red-capped mag light in front of first his starboard, then his port missiles, and each of them agreed with a hearty growl that the sight was highly attractive to them, even worth dying for, if that was asked.
Everything in order, the director cleared the troubleshooters out from under before signaling, “Fold wings,” “Hook up,” and once again, “Come ahead.”
The JG re-commenced his checklist at the last confirmed step, “HARNESS” before proceeding down to “ANTI-SKID” ” Off for carrier ops, one less thing to fail and leave him in a tight spot, and anyway the only time he’d be moving fast enough to need anti-skid he’d be landing, and stopping the jet was what the tailhook and arresting wire combination was designed to do.
“LIGHTS” ” Check all rheostats dialed up to nighttime settings, but still off, controlled by the Exterior Lights Master Switch located outboard of his left throttle. “Lights on deck” indicated a brake failure for an aircraft not on the catapult and in tension, and if he turned them on now, there would be a pandemonium of hustling plane captains and tractor drivers and God-knows-who else throwing chains around his main mounts and chocks beneath his tires, desperately trying to stop the ostensibly runaway jet before it plunged into another aircraft or over the side. No, the lights master switch would wait until he was on the cat, in full tension with good engines and flight control checks. Once there, they would signal his readiness to launch.
“FLAPS” ” Half for take-off. Full flaps would provide more lift, but also more drag, and if he lost an engine on the cat shot he’d never get her flying with full flaps deployed.
“CONTROLS,” “WINGS” and “LAUNCH BAR” he’d have to wait for, wait until he was on the catapult and could spread his wings.
The Fly-1 yellowshirt, looked over his shoulder back aft and found the Fly-2 Leading Petty Officer waiting impatiently with a single lit wand in the air. With a throwing motion, Fly-1 passed taxi control of the JG’s jet to his Fly-2 counterpart, extinguished his wands and raced back forward to take control of the next fighter in the queue.
As the JG cleared the densely packed bow, there was more room to taxi between the island structure and the waist catapult foul lines, so the Fly-2 director gave him a more rapid “Come forward” signal, signaling him to move faster. The JG, like most nugget pilots, thought that he was moving towards the catapult plenty fast enough, the sense of time compression and haste was buzzing in his head. So he stolidly continued at the same speed. The yellowshirt emphasized his desire for speed with a single twirling wand, “Kick it up!” before raising the boom mike of his radio set to his lips with his other hand.
Talking to the Air Boss in the tower no doubt, the JG thought to himself, squirming a bit and momentarily flicking his eyes up to the darkened windows of the Air Boss’s domain. The Air Boss was another of the men who would decide his fate; between his CO, the Air Wing Commander, the ship’s Captain and the Air Boss was a hundred years or more of aviation experience. The JG could imagine the Boss hearing the report of a laggard on the waist, flicking his eyes up to the status board and reading the JG’s name next to the side number 311. Remembering from the night before, the long, long recovery that seemed to go on and on. Ah yes, he would think – our problem child.
The JG bumped the power up a bit, moving faster now, thinking, There’s famous and infamous. Some guys get to be both, but not lieutenants junior grade. JG’s were either one or the other.
Another pass, this time to the Fly-3 Petty Officer all the way aft, who took control and immediately gave the JG the ‘slow down” signal. Wish you guys would make up your mind, he thought as he stood on the rudder mounted brakes, but then a hard ‘stop ” hold breaks!”
The fully loaded FA-18 skidded on the greasy, sweating flight deck, only coming to a complete stop when the nose tire hit the number four wire, still facing aft. The JG could see his new yellowshirt dancing and cursing in anger and disgust. The wire would serve as a kind of chock to the nose tire, and he’d have to clear out all the space behind the FA-18 in order to get her pilot to throttle up enough to get over it. At that kind of power setting, men could be blown over the side and loose equipment hurled through space, it was dangerous, and it would take time. With the JG being the last jet but one to launch (and that last one launching off the bow cat), the lights of the first jet on the next recovery visible at five miles, time was not on his side, the yellow shirt fumed. A foul deck wave-off in the making.
He gave the JG a “Come forward” signal, followed by “Throttle up.” The JG bumped the throttles forward, sweating in the darkness, bumped them again. Seventy percent RPM. Still no movement. His director emphasized, “Throttle up!” but the JG knew he was at his Squadron Operating Procedure taxi limits, keyed the radio mic, called the Boss, “Boss, 311 stuck on the four wire.”
‘stand-by 311,” and the JG could imagine the shouting on the 5MC, the Air Boss screaming for everyone to get the hell out from behind the stalled Hornet on the waist, to be heads up. Once again the JG imagined the Boss checking the number “311″ on his status board against his name, adding another grain of sand to the pile on the balance scale. The JG’s face reddened, thinking about it. I followed their instructions. It isn”t fair.
“Follow your director 311″ came the Boss’s strained voice on the radio, and with Fly-3 gesturing madly for him to add power he bumped the throttles up to 75% – the sound was madly loud on the flight deck – before the jet finally leapt over the arresting wire.
‘slow down!” and “Hard right turn,” before passing him to the Cat-3 taxi director. “Come forward,” and ‘small right turn,” “More,” getting his jet aligned with the catapult track, small head motions accompanying the lighted wands, ‘slow down,” and ‘stop.”
The JG looked past the cat director into the inky darkness and could feel his heart thundering in his chest, looked around the cockpit for a moment wildly, almost hoping to find a fault, some reason to not go flying, this thing he had dreamt of doing since he was ten years old. Fought down a wave of what he preferred to think of as nausea, but knew in his secret heart was a combination of professional and physical fear.
“Launch bar down,” and ‘spread wings,” his director signaled as an EA-6B Prowler roared overhead in the landing configuration, wheels, flaps, slats and hook down. A foul deck wave-off the JG thought. Now he”ll have to do it all again. My fault. Stupid.
“Come forward” and the JG bumped the throttles up again, felt the fighter’s nose twitch right, the launch bar now steering it down the cat track to the waiting shuttle. Beneath him he knew, a green shirted cat crewman was hooking up the hydraulic holdback fitting that would keep his jet from rolling once at full power and in tension with the brakes off ” only when the cat fired would it regretfully release its clutch, but none of this could he see, it was out of his field of view and anyway he was mesmerized by the moving wands, come forward, come forward, come forward.
Crossed his wands above the director’s head – ‘stop.”
The yellow shirt looked forward ” angle deck clear, looked aft, jet blast deflector raised, looked to the deck edge ” “thumbs up” from the deck edge operator.
As though it was the most natural think in the world, the director casually uncrossed one wand laid it flat forward, pointing towards the end of the cat ” ‘deck edge take tension,” the other wand straight up ” “Full power – Off brakes.” The JG slammed the throttles to the military power stops as the jet squatted lower under the catapult load, the launch shuttle at war with the holdback fitting, everything in a shrieking, shaking state of uncertain balance with most of all the engines howling for release.
Another signal from the director, “Launch bar up!” and it’s not going anywhere, not with the shuttle grasping at it and the JG was back to his checklist, shouting in his own head to hear himself think above the whirlwind of noise, the shaking of barely restrained violent forces, his own breathing harsh now, echoing through his O2 mask, “CONTROLS” ” FREE AND CORRECT!, “WINGS” ” SPREAD AND LOCKED, and now his eyes flicked over to the engine panel ” Exhaust Gas Temperature in the Green, RPM nominal, Oil Pressure good, Nozzles closed, good hydraulics, no cautions or warnings and now it could not be delayed any longer, now was the time. He looked outside to see that the yellowshirt had passed control to the Catapult Officer who stood there with seemingly endless patience as the FA-18 screamed in the darkness like a trapped beast in a snare.
It was such a little thing to do, and so he did it: Reached over with his left pinky to flick the External Lights Master Switch to the on position. Thinking with wry humor that a night cat shot was a kind of IQ test ” you turn your lights on and you fail.
Committed now he rested his helmet back against the seat box, braced the throttles up against the stops with his left arm, raised his right hand to the canopy rail handle and waited for the shot which came, as it always did, with unexpected, almost unimaginable violence.
In a screeching mist of noise and steam, shaking and bouncing in the cockpit like a rag doll as the jet went from a standstill to 165 MPH in two and a half seconds, he fought against the acceleration to look at his HUD, hoping to see three numbers in the airspeed box. With three numbers he could fly, said a prayer so abbreviated that the only word in it was “God” and finally she fell off the edge, released by the catapult and he was flying, flying, flying. A good shot.
“311, Departure, roger. Passing angels 2.5 switch Red Crown, check in.”