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.”
Up and further up into the inky darkness, focused on the airspeed and altitude boxes on the head’s up display, ten degrees nose up pitch at first to capture 300 knots, then 8 degrees nose up as he passed 12,000 feet, now targeting an optimal mach number. The reassuring thrum of the GE F404 motors behind him almost masking the whirr of cockpit cooling fans, the rhythmic surging of the environmental conditioning system, or ECS as it kept pace with the increasing altitude and decreasing outside air pressure.
Between his legs on the horizontal situation indicator – the HSI – he selected the ship’s tactical air navigation set, or TACAN as the steering source and using a toggle switch just to the side of the flat panel display, dialed in a course line of 320 degrees magnetic. His flight lead and squadron CO would be on the 320 radial at 80 miles, waiting for the JG to take station at 30 miles on the same radial and commence their air intercept training runs. A short cycle this evening, only a 1+15 (with no launch to wait for upon return) so no tanking required for this mission. Which, he reflected with a grimace, was really not so very much about tactical air training as it was him landing on the first try back at the end of the flight.
His CO was a fair man, the JG thought, not for the first time. He was of the old school, the kind of guy who thought that if a youngster was having a hard time “behind the ship” that the best remedy was to keep throwing him up there at night until he figured it out. But fair or not, the young aviator knew that his CO’s patience was not unlimited. He also knew that another evening like he’d had last night, boltering and getting waved off again and again, would probably be his last flight in a Hornet for a while, if not forever. The pool of good guy good will was just about running dry, and the pressure to get her on deck the first time pressed down on his chest like a physical weight. But he also knew from harsh experience that the psychological pressure to land the jet often resulted in attempts to give up on a visual scan of meatball too early and “spot the deck.” While a highly experienced pilot could do so in the daytime, at night, with all the reduced visual cues, it was impossible for anyone.
Deck spotting at night usually ended up with the pilot going dangerously low, and being rewarded with wave-off lights from the landing signal officers. And whether you went around on a bolter, or whether you went around on a wave-off, you’d gone around. You’d failed to land. You’d failed. Welcome, he thought with a grim smile, to your night in the barrel. Or in my case, he thougt with a frown, to my next night in the barrel.
He shook his head slightly, trying to clear the negative thoughts. Might as well do something productive, he thought. How about the combat checklist? Working through each successive step, tuning the radar, arming the chaff and flare dispenser, self-testing his onboard jamming system, and interior lights set to nighttime intensities he landed at last upon the “NVGs – Don” step.
After first selecting attitude hold mode of the autopilot and flicking an eye to his airspeed – 0.8 indicated mach number climbing through 20,000 feet, still good – the JG reached into the helmet back stuffed by his right hip outboard of the ejection seat and removed the NVG container from therein.
Inside this foam-lined box were the night vision goggles themselves, looking like nothing so much as a pair of sporting arena binoculars with a mounting bracket atop. He took his time fitting the NVG bracket into his helmet receptacle, as the fitting was not pilot-proof: Once he had an incorrectly mounted set of the devices snap loose from his helmet under a high g turn before landing in his crotch – where, as though it had been designed to cushion the fall of NVGs, his wedding tackle had been shaped and gathered by the leg straps of his parachute harness – in a dazzling starburst of pain. From that position the goggles had bounced down to the deck at his feet before finally coming to a clattering rest among the rudder pedals forward.
It’d had been something close to a nightmare, the arduous, grunting, disorienting search in the tight confines of the single seat fighter, and all the while listening to his increasingly impatient flight lead asking him what the hell was going on, and whenever would he be ready? But leaving the NVGs down there to interfere with the flight control cables and pulleys would never have done, not to mention the fact that the hideously expensive devices would have been doubtlessly dashed to shards by the forces of his subsequent arrested landing back aboard the ship.
Once he’d snapped the goggles carefully into place – and gingerly tested the mount to ensure it wouldn’t come loose again – he snapped the NVGs down from the up/stowed position to the inline position in front of his eyes, turning them on with one practiced motion. The green glow in his eyes gave sharp relief to the previous darkness, and everywhere details sprang out at him that had been but a moment before enveloped in night’s cloak. He saw the taillights of his flight lead receding in the distance, an airliner probably a hundred miles away traveling from east to west, the outline of the Iranian coast, including a hot, damp glow close at hand to the east – the coastal city of Bushehr’s cultural lighting, no doubt. Kuwait City suggested itself as a smudge of light in the northwestern sky and that was probably Bahrain pulsing to the west, he thought. Liberty in two weeks, beer for certain, golf probably and Gulf Air stewardesses with any luck at all. Down below, what had been but a moment before the featureless dark felt of the Arabian Gulf now rippled with merchant shipping, dhows and oil wells, each tiny lantern as bright as a star. It was almost painful to look at, after the sensory deprivation of the previous few minutes, and it took a moment of discipline to decide what it was that he would see, and what it was he would exclude.
He hit the paddle switch mounted at the front of the control stick, mentally saying to the autopilot, “I’ve got the jet.” The airplane rolled hard right as the autopilot disengaged, startling him. He countered first with opposing stick force, then with lateral trim, clicking the castle switch atop the stick left, left again. More. Each time testing the trim setting by easing his hand pressure off the stick. She rolled right again, more slowly this time, but still out of balance. A little more trim, two clicks. Three. He pursed his lips inside his oxygen mask, considering. Not carrying any external ordnance. Hmm.
He reached up to his left digital data display, changed its presentation from the forward-looking infrared system to the fuel page. Yes, there it is: Left external tank nearly empty, 300 pounds of fuel. Right tank completely full – 2300 pounds. Quickly did the math: Two thousand pounds of unusable gas, also meant fourteen thousand foot-pounds of lateral asymmetry. Out of landing limits, or nearly. And a lot less gas than he’d thought he’d had, just a moment ago.
Thought for a moment, keyed the throttle-mounted radio mic switch down, flight admin frequency, just him and his lead: “Dragon one, Dragon two – I’ve got a right external transfer failure.”
“Dragon one,” came the thoughtful reply.