External tanks were rather alarmingly expensive – there were only so many spares in the carrier’s hangar bay – and hurling them into the sea regardless was considered very bad form. Keep that sort of thing up and pretty soon the FA-18Cs were out of the fight. Like most of his breed, the squadron CO was not a “path of least resistance” kind of guy.
“OK, I”m on step 4 now, checklist page E51: Bleed air knob ” Cycle through “Off” to “Norm.”
The next step, the CO knew, was to apply positive and negative “g” forces in an attempt to jar loose a potentially stuck float valve in the drop tank”s internal plumbing. He started to key the UHF mic to tell his nugget wingman to horse her around a bit, but paused, a vivid recollection playing in front of his eyes in the darkened cockpit like a flickering cinematic production:
It had been six years ago, on a very similar night ” a sister squadron”s pilot had been faced with the same kind of emergency. That lead and his wingman had “gotten off the checklist,” working from memory and getting two of the steps out of order. His lead had dragged the lame duck to the recovery tanker overhead the carrier at angels six, to see if taking on some external gas might free up the system. When it hadn”t done so, they”d eased off to starboard and, without thinking it entirely through, the lead had told his wingman to attempt the cycling of positive and negative g”s. With his airspeed still quite slow from the tanker rendezvous, and with 14,000 foot-pounds of asymmetry on the wing, the wingman put a hard push-pull on the stick, and immediately stalled the airplane, departing from controlled flight ” the asymmetry, combined with his slow speed, had drastically reduced the aircraft”s stall and control margins.
All on the tanker were left to watch speechlessly as the young man ” already below his mandatory out of control ejection envelope, even if it had been day time – gyrated downwards towards the waiting carrier deck immediately below, external lights making crazy arcs through the darkened sky. There was nothing to say ” tell the youngster to eject, and the jet would quite possibly crash aboard the unsuspecting carrier, killing dozens of people and wreaking untold millions of dollar damages. Tell him to stay with the jet, wrestling for control in a suddenly lunatic environment that nothing in his training had prepared him for, and suffer the risk of such a crash with one more life to throw in the fire.
Somehow the young pilot had managed to recover the jet: Full forward stick and max afterburner. Having recovered from the stall and gained airspeed, he milked it gently out of the consequent dive ” it wouldn”t do to exceed angle of attack limits and stall out again – to recover to level flight a mere five hundred feet above the carrier”s flight deck. There, raised faces and slack jaws gave mute testimony to one of the strangest things any of the flight deck crewmen had ever seen: A fighter fluttering vertically down out of the night sky towards the deck, before suddenly zooming over their heads in full grunt, tailpipe fires lighting up the night sky.
“All right, our next step is to apply positive and negative “g.” Before you do so though, I want to make sure you”ve got a good bundle of knots on the jet. Heat her up to 350 or so.”
The wingman felt a growing certainty that the fuel would simply not transfer, no matter what he did. He”d broken the checklist out and was already racing ahead to the probable conclusion: He would either jettison the bad external tank ” far and away his preferred option ” before going to the tanker to make good the lost gas. After that, he”d still have to face the “terror machine” again. He”d still have to land at night on his first try. Jettisoned fuel tanks won you no sympathy votes ” not from the LSO”s, not from the squadron leadership. They could divert him ashore, but the ship and air wing leadership took a very dim view of plunking war fighting assets ashore, and having them cooling their brake pads at some civilian field in the UAE, out of the fight. The only other option would be to try to land him on the carrier out of symmetry ” he shook his head, thinking about it: No. That would reduce his useable fuel to something like… he quickly did the mental math ” 2500 pounds? No way, that was three thousand pounds of gas less than his usual approach minimums, excess gas to give him a couple of shots at the deck if it was foul. Or if, he thought grimly, I can”t get aboard.
But 2.5 meant a one-look approach and then straight back up to the tanker with no time to screw around rendezvousing or getting in the basket. If he couldn”t get right aboard, and right in the basket, it”d be a one-look pass, flail and flounder and then set up for a barricade arrestment back on the ship. A class-A mishap in his permanent record. Because he couldn”t get aboard. The sound of his breathing through the O2 mask sounded suddenly hoarse, ragged. The cockpit seemed to close in around him, smothering him with darkness.
There was his CO on the aux radio, “What luck?”
The JG darted his eyes to his fuel page on the left digital data display ” the starboard drop tank sat there, stubbornly, sullenly full. “No joy.”
“Rog. Look, I”ll be off freq on prime for a few. You have the lead on the right, head for the overhead tanker at angels six.”
“Two, lead right.”
The CO was as fully aware of the diminishing alternatives available, and well ahead of his junior wingman on consequences. As much as he might like to make a command decision on his own, he would need to clear his plan with the ship”s Captain and Air Wing Commander – the kid had been struggling, and bringing him aboard lame duck would have more than the ordinary amount of risk attached. He switched his prime radio from Tanker Control to the alternate Carrier Air Traffic Control Center frequency: “CATCC, 401 up for a rep.”
“Stand by 401,” followed by his XO”s voice, “401, rep, loud and clear.”
“Roger that, rep. We need to talk about the options here. Is CAG in the space?”
“That’s affirmative, skipper. CAG’s right here.”
“Rog. Look, I’m assuming that we don’t want to divert him. And I don’t want to jettison a repairable tank into the sea. I’d like to take him to the tanker, see what we can do there, and then try to bring him aboard.”
“Ohhh-kayyy.” From the tone of his voice, the XO clearly wasn’t enthusiastic about the plan. The CO felt a brief flash of irritation before pushing it aside with an effort. There was a reason why you asked peoples’ opinions – theoretically it was because you wanted to hear what they actually thought. The XO was just doing his job.
“Tell me what you’re thinking, XO.”
“It’s your call skipper, obviously,” the XO said, craning around to try to read the body language of the sphinx-like air wing commander sitting at the top of the CATCC gallery. “Your man’s been struggling a bit behind the ship, obviously. Does he sound like he’s up for it?”
“We haven’t actually gotten that far in our discussion yet,” the CO replied, “but I’m thinking it’s pretty much fish or cut bait time.” Christ, the CO thought with a wince after unkeying the mic. That’d read like unadulterated hell if the JG pranged the jet on his approach. The CO could read the mishap report even now: “Accepted Causal Factor: Who – Squadron Commanding Officer, What – Undue Command Influence, Why – Performance Failure, Error in Judgement.”
In the CATCC gallery, each of the senior squadron reps sat in the darkness, looking at the naked and anticipatory flight deck on the closed-circuit television, each avoiding eye contact, most of them secretly pleased not to be a part of this decision.
“I want to give him a shot,” the CO repeated.
“Roger that, skipper. I’ll take it to CAG.”