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.”
A very few minutes later, the CAG, or air wing commander, having been fully briefed by the squadron XO, rang off with the ship’s Captain on the bridge, concluding, “Concur, Skipper. We’ll catch him on the first look, and if we don’t, we’ll send him straight to the tanker on the bolter or wave-off. In fact, I’ll have the tanker drag him out towards Bahrain once he gets aboard, if it comes to it. That’ll give us some time to think about our next move.”
Up on the darkened bridge, the Captain rubbed his face wearily – God it had been a long day – the morning’s alongside refueling seemed to have happened months ago, even in a different life. He’d done that on less than four hours of frequently interrupted sleep, and had only managed to carve out two twenty minute naps during the course of the day. He shook his head wearily. Ten days until we hit Bahrain, he thought, and I can maybe get a full night’s sleep.
The CO shook his head and smiled wryly at the thought of how far he’d come from the old days, from being a headstrong junior officer in a fighter squadron: In those heady days, a pilot – required by official safety instructions to get eight hours of continuous rest – could brag about how much sleep he’d gotten during the course of a night. Popular pieces of wardroom pith, passed down from generation to generation, included, “if you can sleep 12 hours per night, it’s only a three month cruise,” and “I only need eight hours sleep a day. Whatever I get at night is gravy!”
On the other hand, when going ashore on liberty as a young man, the challenge used to be to cram as much living as possible into each and every day – a man who was lucky and had no duty to stand aboard ship might go five days in port on 15-20 hours sleep, catching up only when the ship got underway again.
Well, he thought: You’ve come a long way, baby. To command at sea is to win the prize, he reminded himself, counting his blessings. But in a secret part of himself that no one else could see into, that he would let no one see into, he had to admit that it could also be a dreadful burden. Every day there were ten thousand important decisions that had to be made aboard an aircraft carrier at sea, and of all those, only he could make five hundred to a thousand of them.
Decisions like this one. He was not entirely content with the plan to recover the lieutenant junior grade, circling aft of the ship some thirty miles away – or at least, the Captain corrected himself, he will be behind the ship once we turn into the wind. At the moment, the young man was actually off the ship”s bow as she raced more or less downwind, poaching 45 degrees to the west, towards the divert airfield at Shaikh Isa, in Bahrain. Closing the difference. Just in case.
The bridge watch was hushed, the atmosphere strained. The ship was making 30 knots on the darkest night of the month, and each watch stander had a vivid recollection of nearly running over that dhow, two hours ago. That nearly unlit dhow, of fragile, radar absorbing wood, that had emerged as if from nowhere and had run aboard them close like a nightmare looming out of the darkness – God, how close it had been. The dhow that had itself been running towards Bahrain, though at nothing like so fast as 30 knots. Somewhere in the darkness, each member of the bridge watch knew, their courses would again converge, then cross – the math was inescapable. The only question in their minds was whether the 100,000-ton carrier would still be on that course, or whether, through fortune more than design, she would have safely turned again back into the wind, to catch the evening’s final recovery.
The Captain flicked a penlight on to double-check the FA-18C divert fuel requirements, the “bingo” fuel states. Shaikh Isa was 140 miles away -in a “double bubble,” or two drop tank Hornet, that was a Bingo of 2.3 – twenty-three hundred pounds of fuel required. If the pilot turned right to the divert heading, accelerated rapidly to optimum climb airspeed, climbed smoothly on the target mach number to the correct altitude, started his idle power descent at the right range from the air field ” if all these things were done perfectly by a struggling pilot, someone cursing himself for his incompetence while “killing snakes in the cockpit” ” and if no outside interference came from the sometimes obdurate Bahraini air traffic control – then the Hornet would be on deck with nearly ten minutes of excess fuel. Not so very much.
The Captain shook his head again, sadly now: The young pilot would be “on the ball” with no more than 2.5 useable gas, two thousand pounds stuck in the right drop tank, useless. The CAG’s plan, which he had reluctantly agreed to, would have the pilot circle to rendezvous with the overhead tanker before getting on the bingo profile. The rendezvous would burn time and gas – but how much? How quickly could a rattled pilot get aboard the tanker? How long would it take before he started transferring gas? What if the tanker went “sour” mid-cycle, and couldn’t pass gas?
The CO grimaced tautly, sighed. These are CAG’s concerns, he thought. Air wing stuff. I need to worry about the ship, let CAG worry about the jets. He picked up a sound-powered circuit on the console to the left of his chair, buzzed twice, waited for the landing signal officer to reply: “Paddles, this is the Captain. Your man in 311 has been struggling to get aboard – I think you know that. He’s going to be “trick or treat” on the ball, with trapped gas and a long divert if he bolters. I want you guys to talk to him early if he needs it – step into the cockpit with him and give him a hand. Take control if you have to. I want him catch him on the first look if possible. But hear you this: Don’t you take any trash from him. If he’s out of parameters, or not responding, get rid of him. We’ll deal with what happens after, after. Got it?”
“Yes sir,” replied the young LSO before hanging up the handset, stressing more than he would like to have done, and privately fuming. Just drive your fricken boat, old man, he thought. You do your job, I’ll do mine. The phone circuit buzzed again, twice, imperiously – he grimaced, but the voice he used to answer up was mild, pleasant – never let them see you sweat: “Yes sir?”
“Just one more thing, paddles,” the Captain added, smiling slightly in spite of himself: “No pressure.”
“OK, skipper. No pressure.”
Down in CATCC, the XO gathered himself before speaking into the UHF radio handset, “Good news, Skipper – we’re taking you guys first – you need to head down to angels six to take a couple hundred pounds off the tanker ” if that doesn’t unstick 311′s drop tank, have him stop transfer on the left. The trapped gas there will put him back in asymmetric limits for the landing. Worst comes to worst, he can use that gas after he bolters on the way to Shaikh Isa.”
“304, roger,” replied the squadron CO before switching to his aux radio. “Good news, pard ” they’re taking us first.”
“311, roger,” answered the wingman, suddenly realizing that in the gloomy tension of his cockpit, his right hand had been “squeezing the black juice” out of the control stick while he had been waiting for the invisible and unknowable forces that governed his fate to come to a decision – any decision – about the next half hour of his life. Or maybe, he reflected, about the rest of it. “Good news.”
(To be continued...)