A quarter mile to go, almost there, five seconds, all the world he cared about a-tiptoe, holding its breath. The big tanker pulling abeam the fighter on approach.
The blue shirt working his way aft to the deck edge elevator, tripping across an night enshrouded tie-down chain, reeling suddenly to his right, arms grasping for purchase in the darkness, legs churning underneath him, fighting for his footing, stumbling across the foul line before falling to his knees, head bowed. Disgraced.
The arresting gear officer facing forward on the starboard side aft, his back to the approaching Hornet, seeing the blue shirt fall across the foul line and taking his thumb off the dead-man switch, like he’d been trained.
The deck status light turning from green to red. The sudden shout on the LSO platform, “FOUL DECK!” The momentary pause, considering, rejecting, releasing: “Wave-off, wave-off. Foul deck.” Hitting the guarded button on the pickle, the red lights flashing on their backs. Regretfully. Nothing to be done – just the way things are.
An explosive, unitary curse on the bridge, in the tower, in the cockpit of the AT2′s jet undergoing maintenance. A chorus of disbelieving shouts and curses in CATCC, in the ready room, in maintenance control, across the ship.
Full power and catch the AOA, harsh language in his mask before taking a ragged breath and keying the mike, “311 airborne.”
“311 approach, roger. Take angels one-point-two, your tanker at right one o’clock and one mile, report plugged and receiving.”
Christ, the JG thought to himself, raising his landing gear, waiting … there. Now up come the flaps and fighting the tendency for the jet to settle back into the darkness as the flaps retracted, down into the greedy darkness. Christ, a foul deck wave-off after all that work – haven’t I got enough to contend with? This run of negative thoughts was increased rather than reduced as he got his cockpit scan moving again, a safe rate of climb having been established. His eyes flickered down to the fuel display – 4400 pounds total, but just 2200 useable, he reminded himself. Two thousand pounds and change just stuck there on the starboard wing, useless. And 2200 pounds of useable gas was just 400 pounds above barricade fuel state.
Barricade, he thought, shuddering. The JG felt a familiar brown buzz in the back of his skull, the voices trying to get louder, the demons trying to get out of the boxes he had stuffed them into during the approach. Again the cockpit pressed in on him – not gradually this time, but with a sudden vigor, like a savage beast leaping out of the darkness. He momentarily shrank within himself, feeling the same helpless fear of the night before. Here we go again, the thought: Cue the music. The circus has come to town.
He could imagine the flight deck crewman looking up to the air boss in his tower for guidance: Rig the barricade net? Even as that worthy was no doubt on a phone conference with the ship’s Captain and LSO’s – hell, maybe even the admiral. Using the barricade would cause well over a hundred thousand dollars of damage to his aircraft, a “Class A” mishap on his permanent record. And it wasn’t like a barricade was a walk in the park, either. They were last resorts, dangerous as hell – reduced hook-to-ramp clearance and shutting the engines off on the LSO command. No motors airborne? Talk about committed. He briefly wondered if anyone had ever even attempted a barricade arrestment in a Hornet, a plastic jet, wracking his mind: Yes, he remembered – at least once before. Paddles showed us the video back in the replacement squadron. Back when all of this seemed just so much fun and none of it was hard.
Focus: Best to focus on the task at hand, a small voice reminded him, there’s work to do and you’re now at 2100 pounds useable gas. There’s the tanker at one o’clock, gear and flaps are up. Air-to-air mode and GUN ACQ selected on the weapons control switch – good lock.
Having a task to perform, a task he knew he could accomplish, quieted the voices of doubt and fear in the back of his skull, pushed the bulkheads out just that littlest bit. Three quarters of a mile and 110 ten knots of closure – a little hot – tanker must be: Yes, he’s already turning and I’m going acute – need to go to lag, ease back, control the closure. Hate to under-run, not when I need the gas so badly. And not when I’m so damned low – never tanked at 1200 feet before, and certainly never this low at night. It sure would be nice just to climb a bit. Get away from the water. Which is always there, the JG thought, unconsciously parroting one of his flight leads. Even when you can’t see it.
He took his eye off the tanker for a moment to reset his radar altimeter warning pointer, setting it back up to 1100 feet – back up from the 500 foot level set for the approach. Back immediately to the rendezvous, and there was the big tanker waiting for him, 1000 feet away, closure under control, and yes: the basket is already streamed, good man – two thousand pounds. Let’s do this the first try.
Once again aboard in close formation, port side to the tanker. “Cleared in, 311″ on the UHF, the tanker pilot’s sense of shared urgency overcoming the Navy’s usual custom of comm-out refueling procedure. Once again the low rumble of the refueling probe extending, the disturbed air coughing hoarsely against the canopy. Once again the customary sight picture, forward easy, forward, a little right wing down, right rudder, up and in. Push the hose forward, amber light to green, eyes flickering to the fuel gauge, and yes! Good transfer. “Approach, 311, plugged and receiving,” thought: Seems only moments ago. Answering himself, because it was.
“311, Approach, roger, report Texaco complete.”
“Been talking to your rep in CATCC. They say tank you three-point-three useable for your next approach.”
The JO pondered this briefly, did the math silently, concurred: He’d burn eight hundred pounds for the approach, putting him back on the ball with 2.5 – too low for a bingo, but right at max trap weight, what with all the gas stuck in his starboard drop tank, plus the FLIR pod and the missiles.
“Roger, sounds good.” Relaxing now a bit further. Get a bit of gas, he thought. Try it again. I can keep this up as long as you can.
Quickly – far too quickly! – the green light on the refueling store turned amber again. The tanker pilot’s voice: “311, you’re complete. See you on deck.”
“311, roger,” waspishly, thinking to himself: That’s what you said the last time.
Backing out slowly, slowly out of the basket. Head check right – no traffic. Cross under to the starboard side, up and forward. The natural temptation was to leave, to switch off freq and leave the tanker pilot to his own devices, but no: Standard operating procedure and courtesy required him to stay in starboard echelon until the refueling hose was securely stowed back inside the pod. A red-lensed flashlight moving back and forth rapidly in the tanker’s cockpit – back to comm-out procedures, the JG thought. He looked aft and watched as the refueling drogue and hose snaked back towards the stowed position of the refueling pod, smoothly, rapidly, and then suddenly stopping, six feet out, waving in the air. Not quite home.
A pregnant pause. The JG suddenly aware of his breathing in the O2 mask again, a hoarse rattle. In. Out. In. Out.
“311, 104, I’m showing a fault light on the retract.”
“That’s affirm, 104. Your basket stopped about six feet from the stowed position. You’ve got some hose left out.”
The JG watched with increasing interest – nothing.
“Did it go back out?” the tanker pilot asked, his own voice rising in tone.
“Roger, I’m going to try the override,” adding after a moment’s pause, “What luck? I’m still showing a fault light.”
“Yeah, it didn’t move at all. Still trailing about six feet of hose and the basket.”
A new voice breaking in on prime freq: “311, approach, say your state?”
“311, ah – two-point-nine useable.”
“Copy 2.9. Report ready to come aboard.”
“311, 104 – go ahead and start down. I’ll continue to troubleshoot up here. See you on deck.”
“311, roger. Approach, 311 is ready to commence.”
“311 approach, roger. Switch button sixteen, check in.”
“311.” The JG switched off the tanker frequency and up to approach, checking in as directed. He rogered radar vectors to the downwind heading of 175, and then in a moment of curiosity, dialed the tanker control frequency in to his aux radio receiver, heard the tanker pilot talking to what he presumed was the Departure Controller.
“Ican’t, ah. Can’t retract or deploy the hose, Departure. I’ve tried override and that’s all that I’ve got left on the checklist. One-oh-four is a sour tanker.”
“Copy, 104, sour tanker.”
“Departure, say bingo for FA-18 Charlie’s?” the tanker pilot asked.
“FA-18 bingo 3.3, divert airfield is Bahrain International.”
“OK, you guys realize that 311 is now below bingo and I’m sour, correct?”
A new voice breaking in on the UHF, the ship’s Captain by the sound of it. God almighty himself, sounding pretty weary: “That’s right, 104. He’s trick or treat, the hard way. He doesn’t know it yet, but he has to land here – we’re out of options. We’ll give him one look at the wires, then rig the barricade if we have to. If that doesn’t work we’ll eject him alongside, fish him out with a SAR helo. You worry about you, and that fouled store.”
“Oh, and 104?” the Captain added, “He doesn’t need to know about this.”
“Copy that, sir.”
No, thought the JG. He certainly doesn’t.