In the bad old days of the Cold War – back when everybody planned on ending the world, but (unlike today) nobody actually meant anything by it – aircraft carriers entering port at Subic Bay, the Republic of the Philippines would launch a two-ship of combat air patrol, or CAP prior to entering harbor.
The PI is an archipelagic nation, meaning that while there are certain clearly defined constraints placed on surface ship navigation – running aground not least – there are some additional oddities in international law that apply to overflight of what would ordinarily be sovereign national airspace: This results in two codicils within the body of law, the first a “right of archipelagic passage” and a second, more restricted right, the sometimes euphemistically labeled “right of innocent passage.”
Through ancient custom and the international law of the sea (which are nearly the same thing), countries have the right to the sovereign control of their airspace and seas extending 12 nautical miles beyond their terrestrial limit, measured at low tide.
But a problem arises if archipelagic nations – clusters of islands scattered about hither and yon – attempt to enforce control of their separate islands’ interlocking 12nm limits: Vast swathes of the ocean sea would be non-navigable to foreign ships without prior permission from the archipelagic sovereign. Archipelagic and innocent passage are therefore designed to permit transit through the archipelagic seas so long as that passage is “for the sole purpose of continuous, expeditious, and unobstructed transit in the normal mode of operations.”
Which could mean different things to different people. To a US aircraft carrier heading into Subic for some well-deserved liberty ashore it meant wrapping the deck nice and tidy and making herself pretty for the pier. But for them godless communists out there yonder it meant a chance to “innocently” overfly an imperialist running dog capitalist aircraft carrier what with its drawers down and napping, like – on account of the lack of air cover that was in it.
Which would never do, because it was written somewhere in the bible – Old Testament, I believe – that any battle group commander who allowed his flagship to be overflown by a Tupolev that wasn’t being bird dogged by one of his own fighters would spend the eternity in hell, roasting over a slow fire with a spit up his arse. I’m nearly sure it was in the bible because for all those Cold War years they put the rest of us through hell to prevent it, but anyways.
So if you couldn’t be overflown, and you couldn’t develop a plan for alert fighters because you couldn’t rely on having the sea space necessary to turn into the wind to launch ‘em, what you could do was launch a gate guard of CAP before entering territorial waters and then tank the hell out of ‘em until the ship entered the harbor.
That two ship was us.
At first we were kind of excited, my wingman and I, entrusted as we were with protecting a $5 billion national treasure and the 5,000-odd souls embarked upon her from the Soviet Menace. But while a twenty mile cap leg takes not quite three minutes to run in a fighter moving at 420 knots ground speed, it takes a great deal longer for an 80,000 aircraft carrier picking its ginger way past the shoal waters approaching the outer roads to the harbor. Time has a way of dragging on CAP, especially when the Red Horde chose that particular day to take a sabbatical from harassment.
The ship gave us an S-3 tanker to help us while away the hours and replenish the fuel tanks while he was at it. Those of you who have been lucky enough to fly the War Hoover have no doubt a fuller comprehension of its “performance” envelope, but it was an unwelcome surprise to your correspondent to discover – after a tactical, comm-out trail, rendezvous – that the damn thing flies at a mere 150 knots or so when they are holding at max endurance airspeed.
Now the Hornet flies that fast in the landing configuration with the flaps down full and the rollers in the breeze, so when we snuck up on ‘em unawares, we also ended up by racing right past ‘em, claws scrabbling disgracefully like a pair of great danes trying to stop for supper on waxed linoleum floor. Oh, we had the throttles on the idle stops, speedbrakes out, maneuvering flaps deployed and we were just that close to opening the canopies too since leading a two-ship formation of strike fighters into an under-run – in the plain view of an S-3 crew, the great, gabbling gossips that they were, just plain looks bad.
And – as long time readers know – it is better to die than look bad.
We briefly considered – and then sadly, but quickly rejected – the notion of ejecting just for the shame that was in it. But, no: Our pride might be hurt, but this was bigger than the two of us. After all, the carrier – our ocean home, and a centerpiece of the national maritime strategy – was still out there counting on us. And anyways there was every chance that after a first night ashore in ages – in the PI, no less – no one would remember much of anything about this day. Fingers crossed.
The S-3 crew woke up as we flew by them and accelerated their jet just as we completed cross-controlling our own airframes (wing down and top rudder throws the flat part of the jet into the breeze) to try and slow down. The net result of all this of course was that they rubber-banded past us again and we found ourselves – we, who had after all come there seeking gas – having to run the throttles up into afterburner just to get out of the performance trough we’d placed ourselves in.
It was a right Bartholomew Fair there for a bit, but we finally got in the basket and got our gas, just as the ship turned the corner on the inner roads. At this point they were under the protection of the Philippine Air Force – sighs of relief all the way ’round, no doubt – and our mission was complete.
Which was perfect for us, because, newly topped off with S-3 gas and with a small case of the a$$ from the aforementioned, three-ring rendezvous circus we were able to climb back up to altitude, clear the S-3 out of the way and engage in a bit of the old BFM, clawing and scraping at one another until I emerged victorious – this is my story – after which it was time to go and land at Cubi Point, the airfield across the bay from Subic.
It says something about the speed an 80,000 ton ship will use when approaching the pier, the usage rates of aviation fuel when you’re operating in full grunt and the time it takes to zip the distance from a gate guard CAP to the airfield that we were on deck and buying beer before the ship had her first mooring line across.
When the brow came down, bringing with it a cohort of thirsty air wing pilots and NFO’s already grown impatient with ship drivers and their tortuously deliberate ways, we were waiting on the pier with cold beers in hand making us not merely two hours of flight time richer, but also the acknowledged heroes of the day.
Which was at the end of the day, the really important thing.