Perspicacious readers will have by now noted that your hosts store of “there I was” stories of naval derring-do have, well: diminished. Either through the telling, distance or the egregious assaults made by father time upon our brain cells.
So we’re offering up a guest posting position to one Whisper, active FA-18 pilot and patriot. See how that goes.
So without further ado, here y’are.
It was a black overcast night that ended with an OK 3-wire – which on the good ship G.H.W. BUSH is of course your last chance to stop, but I “ticked the two to the three”, so paddles thought it fine enough to call OK. The trap came at the end of a 3.5 hour mission over south central Florida where we were simulating what we expect to be doing in Afghanistan this summer. That mission is, of course, the direct support of combat troops on the ground. My WSO, LT Andy “Dickens!” Hurst, guided a 500-pound inert bomb into a vehicle with devastating accuracy resulting in a metal-on-metal impact that was every bit as exciting as many of the live bombs that I have dropped.
We then came around and made two strafing passes expending a total of 150 rounds of 20mm ball ammo. Strafing on this upcoming deployment will be much different than it was on my first deployment. In 2003 we employed the gun from a much higher altitude, using it almost as an area weapon for providing suppressive fire. My gun runs last night were nothing of the sort. We press the attacks in much closer now, and are very good at providing precise target effects for troops in contact. And this is one of the areas where the two-seat Super Hornet shines. You see, strafing at night is an intrinsically insane thing to do. You start-off by putting yourself in a twenty to thirty degree dive at five hundred knots with binocular night vision goggles strapped to your face. In this already disoriented state you now fire a six-barreled canon sitting approximately six feet in front of you that is effectively blinding. Through the goggles it looks like going to “warp” in Star Trek. Awesome. There are two great things about having a guy sitting behind you in this situation. First of all, he works the FLIR and puts the target designation right where he wants the bullets to go. Then all I have to do is put the gun pipper on the target diamond and squeeze the trigger. Secondly, he yells at you if you try to fly into the ground (which you are very close to at this point). Put the thing on the thing, squeeze the thing, then pull like hell on the stick. Catch your breath and take another lap around the pattern.
No graduate level strike-fighter training sortie could be called complete in the naval service without a trip to the tanker. Of course the tanker of choice for making an already exciting night even better is the USAF KC-135. In a Frankenstein-esque way that displays their true affection for the idea, the USAF grudgingly retrofits their strategic tanker for refueling Navy aircraft. The rigid boom that they normally poke in to the dorsal of an Air Force jet is hence modified to accommodate the reverse mentality of naval tanking. At the end of the extended boom sits a six foot piece of hard rubber hose with a king size inflexible badminton birdie attached to the very end. Whereas my normal M.O. is to put my probe in a soft flexible basket and push a certain amount of hose back into the tanker in order to make fuel flow to my jet, getting gas from the KC-135 “Iron Maiden” requires getting into the basket and bending aforementioned piece of rigid hose into a “C” shape in order for fuel to flow. I’m sure that guy lying on his belly in the boom pod gets a real kick out of watching the jousting match. Of course this is all made extra exciting by the utter darkness of it all. Tanking complete and all of our ordnance expended, we head back down to the restricted airspace below to support a small team of guys that is driving around a neighborhood in suburban Florida and needs us to be their eyes in the sky.
Armed Overwatch is what we call it, and it’s a pretty cool mission too. Soon it’s time to head back to sea so that we aren’t late for our scheduled recovery time aboard BUSH. The bright lights of South Florida fade behind us and then disappear completely as we punch into the cloud bank offshore. Dickens! checks the flight through the appropriate frequencies until we are given our holding instructions and join the conga line behind the ship, at which point we separate into singles and take separation for landing at sixty second intervals. Gear down, flaps full, hook down, ¾ mile call the ball. #300. Done.
There’s really nothing that significant about having 300 traps, it’s actually kinda below average for my peer group. I flew some long flights on the first cruise (vice a lot of short ones) and helped save a lot of lives after the tsunami on my second deployment.
No regrets. In reflection, the most significant thing about this flight is that it was really no source of great stress for us. It’s what we do, and we’re out here doing it day in and day out. Very soon we will be certified “surge ready” and be on the hook to do the Nation’s bidding at a moment’s notice.
No big deal.