Thursday, July 30, 2015

Our Galaxy, Nothing Special Really

If you can get away from the light pollution of the city and allow your eyes to adjust to the dark which doesn't take long, you can see some things.  And if you can see this and have a small telescope you can see a lot more.  Take a red light with you as your eyes do not need to adjust between red light and darkness.  Don't worry about Roxanne, she'll be fine.

This is the visible section from our vantage point of the Milky Way galaxy.  Our galaxy. Imagine what early civilizations who had no light pollution at all could see and what they may have thought about these sights.  Many of the concepts we have today such as astrology and navigation came from early man studying the stars. Magellan - Columbus - navigated the globe on wooden sailing ships using the stars as a compass.  It seems people were a lot brighter back in the day.

As always, click the picture to go to the APOD site and read a description by a smart person.  In this case, clicking on the picture there won't get you a much larger version.

The Milky Way over Ayers Rock, the Big Red Rock, in Australia.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Note to obama Regards Being Elected A 3rd Time

That's right, you could be elected a 3rd time.  But you'd be elected by a majority of losers.  People who are paid via the Welfare system created by LBJ to enslave the black people for another 200 years, people who are enslaved by the public and private unions who would likely take a huge pay cut and/or have to put a lot more effort into the weekly paycheck and are parasites upon the valuable people of America who work hard and pay taxes, people who are paid to immigrate here from Mexico and the Middle East and also live off of the taxpayers, and people who have been uneducated in the communist public school indoctrination system created by another imbecile - Jimmy Carter and who are imbeciles as well.

So, yea, you could be elected a 3rd time.  Not by America though.  Dig it ?

Thank God for the Constitution.

Friday, July 24, 2015

If Athiests Can Protest Religion in the Public Square,

and make hay with it, why can't we protest having this LGBT crap shoved down our throats in the public square, the news media, the TV shows and everywhere else ?

It's the same thing.

Get the jenner pictures OFF of my news feed.  Hey, it's not just in articles where jenner is in the headline.  Those I can avoid, and yes you could make the argument that I just need to change the channel and not click on the article. But, I open an article on the F-35 program and a picture of jenner's ugly puss in a dress is on the right sidebar.  Gotcha.

Conservatives need to stop laying down.  People who are not interested in this lifestyle need to stop laying down.

And here's a tip for any lib progressives.  No one has to like you.  No one has to like LGBT people.  No one has to like or even accept moslem vermin. Got a problem with that?  Fine - convince me you have no problem with white (or even black) Conservatives.  You Love us right?  Yea, thought so.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Public Service Announcement - WAKE UP !

Hat Tip: Carols Blog

Here it is.  This is happening all over Europe and it is happening more and more in America.

Translations:  Asylum Seeker = moslem vermin, Immigrant = moslem vermin, Refugee = moslem vermin.

This isn't just Sweden, or Denmark.  It's happening in England (a moslem gang in the UK was found to be regularly raping 1400 English Teenage girls.  The Local authorities said they didn't do anything because they didn't want to offend the moslem vermin as I read in one of the many articles available on this subject.

This is happening in France.  The moslem vermin torch 100 cars a night in France.  They've been doing it for years.

This is happening in Germany.  Germany is importing massive numbers of moslem vermin who are living on welfare, then marching down the street with signs talking about cutting German heads off.  In the meantime, their criminal and savage activities are turning Germany into a Shit Hole. Germans like you and I are paying for this abuse.
With the global financial economy, we're also likely paying for it.

This is happening all over Europe.

Here is a letter a fellow blogger got from her stepson in Germany describing the horrible situation.

In the meantime, the USA is importing large numbers of moslems, and the immigration people freely admit they couldn't tell you whether any of these people are ISIS or not.  And it doesn't matter if they're ISIS or not. These people coming in are all criminal sadistic moslems with no regard for local customs or laws. What are these countries thinking?  What is America thinking?

Sounds incredible doesn't it.  The situation is actually Much Worse.

The time to start focusing on this problem was 20 years ago, so obviously now would be a good time.

Note that moslems have no intention of integrating into American society.  Their religion, which is actually a cult will not let them.  They'd be renouncing islam in order to accommodate the human rights elements found here in the USA.  They're not immigrants, they are invaders.

My prediction is that America will be a shit hole as well before most people notice and ask 'wha happen'

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Worth Noting

obama couldn't secure the release of 4 Americans held in Iran as part of a deal to give Iran everything they wanted in this Nuklar deal.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Proof That You Should Subscribe to Bill Whittle's Youtube Channel Immediately.

Here are a couple posts from his old blog Called Eject, Eject, Eject.

Bill had this figured out before most of us.

You can't go wrong subscribing to Bill's you tube channel.  See last post and go from there.

Today, a potpourri of items.  Nailed them all.

Seeing the unseen, Part 1

Seeing the Unseen, Part 2

Not that long of a read, regardless the intro warning. 

Bonus Feature - Tribes was about the Katrina Fiasco. 

Enjoy. Take your time.

Monday, July 6, 2015

A Thousand Pardons

I fixed that last post if you were reading it and having trouble with the out of sequence chapters and partial area bad text formatting.


Saturday, July 4, 2015

What Do American Servicemen do For Us

On This Independence Day, I am Honored to have the ability to present to you one man's perspective on serving America as an FA-18 Pilot aboard an aircraft carrier in the Arabian Sea circa the Iraq war post 2003.  It not only describes what it is like for pilots, but for many other service members who support aircraft operations on the deck of an aircraft carrier.

This was written by Carroll Lefon, Naval Aviator, TopGun, Commander of TopGun, Test Pilot, Contractor for ATAC who trained tomorrows Top Guns at Fallon Air Base Nevada.  He blogged as Neptunus Lex.
He's not with us any more.  Lex is on the left in this pic.  The aircraft is an Israeli Kfir jet.

 Another picture.

Lex the younger man.

It's a bit of a long read for a blog post but one of the best I've ever laid eyes on.  You don't have to read it all at once.

This is a book he wrote entitled Rhythms. 

Some Lex heading off to one of the training missions.

Update:  I discovered with some help that the chapters were out of order and there was some corruption of the text.  This has been fixed.

Rhythms - One Single Day Aboard an Aircraft Carrier at War.

Chapter 1
0330 - the alarm goes off in a coffin rack in the Ops berthing. A hand gropes in the darkness behind the rack curtains to silence the alarm. The curtains serve as a demarcation line - they mark this space as the owners. This space is his only privacy, the only thing that is truly his own in a berthing area shared with 100 other men, themselves stacked in bunk beds three high, arrayed in cells that fade into the greater darkness.
He is only 19 years old, and a third class operations specialist and what he wants more than anything else in the world is to go back to sleep. All around him are the exhalations of 75 deeply tired, deeply sleeping men - the rest are on watch and it’s his task to relieve them in 30 minutes. When he gets there he has to be fully awake, so he turns the reading light on above his rack, hoping that the flicker and buzz of the light bulb as it starts up will help him shake off his torpor. He shares responsibility for the safety of the ship, and the 5000 people on board. Most of whom he does not know. Most of whom are still asleep, and will be for hours.
His rating is undermanned, but his watchstation is critical. The combination means that he stands “port and starboard” watches - six hours on, six hours off. For as long as the ship is at sea, or at least until more watchstanders can be trained. He will never in all that intervening time get more than five and one half hours of uninterrupted sleep. This has been his life now almost as far back as he can remember. It will be this way as far forward as he can see. His last time ashore - his last port visit - was over a month ago. The next one is three weeks away. Both are unimaginably distant at 0330 in the morning. The one passed seems to have happened in another life, to someone else. The one in the future seems… theoretical.
He looks at his wristwatch - 25 minutes until he must be on station. He sighs, rubs his face, and jumps down to the deck. Other Sailors move with him in the darkness, getting into their bathrobes, some merely putting on their coveralls. He heads to the showers. With so few people moving about, he might even take a “Hollywood” shower: Six or even seven minutes under the continuous flow of hot, fresh water. It would feel luxurious. It would feel like cheating. He smiles in the darkness, just thinking about it.
Once dressed, he skips the chow line - not enough time. He steps into the Combat Direction Center and lets his eyes adjust to the darkness, lit here and there by hooded fluorescent lights and blue-grey radar screens. The darkness makes it hard to stay alert, but the effect is countered in part by the cold air that is forced throughout the space to keep the computers and displays from overheating. And although his ship is in the Arabian Gulf in the summer time, and it’s still beastly hot on deck, even before the sunrise, he wears a pea coat at his watch station to keep from shivering.
He arrives at his watch console carrying a coke and a can of Pringles. The one will serve for him as coffee would for his elders, the chief on watch as Ship’s Weapons Coordinator, the Lieutenant serving as the Tactical Action Officer. The Pringles are his breakfast. Or maybe his dinner - he’s not sure which. He relieves the man on watch and settles into the freshly vacated seat. He runs his eyes across the console, places his hand upon the trackball and sees that all is as it should be. He sighs. Six more hours.

Chapter 2
0540 - The Officer of the Deck checks his watch again. He’s been looking at it ever 90 seconds or so for the last half hour. Within the last 5 minutes, this rate has increased to every 15 to 20 seconds. He scans the Captain’s night orders by the binnacle light once more. He watches the second hand sweep round. Again. Thirty seconds to go, he picks up the phone receiver, but holds the cradle in the down position - Finally: At exactly 0545 he rings the Captain in his at-sea cabin.
The Captain has been dreaming of the wooden deck he’s going to lay in on the back porch - it will stretch out from the master bedroom window, allowing him and the missus to take in the morning paper with the sunrise and a cup of coffee. In the dream he feels the roughness of the wood against the calluses of his hands, but he envisions the sanding and staining which will render it smooth to the touch - this is an art he knows well, and he smiles in his sleep to think on it. It is only a fragment of a dream, though - he got to sleep well after 0100, and was, as usual, awoken several times through the night for traffic reports from the bridge, or systems report from Combat, or engineering reports from Damage Control Central. A warship at sea never sleeps, and its Captain sleeps only a very little - there is much to do, an he is responsible for everything. He can delegate his authority to his subordinates - the accountability for the execution of the mission and the safety of the ship rests always with him.
The ringing of his wake up call brings a moment’s disorientation as he awakens to the darkened cabin - the room is barely lit by the ghostly glow of two radar repeaters, covered with red lenses. One is is a repeater of the commercial Furuno radar, and shows surface traffic that might hazard the navigational safety of the ship. There are the great oil tankers heading into and out of Bandar Abbas, often crewed by only one monoglot merchant sailor on the bridge who might or might not know and obey the rules of the road. There are the small dhows that have plied the water for time immemorial, whose pilots put their faith in their God for the safety of the vessel and it’s crew, ignoring all other hazards - including 100,000 tons of American diplomacy which might suddenly loom up from the darkness at 20 knots. There are every size and shape of sea-going vessel in between.
The other display is a repeater of the tactical display down in CDC, the same picture the TAO is looking at. The same picture the third class operations specialist is helping to maintain. That display is also designed for the safety of the ship, but the threats it will highlight will be of an altogether different and more malignant sort than those displayed on the navigation radar. Surface and air traffic will be analyzed against their electronic emissions. Air traffic will be evaluated by altitude, airspeed and proximity to known air traffic lanes. The mass of Iran looms no great distance to starboard, and at the coast the rugged terrain of the Zagros mountains thrusts rapidly up into the air, hiding any low-altitude air threat east of that range behind its radar shadow. All throughout the deployment in these waters, many pairs of watchful eyes will flicker again and again to that seam.
The Captain struggles fully awake, his dream already fading and in a moment lost to the cares of the day. After a brief shower, he dons his coveralls, walks forward the dozen paces to the bridge, and hears the bosun’s mate of the watch make his customary announcement, shouting, “Captain’s on the bridge!” The Navigator awaits him on the starboard side, if anything more tired than the Captain himself. He walks a respectful pace behind the CO as he takes his place in the sacred chair on the bridge’s port side. Two cups of coffee are provided. A brief report.
Below them, on the waist catapults, an E-2C Hawkeye thrums and throbs on deck, waiting to launch. They are the dawn patrol, and will serve to extend the eyes and ears of the battle group as the sun rises over the Zagros to the east. The Air Boss in his tower some sixty or seventy yards back mashes an annunciator button on his console, “requesting the deck,” requesting permission to launch the E-2. The Captain checks the winds - right down the angle at 27 knots - nods in satisfaction and presses his own button in return. Permission granted.
On the island, a flashing red light is replaced by a flashing yellow one. Down on the flight deck below, a throng of tired, patient Sailors, until moments before as frozen as statues in anticipation of this moment, suddenly come to life. Their pores open in the dawn’s dead heat and sudden movement, rivulets of sweat drip down from under their cranial protectors, past the eye guards and down their turtleneck jerseys - they know, in a resigned way, that much worse is to come as the day wears on.
The yellow-shirted director gives the come-ahead signal with his lighted flashlight wands. Green shirts scuttle under the nose gear, guiding the launch bar into position, white-shirted quality assurance reps give the E-2 once last look-over as the wings spread gracefully, and lock. Blue shirts stand by like stolid beasts of burden with wheel chocks in their arms and tie-down chains looped over their shoulders.
The light on the island turns green, and in one smooth, practiced gesture, the flight deck director signals the deck-edge catapult operator to take tension, and signals the pilot to go to full power and release brakes. The throb of the E-2’s props turns to a loud moan, and vapor traces swirl from the spinning disks of the propellors. The catapult shuttle pulls at the aircraft’s launch bar, adding its thrust to that of the engines - forward motion is checked by the holdback fitting, behind the nose landing gear - the yellow shirt passes control to the catapult officer - in the cockpit the pilots agree that their machine is airworthy and in the back, the flight officers strapped into their seats hold onto their harnesses in the unrelieved darkness and think their private thoughts as the airframe bucks and fights against all the forces which collide in shivering opposition. The pilot salutes the cat officer even as he turns on his exterior lights, signaling agreement to launch. The cat officer salutes back and once more checks that the airspace in front of the catapult is clear, that the deck edge operator stands with his hands in the air, approving of his settings, but for the moment safely away from the launch button itself, that the troubleshooters are all showing thumbs up, meaning that no mechanical flaws have been discovered. Satisfied, the cat officer takes a knee and touches the flight deck with his wand - when he raises it again and points it down the deck, everyone will be committed. This has all taken perhaps 15 seconds to elapse.
Up it comes. The deck edge operator looks forward, aft and down - he mashes the launch button and the E-2 goes rattling down the catapult track, into the humid light now peeking in from the east. Once clear of the deck, the pilot actuates his radio and calls Departure Control: “Departure, 601 airborne.”
The Captain in his chair checks his watch, even as the bosun of the watch rings four bells and announces “Reveille, reveille - all hands brace out and trice up. The smoking lamp is lit. Reveille,” on the 1MC announcing system. It’s 0600. The captain nods - so far, so good.
The day is just beginning.


Chapter 3
0630 - The alarm goes off in the squadron commander’s stateroom. His hand flails around in the darkness, trying to find it, trying to silence it. It is absurdly early for a carrier pilot at sea to wake up - he landed at 2330 last night, finished debriefing at 0100, wrote a brief email home at 0125 and fell into a restless sleep at 0145. Being on flight status, he is required by regulation to get eight hours of uninterrupted rest whenever possible, and from the way he feels right now, he knows that he is well short of that number.
He finds the alarm and shuts it down, he drifts back towards the land of nod. Just when he is at the point of no return, he remembers: He is charged with conning the carrier alongside the oiler today for an at-sea refueling. He must be on the bridge by 0715, ready to take the conn. He must be awake when he does so: When the carrier is alongside the oiler, separated by 150 feet of tensioned span wire and refueling hose, 175,000 tons of grey-hulled steel will be a half lob wedge away from each other, and he will be responsible for ensuring that they neither close to putting distance, nor open to wedge range. The one would lead inevitably to a collision at sea, while the other would result in snapping high tension wires and maimed personnel on deck. Both would lead to professional oblivion, for himself, and every other officer on the bridge. Including the Captain - a grave, inscrutable, almost fearsome man.
Not for the first time, the squadron commander wonders why it is necessary for a career FA-18 pilot to conn a ship alongside. After all, there are black shoes, surface warfare officers, who are paid to do that very thing. He is a brown shoe - more than that, he is a strike fighter pilot, paid to put warheads on foreheads, to bring the heat to the foe at five bills, to wield the hammer from above, to swagger down main street. He’s better than this.
Except that the company does not agree - no, not at all. The company thinks that he is a by-God naval officer, and naval officers ought to be able to conn ships. So that one day, if called upon, they might responsibly command them. The company feels this very strongly. So strongly that if he should fail to achieve this simple qualification, he will be un-promotable - his career will be over. He is not sure that he knows what he wants to do when his twenty is up. He might fly for the airlines. He might teach high school. He might stay in and try to make captain. He doesn’t know. What he does know is that that he wants to have a choice.
So he curses quietly but vehemently, earnestly. Turns on the light. Sits up. Rubs his face. Looks again with jaundiced eye at the alarm. Sighs, and moves towards an inner door - today, for the first time this cruise, he’ll beat the ship’s operations officer, with whom he shares a connecting bathroom, to the shower. He takes no pleasure in this fact.
Clean, dressed in his flight suit and fed in the wardroom (ham and cheese omelet, side of bacon, wheat toast, grits and black coffee - what the hell, he muses: He never eats breakfast anyway - might as well live a little - anyone who lands fighters on aircraft carriers at night and worries about heart disease is an irrepressible optimist) he heads up to the strange, almost hostile territory of the bridge. Being a mere commander, he is required to wear headgear while on the bridge - it feels strange to be covered inside the ship, at sea. No one on the bridge welcomes him - he is not of their tribe, he is an aviator (and not even ship’s company!). He does not stand watch. He looks the bosun’s mate of the watch in the eye, and receives a neutral, “Good morning, sir.” No hint of warmth, all respect a mere formality. He understands - he has not yet earned it.
The Captain is in his chair on the port side, wrapped in the austere mantle of his absolute authority, impossibly distant, almost imperial. The very light around him seems to hide, he seems to be in the shadow of some dark, electric storm. Seeing him, the squadron commander’s lips move silently as he quickly runs down the memorized checklist of commands he will use to set the ship up behind the oiler, to bring her safely alongside, to check her forward motion, to stabilize her position. Seeing him, the squadron commander, an expert in his chosen field, selected from among his peers for excellence to command, feels the first moment of real doubt he has felt in a number of years. Seeing him, the squadron commander hopes that he is up to this unfamiliar task, in this strange and unforgiving environment, in front of people who are not his friends.
To regain some sense of the familiar, he walks to the Navigator’s chair on the starboard side, looks down to the flight deck some 60 feet below. There he sees one of his squadron’s aircraft cocked and locked in the alert row, ready upon the drop of a hat to be launched from the deck into the sky to defend the strike group against any and all threats. Something doesn’t look quite right, so he borrows a pair of binoculars from the junior officer of the watch. With these in hand, he discovers that the lieutenant sitting in the alert seven aircraft is sound asleep, mouth open, apparently snoring.
The squadron commander is pissed. More than that, he is frustrated - there is nothing he can do in this environment to wake the pilot up which will not redound to his own discredit. Lips pursed, he vows to have an old-fashioned ass-chewing contest when he gets off the bridge at the end of his watch. Smiling pleasantly on the outside, but burning on the inside, he turns to say good morning to the Navigator.
Well below him, down in the bowels of the ship in Combat, the operations specialist third class races his trackball’s cursor across the radar display to a glowing slice of target video. He checks IFF modes, airspeed and altitude. Nodding slightly, he updates the HAFU (hostile - assumed hostile - friendly - unknown) symbology covering what appears to be the scheduled Tehran-to-Dubai shuttle, and looks once more through sad eyes at his wristwatch: Two hours, forty minutes to go. He is so very tired.

Chapter 4
0800 - The bosun’s mate of the watch keys the mic to the 1MC, rings eight bells, signaling that it’s time to shift watches (down in Combat, the third class operations specialist on port and starboard watch rotation grinds his teeth - two more hours). Immediately afterwards, he sounds “All hands” on his pipe, and then speaks into the mic: “Sweepers, sweepers, man your brooms. Give the ship a good sweep down fore and aft. Sweep down all lower decks, ladder backs, and passageways. Sweepers.”
No sudden boil of activity follows this announcement - all hands not actually on watch are already on station at their cleaning quarters. Some have fox tail brooms, some have sponges and warm, soapy water, some have dust rags, some have sandpaper to clean the “knee knockers.” Each and every one has somewhere else he’d rather be - cleaning the ship is no one’s favorite task, but the Navy has an almost Old Testament resentment of anything at all which smacks of filth or disarray. Order. Order and cleanliness. These are the things that soothe the naval mind.
In Tactical Flag Command Center, or TFCC, the strike group commander, a one-star admiral, finishes receiving his brief from the battle watch captain: The carrier is coming along side the oiler to take on fuel for the air wing. The assigned Ticonderoga-class cruiser is close aboard in “shotgun” position, protecting the carrier like a vigilant guard dog on a short leash. The two destroyers are up north, one patrolling in vicinity of the offshore Iraqi oil terminals, so vital to the country’s reconstruction, while the other is shadowing a “suspect” merchantman, itself hugging the seam between international waters and Iranian territorial seas. The self-defense alert 7 fighter package is cocked on deck. Flight operations start at 1200 - the first launch includes overland close air support missions in support of coalition operations. If any of the soldiers or Marines ashore get pressured, naval aviation will be there to lend a hand. After 1200 - up until that point, the burden lies on the Air Force, and USMC fixed and rotary wing assets ashore. No significant materiel casualties impact the strike group’s capabilities.
The admiral nods, appreciatively. Things are as they should be. He checks his watch, and notes that he has 50 minutes until the Warfare Commander Meeting, his first formal meeting of the day. There will be many more. He turns aside to hide from his watch the irrepressible sigh he feels forming in his chest. Once, he recollects, he was a warrior. Now he goes to meetings. Ah, well.
On the bridge, the squadron commanding officer has already shifted the conn from the pilot house to Auxiliary Conn, on the starboard bridge wing. He is nearly stabilized alongside the oiler - the approach wasn’t awful, he made no serious errors. The ship’s operations officer, standing directly behind him, in an almost physical intimacy, coached him through the process. Behind him is the ship’s navigator, moving back and forth in restless concern. Behind the navigator is the Captain, in his own chair. Behind him is the ship’s executive officer, standing alert, like a bird dog on point. Behind him is the ship’s command master chief, watching with detached amusement the self-imposed strain of the officers. Apart from the Reactor Officer and Chief Engineer, both riding herd down in Reactor Control and in Damage Control Central, these are the most powerful and important men in the ship’s company. Apart from the Master Chief, all of them are career aviators.
No pressure.
The squadron commanding officer orders the lee helmsman “All engines ahead two-thirds. Set the alongside maneuvering combination as 63 RPM.” The lee helmsman reads the orders back verbatim, in a hieratic, almost stylized voice. Down in the main engine room, the throttlemen for shafts one and four set their engines to exactly 63 RPM, sit back and smile over the heads of their engaged friends on Main Engines Two and Three. Their work is done, until the carrier is complete with refueling. The throttlemen for number Two and three main engines will make all further speed corrections, at the conning officer’s command.
In after steering, another watch stands, awaiting a casualty or loss of control. Should the helmsman lose control of the ship’s massive rudders, they are prepared to step in. This never happens. They are prepared anyway.

Chapter 5  

0805 - The ship is finally stabilized alongside the oiler, 160 feet. The squadron commanding officer checks her forward and aft drift from ideal with small RPM adjustments in 2 rev increments. Half-degree rudder orders are given as well, to keep the abeam distance within tolerances. On the decks of the oiler, stolid crewmen in hard hats and life jackets wait patiently, while far below aux conn, in the carrier’s refueling sponsons, gunner’s mates stand ready with M-14 rifles. With the Captain’s approval, the rifles crack and monkey’s fists fly over to the oiler, trailing shot lines behind them. These are quickly brought to hand aboard the oiler, stout messenger lines affixed and the combination sent back to the carrier. After two iterations of this exchange, the high-tension span wires are tautly spread between the two ships, and the refueling rigs can be sent over to the awaiting receptacles aboard the carrier. Soon, the ship is taking on fuel - jet fuel, to keep the air wing in the fight.
The hardest part is now done, and now all can breathe more freely again in aux conn. While the risk of collision or rig damage still exists, good seamanship will keep that risk manageable.
Down in Ready Room Three, an FA-18 squadron executive officer is putting the finishing touches on his flight brief, a powerpoint presentation. Momentarily, he wonders how anyone ever got anything done in the Navy, in an era before powerpoint and email. He vaguely remembers seeing strike briefs presented on overhead projections and butcher block paper, of reading teletype feeds and standard naval record messages - in actual print! - it seems a wildly quaint notion, so very 10 years ago.
He’s the air wing lead for the noon close air support launch, eight strike fighters going up country in four two-ship packages to designated interdiction boxes. It will be a long flight, and probably a boring one these days. The XO was in these waters two years ago as a senior department head and remembers well the heady days of the air campaign for OIF - preparing and briefing and flying and fighting and landing and going airborne again, collapsing at the end of the day exhausted into his rack and starting over again the next day. Each day running into the next and every day requiring an almost inhuman perfection to ensure that only the right targets are struck, that no weapons land inside the No Fire Areas or too close to friendlies on the ground, themselves moving at an unheard of pace as they race across a nearly featureless terrain attempting to close with and destroy a foe who only rarely seems to show a willingness to stand and fight, but mostly rather fades away, leaving behind empty trenches, fortifications, even uniforms.
It’s not like that now, this CAS mission is “on call,” just in case the troops on the ground gain contact with a force they cannot instantly overcome. His job is to ensure that they don’t trip all over each other coming or going from the mission, that everyone understands their procedures checking into the air refueling tanker track, checking in through the Deep Air Support Center (DASC) and if called upon, over to the Forward AIr Controller, or FAC. Most likely they’ll never do much more than hold with the DASC until they’re nearly out of gas, race to the tanker for another top off, and then hold some more. Eventually it will be time to come home, and all they’ll have to show for the mission is a mild, temporary stiffness in their legs and back, and another four hours of flight time and a day trap in the log book. Could be worse.
0900 - The morning flag meeting commences with the admiral at the head of the table, and his ‘band of brothers” arrayed on either side. These warfare commanders will inform their boss of their special concerns and mitigations for the next 24, 48 and 72 hours. They work together, but there are only so many resources available, and sometimes one or more of them will find himself overextended or under-suppported - he will have to take on risk, in other words. He owes it to the admiral to inform him where he’s taking that risk, and how he intends to mitigate it. The boss may disagree, and ask that resources be re-allocated.
The Captain being trapped in aux conn for the refueling, the ship’s operations officer sits in his chair. He will answer any questions put directly to him, but will offer no opinions of his own. Only the Captain speaks for the Captain.
Up above, at 20,000 feet, the E-2C mission commander polls his crew in the “tunnel,” where the command and control work of the Hawkeye gets done. Their altitude allows the strike group to extend their “eyes” hundreds of miles beyond what could be attained by shipboard sensors alone. They open up the interior of Iran, to the east, an interior that would ordinarily be cast in the radar shadow of the Zagros mountain range. They have insight into the air support picture over Iraq. They identify and track the large and the small, both in flight and on the surface of the Arabian Gulf. Unknown surface contacts are highlighted to the Sea Combat Commander aboard the carrier, who will then dedicate rotary wing assets to classify and ID the vessels thus found. Unknown air contacts are sent to the Air Defense Commander aboard the cruiser, who will evaluate them as either threat or non-threat, executing his pre-planned responses appropriately to the classification.
In the E-2, the mission commander is satisfied. Everyone seems to be on top of their roles and the mission is going smoothly. He’s in good comms with the flagship and air defense cruiser, and the datalinks are maintaining good fidelity and latency. He checks his watch: One hour until recovery. He rocks back in his chair, stretches his arms and yawns. It will be good to take a nap, when they get done. Maybe after chow. Nothing like a “chow induced loss of consciousness.”
Just aft of him the Air Control Officer cocks his head quizzically as a bit of banana-shaped radar video appears off to the east, over the Zagros. It is in a place where air targets would not be customarily found. He re-checks his air route overlay on the radar as the antenna sweeps around again, leaving behind its ghostly trace. No, no air routes over there. He waits again for the antenna to come around - nothing: The target has faded. The ACO purses his lips, adjusts his radar gains, and waits another sweep - nothing, again. A false contact perhaps. But… there it is again. And again. He rolls his cursors over the display, using his trackball on the console and tags the target video, eyes narrowing. One more sweep and he’ll have target velocity. His eyes widen in surprise as the computer grinds to its conclusion. He reaches his hand up to place the boom mic closer to his lips, and sends his right foot stabbing towards the transmit pedal of his UHF radio.

Chapter 6
0905 -
“Alpha Whiskey, this is Tango. Designate track number 2536 at Baltimore 125, 30, estimate low, track west. Speed 500 knots, negative IFF. Probable Iranian TACAIR, point of origin unknown, suspect Shiraz.”
This bit of radio traffic, and the data link symbology which accompanies it, hits the sea below like a lightning bolt, and spreads like an electric web around the strike group:
> In CDC, the third class operations specialist grunts in surprise, energized suddenly from the steady-state flat-line of a do-nothing watch to an almost instantaneous state of poised readiness. He validates the data link symbol injected by the E-2, forwarding it to the tactical displays in front of the ship’s Tactical Action Officer. To emphasize his point, he talks tersely to the TAO on internal comms. The TAO quickly assimilates the picture, queries the watch standers over in the Electronic Warfare module and reaches for a phone…
> On each ship capable of air defense, the cruiser and the Arleigh Burke-class DDGs, watchful eyes flicker to a point in space 30 nautical miles southeast of Bushehr (code named “Baltimore,” on this day). Because of the radar shadowing, only the E-2 has actual radar awareness of the threat - everyone else depends upon his data linked track.
> Aboard the Ticonderoga-class cruiser, the CO is summoned to Combat Information Center - CIC - and in terse words from the Force Tactical Action Officer, apprised of the situation. The cruiser CO is “Whiskey,” the strike group’s designated air defense commander. He looks at the linked target, measures the distance from its location to the carrier, the high value unit, centerpiece of the force and his only reason for existence. He does some quick mental time/distance math, how quickly a threat might be in weapons release range and examines his options: At this hour of the day, he has no airborne fighter assets. His only resources are strapped on the carrier’s deck, 5 miles to his southwest. He is aware that the carrier is in the midst of an at sea refueling. He knows that calling for the alert to launch will raise hell over there, and interrupt that refueling, and maybe foul the deck for the mid-day close air support launch. He knows that men on the ground will be counting on that CAS launch. But those concerns are for the carrier CO and strike group commander to concern themselves with. He is the air defense commander - he has his responsibilities, and if necessary for the greater good, he is willing to be over-ruled. He picks up a red phone, and speaks on the encrypted satellite command net known as Strike Group Command: “Alpha Romeo, Alpha Whiskey - launch the alert fighters.”
> Aboard the carrier, the CO picks the phone up in Aux Conn. He weighs the TAO’s words, weighs their position alongside, weighs the amount of fuel he has already taken on. Weighs the number of days until the next opportunity to come alongside the oiler. He checks the winds, hopefully. But no. Twenty degrees to port - no chance to launch the alert while still connected to the oiler. Twenty degrees would be a mere nothing in ordinary times, when free to maneuver, but it would be a lifetime while connected and turning together in half degree increments, engines surging forward and back to stabilized the different turning radii. No. He purses his lips, raises his head and shakes it slightly. No, it would never do. The decision is made, even before the admiral can call from TFCC. The Captain turns to the conning officer and says lightly, as if unconcerned, “Emergency break-away. Do it.”
> In Flight Deck Control, where rests a scale model of the flight deck, with miniature aircraft planforms on every spot an actual aircraft resides, the Aircraft Handling Officer, known throughout the ship as the “Handler,” swears urgently, passionately. He enlisted as a Sailor nearly 30 years ago. He was selected from among his peers to be commissioned as an officer of the line. He has grown up moving aircraft upon the hideously expensive real estate of an aircraft carrier deck. He knows where each one goes without interfering with the others, how to get fuel to it, how to get ordnance to it, how to get it down on the deck edge elevators to the hangar deck for sustained maintenance, where he can spread wings for missile checks, where the fire fighting gear goes, and a thousand other pieces of critically important knowledge that no one else, not the Captain, not the Air Boss, for whom he works, can replicate. The Handler is, quite literally, irreplaceable.
And he is pissed.
The wing stopped flying last night at 2330. His yellow shirts got done putting the jets in place for tomorrow’s refueling, with starboard side jets pushed well inboard, to prevent interfering with the refueling rigs. This also included spotting the alerts and all of this went down at 0200. On four hours sleep, a quarter of them came back to the roof at sunrise to help the fighter crews set the alert. When the word gets passed over the loudspeaker to launch the alert, these last come alive like zombies from their several places of respite, and dash with staggered steps to their launch stations.
Things aren’t so simple for the Handler. In his mind, he’s already past the launch, and thinking about the recovery. He’s thinking about having to recover an alert fighter, and maybe its tanker, an hour and a half later. Just prior to the scheduled CAS launch. Knowing that would be the first launch of the day, with all the aircraft in the wing (save one, alas!) on deck, he would have loved some space on the angle deck to spot for the launch. But with a recovering fighter, a good post-refueling deck spot is an impossibility. This will be a horrible snarl, 90 minutes later, but there’s nothing he can do.
> Down on deck, in the alert fighter, the lieutenant is sound asleep and dreaming of that Irish girl in Hong Kong, thinking of the things he might have said, instead of that which he did, wondering, in his dream like fugue, if it might have made a difference. He hears a thumping sound, and in his dream, he transmutes its meaning, smiling lasciviously. But the sound continues, grows, will not be denied. He awakens abruptly to the sound of a plane captain thumping on the side of his fuselage, screaming at him, “Sir, sir! - We’re launching the alert! You’re a go!”
He snaps awake, and curses. Looks over to his prospective wingman, another alert pilot from a sister squadron, already spinning his auxiliary power unit. Cursing again, he signals his plane captain to clear underneath, and cranks his own APU. He will not be beaten airborne.
> In CDC, the third class operations specialist picks up his gouge card, and reads the first warning on Military Air Distress, a frequency that all tactical aircraft are required to monitor: “Unidentified aircraft 30 miles southeast of Bushehr, speed 500 knots, heading 250: You are approaching U.S. naval warships operating in international waters. Your identity is unknown, your intentions are unclear. Request you alter course to the south to maintain a safe distance.”

Chapter 7
0906 -
The Bosun’s mate of the watch bellows on the 1MC: “Emergency breakaway, emergency breakaway, starboard side.” Down on the refueling sponsons, what had been yet another scene of stolid passivity as the aviation fuel pumped gradually aboard turns in an instant to an noisy, but ordered frenzy as instructions are shouted and relayed from supervisors to line handlers. The refueling probes are quickly unseated, and run a short distance back towards the oiler, where waiting crews haul back on the messengers to bring them safely home. The high-tension span wires are slackened, and pelican hooks tripped, as wires, cables and haul ropes return back aboard their respective ships in an accelerated but controlled reverse of the order in which they came over. When the last lines are in the water between the two ships and nothing is left connecting the one to the other, the Captain nods to a shaken squadron commanding officer, who thanks his stars that had rehearsed this very scenario in his head before resuming his watch: “All engines ahead flank, indicate 129 RPM.”

To which the lee helmsman will respond, as he must: “All engines ahead flank, indicate 129 RPM, aye, sir,” followed moments later by, “Conning officer, all engines are ahead flank, 129 RPM indicated and answered.”
“Very well. Come left, steer course three-three-five and one-half.”
To which the master helmsman will respond, as he must: “Come left, steer course three-three-five and one-half, aye, sir,” followed nearly as quickly by, “Conning officer, steady on course three-three-five and one-half.”
“Very well.”
And with such gradual course adjustments and the rapid increase in speed, each combining with the until the carrier’s fantail is safely clear of the oiler, finally the Captain can breathe a sigh of relief. The watch is walked from aux conn to the pilot house, where the squadron CO gratefully turns over to an actual surface warfare officer, who briskly calls to the helmsman, “Helm, come left, steer course three-one-nine,” receiving the obligatory responses in return as he maneuvers 100,000 tons of steel diplomacy into the wind. The squadron CO reflects upon the watch he has just completed with a newfound admiration for the professionalism of the surface forces - a Nimitz-class carrier is no sports coupe, nor anything like so nimble as a fighter - 150 feet alongside an oiler seems very close indeed. And as slowly as it moves, it also does so with a sense of dread finality, he thinks. Unlike aviation mishaps, where you are often dead before you know you are in trouble, in warships there is often time enough to lament your fate, but not enough to change it. He goes below, relieved to be relieved.
The catapult is already manned and ready as the lieutenant gives his yellow shirt a thumbs-up, indicating readiness to taxi. The taxi director immediately gives him the “hold brakes” sign above his waist, followed as quickly by a signal to the blue shirts to break down the chocks and chains which restrain the FA-18 in place. The lieutenant looks over to his wingman, and is grimly satisfied to see that he is still chained in place, probably awaiting a full alignment of his inertial navigation system. That would be safer of course, to have a full alignment. But the lieutenant rationalizes that it is a beautiful day, the alignment will continue in the moments while his chains are being unfastened and chocks removed, and in any case he can complete the alignment once safely airborne. But in the back of his head he knows that if he is beaten to the catapult by the other squadron’s pilot, especially after he’d been napping in an alert status, then he would look bad in front of his brothers. And as any fighter pilot knows, it’s better to die than to look bad. Besides, what were the odds?
In four minutes from the time the alert was announced on the topside 5MC and the plane captain pounded on the fuselage, the FA-18 is moving towards the catapult. The wings are still folded with all the parked aircraft on the roof, and it’s an especially tight fit with all the starboard side jets pushed inboard, away from the refueling side deck edge. The lieutenant races through his take-off checklist, while keeping a careful eye on his director in the tight maneuvering space alloted - it would not do to taxi into another jet in his haste, and miss the launch, and yet the time to get through the checklist is rapidly diminishing. Finally he is complete, except for the wingspread. In moments he gets the signal, even as he is directed forward into the shuttle. He repeats “wings, wings” over and over again to himself, to remind himself to check that they are in fact locked down before giving the cat officer a salute. With a moment to himself as the launch bar goes home, he visually verifies that the wings are down and locked, and runs his hands around the cockpit one more time, one last check of all switch positions. With a curse, he recognizes that the ejection seat arming handle was in the up, or “safe” position. He was only moments away from the cardinal, and perhaps even mortal sin of going flying on an unarmed seat. It might be better to die than to look bad, but the lieutenant snatches his eyes away from the impatient gesturing yellow shirt to do one more formal trip around the cockpit on the take-off checklist - there: Now he was truly ready.
Seconds later his engines are at full power, screaming behind him. The jet squats down as the tensioned catapult shuttle wars against the restraining holdback fitting. Feet off the brakes, he salutes the catapult officer, who salutes in turn and gestures to the deck edge cat operator. The cat fires and the lieutenant rattles down the deck and into the morning air, whooping with the savage joy of an alert launch in a tactical environment, of a good, hard catapult shot, of being first airborne, of flying fighters, of being young. The Air Boss clears him to cross the bow, and he reverses his from his left hand clearing turn (”Right off the bow cats, left off the waist”), raises the gear and flaps and deselects the afterburners: No sense wasting fuel on the front end.
The E-2 ACO is awaiting him on tower frequency and takes control: “Hobo 404, hot vector 045, take station Casper, Hot Dog Red at 35 miles.”
On the bridge, the CO checks his watch, and nods. Very well done. He calls down to the TAO in Combat, “Probably ought to spin up the alert tanker, while we’re on this course - work it through TFCC.”
Around the corner from the TAO, the third class operations specialist turns his gouge card over and proceeds to his next warning: “Unidentified aircraft 20 miles south of Bushehr, speed 500 knots, heading 250: You are approaching U.S. naval warships operating in international waters. Your identity is unknown, your intentions are unclear. You are standing into danger…”

Chapter 8
“U.S. Navy warship, this is Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force aircraft,” good English, almost unaccented, the E-2 Mission Commander notes. Probably trained in the U.S., before the Shah’s demise. Surprising he hasn’t been purged. “I am on a routine training mission in Iranian territorial airspace. This is my home - you are the stranger here.”
Down in Combat aboard the carrier, the Combat Direction Center Officer has joined the TAO at his console, listening in. Hearing this last, he catches the TAO’s eye, pulls a face, shrugs, “Man’s got a point.”
The TAO shrugs in return, “Guess so. But he keeps this up on that heading and speed, he could find that he’s not only right, but dead right. It’s a big planet - if it was me and I was him, I’d point it some other direction.”
Over aboard the Cruiser, the Force TAO tells his commanding officer that the second alert aircraft has launched. The first will do an en route turn for the formation rendezvous, and they’d proceed together to the CAP station and await further events. The FTAO then asks his CO, “What do you think about his intentions, based on the comms?”
“Can’t know,” replied the CO, ” and wouldn’t hazard a guess. Back in the Cold War, the plan of the day was to ‘trust but verify.’ These days we just skip step one. The instant he crosses over from Iranian airspace into international waters, I want those fighters all over him like a bad rash.”
“Like a cheap suit,” offered the FTAO.
“Like white on rice,” added the Air Defense Officer.
“Like…” the Combat Systems Officer started.
“Focus, kids,” the CO interrupted forcefully, frowning on the outside. But smiling on the inside - based on his intimate knowledge of the crew on watch, the next simile would have undoubtedly been, “Like a hobo on a hot-dog.” He had heard that particular simile misfire in front of one of those grim, humorless, perpetually aggrieved officers during training back on the beach. That worthy had misheard the subject of the simile and then taken umbrage at the new meaning imparted by its pairing with the object. “Let’s get back to the task at hand - air defense, if I’m not mistaken?”
“Aye, sir,” in a chorus.
On the carrier’s bridge, the CO takes the deck back from the Air Boss as the alert tanker roars into the sky. The CO is still not used to the idea of a fighter, even one so advanced as the FA-18E, serving as a tanker, but that’s the Navy these days. Everything is at least dual-mission, and the S-3’s have nearly all retired. He calls the Air Boss on closed-circuit phone and asks him, “Well, what do you think?”
“About the launch?” asks the Boss.
“No, that’s history. I’m interested in the next go. The CAS mission.”
“We’re all over it, Captain,” assures the Boss. Crossing his fingers. The Handler is a good man - if anyone can pull it off, he will. But he’ll complain about it through his fourth beer in Australia, on the way home. First things first, though: A 0900 alert launch means a 1030 recovery, if the fighters don’t tank. The recovery will require an open deck up the angle and 1030 is painfully close to the 1200 CAS launch. One and a half hours to spot the deck. He grimaces - only one hour, really: The fighters have to crank 30 minutes prior to the launch. Well, it could be done. They’d done it before. The Boss adds, “Captain, it’d be better if we took them right at 1030, the fighters and the E-2. Later is harder.”
“Roger,” replies the CO, hanging up the phone. Another phone rings. The caller ID says simply, “Admiral.”
Down in TFCC the admiral congratulates the CO on a successful alert launch, queries him about how much fuel was taken on, and how much left behind after the unscheduled break-away. Satisfied that the ship will be able to support future tasking without a schedule change, the admiral asks, “Who is in the lead of the alert fighter section?” He nods thoughtfully at the Captain’s reply, adds, “Make sure to tell him ‘One war at a time,’ ” and hangs up.
Up on the bridge, the Captain says “Aye, sir,” and hangs up at his end, thinking to himself, “No shit.” But thinking this privately of course, as always. He looks around the bridge, notes that everything is as it should be on all the several watch stations, everyone attentive to their tasks. But he also knows that while his back was turned, every pair of ears on watch had strained to hear what they could of the conversation he had with the admiral. The CO shakes his head - his ship, like all of them was nothing more than a small town, a village really. Every village had its share of gossips, and he was morally certain that everything he said and did would be repeated later on, sifted and weighed. By people in the mess decks, in the berthing spaces, in the wardroom. He pursed his lips and shook his head, slightly. No, no need to editorialize in front of the people.
Leveled off at 20,000 feet, the lieutenant finally feels the flight deck sweat starting to dry off his face. One turn, one turn only for his wingman. After that, it would be “catch me, screw me.” Can’t wait all day. His radar warning receiver burps at him, and glances down to check the indication: His wingman is behind him, has a lock, speaks on the aux radio: “Buddy-lock heading 060″. “Spiked,” the lieutenant replies. He turns back towards the ship, back towards his wingman and goes through his short-range radar acquisition drill, the one that has been schooled into him by flight leads and weapons school instructors ever since he started flying fighters. He is rewarded by a near instant acquisition: 10 nautical miles back, nose hot, azimuth corresponds to RWR spike. Decides he’ll give him 30 seconds. That should be enough, combined with the turn back to threat axis.
In the E-2, the ACO updates his track video and speaks into his boom mike, “Hobo 404, group Baltimore 195, 20, low, track west, bogey. Hot Dog red at 20 miles”
Turning back into the threat, the lieutenant snaps his visor down against the sun well-risen in the east. He selects his Sidewinder missile, hears the raspy growl of an uncooled seeker head, switches the coolant on, hears the growl fade to a reptilian hiss. He changes missile mode to AIM-120, the advanced, medium range air-to-air missile. He turns his HUD tape on and selects the master armament control switch to “arm.” He arms his chaff and flare dispenser. Whatever happens in the next few minutes, he will be prepared. And he will by God have it on tape. “Leads’ fenced,” he says on the aux radio, prodding his wingman to complete his own combat checklist, and to report it complete.
“Standby,” replies the wingman.

Chapter 9
“Two’s fenced,” she finally replies. “No alibis.”
Good for her, the lieutenant thinks, a “full-up” combat system. Good for the both of us.
He runs his cursors out on his radar display, bumping the range out to 80 nautical mile scale. There, there’s “Baltimore,” the Bushehr bulls-eye, or geographic reference point the controller has been using. Still outside radar range on the Iranian target, he can nevertheless get a sense of where it is in space: A vital concern, with Iranian territorial airspace (Hot Dog “Red”) only 20 nm away. Wouldn’t do to find oneself on the wrong side of that line. Be a quick trip from the hero’s podium to the woodshed. Too close: “Cold right, go,” on the Aux radio.
On the execute command “go,” he runs the throttles up to military power, making a level, constant airspeed turn, two, two-and-a-half g’s maybe. He looks through his HUD to see his wingman matching the turn in angle and altitude. Makes a quick nodding gesture in his mask, one quick, satisfied stab of the chin. Calls, “Hobos are cold” on Prime radio, the E-2 ACO’s freq. He checks his radar warning receiver - nothing. Good.
In the E-2’s darkened tunnel, the ACO nods in agreement: Good call. Another few miles and he would have had to step in and turn the fighters away from the Hot Dog line. Always better when they figure it out themselves. He checks the target video: Still hot to the strike group. Now also hot to the interposing fighters. Still out of range to attack either.
In Combat, the third class operations specialist moves to his final warning: “…Alter your course immediately or be subject to U.S. defensive measures.”
The lieutenant checks his position, gets an update from the E-2, waits a moment. A moment more. Now: “Hot right, go. Check tapes on, master arm.” Back into the threat, now on collision bearing - check left a bit - get up sun, cool the intercept, slow it down, slow it down. Sensors checked, radar, RWR. There: Contact. Sanitize: Only one, looks like only one. Lock: 500 knots and low! “Ramp it down, quick-quick.” He flips his jet inverted and descends rapidly from 20,000 feet to 9,000 - don’t want to be trying to find this guy looking through the radome - always easier to get a tally-ho looking up. Checks right three o’clock, good: She’s still there, holding on. Good.
ACO: “Hobos, BRA 105, 18, low, hot, bogey. VID”
The lieutenant checks the bearing, range and altitude(BRA) of his target - confirmed: “Judy.” Got it, got it: Judy. Hush. “Deploy.”
Wingman: “Two.” She eases out, eases back, setting up for the visual identification.
Lieutenant: “Twelve miles, hot, naked.”
Wingman: “Two’s naked.” Neither of them targeted yet with an air-to-air radar. Good.
All throughout the strike group, eyes close and ears strain to catch each almost mechanical note of this exchange, ears attuned to the hidden weight of the words and tension in the voices. Which elevates immediately to a new and higher octave with: “Two’s spiked, nose.”
In the lead aircraft, the lieutenant’s jaw clenches, bares his teeth in his mask: Hard - He is closing on what is now very apparently an Iranian fighter at the rate of a mile every three seconds. He weighs the space left to him to maneuver, the time before a missile could reach his wingman, the rules of engagement. His actions in the next few moments might affect the fate of his wingman, the fleet, nations. He is 27 years old.
Chapter 10
“Pump,” he commands his wingman on the Aux radio. The radio no one but them is listening in on. He’s about to get outside the box, and he doesn’t want anyone else to know.
“Say again?”
“Pump - do it,” He insists.
Hesitantly (no time to waste!) she replies, “Two. YO-YO.”
YO-YO - you’re on your own - no kidding. That’s the whole point, the lieutenant thinks. He watches as his wingman commences a hard slice turn away from him, away from the threat, back to the west. The point is to be on my own - not only will this prevent you from being shot, if that’s the other guy’s intention, you’ll capture his full attention. When I do my stern conversion on him, we’ll see what he’s got on his mind, and what he’s made of.
“Ten miles - you better run hard,” he adds.
“Two’s cold - spiked at six. I’ve got it firewalled,” she adds. Full afterburner. Ah, well. There is a tanker airborne.
Confusion breaks water and displays its ugly head on board the E-2, the air defense cruiser and the aircraft carrier as the radar presentation changes strangely. What had been a proper two-ship of fighters running an intercept on an Iranian bogey is now one aircraft hot to the threat, itself still inbound, and an additional, previously unobserved bogey between the fighter and the strike group - two groups have become three: Who could that new group hot to the strike group be? The cruiser reacts first, with the TAO designating the new threat track number 2537, and assigning a weapons cover order. Time/distance calculations, weapons release ranges, grimaces and “what the hells” all the way around until the E-2 ACO hooks the track and verifies friendly interrogation codes. A collective sigh of relief until the realization sets in: “They’ve split up - he’s alone.”
Alone - it’s never a good thing to be alone in air combat. In a part of himself that he will not allow to speak just yet, the lieutenant knows that by sending his wingman away he has broken a cardinal rule of fighter aviation - the two-ship section is the basic fighting element, never to be divided. And yet, he also knows that one of the first heroes of the continental Navy, John Paul Jones once said, “He who will not risk, cannot win.” With the seconds clicking away, and with his section occupying one of the hated gray areas in the rules of engagement, with no clear guidance on the legal use of force, and a not-friendly-but-not-quite-hostile political situation, he could not in the time available to him think of a better way to protect his wingman, the strike group and himself from second-guessing. Which he knew would come anyway.
He bunts the fighter’s nose to build more separation in the vertical - he wants turning room and he’d like nothing better than to execute that turn from below the threat’s belly, where he will not be observed. He sees a speck on the horizon, engines smoking badly - almost certainly a Phantom, he thinks, smiling in his oxygen mask. A fast jet, the F-4, but antiquated when compared to modern fighters and not very maneuverable - it’ll be like clubbing baby seals. Originally US manufactured, and delivered in the time of the Shah, he wonders how the Iranians have kept them flying all these years. With all that smoke, it will be no challenge maintaining tally-ho, maintaining sight. He breaks his radar lock - with Iranian fighter still locked on to his wingman, he’ll have no situational awareness to anyone else. No use in warning him, if he’s got any radar warning gear of his own. The lieutenant scans his own receiver - still naked. Five miles. Now four - yes a Phantom - definitely a Phantom, the wing anhedral gives it away, the muscular fuselage. Three.
At a mile, with three seconds left to go until the merge, the lieutenant knows that he is unobserved - no way that the Phantom pilot would allow a threat down there at his belly without checking into him to neutralize the merge - he’ll have 90 degrees advantage by the time he crosses the Phantom’s six o’clock. Perfect.
He starts an “early turn,” before the merge has even happened, up in the vertical behind the F-4. At 90 degrees nose high, looking back through his canopy at the Phantom exhaust pipes and with his airspeed bleeding away in the HUD, the lieutenant realizes his mistake and screams with anger into his O2 mask: His nose-high conversion turn has cost him too much energy, he has gotten slow. He will get slower still before he has completed his turn and is in trail of the F-4. The F-4 is a faster jet: Not only will he never catch up to him, but the F-4 will catch up to his wingman, placing her at risk- the lieutenant recovers to the horizon at 250 knots and sees the fast moving Phantom turn again from an identifiable aircraft into a receding speck on the horizon. In training he could simulate a missile launch from here and win the day. But he isn’t in training, this is really happening, and he hasn’t got the ROE.
He is out of position, and the physics cannot be overcome.

Chapter 11
On the carrier’s flight deck, yellow-shirted flight deck directors stand idly by airplanes packed inboard of the landing area, clear of the foul lines. The yellow shirts are at the pinnacle of achievement for an aviation bosun’s mate - each of them is The Man. He gives orders to pilots, orders the officers must follow. He works day after day in one of the most dangerous environments imaginable, one full of great noise, apparent confusion, and great forces acting in trembling opposition. They collectively know that they are a brotherhood, like many others in the military, an elite: The flight deck elite. They also know that no other 22-year old people in the world routinely has so much responsibility for lives and lucre. They are all of them young, tall and tubular. They are also entirely self-confident, well-trained, almost arrogant - they seem to casual observers to be the rough equivalent of modern-day gunslingers.
Although each aircraft has its wheels chocked, and is tied down with chains at three points, each one also has a tow bar hooked up ready for instant use, once the jet is “broken down,” released from chocks and chains. The 3 1/2 acre flight deck is divided into three zones, Fly One on the bow, Fly Two amidships and Fly Three aft. Across the deck the low growl of tow tractors starting, gunning engines to an animal scream, then idling before shutting down alternates from zone to zone. Apart from that, there is a deceptive quiet, a fraudulent listlessness. While feigning a kind of tropical malaise in the rising summer heat, all are a tip-toe: They are awaiting the recovery of the alert launch, so that they can go to work spotting aircraft for the 1200 go. It will be a rigorous challenge to move the twenty-odd aircraft in an hour’s time, especially moving them on the cramped real estate of an aircraft carrier at sea - they will be moving multiple aircraft in different directions, and moving them very close to one another in passing. The aircraft must not touch - a touch is called a “crunch,” and the aircraft is down until rigorously inspected. There is nothing worse for a yellow shirt than to be directing an aircraft in a crunch.
In combat, the third class operations specialist scans his scope once more for new threats. Seeing nothing but the engagement joined to the east, of which he is no longer any part, he pushes back into his chair and away from his console with a weary, amused detachment. He has done his bit and stood his watch. He gets relieved in thirty minutes and is simultaneously both ferociously hungry and brutally tired. He can’t remember when he didn’t feel that way. He can’t imagine a time in the future when he won’t. When he’s on watch, he thinks of his rack. When he’s asleep, his dreams are filled with this radar scope.
In the War Room, the morning flag meeting has broken up, with many of the principals going into TFCC to watch the air picture develop - the wheel has been spun, the ball is in motion, and some unknowable result is a-borning. They hope that the training they have had is sufficient, that the guidance they have given is adequate. Mostly, they quietly hope that everything works out. They are aware that despite their seniority, experience and position, that so much is now beyond their control. Commanders, captains and admiral - all have become unwilling spectators to an unfolding drama.
At 10,000 feet, five miles behind the Iranian Phantom, 18 miles behind his wingman, 50 miles from the carrier, the lieutenant’s brain is on fire. He must do something. He must not do the wrong thing. There is very little to distinguish between the two, and none of this was in his training. Except for this: He is a fighter pilot, and naval aviator. Since the mere mechanical skills of flying can be taught to anyone in time (they are broadly known, in fact, as “monkey skills”) he has been selected not so much for what he has learned as how quickly he has learned it, how quickly he can adapt to changing circumstances. He is also at a curious, almost magical intersection of his profession: A place where his increasing store of professional experience intersects at a peak with the declining advantages of youth: aggressiveness, perfect vision, flawless reflexes and unassailable self-confidence. As his brain races, he realizes that he is out of the training and experiential box, and that the solution will necessarily be unorthodox.
It never occurs to him that there is not a solution.
He selects the AIM-120 AMRAAM (advanced, medium range air-to-air missile) on his weapons control switch, and takes a single target track on the radar - all radar energy is focused on the receding F-4. He is still in range for a shot, although the range to target is still opening: That will not do. He rams the throttles up to maximum afterburner, what he thinks of as “max grunt,” and bunts the nose to gain airspeed. He knows that he must, at least, stop the bleeding. His finger caresses the trigger, eyes flickering on the shoot-light flashing on the canopy bow. It would be so easy…
But no - he can’t, not yet. The rules of engagement. Lawyer’s twaddle, he thinks, cursing silently. Still…
Suddenly inspired, he changes weapons mode to the AIM-7 Sparrow, and waits for the radar to automatically change to accommodate the older missile’s guidance requirements. It does not, and he is momentarily non-plussed before remembering: the armament system is armed, but he’s not carrying any AIM-7s. Just AIM-120 and AIM-9 Sidewinders. The system won’t force a missile mode not required by the aircraft’s loadout. He groans, mentally slaps himself on the forehead, reaches up and safes the jet. He selects the simulation mode on the armament system and once again selects Sparrow: Yes.
He prays that the Phantom is equipped with a radar warning receiver. He cannot remember from his intelligence briefs if it is. He curses himself for not remembering, vows that he will learn from this, remembers Sun Tzu:
If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.
Do something, daddy. Do it, he prays. Do it now.
He is rewarded: The Phantom jock turns forty degrees left, no more: He’s checking his six o’clock, aware now of a potential threat, “spiked at six.” The lieutenant can imagine the narrowing eyes of the Iranian crew, pilot and weapons officer, heads straining over their left shoulders as they attempt to evaluate this new information, give it context. But the lieutenant is unsatisfied: Forty degrees is not enough. At this range, forty degrees won’t make it happen. He strokes the throttle-mounted expendables switch, thumbing out an IR decoy, a flare. He hopes it draws their attention to him. He hopes it looks like a missile launch. He hopes he has done the right thing…
Chapter 12
Back aboard the carrier, the squadron executive officer begins the mass brief for the 1200 close air support mission. Each strike fighter squadron will provide two of their fighters, armed with a mixed load of laser guided bombs and all-weather joint direct attack munitions for the CAS mission. The XO is the overall mission commander for the Navy package - his job is to get the gaggle organized once airborne and expeditiously through the air refueling process. Once complete with their pre-mission tanking, and en route to their holding points in Iraq, they’ll be talking to the US Marine Corps Deep Air Support Center, or DASC. If there are any troops in contact within the DASC’s battle space, the fighters will be handed off for close control by Forward Air Controllers, or FACs.
After the roll call, the XO gives the assembled aviators a brief pep talk: “This is probably going to be a routine bore-ex, right up until the moment where it’s the most interesting, and maybe most important thing you’ll ever do. If your services are requested, there’s a very good chance that good people on the ground are in it up to their eyeballs, and maybe some of them are dying. Trust me when I tell you that they wouldn’t be calling for you unless they really needed you, and when they really need you, you really need to be there for them. The Marines aren’t much given to sending invitations to their parties, so if and when you do get invited to come and join their fight, I want you to come hard and fast and I want you to bring a case of the ass. What the Marines have on demand is arty, 105’s mostly. You and I could each of us carry a couple of 105 shells in our arms. But you’ll be bringing much more than 105’s - you’ll be bringing at least 500 pounds of high explosive wrapped in precisely targeted steel. You can change the problem for the better by being timely and accurate. Remember: By definition, close air support is within the fire support coordination line, and danger close to friendlies. Positively identify your targets. You must be cleared hot by the FAC. Do not make a bad situation worse. Speed, gentlemen. Speed and violence.”
He doesn’t get much of a reaction out of the assembled crews. One or two nod their heads, the rest are quiet, still inside their own heads. They know the mission, and how important it is. They want the meat. He delivers: “OK, the launch sequence plan has the Aces airborne first, followed by the Hobos, then the Fists and then the Kestrels. Join at assigned altitudes on the kneeboard card by twos prior to pushing out to the tanker. Boom freq is three-oh-five dot one-five in prime and I want everyone up on air wing common on aux until we push off the tanker. Be 1000 feet below the tanker altitude by 10 miles - I don’t want to see any more buffoonery in front of the Air Force - anybody plays the fool in the rendezvous circle, and by God I’ll send you back to the ship…”
This is of course an empty threat - no one is going back to the ship today before going to their holding points, and awaiting events on the ground. He knows this perfectly well, as do the rest of the assembled aviators. But the purpose has been satisfied: The XO wants the small things done right - he knows that if the small things are well executed, the large things tend to fall into place. He continues the brief…
Meanwhile, in the air to the east, the lieutenant’s wingman is still racing back towards cap in max grunt, with the wind-stream howling around her canopy when she hears her lead call, “Two come back in, I need you!” She deselects afterburner to execute the turn more efficiently, sets her head back against the head rest in preparation for what is to come, reaches deep inside to tighten the muscles of her legs and abdomen and rolls the jet up on its left wing. She then buries the stick in her lap - the g-forces hit her like a falling safe and press her body down into the ejection seat. As the lights begin to dim at the peripheries, she re-tightens her lower body muscles again, forcing the blood back up into her torso where her heart can get it to her brain, to her eyes. She grunts gutturally and repeatedly into her mask, as she has been taught, keeping the blood that has been forced into her head from draining away. Her nerve endings howl at the familiar pain of a high-g turn, she feels as though she’s drowning as fluid seeps into her lungs, and she gasps to gain air between the grunts. It is a sensation as familiar to the fighter pilot as sunrise to a swan, and as welcome. She pitches back into the fight with the blood singing in her veins, wondering what has happened since her lead sent her clear of the fight.
A few moments before, the lieutenant had wondered what he could do to get the Iranian Phantom to turn around, turn away from his wingman, turn away from the ship. The flare he’d launched had seemed an inspiration - from a distance, the light and smoke might approximate the visual signature of a missile launch, especially when combined with his weapons system lock-on. He is gratified by the sight of the F-4 in planform, as the Iranian turns to honor the threat. But as the F-4 continues its turn, back to the east, back towards him, he blinks three times rapidly, thinking, calculating: “Only five miles away. He’ll be nose-on to me by three miles. Nose on, thinking that he has been shot at. By me. He’ll probably shoot back if he can. I still don’t have the ROE, and shooting him now will be very hard to explain.” These thoughts run through his head like computations in a computer until the unwelcome result is announced: “I’m screwed.”
He clenches his teeth as the Iranian comes nose on - he awaits the sound of his radar warning receiver, knows that it will escalate from a concerned “beep” to a screaming alarm in mere moments if the Phantom gets a missile lock-on. The distance between them will be very close to the F-4’s minimum range. This could go either way, everything balanced on a razor’s edge. The lieutenant thinks, “If he shoots me, I die. If he’s inside min range, once we close I can easily handle him.” Upon a moment’s reflection, he calls his wingman back into the fight, just in case. The throttles are already parked in the northwest quadrant, delivering full combat rated power, so the lieutenant urges his fighter forward with small thrusts of his hips like a horseman, trying to close the distance. He looks at his armament panel, sees that he is still in simulation mode, reaches up and re-arms the jet:
“There,” he thinks. “If I’m going to have to die today, at least I’ll have company.”
Chapter 13
On board the air defense cruiser, the Force Tactical Action Officer hesitates at his watch console - the fighters are obviously busy out to the west and he’s loth to disturb them with questions, especially with the Iranian fighter now headed back towards Iran. Now that he’s headed away from the strike group, all of the air defenders can breathe a little easier, sit back in their chairs and await further developments. Still, he’s responsible not just for this intercept, but for maintaining the air defense grid for as long as there’s a threat airborne. He’d really like to know the status of the Hornet’s fuel - he knows that fighters can run through the gas at an amazing rate in an engagement.
No - best not to ask them directly. Their voices seemed strained, their comms brittle. This is no place to inject himself. Still, it couldn’t hurt to vector the alert tanker over in the direction of the fight. Make it that much simpler to get the defensive counter air two-ship back on the step. “Ace 112, vector 060 for customers, Hobo 404, Fist 302. Hot Dog Red at 35 miles.” He listens for the tanker pilot to read back his instructions, and satisfied, pushes back from his console to watch the fun.
The lieutenant’s wingman finishes her turn, hot to the fight, her hands almost automatically playing the “HOTAS piccolo” as her fingers race through the hands-on-thottle-and-stick buttonology to set her fighter up for rapid, short range radar acquisition. She is rewarded by the full picture in two sweeps of her radar’s B-trace: In front of her at eight miles is a receding target - beyond that is one heading towards her. The further target’s range corresponds to the air-to-air distance measuring equipment displayed in the HUD - the nearer one is therefore the Iranian bogey. “Cool,” she thinks, “I’m bread, lead’s bread, he’s meat. We’ve got us a sandwich.” She he allows herself a hard smile inside her mask. It’s always better to be the hammer than the nail.
Inside the lead Hornet, the lieutenant grimaces as the range counts down - he checks the distance displayed on his HUD - two miles: Now or never. Three seconds later he’s at a mile, not yet targeted and starting to relax just a little - if it was going to happen, it would have happened already. He decides to set up for a left-to-left pass with the Phantom. Thinking on it, he decides to pass by him close aboard - dust him off, like. Announce his presence with authority: He twitches the fighter to the left just a bit more. There.
The Phantom grows rapidly in his windscreen - no bearing drift. Thinks, “Holy crap, that crazy son of a bitch, I’m going to hit him!” Pulls away hard to the right and down, closes his eyes, shrinks from the expected blow, trying to become small in his cockpit. Waits. Peeks out: The merge is passed.
The lieutenant curses, throws the jet up on its left wing, checks six: There - the F-4 still receding, he didn’t turn. Still cursing, he starts a hard left turn to follow, shaking his head at the Iranian’s audacity, not yet reflecting that the F-4 pilot had chosen the same tactic for the lieutenant that the lieutenant had chosen for him. Too close, by God. What a screwed up fight!
He ends up behind the F-4 at three miles, the shoot light flashing on his canopy bow as the shrill song of the Sidewinder missile fills his headset, its seeker head falling madly in love with the infrared energy of the Phantom’s tailpipes, begging for release, a union devoutly to be wished. The lieutenant strokes the trigger on his stick gently… so easy.
His reverie is interrupted by the E-2 ACO’s voice: “Hobo 404, Hot Dog Red east, five miles, recommend a turn to the west.”
“Hobo,” the lieutenant answers in prime. On aux, he asks his wingman, “Status?”
“Six miles, tied on, visual.”
“Copy - Hobo 1 is track west, keep the F-4 lit up until I call your turn.” Might as well keep him honest, the lieutenant thinks. Her radar lock will prevent the Phantom guy from getting brassy and re-engaging as he himself turns away. He can call the wingman to join him as they merge. It’d be almost like they planned it or something. What a freaking goat rope.
His wingman thinks, “Oh. It was an F-4,” as the target continues to the east, back into Iranian territorial airspace, evincing no apparent desire to come out and play again.
In the E-2, the ACO purses his lips, and shakes his head slightly, a small gesture of negation. Not precisely according to Hoyle, he thinks. Should be an “interesting” debrief. He can’t wait to hear how the fighters explain all of this.
In TFCC the Battle Watch Captain turns to the admiral and says, “Well, that seemed to go pretty well.”
“Just about textbook,” the admiral concurs.
In Combat, the third class operations specialist looks at his relief with a gimlet eye, passes down the status of the air systems, threat and weapons posture. Turns the console over and walks away without saying good-bye. Port and starboard watch - he’ll see the guy again in six hours. Hungry. Hungry and tired. Wonders which one he’ll work on first. Maybe a bite to eat.
On the bridge, the Captain calls down to Air Ops: “Where the hell are those alert fighters and the E-2? Sure would be nice to have them on deck so that we can finish the re-spot.”
In a squadron ready room, the executive officer concludes his briefing, releasing the close air support crews to do their individual and crew briefs on their own. They’ll walk in 30 minutes.
It’s going to be a hot day…


Chapter 14
1030 - the mercury is rising on the flight deck, both literally and metaphorically as the yellow-shirted directors, the Air Boss and the Captain visually scan the skies overhead for the alert launch. The landing area is open for their recovery, and with such a small launch airborne, there’s not much other room on the flight deck besides. No room to move jets on the bow. Next to nothing on the waist - just room enough to stuff the fighters as they land - the E-2 will be pushed back into the “Hummer hole” aft of the island.
A hot breeze runs down the angle deck, offering little in the way of comfort to the assembled flight deck crew. Finally, a rising thunder astern, and there: Four miles aft, a flight of two arc down from overhead holding to the extended centerline of the landing area. The two are locked in tight parade formation and making good time - at least 500 knots. On the LSO platform, port side aft, the air wing landing signal officer grimaces slightly, shakes his head. They’ve been on the line long enough for the pilots to get confident, and attempt “shit hot” breaks to downwind for landing. All well and good if they do it right, but easy to pork away if the crews get complacent, or exceed their capabilities. Over the course of his years on the LSO platform, he’s had many opportunities to use LSO shorthand to grade hot breaks thusly: “B - JWIB SPIG,” which translates in people-speak to, “Bolter - John Wayne in the break, Slim Pickens in the Groove.” The LSO looks up and feels a rivulet of sweat run down from his head into the upturned collar of his flight deck jersey. Going to be a scorcher.
The lieutenant checks the HUD: 500 knots, 600 feet. Cool - good thing they got some gas off the alert tanker. He’s two hundred feet lower than the pattern altitude, but this allows him to be “louder” in the break, as well as keeps him from needing to bleed off another 20 knots or so in a post-downwind descent. He’s going fast, but in the turn he’ll slow down fast. He needs to lose 250 knots just to get to gear speed. His heart is thumping in his chest with the excitement, knowing that a good break will earn him an “OK” grade, no matter what wire he lands on, while knowing that a bolter or unsafe approach will only earn him ignominy. But he wasn’t particularly satisfied with the way the F-4 intercept went earlier in the day, and he thinks he needs this. Anyway, it was an empty landing pattern. Time to have a sack. Better to die than look bad.
Over on his starboard wing, his wingman is holding on for dear life, squeezing the black juice out of her control stick. Low - low and fast, much faster than she’d like to go. She’s junior to the lieutenant, and lacks his brashness. She keeps her eyes glued only to the lead aircraft, no time to look outside, no room to check her engine instruments: Keep the starboard missile seeker on his ejection seat headbox, square off the exhaust pipes, try to relax - wiggle your toes. At least she’s going second, she thinks. She’ll have 19 seconds after he breaks to motor upwind, slow down and regain her composure.
The lieutenant watches the fantail disappear under his nose, waits a moment, then flicks the fighter up on the left wing , hauling aft on the stick, simultaneously pulling the throttles to idle and deploying the speedbrake between the tails. It’s seven g’s he’s getting, and he has to hold the switch aft or else the speedbrake logic would lower it back out of the breeze. The engineers built this jet to fight, knowing that a pilot who’s pulling high g’s is always bleeding airspeed and almost always resenting it. They didn’t build the speedbrake logic for a “shit hot break.” They are engineers.
The lieutenant can only pull that hard for 90 degrees of turn or so, otherwise, with the FA-18’s turn radius he’ll be far too close abeam the ship to make a safe approach once the gear and flaps are down. In order to make it look good, he eases his angle of back just a bit to catch some lift, and pushes on the top rudder to hold the fighter’s nose above the horizon. He’s still doing 325 knots, still too fast - when he’s close to his abeam distance, he applies another hard pulse aft on the stick, and his wings are clouded by vapor as the airspeed bleeds instantly away under the high angle of attack. There: 250 knots, gear and flaps full, landing checklist, quick-quick, keep the turn in, don’t overshoot. On the gauges, no peeking, still too fast: feather the speedbrake aft again, counteract the pitch bobble with a bit of forward stick, not too much. Checklist complete, still fast, damn, high out of the turn and floating, a full ball and a half high, got to get it on speed, got to get her down. There it comes, catch it, oh God, the engines won’t spool up, been at idle too long, please! There! Don’t over-correct, where’s the ball? “Right for lineup!” from the LSO and he dips his wing automatically like he’s been trained, but grinds his teeth - he must have let his scan break down just a bit. Almost there, one more cough on the throttles and WHAM! he’s in the wires and the throttles are going to full, engines screaming and the jet kicking like a bucking bronco at all the mutually opposed forces acting on it until it finally settles down, himself thrown against his harness in that reassuring car-crash sensation that is the end to every successful flight.
He finds the director up ahead and to starboard, on the other side of the foul line, sees him pass the “off brakes” and “hook up” signal as the arresting wire pulls him aft a few feet to release the wire. Once the cable drops away, the director gives him an emphatic “come ahead” signal and raises one foot in an “ass-kicking” movement to really add some emphasis as the lieutenant hears his wingman’s voice on the aux radio, “Keep it moving.”
She doesn’t know how she got so tight on her lead but she did, and she’s rolling out on final approach after having done a really nice job on the approach with the ball in the center and lined up just a little left, looks down the landing area and sees her lead still in the wires, only now starting to move. She’s got 18 seconds left to her approach, but the LSO’s won’t give her all of it if it’s even close, and if he doesn’t scamper across the foul line, she’ll get waved off, never mind whatever wire he’s only now released from his tailhook getting reset to in-battery position. All karma now, just fly the best approach you can and hope for the best. Wonder if the wave-off lights are going to come on? Almost too late for them now, isn’t it? “A little power,” from the LSO’s and she curses softly in her mask but blips the throttles up, thinks, “That could cost me my OK, and I’ve been busting my ass lately trying to make the Top Ten,” and WHAM! she’s on deck and thrown against the harness and now it’s all in the LSO’s hands. At least I didn’t get waved off. She clears the landing area, looks aft and sees the E-2 on final, making his approach. That can’t be easy, she thinks to herself. Props, p-factor, torque and a huge airplane to land in a narrow spot.
She’s taxied forward, run up into the mess on the bow, “Hold brakes” and chocks and chains. Finally, “Shut down,” and she pulls the throttles to the cut-off position. Cracks the canopy and feels hot air rush into the cockpit - is someone blowing their exhaust on me? No - just another hot day in paradise. Wonder what’s for lunch?
The tanker pilot lands last, and makes it look routine - none of the lieutenant’s drama for him, not with five external fuel tanks on a hot day. He’s no sooner trapped than the Officer of the Deck up on the bridge calls for a speed reduction, all engines ahead one-third, followed by a right standard rudder order to turn 100,000 tons of diplomacy downwind: An hour and a half to make some sea room for the next launch. The Captain in his chair catches his eye and nods approvingly, and the OOD feels his chest expand with a rush of pride. From this Captain, that amounts to high praise indeed. He stands a little taller, looks around around his watches once to make sure that everything is as it should be. He’s satisfied.
When the last jet shuts down, the waiting yellow shirts are already swarming over the flight deck, hooking tow tractors up to the launch bars under the “go birds” for the 1200 launch. Engines gunning, whistles blowing, the flight deck suddenly becomes like a disturbed anthill, a boiling mass of activity which seems to the unschooled eye to lack any coherent plan. Up in his aery, the Air Boss looks down on all the activity and nods appreciatively. Just so. We might just make it. He turns to his assistant, the “Mini Boss,” and not for the first time says to him, “Aren’t they amazing? Just look at them, and in this heat.”
In the ready rooms below, the crews are wrapping up their final briefs before going to the parachute locker to strap their g-suits and harnesses on over their flight suits. The squadron XO goes to his squadron duty officer and draws a 9mm pistol and two magazines. He reflects upon the words his first CO told him when he was a lieutenant: “Always carry a weapon over Indian Country. If you get shot down, the war isn’t over, it’s just that the tactics have changed.” He smiles briefly at the thought of that old man, wonders where he is now or if he’s even still alive - he was one of the old breed, that CO: He was what they called “Old Navy,” back before that became a clothing brand. He burned it hard at both ends, left it all out there on the field, no matter what the endeavor. The XO’s smile fades as he looks at the pistol in his hand, feels the purposeful hardness of it, thinks about why he needs it. The war is supposed to be over, but it’s not, and where he’s going, not everyone is friendly.

Chapter 15
1115 - On the flight deck, what appears to the unschooled observer to be a an experiment in multi-colored chaos (with airplanes) continues in a heat that has gone from merely suffocating to near-murderous as the carrier races downwind. Everyone on the flight deck sweats profusely, continuously sipping water from their camelbacks, by now resigned, almost philosophical - they know that in the next several hours it will only get worse. The yellowshirts bark orders back and forth at their retinue, emphasizing with hand signals; the tractor drivers towing the fighters, the blue-shirted, tie down chain-carrying wing walkers whose job is at this moment to ensure safe clearance from parked aircraft on either side, the broiling, brown-shirted plane captain riding brakes in the cockpit. Red-shirted ordnancemen, the “BB stackers,” stand listlessly by the aircraft’s intended parking place, waiting to finish the final checks of bombs and missiles. The directors blow police whistles blow from zone to zone above the wild animal scream of the straining tractors, signaling for “brakes on,” bringing entire combinations of aircraft, tow bar and tractor into a trembling balance, acted upon now too by the urgent thrust of the ship through the greasy, rolling cross sea of the Arabian Gulf.
Up in Primary Flight Control, or Pri-Fly, the Air Boss watches the spectacle unfold below him, looks at his wristwatch for the fifth time in the last four minutes, knows that the pilots for the 1200 launch will start to appear from the various flight deck access points at any minute, helmeted, bulky in their flight gear, strolling the decks like modern day gladiators - which were the heavily armed ones? Ah, yes - the mirmallones, he thinks. They will swagger the deck looking for their steeds and when they find them still being towed aft, unchained, themselves unable to preflight, he knows they will look up the island structure to his glassed-in aery with questioning, pointed glances. He looks at his watch again. Close, it will be so close.
In the CO’s At Sea Cabin, the ship’s Captain, still wearing his coveralls, has thrown himself across his rack for the first of the handful 10-15 minute naps he will use to get himself through the day. It is a survival technique of necessity, one learned after one after another night of too few hours of rest, too often interrupted. The Navigator had watched him leave the bridge with sad, tired eyes as the bosun mate of the watch’s shouts his obligatory of “Captain’s off the bridge!.” The rest of the deck watches breathe out a collective sigh, a kind of ever-so-slight relaxation of the rigid formality of watch aboard a warship at sea. He’ll be back soon - time enough now to flex one’s knees, shift the weight from side to side, exchange silent glances with ones neighbor - even, perhaps - exchange words in hushed tones. Private words unconnected to the safety and navigation of the ship. A luxury.
Well below the instantly sleeping Captain, on the O-3 level, in an eight-man junior officer berthing, a young lieutenant junior grade wakes up bleary eyed, unfocused, wondering where he is: Ah, yes. The ship. He grimaces, thinking of the circus show he’d put on the night before, trying to get aboard - four bolters, two wave-offs (including one for technique) and two trips to the tanker made him the last fixed-wing pilot aboard, apart from the tanker crew who’d spent half the night “hawking” him. A regular old “night in the barrel,” and wrestling with the thoughts of it afterwards kept him awake until 4 A.M. He frowns privately at the thought of it, of the shame.
He wonders what people are saying behind his back, behind their sympathetic smiles and well-intentioned offers of flying advice. He’ll have another chance to excel tonight, he thinks, realizing suddenly that his right hand is clenched against his thigh. He makes a conscious effort to relax it. Too soon to start stressing, he thinks. Plenty of time for that later. He’s young, and affable and inexperienced and so far the combination has kept him off the griddle, but he’s painfully aware that landing aboard the ship at night is a core competency of a naval aviator, and that he’s not doing it very well. The more he thinks about it, the harder it’s getting to be and lately he’s been thinking about it a lot. From the thoughtful glances he gets from the senior leadership, he knows they are thinking about it too. He knows that he is under a kind of cool, unemotional assessment. He knows that ultimately, perhaps in the not-too-distant future, a decision will be made that will affect the rest of his professional life, and that this decision will be neither revocable, nor subject to appeal. The lieutenant junior grade has succeeded, even excelled at every thing he has ever tried in life, and can’t imagine how it has come to this, that he find himself standing on the brink of failure.
The squadron XO finishes suiting up in the parachute riggers shop. G-suit went on first, over the flight suit. Harness atop the g-suit and across the chest. He saws the straps from side to side, tightening all down, feeling it in his thighs, across his shoulders. The survival gear zips closed in front of his chest, atop the harness. Finally, he shoves the unloaded 9 mm in between the harness and survival gear, trying vainly to secure it for flight - the Navy has never developed an adequate holster for pilot-carried weapons, he thinks. The image of an out of control ejection and the heavy, hard-edged pistol breaking free during parachute opening shock, only to tear at his helmet and face flickers into the forefront of his consciousness briefly before he stuffs it away again with a grimace.
He checks that his water bottles in his right g-suit pocket are full, then checks to ensure his piddle packs are in place in the left g-suit pocket. Can’t have one without the other, not on a four hour mission. Time to go.
It’s already hot inside the air conditioned passageways, but as the XO approaches the outer hull, the temperature rises perceptibly, and he feels the first bead of sweat roll down from under his helmet, down his collarbone. He reaches the outer hatch, opens it and almost reels backwards from the heat that hits him like a dull, flat hammer. His body breaks out in an instant of itching as every pore opens and he wonders, as he has for the last three weeks on the line, how the flight deck sailors can possible survive in such an environment, much less do hard physical labor. He’ll be strapped in and turning in 15 minutes, with his fighter’s air conditioning system already running at full capacity. The deck apes will be here all day, scarcely a break. Impossible, he thinks, even while knowing that they keep doing it anyway.
He finds his jet, happy to see that his at least is chained and chocked in an appropriate spot for the launch. He performs his preflight inspection almost automatically, eyes flickering from spot to likely spot after thousands of hours in this model. He doesn’t touch any exposed surfaces though - too hot, far too hot to even think of touching with one’s bare hands, and the XO doesn’t wear gloves. The 500 pound GBU-12, a laser guided bomb is under the port wing, in the shade, and even had it been hot, he’d have still forced his hands to run over the fuzing wires and suspension gear, however. He casts a gimlet eye over the 1000 pound JDAM, a joint, direct attack munition on the starboard wing. The JDAM is GPS guided and exceptionally accurate, but he hates the weapon cordially. An LGB requires a skilled pilot to find the target on his forward-looking infrared system, using funnel navigation from larger features to smaller as he approaches the target. An LGB requires a kind of master. The JDAM, on the other hand, is nearly pilot-proof, designed that way. It’s not a very long walk from the JDAMs to the Home for Retired and Obsolescent Fighter Pilots, he thinks. His preflight done in minutes, he looks up at the open cockpit with something as close as possible to loathing for a professional pilot who loves his work. Imagines the pain of sitting down on that burning seat, puts away half-humorous thoughts of frying bacon, sizzling in a pan. Hits the boarding ladder with a grunt, climbs up and settles in. Damn, that’s hot, ow-ow-ow!
In Pri-Fly the Air Boss shrugs. Well, we almost made it. We can shoot the catapults and clear the deck that way. Not perfect but good enough - can’t wait any longer. He reaches for his belt mounted mic switch, clears his throat, begins his accustomed speech: “Ooooon the flight deck, aircrew are now manning for the 1200 launch. All unnecessary personal must clear the flight deck, everyone remaining on deck must be in a full and complete flight deck uniform: Life vests on and securely fastened, helmets on and buckled, goggles down, sleeves rolled down. Take one last good look around the flight deck for loose gear and FOD, stand clear of all prop arcs, intakes and exhausts. Stand clear of huffer exhausts, tow bars and tie-down chains. Let’s start the go aircraft, start "em up.”

Chapter 16
This script breaks the oppressive, heat-hammered silence on the flight deck and is followed hard by a flurry of hand signals from broiling plane captains to suffocating aircrew - start auxiliary power units. The APUs are small jet engines carried internally by the FA-18’s and used to spin the main engines, the larger General Electric F404s. The APUs themselves are kicked over by hydraulic accumulators which have stored energy from the previous flight, or God forbid in this heat, laboriously pumped up by crimson-faced plane captains. Of all the aircraft on the flight deck today, only the EA-6B Prowler still needs a “huffer” a kind of low tow tractor with its own windmilling starter engine, hooked up by a telescoping hose to the Prowler’s belly.
The low, almost ghostly moan of the Hornet APUs starting across the flight deck breaks out first here, then there, and then together in a kind of eerie, keening chorus. As they come to full speed, the pilots signal to the plane captains, “Start 2″ - starboard engines power the jet’s brakes, and thus are always the first one’s brought on line, followed quickly by the number 1, or port, engine. As soon as the pilots have both engines on line, they close their canopies to capture bleed air-powered air conditioning airflow, in the plain if stoic view of the plane captains, for whom no comfort will be found until their charges have left the deck in half an hour or so. For now the PCs follow around the aircraft’s exterior, somehow immunized to the deafening maelstrom of idling jet engines, as the pilots exercise their primary and secondary flight controls, the stabilators, ailerons and rudders, the flaps and speedbrake. Tailhooks and launch bars are tested for function, as are the inflight refueling probes, even as the pilots warm their radars and internal electronics, align inertial navigation system, entering critical latitudes and longitudes, double checking their position for validity on the digital map projected on a display between his legs. The pilots will verify that their external ordinance registers properly on the weapons display, and enter delivery and fuzing programs into the stores management system. It will be a very busy 15 minutes inside plexiglas cockpits that, for all the howling of the air conditioning, are only slightly less brutally hot than the air outside. Their cockpits will not really cool down until the aircraft are airborne, engines operating at full efficiency and climbing to an altitude that even the oppressive Arabian sun cannot blast and bake. In fifteen minutes though, all cockpit tasks are complete for aircraft that have no malfunctions, and the pilots of these jets either loll their helmeted heads on their hands, elbows braced on canopy rails, or else compulsively check and recheck checklist items, depending upon their personal disposition.
Around one or two of the on-deck fighters, a flurry of activity breaks out as faulty systems are identified, and repairs attempted. White-shirted squadron trouble-shooters, the best technicians of their rate and looking for all the world like helmeted gunslingers, swarm the affected areas with nothing but the tools they carry in low slung waist pouches, years of experience and a competitive desire to make it happen. These same enlisted men will serve as final checkers for the jets as they make their way to the catapults, looking for any sign of materiel defect, leaking hydraulic or engine oil - anything out of place. They are far removed from the pilots in life experience, years and pay grade - a nearly unbridgeable social gap - but if the “shooters” call the jet down for maintenance, no one, not even the squadron commanding officer, will overrule them. If they say you’re down, you’re not going anywhere for a while.
Close at hand in other jets with engines turning are the spares, manned by lean and hungry pilots who have briefed with the “go” aircrew, but will not ordinarily launch. They wait wolfishly if patiently - having gone through all the pain of flight preparation of briefing, and manning up on a broiling flight deck, they stand by against the chance that one of the go-birds breaks and cannot be repaired in time for the launch. The spares don’t exactly hope for the go-pilots to go down, but they are anything but disappointed if this in fact happens: You go through the pain, you want to go flying - it’s only human nature.
The yellow-shirts, the aircraft directors, lords of the flight deck strike casual attitudes in the blazing sun and then at some unseen signal, consult closely cribbed launch sequence cards and make their casual way towards selected aircraft. The squadron XO, as the close air support event lead, will be the first to taxi if his jet is up. He looks up from his weapons display to see an angular yellow-shirt standing in front of his fighter’s nose with arms thrust forward, shoulder high, thumbs pointing inward towards each other from within clenched fists, like some Roman emperor at the point of deciding whether the gladiator should live or die. The XO quickly gives the yellow-shirt a thumbs-up, and sees the yellowshirt first repeat his signal, and then, arms now below his waist, passes a signal - as though alternately brushing dirt of first his left, then his right forearm, followed by the heels of his fists together, thumbs now pointing outward, fists now separating laterally - to the waiting PC and blue-shirted chocks and chains men: Off tie-down chains, pull chocks. They swarm under the jet and the XO raises his arms above the canopy rail for the yellow-shirt to see: Visual proof that he will not either intentionally or accidentally actuate any of the aircraft control surfaces while there are men underneath his jet. These control surfaces are powered by a 3000 psi hydraulic system, and actuation by mischance could easily maim or kill the unlucky maintenance-man who gets caught up in them.
Finally the PC and blue-shirts are clear, and the director signals the XO, “off brakes,” and “come ahead.” The XO gets that sudden spike in heart rate that comes with first motion towards the cat - a welcome excitment in the daytime, often much less so at night - and carefully eases out from between the two jets on either side, mere inches away. As he starts to roll, he reaches down with his right hand and arms his ejection seat, simultaneously glancing up automatically: Good - no overhanging antennas or island structure - if he had to, he could safely eject without being immediately murdered by interfering equipment. This is always a relief. Pulled out thirty or forty feet, the yellow-shirt gives him, “hold brakes,” followed by “spread wings” and “tailhook down.” The XO cools the seeker on his Sidewinder missile as the wings come down to spread, and red-shirted ordnancemen verify that the ‘Winders are functioning properly (the XO probably won’t need them), while the trouble-shooters check his tailhook for smooth operation (he’ll definitely need that). He checks trim, flaps radar and altimeter warning setting: Take-off checklist complete, holding on the wings.
All satisfied, he folds his wings and raises the hook again on the director’s signals, and starts forward again. The yellow-shirt, still taxiing the fighter forward, looks back over his shoulder, and seeing the Fly 2 yellow-shirt standing amidships with one hand held high, turns back to the XO, points to him, and then makes a deliberate and exaggerated throwing signal forward, like a forward pass. He is in fact passing aircraft control to the midships director, who “catches” the pass, and immediately starts giving directions to taxi the XO up to catapult three. The carrier starts a broad, arcing starboard turn, and the XO now leans left in the cockpit as the 100,000 ton aircraft carrier heels over to port.
Passed off again to a yellow-shirt standing athwart the catapult track, wisps of steam rising between his legs. A blue-shirt shows him the weight board, 42,000 pounds - the XO grimaces inside his mask, swallows a curse, raises his hand, palm up: 43,000. Again: 44,000. The XO shoots a thumbs up, and the weight board is turned to the center-deck catapult operator for final calculations: Weight, wind over the deck, temperature, air density, catapult elongation. Precise, agonizingly precise movements are now required, and the XO, while fixated now on his director’s signals with passionate intensity, is aware at some almost precognitive level of the other aircraft maneuvering around his own in the tight space of a first-launch flight deck, aware of trouble-shooters ducking under his jet, running their hands down the panels, moving away. The catapult shuttle comes running back from its parked position right forward on the cat track, passes quickly beneath the cat director’s legs, runs under the fighter’s nose like a mouse running into a hole. “Brakes on,” followed by “launch bar down” and finally “spread wings.” The XO watches the wings come down, locks them down, finishes his take-off checklist, nods. “Come ahead,” and “slowly.” “Hold brakes.” “Full power - take tension.”
The XO feels the jet squat as the catapult shuttle, attached to his launch bar, makes war with the holdback fitting on his nose landing gear. He hears the scream of the GE engines winding up to full power, begging to be released. Check: Engine instruments - all in the green. Flight controls: Wipe ‘em out, don’t forget the rudders. Re-check: Seat armed - good to go. Looks outside, sees that the yellow-shirt has passed control to the Catapult Officer, waiting impatiently for the XO’s signal - the XO salutes the Cat Officer, who salutes back, looks forward, aft: All clear. He kneels and strokes the deck with his outstretched hand: Launch.
The XO braces himself in the ejection seat with his right arm locked on the canopy bow towel rack, left arm braced against the rail, holding the engines at full power. He puts his head back against the seat, peeks to his left at the deck-edge cat operator and catches him just as he fires the catapult. The XO bites down on a scream of mingled primal joy and physical strain as jet bounces up and down the long catapult stroke. His body is pressed against the seat by the g-forces as even his eyeballs flatten, making the flight instruments in the HUD momentarily unreadable. But after a long moment, it is over and his heavily laden fighter wallows, rather than springs into the air on this hot day in an Arabian Gulf summer.
Airborne, by God.
Chapter 17
A clearing turn follows (gently, now: gently - heavy and hot and low as we are) then straight ahead at 500 feet until clear of the overhead pattern. There’s no one waiting to land of course, this is the first “real” launch of the day, but there’s only one right way to do this, and in this case it actually is the “Navy way.” He thumbs the radar into search while idly looking around for sea-based traffic. A few scattered dhows here and there, and a massive oil tanker hull up on the horizon. Inbound to Bushehr, most likely. Clear of the pattern finally, and throttles to military power, capture best climb airspeed and there… raise the nose for the climb to the tanker. No traffic anywhere: It’s good to be the first airborne.
Back on the flight deck, the launch continues. The FA-18 strike fighters first, then the E-2 Hawkeye and finally the EA-6B Prowler. The E-2 is slower than the fighters of course, but doesn’t need to tank, can’t tank in fact - and isn’t going to go “in-country,” so it hasn’t got as far to go. The Prowler won’t need as much gas, not right away.
One of the FA-18E’s is tanker configured, he’ll remain overhead as a backstop for the recovery - just in case. A squadron mate joins him overhead the ship at angels six to ensure that his refueling package works properly prior to proceeding on mission to the USAF tanker track. Satisfied, the tanker pilot reports “Sweet” to the carrier air traffic control center, then settles back into his seat for what promises to be a very boring hour and a half. The tanker pilot reflects that, in a Hollywood movie, he would at this point plug in an iPod and rock n’ roll his way to Bagdhad, escaping death a dozen different ways and saving the girl at the end. It isn’t a movie though, and they also serve who wait overhead to pass gas, so he checks around for traffic carefully before turning the jet over to the autopilot, loosens his O2 mask to let it dangle by one strap and starts a letter home to his wife. Before he puts pen to paper on the kneeboard strapped to his thigh, he first reaches into his g-suit pocket to retrieve the last letter he got from her. Before he writes back, he’d like to read it one more time. He’s one of the few guys who still writes paper letters home, he’s old fashioned that way. While an email is a great way to share data, he believes it’s a poor media to share emotions in, nothing but ephemera, these pixels on a computer screen. There’s nothing like a handwritten letter, a tangible thing you can hold in your hand. His wife writes back from time to time, above and beyond the emails she sends on a near-daily basis.
Her letters sometimes arrive in clumps of two’s and three’s after weeks of no mail, and when they arrive in that fashion he always intends to save them, to ration them out over time in some private space, alone and apart from all the world. To try and make them last. He never manages to do so though, like all the other pilots, he pulls them greedily from his mailbox in the ready room, walks to a corner away from everyone else and quickly devours them one by one until all newness is gone from them. She numbers the letters, just the way he’d asked her to after their first deployment together, because often the letters don’t arrive in order and he used to get confused. Sometimes the third letter of the week would arrive first and when they weren’t numbered she’d make assumptions about things the things she thinks he should know and he struggle to fill the gaps. Now when her letters come out of sequence, he now knows to suspend his curiosity, that eventually, as he re-reads the letters again and again in the quiet of his stateroom, aligning them in the order numbered on the envelope flap, they will unfold for him gradually and gratefully like a wrapped birthday present. He re-reads the letters as well to try to feel her physical presence: Trying to feel her hand on the pen, imagine her forearm across the paper, the coolness of the dining room table, itself sitting in a house whose details he increasingly strains to accurately remember.
And at that very moment, half the world away she wakes up early, rubs her eyes, gets out of bed and pads into the kitchen for a cup of coffee before going into the family room, where the computer sleeps. She likes to get up early, before the children wake up. They are still young, and have not yet learned how to sleep in on a summer morning, a fact that she regrets but does not resent. She wants to read what he has written in his email overnight - while he always complains that everything is the same and that there is nothing new to report, yet he will somewhere tell her that he loves her like no other, and aches for her and that this will all be over soon, not too much longer now. The early morning is her private time alone with her absent husband and if she can get it all done before the kids get up, she’ll have time to wipe her eyes and wash her face and the kids won’t ask her why she’s so sad, because that never makes it any better.
She thinks of him, and marvels at the recollection of how strongly his memories are tied to scents, the everyday domestic smells. She loves the way that he’ll run his hand through her hair and then hold it to his face, breathing deep, and then sometimes she remembers, her cheeks tingeing red, his breathing deep will turn to breathing hard. Sometimes after they are done he tells her that her own scent reminds him of the way the air smells just before a thunderstorm, the instant before the first thunderclap. Although she has never known quite what to make of that, the way he says it pleases her inside, and she smiles ruefully at the thought, contrasted against the distance.
She decides that today she will write a letter, and moves into the dining room to do so. Just as he had envisioned on the other side of the world. She writes to him about the dream that she had of the two of them together last night. She fills it with the kind of details that would have mortified her mother, and that she’d be embarrassed to put into an email - she knows that he reads his email on one of the two machines in the public space of the squadron ready room, and someone might accidentally glimpse a bit of it over his shoulder, so she saves such details for her letters.
Because she knows how strongly he reacts to smells, she always puts a bit of her perfume on the letter before she sends it to him, hoping to remind him more closely of her. When he writes back, he lies and tells her that he loves the way her letters smell, and how they remind him of her - he has to lie, because in truth all the scented letters from all the different wives and girlfriends are smashed together in a canvas mail bag for so long that by the time they reach the ship, all of them smell exactly the same. But he cannot think of a reason why she would need to know that, and he considers this lie, at least, to be forgivable.
So halfway round the world he checks outside for traffic once again before bowing his head and beginning to re-read her last letter. Trying to feel her in its tangible presence, imagining her arm across the dining room table, holding down a pad of stationary as she writes him one of her maddeningly enchanting letters. In that exact moment, sixteen time zones and half the world away, she is doing precisely that, with an impish half-smile in her face and feeling an internal glow of warmth from the graphic memory she is relating. Down the hall two children slumber, temporarily fatherless, dreaming children’s dreams.
For each interrupted couple on a six-month deployment there are tens, perhaps hundreds of such moments of unlikely synchronicity, and the true tragedy is that each will pass unnoticed and therefore unlamented into the endlessly unfolding wale of indifferent time.
Twenty miles away from the overhead tanker pilot, the squadron XO acquires a radar lock on the USAF tanker orbiting in its track, analyzes the target angle and maneuvers to intercept heading for a stern conversion…

Chapter 18
It’s good to be the first one airborne, he thinks again. Although his radar warning receiver occasionally burps at him from six o’clock, adding unnecessary proof that the launch has continued behind him, he knows there should be no traffic between him and the big wing tanker now out of its turn to the south to maintain the tanker orbit, and on one of its long legs back towards the ship.
He’d like forty thousand feet of lateral separation for his stern conversion - a turn radius of three miles and a bit. He could turn in a great deal less room, if he had to, but that would cost him airspeed or fuel or both and the tanker crews get tense when they see fighters turning behind them in a ball of vapor and full afterburner. More separation is better, more controlled. The XO leaves the engines at military power for the climb to the tanker’s altitude - or almost: He’ll stop one thousand feet below before snuggling up once “aboard.”
The tanker is 20 degrees left on his scope. He re-checks his target aspect vector, the measure of angle to his aircraft from the tanker’s nose: 10 left. A little too hot for their 20 miles of separation, 10 left at 20 nm is only 20,000 feet of lateral separation so he turns away, puts the target symbology 40 degrees left on his radar display - that should open the distance. By fifteen miles he’s got better than 15 degrees of target aspect, almost 20 - an easy turn to reciprocal bearing will let it continue to build. There - forty degrees at ten miles: Perfect.
Outside the cockpit, the big wing tanker looms large in the distance. The Navy has nothing like this strategic tanker capability, all its tankers are carried aboard the aircraft carriers and thus constrained in size by the carrier’s deck. In a normal cyclic launch and recovery, an FA-18E can offload maybe 8,000 pounds of gas to the guy who’s having a rough time getting aboard the carrier. The massive KC-135 up there, a variant of the Boeing 707 airliner, can offload over 100,000 pounds of gas - easily enough to extend the endurance of the close air support mission the XO is leading by another cycle, thereby maximizing persistent combat power and utility to the boys on the ground. The USAF needs these strategic tankers to support their “global reach” vision and have suffered, albeit grudgingly at times, the Navy have to a sip as well.
At five miles the XO is at his target altitude and it’s time to heat the intercept up: In a left turn at no more than 30 degrees angle of bank he pulls the KC-135 to the nose - pure pursuit. Because of the relative geometry, increasing angle of bank is required to heat this up a bit more - the classic stern conversion is designed to bring the fighter 9000 feet in trail of his target, but the XO wants to be just off his wing, The huge jet looms in his HUD, and then floats out of his HUD above his canopy as he rolls out in perfect position, 1000 feet below the tanker. He allows himself a mental smile - it’s a simple thing really, but the XO is convinced that success in almost anything comes from doing a sometimes complicated series of simple things well.
Stabilized, he bumps the throttles up again to climb the 1000 feet into “port observation.” The radar is “silenced” by a pushtile on the display as the XO confirms the aircraft armament system to be safe. The XO completes his tanking checklist with a call on the boom frequency: “Hobo 402, port observation, nose cold, switches safe.”
“Cleared pre-contact.”
Strung out in a line behind him, roughly in the sequence they were shot from the deck, a line of heavily laden strike fighters stretches back towards the carrier like a group of ducklings trailing leaving the water to waddle up to their waiting mother. In each cockpit, a pilot works his way through post-takeoff checklists, combat checklists and pre-tanking checklists. Radars sweep above and below, and their heads scan to fill the gaps in close, looking for traffic - the airspace around the carrier is uncontrolled - see and be seen is the order of the day, if you want to live.
Overhead the carrier, the FA-18E tanker pilot finishes his letter home, stuffs it into his g-suit pocket and looks around outside for traffic, automatically. He reverts to the world as it is, with home and love placed away inside a box within his head, a box he’ll open only when their is the time for it. With this brusque exercise in compartmentalization, as critical a skill to success in the air as are perfect eyesight and keen reflexes, the slender tendril of synchronicity with his wife back at home is snapped. Half the world away, she hears the children stirring in their bedrooms. She sighs, stands up and goes to the kitchen sink, runs the water, dabs at her face with a cool washcloth. She raises her chin in a kind of defiance, squares her shoulders and sets her face against the day. It’s only three more months. Half way there.
Aboard the carrier, in the dirty shirt wardroom well forward on the O-3 level, the lieutenant junior grade pushes his unappetizing meal around his plate with his fork. Pork something in a brown sauce and rice. Again. He places his fork down for a moment and puts his hand up to his right eye - tries to stop the nervous ticking there, smooth it all away. Looks back down at his plate in disgust. Hell, even if his stomach wasn’t all roiled from thinking about the fiasco last night, himself going around and around and finally trapping at the last on the one wire, in afterburner with the LSO screams of “POWER, POWER” still ringing in his ears, and the Air Boss calling, “Lights on deck, 311, lights on deck and throttle back, we’ve got you,” even without that weighing on his mind the meal would not be very appealing. As things are though, it’s inedible. Ah, well. There’s always the good old, reliable PB&J. At times he feels like he lives on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
In the tanker orbit, the XO makes a small wing dip, a minute adjustment aft of the throttles and changes focus from the tanker’s port wingtip to the boom itself. The USAF uses a boom and receptacle arrangement for tanking its own bombers and fighters - the receiver aircraft simply flies formation on the big jet, while the boom operator in the back steers the tanker probe into the customer’s refueling receptacle. The Navy, being the Navy of course, does this the exact opposite way: The boom is locked and a drogue assembly streamed. Into this combination the fighter pilot flies his refueling probe.
On the even larger KC-10, the USAF has kindly adapted a refueling package with a long, soft hose, a velvety soft drogue and flexible take-up reel to accommodate the Navy’s requirements - it is probably true that the same men who as children had visions of sugarplums dancing in their heads come Christmas time, now dream of tapping into KC-10’s to get their fill of go-juice some 20 years on. Everyone’s face lights up at the news of a KC-10 in the air.
Not so with the KC-135. For their own inscrutable reasons, the USAF decided to adapt the -135 probe with a short length of reinforced rubber tubing attached to steel-lined, hard plastic refueling basket. Once the fighter pilot gets his refueling probe into the basket, he has to continue to press forward in order to make a kink in the hard hose - no kink, no fuel flow. The basket, hose and kink resists: The feeling is that the tanker is perversely trying to push the fighter back out of the basket. Any misalignment as they connect or disconnect can cause the heavy refueling basket to come smashing into the fighter’s fuselage. When this happens, it will probably take the fighter’s refueling probe tip with it (no more gas for you!) and potentially knock off one of the cheek-mounted angle of attack measuring vanes. These vanes have to go down into the engines, there to cause no end of damage, chugs, compressor stalls, no choice really, not to mention throwing the flight control computers into a state of kernel panic. That is, of course, if the basket doesn’t come crashing through the plexiglas canopy itself, turning the fighter into a convertible and leaving the cockpit a shrieking maelstrom of noise, windblast and confusion. For this reason, while the KC-10 takes pride of place in the fighter pilot pantheon of pleasures, the -135 is known throughout the fleet simply as the “Iron Maiden.”

“Pre-contact,” the XO calls when he’s aligned behind the basket.
“Cleared to engage.”
The XO bumps the throttles up, cautiously - the key is to keep flying formation on the big jet, while steering the probe right into the center of the basket. The key is to have confidence, to know that you can do this, that it can be done. The key is not to be afraid…

Chapter 19
Thirty minutes later:
Well, that was a freakin’ goat rope, the XO fumes. He looked into the mirrors over his canopy bow to check the close air support package’s formation behind him. He ought to be looking at seven other attack jets, but he can only see five. That knucklehead in 304 was heading back to the ship of course, and no great loss apparently; not with the flying skills he’d just demonstrated. But his wingman was escorting him back due to the nature of the damage, and that was a pretty big deal - they’d be down two strike fighters if the ship couldn’t work a miracle: The CAS package had to push into Iraq immediately or else there would be a gap in the fixed wing air support. Most times these missions were deadly dull, but when the guys on the ground got in a pinch and called for air, you sure as hell wanted to be able to give it to them right away. But now the package would have to enter the kill box down two jets - by the time 304 landed back aboard ship, it’d be too late for his wingman to catch back up to with the rest of them, and no one goes “in country” alone.
The XO had already notified the carrier, which was even now turning back into the wind for an emergency recovery. If he gets lucky, maybe they can get one of the spares that didn’t launch back in his jet and shoot him to join the 304’s wingman back to the tanker and into the box. Maybe.
The XO swore again inside his mask. It had all gone so smoothly at first - getting his own gas had been routine after so many years of practice, and he cleared briskly to the right wing of the USAF tanker to await the others. The second and third jets were quickly joined up on the left, and after no time the regular queue was all formed up: One Hornet in the basket, getting his gas, the others strung out on the tanker’s port wing, each flying formation, his attention fully fixed on the man in front. Each patiently waiting his turn.
But then came 304, joining the party late and damn near spoiling it. Man, that had been close. Back on deck, 304’s pilot had struggled to get his jet launched due to maintenance troubleshooting. Several of the aircraft system’s, including the ordnance system, had been acting up and he almost missed the launch window. Finally getting airborne, and running behind, he had hurried himself to the rendezvous circle, rushing through his climb checklists and breaking all the XO’s carefully briefed safety procedures along the way. He came in co-altitude, with a bag of knots on the jet and far too many angles to solve, just as the big-wing tanker started a turn into him. At that point, any sensible pilot would have bailed out of the rendezvous, executed the “under-run” procedure that they had all been taught since the earliest days of formation flight in flight school. Ease throttles, speed brake out, lower the nose, cross below and behind the formation until the dynamics settled out. Nothing to brag about, doing an under-run, and the boys would certainly give you a hard time later. But it sure beat the hell out of a mid-air collision, which was the option running hard for second place.
But no, 304 had tried to polish the turd, wrapping the jet up in a high angle of bank turn, losing sight of the formation and damn near wiping out the other three guys waiting on the tanker’s left wing. The XO hadn’t seen it coming until it was too late to do anything. He’d been waiting for the rest of the package to finish refueling, sitting on the starboard wing fat, dumb and happy until he heard someone (The boom operator? One of the FA-18F weapons systems officers?) breathe, “Holy shit!” on the prime radio. By the time the XO had assimilated, almost against his own will, the image of 304 thundering in on them from the port side, almost out of control - belly up, vapors clouds shredding from the wingtips - and falling in on the formation like some crazed, blind, avenging angel, there was nothing to do but wince and grimace, and hope for the best.
No time to say anything, and no words to say if he’d had time. Would he have said, “Don’t be stupid” to 304? That wouldn’t work, or else there wouldn’t be any stupid people in the world. Or how about, “Say a quick prayer, make it a good one,” to the guys on the port wing? Those guys all had their eyes fixed on the tanker itself or the man in front of them in the queue, and were therefore blithely unaware of their impending doom. A “head’s up” call would only make them look around in confusion and they’d probably clack into one another in their instinctive and uncoordinated attempts to get out of the way. If they didn’t eject out of pure, instantaneous terror. Even fighter pilots, men who go to work with laughter in their hearts and death in their hands, nurture their private fears in the dark of the night, although they do not speak of them. And as for those fears, a blind-side, never-saw-it-coming, multi-plane, midair collision while carrying tons of high explosive ordnance on the tanker just about sums them all up.
The fact that 304 didn’t hit the guys waiting to port either validated the “small plane / big sky” theory or proved that God does indeed love the Marine Corps, the XO thought. His CAS package was headed to the Al Anbar region of western Iraq, where the Second Marine Expeditionary Force was doing God’s work, and apparently the Big Guy decided that they should get some air that day, just in case, and 304’s buffoonery notwithstanding. So they’d gotten lucky and dodged a bullet, and after a brief-but-exciting, one-way conversation between the XO and 304’s pilot on the aux radio, things had settled back down again.
For a while, that is - at least until it was 304’s turn to refuel. Maybe the kid was having a bad day, but his attempts to get his refueling hose into the tanker’s basket reminded the XO of nothing so much as a drunk pig trying to make love to a greased football. On his first attempt, he lunged and missed and then shrunk himself as small as he could, trying to almost hide in his cockpit while screwing his head up to stare at the intimidating sight of the Iron Maiden’s basket floating right above his canopy, right above his head. Daunted, on the next approach he worked up enough courage to get almost to the sticking point, then stalled at the gate, two meters away from closure. The XO had a quick internal debate on whether or not he should say something to get the kid moving, but thankfully, resisted the temptation.
Thankfully, because when he finally got her moving again, 304’s pilot made another of his deeply stupid lunges at the Iron Maiden. The XO watched in horror as the heavy refueling basket, after being lipped on the top half of its circumference, counter-reacted by smashing back down into 304’s fuselage. The XO could immediately tell that something had come off (an AOA probe, most likely) and gone down 304’s right engine. Whatever it was, it immediately caused the motor to chug out a compressor stall, complete with an impressive display of sparks and flames out the exhaust pipe. 304 immediately began to lose altitude and dropped back as the pilot bent his head to deal with his loss of thrust and the numerous lights, alarms and female-voice warning system alerts that went along with it.
The formation of fighters on the tanker’s right wing ruffled like a flock of pigeons being chased by a child on a city sidewalk at this alarming spectacle. Criminy, the XO thought: I need to get rid of this guy before he kills us all.
The XO called 304’s wingman on the aux freq and told him to escort the crippled jet back to the ship. After a few terse words of advice, “Throttle idle on the bad motor - if it keeps chugging, for God’s sake shut it down. If he can’t maintain altitude on the one motor, don’t let him forget to jettison his stores someplace safe. Join us if you can after getting him aboard the ship - we’re not waiting though.”
Man, what a mess. “Hammer’s, switch Sabre on prime. Liberty, the Hammer package is going feet dry, minus two.”

Chapter 20
In 304’s cockpit the temperature seems suddenly to have risen almost to a boiling point. The pilot squirms and shifts in his ejection seat as the text warning messages stack up on his left digital data indicator, accompanied by the warning tone sounding its “deedle-deedle” shrieks repeatedly in his headset with each new malfunction. His eyes scan the list in growing alarm as he struggles to maintain aircraft control - any one of these would be a serious problem, and now they are coming at him one after another in staccato succession: FLAPS SCHED, ENG R, FLT CONTR, ADC, STALL R.
The thought of how this came to pass, this dramatic chaos from perfect order just a few moments before, brings a screaming brown buzz of incipient panic in the back of the pilot’s head: “Can’t happen! Why! My fault! Idiot!” as well as half-formed curses which he struggles to stuff down into the box where useless things must go at times like these when you’re very, very busy. Later on perhaps there will be time for self-recrimination, but just now he can’t afford to be distracted by thoughts of his own mortality or the professional consequences. The voices recede into the background noise, but don’t quite disappear - they’re waiting for another chance to pull at him, tug at his arms, drag him down into the whirlpool of despair. Throwing her hat in the ring to add to the confusion, “Bitchin’ Betty,” the female voice warning system, speaks to the pilot in maddeningly repetitive and urgent tones to inform him of major malfunctions - she emphasizes in her eerie not-quite-mechanical voice that she thinks he really ought to pay attention to: “Flight controls! Flight controls!”and “Engine right! Engine right!” He hears the squadron XO’s guidance to his wingman on the aux frequency, but can’t process it over sounds of the warning system alerts and the continuous BANG! BANG! sounds coming from behind and below him as his right engine comes apart. This massive device, itself costing more money than he would make in a twenty-year career, is in the process of noisily devouring itself at 33,000 RPM, having first ingested an evidently indigestible high tensile steel angle of attack probe. That probe in turn ought to be supplying inputs to the air data computer and flight control computers from its position on the forward fuselage, and would be still, if only he had calmed down behind the tanker and gotten the job done. It’s all happening too fast and the voices sense their moment and start shrieking at him again about how screwed he is and how it’s all his fault and how do we get away from this? (Maybe we can hide - how can we hide?)
Stop it! You’re trained for this! Calm down! Go away!
Priorities: Maintain aircraft control. Analyze situation. Take corrective action.
Got it. Well, she’s still flying, but I’ve got to make the bleeding stop before that engine catches fire. “I’m shutting down the right motor,” he passes to his wingman. I hate this, he thinks.
“Roger, confirm right engine and you might want to get the wheels down while you’ve still got hydraulics,”replies his wingman.
“Good call, thanks,” he says, and checking in his heads-up display to verify that he is below gear speed, he reaches over by his left knee to lower the gear handle even as he pulls the right motor (double check right throttle - screwed if you shut the wrong motor off) to the fuel cut-off position. The right engine powers the landing gear hyd circuits, and although there are accumulators in case of emergency, the main system tends to be more reliable. He’s still on the memorized portion of the emergency procedure checklists, and presses the right fire light as well (double check right firelight) in order to cut off fuel flow upstream of the throttle’s fuel shut-off valve.
The wind stream noise rises significantly in the cockpit and he feels a sudden deceleration as the as the landing gear fall into the breeze. He breathes a sigh of relief as the gear indicator lights turn green, one by one: Nose. Left. Right. Good. “Deedle-deedle” shrieks the warning tone again, and “Engine right! Engine right!” Betty redundantly adds, as additional warnings add themselves to the stack on his left display: R AMAD, OIL PR R, R BOOST LO. Well, he thinks, gritting his teeth, those at least are all to be expected. That’s what you get for shutting down a motor in flight: The engine turns the accessory gearbox, which in turn provides oil and fuel boost pressure. This feels like the simulator training he’s received, and although it’s been a while since he’s been in the sim, he feels himself starting to gain control of the situation. Still flying, and nothing’s getting worse now. Got fuel for a while. Got time now to break out the checklists and work through this one thing at a time. He calls his wingman on the aux radio, “Two, call back to the ship and see what you can do about getting me a ready deck. Tell the squadron rep that I’m single engine with the right motor off but three green on landing gear. Tell him that I’ve got a bunch of flight control cautions but that the handling qualities are OK.”
He pulses the stick a little as if to confirm his last sentence: Hmm. A little squirrelly in pitch, and we’re starting to get a little slow - flaps half, maybe. Yeah, half flaps.
Again he reaches by his left knee and selects the flap handle to half - no more than half flaps in single engine flight, or he won’t have enough excess thrust to maintain altitude. The flaps indicator flickers amber for a moment, and the pilot is momentarily concerned that the switching valves which route left engine hyd fluid to right engine control surfaces are sticking - if the flaps don’t come down, there’s no way he’s landing back aboard ship. He feels the customary bobble as the flaps finally deploy into position, the green “Half” light comes on. Still getting slow. Maybe bring the left throttle up. More. More. Uh-oh: It’s on the firewall and I’m still decelerating. Little bit of afterburner - WHOA! He fights a sudden, uncommanded lift of the nose, like a boat rising to meet a wave, a nervous, drifting yaw to the right, the screaming “WHEEEEE” of the stall warning tone. He bunts the stick forward, hard - no gentle caress this, but a panic pulse, a video game move. In the sudden switch to almost 0 g, he floats in the seat straps while he reaches out with his left leg to stab with fear-augmented strength on the left rudder. She lifts again, hesitates, settles - the stall tone goes from a constant scream to abbreviated bursts. These slow, they stop. Almost lost her there, dummy! Got to be careful when you’re slow and single engine - asymmetric thrust in burner can put you out of limits. And you’re still high, so there’s less lift. Trade altitude for airspeed. Lower the nose; let’s pick up some knots.
“Two, be advised: I can’t maintain altitude. I’m going down.”
Chapter 21
A hundred miles to the north, the squadron XO checks his close air support package through a series of control frequencies: Kuwait Air Traffic, the USAF AWACS and finally to the Direct Air Support Center, or DASC. The DASC splits his package up, sending one two-ship well north and under the control of the Army’s Air Support Operations Center, or ASOC. The second two-ship is vectored well to the west, almost to the border with Syria, while the XO’s two-ship is tasked to orbit just west of Baghdad itself, while a two-ship of Air National Guard F-16s patrol the skies over the capital itself. They are Syracuse guardsmen - the XO recognizes their callsigns - and he grudgingly acknowledges that when it comes to the art of CAS, there are no better artists than these specialists from upstate New York. In general, the regular forces owe no special regard to the weekend warriors of the Air National Guard. The Syracuse guys are the exception which proves the rule.
The XO expects the DASC to resent the fact that the Navy has checked in with two less fighters than they had been “fragged” for, due to the 304 fiasco, but the controller takes the news with philosophical equanimity. The southern kill box will have to go unfilled, he admits - but the south has been quiet for weeks on end. Even so, he asks XO to bias his orbits to the south, just in case.
Theirs is an “on call” mission - no offensive operations are in progress on the ground today, so each two-ship is assigned a geographic area of responsibility. They are on contract to provide fixed wing air support within moments if there is a “troops in contact” situation, what the controllers will call a “TIC.” The XO weighs the odds of seeing any action today, and frowning slightly behind his mask, assesses them as slim: The US Marine Corps is a proud organization of fighters, hard men who go as eagerly towards the sound of gunfire as starving people would move towards a banquet table. They join the clash of arms with a brand of savage joy that has dismayed their foes throughout the country’s history. If he would dare criticize those with dusty boots from the sterile safety of his air conditioned fighter, the XO might object that the Marines were perhaps a shade too hesitant in issuing invitations for others to join their fights. With resignation, he accepts the likelihood that the only way that they’ll be called upon for support today is in the highly unlikely situation of a situation the Marines cannot handle, a truly desperate struggle - an ambush perhaps. Alternatively, he thinks, brightening - perhaps the enemy will be found holed up in a building, a stronghold too well-fortified for them to be conveniently dislodged. He sighs: Not likely, and prepares himself fore a long and boring patrol.
He checks his right three o’clock to see that his young wingman is in perfect combat spread, and nods, professionally satisfied. That young man will do well. “In place right, go.” He starts a gentle, arcing turn to the south. The sun moves from his right shoulder to his left, and the only sounds around him, apart from the ever-present moan of the GE F404 engines, is the hoarse rattle of his own breathing in the rubber oxygen mask. Engine instrument scan: Everything in the green. He reaches up and disconnects the bayonet fitting connecting his O2 mask to the right side of his helmet, letting it dangle. As he does so, he simultaneously secures the oxygen flow switch, and double checks cabin pressurization - it wouldn’t do to go to sleep up here, and wake up dead, he thinks. Still, it’s a long flight, and the sweat from the mid-day launch is only now drying up. A little comfort couldn’t hurt.
Half way through his turn, and out of deeply ingrained habit - most of all the desire to let no opportunity for training to go unharvested - the XO double checks that the armament system is safe, and then switches the weapons system from long range air search to a close-in dogfight mode of the AIM-9 Sidewinder, just as his fighter’s nose approaches his wingman’s tail. The radar autolocks, and his wingman chirps, “Buddy spike, six.” The XO hears the familiar raspy growl turn quickly to a passionate scream as the seeker head drags past his wingman’s tailpipes and then locks on to the heat signature. He smiles a bit, thinks to himself “Fox 2, set up another.” Again, out of habit the XO cranes his head around and looks back between his cantilevered vertical tails to check his own six o’clock. After you shoot, he thinks - that’s when you get shot. You’ve been fixated on your target. You’ve been predictable for an eternity - maybe even 20 seconds. You must always check six after a shot: All clear. He knew that it would be. He also knew that maybe it wouldn’t always be. He knew from the time that he was a brand new nugget, just joining the line, that in time this habit of checking six after taking a shot might some day pay off. That eventually he might look back over his shoulder to find that there would be a bandit, camped in his six, preparing to take a shot of his own. He knew that he’d only have to be right once, to make the habit worthwhile. This is a kind of discipline, he reflects, not for the first time. This is how you survive.
In a conventional conflict CAS is designed to support offensive operations or defensive fortifications in close proximity to friendly forces. By definition, CAS occurs within the fire support coordination line, or FSCL, a line drawn out beyond the furthest line of expected advance for friendly forces. Their actual position at any given time marks the “FLOT” or forward line of own troops. A JTAC, or joint terminal air controller - someone on the ground - must coordinate all fires between the FLOT and FSCL. To do his job properly, the JTAC will have eyes on both the targets and the attack assets, whether artillery, rotary wing aviation or fixed wing attack. He will coordinate between them - no air support in the dive run while arty is incoming.
But there is no call for fire yet, and the fighters will remain under the control of the DASC until their services are requested. Only then, and only if required, will they flow to the JTAC, hands moving a rapid dance, throttles coming up to the stops, airframes humming as the speed builds up. Weapons armed and awaiting only release consent, the blood singing in their veins as they ready their machines to be the avenging angels they were made to be, that they were meant to be: Angels which bring down death and destruction with whirlwind speed and shocking violence, with everything in a state of electric tension, screaming for release.
But not yet, not quite yet. Maybe not at all, today. This is not a conventional conflict, anymore. It had been when the XO was here last, with battle lines, however fluid and rapidly shifting. Fixed targets too, SAM sites and barracks, bridges and headquarters buildings. Juicy targets to hammer away at from above, by men who have learned everything about them, who have learned to love them, yea, to love them even to destruction.
Now however, it is unconventional warfare - there are no battle lines, friendly troops are everywhere and striking the enemy, once they are found, requires the competing, even adversarial characteristics of both lightning speed and incredible precision. An attacks, or series of attacks, could come from any direction, and the fighters must be able to instantly respond - and importantly, with both friendlies and neutrals in close proximity, when they unleash hell upon the waiting ground below, they have to get it exactly right. To err may well be human, the XO reflects, but there is no room for it here. No room for it now.
He looks down from his lofty perch at the undifferentiated khaki brown below, broken here and there by ancient settlements pushing up like rotted teeth from among the marshes and along the riverbanks. He cannot imagine what it must be like, to be down there - to be in it. To be a part of it. A part of him is envious, not knowing. Ah, well: The road not taken.
He checks his digital moving map display, on the console between his legs. Off to his left is Iran, no very great distance to the east, and from this height, indistinguishable from Iraq. Time to turn, he thinks - this is as far as we should go. Time to head back north. “In place right, go.” An automatic check of his fuel state, engine instruments, radar warning receiver. Another turn on CAP, the boredom setting in. His wingman returns him his previous favor, and locks the XO up as his nose comes round, setting off his radar warning gear. “Buddy spike, six,” the XO says automatically. He rocks himself gently in his ejection seat, fore and aft. Trying to stay alert. Trying to stay ready.

Chapter 22
Back aboard the carrier, a squadron duty officer receives a phone call from the Air Boss in the tower. He listens much more than he talks, replies, “Yes sir, right away,” and hangs up. He looks around the ready room quickly - no one here but a nugget lieutenant junior grade, the same guy who’s been having so much trouble getting aboard at night. Well, the SDO thinks, it’d be better if I had someone more experienced to send up to the tower, but this doesn’t require any skills the kid doesn’t already have. He’ll have to do until I get someone else to relieve him. He calls the JG over: “I need you to grab a pocket checklist and hump it up to the tower. Three-oh-four had a basket slap on the tanker and is coming back early, single engine. The Air Boss wants a squadron rep in the tower to handle the phone calls. You’re it.”
The JG starts in his chair, thinks, Oh, great - one more chance to excel, asks the SDO aloud, “Isn’t there someone, you know… more senior?”
The JG grabs the checklist and heads out the door at a run and immediately collides with a portly civilian tech rep who blusters for a moment before considering the dynamics of the situation and getting out of the way. The JG continues his weaving way to the ladders going up to the tower, some six decks above the ready room, moving at a pace as close to a run as is appropriate aboard an aircraft carrier at sea. It’s a kind of frantic shuffle, as he vaults knee-knockers every few steps, head weaving and bobbing away from air ducts and overhead piping, hips dodging the many things that project out of naval bulkheads on either side: power junction boxes, valve fittings and the ubiquitous firefighting gear. To these fixed objects are associated moving ones as well, Sailors in the passageway. These last are familiar with the look they see in his eyes, familiar with urgency and its reasons even if not of the specifics. Most of all, being men who use the sea, they are aware of costs and consequences. They throw themselves against the bulkhead to get out of his way and the passageway rings with their shouts of “Make a hole,” as they inform others to clear a path. The JG is junior enough to be momentarily surprised at this treatment - no one has ever cleared a path for him before - but even as grateful as he is, he does not hesitate to express his gratitude.
Around the ship, phone circuits are buzzing. The ship’s Captain is on the line to the Air Boss in the tower, who is in turn on conference call with the Air Operations officer down in the ship’s air traffic control center, and the Aircraft Handling Officer down in his cubicle off the flight deck. The Air Ops officer is in communications with 304 and his wingman - at their current distance from the ship, they are still in his airspace. The Handler is pleading with the Air Boss to take 304 last, after the launch for God’s sake, if he’s ever to have a chance of getting the next launch off the deck at all. The alternative is to clear the flight deck landing, now spotted with the better part of a dozen aircraft awaiting the next launch, by means of an emergency pull-forward: Harassed flight deck crews would run tractors to the aircraft spotted aft and yank them out of the landing area, with every focus on speed of movement, none of the usual deliberation and safety procedures. After the work he’s already done this morning recovering the alert launch, a second perturbation runs the risk not merely the usual “crunches” as jets are pulled aside in random order, nor even of the occasional personnel injuries that such haste sometimes engenders, but also the one thing that all Handlers live in fear of: A locked deck. A locked deck is a a kind of flight deck gordian knot: Aircraft, tractors and tow bars flung together in such cross-grained disorder that nothing can be done, not launches, not recoveries, not even a proper re-spot. A locked deck will characteristically take far more time to sort out than the dwindling reserves of airborne fuel in the waiting recovery overhead the carrier will support. A locked deck can happen in a moment, and would be the Handler’s ultimate disgrace. A locked deck haunts his dreams.
The JG arrives in the tower gasping for air having taken the six steep ladders at an all-out run. The Air Boss notes his squadron patches as he arrives, knows why he’s here and passes him a radio handset while still balancing a phone in either ear. The Air Boss’s eyes linger for a moment on the single silver bar embroidered on the JG’s shoulders, his insignia of rank, and purses his lips. His eyes drift down to the JG’s name patch, and of their own accord narrow in recognition, and at the associated memory of the circus show behind the ship the night before, that long, long night. He looks up now into the JG in the eyes themselves, and cocks his head as if in evaluation. He notes the new shade of crimson layering itself upon the JG’s face, itself already flushed from his earlier exertions. The Boss shrugs mentally: “304 - talk to him, find out what he’s got, what he needs, get me a fuel state. I need to know how long he can wait before recovering.”
In short, rapid bursts of communications, the JG talks to 304 and his wingman, gets a sense of the larger issues: Single engine, right motor out, but landing gear are down and locked. Flaps are set at half, that’s approach flaps for single engine recovery, good. Stacked up flight control cautions due to the lost angle of attack probe, but handling qualities seem adequate. Insufficient thrust with the wheels down to maintain level flight without using afterburner on the remaining engine, which, even apart from the effects on fuel consumption has deleterious effects on Vmc - minimum controllable airspeed in single engine flight. The JG sorts the information he has received in this rapid exchange into internal priority bins - this is a task at which he excels - and correctly relays to the Air Boss the most critical piece of information: “He can’t maintain altitude on the left motor, not with all the trash he’s hauling. He’ll have to jettison his external stores - the bombs at a minimum - but he’s over 50 miles from the designated bomb jettison area, and it’s in the wrong direction anyway.”
The Air Boss nods, turns one phone down against his shoulder, speaks to the Captain on the other one. He pauses, listening. “Roger that, skipper.” Turning to the JG, the Boss says, “The CO says to have 304 jettison right where he’s at, but check the area clear below him - No oil wells, ships or dhows.”
The JG speaks into the handset, relaying this to 304 and his wingman. Listens. Replies, “That’s great, good news. Say your state.” He consults his checklist, running his finger down the single engine performance curve, cross-checks against temperature and density altitude. Lets out a low whistle. He turns to the impatiently waiting Air Boss: “He jettisoned successfully, and the bombs didn’t go off high order - good splashes. He says he can maintain level flight now at military power and he’s got nearly 9000 pounds of gas.”
“What time does that put him on deck?”
“Should be good to go for a recovery at…” the JG pauses, running the math again in his head, rechecking the performance charts - got to keep in mind that he’s dirty: gear and flaps down will increase fuel consumption, “No more than 45 minutes or so, to be on the safe side. Put him on deck with three-point-oh.”
“Three point oh? Doesn’t give him much of a margin for error!”
“That’s about the max he could make an attempt with, as hot as it is. Any more than that and he won’t have single-engine wave-off capability. It’ll be tight as it is.”
“Man,” the Air Boss exclaims, “This just keeps getting better and better.” He turns and picks up a phone again, buzzes the Captain.
Chapter 23
She bucks hard with a mechanical “TOC! TOC!” sound, rocking quickly back and forth from side to side as 1500 pounds of taxpayer financed, pilot jettisoned ordnance goes tumbling in sequence from his wings, down to the waiting sea below. Although Kestrel 304 seems relieved to have shed the weight and drag of the 500-pound laser guided bomb and JDAM, she is still no rocket ship with three air to air missiles, two external fuel tanks and a Forward Looking Infrared targeting pod. The FLIR is bolted to the airframe and can’t be jettisoned, while air-to-air missiles can be hazardous to jettison. As it is, the pilot is only able to just maintain level flight on his one good engine with the gear down and flaps at one-half. He knows that as he gets lower he’ll get more usable thrust with the increased air density. But he also knows that with that increase of air density will come an increase in fuel consumption, courtesy of the tyranny of partial pressure formulas and constant fuel-air ratios. Until he knows what time he will land, fuel will be his main concern. That is, if now new thing arises.
But at least he’s flying again, instead of settling into the waiting sea. He lets a ragged breath out that he didn’t even know he was holding, starts to relax just that little bit. He’s finally starting to feel like he’s caught up with the jet, which is wonderful thing: For the better part of the last hour and a half, ever since he had hasty repairs effected during the last launch and ended up getting shot into the air late he has felt like he’s been holding on to the jet’s horizontal stabilators with his nails, body flapping in the slipstream while the jet tried to race away from him. Now that he can maintain level flight, the second hand has stopped racing around his watch and once again he has the aviator’s necessary feeling of being in control of his environment.
He rocks a wing up, into the operating motor, just in time to see the jettisoned bombs splash harmlessly below him in the greasy, pewter colored Arabian Gulf some 15,000 feet below. He’s grateful both for the wingman’s help in clearing the water space below of traffic and for the unexpectedly confident voice of the squadron rep, a mere lieutenant junior grade, on the radio back at the ship. Good for him, with the problems he’s been having, the pilot thinks - and then remembers the naval aviation adage about the Fourth Law of Thermodynamics: “If the heat’s on somebody else, it not on you.” Well, after today’s fiasco on the tanker, culminating just now in the act of casting expensive warheads intended for enemy foreheads into the indifferent ocean, it will take a Herculean display of airmanship from this point on for the pilot not to become a permanent heat sump. He has committed himself to flying the very best single engine approach that anyone has ever seen, and even if that does not wipe clean the shame of the basket slap, or having to jettison his bomb load, it will at least ease the sting.
He wearily recognizes that he’s almost certain to have earned a new call sign by the time today is over, he’s been around long enough to know the drill: He can see his brothers in arms, those wickedly inventive, irreverent and unremittingly cruel members of the Junior Officer Protection Association even now, and can imagine the wheels eagerly turning in their pointy little heads. As a matter of decorum, the JOPA will wait until he lands safely of course (it never occurs to the pilot that he will not land safely) and then there will be an unseemly scramble to the whiteboard, fighting over free-space and markers as his best friends in the world twist the blade in his ribs again and again with their inventive recommendations for a new handle, names like, “Slick,” and “Slap,” or maybe even “Stone Hands.” He does not quite blame them for this, knows that it is part of the tribal culture, that he’d do the same in their shoes with equal glee. But now it’s time to put that in a box of its own. There will be plenty of time to rummage around in it later, after this ordeal is done. He still has his hands full with the jet, which, rather than the silky smooth, cool and responsive FA-18 Hornet he has come to know and love, is sulky, crank and cross-grained in the baking Arabian heat combined with the loss of half her accustomed thrust. There’s the squadron rep on the radio:
“304, rep, the Boss says he can take you last, at the end of the recovery. I’m showing you at about 3.0 at that point, do you concur?”
“Wait one.” The pilot checks his numbers on the fuel flow, notes how many aircraft are to launch at 1330, calculates his consumption rate against what he’s carrying on board, grimaces. “I’m showing about 2.8 at time 1345, close enough - can I go first?” He knows that this will be awkward for the flight deck - with his right motor off line, his normal brakes will be inoperative and he’ll have to leave his tailhook down after he lands to be towed out of the arresting wires by a tractor driver - that will take time, precious, irreplaceable time, the most valuable thing in the world to an aircraft carrier at sea and the fire we all burn in.
“It’s a small recovery, just you and your wingman and the overhead tanker, Boss says go for it,” the rep passes, and the pilot has to concede again that the kid was doing a pretty good job. Too bad he can’t fly the ball to save his skin.
By now he’s closing in on the ship, has changed to Tower frequency and checked in with the Boss. He watches the second launch make its leisurely way into the sky, the bow cats firing for the first time that day, both waist cats steadily adding to the flow. He reflects again upon the dissonance of a launch as it is experienced, and a launch as it is observed: From up here it looks so peaceful, so quiet, almost balletic - no hint at all of the shocking noise and violence associated with hurling 25 ton fighter aircraft into the air one after another, using mere hundreds of feet steel flight deck and steam powered catapults. As he turns above the carrier at 1200 feet, he sees the last two fighters headed to the catapults, one to the waist cat, one to the bow and is not surprised to hear the Boss on the radio: “304, take it out to five miles, set up for your approach.”
The pilot does a last airspeed and angle of attack crosscheck with his wingman alongside. With the starboard side AOA vane missing, the system is giving spurious inputs and he’ll have to fly by indicated airspeed alone. He knows how crucial the correct angle of attack is to a successful landing - everything from the proper setting of the Fresnel lens glideslope indicator on the ship, linear response of the remaining engine to his throttle inputs, the separation of his tailhook from the flight deck as he crosses the ramp, his hook’s ability to snag a wire, and the wire’s ability to absorb his aircraft’s kinetic energy for a safe landing are intimately tied to his ability to maintain proper speed and AOA.
He feels his heart rate race at this as his stomach tries its best to flip over, but he struggles to stay in control, to stay on top. Not much longer now, one way or the other, but there’s no way to escape the fact that he is on the margin of every performance limit: Useable thrust, available fuel, hot day, density altitude. A shadow crosses over his canopy, and he looks up in a momentary flash of alarm, only to relax a bit as he recognizes the FA-18E tanker high and to his right, coming out of the sun. The tanker is “hawking” him: Makes sense, he thinks and is grateful to the ship for taking care of this. If he were to bolter or get waived off for whatever reason, the tanker will be right there waiting for him, just ahead and to his right with the refueling basket streamed. It’s a sensible precaution with so little fuel remaining. He looks to his left, and there’s the wingman, stepped up in formation, feathering the speedbrakes to stay in place, hovering like a guardian angel.
He starts his turn back in towards the ship, always turning left, into the good motor. As he rolls out on extended centerline the second hand starts racing again, his fuel seeming to evaporate from his internal tanks and the miles flashing by like streetlights on an interstate. It’s happening faster than he would like and he surges his mind to catch up with it, to get back into the cockpit, back in control of the moment. Landing checklist complete.
The instrument landing system crosshairs come up in his HUD, and soon it’s time to start down. He cracks the left throttle back experimentally, feels the jet decelerate and pressures the stick forward ever so slightly. Three miles. On speed.
She starts to descend and he analyzes his rate of descent: 400 feet per minute, not enough, crosschecks the HUD and ILS needles: Yes, going above glideslope. Another minute reduction of the throttle, a nervous dance on the rudders, an unaccustomed requirement due to the asymmetric thrust. Scan the airspeed: Slow. Bunt the nose again, a little more nose-down trim, check line-up: Lined up right, a little left wing down, just a little. Two miles. A little slow.
Rate of descent, 800 FPM. That should bring us down and yes, approaching glideslope. Now throttle up a bit and level the wings. A bit more throttle. Ugh - it’s on the firewall now and a clammy wave of fear threatens to wash over his consciousness, he can’t slow the rate of descent! A mile and a half.
He needs burner, maybe just a squirt (God, let it be just a squirt!) and make sure we’re not slow, no need to go through that again. Good, that did the trick, in fact we’re leveling off which won’t do either, crack it back (maybe feather the speed brake? - HELL no!) a mile and it’s time to…
“Call the ball,” says the LSO on the radio, and his voice is startlingly loud against the sound of his own hoarse breathing, 15 seconds now.
“304, Hornet ball, 2.7, single engine,” sounds pretty cool, he thinks, sounds in control. Better to die than look bad.
“Roger ball, single engine, you’re just a little high.”
And so he is, but he’s been burned before and now he hesitates just a bit to ease any more throttle and bunts the nose a bit instead, but now he’s fast as well as being over-powered and the ball is rising, and that won’t do. He thinks, a bolter would be much worse than a 1-wire with stall and thrust margins so reduced I might not get her airborne again, don’t care what the performance charts say, and a little voice in the back of his head chips in that a ramp strike would be worse than either a bolter or the ace, five seconds.
So he cracks the throttle back and just the slightest bit of forward pressure on the stick, a little right wing down, a touch of right rudder and as the ball stops rising but before it starts to come back down again he jams the throttle to the firewall and hopes he’s done the right thing. Could go either way. Almost there, three seconds.
The ball starts falling towards the center but it’s moving too fast, he’s going to shoot through the glideslope, he can hear the LSO key the mike, and he knows that “Paddles” is going to scream for “POWER” so before that can even happen he plugs the throttle into blower (just a bit? a bit more? how’s that?) and when the LSO finally does call “POWER!” on the radio what seems like an eternity later the pilot mentally shrugs, thinks to himself, you bet, that’s all I’ve got and there’s nothing at all left over, and he feels strangely calm knowing that he’s done what he can do and there’s no card left to play. The ball sags below the datum lights and he hears the LSO key the mike again…

Chapter 24
The radio speaker crackles, “304, Hornet ball, 2.7, single engine” and up in the tower, the lieutenant junior grade, having done all that he can do but stand by and await events, looks up from his performance charts to scan the landing area. The deck is all clear, and the four arresting wires and their massive under-deck restraining engines are in battery to catch eighteen tons of a half-flap Hornet moving at 160 mph on a hot day, their readiness signaled by the green deck status lights right aft on the fantail. The JG looks up to the pilot landing aid television, or PLAT to watch the pilot’s approach and landing. With its centerline mounted micro-cameras, the PLAT, with its cross-hairs showing glideslope and line-up errors, will be more accurate than his own vantage point in the tower.
Captivated as he is by the drama playing itself out just beyond the tower’s thickly fortified glass, the JG doesn’t hear the heavy blast hatch open and close behind him, and is not at first aware that the voice asking about 304’s status is that of his squadron commanding officer, joining him. Without turning back, he murmurs, “He’s on the ball.” In a moment, the heat rises up his collar and he feels his ears turning pink as he recognizes the voice at last, casting an anxious glance of confirmation behind himself before appending, “Sir.” The Air Boss is transfixed with the approach as well, and ignores the exchange entirely.
Their eyes are drawn irresistibly to the PLAT display, and as one, the three of them frown slightly as the jet on final goes high and fast - a hard correction to make on a hot day, harder still when single engine. As they see the jet stop it’s upward vector and start to head back down to glideslope, the left hands of the Air Boss, squadron CO and even the JG all tighten on unseen throttles as they urge 304 to catch it, catch it! The radio crackles again, with urgency this time as the LSO calls for “POWER!” and the three of them wince slightly as though they had been lashed. Kestrel 304 looms large in the TV screen with unsettled dynamics and each of them realizes that it will all be over one way or another in the next few moments. Each feels the unwelcome (and to the JG, all-too-familiar) sensation of being out of control of events and unsure where the next few seconds will take them, a feeling of dreadful potential bordering just on the edge of disaster.
The radio crackles again, the LSOs again, talking together, almost tripping over each other: “Easy with it!” “Right for line-up,” and “A little attitude,” as they strive to get the FA-18, now starting to flatten out its descent again under the application of all remaining throttle, safely on deck and in the “spaghetti.” At the moment of truth (the wire cannot tell a lie) the tail hook snatches the number three cross-deck pendant on the fly and the jet heaves and bucks as the wire pays out, slowing the Hornet down, stopping it, the lone motor screaming like a wounded beast, the 20 foot-long flame of a fully staged afterburner streaming behind like Vulcan’s blowtorch.
The radio crackles again, and it’s the ship’s CO, who like hundreds of other people throughout the massive flagship has only now realized that he was holding his breath, keys his handset and says, “Nice job, 304 - welcome back.” The Air Boss changes a switch setting on his belt control to change his mike from external radio to internal communications and says with evident relief in his voice, “Super job paddles. On the flight deck we’ve got two more to catch, lets get 304 chocked and get a tow bar on him. Move people.”
Flight deck crewman swarm out to 304, still holding power up against the wire to keep his hook from spitting it’s grip until the brown shirts can get chocks beneath his wheels, get a tow tractor attached, pull him clear. Sweat runs like rivers down their faces, between their shoulder blades and down their legs as senior petty officers shout and swear - two more to catch, get moving, let’s go!
Satisfied for the moment, the Air Boss at last looks behind him to see the JG staring thoughtfully at the flight deck and the swarm of effort surrounding 304. In turning back the Boss sees the squadron CO attempting to catch his eye: The CO raises one inquiring eyebrow and tilts his head towards the JG, silently asking, “How did he do?” As silently, the Boss purses his lips thoughtfully and nods his head affirmatively - “He did well.” Both senior aviators turn their glances on the JG now, eyes narrowing thoughtfully, the age old machinery of leadership calculation grinding, sifting, weighing. Aware finally of the weigh of their collective attention, the JG turns to look at them. At first he blushes again and looks way, embarrassed by the attention. But only for a moment before he turns silently back to them, and returns their gaze directly. Although he is not aware of it, his chin is infinitesimally upthrust and his shoulders squared, his entire carriage displaying what is only just barely on propriety’s side of the naval definition of defiance. The JG knows that this, at least, he has done well. Both of the older men hold his gaze for a moment thoughtfully, eyes narrowed, before nodding silently and turning away.
The CO undogs the massive blast hatch and steps out of the tower and onto the weather deck, the JG following after. Stepping out of the air conditioned tower, the mid-day sun slaps at them with a blow of almost petulant physical brutality, and their pores stream open, itching. Just before the blast hatch slams shut, the JG catches the Air Boss’s eye, hears him say, “Well done. See you on the ball tonight.” The JG turns to follow his CO, momentarily gratified to have received such praise from a man not known for giving any. His pleasure gives way to mild dismay as he reflects that with a hundred pilots in the air wing, it is unfortunate that the Boss should not only know him by name, but also know that he’d be flying again that night. He sighs, shakes his head, dogs the hatch and goes below.
Racing down the ladders with the careless athleticism of youth, he catches the CO two ladders down and holds back a respectful difference before deciding on a whim to change destinations and await 304’s pilot on the flight deck, rather than heading immediately back down to the ready room. It’s only 110 degrees in the shade behind the island as the last two aircraft recover, engines screaming, but the sweat pours off him even as he lurks guiltily, aware of the fact that he should be wearing flight deck protection but not caring for the moment. After a few minutes, 304’s pilot walks wearily aft and the JG joins him in the starboard side catwalk, heading below deck and inboard. Once inside the skin of the ship, to temperatures that drop 10 degrees with every hatchway they traverse, the pilot turns to the JG, mops his face with a bandana and says, “Thanks, man. You really helped up there today. I was as busy as a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest, and you made a huge difference.”
“Oh, it wasn’t anything,” the JG replies, nevertheless pleased - praise has been hard to come by lately - “But that was an awesome job you did getting her on deck - single engine, hot day, flight control cautions, single AOA. Wow.”
“You think so?” the pilot asks, “I felt like I was killing snakes in the cockpit. And anyways, you don’t win any Air Medals for good landings after self-inflicted damage. Is the skipper pissed?”
“At you? I don’t know. I can’t read the man. But seriously man, great work - how did you do it, what were you thinking about?”
The pilot stops thinking about the trouble he’s in for a moment and looks at the JG, evaluating what he’s asking against what he really wants to know: “Why is it that you can you do this with your jet all messed up, when it seems that I can’t do it all?”
Three-oh-four’s pilot doesn’t consider himself given much to introspection, far less to rah-rah coachifying. But he also knows that the JG has been suffering recently, has watched the nightly circus show, sees the strain in the younger man’s eyes, shrugs: “Dude, look - when you’re all messed up - especially when it’s your own fault? - all you can do is try your best and believe in yourself. Because you know what? That’s not enough to make it happen, not by itself. But if you don’t do that? You haven’t got a chance. You’ve got nothing. I know you’re trying. Trying is good, but you’ve got to do more than try. You’ve got to believe.”
“Easy for you to say.”
“And hard to do, I know. But you aren’t the first guy ever to struggle at this. Most people do. It’s hard, man. Sometimes it’s harder than Chinese algebra. But it’s like: The moment you think you can’t do it? You can’t. Flip side is that the moment you believe you can, you will. If you didn’t have the monkey skills, you wouldn’t have gotten this far. You’ve just got to, you know: Take the leap.”
The JG looks into the pilot’s eyes warily. If only it was so easy…
Just inboard of them, behind the vault-like doors of the carrier intelligence center, or CVIC, a first class intelligence specialist monitoring a chat room in the Multi-Source Integration cell reads a few lines of text and sits bolt upright. “Sir,” he says, calling to one of the targeteers, “I think you’d better have a look at this.”
The targeteer, an intelligence officer with the rank of lieutenant lets out a low whistle, beckons for a runner, “We need to convene the TST cell.” He then picks up a red radio handset, keys the mike and says, “COPS, MSI - stand by for words on a time sensitive target.”

Chapter 25
On the bridge, in his sacred chair on the port side, the carrier CO sits watching the pewter sea run under his freeboard impassively. He's tired of course, he's always tired " €œ on four to five hours of interrupted sleep for weeks on end, you'd be tired too. It's just that he's used to it, the furry brown buzz in the back of his head he knows that his time in command this great warship is finite, that someday this will be over. He knows that another opportunity to command, at the flag rank perhaps, while possible is by no means assured. The pyramid gets pretty small towards the top.
He hears the voice of his Tactical Action Officer on the ship's announcing system, the 1MC:  “This is the TAO Brickbat, Brickbat: Now convene the TST cell. TST personnel report to CVIC Brickbat. The carrier CO blinks twice, rapidly. A time sensitive strike could be interesting he checks his watch, looks at the airplan, notes that there is just time to go below and watch the effort, if he can find someone to cover for him on the 1500 launch. The Navigator is sleeping, catching up from the morning refuel. He purses his lips, thinks for a moment, reaches for the phone and calls the ship's Operations Officer. He'd be glad to spot the CO for half an hour? Thanks. Thought he might. Hustle on up.
A flurry of activity down in CVIC as intelligence officers, targeteers and pilots swirl around the target verification console the target coordinates delivered from the beach are quickly entered into the high-tech target mensuration system and collateral damage rings are plotted against weapons effects circles. Chins are pulled, glances exchanged and the clock is ticking time is of the essence, but lives are at stake. They must be sure.
All of this work has been done ashore of course, at the Joint Force Air Combat Commander's TST cell, but it will all be checked again aboard the carrier: While the JFACC, an Air Force general officer,  owns the Navy aircraft once feet dry, the weapons to be delivered are Navy weapons, and the hole in the ground will be a Navy hole. The responsibility for getting everything right in the last detail must not be minimized. In the next few moments, the targeteer reflected, people are going to die, maybe even a lot of them. Every effort must made to ensure that those doing the dying deserve their fate. Everyone associated with the strike wants their conscience to be as clear as their duty.
The senior targeteer looks up to the air wing intelligence officer, speaks:  “Close I think, for a JDAM. There's this structure over to the east that's just outside the CDE ring. The LGB would have a smaller footprint, but the risk of target misidentification is greater. It is within limits for JDAM, and it's a suitable target by construction.
The air wing intelligence officer nods, purses his lips. He picks up a red phone, speaks into it:  “Admiral, we recommend a go on the TST. No objections. He pauses, listening.  “Aye-aye, sir.
Picking up another handset, the intel officer calls the current operations cell, à “COPS, CVIC: Hammer time.
“COPS, roger, out.
Over western Bagdhad, the squadron XO hears the E-2 relay the word: “Hammer time, and thinks, well here we are here we go.
They'd gotten the first heads up that something was in the works ten minutes ago, no more. They were switched first to off the Direct Air Support Center's freq to the Air Force ASOC, an event that while unusual, was not entirely unheard of cross-boundary coordination was an acquired skill. What raised the XO's eyebrows under his visor was the further shift to callsign “Assassin on a secure frequency. Using a secure freq for a TST was something he hadn't experienced before. Intrigued, but trying not to show it, the XO checked in with the Joint Terminal Area Controller, or JTAC reporting their weapons loads. The JTAC replied, Ã “Standby, in a whispered voice that initially made the XO grin he remembered a time during work-ups in the SoCal operating areas the ship had been conducting flight operations under radio silence, known in the fleet as emissions control, or EMCON. At one point, just before the recovery, a nervous team of LSO's had checked their radios with the Air Boss, whispering and the Air Boss had whispered back in response. The XO had remembered sitting on deck in a turning fighter, and laughing out loud the whole point of EMCON was to maintain radio silence: If someone was going to triangulate upon your radio signal, it wouldn't matter if you shouted or if you whispered just that you keyed the mike.
Thinking that the JTAC was being equally foolish with his whispered radio communications, the XO grinned in his mask until comprehension dawned and the smile suddenly faded while radio signals were the source of vulnerability in warfare at sea, where opponents grapple for situational awareness over great distances, things might well be different ashore. In a ground fight, with a murderous but low-tech enemy close at hand, a man might not worry so much about intercepted radio transmissions. But a man might worry about being heard, might have to whisper, if the enemy was very close. The XO sat up slightly in his seat.

Chapter 26
The target, they had been told, called for only one weapon. A JDAM, to be precise, the wingman thought, and chuckled to himself: To be precise.
All that they were told about the target was its location, a location that had been plotted very precisely, whose position had been checked by dozens of people in several different decision cells. A target whose location was known down to the last meter in a three-axis representation, whose existence on a common spheroid was known down to the last hundredth of a second.
Nothing at all more than that were they told   nothing at all more than was necessary. This was not to be an LGB strike, one in which the strike fighter pilot was importuned to know his target utterly, to be one with its ontology. They would not be required to fall in love with it, to in fact, love it to death. This was not to be the mission of a pilot, but rather that of an engineer: Their role was less than a warrior, but they told themselves, more than an assassin.
They were required to precisely enter the accurate coordinates, navigate efficiently to the delivery basket and consent to release the weapon. After that, the bomb itself would wake up from a deep, deep sleep as it had been instructed to do, long ago, by its makers. Once awake it would seek counsel from those it had been advised to trust, a constellation of geostationary satellites whose job it was each of them to stare at their part of the earth like lidless sentinels, and to communicate with each other on the results of their observations. Based on their collective wisdom, the bomb would seek a mate, a pairing, a union devoutly to be wished. In that union the bomb would find its true meaning, and in finding that meaning, perish utterly, taking with it the object of its desire. The bomb itself was more than love: It was consumption.
Upon receiving the tasking order, it was with an almost electric shock that the wingman heard his XO say, “You've got the dot, I'll back you up. The wingman had expected the XO to take the mission himself, but instead, he had delegated it downwards, to his own unworthy self. Upon reflection, the wingman had to admit that it made a kind of sense: Alone in the squadron, the wingman had not yet, himself, been blooded.
Two months earlier he had finished the FA-18 Fleet Replacement Squadron, and looked forward to joining a line squadron. This would be the culmination of a dream he had barely dared to breathe aloud, the final step into a storied brotherhood. He hoped to join some group of pilots preparing themselves for deployment over the weeks and months ahead, a chance to learn the trade before being fed to the wolves.
He had performed very well in the FRS, so well in fact that the not-entirely unwelcome specter of being stationed overseas in the forward-deployed air wing in Japan loomed large for a time. That is, up until the point where one of the senior lieutenants in his current squadron had lost his nerve, and gave in.
Curiously, it was not spoken of, the kind of open secret that pilots avoid speaking of in the superstitious fear that “naming calls. Insofar as the wingman understood the issues, he sympathized, but could not entirely understand: Apparently the lieutenant had witnessed one of his classmates die during training a few years back and his own confidence had been badly shaken. Later, he had himself struggled to successfully land aboard the carrier at night. Having at last overcome that hurdle by a combination of a dint of sheer determination and his CO decision to schedule him for night landings night after night until he “figured it out, the lieutenant had gradually improved. Until, that is, he suffered a major landing gear malfunction which had brought him back to land aboard ship in no-divert conditions using the barricade, a device not dissimilar to a tennis net, rather than the customary arresting gear. That had been the straw that broke the proverbial camel back: The sight of that net webbing running up over his airframe and canopy, restricting his options to escape, to even emergency egress had been that little bit too much for a man who was already merely going through the motions. He had gone below, gone directly to his stateroom and once there, removed his wings from his khaki uniform. Walking further aft to the ready room, he had sought out and eventually encountered his squadron CO in the passageway. Wordlessly, the lieutenant passed the CO his wings of gold. The CO understanding his meaning at once the lieutenant, nodded sadly asking only, “Are you sure?
The lieutenant had been sure. When he nodded yes, the wheels of fate ground to a halt and locked in place, and nothing could change the facts as they now were   a fleet fighter squadron was heading to a war zone one man short of its full compliment.
The wingman had been diverted from his orders to a squadron only starting its training cycle to the one already sent forward, where the needs of the service predominated. It was, for a junior pilot, an intimidating proposition: In the squadron he would join out there on the tip of the spear, every other pilot was senior to him. Far worse was this - they had all them at least seen combat in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Three out of the department heads had fought as well in the '91 scrap, and the CO had fought in Bosnia. The wingman had known full well that he was to join a squadron that had fought together, drank together, slept together and yes, even bled together for years.
They were a team. He would be joining them, but he would not, as yet, be of them. Nevertheless, he must go. The ship had sailed three weeks earlier. His plane tickets took him to squadron, at that moment engaged in a port visit. His tickets took him to Hong Kong.

Chapter 27
The wingman had never been to a place like Hong Kong before, and he had to admit in sober retrospect that it had intimidated the hell out of him. He had grown up in central Nebraska, at home on the Great Plains and prairies, used to the horizon stretching out before him like a modestly attractive but compliant lover. So accustomed was he to undifferentiated vistas leaping out at him uninterrupted for great distances that the first time he had gone to sea and looked out across the limitless span of waters, he had felt immediately at home in spite of the fact that he was very far from Kearney. Flying an FA-18 at high altitude, the views were also familiar to him, as the whole world seemed to shrink into a two-dimensional planisphere, one of homely and familiar proportions.
In Hong Kong, the daytime loom of the concrete canyons and thronging humanity had hemmed him in all sides, suffocating him, and he had felt a tickle in the back of his mind, the first inkling of some primitive need to scream or lash out blindly against the oppressive closeness of it all. At night, the garishly lit, neon-lined streets, the vendors of imitation Rolex's and strange food, the teeming masses of short, black haired, almond-eyed busy people combined to further lend the atmosphere an aura alien in both time and place.
He had been born of stout Germanic stock, the third son of a third generation farming family, people who were used to the feel of dirt under their feet and under their nails, people who were familiar to the bounty of the land, to living their lives according to the ancient cycles, culminating with the harvest. He had learned to estimate distances by counting fence posts, and could, using the knowledge thus gained and a rudimentary understanding of ballistics, reliably drop deer or even smaller game in their tracks at over 300 yards. He had once brought to hand a six-point buck (Western count, he would be sure to tell his mystified city friends) at almost 400 yards, a trajectory drop of nearly two feet for a thirty-ought-six and he had thought it very well done indeed.
The wingman had learned to compute range and lead for moving targets before ever being introduced to aerial combat gunnery by scattergunning quail, pheasants and ducks when their respective times had come to be harvested. As a young man he had watched with narrowed and appreciative eyes the swooping, dodging, jinking flight of mourning doves on the second day of the season, when the survivors of the first day's blood had realized that it could be a hard world and that it was best to keep it moving. It was in dove hunting actually, that he had first learned to envy, and where the germ of an idea had been planted. It was an idea that took him far from everything familiar, a seed which had germinated in flight school, down in Pensacola, Florida before blooming to full-flower in central California, where he had for the first time gotten his gloved hands upon FA-18 Hornet and realized there in the embrace of that cockpit that home could mean a very small place with a limitless view.
The FA-18 training squadron was behind him now, he was a fleet replacement pilot,” and having been above average throughout his training syllabus he had been sent forward where the need was greatest. His new squadron had sent a lieutenant to the airport at Hong Kong to pick him out of the crowd at the arrival terminal and bring him back to the admin” in Kowloon. With his height, short hair and the ubiquitous green parachute bag by his side, the one all jet pilots are issued to carry their bulky flight gear, the wingman had been easy to spot. The lieutenant had been polite and welcoming at first in the cab before lapsing into private silence as the city loomed up before them, with its high rises, fragrant” harbor and mad traffic patterns. Soon the wingman had gone up a giddying ride in an external, glass-lined elevator at a four-star hotel to meet his new friends at the admin.
The admin, he was told, was a common suite shared by all the squadron's officers “ they would pool their resources to purchase the best rooms with the best view that they could afford, and a squadron's honor ashore in foreign ports was often measured in square footage and vistas. In this way, men of modest means could for a brief time live like rock stars in foreign climes, albeit rock stars with quite a number unusually close friends kept in startlingly close proximity in a squadron of perhaps 25 officers, excluding on any given night those on duty or otherwise away, a suite of rooms built for four person occupancy might very well sleep 15 or 16 exhausted FA-18 pilots at the end of a night's revelry. Many small counterfeits would be used to get all these men into a suite reserved in the name of one of them, and the ensuing game of cat and mouse with the hotel management was only part of the fun. The beds themselves would typically all be occupied by 3 AM, so that the last remnants coming home after that point would either flop down on couches or on the floor itself, often using bath towels for blankets. These last avengers felt obligated to wake the others up upon their arrival home, and often no one would get to sleep again until the recent arrivals had had a brief but spirited wrestling match with those non-hacks who had wasted a perfectly good night of liberty in order to get rack space, disgraces that they were to fighter aviation. No respect was due to those who had gone to bed early, and by God you could sleep when you were dead.
It had been a long flight from Los Angeles, and the wingman was jet-lagged when he arrived in the admin, and would have liked nothing better than to lie down, but the evening's flying squad was already being organized for a sortie on the town, and it was clear that his presence for the mission was expected. He also had the very clear sense of being measured and evaluated, and had as well the suspicion born of observing privately exchanged remarks and significant glances that he himself was somehow intended to form a part of the night's entertainment. In this he was not mistaken, for three hours later he was standing in a Wan Chai alleyway, violently ill from overindulgence while his new friends stood round him at a cautious but protective distance. They had been doing shots, in honor of his arrival, but it had just been revealed to him that the others had been drinking water while he himself had downed glass after glass of tequila. Through his retching and the haze in his head, the wingman took this knowledge philosophically, for he had grown up playing football, basketball and baseball each in turn, because that is what young men did in Nebraska when not working on the farm, or going to school or hunting and he was familiar with the underlying psychology of teams and the petty masculine initiation rituals of humiliation.
In Nebraska, as previously related, young men learned to hunt and they learned to kill, but the wingman had never before taken a human life, and all of that was about to change.
Chapter 28
Speaking in whispered tones on a secure frequency, the Joint Terminal Air Controller, or JTAC, had only requested one JDAM on a single coordinate set. The wingman had more than half expected the Squadron XO to deliver the weapon himself opportunities to drop were not particularly regular these days, and rank had its privileges, after all. So he had been initially surprised when his flight lead had designated him to be the man to release the weapon that “Assassin" had asked for. The wingman was grateful for the opportunity to prove himself, but most of all, he was nervous that he might make some critical mistake, especially in front of the XO an exacting and demanding flight lead. With a grimace, the wingman remembered the parting words his lead had given the assembled crowd as he dismissed them from the mass brief: “Flawless execution is the minimum standard." 
Hard words to live up to, for just as in Vince Lombardi's description of the forward pass, there were many ways for the thing in itself to go wrong, and only one way for it to go right. Even the smallest of errors in transcribing the coordinates over the radio from the note card on his kneeboard into the aircraft's upfront control keypad could have gross effects on the weapon's accuracy. A miss could in turn put friendly lives on the ground at risk, either indirectly or directly. Indirectly, the mission would be a failure if the weapon missed the fragged target they would not have supported the troops on the ground. Far worse than the indirect failure would be a direct failure, with the weapon landing on near or on the friendlies themselves. Although the wingman had never before dropped a weapon in anger, far less a “smart bomb,"he was aware from ready room discussions that in a time-sensitive target mission, he would have no idea exactly what aimpoint was being struck until the weapon detonated and no control over the JDAM whatsoever, once it had been released from his wing.
For that reason, the wingman and his flight lead had gone over the combat checklist twice, and triple-checked the provided coordinates, with each man checking his readout against the other's, and both against the JTAC. In the JTAC's whispered urgency, and the strain in the XO's voice as they completed the combat checklist again, the wingman sensed the pressure he was under double, and then redouble again. His mouth went dry, and doubt perched suddenly upon his shoulder, whispering in his ear, but the wingman had already learned to cope with that particular demon like most aviators, he was skilled at compartmentalization - and closed his doubts up within a protective psychic box. He would have time for doubt after the mission.
They were holding at a timing control point, awaiting final clearance from the JTAC to commence the attack run. The wingman had no idea what was causing the delay, but appreciated it it allowed him to try and catch back up with the jet. He was of course curious, but loathe to ask the XO for his opinions extraneous comms were considered very bad form in the FA-18 community, especially in a tactical environment.
Since he was to drop the weapon, the XO had passed him the formation lead, and the wingman enjoyed the rare pleasure of navigating with reference to the world, and not to his flight lead's wingtip. To reduce his cockpit loading he had even enabled the autopilot, and unheard of luxury for a junior aviator, whose first mission priority was always, “Fly your jet positively. Do not hit your lead." 
They were 15 miles away from the target area, two minutes or less once they received the go code: “Rollout."Momentarily, the wingman wondered why they had to use codewords on a secure freq, but like the demon doubt, he put that in a separate box, to examine later, when his leisure permitted. He could see the target area in his forward looking infrared (FLIR) pod: It appeared to be an undifferentiated semi-urban area, much like many others they flew over every day, relatively small and running along a river bank whose name the wingman knew he was supposed to know, but which at the moment entirely escaped him. The sun was still middling high in the afternoon west, with good shadowing effects on the ground, and good thermal variety in the FLIR if they got the go code, and if he hadn't screwed something up, and if he had the camera on (his eyes flicked up for at least the 10th time to confirm that the green “Camera On"annunciator light was illuminated) he should get some pretty good video.
The prime radio crackled to the sound of Assassin's whispered voice, saying: “Rollout, rollout, rollout,"adding, “good hunting."At these words the wingman's heart leapt in his throat. Having turned 90 degrees left past the attack heading, he momentarily quibbled over continuing the turn the long way around, 270 degrees to final attack, but rejected the temptation time sensitive meant as soon as possible. Best to suck it up and go the short way. He hit the paddle switch on the stick to secure the autopilot, take command of the jet and reverse the turn.
On final attack heading he breathed a short, almost obscene prayer, “Lord, don't let me screw this up,"while completing the final step in his combat checklist: Master Armament Switch Arm. The weapon would now release at the touch of his thumb on the stick mounted release consent button, the “pickle. It would even attempt to guide, if it could but no, he was still out of kinematic range, and it would never do. As a precaution, he slid his thumb down the stick, and away from the release, even as the miles clicked down.
He checked the HUD carefully, turned slightly to the left to null the errors displayed by the azimuth steering line, watched the countdown timer step down towards zero, towards release. All thoughts of doubt, of the XO watching him from close aboard on the starboard wing, of people on the ground below vanished as the wingman became immersed in his mission, drowning in his attack symbology this was something he had never done before, he had done this a thousand times. Everything seemed to suddenly slip as the sense of being on top of the situation ran away from him, his breathing ragged in the oxygen mask, the miles-to-go counter ticking away like seconds, the seconds-to-go counter an almost unreadable blur until he barely got his thumb into position as the weapons computer calculated and displayed the “In Range"cue on his HUD, followed by the timer dropping to zero. The wingman pressed the pickle, was momentarily startled by the “TOK!"sound, the right wing springing up as the cartridge-actuated devices fired on the bomb rack, shoving the JDAM off the wing with a shudder as 1000 pounds of high explosive ordnance fell blindly, questing, looking for a home. The guidance system of the JDAM quickly queried a constellation of satellites arcing through the sky overhead, each of them perfectly aware of their own positions. These evaluated the request they received, recognized the sender and instantly answered. From this combination of lightning answers to urgent questions, the JDAM's processor went quietly to work, sending signals to the control section do this, and we can go home, it said. Now that. A bit more this way. The control section was not equipped to judge the rightness or wrongness of these requests. It was obligated to comply.
No opportunity now for the wingman to call for some time. No possibility of a do-over. Everyone was committed, in the air and on the ground, and the weapon was on its way. And it was only now, now that nothing could be taken back that the wingman felt the demon doubt jump out again from his box and perch back upon his shoulder, demanding of him if he had thought of everything, if he had followed the checklist, if he had considered the consequences. The wingman was no veteran by any means, but even he had put one and one together and realized that the man on the ground was whispering because he had to, which undoubtedly put him danger close to a set of coordinates towards which a 1000 pound JDAM was falling, bringing all classes of hell along with it. I wonder where the bomb is going, he asked himself, and looked at his FLIR display Oh, it's a building of some kind. I wonder, the wingman asked himself, who is in the building. I wonder how many they are, in there. He looked at his HUD, where the time-to-go counter had turned to a time-to-impact counter: Five seconds.
Mesmerized by his FLIR display, the wingman thought, four seconds. In four seconds I will know. Three. Two. One. Now.
The FLIR display bloomed suddenly, just beneath his aiming diamond as the energy released by the 1000-pound weapon changed the display gains and signal-to-noise ratios on the display, darkening the surrounding terrain. The FLIR slowly re-compensated as the indifferent desert absorbed the fading heat. It is done I did it.
But what did I do?
He rocked up on his left wing, looked down upon the ground below there: A sullen, grey-brown smoke cloud curling into the afternoon sky. Where was their feedback? Why was it so quiet? Why was the JTAC not on the radio? Too much time had passed! What have I done?
The prime radio crackled again, interrupting his fevered, racing thoughts: “That was a shack Navy! Good effects! Great effects!"the JTAC speaking now in a normal voice, evidently satisfied, clearly relieved. “Thanks fellas, you're cleared back to Icepack." 
The wingman felt a burden leave his shoulders that he hadn't even been aware was pressing down upon him, allowed himself to breathe again, without knowing quite when he had stopped. The aux radio spoke to him, startlingly loud, “Two, leads at your right five, half a mile," 
“Two, visual,"he replied automatically.
“Roger, lead right in place right go." 
“Two, lead right,"he acknowledged, falling back into his accustomed role.
“Rog. Let's ah, let's shift Silver-2 on prime,"the lead instructed. The wingman consulted his kneeboard card “Silver-2/DASC/305.8"He listened as the XO checked them back in with the Marine Expeditionary Force Direct Air Support Center, felt himself start to tremble a bit, the adrenaline leaving his body as they headed back to their previous CAP station, back in the MEF's battle space. He found that his mouth was still dry on the second turn on CAP, pulled a water bottle out of his g-suit pocket, took a sip, followed it up with a swallow, felt a little better. On their third turn on station, he screwed his courage up, keyed the aux radio, spoke to his lead, “Sir any idea what that was all about?" 
“I haven't got a clue,"the XO admitted, adding, “In place right, go." 
“Two." 
Back to business. Watching the lead's belly as he lagged him through the turn, the wingman was left to his own private thoughts. He knew that he had crossed over some kind of line. He sensed that it was the kind of line you could only cross over in one direction. As his lead rolled out on the new heading, he adjusted his throttles back slightly to maintain position, checked his fuel state, turned the mirror on his canopy bow down to see the empty bomb rack where a few minutes before he had carried a 1000 pound bomb.
For the first time since he started flight school he realized that combat was real for him, that it was not something just for other men. He felt a strange exultation mixed with an even stranger ambivalence, a combination he could not entirely place in context automatically, he tried to put it in a box, to look at later, but the feelings refused.
He reflected that he had in some way joined the ranks of those who dealt in violence, in a way that hadn't been true before. There was a before and an after to what had just happened. It hadn't taken very long to cross, the line between them, and it hadn't been very hard. But this was now in the land of after, and there was no going back to before.
He wondered, not for the last time, what exactly all of this meant. He wondered whom he'd ever be able to ask.
“In place right, go." 
“Two." 
Chapter 29
Endless turns on CAP, unrelieved khaki brown below, the distant horizon obscured by a dirty, sullen haze. Over to the west, the sun crawls lazily down towards the haze layer, just that tiniest degree lower with each successive turn. Nothing to break the monotony but the repetitive sound of his own breathing in the O2 mask, the very occasional radio communication to his wingman as they come to the end of an orbit and reverse course. On each turn, the engine instruments, fuel quantity and fuel transfer systems are checked and verified in the green with such long-accustomed force of habit that the thing itself is automatic, unremarkable. Out of the turn the squadron XO looks to his right three o'clock wearily, almost hoping to see his wingman out of position. If only to have something to talk about, something to say besides, "In place right, go."  But no: The young man is exactly where he is supposed to be, in perfect formation, as silently focused as a bird dog on point. He had, the XO admitted to himself, done very well in his first hot mission, very well indeed. He might just do.
"In place left, go."  Just to be different this time. Suppressing an ironic smile at the liberties available to him.
In a fully armed fighter at 25,000 feet over what he still thinks of as hostile terrain, the XO struggles to keep his eyes open, to stay awake. The excitement of his wingman's JDAM strike is long passed, back before the last air refueling cycle. Finally the tedium is punctured by a UHF call not his own, on the prime radio, imperative, demanding: "Hammer One-one, Icepack, say your posit and state."
He checks his moving map, the digital display there down behind the control stick, between his legs – southernmost part of the CAP leg, south of Ad Diwaniyah – what should have been 304's airspace, if he'd made it in country, the mere plumber. "Icepack, Hammer 11, we're bullseye 180 for a hundred, northbound, low state, ah base plus 5.0,"  the XO replies.
"Roger base plus five, break, Hammer 21, Icepack, say your posit, state?"  The XO flips his briefing card over  Hammer 21's station was to the west, almost to Ar Rutbah
"Hammer 21, bullseye 285, 110 low state base plus 6.5,"  which made sense, the XO reflects, they'd come off the tanker more recently than he and his wingman had. Pretty far east of his CAP point thoughbetter than half way to Baghdad. Almost in my airspace
"Roger, base plus 6.5, break Hammer 31, Icepack, say your posit, state?"  North, the XO confirms on his briefing card, Hammer 31 is stationed north. Nearly to Mosul.
"Hammer 31 is bullseye 340, 150, southbound - base plus 3.0. We're ah, we're heading off station for Texaco."  Makes sense, the XO thinks, his eyes open but momentarily unseeing as he drew the relationship between fixed reference points and the fighters' shifting geometries in his head, orienting himself to the only universe that counted: Battle space lines, bullseyes and fighter orbits. He feels the picture click into place for an altogether too brief moment before once again becoming gradually less distinct with each passing moment. Things change, airplanes move quickly. He thought, they're heading down to the tanker; it's their turn to get some gas  the north CAP will be abandoned. Hammer 41 flight is not here, they cannot flow north to fill the lane from Basra to Baghdad, peeking in upon Najaf, while he himself filled the gap between the capital and Mosul. But all this roll calling is unusual: Before he can fully form the question in his own mind, the DASC speaks up again, saying, "Hammer 21, Icepack, initial vector southeast, station CP Mustang, switch Viper on Purple-3 for a TIC and check in. Buster."
A TIC, the XO thought, all weariness instantly vanished  "troops in contact"  and "buster"   get there in a hurry. He looked on his own cockpit chart and found the inertial waypoint for Check Point Mustang  Fallujah. No, west of Fallujah  Ramadi. His hands bump the throttles up just a bit, he checks his three o'clock again, sees his wingman fall behind, surge, catch up, overshoot, settle back. Not ready for that, were you my son? You will be next time.
"Icepack, Hammer 11, we're available for tasking if you need us."
"Stand by, 11,"  followed by a brief pause. "Hammer 11, Bossman wants you to flow north, fill for 31. Hammer 31 you are airspace south until aboard Texaco. Maintain mutual separation."
Ugh. The mission goes to the closer two-ship, the higher fuel state. No use to grumble. "Two, Hammer 11 is going to be off freq on aux for a moment,"  the XO says, turning his kneeboard card over again until he finds the comm plan: Purple-3/324.75/JTAC
He doesn't really belong on this freq, the DASC has told him that it's not his fight, but it is his flight, he briefed the mission and he's curious. He tunes Purple-2 into the aux radio, listens in, silently:
"in as fragged, two GBU-12, two GBU-35,"  finishes the engaged flight lead, Hammer 21.
Weakly, almost unreadable, "Roger 21, we've got hostiles danger close, almost on us  do you have any 20 mike-mike?"  The JTAC is asking for twenty-millimeter cannon, the XO thinks, eyebrows lifting. The bad guys must be close aboard indeed What is that ripping sound in the background? Static? Something else?
"Hammer 21, that's affirm, 500 rounds each 20 mike-mike."
"Roger 21, stand by for nine line"

Chapter 30
“Hammer 21, ready.” Good man thought, the squadron XO - good form to be ready to copy as soon as possible - their need sounds great.
Quickly but precisely now, “Hammer 21, Viper, nine line follows: Ford. 212. Offset right. Seven point three. 60 feet. Hostiles in the open and pickup trucks, east side of a berm. Mike Charlie 3694 0345. Burning Humvee. West, 100 meters - on the eastern riverbank. South. Over.”
“Hammer 21 copies all, ready for a hack.”
“Hammer 21, Viper, we’ll take you when you get here. Could have used you yesterday.”
The XO busies himself copying this terse, almost cryptic data on a kneeboard card in his own cockpit, knowing that through application of the data, he will soon orient himself to the ground fight in progress down below and to the northwest. Still heading north towards Mosul, he looks down between his knees again at the digital moving map, and as he sees his aircraft symbol approach the latitude line for Ramadi, he creeps the throttles back, slowing the transit down, trying to stay as close as he can to the fight for as long as is decently possible without appearing to linger. He inserts the target grid coordinates first into his navigational computer, everything starts from the target outbound - the target bears 287 degrees magnetic for 48 miles, he’s a good six or seven minutes away at a sprint and Hammer 21 is almost there. Ford, yes Ford would be the initial point, or IP - the XO pulls out the appropriate 1:50,000 chart for the area - there, Ford - North of the city a fair bit. Two-one-two magnetic from IP to target for a distance of 7.3 nautical miles. Offsetting right will take the fighters toward the city, and the XO frowns momentarily - that will expose their bellies to fire from a hostile city as they reverse left to attack their targets - the targets located at 60 feet elevation - hostiles in the open and pickup trucks. He shakes his head slightly, worriedly - why would the JTAC expose the fighters to a threat like that? He opens the map, confirms the grid coordinates, runs his finger down the easting, along the northing, there. And now suddenly it all makes sense, the whole world snaps into place and although his eyes again look outward into the hazy northern sky, they are unseeing, focused inward instead on the picture that has painted itself with an almost preternatural vividity in his mind, the target at the center, the world revolving around it: The XO grimaces as he imagines the maelstrom on the ground below, the sudden chaos from order - The burning humvee - that’s not a target mark, although the JTAC has innovatively used it as such - that’s a result. The Marines had probably been moving along that secondary road running north/south here along the canal and were ambushed: IED? Probably - maybe an RPG, but probably an IED - An IED almost certainly, that’s why they stopped and dismounted - they stopped to assess the damage and look for secondary devices and that’s when the jaws of the trap slammed shut with small arms fire - probably medium or heavy machineguns as well - the, what do they call them, PKMs?
The XO is not a Marine, not versed in the art of ground warfare, but from what he knows about their tactics, he thinks that in an ambush they would assault into the fire if they could - the only reasons he could think of why they would not have done so would be that they were outmanned or outgunned. But now the hostiles were firing down on them, a plunging fire from behind the relative safety of a berm a scant 100 meters away, and they themselves trapped with a canal behind them - the “riverbank” - no room to maneuver. Were some already wounded? Or worse?
The XO marvels at the JTAC’s poise under such circumstances. It must be a living hell down there, with the noise, the whine and snap of the rounds overhead, no cover to speak of just reeds maybe and the ever-present, wretched, coughing dust and yet he had somehow found a way to paw through his frequency cards, observe the situation, orient to the world, decide and act - get air support moving. Because of his presence of mind, in five minutes or less from the first chaotic noise and fear, Hammer 21 and his wingman would be coming out of the north - got it! - along the berm line, that’s why he called for a right offset, towards the city - and now the roles would be reversed and the plunging fire would come not from AK-47s and PKMs, but from a sequential pair of six barreled, twenty millimeter Vulcan Phalanx cannons dispensing high explosive incendiary rounds like beaded necklaces at Mardi Gras, 6000 to the minute.
The XO cocks his head, listening, waiting - they should have been there by now, what’s taking them so long and finally: “Hammer 21’s in!” excited, settle down son, he’s beginning his attack run, and
“Continue 21,” the JTAC’s strained voice - he’s looking to the north no doubt, trying the acquire the strike fighter in his dive, he’s got his head low, helmet in the dirt to avoid the bullets overhead, but he has to see the fighter, he has to confirm the flight path is correct, the enemy is so very close, and a small error could turn a bad situation into a rout,
“Wings level” says Hammer 21, shortly after adding “contact!” triumphantly, he is in the final attack run and says he has the target in sight, and
“Cleared hot, 21!” and the XO, some thirty miles away can see it all, strokes his gloved finger on the stick-mounted trigger, almost hears the chainsaw sound of the cannon spooling up, firing, the wispy smoke coming up the canopy, the off-target jinks and, “Hammer 21’s off,”
“Hammer 22 in!” and the process begins again,
“Continue 22, from 21’s hits west 30 meters, along the berm,” adjusting fire, creeping it towards the foe, the startled foe, the fire slackening as wild-eyed heads turn, searching for the source of the fire falling in their rear, a moment before on top of their world, exultant, accustomed to thinking in two dimensions and now suddenly aware of their fatal vulnerability, the weakness in their legs, the nausea in their bellies,
“Hammer 22 contact, wings level,”
“Cleared hot 22!,” a pause, and “Great hits!” and the XO can almost hear the hard iron SPAT! of the rounds slapping the earth, explosive tips detonating, churning and gouging, the trying to be small, to shrink within oneself, to hide,
“Hammer 21’s in,” again and now it’s only a matter of time,
“21, you’ve got movers now, towards the pickup trucks, get the trucks!” and the turning of the tide, the hunters becoming the hunted, the hunted trying flee,
“21 contact, wings level,”
“Cleared hot 21!” another pause and “Outstanding! Out-by-God-standing!” the fleeing struck down in their tracks, the ebbing of the tide,
“Hammer 21 off,”
“Hammer 22 in,”
“Hammer 22 abort-abort-abort! Friendlies are moving now, moving to the east, we’ve got it fellas, great work!” the emptiness of after, the shaking legs, the mopping up, the turning over of almost familiar things with boot toes, and the moving through the smoking remains of what was left, the ticking down, fuel tanks ablaze in what had been a line of pickup trucks, now a charred and unrecognizable mess, like so many other things in this blasted land,
“Hammer 22, off, safe,” disappointed, philosophical. This too, will go into a box to be examined later, when there is time - the doing of the deed itself and the regret when it was over and done,
“Hammers, this is Viper, great job, take angels ten, orbit east, stand-by for further words,” stress level down, exultant, in charge - but evidently unwilling to let the fighters go so soon after a hard engagement. Wants to make sure it’s over. Pats himself down, slaps off the dust, checks for injuries, looking around him, reckons the cost,
“Hammers,” acknowledged, climbing into the darkening eastern sky, awaiting patiently, time being on their side.
Forty miles away, the XO twitches in his ejection seat, as if awakening from a reverie, eyes suddenly alive and focused again, back in his own moment, his own world, checks right three o’clock to see Hammer 12 in position, just as he should be. Reaches a gloved hand to the upfront control, almost regretfully changes the freq on aux radio, back to inter-flight frequency, back where he belongs, says, “Hammer 11 back up on aux, state base plus 4.”
“Hammer 12, loud and clear, state base plus 3.8.”

Chapter 31
(Note: The author would like to express his grateful appreciation to Sgt. B., who penned this entry practically in its entirety, apart from the probably unnecessary framing overlaid for continuity’s sake. Semper Fi, Sergeant.)
It was still too soon for Hammer 21, or any of the CAS package airborne that day to know it, but by the time they had safely recovered back aboard the ship, the Marines to whom they had provided support would already be back in their forward operating base. The platoon commander of the three vehicle patrol was still in with G-2 and Ops debriefing the afternoon’s work, but as he headed into the HQ hooch, he asked his one of his squad leaders to try and find out who had been in the air that day to help - and to send him a “thank you note.” In the best traditions of the Marine Corps, the NCO ran with the mission. After a short landline phone call to the DASC to track down the details of the air mission, he found an unoccupied computer terminal, put his rifle safely close to hand, removed his helmet and body armor and stared at the blank screen for several moments forming his thoughts before shrugging and starting to type:

Sir, my platoon commander wanted me to write you guys a note, thanking you for what you did today. I guess I’ll never entirely know how things looked from your point of view. But I thought maybe you’d like to hear how it looked from ours:

Things were going from bad to worse…
The AIF had been smart. They had waited until our point vehicle, an up-armored humvee with a .50 caliber heavy machinegun, had passed their homemade roadside bomb. EOD told us afterwards that the bomb was probably a 150 mm artillery shell, wired with a simple electric fuse, command detonated by a cell phone. It had probably been placed during the early morning, wired behind a roadside guardrail. The AIF were probably thinking that, inshalla, we wouldn’t be aware of it until the blast of fire and white-hot shrapnel. We think that their ambush force crept into place once the device was in place, and had been waiting for most of the morning until our patrol turned onto the road, moving along the side of the canal, into their kill zone.
The AIF had a variety of weapons, from AK-47s, AK-74s, PKM machineguns, and a few bolt-action rifles of various makes and calibers. They had hidden their motley collection of trucks and cars behind a concealing berm on the east side of the canal, ready to bug out once the ambush turned against them, as it always does eventually.
We had no rotary wing in the air, and none being prepared to fly from the local operating bases - we think the ambush leader might have known this. Don’t know how. Us having no air, he was probably confident that they would achieve victory. Anyway, our patrol was three armored hummvees, creeping up the road, and he must have watched and waited until the time was right.
The blast took the second vehicle, and then he probably gave his guys the command to fire, right then or a moment or two after. Things happened pretty quickly. I have to admit I blinked as my second vehicle, Predator Two, vanished in a giant puff of black smoke. That’s kind of when all hell broke loose. “Contact left!” one of my Marines shouted. His words were drowned out by a sudden low thud as he opened up his heavy machinegun on the berm, 100 meters away.
I got a look at Predator Two, which became visible as the smoke cleared. The hummvee was still intact, but shredded and on fire. I scrambled out of my own seat, and checked on my Marines, who had leapt from the two surviving hummvees, unlimbering their own weapons, taking what cover they could - there wasn’t much - and returning fire.
The doors of the Predator Two sprung open, and I saw the first body tumble out. I felt sick inside, fearing the worst, until I saw the Marine push himself up and throw himself back into the vehicle, hauling another Marine out of the wreckage. I counted as two others tumbled out of the truck, collapsing in a heap a little distance behind the flaming vehicle. One Marine was motionless, the other beginning to tear off his gear, while the other two crept around the truck, looking for all the world like bloody murder was in their hearts. They began to return fire. You could see they wanted to give it back.
Our Staff Sergeant shouted, “Doc!” pointing to the injured Marine. Didn’t need to though - the Corpsman was already moving with his Unit One towards him.
“Jonesy! Ammo!” one of the gunners started yelling, and Jonesy grabbed an ammo can and jumped up behind the splinter shield to link another belt of .50 ammo to the dwindling belt of rounds hanging from the side of the big M2. Momma Deuce is a wonder against bad guys, but she is a hungry beast.
As for the rest of us, we fell into our Immediate Action drills, seeking targets and bring our marksmanship skills to bear. Right about then, I started to try and focus on the Big Picture, evaluating my options and discounting those that were obviously un-doable. Let me tell you, sir - the list was shrinking rapidly. See, with the proximity of the canal behind us and the position of the bad guys limiting our ability to respond up front? We were in kind of a tight spot.
I yelled to the JTAC, “Get me some air!” but he was already generating a nine-line, speaking into his radio, huddled next to the front wheel of his hummvee, so I left him to his work.
The rest of the squad was beginning to gain fire superiority, but we couldn’t maneuver out of the kill zone. At this rate I was worried that it wouldn’t be too long before the AIF began to really hurt my Marines.
The other radioman was already in contact with the rest of the platoon, which was making its way towards the ambush site.
“Six mikes to air!” the JTAC shouted. That was you guys, sir. Six minutes. It doesn’t sound like much, I know. But it can be a long time. Six minutes can feel like forever.
The fire team leaders were maintaining control, and the fire from the Marines was settling down and making hits, but there were still a lot of bad guys. The rounds were kicking up dust, and pinging off of the stopped hummvees, but they were shooting high, and our answering fire had started to shake their aim.
At one point, I looked back over at the small group huddled behind the burning truck, and noted that Doc now had the previously fallen Marine sitting up, and was trying to wrap a bandage around him, but the Marine kept fumbling with his rifle, trying to put a few rounds downrange. The Corpsman finally took the rifle out of the wounded guy’s hands, and I later found out he spoke to him kind of sharp. I saw that sailor push him back down. I had to kind of smile at that, a Corpsman pushing a grunt around. Just as that was happening, the JTAC spoke into the radio, “Cleared hot, 21!” and then he screamed to the rest of us, “Get your heads down!”
The squad burrowed into the dirt as the other side of the berm erupted in a long cloud of dust, dirt, and fire, followed by a high frequency roar - that was you guys. A grey streak flashed overhead, and it resolved itself into a sleek Navy Hornet, pulling hard. Seemed like only a second later, your second Hornet screamed overhead, its fire ripping along the tattered figures up there on the berm, and now we felt the odds starting to shift in our favor. On your third pass, the AIF were trying to bug out off the berm, and you should have heard the shouts of the Marines filling the air. Would have made you proud.
Right about then the Marines rose up out of the dust, sharpened their sights, and squeezed off rounds, dropping the bad guys as they ran towards their getaway cars. Then we caught the specks in the sky - your returning fighters. “This is gonna be good!” some of the guys thought, and the lead Hornet ripped into the line of vehicles. That was good work, sir - some of them exploded and the others caught fire. One or two tried to get away, but they were engaged by the long reach of our fifty calibers, as well as the rest of the platoon’s heavy guns, which had finally arrived to support the squad. Right about then the platoon commander’s vehicle pulled up to where the Corpsman and our wounded guy sat.
The JTAC was standing now, speaking enthusiastically into his radio, as the Marines began to move towards the bad guys, mopping things up. The second jet, poised to strike, held fire as it roared overhead, over the heads of the advancing Marines - I guess maybe the JTAC called him off?
Anyway, I took a look at my people, formulating my next course of action as our Platoon Commander approached. The wounded Marine was being helped into a hummvee, and the Corpsman was climbing in after him. The guy that got wounded gave him a grin, and two fingers: a second Purple Heart.
Sir, only one of my Marines got wounded bad enough to be medivaced back to battalion. I appreciate that fact. I have to admit that I hated to see you guys go, but I was glad to see you when I did. Been told that CAS is the Hammer of God. Seen it for myself, now. Thanks again.
Semper Fi.
Chapter 32
Their vulnerability window was drawing to a close, and they were southbound now at a leisurely, almost reluctant pace, watching with a philosophical eye the sun crawling grudgingly down towards the horizon, watching the baked khaki of an ancient land rolling patiently below them. They have done violence today, but the land below them seemed unimpressed - it had a long and well-accustomed knowledge of men and their violence.
The USAF F-16’s flowed north, filling the cap stations they themselves had just voided, looking sleek and lethal - they had passed by them left-to-left a few minutes back. In Hammer 12, the XO’s wingman had rocked his wings in a tentative salute to his on-station relief, but the F-16s had either not seen the signal or had not acknowledged. They had concerns of their own among which the off-going Navy jets were not included - their shift was just beginning.
The wingman checked the INS data on his horizontal situation display - feet wet in 12 minutes and change. Figure a half hour to the tanker for the back-side top off. An hour until their scheduled recovery time - really, the next launch with (he consulted his kneeboard card) 12 to shoot. Figure: 1+15 until he’d be on final with a max trap fuel state of 4500 pounds of gas. One 500-pounder unexpended.
It was quiet now on the radios now, the Navy having cleared the comm circuits to let the USAF check in with the ASOC, with the DASC, and little left for the wingman and his lead to say to each other.
The wingman would soon be starting his Level III upgrade process - the apprenticeship that would take him from his current position near the bottom of the tactical totem pole as a qualified combat wingman to the next step - the coveted position as a combat section leader. He attempts to anticipate the leads intentions and actions, much as a 15-year old novice driver will follow his father’s movements on the steering wheel from the back seat of the family car, quietly, trying to learn, preparing himself for his own test.
Two aircraft, one will. As a section leader, he will have the responsibility of preparing and delivering mission briefs for himself and another pilot, one junior to himself. After qualification, he will lead the basic tactical element of naval fighter aviation - the two-ship. His thinking will shape and enunciate the plan; the wingman’s task will be to learn it. The lead’s decision-making processes will execute the plan; his wingman’s task will be to support it. The lead will debrief the plan; the wingman will learn at his elbow. His knowledge, leadership and skill will be central to the two-ship’s mission success, but much more than mission success will ride upon his leadership - the wingman will place his very life in his lead’s hand, unquestioningly, without hesitation. If the lead were to fly into a mountainside with the wingman in formation, the recovery team would expect to find two crash sites, on the right, the wingman, to his left, the lead. Two aircraft, one will. It had always been thus.
It would always be thus.
He will spend much of the next three to four months preparing himself to jump to the next level of tactical understanding through applied study of a rigorous syllabus, with academic achievement tests and standardization check rides, the latter flown with hard-eyed weapons school instructors, TOPGUN graduates, “patch wearers” men who are not his friends and not his allies. These are men who are only obliquely interested in his success - instead, they concern themselves with tactical primacy, the delicate balance of lethality and survivability, tempered aggressiveness. These are the warrior monks through whom the wingman must eventually pass at first in the middle stage of his long and continuing journey. They are the keepers of the flame, and every junior pilot is acutely aware of the trial that lies before him.
In preparation for those check rides, he will consult with those of his brothers who are senior to him, to learn from them the nuggets that led to their own success. He will lead senior aviators around the ship in training missions. Eventually, he will even lead these men in combat missions over the beach. The entire time he does so, he will be under taut evaluation, his leadership subject to instant revocation in case of an error of judgment, airmanship or leadership. Not everyone will make it - not everyone can think, and fly, for two. For that reason, before ever he leads a junior pilot anywhere, he will lead every instructor-qualified pilot in the squadron several times. He will lead the CO on training missions, talking to him as though he were the rawest nugget, fresh from the training squadron, always aware that his ability to teach and lead is what is being evaluated. He will in fact lead this XO, himself a recent TOPGUN instructor. With that in mind, Hammer 12 watches his lead very attentively. His watching is all the more intent in that, in accordance with the custom of the single-seat fighter tribe, no extraneous communications are permitted. No earnest questions. No careful explanations. He’d heard it before, they all had: You’ve got a question? Take notes. Ask me in the debrief. All I want to hear from you is, “Two,” “Mayday,” and “Lead you’re on fire, eject.”
The wingman does his best to guess when the XO will shift from frequency to frequency as their two-ship traverses the battle space divisions below them. He pays much less attention to the XO’s direction to other two-ships returning home to mother - those are decisions of a strike leader, a very senior role, and one the wingman cannot hope to obtain this tour of duty. Instead, the wingman will focus on his lead’s actions in controlling their two-ship. For the wingman, this is the task at hand - to use the vernacular, he will shoot the alligator closest to the canoe.
He will check out with the E-2 soon, the wingman thinks, and feels a small tingle of gratification as the lead calls “feet wet” to the orbiting airborne battle control platform. Through Sabre next, and again, the XO shifts through the Kuwaiti air traffic control. The wingman looks below to see the undifferentiated haze of Kuwait give way to the pewter-colored northern Arabian Gulf, the Shaat-al Arab waterway, the ports of Um Qasr and Khor az Zubayr falling behind them, the looming mass of Iran no very great distance to the east, an omnipresent weight of a territory very close to hand, not quite hostile, but very far from friendly.
“Fence out,” the XO orders on the aux freq, startling the wingman from his momentary reveries of battles not yet fought, battles that might or might not ever be fought. Obeying the XO’s direction, and slightly embarrassed at not having anticipated it, he busies himself with the combat checklist once again, this time in reverse sequence, progressively turning his aircraft from a bristled ball of poised lethality waiting only final fail-safe overrides - trigger pulls, commits-to-launch, release-enables - into something which, while never quite resembling a commercial airliner, is nevertheless two or three links down the kill chain.
One kind of tension leaches away as the aircraft becomes progressively safer while another kind of tension grows as the XO navigates their two-ship towards the air refueling track for the recovery top-off. Fortunately, the wingman has become relatively accustomed to this particular rite of passage, and the rendezvous and refuel go uneventfully. Clearing to starboard and descending to the minimum risk recovery profile, the wingman again plays the game of anticipating the headings the XO will steer on the way back to mother, the frequency changes. Any moment and the XO will switch them to the ship’s Combat Direction Center for a check-in, right about…
“Hammer 11, say your state?” on the aux radio.
Right - he’d need my fuel state to check in with, the wingman thinks, replying, “Hammer 12, base plus, ah - 2 point 4.”
“Hammers, switch Strike on prime,” followed by, “Strike, Hammer 11, 12, 340 for 62, low state base plus 2.4″
“Hammer 11, Strike, looking,” replies a tired voice, the Third Class Operations Specialist in fact, back on watch after his six hours off - nearly one hour spent waiting in line to eat an early lunch, 15 minutes spent in the actual eating of it, two hours studying for an upcoming rating exam, an hour spent shooting the breeze in the berthing and an hour’s nap prior to levering himself out of his coffin rack, still dressed in his coveralls and heading back down to CDC for yet another six hours on duty, staring at a radar screen.”
“Hammer 11, Strike, you’re sweet and sweet, cleared to proceed.” Good IFF checks, the wingman thinks - always good to know that other people know you and love you. Especially when some of them are manning Ticonderoga-class cruisers and Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, greyhounds of the sea, all poised potential and grim lethality, all of them keenly interested, fascinated, riveted to the task of defending the carrier from inbound threats moving at tactical speeds and who aren’t squawking friendly codes. Briefly, the wingman is captivated by a sudden vision of glittering electronic eyes, phased-array radars contributing to a datalinked operational picture, that picture under the keen observation of hard-eyed tactical watch standers, a strange symbiosis of men and machines and maritime battle space dominance, of sensing everything. Of knowing everything. There is much here behind a curtain, much he does not understand, much he does not yet need to know.
Coming up on 50 miles, the wingman thinks, looking at the ship’s TACAN symbol on the horizontal display. Soon we’ll switch to…
“Strike, Hammer 11 flight switching Marshal,” and on the aux radio, “Hammers, switch button 15 on prime.”
“Hammer 11, Strike, cleared to switch Marshal, check-in.”
Marshal, thought the wingman, sitting up a little in his seat. Now the we come to it - a daylight, Case I recovery. All done zip-lip, after the Marshal check-in - no radio comms. Here is where I must pay attention, take notes, be prepared to ask questions. Here is where I must learn.
Soon, I will have to do this from his position…

Chapter 33

“Marshal, 405, 407 checking in on your 340 for 50, low state base plus two.”
“405, Marshall, continue, call me at 10 miles.”
Closing in on the ship, the wingman stays in a defensive combat spread formation, close enough to easily maintain sight of his lead, far enough away, to keep his own radar and visual scan moving. The airspace around the carrier is “uncontrolled,” and they are responsible for their own separation from the next launch in the cycle. Other flights are returning, either from their cap stations in country, or from training missions around the ship. He checks his fuel state again, double checks proper transfer from the external tanks - sometimes fuel gets trapped in one or the other externals, causing problems in useable fuel for recovery and potentially putting the aircraft out of limits for landing asymmetry.
At 25 miles, the ship is plainly visible on the flat brown horizon. She looks long and low, mechanically menacing broadside to, halfway through her turn into the wind. There’s a churning abaft the beam as her wake grows increasingly turbulent, as sharply defined as a scar across the flat and pewter-colored Northern Arabian Gulf. The Officer of the Deck has clearly already rung up the necessary engine orders to generate winds over the deck sufficient to launch heavily laden aircraft into the breathlessly hot afternoon sky, back into the airspace just vacated by the recovering cycle. As they approach the high holding pattern overhead the ship, the wingman moves closer to his lead, gently massaging the throttles aft, falling back from his tactical position into an administrative cruise. The lead lowers his hook wordlessly, and the wingman, briefed and ready, instantly lowers his own. The XO looks to him briefly, gives him a gloved “thumbs up.” Your hook is down.
“Marshall, 405 sees you.”
“405 Marshall, roger, go button three, update state.”
“405 low state base plus one-five, switching.”
Over to tower frequency, the wingman quickly rolling the comm. knob over, dividing his scan between his now much closer lead and comms control panel. At this distance, there’s time to share between internal cockpit tasks and maintaining position, but not much. Quickly, the wingman executes his penetration and landing checklists, at least as far as he can with the wheels and flaps up. Once they go into low holding, he’ll be in parade formation, with very little time to look at anything but his lead’s wingtip, some 20 feet away. He’ll finish the checklist after they break up, before they land. Make sure to set the radar altimeter, he thinks. It will either save your life some day, or it will not.
The wingman eases out a bit and looks down at the carrier now coming fair into the wind, still accelerating. Even from this high altitude he can see the steam wisps leaking out of her catapult tracks, sees the fighters stacked up for the waist and bow catapults, the E-2 throbbing on Cat 3, the first to go. Twelve to shoot, he thinks again, making continuous, tiny formation with the stick and throttles, maintaining precise position. Should take about 15 minutes, maybe a hair less. If it was me, he thinks, looking at the time display in his HUD, I think I’d start her down right about now.
The XO apparently agrees - he passes the visual signal of a descent, stabbing downward with his right hand towards the ocean, palm held flat. Anticipating his throttle reduction, the wingman eases his own power back, hears the declining pitch of the engines behind him, jockeys for position in the to and fro, stabilizes - no. He’s surging ahead a bit. Ugh - back on the idle stops, little or no useable power to play with. He must keep position, can’t surge out in front of the lead as airspeed builds up in the descent - it will use more fuel but there’s no choice and he feathers the speedbrake out between the tails, hears the wind rush increase, the very slight pitch bobble as the flight control computers compensate, adds power to push through the additional drag. The XO looks over at him inquisitively, and the wingman gives two small thrusts forward with his head - more power, please - it is a request. The XO acknowledges and brings his own throttles up - the wingman sees the lead’s exhaust nozzles dilate, hears the engine pitch increase, adds power, thumbs the speedbrake back in, pulls power back, stabilizes. Better.
It’s a long descent abaft the ship, down to the low holding altitude. During the descent, they will use hardly any fuel at all, and the launch will be continuing. At half the remaining altitude from high to low holding, the lead will start a standard rate turn back towards the ship, following the wake. If he’s done his work well, the wingman thinks, and the ship gets the launch done quickly, we’ll only have to do a lap or two in low holding. You burn so much gas in low holding.
Moving slowly now, at max conserve airspeed, the two-ship turns up the carrier’s wake, eyes out for traffic, stomachs tightening at the task ahead.
For the lead, a day landing is no great challenge anymore. For the wingman, it is still not quite routine - not as hazardous certainly as a night trap, but not exactly tiddly-winks either. And landing the first time is a core competency issue, speaking to an aviator’s professionalism. He has been told all throughout his training that a great mission is only as good as the final landing - he has had a good day today so far, he thinks. Just a little more work left and then it’s done. No bolters. No wave-offs. No damned one wires…

Chapter 34
They rolled out down the carrier’s wake, and the wingman can tell by the churn behind that she’s making almost all of her own wind, the four great shafts thrashing the screws to drive her through the water. This will have implications in his approach turn, and in fact close in on final, and he puts a mental footnote on the observation. In his momentary peek out side, he sees a relatively steady deck, for which he gives a silent, unformed but nevertheless sincere prayer of thanks. Focusing closely on the task at hand, he closes up the formation overhead the ship, knowing as always that it would be better to be dead than to look bad, especially around the ship.
Two thousand feet above the ship, his lead starts a gentle left turn at the bow and as the two-ship moves well past the bow and approaching the abeam position five miles out on downwind, the wingman can ease out a little, and steal another look at the ship. Too small, he thinks sadly. Still too small. He finds a two-ship of FA-18’s from their sister squadron across the holding circle, looks again, eyes narrowing, at the flight deck. If the wingman is any judge of men, he thinks that the XO will want to be the first to break and land aboard the ship. He will not want to be beaten to the overhead.
Now approaching the wake again, the wingman closes in again, while sneaking one last peek at the flight deck - looks like three to shoot, one Super Hornet going to the bow catapults, two heading to the waist. A line of steam off cat 3 and a sun glint from a canopy points him the EA-6B Prowler just off cat 3, finishing it’s clearing turn and then leveling off below them until clear of the overhead pattern.
Next lap to downwind the wingman sees the XO’s head stare fixedly to the left, over to the waist catapults. Suddenly seeing what he wants to see, the XO stabs his hand down again, palm down, signaling for a descent. The wingman sees both FA-18’s on the waist catapults, preparing for launch. The throttles creep up as the XO descends, adding airspeed to the airframes, power on the machines. As the airspeed builds, so too the g-loading increases and now they’re level at 800 feet. For the wingman everything is about formation now, no more peeking out, his hands moving a quickstep dance on the throttles as the airframe howls from the high speed and high air density at low altitude. A flash of gray below and left as the carrier’s fantail flashes by in his peripheral vision. The XO passes a “kiss-off” signal just then and the wing is treated first to the sight of his lead’s belly as he banks the aircraft into a left turn at nearly 90 degrees, then an explosion of vapors as he wraps his machine into a high-g turn, shredding all the energy that just been added. He broke at the fantail, the wingman thinks. A “hot” break. For his own part, he would never dare a hot break, not with his current experience level. It’s cool to see, dramatic and exciting to perform. Maybe a little too exciting, the wingman thinks - leads pushing the flight deck pretty hard. Below and to his left he passes over the FA-18 off of cat 3, looks back and sees cat 4 fire, the final Hornet struggle into the sky. It will be a race to get the deck changed from launch mode to recovery order.
This will be tight, he thinks.
On the flight deck, the waist catapult crews labor like galley slaves in the still searing afternoon heat, cursing and sweating as they secure cat 3, bring the shuttle back aft, sealing the cover designed to protect the tires of landing aircraft. Hectored chief petty officers shout and gesture, one eye on the work being done, the other on the lead FA-18 starting his descent from the 180 position. Maybe 45 seconds. Maybe a few seconds more. In the tower the Air Boss watches impassively. This will either happen or it will not. If it does not, he’ll hear from the Captain, thirty frames forward, in his sacred chair, wrapped in his austere mantle of unassailable authority. A safety rep runs down cat 3, kicking at the spacer bars, kicking at the shuttle cover - he passes a thumbs up to the Arresting Gear Officer on the starboard side who acknowledges the signal, even as the petty officer slips out of sight on the port catwalk. Cat 4 is easier to wrap up - the shuttle is brought aft and stuffed out of the way, clear of the landing foul lines.
The AGO scans the deck aft - all clear - the LSO’s stand on their platform, radio headsets held to their ears, in their other hands, the wave-off switches, known as “pickles” held high over their heads, the signal that they know the deck is not yet ready, not yet clear. Petty officers on the platform bark messages into sound powered phones - FA-18 in the groove, hook down - set landing weight to 34,000 pounds. Down in the arresting gear engine rooms, four sets of wires are appropriately set to catch a max weight FA-18 landing at 160 mph. Red lights turn green on the Air Boss’s control console. Still the main deck status light is red. On the platform an LSO keeps up a rhythmic chant, “Foul deck… foul deck…” as the lead Hornet rolls out on final. The arresting gear engine petty officer-in-charge barks back in his own sound-powered phone circuit, and on the LSO platform one of the petty officers listens now for a moment, before shouting to the LSOs, to the world in general, “Gear and lens set Hornet, foul deck!”
He’s closer now, a half mile, moving fast, now at a quarter of a mile, almost at the go/no-go point, the “wave-off window.” Much closer and he’ll be committed to a landing, perhaps on a deck that isn’t ready. In half a dozen minds on the flight deck, in the tower, on the bridge the worst case scenario plays out - a fast moving tailhook pulling out an out-of-battery wire, the wire paying out but not slowing the jet, the cable parting under the extreme forces, hissing and snapping across the flight deck and into the crewmen lined along the foul line, cutting men in half while the crippled jet plunges into the sea, too fast to stop, too slow to fly. The nightmare image passes as the Arresting Gear Officer, satisfied that the last crewman is clear of the foul lines, presses down on his dead-man switch, clearing the last fail-safe, turning the flight deck status lights green.
“CLEAR DECK!” shouts the back up LSO, as both he and the controlling LSO snap their wave-off pickles down beneath their arms, fingers still caressing the guarded switch. That was close.
Five seconds later an FA-18C screams in the arresting gear like a trapped beast, the wire paid out behind it.
On the platform, the back up LSO resumes his chant, “Foul deck… foul deck…”
After counting off 19 seconds from the lead’s break turn to downwind, the wingman started his own left break- much less aggressively than his lead, but still a good turn, the g-forces pulling at his head, his forearms, pushing him down in his seat. He brings the throttles smoothly back aft to flight idle, thumbing the speedbrake out. Under the combination of idle power, high “g” and speedbrake deployment, the jet rapidly decelerates, and at 250 kts he lowers the landing gear and flaps. The landing gear make abrupt hydraulic coughs and grinding sounds in their transition, the sound instantly overcome by the wind noise as they fall into the windstream while the flaps cause the jet to pitch bobble up a bit. Gear down and locked and the sound goes to a reduced, but still elevated pitch from normal flight. With the gear down and verified locked, and the flaps down, he must continuously trim the jet’s nose back up as she slows down to approach speed.
Established now on downwind now the timeline seems to accelerate, and the wingman races to complete his landing checklist, dial his radar altimeter warning bug down to 400 feet (the LSO warning: “Never go below 400 feet without a ball” flits in his head). His abeam distance is 1.3 nm - a little tight - and he drops the right wing for a moment to build some separation before reversing back to the left to start his descending approach turn as the carrier’s fantail goes by, this time in the opposite direction.

Chapter 35
The velocity vector on his HUD resembles a simplified aircraft symbol, and provides almost all his initial angle of bank and rate of descent data - it’s driven by dampened inputs from his laser ring gyro inertial navigation system, and so provides near instantaneous performance feedback. A bit of throttle off at the 180-degree position, a little bit of forward stick pressure to maintain on speed angle of attack and 30 degrees angle of bank - he was a little tight on the abeam distance.
Initial rate of descent is about 200-300 foot per minute, and he’ll look to increase that to around -500 FPM at the 90-degree position. At the 90, he hopes to be at 500 feet or so above the sea, using the precise information provided by his RADALT, or radar altimeter. Once he starts the approach turn from the 180 to the 90, he’s going to be on the gauges all the way. First “peek” outside is at the 90.
Ugh. The visual picture is that he’s high and tight - too close to the ship, well above glideslope. But he flicks the panic wave away with the half-formed thought that it always looks that way at the ship - she’s sailing away from him at nearly thirty knots and he’s still being blown downwind. Too, the landing area is offset eleven degrees to port from the ship’s longitudinal axis - he has a bit more time to turn than is intuitively apparent. Still, it’s hard to overcome the desire to really wrap the jet up and dump the nose. It takes discipline. He has discipline.
Back on the gauges. Approaching the 45 position, he should be somewhere between 375 and 425 feet on the RADALT. Another peek outside - yes, there’s the yellow meatball, cresting slightly above the horizontal green array of the reference datum - a little above glideslope. “Altitude, altitude,” and it’s the female voice warning system, “Bitchin’ Betty,” but it’s OK, he has a ball and can continue the descent.
Not a bad place to be. 325 crossing the wake. Perfect.
Rules to live by:
1) Never lead a low or a slow.
2) If you’re low and slow, add power and maintain attitude until the ball is in the center, then accel to on-speed.
3) Always lead a high or a fast.
4) If you’re high and fast, decel to on-speed and then work the ball down to the center.
5) Fly the ball to touchdown. Don’t give up.
Fifteen seconds. Rolling out with the left edge of the ship’s churning wake under his left armpit, and the meatball in the center, he sets the velocity vector at three degrees nose low, should get us to -700FPM or so, checks AOA and line-up.
13 seconds. A little fast out of the turn, lined up a little left. A little throttle off, a little right wing down, don’t overshoot. Lead the power back on, rate of descent increases with angle of bank, don’t want to go low. Don’t want to get slow.
10 seconds. Lineup is walking away to the right, yes, she’s making her own winds, that’s what happens, going a little high too, cross check the rate of descent, a little right wing down to catch it, a little power off. Flicker slow, a little nose down to get on speed. Ugh! Not too much, need power add a little…
“A little power,” on the UHF and that’s the LSO calling, and there goes my OK pass he thinks with seven seconds to go, and he has to add more than he’d like because you don’t get to not respond to the LSO and now he’s a full ball high and going flat, so it’s power back off and maybe a little forward stick, just a little to get her started down to maybe, what? -800 FPM? More?
Still a little high but getting closer to glideslope and now he remembers again: She’s making her own wind - there will be a sizeable burble at the fantail.
In the moment of flying that abbreviation stands in for a detailed academic understanding of an aerodynamic phenomenon known as “the burble.” This phenomenon is caused by a turbulent pocket of air washing around the ship’s island structure, flowing aft and over the fantail. When a ship is operating at sea with high natural winds the effect is negligible since the natural breeze goes right down the unencumbered angle deck, but when the carrier has to generate her own winds, the effect is to bring the wind over the deck from slightly to starboard of the landing area, washing over the island structure. This turbulent air eventually intersects with the glideslope very close to touchdown, and can cause the unprepared aviator to settle rapidly below glideslope, risking an early wire, a wave-off, or worse.
None of that will fit in the pilot’s head at this moment, however. At an almost instinctive level, he merely abbreviates it to, “Watch out for the burble,” which will equate to, “Be prepared to add power. Lot’s of it.”
Four seconds. Still a little high, but not daring to pull too much power off because of the burble, can’t be underpowered when that hits, where is it? Still high and…
“Right for lineup,” and damn! he got distracted and drifted left, and now he’s got to do the automatic response to the LSO call, the right wing down and whoops! There goes the burble and…
“POWER!” yes, yes I know and how’s that for power? and WHAM! And he’s on deck, that warm and familiar feeling of a car crash, the arresting gear cable paying out behind and the jet bucking and kicking like a bronco at the county fair as all her kinetic energy and momentum is transferred to the trembling wire screeching out of the hydraulically dampened cylinders below the flight deck until finally it all comes to a kind of shuddering balance, the wire all paid out and the jet still screaming at full power and finally he can ease the throttles back, back to ground idle now and where’s the yellowshirt? Where’s the taxi director?
Ah, no, he’s all the way up there at the 12:30 position, which means he almost certainly caught the one wire, the ace and that’s a no-grade every time in the daytime, and never mind his first taste of combat what was what, twenty years ago? Or only a couple of hours it feels more like the former than the latter. Hook up, yes, yes, and fold the wings: NO. Wait on the wings, they have to safe the Sidewinders, but he can unlock them and flaps to a half should be fine and nosewheel steering to high gain, a hard turn and power up to clear the landing area there’s more coming in behind us, quick-quick and now STOP! Abruptly, clear of the foul lines, the squadron flight deck chief jumping up and down and trying to get his attention and what does he want? Oh yes, he wants to know the aircraft status and it’s an up jet so here’s a thumbs up, and meanwhile the ordies are swarming around, and it’s HANDS OUT of the cockpit, up where everyone can see them while they safe the ordnance. FOLD WINGS and there’s the scream of a jet behind him, trapped in the wires and looking up there’s two more overhead in the break, and he’s passed back to the director who clears him up to the bow. COME FORWARD slowly now, breathing coming back to normal, he taxis with all due deliberation up between the closely packed fighters parked on the bow catapults, and soon he’s passed to the final director, all the way up on the point of the bow, legs spread around the cat track on cat 1, leaning back into the breeze, almost out over the edge with nothing between him and the devil but the deep blue sea. Now STOP! And HOLD RIGHT BRAKE and COME FORWARD, and he’s turning towards the cat track, now the nose of his fighter is out over the sea, and it’s lonely out there and frankly a little scary, if a brake should fail just now it would all be over in a moment’s time, the going over the side, and cart wheeling just that little bit and he’d never have time to get out and hardly have time to be afraid if it actually happened, so he likes to practice for it when he can.
Now the nose is safely past the farthest point, he’s back over the flight deck, the breeze actually helping him to turn the fighter back towards the fantail, now down the track and taxiing aft and close as ever he might fit to the deck edge on his left and the last parked FA-18, his lead, still in the cockpit after all it’s only been 45 seconds or so between their landings. One more hard turn and STOP! LEFT ENGINE OFF! Left throttle off and a series of warning tones, L GEN, L BOOST LO, and that’s all normal as is the throng of extravagantly perspiring flight deck crewmen swarming around his jet OFF BRAKES to push it back to the very deck edge and STOP! And now the plane captain runs beneath and straps tie-down chains to padeyes on the flight deck, to hard points on the jet with the yellowshirt standing there, sweating impatiently.
At last the deed is done, the jet tied down and the yellowhshirt passes control to the plane captain, running back to the top of the bow to help park the next fighter in line, coming up the bow.
Ultimately the plane captain consults with flight deck chief, who in turn consults with flight deck control via the radio headset on his cranial protector and at last the signal is given to shut down the starboard engine, the mission is complete. The pilot breathes a sigh of relief and pulls the right throttle off, makes sure there’s no loose gear around the glareshield before he opens the canopy, finds the switch under the rail to raise and OH MY GOD IT’S HOT OUT THERE!

Chapter 36
The wingman settled down to the baking flight deck with a heavy thump, carrying his helmet bag with loose gear and 40 pounds of survival gear webbed into his restraint harness. Liberated from the secret places it had been pooling, sweat sprung immediately out from under his helmet and ran into his eyes. Suddenly every pore on his body seemed to open up, and he felt an itching he couldn’t reach under his restraint harness as he wondered, not for the first time, how anyone could tolerate working in such an environment. In moments he would be below decks, in the ship’s air conditioned core - but not the men laboring here on the flight deck. Far too few moments of respite for them. It seemed impossible.
Grimacing, he dropped his helmet bag, shook his head and wiped his eyes with his hands so that he could see the plane captain waiting stoically by the jet for a material condition debrief. Streaming with perspiration, red-shirted ordnancemen were already on his starboard wing, clearing the now empty pylon where four and a half hours ago, a one thousand pound JDAM had patiently waited for tasking. The ordie chief walked over and handed him the JDAM fuze arming wire, retained at release and proof at least that the weapon had left the jet armed. The chief grinned in the heat before shouting over the noise of fighter engines still turning on deck, fighters still landing aft, “Thought you might like a souvenir, sir - How’d she work for you?”
“Like a charm, Chief, “the lieutenant shouted back, “Shack hit. Tell the guys thanks from me.”
“Oh, we’re the ones should be thanking you, lieutenant - we always prefer it when the pilots download the ordnance. Saves us a lot of effort back on deck. What’d you hit?” By now the other ordies were clustering around, listening in above the high frequency background din. The edged the the plane captain aside, not unkindly, but this was their time: They built all varieties of weapons up, routinely working around explosive ordnance large and small, both the bombs themselves, any one of which could blow a hole in the flight deck large enough to put the ship out of commission if mishandled, and the smaller cartridge-actuated devices - the CADs which served to boot the weapon off the wing at release and could blow the hands off of the unwise, or unwary. Ordies were a little crazy, the lieutenant reflected. They had to be.
After building the bombs and carting them to the flight deck, they’d hoist them tenderly, almost lovingly up on to the wing pylons, and carefully tended to the proliferation of computer umbilicals and arming wires. And then, if the bomb wasn’t used, they’d take it all down again, waiting for the next opportunity to repeat the process. They owned the weapons in a more intimate way than did the pilots themselves who released them.
“Oh, I ah,” bellowed the pilot awkwardly, “I don’t… I mean. It was a time sensitive target, is really all I know.” The younger red shirts exchanged glances, wondering how to react to this. The lieutenant, suddenly aware that he was not satisfying his audience continued, “Somebody on deck talked us on, sounded like he needed it real bad. He was really happy with the results, too. Said, ‘great job, Navy.’ I think maybe we saved some good guys today.” Nods and smiles all around - this was better, and a kind of easy informality moved through the small crowd gathered around the lieutenant like a fresh breeze in the stultifying heat. He was bemused and somehow flattered to find himself at the center of this kind of attention - it was no very great thing that he had done - just a JDAM.
“Too bad you couldn’t drop the LGB, sir,” one of the younger guys offered up hoarsely - not much more than a kid, really, but like most of the red shirts whipcord strong. And like all of them, seemingly almost dead with heat exhaustion after spending all day laboring in the oppressive heat of an Arabian Gulf summer’s day, amplified by the black non-skid of the armored flight deck.
“Maybe next time,” the wingman cried out gamely in return, “See what I can do. Great work fellas, thanks.”
At this the ordies smiled happily, backslapping and shoving each other like brawny puppies before turning back to the port wing to download the GBU-12. After a few short, shouted words with plane captain, “She’s a good jet,” the pilot went aft along the row of fighters being turned around and serviced for the next launch, and checked his watch: Yep, that’d would be a good hop to be on, if you had to fly at night - day cat shot, night landing.
The young lieutenant entered the starboard side catwalk entering into the hull itself still thinking about the young men he had just spoken with, men who labored in almost unbearable conditions for long hours at half his pay so that he could go aloft in the glory of his youth to fly a strike fighter jet in support of forces ashore. Armed as he was by the sweat of their brow, he could put the fruits of their labor into exactly the spot calculated for maximum effect. Having done so, he would receive moderate accolades and increased respect. They had been so very pleased at his few, awkward words of thanks, these men. So cheered by his casual recognition of their labors. It certainly hadn’t cost him anything to give and it had seemed to mean so much to them.
All through flight school, even back at the Academy, the lieutenant reflected - it had always been all been about him - his training, his preparation, his success. But none of what he had just completed doing would have been possible without the efforts of the ordies, or for that matter the plane captain or jet engine mechanics or metalsmiths, or anyone of two hundred odd people in the squadron who labored day and night in what might as well be anonymity so that he might have the opportunity to do this thing and claim it as his own. Hell, what about the ship’s company guys? The cat operators, or the Sailors in the arresting gear engine rooms? The blackshoes on watch on the bridge, the engineers in the main spaces, or even the cooks? None of it works unless all of it works.
It really isn’t about me, the lieutenant thought - I’m just the last guy in the line. He found himself ashamed to admit that, apart from the ordie CPO, he didn’t know one of the red shirts names. Well, that was his flaw, his failure.
He could fix that.
Chapter 37
It’s 0200 and the young lieutenant from Nebraska lies in the middle tier of a three stack coffin rack, eyes wide open in the darkness as his roommates sleep, seeing nothing but the ephemeral shooting stars one’s imagination creates when he stares into the darkness and there’s nothing to see, nothing there at all. Of sounds there are no few by contrast, the gentle snoring of the JG in the top rack, the heavy breathing of his best friend and liberty buddy in the bottom rack, the working of the hull in a gentle sea. Just outside the stateroom door is the more or less continuous sound of footsteps, the occasional slam of a hatch, bluff and hearty voices inappropriate to the hour, but for whose owners the day is just starting, bubble up and then fade away. And always there are the mechanical sounds, a warship at sea never truly sleeps - there is the tireless tintinnabulation of a hammer striking something on the flight deck, the wheeze of hydraulic pumps and air circulation ducts. Worst of all were the sounds of the re-spot going on over his head, the weary yellow shirts moving the jets from the last recovery into position for tomorrow’s first launch. They’re coming to the end of it by now, almost ready to turn in for the evening and get their four to five hours of rest before it all begins again - they at least will not have trouble sleeping. The straining groan of the aircraft tractors towing jets from the bow to the fantail has been replaced in order by the ghostly swish of tie down chains dragged aft and finally the ritual spiking of eighty-pound tow bars to the flight deck. This last is the worst of it, and the lieutenant has come to half believe over the course of the deployment that there is a cross-hair mark directly above his stateroom wtih blocks of text beside it indicating “Slam tow bar down here.” It is probably untrue that exhausted and envious yellow shirts conduct this ritual every evening as a kind of class warfare tactic, with the express purpose of waking up the pampered and privileged pilots slumbering right below the flight deck, but there is a sizable minority of aviators that isn’t quite sure that it isn’t so.
He’s been at sea now for four months on his first deployment, and by now he would ordinarily be able to sleep through it all, with even the tow bar ritual merely dredging him up from the very deep waters of his unconsciousness to only a slightly higher plane, but today was no ordinary day. Today he did what he had been trained to do, today he became the weapon that his country had forged into high tensile strength and hammered flat into a razor sharp weapon over the course of the last four years of flying, useful to the task of doing a very difficult thing with surgical precision. It was a simple as this, and as complicated: Men died today, and he had killed them.
That they were bad men he was relatively sure, that good men were saved too by his actions he understood as well, or at least he thought he did. When he had gone into the Carrier Intelligence Center, or CVIC to debrief the mission, the air intel officers had been strangely silent. They did their duty of analyzing his weapons systems video, checking carefully and with approval the precise coordinates he had entered into the weapons keypad against those assigned. From there they scrutinized the video of the target as it was before his bomb struck against overhead satellite imagery from the vault, analyzed the moment of impact and high order detonation and took stock of what very little was left behind after. And all of this met their approbation; the tape was copied, digitized and sent ashore to higher headquarters for further review and archiving. Nothing however did they know, or at least, nothing were they permitted to say about the target itself - what it was, who was inside, what lives were saved. The lieutenant went to his flight lead in protest over this stoic refusal, or inability to share - he had done this thing, he had a right to know, he thought, what it was that he had done. The lead had gone to the commander whose job it was to run CVIC, a member of the ship’s company, and huddled with him in brief conversation. The lieutenant kept a respectful distance away as he watched these two speak, but it was clear from their body language that no new information would be forthcoming. The XO returned with a shrug and said, “Well, it’s clear that you did what was being asked of you, and you did it well. If it had been something that went wrong or if we had made a mistake then we’d know about it by now, we’d have the lawyers all over us taking statements, and CAG in here looking worried. So it’s something else - some other reason that they won’t share with us.” The rules came from the beach; there was nothing to be done.
Amid feelings of frustration, the lieutenant felt a surge of gratitude to the squadron XO: When he had been talking about a job done well, he had given the lieutenant individual credit - “You,” he had said. When he raised the possibility that something had gone wrong, the subject had changed to, “we.” The lieutenant committed himself to remembering this. “Any idea why they won’t tell us, XO?”
“Oh. There’s any number or reasons why. Best not to think about it. It’ll only cost you sleep.”
And had a point, because he lay there in his rack at 0200 on the day before a duty day thinking about it while saying to himself, “If I get to sleep right now, I’ll get five hours of sleep,” just as he had said about six hours of sleep an hour ago, or five and one-half hours thirty minutes ago. He rolled over, pounded his pillow in frustration and closed his eyes again, trying to force himself to sleep. Count backwards from 100, Mississippi.
But no.
Leaving CVIC, the lieutenant had passed the other two aviators from the CAS event, the ones who had been involved in the strafing mission in al Anbar, heard and saw their hearty joy and self-satisfaction, saw the simultaneously congratulatory and envious looks of the other aviators gathered around. Troops in contact and the 20MM cannon in reply - hard to improve upon for job satisfaction, at least for these two veterans of what the young lieutenant still thought of as “the Big Fight” just two years back.
Afterwards they had debriefed maintenance control on the aircraft status (both jets up and up), input their flight times on the laptop computer designed for this purpose and entered the ready room across the passageway, their home away from home. Waiting for them was 304’s pilot, the man who had broken off his probe tip on the tanker… was that today? It felt like yesterday, the lieutenant thought. He could see the shame on the man’s face, his desire to explain, his desire to be reassured, the XO holding up a silencing finger, looking around the ready room: Too many people.
“Wait right here,” the XO told his wingman, and gripping 304’s pilot by the shoulder went out into the passageway seeking privacy. The lieutenant had had the opportunity to be counseled by the XO himself before, although not for a flying mishap, thank God. He also knew that the only thing more rare and valuable than sleep aboard an aircraft carrier at sea was privacy. Counter-intuitively, at least when contrasted to the ready room, the virtual town square, the center of squadron life, the open passageway outside the ready room door at least provided interrupted moments when a man could get his butt chewed away from listening ears. This XO at least still believed what they had all been taught growing up in the service: Praise in public, chastise in private. Not everyone practiced what they had been taught.
The lieutenant saw a glimpse of 304’s pilot in the passageway as the XO returned through the ready room door - the young man’s face was ashen, shocked even as the XO’s face was bright red, himself breathing hard. The door shut behind him and the moment was broken, the vignette over. They’d debriefed the mission they had just finished in only 45 minutes or so - a remarkably short time for such a long mission, but the XO was the type to focus on high points and low points, leaving the routine unremarked upon. The lieutenant looked into his flight lead’s eyes searchingly, looking for the meaning behind the meaning in his words. But the debrief was clinical, ordinary - they might have been discussing a training mission back at home base. He had done his task; the weapon had found its target. Both of them, the weapon and its wielder, had done what they had been designed to do. It was… unremarkable.
They broke up to go to chow, the XO with the skipper, he with his contemporaries. He had sat through the dinner almost entirely without speaking. There was the usual give and take, the occasionally profane anecdotes, raucous bursts of laughter, the characteristic raised voices of his tribe, in dispute or in agreement, this group of warriors, his band of brothers. They had asked about his mission, and he had recounted it briefly and analytically, as was the expected form, while looking into their eyes, seeking some context to it all, some response from them, some hint about what to feel inside from these who had been there before. But they only nodded thoughtfully, seeing it all inside their heads until one of them was reminded by some particular or another of an amusing story from the previous cruise and before he knew it they had all moved on to the next tale, laughing again as one story led to yet another. Public introspection was apparently not a characteristic of the tribe.
After supper he had spent some time in his divisional spaces, paperwork and training jackets, special request chits and just “being there,” talking to his people. They responded politely, satisfied to listen to him with all apparent complaisant attention to the clearly distracted officer while each of them secretly hoped that he would go away so that they could get back to their work. From there he had gone back to the ready room, logged in to one of the three unclassified computers which the aviators shared to send emails, sat looking at the empty screen, a post addressed to his parents on this most interesting day which stubbornly refused somehow to write itself. After ten minutes, having typed nothing more than, “Dear Mom and Dad,” and unable to think of what to say, with three other guys waiting in line he closed the email window (Do you want to save? - No) and logged off. By 2300, having chatted with his roomates about everything but the thing which most interested him, having volunteered nothing, and having nothing returned for free he lay his head down in his rack to sleep, tomorrow being a day of duty, all day at the desk and early in the morning to start with to top it all off.
In the darkness he again touched the button on his wristwatch that illuminated the dial’s face, read the time and said to himself, “If I get to sleep right now, I’ll get four and one-half hour’s sleep.”

Chapter 38
Have you never seen the sun go down at sea? Never been in middle of that vast, moving wasteland which is our ocean home and felt the bittersweet pull on your heart as the last limb of the sun winks out below the infinite horizon? Surrounded only by the men and women who work the ship with you, this mechanical beast of steel, your island home?
Then you’ve never known the faces of those around you as they bleach from sun-baked red to khaki in gradual steps before momentarily turning into a frozen, sepia-stained tintype as the last colors wash out. Never heard the clatter through the ship as darken ship fittings are set, hatches clanging shut as sailors rush to prepare leviathan for the watches of the night.
When the sun goes down at sea, time seems to stop moving for moment - it is though the world has asked us all to stop, to take a picture. Yellow shirts, the royalty of the flight deck, stand mutely next to brown-shirted plane captains, men wearing multiple arrays of 20-pound tie-down chains flung over their shoulders and who look like nothing so much as galley slaves thus attired, all of them staring now with round, grateful eyes. The sun touches, sinks, and winks out, finally - almost reluctantly, taking with it the last of the summer’s shockingly brutal heat. Another day is gone. One day closer to home.
The last ray of light winks out and the spell is broken - there is a launch turning on the flight deck, readying themselves for the catapults. Back to work.
Down below the flight deck, in Ready Room 3, the dying of the light holds neither joy nor relief for a young lieutenant junior grade. Instead it brings a kind of inchoate dread, an in-the-belly emptiness that is almost nausea and which will grow over the next few hours into actual fear, if history is any judge. He is being briefed by his squadron CO on the tactical execution of one-v-one air intercepts, but he knows that the real reason he is on this flight, with this flight lead, has nothing to do with proficiency at radar intercepts. Rather, it has everything to do with the fact that he has not been performing well “behind the boat” lately. He thinks about the first night carrier landing lecture he received as a student in the fleet replacement squadron from a salty landing signal officer:
“You may or may not go into combat on any given day at sea. You might or might not drop a bomb, in anger or in training. It is possible, though unlikely, that you will have the opportunity to flame a MiG. But you will be launched, and that means that you will have to land. And you will have to do it well. Landing aboard the heaving, pitching deck of a ship at night in a fighter moving through the air at 145 knots is the hardest thing that anyone can be routinely asked to do. But you must learn not only to do it; you must learn to do it well. Because doing it poorly means that you could lose the airplane. Doing it poorly means that you could lose your lives. Do it poorly, just the once, and you might take the lives of many others with you.
“This is the Navy: You might go to war. You will go to sea, and once there the catapult crew will shoot you into the air - all you have to do to get airborne is hold on. But you will need to land.”
“Landing aboard ship requires skills, and these I am here to teach you. It requires confidence, and this you will gain in time. It requires courage, and gentlemen: Whether or not you have that is what we are here to determine.”
The JG keeps eye contact as his CO continues to brief, nodding at all the right moments but only half-listening. He has never, he reflects as the CO continues speaking about attack geometry, weapons parameters and execution, done this very well.
Up on the bridge the Officer of the Deck looks away from his tasks to let his eyes linger for a melancholy moment on the setting of the sun and what it means to him: The requirements of heightened vigilance - no one will see the unlit dhows which dot the Arabian Gulf hull up on the horizon if and when they traverse the ship’s path - they will have to be sensed in other ways, small targets detected on radar, plotted rapidly, courses projected, decisions made. He looks at his watch and thinks, “Sunset - two more hours and I will be relieved. Two more hours and I can go below.” Just to his left the carrier’s CO sits in his port side chair and watches as well with eyes red-limned with weariness, all thoughts momentarily subsumed by the brown buzz at the back of his brain, the one that has been there all day, crying out, begging for sleep, blessed sleep, rising from a insistent burr in the background of his consciousness to a triumphant foreground shout as the darkness falls. But not yet, no - no quite yet. A fragment of poetry comes to mind, “Miles to go before I sleep.” Asks himself: Who was that? Frost, I think. Yes, Frost: “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Not quite the thing, he thinks with an amused grunt. The Officer of the Deck looks at him quickly, searchingly, but no - the old man is lost in private thoughts for now, he has not detected anything amiss. Relieved, he turns back away from the bearing of the now vanished sun and returns to monitoring the performance of his watch team.
The Junior Officer of the Deck had her face buried in the surface search radar repeater - she stood up looking slightly troubled. Seeing this, the OOD asked, “What’s up?”
“Traffic, bow on at 12 miles. Radar CPA is less than two thousand yards.”
Ugh. Closest point of approach less than a mile required a report to the CO even in the daytime - “OK,” he replied, “Are you ready to give the Captain a contact report?”
“One minute.” The CO was a stickler for precise verbiage in traffic reports, and the JOOD wanted to rehearse her lines mentally one more time. “Ready.”
She walked to the port side chair, and with the OOD looking over her shoulder started her report, “Captain, JOOD, I have a contact report.” The CO glanced at her impassively for a moment before looking out the bridge glass right forward.
“Go ahead.” Closing his eyes. Seeing it.
“Captain, we’re on course 345 at 12 knots. I have a contact twenty degrees right of the bow at 24,000 yards. Contact has a target angle of five degrees left with a slight right to left drift. Closest point of approach is in 20 minutes at 1500 yards off the left beam. Recommend coming right to course 000 to open the CPA.”
The Captain considered this for a long moment with his eyes still closed before asking, “How long until the next launch?”
“Fifteen minutes, sir.”
“And where are the winds?”
“Um. 340, sir,” she replied, reddening slightly, grateful for the darkness. Altering course to starboard would only bring the contact back to the bow when the carrier turned into the wind for the launch.
A long pause: Reflection? Rebuke?
“Call him.”
“Aye-aye, Captain.”
Chapter 39
The JOOD walked to the bridge-to-bridge transceiver and gathered her thoughts briefly while grimacing in the darkness: The civilian mariners who ply the waters of the Arabian Gulf are not known for their disciplined use of BTB comms, she reflected, and many of them were inclined to make juvenile and even disgustingly suggestive replies to the sound of an American English-accented, female voice wafting through the ether. It was a feature of life here in the Gulf that the JOOD had accustomed herself to without ever truly forming an appreciation for  sexist pigs, she thought. She waved impatiently aside the momentary desire to pass the mic to the OOD and let him make the call  this was her task.
In his port side chair, the Captain reached his across his chest in the darkness with his right arm, away from prying eyes and pinched the skin above his own ribs hard between thumb and forefinger, trying to become more fully awake. It had been such a long day. Such a long, long series of days. He had become suddenly so very tired with the setting of the sun, a kind of fatigue that had been an almost physical blow Boats, he croaked to the Boatswain's Mate of the Watch,
"Sir!" 
"Get me a cup of coffee, will you?" 
"Aye-aye, sir,"  replied the bosun, marching off to the starboard side bridge wing.
He must be fully awake  these kinds of interactions occured every night, sometimes as many as a dozen times in a night, and any one of them could go wrong in the blinking of an eye. The ship herself would not be damaged in the least by a collision with one of these wisps of bark of course, but a dhow would be snapped to kindling by the merest brush of the carrier's hull, taking her crew to the swirling bottom along with the Captain's own career and the ship's reputation, inextricably intertwined as the two were. Not for the first time the CO marveled at the apparent carelessness with which the local fishermen sailed these seas in utter darkness in much the same manner as they had for a thousand years or more; no radios, no radars, little in the way of lighting and nothing but the frailest of craft to protect them from the greedy, inrushing Sea. You'd think they'd want to get out of the way of a hundred thousand ton aircraft carrier bearing down on them out of the darkness, lights blazing, warning horn blaring its five short blasts of the hazard alarm, but every night the smaller contacts they would encounter maintained a kind of disinterested passivity, the local habit of fatalism summed up in a word, " œinshallah." 
If it be God's will" ¦
He heard the JOOD speak into the bridge-to-bridge VHF, thought to himself, "She's a fine officer, will do well,"  and wondered briefly how his own daughter was doing back at home, back with her mother in Norfolk. In her middle adolescence, the relationship between the two of them had become strained and striving. He wondered how all of that would turn out, and what part he had to play in it: "Not much, from here."  Back to work.
"Unknown vessel 35 miles southwest of Bushehr, course 190, speed five, this is a United States Navy warship off your port bow for 11 miles. I am currently conducting flight operations and restricted in my ability to maneuver. Request you alter your course to the southeast to maintain a safe distance, over." 
The JOOD unkeyed the mike, awaiting the contact's improbable reply  none of these little dhows seem to have radios and few that did spoke English  while steeling herself for the inevitable jeering from the bridges of those merchants large enough to have both VHF radios and English-speaking crewmen, or at least, those who spoke a kind of English. These latter were not long in coming, and even while they were the sort of routinely revolting displays of inanity to which she had become accustomed, they were yet the more frustrating given her pressing need to hear some sort of reply from the contact vessel as the range continues to close, to engage in a mutually advantageous contract to avoid a collision. An aircraft carrier is not a frigate, she thought to herself. We cannot turn this thing on a dime, nor stop it at will, and the launch is not so very far away. This ship must be into the wind at launch time. She leaned over the squawk box, selected the watch center of the CO's Tactical Operations Plot, a darkened radar room just aft of the bridge and spoke into the box, saying, "COTOP, get me a lat/long for Skunk Bravo Echo." 
"COTOP aye." 
She selected a different pushbutton on the squawk box, "Lookouts, Bridge, what have you got on the bow, 005 relative? Should be just hull up." 
"Bridge, lookouts, single white light 005 relative,"  and after a pause, "No bearing drift." 
Great: A dhow for sure, constant bearing, decreasing range  collision course. No radio, no radar, no clue and no care. Still there was a form to follow, and COTOP had called back with coordinates of the contact:
"Unknown vessel in vicinity of twenty-eight degrees, forty-two minutes north, fifty degrees, forty-five minutes east, course 190, speed 5 knots, this is a United States Navy warship ten miles off your port bow. I am engaged in flight operations and restricted in my ability to maneuver. Request you contact me on this frequency and alter your course to the southeast to maintain a safe distance, over." 
Unkeyed the mic: Catcalls, hoots, howls, jeers and obscene suggestions. She frowned, thinking, cast a furtive glance at the Captain in his chair. Ten minutes to launch.
Half an hour previously, the FA-18 squadron CO had wrapped up his brief, looking at his wingman, a troubled young aviator in the form of a lieutenant junior grade, one of many such as he had seen either sink or swim in the course of his long career. For the first time now, he was seeing one of these from the uniquely powerful, responsible  and yes, he thought: Accountable - vantage point of command. The squadron CO was in the position now, as his predecessors had been before him, of being quality control, the one man who could and would ultimately decide this young man's fate. That is, the CO reflected, if he didn't kill himself first behind the ship. With an encouraging smile on his face but cool evaluation in his eyes he'd said to the young man, "Just about walk time. Ready to get this done?" 
The JG had lifted his chin a touch, almost defiantly, while smiling in return - a smile that somehow did not quite make it all the way to his own eyes  and replied, "Yes sir. Let's do it!" 
Now both sat in their turning fighters on the flight deck thinking their private thoughts. Their start, post-start and pre-taxi checklists were complete, and they'd each of them given the thumbs-up to their aircraft directors. The yellow shirts in turn stood patiently in front of the fighters on the cat track, lighted wands crossed in front of them, signaling, "Hold brakes,"  and looking aft for the visual signal from the midships Fly-2 petty officer to send their charges aft, back to the waist catapults.
Of the drama playing itself out in slow motion on the bridge, they had no knowledge.

Chapter 40
Farokh was a fisherman and the son of a fisherman. That worthy’s father had been fisherman in turn, and his father before him and so on as far as anyone could remember. The dhow upon which he sailed, with its diesel motor hacking and coughing behind him had in fact originally belonged to his grandfather, although it was true that his father had replaced the engine sometime back in the ’60s. Farokh had been told by his grandfather at their village that his own father, Farokh’s great grandfather Farhang, had fished by sail and when the wind died, by strength of arm. His dhow had been lost at sea back before the turn of the century, leaving his grandfather an orphan. But all of that was the will of God, rheumy-eyed old grandfather had said, inshallah.
Sometimes, Farokh reflected, he wished that he had a sail of his own. The wind was directly from abaft, and it blew the  smelly blue diesel smoke over the single white light he shipped aft in concession to the rules of the sea and to prevent the Revolutionary Guards from having a pretext to board him and shake him down.
Although the Bahre Farsi was a good provider, all thanks to God, so that neither a man nor his sons would ever fear to starve in the honest work of hauling fish up out of the sea, neither would they ever be truly prosperous. No, in order to prosper one had to smuggle a bit on the side, and keep the Revolutionary Guards from seizing the cigarettes, booze or hashish and selling them themselves, after of course, having emptied Farokh’s wallet.
Smuggling however was something Farokh stolidly refused to do, unless of course he had to. But his wife Mahasti had been nagging him for quite some time now to sell the old truck that had been his father’s (peace be upon him) and buy a car, so tonight Farokh had slipped his moorings at sunset with two bales of hash stowed right forward under the counter and  beneath his fishing nets, one bale for him and one for the farmer. The night after next, inshallah, he would be in  Bahrain where he knew a man who would trade booze and cigarettes for the hash and these he could pass to a man he knew in the next village over for cash which he would then split more or less evenly with the farmer. In time he could buy Mahasti a car, inshallah, although probably not a new one: God punishes the greedy. He decided to reverse course momentarily and see if he was being followed, but once  satisfied that no one was coming up on him out of Bushehr, he resumed his southwesterly course to Bahrain.
Wrapped up in his private thoughts, Farokh was late to see Leviathan haul up on his port bow, the noisy diesel masking the sound of her engines and those of the aircraft moaning on her flight deck as she closed in the darkness, 100,000 tons of American steel looming in the night. He had been idly  picking his nose and eyeing the results appreciatively in the low glow of his engine console when he was startled suddenly out of his reveries by the sound of a great whistle like a foghorn blowing five short blasts, a signal that this was no  Leviathan but rather a ship of enormous proportions. It also signaled, as Farokh knew very well from a life at sea that the master of the other vessel considered the situation to be dire. He heard voices too in the darkness, a strange and alien  tongue shouting through a mechanical announcing system —some sort of prayer perhaps? — and then another signal which he could not identify, three short, high pitched beeps,
repeated over and over again. Something flew loud and low over his head, something he felt more than saw.
Momentarily terrified, Farokh briefly considered putting his helm over and trying to maneuver, but once he’d settled down he attempted to fully understand his predicament —this great ship had a strange and, to him confusing light configuration— he could not easily determine her heading in the darkness. It occurred to him that to turn at this point might as easily put him more squarely in her path as  otherwise. He shrugged philosophically. “Doubt makes the mountain which faith can move,” his mother had told him as a boy and anyway it was all in the hands of God. Still, there was time to close his eyes and say a prayer, if not to wash himself nor break out his prayer rug nor yet consult the compass, so this Farokh did do, knowing that Allah was great and merciful and would forgive him the exigencies of the moment.
On the darkened bridge, the Officer of the Deck raced to the starboard bridge wing and right out to Aux Conn itself, following the swearing Captain who was already throwing the window down in Aux Conn and leaning out to see whether or not they had hit the dhow. It was going to be so close, so very, very close.  The dhow had never answered the JOOD’s radio calls of course, which in itself  was no surprise. It had been moving so slowly that it was difficult to determine her vector —her course seemed almost maddeningly at random— COTOP had provided no fewer than three maneuvering board solutions in the last ten minutes, each of which the OOD had followed and none of which agreed with the previous recommendation nor had any apparent effect on the  problem. The Captain had seemed strangely silent, almost passive, and the OOD had mistaken what was a manifestation of his physical exhaustion for confidence in his own abilities.
Critical moments had been lost, entire sea miles swallowed whole as the ship took up launch course and speed.
At two miles with the contact still at constant bearing and diminishing range, the Handler started to break down the chocks and chains restraining the fighters on the flight deck, loading the fighters and support aircraft on the waist catapults. At one mile the squadron CO had been taxied out of his parking spot on cat 1, starboard side on the bow. Once clear of the jets on either side, the yellow-shirted flight deck director signaled him with crossed light wands, “Hold  brakes,” and then “Spread wings,” followed by “Hook down.” The CO pulled the parking brake out with his left hand while simultaneously spreading the wings with his right before throwing the hook handle down, selecting AIM-9 on the  stick-mounted Weapons Select Switch and MSL Cool on the starboard vertical console. The fuselage trembled slightly as the wing fold motors spread the wings to the down position, while the raspy growl of the uncooled Sidewinder faded to a sibilant hiss as coolant flowed around the seeker element. Troubleshooters swarmed under his jet to verify the hook point and retract function on his tail hook, while red-shirted ordnance men verified the status of his now accessible wingtip Sidewinder missiles. All good, “Hook up,” followed by “Fold wings” and “Come forward.”
The CO eased the parking brake off and crept the throttles up to taxi power. On cat 3, the Hummer rattled down the track and into the night sky.
“Boats, five short blasts,” the OOD had cried, his voice  trembling as the dhow neared a mile, right forward on the bow, almost under the shelf of the bow catapults, almost out of sight. Once out of sight he would not be able to tell which side of the ship the dhow was maneuvering towards, if in fact it was maneuvering.
At that point it would all be in God’s hands.
“Bosun’s mate, aye-aye,” replied the BMOW and the sound of the ship’s signal whistle sounding its hoarse cry of emergency and distress brought the ship’s Captain now fully out of his chair, shouting “Officer of the Deck! We need to maneuver the ship!” followed rapidly, too rapidly by, “Aye, Captain - CONN, left full rudder!”
“CONN, aye —Helm, left full rudder!”
“Helm, left full rudder aye!” and spinning of the ship’s great wheel to the left before being countermanded by the Captain himself, “Belay that! Ease your rudder to left ten! Officer of the Deck, what’s the ship’s speed?”
“Ease my rudder to left ten, aye!”
“Twenty knots Captains, winds were light for launch,” the OOD replied, quailing under his CO’s fierce and red-eyed glare: Above 15 knots, use of full rudder was restricted due to heel, but they were in extremis even if aircraft were taxiing and launching. Even as the Helmsman eased his rudder back to ten degrees left the ship dug into the turn, heeling well to starboard, the physics of mass and momentum at war with the two great rudders biting into the frothing sea. In Flight Deck Control the Handler cursed before screaming into the 5MC flight deck announcing system, “Head’s up on the flight deck, turning port, heel to starboard!”
On the bow cat the squadron CO’s heart leapt suddenly into his throat as he felt the ship heel over, port side rising into the air before him as the starboard fell away behind him. He swore violently into his oxygen mask as the throttle setting for taxi power became suddenly insufficient to move forward against the sloping deck —she slowed, she stopped, she started rolling backwards, back towards the parking spot, back towards the deck edge, back towards the invisible, waiting sea.
“Bosun’s Mate of the Watch, sound the collision alarm!” cried the Captain.

Chapter 41
The squadron CO pressed hard on the top of his rudder pedals, thighs bunching under the strain, squeezing the wheel brakes, but no —on the greasy and worn non-skid of a mid-cruise flight deck, the jet continued to skid backward, back towards the deck edge, back towards the scuppers. The CO knew that as heavy as his jet was, nearly 22 tons prior to take off, the slightly raised edge of the scupper would be no barrier to him. In the moments as he slid backwards in the darkness, out of control, the whole scenario played itself out in nightmarish clarity: He’d feel the bump as the scupper went under the main mounts, feel more than hear the crunching grind as the wheels left the flight deck and the jet’s belly caught the deck edge, as it started over the side, caught and hesitated —only for an instant— in the deck edge netting before that too gave way, and he cartwheeled backwards over the side, down to inky sea, the waiting darkness. He could still eject and maybe he’d be all right —but there was nearly 25 knots of wind over the flight deck, and the island structure looming right aft with all of its spear-like antennas made an ejection an iffy proposition. But once the jet had started to settle, once she’d passed from level to falling backwards, it would be over.
This wasn’t taught in the emergency procedures simulators, but the CO refused to die easy. His left hands shot the throttles forward, much higher than taxi power - he wordlessly launched a prayer that there were no flight deck crewman behind him —and the General Electric F404 engines responded lustily to his command— the engines sang, they shouted —his backwards slide slowed, it stopped— he had control. Just then the starboard heel eased a bit, rewarding the helmsman’s eased rudders as the ship settled out. He slapped the throttles back to idle, stood on the
rudder pedals with his hams off the seat, willing the jet to hold —hold fast! To not run across the deck into the fighters parked across the way.
She did.
On the flight deck, the yellow shirts and plane captains, men who had between them a quarter century of time standing on the most dangerous piece of real estate known to man exchanged shocked glances —none of them had ever witnessed anything like what had just happened. The lead yellow shirt heard a query from the Handler on his headphones, responded: “All good on Fly-1, Handler. No crunches. It was close though.” And then looked to his friends on either side, shaking his head, trembling.
On the bridge, the Captain of the ship and his officer of the deck leaned out of the open windows of Aux Conn, starting down and right forward - there! A light. A light so close aboard it seemed to almost touch the hull. A single face looked up at them out of the darkness, a hundred feet below, glowing in the cockpit light. The light bobbed, it passed abeam, it passed aft.
They’d missed the dhow. Exactly how, the Captain would never quite know. He turned to his OOD and said to him quietly, but with an evident strain in his voice:
“That was far, far too close. A bad spot. Next time let’s try to come up with some better ideas, earlier.”
The OOD, surprised not to have been sent below, relieved of his watch, stripped of his qualifications, sent from the bridge in disgrace, nodded silently, momentarily unable to speak until the CO spoke to him again at last, “Let’s get her back in to the wind. We’ve a launch to make, and a recovery to catch.”
Back on the flight deck, the lieutenant junior grade, parked beside his flight lead, still chocked and chained and   wide-eyed at what he had just seen and heard, momentarily considered asking his CO if he was all right before setting the thought aside; “If he needs to hear from me, he will speak to me.” Beside him, shivering now from the effects of the adrenaline still coursing through his veins, the CO considered momentarily keying the radio mic, and sharing some   obscenity with his wingman. But no, it wouldn’t do —cursing would be a sign of shock, shock came from fear, fear was  weakness. He’d curse silently into his oxygen mask instead.
The moment passed.
His director uncrossed his lighted wands, gave him the signal, “Come forward,” followed by, “Turn left.” He flicked his wands in a pointing gesture to the waiting petty officer amidships, on Fly-2, who took command. “Come forward,” and “Easy.” The launch resumed.

Bobbing in the wake aft of the enormous jinn which had materialized out of the darkness, hands gripping tight on the gunwales, Farokh gave thanks to God for his unmerited deliverance, checked the compass and once more shaped his course southwest, towards Bahrain. There was a trade to make.

Chapter 42
Damn, that was close, thought the squadron CO as he taxied aft. His legs were still shaking on the rudder pedals and it took extra concentration to follow the director’s signals. Finally he was passed off to the Assistant Fly-3 Petty Officer, who’d seen none of what had just transpired up on the bow and was in any case a rather phlegmatic sort. Got to take it easy now, one step at a time, get back on the checklist. It’d be nuts to save oneself from falling into the sea on a heavy roll, only to omit some critical step and meet the same fate off the catapult. Life’s short, he thought, paraphrasing John Wayne, and adding “it’s shorter if you’re stupid.
Damn that was close, the Fly-1 petty officer thought. Not my fault, but the Handler will have my ass anyway, just you watch.
Damn, that was close the Handler thought. Few more inches and we’d have had a jet over the side and all hell to pay. What on earth could have gotten into their heads up there on the bridge? It wasn’t like this in the old days. Officers knew their jobs and troopers knew their places, at least they did the way he remembered it. Can’t pick a fight with the captain. “Who’s on Fly-1?” he demanded of the duty flight deck chief.
Damn, that was close, thought the carrier’s Commanding Officer. No reason at all we didn’t hit that guy, sending him to his death and having a lot of hard questions to answer afterwards. People have been relieved for less, he reflected, and a quarter century’s hard work flung into the dust. He thought to himself that if there had been a mishap, they would have to submit to an investigation, maybe even a
board of inquiry. Such a board would have discovered things during their process which would have contributed to the collision, and which would have been used against him, and by extension, his ship. It would have been an investigation run by the fleet staff, manned by other captains not currently in command at sea, some of whom would be looking for a hide to nail to the wall as a way of demonstrating their own superior qualifications, some of whom would never be  eligible for major command and envious of those who had the chance, none of whom would look upon the actions of the last 15 minutes kindly. Maybe I can have my own little investigation, the CO thought, as though we had actually had a mishap, and capture the lessons learned. Not exactly an impartial jury, but worth a try, perhaps. To his left the annunciator console buzzed and a light flickered from red to amber: The Air Boss was requesting the deck for launch. The Captain checked the winds, took note of the course and speed and punched the button in return, turning it green: “Green deck fixed wing,” he announced to the world in general.
“Green deck fixed wing,” replied the quartermaster of the watch, checking his chronometer and bending his head over the logbook to make the entry. There was no requirement to log events that never occurred, and so he hadn’t put anything into the ship’s official record about the near miss that  everyone on the bridge had just witnessed. Still, he didn’t think he’d ever forget it, the tension, the helplessness.
On the bow cats, the lieutenant junior grade saw a yellow-shirted director walk up to his jet, with a single light want pointed up: “Is your jet up?” The JG took his red-lensed flashlight out of his chest harness, fumbled for a moment before turning it on and then moving it in a rapid circle: “Up jet.” The director responded with an upward thrust of his wand, followed by brushing motions across his forearms: “Off chocks and chains,” followed by crossed wands over his head: “Hold brakes.” The young pilot felt his heart jump in his chest.
He’d heard that in the old days, during Vietnam, there had been an experiment wherein the attack pilots were wired to measure their pulse during combat, as a way of determining their stress levels. It had surprised the flight surgeons to discover that, almost to a man, all of the pilots had manifested higher pulse rates during their approach to land aboard the carrier at night than they had during final attack run of a defended target under flares, with the terrain rushing up to meet them as they refined their targeting solutions in 45 degree bomb runs, the altimeter unwinding crazily even as the SAMs and AAA rose up to meet them. He didn’t have any idea how that might have felt, the JG reflected. But he knew that his heart rate had to be at least a hundred and twenty just at the signal to break down the jet’s chocks and chains. Once he started rolling forward, he’d be committed to the cat. Once on the cat, he’d have to launch. Once airborne, he’d have to land. And he hadn’t been landing very well lately. He knew he didn’t have many more chances to prove that he could. You either hack it or you don’t, he thought.

​Sooner or later, non-hacks get scraped off. Nothing personal. Just business.

A Hornet rattled down Cat-3, afterburners shouting in the darkness. “Departure, 304 airborne,” said his commanding officer.

“Roger 304, passing angels two-point-five, switch Red Crown, check in.”