Part X: Vectors
Chapter 49 -- Fleet Replacement Squadron
The raids on the training bases of Corpus Christi and Kingsville proved utterly devastating, and heads began to roll. In the long run, this would prove to be a benefit to me, though I didn't know it at the time. The Commander in Chief, Central Unified Command, Marine General Greg Zinni, and the Chief of Naval Air Operations (CNAO), a gruff Admiral named James Preston, demanded to know first and foremost why our bases were so poorly protected, and how an enemy could slip in and attack us so easily. An extensive early warning network had been put into place along the Rio Grande River in cooperation with the United States Air Force, United States Navy, RDF Air Force, RDF Navy, and RDF Army, and should have seen anything that entered into our area. It proved a dismal failure, and Training Wing Five lost more than half its aircraft. In addition, the raid knocked out the fixed wing runways at NAS Kingsville, as well as most of the hangars and ground support equipment vital for continued operations at both bases. Still, despite our poor defensive response that day, many of the barracks survived the attack, and casualties were surprisingly light. It was better to lose metal rather than blood.
Radar and poor defenses aside, our area was thought to have been under our complete control, negating the need for a large combat force for protective purposes--that job was supposed to be handled by forward units stationed in South Texas and Mexico. Logistics problems abounded as the RDF struggled to remove the Zentraedi from their foothold on the west coast of the United States. Although we did not have the military presence to mount an offensive against the Zentraedi-dominated South American region, it was determined that our forces were sufficient to defend against attacks mounted from there. It was clear from the attacks that we had misjudged our situation.
The military forces in the south were in effect maintaining a holding action, putting up a show of force large enough to discourage direct attacks against us. Not only did this allow the aircraft and personnel at the training bases to focus on their primary mission--training air crews--but it provided the leaders of the Central Unified Command the flexibility to commit offensive resources to other areas. This plan would work so long as the South American Zentraedi forces continued to play the same waiting game. The attacks on the training bases showed that this was no longer the case. Swift changes were needed to bring order to the region, and our commanders began shaking things up in short order to accomplish this goal.
At the direction of General Zinni and Admiral Preston, a massive force restructuring began to take place. A Marine Air Wing and the aircraft carrier "Neptune" were deployed to Argentina to assist in taking control of the sector. A second carrier was sent to Nicaragua's west coast as well, with a third gearing up to deploy to either South America or the west coast of North America. Before the intensive effort to rebuild, re-supply, and re-staff the two South Texas bases was even initiated, Admiral Preston ordered three Veritech squadrons and a battalion of Destroids be assigned to each base, tasked with protection of the South Texas sector. Further, up to one third of the instructor pilots stationed at both Corpus and Kingsville could be reassigned to these newly formed/relocated units if need be.
The production of fighters was still not back to its pre-Holocaust capacity, and the commitment of forces to the Zentraedi hot spots in Central and South America, Canada, and the Western United States, forced the relocation of dozens of Veritech squadrons from areas all along the southern part of North America. In order to meet General Zinni's requirements, his commanders had to pull even more squadrons from areas that really couldn't spare them. This stretched their emaciated defenses even thinner than they already were, and in a short time, would prove costly for the lot of us. There would be no one to blame for this eventuality--it was just the way things turned out. General Zinni would prove to be, quite simply, a victim of circumstance.
There were more instructors now than airplanes by a large margin, and it would be some time before replacement aircraft arrived. The "excess pilot capacity" would be better utilized in other areas. On 24 October, 2012, my name was on the transfer list, with orders to report to the newly formed "Seacats" of VF-94, at RDFNAS Corpus Christi, as the Squadron Executive Officer, after recurrency training with Fleet Replacement Squadron (FRS) Six. I leapt for joy when I read the paperwork. I could finally leave purgatory! I could finally get back to where I belonged--at the controls of a fighter, not some damned under-powered trainer. What a wonderful day it was for me!
With a heart full of joy, I packed my bags and hitched a ride on the first VC-33 to Corpus I could find. I had to report to the FRS, VF-6 "The Aardvarks," for some training, then it was back to fighters once more!
I checked in with VF-6, and started immediately to work. Because of my experience in the Valk an abbreviated course syllabus was created to get me qualified in a hurry. As a seasoned combat veteran, the weapons proficiency training was not considered of primary importance and would receive only cursory treatment. I was already qualified in VTOL operations and in the use of all of the Valk's air-to-air and vacuum ordnance. That left air-to-ground and conventional carrier ops. The big push was to get me through Carrier Qualifications or "CARQUAL" and out to my squadron as quickly as possible for potential sea deployment. Air-to-ground training could be handled "in house" with my squadron no matter where we ended up, but CARQUAL was vital.
Normally, FRSs spend the first six weeks doing nothing but weapons training and Field Carrier Landing Practice (FCLP) in the aircraft to be used on deployment. During FCLP, carrier operations procedures are drilled into your head. Aviators make precision approaches toward a "carrier" painted on a runway, and mistakes are identified and remedied there rather than on the actual ship. This is very important, for landing on a pitching flight deck is truly the most hazardous undertaking in the world, one where even the most minor error can be deadly. Also, before an aviator can go to "the boat," he has to have a minimum of fifty hours in-type, and thus FCLP served to meet this requirement as well. Since my flight time in the Valk far exceeded the minimum, I could take my shot at the boat as soon as I successfully completed FCLP.
Before we even touched an airplane, we spent two days of intensive study on carrier operations and aerodynamics. As we would throughout our training, we were shown hundreds of videos of jets coming aboard aircraft carriers from both inside the cockpit and from various locations on the ship. The first dozen approaches were all unsuccessful for one reason or another: a Valkyrie striking the ramp at the stern of the ship and exploding; a Dragon landing hard, causing a failure of the left main gear strut that sent it over the side and into the ocean; a Valkyrie hook that snared the wire and then boltered, allowing the fighter to dribble off the end of the deck without sufficient airspeed to fly. These sometimes deadly videos reinforced for us the importance of a precise carrier approach and we took this information to heart.
The in-the-cockpit footage was from the perspective of the pilot and provided us with a graphic representation of what a properly flown carrier approach would look like. Our instructor showed us the various features of the HUD and how to interpret the information when landing on the ship. Although the majority of this information was already familiar, it was a good review, and helped to reinforce those things we were supposed to know.
On the left side of the HUD was the Airspeed Box, and on the right the Altimeter and Vertical Speed Indicator (V.S.I.). The "Pitch Ladder," which ran vertically down the center of the HUD, showed the aircraft's pitch attitude in ten degree increments from level flight (zero degrees) to vertical (ninety). Pitch attitudes above the horizon were shown with a solid line, while those below were shown with a dashed line. With the gear down, a small W or "waterline" mark, appeared in the center of the HUD. This imaginary line of orientation showed were the airplane's nose was pointed and was independent of its flight path. The actual flight path of the aircraft was, instead, shown by a small, airplane shaped symbol known as a "Velocity Vector." If the velocity vector was on the horizon, the airplane would be in level flight. If it went above the horizon the airplane was climbing, and if it moved below the horizon the airplane was descending.
The velocity vector and the waterline mark are independent because an aircraft's flight path does not always equal its pitch attitude. The amount of lift a wing produces is largely dependent upon speed and Angle of Attack (AOA). Angle of Attack is the difference between the chord line of the wing (an imaginary line from the leading edge to the trailing edge) and the relative wind. For a given airspeed, a higher angle of attack generates more lift (until the critical AOA is reached, at which point the wing stops producing lift and stalls) as well as more induced drag. Conversely, for a given AOA, a higher airspeed generates more lift and an increased amount of parasite and form drag.
An aircraft maintaining level flight at its minimum airspeed is generating its maximum total drag (maximum induced drag and minimum parasite drag) because the nose is pitched way up and its airspeed is slow. An aircraft flying at its maximum speed is generating its maximum drag (minimum induced drag and maximum parasite and form drag), due to both the various antennae located all over it and the aircraft's basic shape rushing through the air at high speed. Thus, assuming the aircraft is maintaining altitude, it is creating the same amount of total drag at both its minimum and maximum speeds. To overcome maximum drag requires maximum thrust in both cases.
When the airplane is at its minimum speed it is considered to be on the "backside of the power curve" in the area of "reverse command" (i.e. pitching up will cause you to descend, not climb). This is generally considered to be a bad spot because there is no additional thrust available to keep the airplane flying if its airspeed drops and/or load factor or angle of attack increases. If any of these things occur the airplane will have to lose altitude to maintain air flow over the wings, otherwise it will stall. On short final, at low altitude, falling off the backside of the power curve usually results in a spectacular crash, and pilots are admonished to stay away from it at all costs.
For precision instrument approaches, the HUD displayed the already familiar ILS "needles," which provided glideslope and lineup information. If the Velocity Vector was centered over the point where the two needles crossed the pilot was on course and on glideslope. Corrections were made by simply "flying" the needles. If the needles were above and to the right of the Velocity Vector the pilot was low and to the left of the approach path. A gentle correction up and to the right would place the airplane back on course and on glideslope. The HUD also displayed bank angle, magnetic heading, G-load, and a myriad of other features related to navigation and weapons delivery. All of this information was already familiar to me and by the second day, I was chomping at the bit to start flying.
There were twelve aviators in my class, none of whom I knew, and not one of which was a combat veteran. Although we attended the same Aircraft Systems and Performance, Weapons Delivery, and Carrier Operations ground school sessions, our training in the air proved to be a far different animal. My instructor, LCDR Lori "Steffi Graf" Traina, was a tall, slender woman with a gorgeous smile and a bright personality. With sandy blonde hair and a body that would make your eyes water (she really was that cute!), she looked like a spitting image of the famous German tennis phenom of the 1980s and 1990s, Steffi Graf, only prettier. The C.O. of VF-6, her specialty was getting people "through the pipeline." If someone needed to be trained in a hurry, LCDR Traina was the woman for the job.
As I climbed the ladder and stepped on the front ejection seat cushion prior to my first hop, I glanced around at the other jets parked on the concrete and steel-mat tarmac. I cannot begin to express the joy I felt at being back in a Valkyrie cockpit once again. This was a real airplane! After completing the pre-start checklist I started the engines, ran through the checklist and taxied to the active runway. As we rolled, canopy open, past the other fighters on the ramp, I lowered the tinted visor on my helmet and puffed out my chest proudly. I was almost home again.
The tower called for me to "taxi into position and hold." There was traffic on final that would have to land and clear the runway before we could launch. After a short wait, the controller cleared me, and I advanced the throttles to full military power. The airspeed box on the HUD read thirty-five knots as I pushed the throttles through the afterburner detent. The thump in the back as the burners lit was pure ecstasy, and in moments, the wheels cleared the ground. I throttled back and smiled as the sandy, smoldered terrain shrank beneath me--Earth's shackles bound me no longer.
The afternoon sun moved slowly behind us as I banked my Valkyrie into a gentle 180 degree turn to the right, pointing her in the direction of the offshore practice area to the east. We reached the coastline in no time, and I asked for Steffi's permission to indulge myself. She granted it, and I didn't waste the chance. Once thirty miles out to sea, I yanked the Valk all over the sky. Loops, rolls, breaks, reversals. For twenty minutes I punched some giant holes in the sky. I was free again!
Like all good things, my play time soon came to an end, and it was time to go to work once more. The plan for the first two hops centered on precision flying. Slow flight, constant airspeed maneuvers, and constant rate climbs and descents were emphasized, with very strict tolerances. After spending the better part of the previous year as a teacher and evaluator, it was, at first, disconcerting being "on the other end of the stick." I was amazed, however, at how well I flew the Valk. Clearly, all that time spent teaching and grading students had helped me learn to handle my airplane with far greater finesse than I had ever imagined possible.
From my third flight on, Steffi began building on information learned in ground school and maneuvers practiced in the airplane the previous two flights. What followed was a series of flights to bring me up to speed on the systems used for carrier approaches.
The difficulty in landing an airplane on a spot the size of a tennis court while hurtling through the sky at 150 knots cannot be over emphasized. Bringing a tactical aircraft aboard an aircraft carrier is a lesson in precision, and a successful trap is wholly dependent upon simultaneously managing three factors: Lineup, Glideslope, and Airspeed/Angle of Attack. Screw up any of these elements and the results can be deadly. Land too high or too fast and the hook misses the arresting cables; come in too low or too slow and you will plow into the ramp and die in a ball of fire and molten steel; too far right and you will clobber yourself against the ship's island or a parked aircraft; and too far left means going over the side. Naval Aviators are trained to get it right the first time, because even something as benign as a hook that skips the wires can turn into more than just a trip around the bolter pattern, especially when bad weather, low fuel, or some other emergency enters into the picture. The line between a successful landing and a silk lined coffin or long swim is very fine, indeed.
Glideslope control is maintained using the Fresnel Optical Landing System, located on the ship's left side, right at the spot of the number three arresting cable. Known as the "Ball," the Optical Landing System was covered in great detail during ground school. Though I was familiar with the device from space operations, using one in the atmosphere was in many ways, more difficult. A surprisingly simple device, the Ball provided precise glideslope information to an approaching pilot. Gimbaled and gyroscopically stabilized so that it was not affected by the rolling and pitching movements of the ship, the Ball projected a 3.5 degree glideslope that was the pilot's lifeline from three quarters of a mile until touchdown. A vertical row of five colored rectangular lenses (the top four were yellow, the bottom one red) sandwiched between a row of green horizontal lights projected a round light beam, or "meatball," to the pilot. If the meatball was yellow in color and positioned above the green lights, the pilot was high on the glideslope. If the meatball was yellow in color and below the green lights, the pilot was slightly below the glideslope. If the meatball turned red the pilot was extremely low, and an immediate power increase was required to avoid a ramp strike. As the adage went, "If you're red, you're dead."
In order to maximize the chances of the arresting hook grabbing a wire, an airplane must be flown aboard the ship at a precise angle. To accomplish this, the pilot relied upon the Angle of Attack (AOA) Indicator. Positioned on the extreme left side of the HUD so it could be seen by the pilot as he focused on the Optical Landing System (located on the left side of the carrier), it was the primary instrument used to maintain the aircraft's optimum landing airspeed (and thus, AOA) as it related to gross weight. With a tolerance of plus or minus one knot, the AOA indicator had three indications: on-speed, slow, and fast. An on-speed indication resulted in an amber doughnut in the center of the indicator; a downward pointing green chevron at the top illuminated to show a slow condition; and a red upward pointing chevron at the bottom would show up if the plane was too fast. By carefully controlling power and attitude, the airplane would slam onto the deck at the correct angle, engage a wire, and be jerked to a stop.
The Direct Lift Control (DLC) and Approach Power Compensator (APC) were the last pieces of equipment I would learn. Though not required to make a successful landing, they made things somewhat easier for the pilot. "Direct Lift Control" was a fancy description for the spoilers located along the top of the wing. Rectangular shaped flaps that run spanwise, with hinges toward the wing's leading edge, spoilers kill lift when deployed by disrupting airflow over the airfoil, and are used most commonly to assist the ailerons in rolling the airplane. In the fully swept position the Valkyrie's ailerons are almost totally ineffective and roll control is handled almost entirely by the spoilers. Move the stick to the left and the spoilers on the left wing pop up. This destroys lift, and the left wing drops, rolling the airplane to the left. The opposite is also true.
In the DLC mode, the spoilers are deployed symmetrically on both wings, allowing the airplane to descend at a faster rate without increasing airspeed. A button on the stick allows a pilot to extend the spoilers as needed to adjust his position on the glideslope. Generally, a Valk pilot rolls into the groove with spoilers set at ten degrees (the neutral position). Thumbing the button on the stick down brings the spoilers closed. The resulting increase in lift causes the aircraft to rise up the glideslope. Conversely, thumbing the spoiler button up causes the spoilers to open, and the resulting decrease in lift causes the airplane to descend down the glideslope. This allows for very precise flight path corrections when approaching the carrier.
The Approach Power Compensator was simply an automatic throttle. For a specified pitch attitude range, the flight computer would maintain the optimum airspeed and AOA for the aircraft's weight, thus maximizing the chances of snaring a wire. An added benefit was a decrease in pilot workload. Although most pilots preferred to fly their passes manually, the auto-throttle was at times a blessing, even for these intrepid souls.
Our FCLP "Bounce Practice" field was located on the long coastal island about twenty-five miles north of RDFNAS Corpus Christi. A portable Optical Landing System was located on the left side of the active runway, which usually ran from west to east into the prevailing offshore wind. Painted with the outline and markings of an aircraft carrier, complete with silhouettes of parked aircraft, the Bounce Field was constantly in use as pilots from the nearby training bases and Fleet Replacement Squadrons learned or relearned the fine art of carrier landings under the watchful eye of an LSO (Landing Signal Officer) Instructor.
"Wing sweep is auto, hook is standby, my harness is set. How yours?"
I tugged on the shoulder restraints to insure they were locked. "Harness set."
With Steffi handling the controls, we roared down the right side of the runway at 300 knots on an east heading, 800 feet over the sandy beach. As we crossed the beach line and over the waves of the Gulf of Mexico, she broke us into a three-G turn to the left. Extending the speed brakes while in the turn to slow us down to our gear extension speed of 250 knots, we entered a downwind leg for our first approach to the "ship." As we slowed, I felt a slight pitch change in the seat of my pants and glanced over my shoulder to see the wings motoring forward for low speed flight.
"Two-five-zero knots, gear down, in transit...one, two, three green, no red, gear down and locked. Boards, flaps, spoilers, slats, holding the hook," she called. "Radar Altimeter is on, power is up, looking for two-zero-zero knots. APC is off. Wing sweep set to auto. DLC is on. Steady up, heading two-seven-five. On-speed is one-four-zero knots with seven thousand pounds of RM."
I shifted my view back and forth between the HUD and the runway. A small W appeared in the center of the HUD indicating our Valk's waterline, and a larger, bracket shaped symbol ( [ )appeared in the center of the HUD, about four inches above the velocity vector. Known as the "AOA Bracket," it was another cue to help the pilot in establishing the proper landing attitude. If the airplane was on-speed the Velocity Vector would be in the center of the AOA bracket. Since the bracket was above the Velocity Vector we were fast. The airspeed box on the left side of the HUD read "200." Next to it, the AOA displayed a red chevron. All three instruments were in agreement that we were fast as the runway threshold moved past my left shoulder.
"Two-Two-Five, abeam," Steffi called to the LSO.
"Two-Two-Five, roger. Keep it coming," he replied.
"Three green, no red, gear down and locked," she said again, "Okay, Lieutenant, here goes. About eight to ten seconds on the downwind after the ramp then roll into a thirty degree bank to the left. Power comes back to around seventy percent, and we slow to on-speed. You should have three gear down calls done by now. Three green, no red, gear down and locked. At the ninety degree point you should be descending through 400 feet AGL," she narrated as she went through the motions. "I take a quick glance at the ball right about now," she said.
As I watched, the Velocity Vector and AOA Bracket began to snuggle up to each other, as the airspeed box began to dwindle downward. I glanced over to left and caught sight of the ball, then went back to watching the HUD.
"Once you get the ball in sight, don't look at anything else."
I looked at it again, and watch it settle, one dot high on the glideslope as we rolled out, right on our approach course of zero-nine-five degrees.
"Two-Two-Five, you're at three-quarters of a mile, call the ball," the LSO interjected.
Steffi replied immediately, "Valkyrie, Ball. Seven Point Two."
"We're slightly high, so I'll ease the spoilers out a tad," she said.
In the seat of my pants I could feel the Valk settle slightly. The ball centered up perfectly with the green datum lights. The AOA indicator was right on the money, showing a green on-speed doughnut. As we drew closer to the edge of the runway I shifted my eyes to the landing threshold.
"Don't spot the deck," she ordered, "and don't chase the ball in close or you'll land hard."
Her words startled me. She was reading my moves before I even recognized them! My eyes shot back to the ball just in time to watch it start to settle. With a jarring crash we slammed onto the concrete runway. Steffi retracted the boards, closed the spoilers, and rammed the throttles to the stops in one fluid motion. We accelerated into the air once again.
"That was probably a '4.0 OK' pass. 'Reasonable deviations with good corrections.' You have the flight controls, Lieutenant. Let's see you give it a try. You can use the DLC and APC. I'll show you the easy way first, then the hard way last."
I raised an eyebrow as I grabbed the stick and gave it a wiggle. "I have the flight controls." Show me the easy way first? What the hell...?
I pulled the power back to eighty percent and watched the airspeed peak at 275 knots. I broke left to enter the downwind heading of two-seven-five degrees. Thumbing out the boards I waited for the airspeed to fall down to 250 knots then dirtied the airplane up.
"Wing sweep set to auto, holding the hook. Wings...are spread...," I said, glancing quickly over both shoulders. "Boards, flaps, spoilers, slats," I continued, looking quickly around the airplane to visually verify that it was configured properly. "Gear down, in transit...three green, no red, gear down and locked. Harness is set, ah, Radar Altimeter is on, power is at eighty percent, holding the APC. DLC is on, looking for two-zero-zero knots. Heading is two-seven-five. On-speed is...one-four-zero knots with seven thousand pounds of gas," I stumbled through the memorized pre-landing checklist like a rookie. I stole a quick glance at the center MFD for any red items. Everything on the list was green, and that meant the Valk was configured for landing.
"Gear down, one, two, three green, no red. Gear down and locked." Glancing out to the left I saw that we were abeam the landing area and called the LSO. "Two-Two-Five abeam," I stated, pulling the throttles back a couple of inches.
"Two-Two-Five, roger. Continue," he replied.
I counted to ten, then rolled into a thirty degree bank to the left, pulling the power back to seventy percent as I did so. The airspeed indicator began its steady decline toward on-speed. I made a final gear down call and as I reached the ninety degree point of the turn, I looked for the Ball.
"Remember, on-speed is one-four-zero with the DLC," Steffi reminded me.
I pushed the throttles up then pulled them back a hair to hold 140 knots. In Direct Lift Control mode, the default neutral position for the spoilers of ten degrees destroys some of the lift generated by the wing. This causes a higher rate of descent and a steeper angle even without manipulating the system. Thus, for safety and to maintain the proper glideslope angle, we carried an extra ten knots with the DLC engaged.
I thumbed the APC button to the on position and felt the engines spool down and then back up again as the flight computer attempted to restore some semblance of stability to my approach. After some additional minor corrections the AOA indicator showed an amber on-speed doughnut. The Ball showed I was a tad low, and descending. I eased the stick back--having suddenly forgotten about the DLC--to arrest my descent, and felt the APC add a touch of power to keep us on-speed. I was slightly right as I rolled into the groove and quickly becoming overloaded--there just seemed to be too many things to keep track of.
The LSO radioed the familiar "in-the-groove" call. "Two-Two-Five, you're at three quarters of a mile, call the ball."
"Valkyrie, Ball. Seven point oh," I replied, knowing my approach was going to hell in a hand basket.
"Roger, Ball," he said. "You're low. Left for lineup."
"Use the DLC, Jake," Steffi said, calmly.
I thumbed the DLC knob back to close the spoilers and banked gently to the left. The Ball stopped its descent and began to climb back up toward the green datum lights. I did my best to anticipate the Ball's behavior and released the spring loaded DLC control, returning the spoilers to their neutral position. I was a bit late and ended up about half a Ball high. I decided to leave it there.
"Slightly high," the LSO said. "Keep it coming."
As we closed rapidly on the "ship" I resisted the urge to stare at the landing area. I hit a small column of descending air and the ball fell rapidly below the datum lights. I pulled the stick back, then pushed it forward again, and listened as the APC spooled the engines up and back down to maintain our airspeed. I had overcompensated for the dip and had not corrected back in the opposite direction fast enough, and we ballooned. We were going to cross the threshold way too high.
"Two-Two-Five, wave off, wave off. Take it around," the LSO commanded.
"Damn it!" I hissed into my mask as I retracted the boards, spoilers, and landing gear, simultaneously adding full military power to go around. "Flaps coming up. Damn it! I lost there at the end, Steffi."
"That's all right. Everybody does. It's a lot different out here than it is in the sim, isn't it?"
"Yes, ma'am, it is."
"Okay, take a deep breath and let's try it again. This time we'll try it without the DLC and without the APC. You're going to have to learn to be instinctive now. Remember, add the correction you need, take it out, and then add back what you need to hold what you want. You have to just feel your way down the groove," she said, calmly.
Her voice was so pretty, I had a momentary vision of lying with my head in her lap as she stroked my hair. I felt instantly embarrassed for doing so. Stop screwing around and fly the damned airplane, man! I thought to myself. Pull yourself together!
Once more I entered the downwind and dirtied the airplane up, leaving the APC and DLC off. "Gear down, one, two, three green, no red. Gear down and locked." I then called the LSO. "Two-Two-Five, Abeam."
"Roger, Two-Two-Five. Continue," the LSO replied.
Twelve seconds on the downwind. Another gear call as I turned toward the "ship." A third gear call as I scanned for the ball. It was nowhere to be seen. "I'm high," I said aloud, pulling off some power to descend onto the glideslope.
"Remember, on-speed is one-three-zero without the DLC," Steffi reminded me.
I eased the nose up slightly, reduced power slightly, and slowed to 130 knots. I was still all over the place, struggling to fly with decisiveness, while maintaining a smooth, stabilized approach. I was failing miserably.
"Two-Two-Five, you're at three quarters of a mile, call the ball," the LSO said.
"Two-Two-Five, Valkyrie, Ball, seven point oh, Manual," I called, informing the LSO that I was not using the DLC or APC. I could see the green datum lights, but the Ball was nowhere to be seen.
"Roger, Ball. You're high."
The green "slow" chevron appeared on the AOA indicator and I pushed the nose forward to regain airspeed. The Ball reappeared at the top of the lens and slid rapidly downward. "Shit!" I exclaimed, shoving in a handful of throttle as the LSO spat out orders faster than I could react to them. I had put in too much throttle. My airspeed had to hell, and the Ball climbed past the datum lights again.
"You're high. You're fast."
I pulled the throttle off and held the pitch constant, then shoved more power back in to arrest the descent I had started. The Valk's engines whined as the Ball descended back toward the datum lights, and as I crossed the threshold I was on-speed and a dot high on the glideslope. It was a pure miracle.
Crunch! Right at the spot of the number four wire. Clean up, power up, and take her around again. I glanced over my shoulder at the asphalt runway behind and to my right.
"That will be a '2.0 No Grade,' Jake. 'Below average, but safe pass,'" Steffi called from the back seat.
"Roger," I replied, under labored breath. Any doubts about the exertion involved in learning to fly onto a carrier were instantly erased then and there.
"Six hundred feet. Start your downwind, Jake," she called.
I turned to the left and started another approach. This one, too, was less than stellar, and I felt like a fish out of water for the rest of the practice session. For nearly an hour, the process was repeated, over and over again, and I managed to get in a total of ten passes on the day. Each one seemed harder than the one before, and I quickly realized that there's no exaggerating the difficulty in landing on a carrier. My grade point average (G.P.A.) was a sub 2.0 for the first day. Clearly, the emergency landing I made on Chronos was less a testament to my skills than it was a "triumph of the uncluttered mind." Still, I didn't let my bad performance get to me, as I knew my landing technique would improve. After all, I was going to get plenty of practice!
And practice I did. The next two weeks called for three "bounce" practice sessions a day with eight to ten bounces during each session (about a third of my practice sessions were conducted at night). By the end of the second day, I was wrung out. The concentration required was enormous and I wondered how I would ever make it another twelve days.
As expected, my performance got better with each session, and on the third day, I was finally in position to get my first "4.0 OK" pass. As I rolled into the groove, everything looked great. The ball was right where it was supposed to be, the on-speed doughnut was illuminated, and I was lined up right on the centerline. A quarter of a mile from the runway I could see my pass was going to be great, and I anticipated the rush that would greet a well-flown approach.
"Wave off. Take it around, Jake," Steffi called into my ears.
I was stunned, and a bit confused, as I added power and went around. "What happened?" I asked, as my Valkyrie accelerated into the orange hued sky.
"I only heard two gear calls. I want three."
"Shit! I made three!" I protested.
"No, you made one on downwind and one in the turn."
"Argh! That was a perfect pass! Why'd you spoil it for me?" I was like a kid who had had his lollipop taken away. "Damn! That would have been a 4.0 pass..."
"Well, next time you'll make three gear calls."
I didn't say anything, and continued my practice with a noticeable scowl on my face. I made sure I had three gear down calls on each subsequent lap, but my approaches were not very good. My hot head was affecting my performance, and that was clearly no way for an officer to behave. I forced myself to let it go. The following afternoon, on my last bounce of the day, another "4.0 OK" pass was within reach. As I closed on the ship I made sure not to let it get away by announcing rapidly, "Three-green-no-red-gear-down-and-locked. Three-green-no-red-gear-down-and-locked. Three-green-no-red-gear-down-and-locked. That's three gear calls, the gear is down and locked."
Steffi chuckled audibly in the back seat, and I smiled. The ball stayed put, and I flew a perfect pass.
"Good work!" she called, reaching around the rear of my seat to pat me on the shoulder. "Take us home!"
I smiled and headed for the base, feeling better than ever about my skills. I was finally beginning to grasp the instinct of "Ball Flying," and after some leg-straining work on single-engine approaches, Steffi turned me loose to fly solo on day five. She would now take over as LSO, working me down the groove day in and day out.
She never ceased to amaze me. Like all LSOs, she was always ahead of the pilots in the pattern, knowing more about what our planes were doing than we did. I would be in the groove, working my way down, on-speed, on glideslope, and hear a call for more power. I'd push the throttles forward and watch as the ball stayed perfectly still. Had I not added power when she called for it I would have gone low and the approach would surely have gone to hell in a hurry. It was utterly amazing.
By the end of the second week, Steffi's corrections were getting rarer, and my reactions to the ball were becoming more instinctive. It was time to go for the boat.
It would be one of the most incredible experiences of my life.
Chapter 50 -- The Boat
I awoke at 0600 on the morning of 20 November, 2012, showered, dressed, shaved, and grabbed a quick bite at the mess hall. I checked the flight assignment board and found that I was scheduled to be over the boat at 1300 hours for Day Carrier Qualification. Pre-flight briefing was scheduled for 1100. The plan of action was for Steffi to lead me out to the practice carrier--"The Boat"--where I would make ten day and six night carrier landings over the next two days.
As a way to needle traditionalists and their more exact terminology, naval aviators always find a way to abuse, misuse, or ignore this parlance. The front of the ship is never called the "bow," a window is never called a "porthole," and a wall is never called a "bulkhead." Likewise, the carrier, the undisputed king of all sea-going machines, is always referred to as "the boat" by aviators. Sailors balk at this bastardization of their language. "A boat is a toy you play with in the bathtub," they insist. "Everyone knows that a true ocean-going vessel is a 'ship' or 'sailing vessel.'" To them, "boat" is a four-letter word.
The "boat" today was the nuclear powered U.S.S. Ronald Reagan. On loan through a cooperative effort with the U.S. Navy, Reagan was the last Nimitz-class carrier built by the United States, and was named after the charismatic 40th President of the United States, Ronald Wilson Reagan. During two terms as President (1980-1988), Mr. Reagan was credited with rebuilding the U.S. military, saving a failed economy, and winning the Cold War by defeating the global threat of communism. A symbol of America's strength during the 20th century, it was fitting that the high water mark of that centennium's ship designs be named after the ever-popular "Gipper," Ronald Wilson Reagan.
Although smaller than the Prometheus Class ships, the Reagan was nevertheless an enormous vessel. With a displacement of 92,000 tons and capable of carrying nearly one hundred strike aircraft, she was still a powerful weapon by any definition. Completed too late to see action in the Global War, she was one of the last examples of her kind and now served as the primary training carrier for Navy and Marine aviators from the RDF and the United States. Like all carriers that preceded the Prometheus-Class, the Nimitz-Class ships of the U.S. Navy lacked the ability to submerge, and thus, many of them soldiered through the Global war only to be destroyed during Dolza's Rain of Death. In many ways, Reagan was a modern relic, a vestige of a bygone era, and I was excited by the prospect of landing on her deck.
Steffi went through a very detailed briefing with me to insure I understood all the procedures, frequencies, and courses necessary to make it aboard the ship. I jotted this information down on my "Soft-G" kneeboard and, as most pilots do, wrote the frequencies down on the back of my hand "just in case."
"Landing on the boat is just like landing at the bounce field. It will all seem familiar," she said. I thought nothing unusual about her comment, after all, I had done this hundreds of times before in space, and nearly a hundred more at the bounce field, how much different could it be?
I dropped by the Equipment Quartermaster shack and got my flight gear. After suiting up, I grabbed my helmet and parachute, checked with the Operations Officer, and made my way out the door toward the Valkyrie that would be my steed that afternoon. As I walked across the concrete tarmac, I was surprised by the lack of butterflies in my stomach. A sodium breeze washed over me as I strolled past a row of neatly parked, shark-like VF-1Ds. The sun was still short of its apex, but the heat of South Texas began to be felt nonetheless.
A trio of enlisted ground personnel were busy going over my airplane, ensuring that she would work as advertised for my CARQUAL session. My jet was a well-worn Block Ten model. She looked okay from a distance, but closer inspection revealed her hard life. Several of the trainer's access panels clashed with the jet's red on white paint scheme, having been cannibalized from other aircraft, and it was clear this Valk was a high time bird. I made a thorough pre-flight inspection with this fact in mind and noted some hydraulic fluid seeping from the left main landing gear strut. After consulting with my crew chief, I determined that it was within safe limits, and hauled myself up the boarding ladder into the front cockpit. With one foot on the ejection seat cushion and one on the ladder, I glanced over my shoulder to see my lithe female instructor bound gracefully into her cockpit. My hormones got the best of me yet again, and for the briefest instant I imagined myself engaged in a romantic tryst with the beautiful blonde. She flashed a thumbs up at me as I stood on the boarding ladder gawking like a schoolboy. I waved back at her, suddenly embarrassed, then hauled myself into the cockpit.
The familiar startup and pre-taxi rituals were conducted without fanfare, and with the engines of my ghost gray splotched Valkyrie howling into the morning air, I followed Steffi out of the parking area and taxied to the runway in use. A T-45 was ahead of us on the runway as we pulled up to the hold line. The wind shifted abruptly and the smell of burnt kerosene wafted through my open cockpit. The scent brought to mind childhood memories of Learjets taxiing past me on the airport apron in McAllen, Texas. I had always loved the sweet smell of burning Jet-A as it roared out of the tailpipes of those small business jets, and for a brief instant, I was a kid once again, content to play with my small airplane toys in the dirt runways I had scraped out of the front yard grass.
As that memory flashed and faded like a flare in the night, I glanced around me and realized I had come a long way since then. The toys I handled now were not so different from those of my youth. The visions I had created in my mind as a child play acting the movie "Air Force," pretending to be Charleton Heston as he bombed the Japanese Fleet in "Midway," or cheering John Wayne as he fought his enemies in "The Flying Tigers," had come to fruition. I was doing what I had always dreamed, and the pieces of the puzzle that was my life were fitting together one by one to form a portrait of myself that had been painted long before I was born.
Steffi's canopy came closed as the tower controller cleared us for a two-ship takeoff. With precise movements of the throttles, we taxied onto the runway and stopped. I looked her airplane over from nose to tail, ensuring that everything was okay. She did the same for me. Seeing nothing wrong, I flashed her a thumbs up which she returned. She motioned with her hand and I saw the heat from her exhausts increase tenfold. I moved my throttle to Military Power and checked the gauges. With a forward jerk of her head she signaled brake release and we screamed down the runway like a pair of demons.
As if connected by steel cables, we lifted into the air as one, gear and flaps retracting smoothly as the runway shrank beneath us. I moved in on Steffi's wing, getting as tight as I could so that our two-ship formation would look sharp to those watching our departure from the ground. We climbed directly to 35,000 feet and headed east toward the Ronald Reagan. The sky was absolutely gorgeous--a bright, crystal clear blue from horizon to horizon. Some puffy cumulus clouds could be seen floating lazily over the blue-green ocean far below, their shadows like black blobs on the surface of the sea, but otherwise, the air was completely clear.
I watched the DME winding down as we closed in on the position of the Ronald Reagan at 450 knots. I was not even the least bit concerned as Steffi gave our position and received our holding instructions. The carrier was having a problem with its arresting gear, and the recovery was decidedly behind schedule. The airspace over the Reagan was packed full of aircraft as a whole slew of pilots, working to qualify or re-qualify in their airplanes before reporting to a combat squadron, orbited patiently until the problem was fixed. With the airspace as busy as it was, we would have to stay clear until the Carrier Air Traffic Control Center (CATCC) had room to sequence everyone in. We slowed to 250 knots and entered a small racetrack pattern at 30,000 feet, about thirty miles astern the ship. Ahead and below us, other jets were stacked up at 1,000 foot intervals and holding as we were, waiting for their turn to enter the landing pattern.
After ten minutes in the pattern we were cleared down to 20,000 feet and moved to within twenty miles of the carrier. After another fifteen minutes, we were cleared directly over the ship at 10,000 feet. I was so intent on flying formation that I wasn't able to view the ballet going on below us, but my chance would come soon.
"Ant Eater Two One Seven, Charlie on arrival," came the call from the controller.
"Two One Seven, roger," Steffi replied.
My leader had been cleared to depart for a landing on the ship's deck. She flashed me a thumbs up, blew a kiss in my direction, and broke smartly out of the formation. Under different circumstances a kiss from CDR Lori would have been heavenly, but not today. As she descended out of the cobalt sky, I glanced down at that tiny carrier bobbing on the ocean like a cork and realized that it was real friggin' small! This was not like landing in space! It wasn't even close! How the hell was I going to land on that tiny thing?! Had I lost my mind? All alone now, more than three miles above the Earth, I orbited impatiently over that small dot on the sea awaiting my turn to take a shot at the boat. I wasn't nervous--I was scared to death!
"Holy shit, what have I gotten into now?" I muttered, staring at the ship, a mile-long white wake streaming behind it.
For fifteen minutes I orbited the Reagan, watching with apprehension as others took their cracks at the boat. As the shock of the ship's seemingly small size slowly wore away, I began to relax, and by the time it was my turn to enter the pattern, I was ready to get it done.
"Ant Eater Two Two Four, Charlie on arrival," the controller radioed.
"Two Two Four, Roger!" I exclaimed, sounding more excited than I wanted to.
I pulled the throttles to idle and gently lowered the nose before turning toward the ship. I was two miles astern and headed downhill at 425 knots when I reached the TPA (Traffic Pattern Altitude) of 800 feet. The gray and black ship loomed in front of me, just off the left side of my nose. I established myself on the upwind leg about an eighth of a mile to the right of the carrier, sequenced behind the other jets in the pattern on a heading of 090 degrees. I bumped the throttles up to seventy-five percent and hurtled past the giant boat--glancing quickly at it as I roared by--waiting until the airplane I was following passed my "Three-Nine Line" before starting my break. With throttles again at idle, I pulled four G's on the break, and entered the downwind heading of 260 degrees dirty, with wings spread, looking 200 knots indicated airspeed. A stabilized approach results in a good landing.
Adrenaline began to flow as I ran through my pre-landing checks. The ship was ahead and to the left of me, and, even from a mile away, commanded respect. She still seemed pitifully small, and even as I watched another Valkyrie jerk to a stop in the landing area, part of my brain refused to believe that a full-stop landing on her tiny deck was even possible. I verified the gear was down three times and felt well ahead of my airplane as I came abeam the carrier.
"Two Two Four, Abeam. Pilot Framton. Valkyrie seven point oh, manual," I called. I was not using the APC or DLC as navy CARQUAL regulations required at least four day landings--and two night landings--be performed without these features engaged. Better to get them out of the way, now, I figured.
"Two Two Four, roger. Continue," replied the Air Boss.
I counted to ten then rolled into a thirty degree left bank and slowed to my on-speed of 130 knots. As I came into the groove on the Base Recovery Course (BRC) of 080 degrees, I saw the ball slightly high and left it there. I was cautiously confident. Though my margin for error was small, the Valkyrie fit me like a glove--I could make it do anything I wanted. With practiced movements of the throttles and stick, I drew ever closer to the carrier.
The angled landing area of the Reagan was canted ten degrees to the left of the ships keel line. The ship--and my aim point for touchdown--was moving away and slightly to the right of me at twenty knots. Thus, I needed slightly more power to hold the glideslope, and had to aim slightly right to maintain my lineup. Under identical conditions, an approach exactly like that practiced at the bounce field would end up a bit short and left when used on the boat unless these corrective actions were taken.
"Two Two Four, your at three quarter mile, call the Ball," the LSO stated calmly.
"Two Two Four, Valkyrie, Ball, seven point oh," I replied.
I had not quite compensated enough for the ship's movement and my approach was a touch low. The LSO commanded me to ease my aircraft up, and I complied. As the ship rushed up to meet me, I resisted the urge to pull back on the stick and, like a sack of boulders, my Valkyrie slammed onto the deck resoundingly. The short main gear struts did very little to absorb the shock of a hard landing, and more than one Valk carrier pilot--myself included--has lost a filling as a result. The hook snared the two wire and, as I jammed the throttles into full military and retraced the boards and spoilers with the speed brake button under my left thumb, jerked my fighter to a standstill in less than two hundred feet. A yellow shirted plane director ran out in front of my fighter, both hands over his head, signaling me to retard my throttles to idle. I pulled them off and followed his directions to raise my hook and flaps, sweep the wings back, and taxi forward quickly to clear the landing area for the fighter behind me.
I had really done it! A full fledged, no-shit carrier landing! I was ecstatic, and smiled uncontrollably beneath my mask. As the plane director motioned me toward the bow catapults, I thought to myself, Hey, this isn't such a bad way to make a living! How right I was!
After a short wait, the catapult stroked me off the sharp end of the carrier. An easterly breeze was blowing at five knots, and the Reagan was sailing directly into it at twenty knots. Adding the twenty knots generated by sailing at that speed to the five knot wind gave us a "Wind Over the Deck" (WOD) component of twenty-five knots. Ideally, an airplane needs to be sent off the deck at roughly twenty knots above the stalling speed (some airplanes use 1.3 times the stall speed). The lower the WOD component, the harder the catapult stroke had to be to insure the airplanes leaving the deck would fly. With twenty-five knots over the deck, I expected a pretty soft cat stroke, but I was wrong.
Make no mistake about it, going from zero to one-hundred-fifteen knots in less than three seconds was quite a ride. The catapult tracks on the Nimitz-class carriers were nearly two hundred feet shorter than those on the Prometheus-class. Even though the ship's catapults were of the progressive pressure release type--which allowed pressure to be metered out throughout the cat stroke instead of all of it being let loose at once--her shorter catapult length made a shot off the Reagan rather stout. I had clearly been spoiled flying off Prometheus with her "softer" cats for so long. Even on a zero wind day, launches from Promie seemed heavenly compared to this, and by the fifth shot I was ready to go back to a Prometheus-class ship.
During the two hours that followed my first landing I made six more traps. I would need ten day traps and six night traps to qualify for the fleet. After parking on the right side of the carrier, near the forward elevator, I was ready for a break. I had already exceeded the four hour rule by a large margin, and, after shutting the engines down, I opened the canopy, removed my mask, and sat there enjoying the ocean breeze as it hit me in the face. After about five minutes, I clambered out of the cockpit and stretched out my arms and legs as the strong wind rushed across my sweat soaked flight suit.
The sun was beginning to descend toward the western horizon as I carried my helmet and kneeboard over to the ship's island. I stepped through the doorway ("hatch") and made my way to the Ready Room. Steffi was waiting there with a cold glass of iced tea which I quickly downed. We had a lot to discuss in a short amount of time. The real test was just around the corner.
The night beckoned.
I stood on the crow's nest, a narrow catwalk that overlooked the flight deck, and watched the recovery operations as the sun sank lower in the sky. It didn't seem to matter how much water I drank, I was still thirsty. I had heard all the horror stories, and even experienced one of my own, regarding night carrier landings. Vertical landings at night were a piece of cake, and I actually enjoyed them, but descending out of the black sky toward the darkness for a conventional landing, with nothing but the dim cockpit lights and a tiny optical landing system for guidance, was a completely unnatural act. Daytime traps were fun, and virtually everyone who has ever had to do them has learned to love them, but I cannot think of a soul out there who ever got their kicks coming aboard the boat at night. There were miles of Pilot Landing Aid Television (PLAT) tape highlights showing the consequences of a mismanaged night landing, and no matter how hard you tried, you could never force those horrible images of fire and death out of your mind.
I paced nervously, looking at my watch every few minutes as jets continued to land on, and launch from, Reagan's deck. I was never the kind of person who hid his fears, nor was I ashamed to admit it when I was afraid, for bravado was never my strongest trait. That being said, when something scared me, although I did not charge into it with mindless enthusiasm, I never turned tail and ran away from it either. It was simply a matter of forcing myself into a position where I had no choice but to push ahead, and in doing so, I overcame my fears through direct experience. Tonight would be no different.
As the bottom edge of the orange sun touched the horizon, I turned and headed back down toward the ready room. I had some last minute preparations to attend to before blasting off the carrier into the night sky for what I hoped would be three successful traps.
"Trust your instruments, trust the HUD, and trust the ball."
With those words, and an encouraging pat on the shoulder, Steffi saw me to the hangar deck. Her words would be all-important tonight. There was no moon. A high cloud layer had moved over the area earlier in the day, obscuring even the brightest stars. Vertigo would be sure to rear its ugly head tonight.
I nervously checked out my Valkyrie as it squatted in the hangar bay. As I walked around her, the shouts and clanging sounds of maintenance personnel working on the other planes parked nearby echoed off the metal walls. It was surely my trepidation at having to trap aboard the carrier at night that caused me to find an endless number of things wrong with my Valk. Scars and dings, fluids seeping from various systems, and minor dents in seemingly alarming places stuck out like sores as I walked around my tired fighter. She didn't look this bad earlier today, did she? I thought to myself. Jesus Christ, I can't fly a plane that looks like this!
My mind raced for an excuse to get out of flying, but I knew, deep inside, that I would simply be assigned to another plane, and Heavens knew what that one would look like. Two Two Four was worn, but at least I knew how she handled, and the fear you know is better than the one you don't. With hands that shook more than I wanted, I climbed up the boarding ladder into the front seat of my "VD" (one of the many affectionately derisive nicknames for the VF-1D) and ran nervously through the pre-start checklist. The tow tractor operator hooked his small vehicle's tow bar to the nose strut of my jet. He gave me a signal to release the brakes. I pushed the brakes on the top edge of the rudder pedals in with my feet, reached down to verify the parking brake lever was in, released the pressure on the pedals, and gave the driver a thumbs up. Emitting a ratchety rumble, the tractor jerked my Valk forward with a lurch. Unconsciously, I grabbed the canopy rails with my hands, squeezing them until my knuckles turned white.
The ride to the darkened flight deck was far too short for my tastes. In no time, my Valk was up and running, and I was taxiing toward the starboard bow catapult at the direction of a plane director's neon green wands. I swallowed nervously as he guided me onto the catapult track. He gave me the come on signal and I added a smidgen of power. With a small jolt my fighter's launch bar engaged the launch shuttle and came to an abrupt halt. I was now only moments away from a cat shot.
Another series of items on the checklist. Wings spread. Tail spread. No flag on the left, no flag on the right. Flaps thirty. Slats are out, boards are in. Controls are free and correct--in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit--Amen. Weight board flashed to cat officer and verified. Target launch speed is 140. I recited everything aloud as I did it.
The cat officer, bathed in the red glow of the carrier's lighting system, motioned his wand over his head, and I moved the throttles forward to military power. I ran through my memorized litany. "I'm in tension, my feet are to the deck, wings are spread and locked, gauges looking good, no warning lights, controls are free, easy, and correct. Checks completed. Ready for the shot, lights coming on."
I reached up with my left hand and flipped on the beacon and nav light switches. My jet was now a cluster of winking white, red, and green lights. The cat officer faced forward, touched the wand to the deck as he knelt down, then pointed it forward. The launch officer pressed the launch button on his control panel and unleashed 65,000 pounds of steam pressure into the catapult cylinder. The holdback bar, set to break loose at the correct setting, popped, releasing my Valk into the darkness.
My lungs, filled with air by a nervous intake of breath, were emptied by the transverse G's resulting from the catapult stroke. The effect was exactly like that of my first solo cat shot from Prometheus nearly three years before. "YAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" I screamed, as my fighter was flung off the bow of the carrier like a cannon ball.
My eyes, compressed by the force of the stroke, saw only a green haze where the HUD was projecting its information. Three seconds of bumping and jarring was followed by a sudden, eerie smoothness. I felt like I was tumbling backwards through space and battled my inner ear's desire to shove the stick forward. My eyes regained their ability to focus once again, and I looked hard at the airspeed indicator. It read 140 and I breathed a sigh of relief. Anything less than that meant something was wrong. Anything below 120, and my Valk would end up going into the water.
I raised the gear, established my best climb attitude, and waited for the airspeed to build. I retracted the flaps at 250 knots and called the approach controller, who vectored me through the black sky.
"Ant Eater Two Two Four, Gipper Strike. Turn left, heading one-seven-zero, cleared to five point zero. Expect two zero zero in one zero minutes."
I held 250 knots and turned toward my heading of one-seven-zero degrees. At five thousand feet, I leveled off, and watched as the DME began to tick upward. After six minutes I was cleared to 20,000 feet and vectored toward my hold. As I reached 18,000 feet, I broke out of the overcast into a beautifully clear sky. I turned down the intensity of the HUD and cockpit lighting, and marveled at how bright the stars were. All about, red, green, and white navigation lights winked as other jets held for their turn "in the barrel." The departure controller handed me off to the approach controller in charge of the Marshall stack, and he gave me my holding instructions.
"Ant Eater Two Two Four, Gipper Marshall. Hold on the one-six-zero radial at thirty-five DME. Maintain Flight Level Two Zero Zero. Push time is three four. Altimeter 30.10," the controller called.
I repeated the clearance and jotted it down. At night, jets in the hold are assigned an altitude and a distance. The higher your holding altitude, the further your distance from the ship. By taking the assigned altitude and adding fifteen to the first two digits, one can determine how far out to hold. Thus, for 20,000 feet I took twenty, added fifteen, and got thirty-five, which verified what the controller had told me. "Push Time" was the time when I could expect to receive instructions to leave my hold. In the event of a communications failure, I would leave my altitude and begin an approach at thirty-four minutes after the hour, fifteen minutes away.
I orbited in the night sky on the one-six-zero radial at thirty-five miles. Standard hold procedures called for a one minute inbound leg, and after shortening my outbound leg twice to compensate for the winds aloft, I finally had my airplane set so that I would reach the fix on my last lap in the hold at precisely thirty-four minutes after the hour.
I listened to the other airplanes making their approaches to the boat, and I began to sweat. The air was calm and smooth, but I was a nervous wreck. I stared at the sky ahead and below me. There was nothing but darkness--the kind of darkness that swallowed airplanes whole. As the minutes ticked down, my hands began to tremble and I exhaled audibly, "Oh, God, oh, God, oh, God, oh, God...please help me...I can do this...I can do this...Please help me." The words were spoken by an alien voice, one that quivered uncontrollably. From fearless fighter ace to whimpering coward. I had fallen a long way in such a short period of time--the latest hapless victim of that evolution called the night carrier landing.
I was established on the inbound leg at thirty-three minutes after the hour, and I knew that my turn would come at any moment.
"Ant Eater Two Zero Four, Gipper Marshall. Turn left heading two-eight-zero, vectors for your approach course. Descend and maintain Flight Level One Eight Zero."
"Two Zero Four."
I pulled the throttles back, and pushed the stick forward about three degrees nose down. I banked gently to the left and started to descend to 18,000 feet as instructed. My throat was now so dry that it hurt to swallow, and I had a bad case of "restless legs" (where both legs twitch, squirm, and wiggle out of nervous habit). I could feel my fighter wagging its tail through the air as my feet danced on the rudder pedals. I sure as hell hope the PLAT doesn't have a cockpit view! I thought to myself. One never knew what to expect when it came to spy technology.
"Two Zero Four, Gipper Marshall. Your final inbound bearing will be zero-one-zero. Intercept the localizer. Charlie on Arrival, report Platform. Contact Approach, Button One Five."
"Two Zero Four, to Approach, see ya."
I clicked the button on the throttle and called the Approach controller. "Gipper Approach, Ant Eater Two Zero Four, Valkyrie, seven point six. Off the Gipper one-seven-zero for three-three, out of one eight for five." This told the controller that I was VF-1 "Valkyrie" with 7,600 pounds of fuel, and that I was off the one-seven-zero degree radial at thirty-three miles, leaving 18,000 feet for 5,000 feet.
"Two Zero Four, call your needles."
I looked at the ACLS needles on the HSI and the HUD. The course needle was full scale to the left and the glideslope needle was full scale down. "Fly down and left."
"Two Zero Four, roger. Continue. Report Platform."
"Two Zero Four."
I continued to descend down to Platform. My descent rate was more than five thousand feet per minute, and I was holding 250 knots, with the throttles to idle and the boards and spoilers deployed to bring me down. After about six minutes, I reached 5,000 feet, approximately twelve miles astern the ship, leveled off, and listened sympathetically to the other pilots in the air as they took their respective turns trapping aboard the carrier in the darkness.
To cut down on radio traffic, and to insure that instructions were received clearly, the Approach controllers had two different frequencies, "A" and "B." The first plane down from the stack would be assigned to the "A" frequency, the guy behind him to the "B," the guy behind him to the "A," etc. etc.. Button One Five was the "A" frequency and thus, I could hear every pilot on "A" make his approach. The sense of controlled fear I heard over the radio made me cringe, and did nothing to calm me down.
I was still completely surrounded by darkness. My Valk was humming along faithfully, holding course and altitude perfectly as I droned onward toward the carrier. I was happy as I could be that the night air was so smooth--a bumpy sky would have surely been more than I could have handled.
The radio went silent and stayed that way for some time. The hair on the back of my neck stood on end as the thought of a communications failure entered into my mind. I leaned forward to see that everything was set properly when the controller came on the air and cleared me to commence my descent. With growing reservation, I pulled the throttles back and began my descent toward the dark ocean below.
Although my adrenaline got the best of me for a while, I finally settled down enough to track the course needle without chasing it all over the place. The DME began its downward trend, and I prayed for any excuse to get bingoed to the beach. I really didn't want to do this!
At five miles, I ran through my checklist, configuring my airplane for the landing, then called the boat. "Two Two Four, Valkyrie, Gate, seven-point-five."
"Two Two Four, roger, continue."
"Paddles is up." It was the LSO.
"Oh, brother, this shit is real, now," I mumbled aloud.
At that moment, I thought of former Naval Aviator and astronaut Alan B. Shepard, one of America's last great heroes. Yet, as I faced the dark pit before me, it was not his brave accomplishments--the first American to go into space and one the earliest men to walk on the moon--that came to mind, but rather, the sheepishly defiant prayer he cannonized so eloquently on the Freedom Seven launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida in 1961. "Dear Lord, please don't let me fuck up."
I muttered that prayer as I hurtled out of the sky toward the darkness.
"Two Two Four, you are at three and a quarter miles, increase your rate of descent."
I glanced at the ACLS needles and nearly jumped out of my skin. I was well above the glideslope and on the verge a full scale deflection, which would have meant a wave off and a bad landing grade. I had subconsciously held the stick back to keep from descending any further, causing my excessive glideslope deviation, and thumbed in some down DLC to re-intercept it.
I continued flying the needles, glancing outside, then back inside to cross check everything. Lineup, glideslope, AOA. Lineup, Glideslope, AOA. I repeated the mantra over and over again in my mind, and stole a glance outside when I dared, wanting desperately to catch sight of the ship.
"Two Two Four, you're at one and a quarter miles, call the ball," the LSO said.
I strained for it in the darkness as my Valk descended through four hundred feet. I was just about to call Clara when it came into view, clear as day, a steady yellow glow in the distance.
"Two Two Four, Valkyrie, Ball, seven point zero," I called, staring at the yellow light. It was a critical, albeit typical, mistake. Instead of cross checking everything--including the "Lineup T" located on the carrier's fantail--I fixated on one item in my scan. My inner ear played its favorite trick on me at that moment, and despite being perfectly level, I felt myself rolling to the left. In response to the false stimuli, I moved the stick to the right and began to arc to the right of the approach path.
"A little left," the LSO called immediately.
The HUD showed a thirty degree right bank as clear as daylight, and I jerked the stick quickly to the left, adding power then reducing it again to compensate for the steepness of my turn. My scan was a complete mess, and once again, fixation reared its ugly head, as I focused more on lineup than power management, AOA, and glideslope.
"You're overpowered," the LSO said gruffly.
Now, only five seconds from touchdown, I pulled the throttles smartly back and watched the ball begin to rise above the datum lights as I entered into the turbulent air astern the ship called the burble.
"A little down DLC," the LSO commanded, as I hit the burble and crossed the ramp.
I thumbed the DLC wheel forward, killing the lift being generated by the wings, and slammed onto the carrier deck. With an impact that racked my entire body, the right main gear touched first, followed closely by the left main gear and the nose gear. I thought for sure I had driven the landing gear through the steel deck. The hook dribbled over the third wire and snared the fourth, jerking my fighter to a halt as the twin reactor turbines shrieked into the night sky, straining against the arrestor cable. From my right, a pair of glowing green wands came charging out of the darkness, signaling me to reduce my throttles to idle so that the cable would fall free from my fighter's arresting hook. I did as instructed and felt my Valkyrie roll backwards about four feet as I doused my jet's external lights. The plane director then gave me the "hook up" signal and the "fold wings" signal, and motioned frantically for me to pull forward.
I stomped on the right rudder pedal, simultaneously added power, raised the flaps, and folded the wings. I had to clear the "foul line" before the airplane on approach behind me landed on my head. Although night carrier landings are a harrowing experience, taxiing on a flight deck at night is no cake walk. A brake failure or any one of a dozen different mistakes by the pilot or deck crew can result in an airplane going over the side like an anchor.
The plane director's wands passed me off to another set of wands and I followed them obediently like a well-trained dog. As I was parked behind the starboard bow cat's Jet Blast Deflectors (JBDs) I realized with a start that I had cheated death once more. I took a quick look at my hands and saw they were shaking. My brow was covered in sweat, and my legs quivered uncontrollably. Clenching my fists I took a deep breath and in no time, I was ready to go onto the catapult shuttle again.
The standard pre-launch ritual was repeated and completed. With my left hand I flipped on my Valk's lights and braced myself for the launch. The catapult shooter pressed the button on his control panel and I was thrown into the darkness. A giant hand pressed me into my seat, and I felt my flight boots come off the pedals as we rattled down the catapult track. My right hand was moved rearward as well, and as my fighter cleared the bow, the nose jerked upward to around thirty degrees. The stall horn blared in my ear and I jammed the throttles into afterburner, shoving the stick forward as I did so.
"Nice job, dumb shit!" I cursed myself, as I fought to maintain control of my fighter. I had failed to hold my arm in position during the cat stroke and over rotated on departure. It was a rookie mistake, one that I should not have made at such a late stage in the game, and I would be sure to hear about it later. Still, as much as self-beratement might have seemed appropriate, other business commanded that I let it go, and I forced my error into the back of my mind. I still had two more landings to get in tonight if I was to stay on schedule, and I could feel fatigue creeping in. I was working very hard to get things done, and the stress level was having a noticeably deleterious effect on me.
Another climb to altitude was followed by another hold, which was in turn followed by another long, terror filled approach and landing. This one was much better than the first, and the LSO said nary a word to me as I tracked down the glideslope, on-speed, stabilized, and in control. I let my success go to my head on my last landing, and ended up flying a safe, but less-than stellar approach.
I taxied my fighter to its parking space and shut the engines down. After a rather dangerous sojourn across the darkened flight deck to the safety of the carrier island, I found Steffi in the ready room.
"Nice over rotation, Lieutenant," she said with a smirk.
"Yeah...thanks," I replied, somewhat despondently.
"Don't take it so hard," she said, patting me on the shoulder. "It happens to everyone sooner or later. Now that you've done it you'll be sure not to do it again." She smiled, gave me a quick wink, then took a seat in one of the plush chairs that filled the room. Her positive attitude made all the difference in the world, and I felt much better because of it.
We sat down for a thorough debrief, during which I consumed nearly a gallon of water, then grabbed some Mexican food from one of the ship's "many fine eateries," and headed toward our temporary quarters for some much needed rest.
It was difficult to get any sleep that night. Steffi was using the bunk below mine, and, despite my best efforts, I could not help but lean over and sneak a peak at her as she slept. She was absolutely beautiful, and my mind filled with images and fantasies that would never come true. A melancholy sadness engulfed me at that instant, and I regretted that I would never find her in my arms. I blew her a kiss in the darkness, like a third grader in love with his teacher, and felt instantly ashamed for doing so. What would Case think of me for lusting after another woman? I rolled onto my back to stare at the ceiling that was mere inches above my narrow rack, and listened to the metallic sounds of jets being launched and recovered from the flight deck above us. Torn by the thoughts of the beautiful woman beneath me and the guilt they caused, I eventually drifted off to sleep.
Twenty-four hours, and six traps later, I was a fully qualified carrier aviator. One of the officers snapped a picture of Steffi and I on the hangar deck in front of Two Two Four, each with an arm around the other's waist. One couldn't tell from the photograph, but the triumph and tragedy of combat flying lurked just around the corner.
Jason W. Smith
This story, all original images, characters, situations, events, etc., Copyright © 1995 by Jason W. Smith
(Author's Note: This is a work of fiction. Any similarity to actual events, persons, etc. is coincidental--even if intentionally so! --June 1995)
Based on characters and situations from
Robotech, © 1985 Harmony Gold, USA, Inc.
Robotech (R) is the property of Harmony Gold. This document is in no way intended to infringe upon their rights.HTML by Robert Morgenstern
Copyright © 1996 Robert Morgenstern
Version Last Updated: 24 May 1999