Part Two: Engine Start
Chapter Nine -- Valkyrie
The contrast between boot camp and flight school was like night and day. I was assigned to Advanced Training Squadron Two, and because of my performance in boot, was promoted to Lance Corporal (LCPL) instead of Private First Class (PFC). In the pecking order I was now ahead of the average, and I wore my new stripe with pride. I was now entrusted with the power of authority, and though it wasn't much, it was a start.
Flight school was similar to boot camp in one respect: it was absolutely rigorous. But the rigors of flight school were far different than those of boot camp. Here the emphasis was not on honing the body, but on sharpening the mind, and every open moment was spent spoon feeding us information related to our new profession--or to be more precise, firing it down our throats with a fire hose. Trying to grasp so much knowledge in so short a period of time was nigh impossible. It was an extraordinarily difficult adjustment for all of us.
Our first few classroom sessions focused on some of the more important secrets of Robotic Technology, or "Robotech," a highly complex alien science uncovered aboard the SDF-1after its crash on Macross Island in 1999. After a period of trial and error, Robotech developed into a discipline that allowed humanity to build the most lethal weapons we had ever devised, including our ace in the hole, the VF-1 series of Veritech Fighters. Although pilot trainees didn't exactly have to learn how to build one from scratch, by the time we finished ground school we were expected to know everything about our fighters from nose to tail.
VF-1A Valkryie in Fighter Mode - Note the GU-11 Gunpod on the centerline and twelve Stiletto Missiles under the wings.
After our hurried introduction to the science behind our machines, the classroom sessions intensified even more. Every single day was filled with detailed study on vacuum aircraft operations: maneuvering, energy management, takeoffs and landings, navigation ("nav" in aviator parlance), etc., etc.. The most in depth--and important--instruction concerned fuel/energy management. As our instructor, Global War veteran and ace fighter pilot, Major (MAJ) Paul Chapman, repeated again and again: "The three most useless things in life are the air above you, the runway behind you, and fuel in the fuel truck. Fuel is liquid money that can be easily converted into heat and noise. The only time you have too much is when you are on fire." We all laughed at his comment, but the words were deadly serious. Although our fighters were powered by organic fusion reactors (a complex alien process even our best scientists did not fully understand) that yielded a virtually unlimited range in an atmosphere, we could only go as far in vacuum as our fuel--a.k.a. reaction mass, or "RM"--supply allowed. Run out of RM in space and you would drift off into the dark void, never to be heard from again.
The high attrition rate for Valkyrie pilots necessitated an increasingly abbreviated training syllabus for each class. Things were not going well for the SDF-1's flight crews, and our enemy was giving us a first rate lesson in space combat operations. For every five pilots trained we lost more than three within a month, and with a backlog of nearly two years to fully train a Veritech pilot under normal circumstances, it would not have taken long for the SDF-1 to completely run out of pilots. The circumstances we faced could be called many things, but "normal" was clearly not one of them, and drastic changes to the training program were made in short order.
Because of the wartime situation and precarious loss rate, my class had to cram nearly two years of training into about ten weeks--the previous class had been blessed with the luxury of twelve. This was accomplished by removing huge segments of the standard pilot training syllabus, most of which were atmosphere-related (i.e., survival, escape and evasion, atmospheric flight, etc.). Since our operations would be restricted to space for the time being, it was not important for us to be proficient in these areas. Additional training time was shaved off in the massive--and incredibly realistic--Level E full-motion simulators, which had a far higher cycle rate than actual training flights. Operations would be discussed and taught in the classroom, but instead of actually demonstrating them to us in an aircraft with an instructor, we were--as the syllabus allowed--taught how to do them in the sim.
This is not to say that things were made any simpler. Quite the contrary. Hours were long and grueling, and time off was non-existent. During our training we were expected to learn the procedures for every operational aspect of our new aircraft and spent countless hours in the mecha bays pouring over each inch of the Veritechs in the maintenance areas. Understanding the systems on the aircraft enhanced our abilities to effectively utilize them, but in time, even this important part of the training cycle would be eliminated.
In order to absorb such a great deal of information in so short period of time, I spent nearly every evening in my quarters studying until the artificial sunlight pierced my window. I felt so far behind the learning curve that despaired of ever learning my trade effectively. Several of my contemporaries washed out of the training and were held back to try again for the next class--or were sent down a different Operational Specialty pipeline--and I felt on the bubble for most of my training. Still, despite the difficulty, my efforts began to pay off. Through sheer force of will, by the end of the fifth week, though completely exhausted, I began to slowly catch on. The integration of what was being learned in the classroom with the simulator proved to be a real boon, and the pieces began to fall into place.
Of all the subjects we covered, one of the more difficult parts of our training, astral navigation, turned out to be the most interesting. In astral nav we were expected to learn to spot our position relative to the stars in an instant. Our instructor, Mrs. Kelly Trolinger, was a most beautiful woman if ever there was one. An absolutely gorgeous, curly-haired, thirty-something brunette with perky cheeks that bordered a wonderful smile, and equally perky breasts that raptly held the attention of her hormonally enraged students, was a viciously demanding taskmaster and her exams were pure hell. From the get go, I hated this woman with a passion that defies description. My classmates' constant references to her sexuality simply made me despise her more.
During our daily competency examinations we were seated in a planetarium and shown brief glimpses of the relative sky from every possible angle. On our note pads we were to pinpoint our location relative to a fixed point in space. I failed many of these first tests splendidly, and my anger toward my instructor grew. It was only after a post-class conference with her one afternoon that I began to appreciate what she was doing. She gave me some very basic advice on learning the "big picture" rather than focusing on minuscule details. "The details will come later, once you understand and can visualize the larger view," she said. I took her advice to heart and in time, the results revealed themselves.
Waylan Green and I sat next to each other during the exam sessions and raced each other for the answers to the questions, the person finishing first jabbing the other in the ribs with his elbow. "Big Green" beat me to the answers early on, but in time, his ribs became as bruised as mine. It was excellent practice, and we quickly became masters at the craft--which was, without a doubt, one of the reasons we survived as long as we did. In time, I admitted that I, too, was madly in love with Kelly, and even found the time to daydream about her as she lectured us. To this day, she is one of my most cherished memories.
Perhaps the most revealing phase of our training involved aviation physiology. Every six months, military aviators are required to complete this very important training program which outlined the importance of physical health, conditioning, and self-assessment in flight operations. Our training began with a lecture on the effects of caffeine, sugar, and junk food on a person's physical condition, and on the symptoms and dangers of hypoglycemia and hyperglycemia. We were warned in no uncertain terms that a cup of coffee and a cinnamon roll was not a good way to start the day, and that such a practice over a period of time could cause one to develop one of the two aforementioned disorders. Conditioning was emphasized, and we were taught that one of the best ways to improve one's chances of surviving aerial combat was to be in top physical shape. The reasoning behind our brutal physical fitness training in boot camp became eminently clear.
When the last class room sessions were over, we spent the balance of our time in the simulators. As previously mentioned, these were Level E Full Motion Simulators, the most realistic ever devised. Capable of nearly unlimited motion, and equipped with photo-realistic three-dimensional graphics displays, it was virtually indistinguishable from the realities of actual flight. More than one student--myself included--emerged from the sim physically and emotionally drained.
Everything from this point forward was "train to proficiency." When a student successfully completed the syllabus to the standards required he was moved forward, no matter how few--or how many--hours it took. Because of my background, I advanced rapidly through the simulator training and was chosen as the first member of my class to actually fly in space.
The day of my first hop was, naturally, filled with nervous anxiety. My instructor for the flight was a middle-aged Marine Captain named Lewis Barr. Lewis had a reputation for being easy to get along with, but the rumor mill had it he was ruthless in the cockpit--completely intolerable of mistakes. I met him in the ready room and began to mentally assess the short, stocky Marine pilot. He was gruff, with a biting sense of humor that emphasized his wit, and though I took a liking to him, I did so with caution. Like any dangerous animal he was best handled with care, and I treaded lightly around him.
After our brief introduction to one another, we went over our flight plan for the day: 0800 launch from Prometheus with a short one hour flight in the immediate vicinity of the SDF-1, followed by four traps and three shoots.
"Have you eaten yet, Framton?" he asked me.
"No, sir, I have not," I replied nervously.
"Good. Full stomachs tend to empty when exposed to real weightlessness for the first time. It's not like that pussy stuff in the simulator. You'll be fine, though, so don't sweat it," he said, taking a sip of his coffee--characteristically black. "If you can't handle it, the doggie bag is behind your left knee in the cockpit. I'll ride in the back. Make sure you throw up in the bag. I don't like being pelted by weightless blobs of astronaut puke," he snarled, jabbing his coffee cup around for emphasis. "Always be sure of one thing, by the way: never, ever, never...remove your face plate without checking the cabin pressurization," he said pointing a finger at me. "If the canopy has depressurized when you pull it off you might not live long enough to put it back on."
"Yes, sir," I managed.
The trip to Prometheus' hangar deck was far too short. The ride was over before it began and I found myself staring at the Valkyrie we were to use that day--a well-worn VF-1D. The standard Valkyrie trainer, the "D" was a combat capable, tandem seat fighter. The instructor's seat in the rear was added by reducing internal fuel capacity and stretching the canopy aft. Referred to with affectionate derisiveness as the "VD" (i.e., Venereal Disease), because it was not a "pure" tactical aircraft--and because assignment to a VF-1D as an instructor was, like VD, best avoided--it was actually a fine fighter. This particular jet, on the other hand, happened to be the oldest -1D in the fleet, and the rigors of training had clearly taken a toll on the poor bird. As I conducted the pre-flight inspection, the scars and bruises that came from ham-fisted student pilots were painfully apparent. I truly expected to see oil puddles on the floor beneath it!
I stared up at the cockpit and felt as insignificant as a sand flea. Good Lord, this is a huge airplane! I thought to myself. There is no way I can fly something this big! Intimidated like a schoolboy on a first date, I climbed the ladder into the front seat and strapped in. Barr clambered aboard behind me, flipping buttons and switches before he was even strapped into the cockpit. As the navigation systems began to spool up quietly, I said a quick prayer and it wasn't long before everything was up and running.
"I'll handle the checks for now, Mr. Framton," my instructor said.
"Roger," I replied as my voice trembled in spite of my exertions to prevent it. I was in no condition to conduct them any way.
We rode the number one deck edge elevator ("L-1") topside, and I felt deathly afraid. As we reached the top I could see the massive flight deck, and beyond it...nothing but space and stars. The once enormous aircraft now seemed smaller than the proverbial Cessna 152 or Piper Tomahawk! "I thought this was supposed to be a big airplane," I muttered under my breath with a voice that continued to crack. As I stared out at the blackness, the cockpit shrank even more and I began to feel naked. I placed an ungloved hand tentatively on the canopy and immediately shrank away from its cold touch. It felt about as thick as Saran Wrap!
Though I was firmly on my way toward being a Naval Aviator--where things like hand signals are a fact of life during deck operations--the Spacy had its own way of doing things, and this meant far more chatter on the radio than I would encounter later in my career.
"Boss, Kid Driver Two Zero Two. On deck, L-1, taxi," my instructor intoned over the Tactical Communications Network (TACNET).
"Kid Driver Two Zero Two, taxi cat three, squawk zero-four-five-three," replied the air boss.
"Cat three for Kid Driver Two Zero Two, squawking zero-four-five-three," came the reply from the back seat.
I glanced behind us as we taxied under the guidance of the flight deck crew. The SDF-1 towered above us like a giant metallic monster, but she did not resemble the long, thin, knife-like vessel I had seen on Macross Island only a few months before. For reasons beyond anyone's explanation, the disappearance of the fold generators had caused a collateral shortage of electrical conduit throughout the ship. The only way to fire the main gun without the requisite conduit was to shorten the distance between the main engines and the main gun. The battle fortress had been transformed to accomplish this end, and the result was the ominous, human-like form now towering over me.
We proceeded as ordered, following the hand signals of the flight deck crew, and were spotted on the center starboard catapult. I felt a small clunk as the launch bar on our Valk locked onto the catapult shuttle. There was no turning back now. My instructor flashed the weight board to the cat officer, giving her the mass of our aircraft. Total mass at takeoff was needed by the launch officer in space operations to ensure the catapult was set correctly--if the stroke was too soft you wasted reaction mass accelerating; too hard and you risked damage to the aircraft, the catapult, or possible injury to the air crew in the form of detached retinas and such.
After completing the final checks my instructor turned things over to me. "Okay Mr. Framton, she's your airplane. You know what to do," he said.
I peered out of the cockpit and looked at the cat officer, bathed in reflected light. I flashed her a thumbs up. She nodded sharply, spinning her lighted wand in a rapid back and forth motion over her head. With that I advanced the power on the Veritech to Full Military and placed my head hard against the headrest. With my left hand squarely on the thrust levers, my fingers curled through the throttle brace on the console, I quickly saluted her with my right, then grabbed the control stick once again. Out of the corner of my eye the cat officer pointed her wand to the deck and then forward.
My eyeballs were compressed into their sockets as my stomach was left standing on the deck. The cat stroked us off the front of Prometheus like a ping-pong ball, and before I realized what had happened, we were nearly a mile from the ship.
"Kid Driver Two Zero Two, request right turnout," Captain Barr said.
"Two Zero Two, right turnout approved. Button four, good day."
"Switching," Barr called, then to me, "Start your turn Mr. Framton. Clean her up."
I did as instructed, raising the landing gear with my left hand as I banked the Valkyrie to the right in the direction of the practice area. On the way there I maneuvered the big fighter through a series of s-turns to get a feel for how it handled in the cold, eerie darkness of outer space. There seemed to be an almost imperceptible delay between stick movement and aircraft reaction that I couldn't so much measure as sense, but the Valk was surprisingly responsive. As we reached our cruise speed, the transverse G's--G forces applied to the front of the body--disappeared. In their place, weightlessness crept up on me like a jungle vine, with an eerie and uncomfortable deliberateness. I reached down with my left hand to ensure the barf bag was there--to my relief, it was.
We reached the practice area and I familiarized myself with maneuvering the Valkyrie. The Automatic Control System (ACS) performed flawlessly, mimicking to near perfection the behavior of atmospheric flight. After about five minutes of pulling the Valk around, my senses calibrated themselves to the aircraft, the aforementioned hesitation between stick program and maneuver vanished, and I marveled at how great a machine it was. The ACS could be disabled to perform different maneuvers, but this would be demonstrated at a later date. For the first forty minutes, I simply got used to "flying" the airplane--banks, rolls, loops, mode changes. Later in the flight, I spent a good portion of my time badly mishandling the Veritech in Battloid mode. The Battloid's controls were much more sensitive than the fighter's--so much so, that the slightest movement produced rather pronounced results. It was like driving on ice. In fact, I was so busy screwing things up that I didn't realize how much time had gone by.
"Time to head back to the boat, Mr. Framton," the gruff voice from the back seat startled me.
"Aye, aye, sir."
Using the NAV System I steered my Valkyrie around to a point behind the SDF-1. This would place me in a position to execute a non-standard approach similar to a Night/Bad Weather Recovery (Figure 1). The Strike controller handed me off to the Prometheus Marshall Controller and I checked in.
"Prometheus Marshall, Kid Driver Two Zero Two inbound, Father one-nine-zero, six-zero, forty miles." "Father" was the code telling the controller I was referencing my position relative to the SDF-1. With this information the controller would know that I was approaching from almost directly astern the SDF-1 at an angle sixty degrees from the relative vertical.
During a non-standard approach in space, position was determined based on the aircraft's location vertically and horizontally from the ship. The first number is the lateral direction--just as a standard compass reading would be on Earth--and the second is the azimuth. For Azimuth zero to ninety degrees covered the area from the middle of the ship up (zero degrees being directly above--the "North Pole" position--and ninety lying about the ship's lateral axis--the "Equator." Likewise, ninety to one-hundred-eighty degrees covered the area from the middle of the ship down, with 180 being directly below (the "South Pole" position). Since there was no true "up" or "down" in space, all bearings to/from the ship were relative, based upon the SDF-1's normal upright attitude. A pilot could determine his location in relation to the ship with the information his Global/Astral Positioning System (GAPS) gave him (Figure 2). In our case, navigational data was transmitted by the SDF-1 on a coded band and translated by the NAV equipment in the aircraft. Although this information was readily available to the controller, it was generally announced by aviators as a courtesy.
"Kid Driver Two Zero Two, cleared for penetration, direct Platform."
The controller had cleared me directly to the approach entry point ("Platform") twelve miles astern the carrier.
"Two Oh Two, commencing." I pushed the nose down and set my aircraft on a vector that would put me at Platform with the appropriate closure rate on Prometheus for landing. The miles ticked downward quickly, and I reported my position when I reached Platform.
"Two Zero Two, Tower button five, no joy pogo this." In this brief transmission the controller handed me off to Prometheus Tower and told me to switch back, i.e. "Pogo," back to his frequency if I could not establish communication with Prometheus.
"Two Oh Two, switching."
I selected button five and called Prometheus.
"Prometheus Tower, Kid Driver Two Zero Two, Valkyrie, six point two, thirty-five." This told the tower what type of aircraft I was flying and the fuel onboard in thousands of pounds, both of which were necessary in setting the correct tension on the carrier's arresting gear.
"Kid Driver Two Zero Two, Prometheus Tower, Charlie on arrival. Report Gate." Charlie was the signal for a clear deck and meant I was cleared to land. Gate was the minimum descent point eight miles from the ship where an approaching aircraft "dirtied up" (gear down, flaps down, hook down) and flew inbound until intercepting the glideslope for landing.
"Two Zero Two, roger."
As the distance to the ship quickly dwindled I concentrated on getting the Valkyrie under me. In flying an aircraft as big and fast as the VF-1 a pilot had to always be far ahead of the airplane--in space this was doubly important. In an atmosphere dumping speed is an easy and instantaneous process of inducing drag on the airplane, but in vacuum, this is simply not the case. Deceleration requires power, and power requires fuel--a limited resource. A pilot who was not precise in flying his aircraft would waste precious reaction mass and the penalty could be severe. As my mind went over this information I attempted to get "into the groove" of flying the Valk. Flying such a quick aircraft was highly disorienting, and before I knew it, I was at Gate.
"Two Zero Two, Valkyrie, Gate, six point one," I said, reaching for the landing gear handle. The thump in the bottom of my seat and the comforting glow of three green lights confirmed that my gear were down. I slowed the closure rate to two hundred knots by pulling the throttles back to idle, while maintaining ten pounds of pressure on them. The Approach Power Compensator (APC) would fire the vernier thrusters for small speed reductions to save fuel, larger ones were handled by swinging the legs forward and could be done manually or by adding twenty-five pounds of pressure on the throttles. I lowered the arresting hook and allowed myself a quick grin as my relative speed showed a solid two hundred knots.
"Paddles is up." That was the Landing Signal Officer (LSO) informing me that he was now monitoring the frequency.
"Two Zero Two, you are at three and a quarter miles, commence your decent."
I rogered the ship and pushed over. Flipping on my landing lights, I went through my "flow," moving from bottom to top and right to left, pushing the appropriate buttons and toggling the correct switches to insure the aircraft was properly configured for landing. I had done this a thousand times, blindfolded, in the Cockpit Procedures Trainer (CPT) but still lacked the speed and efficiency of more experienced aviators. A glance at the center Multi-Function Display (MFD), also referred to as a DDI (Digital Display Indicator), showed no red or yellow caution messages, and a final perusal of the checklist confirmed that everything was set. For the first time this flight, I was feeling remotely comfortable with the airplane.
"Paddles contact." The LSO was stating that he had me in sight. He continued, "Kid Driver Two Zero Two, you are at a mile and a quarter, call the Ball." This was intended to confirm that I could see the Fresnel Optical Landing System lens on the port side of the carrier.
"Kid Driver Two Zero Two, Valkyrie, Clara, six point oh, Framton." This meant that I could not see the ball and had 6,000 pounds of fuel remaining. I mentioned my last name to confirm that I was flying the airplane. This would keep everyone on the same page for landing grades, flight times, and a host of other important details that could easily get lost in the shuffle.
"Roger, Two Zero Two, keep it coming... Come right...okay. Hold there...hold it. Looks good," said the LSO.
I scanned the darkness in front of me. I could see nothing but cold, sapphire stars in every direction. Frantically I swept the dark sky, vainly hoping for a glimpse of my ship. Adrenaline coursing through my veins, nerves began to make their presence known and my stomach tightened. Then I spotted it, looming out of the darkness like an apparition, gleaming in the faint light.
"Two Zero Two, Valkyrie, Ball, six point zero," I said.
"Roger, Ball," replied the LSO.
At this point things began to proceed faster than I was comfortable with. In spite of the hours spent in the simulators, I felt like I was hitting a twenty M.P.H. exit ramp in a car with the cruise control stuck in the "Resume/Accel" position. As the LSO guided me to the deck, I struggled to keep ahead of the airplane, but I was failing miserably, and with each correction fell further and further behind. The SDF-1 was looming up at me now, and I could feel the sweat running down my back in a torrent.
During recoveries the arms of the SDF-1 were pivoted up in such a way that the pilots had a clear shot at the flight deck. In attack mode, the SDF-1 looked like a waiter or flight attendant holding a pair of trays overhead. My first pass was anything but picture perfect, and I was positively terrified as the carrier rushed relentlessly toward me. The ship filled the windshield, and as I came over the fantail of the carrier Prometheus' artificial gravity system tugged violently at my stomach. My reflexive instincts took over. Reefing back on the stick I shoved the thrust levers forward to the stops.
The slight delay in response sealed my fate. The nose rotated up, but the Valk continued its descent toward the deck for an additional instant. With an ass splitting thud we caromed off the fight deck back into space. With the left thrust lever past the detent into full burner and the right at only full military thrust, our airplane began a violent roll to the right. I braced my right hand against the canopy as death towered over me, switching the stick to my left.
"Gawddamn it, Framton, what the hell are you doing?!!!" Captain Barr demanded, slamming the throttles back to idle. "I've got the airplane," he screamed, jerking the stick out of my grasp.
"Kid Driver Two Zero Two is on the go," he huffed, rolling us wings level.
"Two Zero Two, roger. Straight out two miles for the downwind," replied the Air Boss.
"You stupid bastard! What was that all about?" he roared on the intercom.
"I'm-I'm-I'm sorry, sir. That gravity well just caught me by surprise," I stammered, cowering unconsciously at his admonishment.
"Framton, you were warned about that from day one! You should have expected it," he said disgustedly. I could see him in my mind, waving his hand dismissively in my direction. There was nothing but silence for several seconds. In my future I could see little more than a pink slip in my file and a permanent assignment to ground duty. The silence was deadly.
"Ok, let's try it again, shall we?" he asked rhetorically, after what seemed an eternity.
"Aye, sir," I managed.
I turned the airplane to the left and entered the downwind for the carrier. "Kid Driver Two Zero Two downwind."
"Two Zero Two, roger. Signal Charlie," replied the Air Boss.
One of the conditions that weighed in my favor this day was the complete absence of other traffic. I was already a nervous wreck, and the thought of trying to maintain my distance from other aircraft while flying an approach would have been too much for me to handle.
I went through my downwind checklist--gear down, flaps down, hook down--and abeam the fantail started my turn into the ship. Flaps were useless in space, but since we were to fly this airplane in the atmosphere as well, we were trained to configure the airplane the same way regardless. This reduced the chances of forgetting something when we returned to a world governed by the laws of aerodynamics. My approach this time was flown as a standard Day/Clear Weather Recovery Pattern--basically a continuous left turn with a short straight and level on the downwind, followed by a shallow one-hundred-eighty degree turn to final (Figure 2). As I banked through the last forty-five degrees of my final turn I caught sight of the ball. "Perfection," I thought to myself.
"Paddles contact. Two Zero Two, you're at one and a quarter miles, call the Ball," came the LSO.
"Two Zero Two, Valkyrie, Ball, five point three, Framton," I said. Except for a slight overshoot on my final turn, this approach was on the money all the way down.
"Looking good, Two Zero Two. A little left," said the LSO, correcting for my overshoot.
The tiny ship quickly consumed my peripheral vision as I concentrated on the optical landing system. Staring at the deck, we were told, was a one way ticket to a ramp strike. I cleared the fantail and fought the tug at my gut. With a bone-jarring thud we slammed onto the deck and caught the fourth wire of the six available--a three wire trap being optimal. The three-second deceleration from 140 knots to zero was unbelievably gentle.
"Yeah!!" I allowed myself, clapping my hands together. "Shit hot!!"
I could feel the coldness in my instructor's voice as he hissed, "Now's not the time to celebrate, Framton. We've got three more traps to go. Let's keep our minds in the game, shall we?"
"Yes, sir," I replied. His chastising didn't matter. I was feeling great. Previous errors disappeared in an instant of triumph as bugles and trumpets sounded in tribute inside my head. I had just made my first truly huge step toward entering the elite of the Robotech Defense Force, and could hardly control my elation.
The rest of the flight went off without a hitch. Three shots and three traps quickly followed. My final pass was perfect and I caught the number three wire. As we were directed to the elevator on the starboard side of the flight deck I was grinning from ear to ear--there was little doubt that I had set a fine standard for the others in my class to follow--and I looked forward to the debriefing. Captain Barr would be sure to praise my fine airmanship.
Chapter Ten -- Mr. Cool
After signing the Valkyrie over to the plane captain, Captain Barr stormed off the hangar deck without saying a word. A cold chill went down my spine and I was struck with a gut wrenching churning in my stomach. I searched the plane captain's face for a hint of support. He shrugged and walked out of sight underneath the nose of the Valk. With an exasperated sigh I unstrapped myself from the airplane and climbed wearily out of the cockpit. My flight suit was soaked with perspiration, my throat was as dry as a desert, and I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders. My excited calls of "shit hot" seemed a distant memory now, the thoughts of a once promising career as an aviator doomed.
A trio of maintenance techs grumbled about the ignorance of student pilots as they inspected the scrapes on my trainer's exhaust outlets, irrefutable evidence of the feebleness of my first landing attempt. I walked dejectedly across the hangar deck, narrowly avoiding death at the hands of a tow tractor driver, and made my way to the ready room. Captain Barr was sitting at a table with a cup of coffee in hand, furiously scribbling notes on a small pad.
"Mister, I don't know what the hell you were thinking up there but you are a clusterfuck as an aviator!" he bellowed, looking up from his notepad. "You used too much fuel, you fly like you have lead gloves, and you have horrible CRM," he said, seething. CRM is the acronym for Cockpit Resource Management--i.e. wise use of the available equipment and/or personnel in an aircraft cockpit.
"Sir, I can explain--"
"Damn it Framton that's your problem! You talk too gawddamned much. You rationalize everything. Do you really think--do you really think--that you are going to be able to rationalize your way out of a situation where you are outnumbered ten to one, with no fuel, no ammo, no wingman, and five well-trained, pissed off enemy fighter pilots glued to your ass hell bent on killing you?!!" he roared, rising from his chair. Then, jabbing a thick finger in my face to accent each syllable, "You cannot simply do your best. Your best is not going to be good enough if you expect to live very long. Perfection is what is demanded. You make a mistake up there and you are a short-lived fireball and a footnote in someone's history book!"
"Sit there and shut up!" he hollered, turning his back to me. "Now, it just so happens that I am in a good mood today, and it just so happens that your last two traps show you have potential. As a result, I'm not going to pink chit you--although I damned well could. But I expect improvement. I don't care how you do it, but I want your fuel curve to look like this one next time," he said, handing me a piece of paper with a graph on it. "If you are even one pound short on any point along that curve you are out of this program. Do I make myself clear?"
"Yes, sir," I said.
"Very good. Get out of my ready room," he demanded.
With that I took off.
Because of the limited number of training aircraft, our training schedule was staggered in such a way that each student got one hop every other day. My second hop was scheduled for Wednesday afternoon. I decided to get some answers from the only man I could think of to ask--Lieutenant Brubaker.
I tracked the Lieutenant down outside a local haunt called "Atlantis." Half bar/restaurant, half video game room/dance floor, it was a popular place for aviators to go to get away from the realities of war.
"Lieutenant Brubaker, sir?" I queried.
"Jeff! Have a seat," he said, shaking my hand. "What'll you be drinking?"
"Oh nothing, sir. Training you know," I said. The reality was I just didn't like booze much--the truthful response seldom being the macho one.
"I see," he nodded, an understanding look on his face, a twinkle in his eye. "Don't worry, I don't drink either," he whispered, winking conspiratorially. I chuckled at that one. "So what can I do for you today, Jeff?"
"Energy Management, sir."
"Energy Management!" he exclaimed. "Ol' Captain Barr has his hooks into you, eh?" I nodded. Brubaker laughed aloud. "Don't worry about him. He's all bark and no bite, really. Hell. He wants you to succeed, he's just got a hard nosed way of doing it that's all."
"He threatened to wash me out."
"Yeah. He does threaten that from time to time. Don't worry. Unless you just royally screw up he isn't going to wash you out."
"He wants me to get my curve like this one," I said, handing my graph to the Lieutenant.
"Shi-hit," he laughed. "You'll never get your curve this low. Not unless you have someone tow you."
"He wants it there or else," I said.
"Forget it," the Lieutenant said, waving his hand. "He's raising the bar so you'll jump higher. He doesn't want you to make it to this point, he just wants you to keep getting closer. After all, what is close? Is one close to zero or is one tenth? How about .0001? Is that close? Don't you see? It's all relative, Jeff."
"He says I fly like I have lead gloves."
"Well you probably do, kid. That's normal. Don't sweat it so much. Let me give you a piece of advice--learn to stay ahead of the airplane. Visualize where you will be ten seconds ahead of where you are. Then expand that in small increments. Before you know it you'll feel like you are driving a car. Trust me on that one."
"Sounds good to me, sir," I said.
"You'll be okay, kid," he said, looking at his watch. "Well, duty calls. Gotta' go fly."
"I guess you're in the right business for it, sir," I smiled.
"Damn right," he said as he stood up and made his way to the door. "It beats the hell out of having a real job."
That night I found myself down in the barracks snack lounge, its wood panel walls and large windows with a view of the tree-lined sidewalk outside lending an air of tranquility to a discordant world. Because of the comfortable furniture and easy access to vending machines, the snack lounge was a popular place for students to study. As I pored over my notes on energy management, I overheard a fellow student exclaim excitedly, "I'm soloing tomorrow!"
I peered up from my text at a thin, blue-haired, bespectacled teenager.
"Are you kidding?" queried a wiry, black-haired student sitting across the room from me.
"Yeah. I get to go up tomorrow by myself. I hope I can do it," said the blue-haired teen. "So far everything's been pretty easy. I should be just fine, I suppose."
"You have to be kidding me," I said, incredulously.
"Nope," he replied. "I'm dead serious."
"Congratulations, man. Jeff Framton," I said, extending my hand.
"Max Sterling," he replied. "We were in boot together weren't we?"
"Josh Kaufman," came a voice from across the room. It was the kid sitting across from me. "I was in your class, too," he said smiling.
We shook hands all the way around.
Joshua Peter Kaufman
"Soloing tomorrow..." I mused aloud. "That must be some kind of record. How many hops have you had?"
"I've had two hops for a total of 3.9 hours," Max said.
"Wow!! That really must be some kind of record," Josh chimed in.
"Yeah, my instructor says he's never seen anyone do it this quickly. He says I'm a natural," Max beamed. "But I'm kinda' scared."
"Ah, think nothing of it. If you weren't ready they wouldn't sign you off," I assured him. "These airplanes are too valuable to take any chances."
"Yeah, I guess you're right," he countered.
For the next several hours, the three of us sat and talked, getting to know one another. As all students are wont to do we complained about our instructors, gossiped about our fellow student pilots, and secretly compared ourselves to one another, sizing up the competition and justifying our progress in relation to each other. Finally, Max yawned and announced his departure. He stood and headed for the door. "It was nice meeting you guys. I'd sure appreciate it if you'd come down and watch me tomorrow," he said, shaking our hands.
"It's a deal," Josh exclaimed, shaking Max's hand excitedly.
"You got it, Max," I said, slapping him on the back. "Give 'em hell buddy!"
"Thanks! See you tomorrow," he said, as he walked out the door.
"That is in-freaking-credible!" Josh exclaimed. "Can you believe that?"
"No I can't. I am so far behind that Valkyrie it's pathetic. Hell, I can barely handle the damned Battloid. I swear, those sticks are so touchy I almost collided with the SDF-1 and I was twenty miles away!" I exclaimed.
"Yeah, me too. Had the exact same problem," he said, gesturing with his index finger in the air. "So does everyone else but Max. He's some kind of flying genius," Josh noted.
"Still, there has to be a way to relax on those sticks," he said, rubbing his chin, a thoughtful expression on his face. "I'll figure out something."
"Well, when you do, let me know before they wash me out of here!"
"You bet. Well, guess I'll hit the rack for the evening, too. See you tomorrow at Max's flight," Josh said, shaking my hand.
"You bet. I'll meet you down here at 0630, how's that sound?"
"Sounds great," he said, and headed down the hall.
I arose from my slumber to the fitful wail of the alarm clock. Reaching angrily for the snooze button, I grabbed my glasses off the desk and tried to rouse myself into action. After dragging Waylan Green out of his rack I showered, dressed, shaved, put in my contacts, and made my way over to the snack room to meet Josh.
"Hey, Jake!" he exclaimed excitedly. "I think I figured it out!"
"Figured what out?" I asked, puzzled.
"The Battloid problem, duh."
"Ah, that one. Well, what did you figure out?"
"It came to me in a dream last night. I have to try it out first, then I'll tell you all about it," he said.
"Fine, fine. Josh, meet Waylan Green. Waylan, Josh Kaufman."
They shook hands, the wiry Josh and the Greek statue-like Waylan, and the three of us headed to the mess hall. As we walked through the mess's red metallic double doors I spotted Max sitting by himself at a far table. We made our way through the mess line, received our servings of French Toast and hash browns, and headed over to where Max was sitting. I pulled a chair up next to the blue-haired student pilot and introduced him to Waylan. Despite his claims to the contrary, Max looked as cool as ice--totally unruffled. I was completely taken aback by his calmness. We chatted nervously for about an hour between bites of food until the time came for Max to go suit up for his flight.
"I gotta' split," he said, picking up his tray.
"We'll be on deck," I assured him.
"Thanks guys." He flashed us a thumbs up and headed for the exit.
Peering after Max, Josh intoned, "I don't know how he does it."
"Neither do I," I said, shaking my head. "Neither do I."
We made our way to the port side observation station (OBSTAT) near the center of the Prometheus. As part of our training we were required to observe flight operations so we had no trouble getting into the OBSTAT. As we waited patiently we heard the Air Boss's communications with the deck crew.
"Kid Driver Two Zero Zero on deck. Prepare to spot, cat two."
We looked out of the observation porthole, which was level with the flight deck, and spied Max's Veritech coming up the starboard elevator.
"Kid Driver Two Zero Zero, L3 taxi," came Max's voice over the net.
"Kid Driver Two Zero Zero taxi cat two. Squawk zero four five zero."
"Roger, cat two for Zero Zero, squawking 0450."
Following the directions of the plane director, Max taxied his Veritech toward the catapult and was bolted in. The deck crew scrambled furiously about his Valkyrie making sure everything was in order before slinging it into the vastness of space. The jet blast deflectors (JBD's) raised into position and the deck crewmen scattered from underneath Max's Veritech. The Cat Officer raised her wand above her head, twirled it... Blue flame gushed from the exhaust nozzles of Max's Valkyrie and his fighter, restrained by the catapult launch bar, lurched slightly like a cheetah tugging at its leash. A salute from Max quickly followed... Wand to the deck and bang! Max's Veritech was hurtled effortlessly off the Prometheus' flight deck.
As Max's trainer disappeared into the blackness we had no idea that we were about to witness one of the most incredible flights in the history of carrier aviation. Max entered his downwind for the carrier and we could hear the LSO over the net.
"Paddles is up."
We waited with anticipation watching Max's Veritech on the monitor. A chill went down my spine as I sought out the Valk hurtling through the cold and ominous blackness. The controller turned Max back to the ship and he approached the carrier as steady as a rock. Mr. Cool, I thought to myself.
"Paddles contact. Kid Driver Two Zero Zero you're at a mile and quarter, call the ball."
"Kid Driver Two Zero Zero, Valkyrie, Ball, twelve point oh," came Max's reply.
The Veritech approached the ship without wavering.
"Looking good, Zero Zero," the LSO said encouragingly.
I jumped to the view window and caught sight of Max's landing lights. As if guided by a rope Max's approach was dead on the money. The LSO gave him the cut signal and with a jarring thud Max's Veritech slammed onto the deck catching the number three wire.
"Yahoo!" we screamed collectively, hi-fiving each other. "He did it!"
"Unreal!" Josh said. "The LSO didn't even have to say anything to him!!"
"Mr. Cool strikes again," I hollered.
I was completely amazed--stunned even--that this slight, almost anemic-looking kid could handle a fighter in that way. I wondered if it wasn't luck as Max's Valkyrie was bolted to the catapult once again. The cat stroked "00" off the deck, and amazingly, Max made another perfect trap. The sequence was repeated three more times, and not once did the LSO make a single correction or adjustment to Max's approach.
It was on Max's sixth attempt, however, that something went seriously wrong. As I watched the Veritech approaching the ship on the monitor, I saw what looked like a brief fireball. Max's Valk slewed out of control less than a mile and a half from the carrier, rolling to its right and pitching up at the same time, its belly flashing reflected light at us as it trailed flame and reaction mass.
"Zero Zero eject! Eject! Eee-ject!!! " came the LSO's frantic cry as the Veritech hurtled toward the ship, gyrating and spinning wildly.
I lunged toward the observation window and watched in horror as Max's Veritech tumbled and spun end over end several times, rushing toward the fantail of the carrier the whole way. "Jesus get OUT! " I screamed, vainly pounding on the glass in front of me.
But Max did not eject, and as we watched, the Valkyrie tumbled two more times before righting itself. With what had now become trademark precision, Max again lined himself up perfectly with the ship.
"Two Zero Zero, Valkyrie, Ball, three point three," he intoned, his voice steady, almost bored.
"Holy shit!" I said, glancing briefly at Waylan. "Can you believe that crazy mother?"
"Roger, Zero Zero. Can you trap this pass?" asked the LSO in rapid fire fashion.
"Affirmative, Zero Zero will trap," Max replied.
"Roger, Zero Zero, keep it coming," the LSO said.
The air boss ordered damage control crews to stand by and raised the nylon barricade. Unlike those found on carriers of the twentieth century, the "net"--as the barricade was called--was completely automated and could be activated/deactivated with the touch of a button. If there were any reason to believe an aircraft could not be safely arrested on the carrier, it would be flown into the net. A twenty-foot-high fence of vertical nylon straps, the barricade was designed to stop a thirty-ton aircraft flown into it at two hundred knots. Although it was supposed to minimize damage to the aircraft, that was usually not the case. Leading edges, antennae, gear doors, etc., all took a pounding when flown into the barricade.
The net came up almost the instant Max's Valk slammed onto the deck at the three wire spot. The hook caught the wire then skipped over it, and Max's Veritech, one leg completely sheared off, slammed sideways into the net trailing sparks, debris, and flame. Damage control teams rushed to the Veritech and doused the plane with foam to cool the rear vernier thruster pack, lest it set off a horrendous explosion.
As the rescue team wrestled with the webbing, which was wrapped around the cockpit, a fire somehow broke out within the Veritech. The odds of a fire in the vacuum of space are next to astronomical, and this one could only have been fed by the aircraft's oxygen and vernier systems. As the Veritech continued to burn, smoke and flames began entering the cockpit--a sure sign of an electrical fire--and I could see Max pounding on the canopy with the heel of his knife in a desperate effort to break through the glass. Given the toughness of the Valkyrie canopy this was a futile gesture. I began to sweat and pray. If the fire in the cockpit got hot enough the ejection seats in Max's fighter would cook off and he would be crushed between his seat and the canopy.
As the rescue crew continued to struggle with the webbing, a burly fireman approached with a diamond saw and began cutting through the canopy. The fire grew in intensity as the saw blade sliced through the glass like a knife through butter. With one hand the fireman reached in and yanked Max out of the cockpit, before running like hell toward the side of the ship.
"Get clear! She's going to go!" another fireman yelled over the net. As deck crewmen scrambled out of the way the ejection seats in the Veritech fired. The two ejection seats blasted themselves randomly into the dark sky like a pair of bottle rockets, one of them hurtling a scant few inches over the head of a startled plane handler. The heat from the blast burned a hole through the cockpit wall and partially melted the shattered canopy remains. Shortly thereafter the vernier pack exploded and the entire jet went up in a fireball, flinging chunks of debris in all directions. Max's margin of safety amounted to six seconds.
The fireball dissipated instantly, snuffed by lack of oxygen, and the deck crew moved in again to begin the process of clearing the deck so that flight operations could resume. The charred remains of Kid Driver Two Zero Zero were shoveled onto a front end loader and taken below decks to the processing center, where they would be churned out as another Veritech fighter within a week's time.
As a medical team rushed Max to Sick Bay, I shoved my wide-eyed companions through the hatch and into the hallway. "Let's go check on him."
After weaving our way through the ship we made it to Sick Bay where we found Max lying on a table, eyes closed, his flight suit blackened with smoke. The acrid smell of charred rubber and polyester was unmistakable.
"Max! Are you okay, Max?!" I asked him, frantically.
His eyes opened slowly, first one, then the other, before they brightened. "Wow! Wasn't that something?!" he exclaimed, suddenly alive with vigor.
"You lucky bastard," I chided him. "What kind of a stunt was that?"
"Oh, I dunno," he said, eyes flashing. "You know what they say, 'Any landing you can walk away from...'"
The four of us burst into laughter all at once. It was an amazingly close call, but Max's flight was an unprecedented achievement, and there would be a great deal of celebration in the barracks that night--on both counts.
Chapter Eleven -- Of Pencils and Labels, Solos and Screams
That evening the members of Advanced Training Squadron Two held our version of a party in honor of Max Sterling. It was a mild one when compared to your standard college frat party, but for us it was the first chance in a good long time to let our collective hair down.
A quick inspection of the Flight Data Computers (FDC's) in Max's Veritech suggested that one of the titanium blades that made up the intake fan failed. It shattered, throwing out fragments that ripped through the fan containment shroud and ruptured a power conduit to the magnetic bottling equipment in Max's port engine. Without the magnetic bottling to protect it, the engine was directly exposed to the reactor's super-heated plasma. The automatic systems that are supposed to vent the reactors during such an occurrence failed to do so and the resulting explosion crippled Max's aircraft and threw it out of control.
Without the actual fan blade itself there was no way to prove what had happened, but all sources pointed to a tiny defect that was part of the fan when it left the factory. Known as a "Hard Alpha Inclusion" (HAI), it is an imperfection in titanium that is very hard and brittle. The size of a grain of sand, an HAI it is not detectable by ultrasound equipment if it is located adjacent to the surface being inspected, and it is only a matter of time before the stress imposed upon a defective blade causes it to fly apart.
The harsh reality of the situation was not lost on anyone. For all intents and purposes, Max should have died in a silent and intense disintegration of his aircraft. But such are the acts of fate, and it seemed fate was mercifully kind to Max Sterling. Had things been different, the greatest fighter pilot the world would ever see would have died a quick and tragic death without having fired a single shot in combat. I, for one, am glad things turned out the way they did.
Sitting in a corner of the room, Max, Josh, Waylan, and I relived the morning's experience. As we shared more than a few hearty laughs I had an inspiration. I stood in my chair and turned to face the gathering of student pilots there to celebrate Max's achievement.
"Gentlemen, may I have your attention for a moment." The room quickly fell silent. "I know that all of you in this room are aware of the events of today. I know that all of you here also are aware that a certain blue-haired aviator is one lucky fucking bastard!" I said, winking at Max. He smiled sheepishly as everyone laughed and guffawed. "But I think there is another more important issue at stake here. For those unaware of what I speak, allow me a moment to explain. Sometime between the time an aviator makes his first solo and the time he reaches his first squadron, naval tradition dictates that said puke receive a nickname. It is for this purpose that I come before you today."
"This morning it was my great disgust and displeasure to watch my fellow classmate demonstrate one of the worst landings I have ever seen. 'Take that flight deck!'" I exclaimed, slapping my palms together. The entire room burst into laughter. "Not only did he destroy a perfectly good trainer, but he managed to scare the shit out of everyone watching. Furthermore, it is my own belief that, despite his claims to the contrary, the LSO literally shit his pants!" Another burst of laughter. "The truth of the matter is, Mr. Sterling did not even have the decency to get scared! 'Yawn...Two Zero Zero will trap... Yawn,'" I said to yet another outburst of laughter.
"Now, in light of this evidence... In light of his unshakable calmness and coolness... In light of his unwavering confidence... I propose that LCPL Max Sterling, from this moment forward, be referred to by the moniker 'Igloo'-- or 'Iggy' for grins." That brought the house down.
Cheers of "Iggy" filled the room, and several students slapped Max encouragingly on the back. He blushed visibly, and cheers of "Speech! Speech! Speech! Speech!" echoed through the barracks. We shoved Max up on the center table and the room fell silent.
"I would--" he began, and was instantly cut off by shouts, jeers, and applause. He hopped off the table and every student in the room took an opportunity to shake his hand.
A moment of inspiration on my part landed Max the most important label of his flying career. In tactical situations, this unofficial nickname--or "call sign"--is often used as shorthand by aircrew in lieu of aircraft numbers or flight names. Like it or not this call sign, usually awarded for a demonstration of abject stupidity, generally sticks with an aviator for his entire career. An aviator could serve with another for twenty years and not know his real name, but his call sign is remembered forever. It is a cherished badge of arrival in Naval Aviation, and from that moment forward, in the elite inner circle spawned by that great naval tradition, Max would be known as "Igloo."
The following morning I was finishing my preflight walkaround when Josh Kaufman ran up to me waving a pair of pencils in the air in front of him.
"Jeff! Jeff! Check this out," he exclaimed.
"What are you so riled up about?" I asked.
"This is the solution to the Battloid problem!"
"The what? "
"The Battloid control problem! Look, take these and stick them between your fingers like this." He held his hand up, his outboard fingers over the pencil, his inboard fingers under it. "Fly the Battloid with these and you will relax on those sticks. If you don't, it will hurt!"
I was stupefied. "Uh, thanks."
"Good luck, man! It really works," he said, flashing me a thumbs up. "Give 'em hell."
The Plane Captain gave me a quizzical look, muttered something about aviators being crazy, and disappeared behind the Valk. Somewhat unsure as to whether or not Josh was sane, I climbed into the cockpit and strapped in. Taxiing my Valk to the catapult, I stared at the pencils Josh had handed me. As the catapult fired me off Prometheus' flight deck, I wondered if this wasn't his idea of a joke.
The trip to the practice area was extremely uncomfortable. I choked back nausea for as long as I could, but finally lost the battle. Remembering Captain Barr's admonition about cockpit pressurization, I wretched, and quickly put my faceplate back on. As we reached the practice area, the nausea had subsided somewhat, and I ran through some of the maneuvers covered in the simulator the previous two days.
During the Battloid maneuver sequence I was once again significantly over-controlling the Veritech. Desperate to solve the problem I grabbed the pencils, put them between my fingers as Josh had instructed, and maneuvered the Battloid through space. To my amazement, it worked! With the pencils in that position, anything other than a light grip on the sticks was extremely painful. It forced me to relax, and I found myself handling the Battloid just as I had in the simulators--flawlessly. I was ecstatic! When the maneuver sequence was completed, I quickly stuffed the pencils into my flight suit so Captain Barr would not see, though he was bound to wonder the reason for my miraculous improvement.
I trapped aboard ship with no problems, snagging the three wire, and as I taxied to the starboard elevator, an ear to ear grin quickly covered my face. I had conquered the beast!
After shutting the engines down I glanced at the fuel gauge. I had reduced my fuel consumption by thirty percent over my previous hop! Elation is not the appropriate word for what I felt, but it certainly approximates it. Josh's idea produced marked results, and in the debriefing Captain Barr was extremely complimentary. I left the Ready Room, pencils in hand, my ass completely intact!
I searched out Josh, and when I found him, I gave him a huge hug.
"You son of a bitch!" I exclaimed. "It really worked!"
"I told you it would! We need to share this with everyone else," he said excitedly.
"'Josh's Flying Pencil Principle,'" I mused.
We both laughed. Little did I know that the name would stick, and, thanks to "Josh's Flying Pencil Principle," ATS-2 would set a record as the highest performing squadron of SDF-trained students up to that point in time. In fact, ATS-2's performance was such that the "Flying Pencil Principle" would be incorporated officially into the Veritech Training Syllabus.
As we walked to the mess hall I was struck with another inspiration, and a perfectly appropriate nickname for Josh. It would have to wait for his solo.
After another three hops it was my turn to take a shot at Prometheus' deck by myself. Max's performance set an impossible standard to follow, and so I would not worry myself with being perfect--just competent. I was still fighting nausea, and I began to worry that I would never shake it. I made a point to stick some extra barf bags in the cockpit in case I needed them.
As I pre-flighted my Valkyrie, my mind drifted back to the day I first soloed in an airplane--my 16th birthday. It was a day filled with trepidation and omens. Hitting every red light on the way to the airport--don't go; running into my physician, Dr. Joe--you're going to get hurt; a pall of smoke off my right wingtip on my first landing--you're going to crash. The winds were terrible; I nearly lost the airplane on my first landing when the left wing dropped suddenly for no apparent reason; I was forced into a holding pattern behind an airliner; and on my last landing I was forced to swap runways. The controllers had me flying circles out there, and I am all but certain they loved every second of it! My instructor was pulling his hair out, Dr. Joe was pulling his hair out, and my mother was spending a fortune playing a video game in the pilot's lounge! It was one hell of a way to spend a birthday!
Now here I was, nauseous and nervous, about to strap myself into a thirty ton fighter in the middle of space with nothing but my own two hands to keep me from killing myself. What's more, my entire family would be watching from the observation deck on the SDF-1, so I felt even more pressure to do a good job.
I snapped out of my reverie and turned to see Captain Barr storming across the hangar deck.
"What's the hold up here?" he demanded.
"Sorry, sir. Just a little nervous," I stammered, my voice shaky.
"Well get over it!" he commanded. "You've been doing damned good. Just go out there and do what you've been doing. I wouldn't let you go if I didn't think you were ready," he said, putting a hand on my shoulder. "Just take it easy and you'll be great. Now get up there!"
I was astonished when the Captain shook my hand and slapped me on the back. I had always thought he was a complete ass, and his jovial manner caught me totally off guard.
"Aye, sir," was all I could manage to say.
As I placed my foot on the boarding ladder Captain Barr yelled to me and made his way in my direction.
Oh shit, I thought. Now what?
"I forgot to tell you... Do you know what the difference between a cockpit and a porcupine is?"
I scratched my head. "The difference between a cockpit and a porcupine... No, sir."
"The pricks are on the outside of a porcupine!" he laughed aloud. "Good luck!"
I felt some of the tension drain away as I climbed aboard the Valk and strapped in. My hands shook so badly that it took me a minute to turn and set my switches. I said a quick prayer, and, still shaking, moved the canopy position lever to CLOSED. The canopy descended and locked in position. With a quick glance around the area to ensure the intakes were clear, I initiated the auto start sequence. As the engines spooled up and stabilized, I ran through the checks and brought all the NAV and COM (Communications) systems online. The EFIS and GAPS displays came up in a flash of color, and I glanced up at the position board on the hangar wall to verify that they were lined up and calibrated. After the cockpit pressurization sequence was complete, I popped my ears and closed my faceplate. A quick glance over at the Plane Captain revealed to my surprise the face of Nate Morris.
"Good morning ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard Robotech Airlines Flight 206," he said on the Hangar Boss's radio with a wink.
That made me feel a lot better. "Hello Nate. Let's do this thing," I said with renewed confidence.
"Roger that," he replied, handing the radio back to the Hangar Boss. I watched him scramble underneath the Valk where he was doubtless removing the various safety pins for the landing gear. He popped back out in front of the aircraft and gave me the signals to cycle the various systems of the Valk, checking for leaks or inoperable equipment. When he was satisfied that the aircraft was okay he flashed me a thumbs up. A last glance at the cockpit showed everything was ready. Jerking my thumbs aft past my ears I gave Nate the "pull chocks" sign and at his signal, smoothly added power to taxi to the elevator. We exchanged the traditional salutes and I followed the Plane Handler's directions.
The hangar deck's inner air lock doors opened and I taxied onto the red square that marked the air lock itself. The door closed, the air lock was instantly depressurized, and the air lock's outer door opened. I stared out into the blackness of space, and with a silent prayer, added power to taxi onto the elevator. A light tap on the brakes brought my Veritech to a halt as the elevator quickly rose to the flight deck.
"Kid Driver Two Zero Six, L2 ready to taxi," I said over the net.
"Kid Driver Two Zero Six, taxi cat one, squawk zero-four-zero-zero."
"Cat one for Two Zero Six, squawking zero-four-zero-zero."
Following the directives of the deck crew I taxied into position and was bolted onto the catapult shuttle. The Cat Officer signaled me that it was time to pull the safety pins for my Valk's GU-11 55-mm gun pod and turret-mounted lasers. This was done so that, in spite of my all but nonexistent combat training, I would not be totally defenseless in the event of an enemy attack. I placed my hands on the glare panel to insure that I was clear of all armament switches and triggers. As the pins were being pulled I began to feel sick. I was by this time so nauseous that I could feel bile creeping up the back of my throat. I fought off the urge to vomit and went through my checks. At the Cat Officer's signal I spread my wings and tail, and box-cycled the controls. A final calculation and I flashed my weight board to the Cat Officer. I cycled my controls one last time--forward, aft, left, right, wiggle the rudder pedals ("In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen")--and I was ready to go. The Cat Officer, satisfied with the way my aircraft looked, raised her wand over her head and motioned it rapidly back and forth. I advanced the throttle to Max Power and locked my fingers through the console throttle brace. A final cockpit check and a quick salute to her...wand to the deck... BANG!
"B-yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!!!" I let out a blood curdling, hysterical scream as the cat fired me off the front of the ship.
"Jesus Christ!" I yelled at myself, looking over my shoulder as the carrier shrunk quickly in size. My scream surprised me. I was nervous, but I didn't think I was terrified. Well, an aviator's first solo cat shot is bound to be an unnerving experience, I reasoned.
"Two Zero Six start your turn," the Air Boss commanded.
I banked the Valk to the left as instructed and entered my downwind.
"Two Zero Six, downwind," I said.
"Paddles is up," came the LSO.
I continued downwind, and then made my turn to the ship, wondering the whole way if the small amount of fear I had felt on the cat stroke justified such an animated reaction. My approach was far from perfect. The LSO had to work me very hard all the way down the groove as I continually over-controlled the Veritech.
The ship began to drift away to the left of my windshield.
"Two Zero Six come left..."
I responded with an adrenaline enhanced movement of the stick. The ship began to fall off to the right of the windscreen now.
"Too much, come right," the LSO calmly instructed. "There. You're drifting, come right."
The carrier again began to spin away to the right, and again I over controlled. I was sliding back and forth all over the place. It seemed my Valk had a mind of its own.
"Come left easy now. Little more. Hold there Two Oh Six. Bring her up...no, too far, come down."
The hulking torso of the SDF-1 slid into view and I found myself out of position yet again. Corrections were gross and inappropriate, with each one exacerbating the situation. The LSO was doubtless ready to yank his hair out as the carrier again began to settle into its proper position in the windshield, filling it exponentially with each passing second.
"Steady... Come slightly right. There you go. Looks good."
The carrier rushed up at me with a relentless fury and with a resounding thud the Valk slammed onto the deck, the landing gear struts compressing solidly under the impact. Much to my relief, the hook grabbed the six wire after an approach more difficult than anything I could have possibly imagined. The deceleration was a bit more brutal than I was used to, but I had made my first solo trap! I was overjoyed!
Once again I taxied into position, and as my aircraft was bolted to the catapult, told myself to remain calm. It was to no avail. As the cat fired me off the bow, I again completely lost control. "B-yaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!!!" I wailed like a banshee for nearly half a mile. "What the hell is wrong with me?" I demanded. "Good Lord, I can't be that scared!"
"Uh, Two Zero Six, start your turn," came the Air Boss, a faint chuckle in his voice.
"Two Zero Six, roger," I said.
I made the pattern once again, and caught the five wire, though with little more ease than that of my first trap. Once again I was bolted to the cat. Once again I was fired off the bow. And once again I lost complete control of myself.
"B-yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!!!" I hollered just like before. "Good Christ what is wrong with me?! I am not scared any more, for Pete's sake!" I insisted, slapping the side of my helmet. I just could not understand why I was screaming so hysterically.
The Air Boss was chuckling noticeably when he again requested my turn to the downwind. The approach and landing were better this time, and I smashed onto the deck at the three wire spot. As I continued unimpeded down the deck I heard the LSO's warning.
"Bolter! Bolter! Bolter! Sorry Two Oh Six. Hook skip."
As sometimes happens on a carrier, the arrestor hook jumped the wire instead of snaring it, and I was forced to go around. I entered the bolter pattern and came aboard with a three wire trap. Congratulating myself for a perfect pass, I taxied to the catapult and was bolted in again. This time I concentrated on staying calm. As the cat stroked me off the bow I screamed the whole way down yet again!
"B-yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!!!" I realized then what was happening. When I saluted the Cat Officer I unconsciously inhaled deeply. The sudden acceleration of the cat stroke was forcing the air out of my lungs, resulting in a hysterical scream. My discovery came too late, however, for the laughter in the background was unmistakable as the Air Boss requested that I turn downwind.
After rounding the pattern--blushing uncontrollably the entire way--I trapped again, grabbing the three wire, and when the cat fired me off this time I was ready. Instead of inhaling when saluting the Cat Officer, I exhaled. The result was a hysteria-less launch. I was utterly and completely relieved, and made my next two traps without any screaming, yelling, or boltering. The snickering on the radio continued as I taxied to the hangar deck, but I could not have cared less. I had arrived. I was now a carrier pilot!
Chapter Twelve - Graduation!
As I taxied to the hangar deck I was met by the Terrible Trio--Josh, Max, and Waylan. In their hands was a banner that proclaimed for all the world to see: WELCOME HOME YAH YAH FLIGHT!
"Oh gawd..." I muttered in embarrassment.
My vise-like grip on the stick resulted in an inadvertent depression of the mike button each time the catapult fired me off the deck, thereby transmitting my uncontrolled scream for everyone to hear. No wonder the Air Boss was chuckling! I climbed triumphantly out of the cockpit and received handshakes from my three compatriots.
"Congratulations, 'Yah Yah,' " Josh said to me, emphasizing the Yah Yah. It was then I realized that my comical first solo flight had landed me a call sign: Yah Yah.
"Thanks," I replied, suddenly very confident, very hyper. "Let's go celebrate!"
As we made our way into the Ready Room I repeated the new nickname to myself quietly, "Yah Yah."
"Yeah, yeah!" Max exclaimed in sudden reply, dancing in a circle.
I don't know what it was. Perhaps it was the way he said it. Perhaps it was the dance he danced. Whatever the reason, Max's comment came across as completely hysterical, and we roared with laughter about that, and my new call sign until our stomachs hurt. It had been a truly great day, and our collective jubilance was appropriate. I had entered into the most elite fraternity of people, and the high was one I would not come down from for quite some time.
By the end of the week Josh and Waylan both made their Carrier Qualification/Solo Flights, and I took the opportunity to really rib Josh. Although not nearly as derisive as "Yah Yah," the nickname I had chosen for Josh was equally appropriate--and far more ironic. Josh's "Pencil Principle" brought back memories of the oversized pencils our undeveloped motor skills required us to use in Kindergarten. In that way at least, we were the aerial equivalent of Kindergartners. Coupled with Josh's slight stature, "Husky" was a perfectly appropriate call sign, and I made certain to point this out to him. Waylan picked up the moniker "Donis," which was short for "Adonis," the classical Greek ideal of masculine beauty. Igloo, Yah Yah, Husky, and Donis, the circle was now complete.
Over the next few weeks our training schedule became even more intense. As more students completed solo hops we began working with our instructors in groups. Our squadron was made up of three squads of six student pilots each. The members within each squad were divided into three Fire Teams of three pilots each. Since Veritechs operated in a limited infantry role, the Fire Team--derived from the Fire Team of the United States Marine Corps, which had long before proven its effectiveness--was a splendid way to divide quickly into highly mobile, autonomous units at a moment's notice. It was at this level that we began to learn formation flying, gunnery, and dogfighting.
I suffered under the tutelage of a young Second Lieutenant (2LT) named Chris Lehman, and it was my impression that he had a rather sizable chip on his shoulder. With wet-look black hair and a child's face, he seemed more at home in a dance club sipping cola than the cockpit of a fighter plane. It became readily apparent that the young Lieutenant was quite upset at having been thrown into the role of instructor, rather than that of a combat pilot.
Our first hop with 2LT Lehman was the Syllabus B-1 Formation Training Flight (Introduction to Formation Flying). While practicing some simple tail-chase maneuvers in the practice area, an over-eager Skull Team pilot, returning from a boring Combat Air Patrol, bounced our formation. [As the reader will note, traditional aviation terms are often applied to space operations]. The Veritech plunged through the middle of the formation, scaring the shit out of all of us. I immediately broke to the right out of pure reflex as the other members of the flight scattered in other directions.
"Fighter pilot bastard!" the Lieutenant growled over the net. He hissed the words in the harshest manner I have ever heard, accenting every consonant. I noticed later that every time we were around when a scramble call was sounded he would mumble the phrase in the same hate-filled way. The reason for his attitude was now obvious. 2LT Lehman wanted to fly combat more than anything and was being denied the opportunity. We were kindred spirits. I really felt sorry for the poor guy!
Our early formation flights were a great deal of fun. In the briefings Lieutenant Lehman would simply say, "Follow me," and then head to his fighter. I flew as the "Tail End Charlie," the last Valk in the daisy chain (trail) formation. Lieutenant Lehman would start with shallow, gentle maneuvers, building to some very wild and wicked 2.5 G (close to the maximum acceleration a Valk could attain in space) breaks and reversals. Being at the tail of the formation I had to stay on my toes, since even the slightest maneuver at the front of the formation was exponentially magnified as it was translated rearward. It was like being at the tip of the "Cracking Whip" we used to do when we were kids at the skating rink, and after overcoming the nausea that stubbornly clung to me I learned to love it!
As we progressed, Lieutenant Lehman began flying dogfights against us, with each student attempting to "shoot him down". My first tangle with the Lieutenant began with a head to head pass at a closure rate of about 650 knots. As we passed one another he called "fight's on." At first, the Lieutenant played easy. I pitched through the relative vertical, straining over my left shoulder for a glimpse of his aircraft. I spotted him heading away from me, straight & level, and pulled the nose through, placing the pipper of my gunsight on his Veritech. I bumped the throttle to Max Power in an attempt to close the distance on him. As I was about to enter into gun range he made a sharp break to his left. Still "inverted," I rolled right and turned toward him, but my high speed (Delta-V) made it impossible to follow him. With incredible ease he was on my tail, and I could do nothing to shake him. I learned then and there the importance of staying patient and precise. Overshooting in the frictionless vacuum of space is a very easy thing to do, and the adage "Speed is Life" does not always apply. If the fight had been for real, I would have died a swift death.
In the debriefing Lieutenant Lehman taught me a way to recover from the predicament I'd just encountered. "Flip off the ACS and pull back on the stick. The nose will come up, and although you'll be flying 'backwards,' your gunsight will be on the bogey. It's a tricky move, but if you find yourself unable to run away it may save your ass." I took those words to heart--and save my ass they would indeed.
Lieutenant Lehman effectively imparted his knowledge on us in lesson after lesson. With the aggressiveness that comes with youth we developed rapidly, and on 16 October 2009, our class graduated. At the end of a grueling ten week training schedule ATS-2's per student average was sixty-five hours flight time and three hundred seventy hours simulator time. This worked out to 6.5 flight hours and 37 simulator hours per student per week--a whopping 41.5 hours per week in the cockpit--an amazing number.
The pride we each felt upon receiving the wings indicative of a Space-Qualified Carrier Pilot during a brief ceremony aboard Prometheus was unmistakably written on our faces. The prospect of dying was the furthest thing from our minds as we let out a collective cheer. A person viewing our excited hugs of congratulations would have thought we were graduating from high school, when in fact we were a day away from laying our lives on the line in the give and take of death. The intense and arduous process of producing a squadron of fighter pilots had again come to its completion, and many of the smiles on the hangar deck would soon be erased forever--long before the SDF-1 reached Earth.
I was promoted to Corporal (CPL)--as were Max, Waylan, and Josh--and received orders to report to Fighter Squadron 12 (VF-12) aboard Prometheus. We were given one day off, and I jumped at the opportunity to see the love of my life. I exchanged hugs with my three friends and, with my shiny new gold wings pinned neatly on my chest, scrambled out of the hangar deck with record speed. The clock was ticking.
I had to see Rebeckah immediately.
As I collected my liberty pass from the duty officer I could think of only one thing--Rebeckah. The time spent away from her had intensified my love for this most beautiful and devoted girl. I was slowly transforming from a high-strung teenager into a man, and with that came the feelings of responsibility and duty. I grabbed a cab to the downtown area and made a couple of stops, the first at a flower shop and the second a jewelry store. I knew what I had to do.
I rang the doorbell at Beki's house, adjusting my uniform self-consciously. The door opened slowly and I was completely taken aback by her beauty. She wore a simple white blouse and blue mini-skirt, with a pair of white high-heels. I have never seen anything more beautiful. I just stood there, roses in hand, for what seemed like hours, staring at this angel of a woman. As tears ran down her cheeks she leapt into my arms, and I held her close. I kissed her there by the doorway over and over again.
"I love you, I love you, I love you," I said, as I held her face in my hands. "As God is my witness I love you."
"I love you," she said. "I missed you so much."
We kissed for a long time, right there in front of the house. They were strange, those kisses. I had always hated the idea of getting married because of the juvenile fear of kissing the bride in public--a prospect I considered potentially embarrassing--and yet here I was, kissing in view of anyone and everyone who cared to drive by or peek out their front window. Our lips parted, and I was shaking nervously as I fumbled for a small black box in the front pocket of my uniform blouse.
"Case..." I managed, going to one knee. "We've been through a lot together. If it hadn't been for the thought of you, I would never have made it through this." I watched the tears streaming down her cheeks, as I continued. "It would be the greatest honor of my life...to have your hand in marriage. Beki, will you marry me?" I placed the ring on her finger, with hands that trembled noticeably.
"Yes! Yes..yes..yes!" she said between sobs. I was thrilled! I felt incredibly lightheaded and had to brace myself against her for a moment. I couldn't believe that a woman so wonderful as this would want me. I kissed her again, feeling the whole time like I would awaken from a dream at any moment. I pinched myself as we walked into the house to share the good news, and much to my relief found myself fully awake, the happiest man in the universe.
That evening, after spending the day with my family, we went to an Italian restaurant, the name of which escapes me to this day. There I hooked up with Josh, Waylan, and Max. Beki was resplendent in a beautiful silk dress she had made for my return, and the entire restaurant fell silent when she walked through the door. I introduced her to my three friends. Waylan pulled a chair out for her, and we each grabbed a seat.
"Man, can you believe it? We made it!" Waylan exclaimed, pounding the table. "We really freakin' made it!"
I knew exactly how he felt. I'd made it twice this day and could not have been happier.
"What squadron did you pull?" I asked.
"VF-12," Waylan said. "I'm in the navy now," he sang jokingly.
"No shi--I mean, no kidding," Josh said, putting a hand to his mouth. Then, half rising from his chair, "Pardon me, ma'am."
Beki giggled, "That's quite alright, Josh."
"Well, I drew VF-12 myself. What are the odds of that?" Josh asked. "How about you Max?"
"SVF-31. That's a SPACY squadron," he said, dejectedly, referring to the space branch of the RDF. "Guess the party ends for us here, huh?" He asked the question in a sad manner.
"No way Max," I insisted. "I drew VF-12, and Squadron 31 is now a Prometheus squadron so we'll still be together. Nobody's gonna' mess with the Four Musketeers, right?!"
"Right!!" Josh and Waylan exclaimed, slamming fists on the table, rattling every glass in the restaurant..
"Smile Max, ol' buddy, there's no need to worry about a thing. Besides, I'm about to get married to this beautiful girl here, so cheer up!" I exclaimed.
"Hold everything! You're getting married?" Josh asked, incredulously.
"Married?" Max asked. "You must be in love or something," he said, waving his hand in my direction.
"I am indeed," I said smiling, turning to face this beautiful woman. We stared at one another for a brief moment, our eyes expressing sentiments that could not be stated in words.
"Please, I must intervene," Josh said, looking at Beki with a mischievous look in his wide brown eyes. "Ma'am, you can do much better than this bum! Look at him? I mean, he's got to be the ugliest guy aboard this ship! I urge you to reconsider and proudly volunteer my services."
I punched him on the arm. "You clown."
"Congratulations!" he said, shaking my hand. "I think that is great!" Then standing on the table, "Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention please?!" The restaurant fell silent. "I am proud to announce the impending marriage of my good friend and fellow fighter pilot, CPL Jeff Framton, and the lovely and gracious Beki Casey. A toast to my friends. Congratulations!"
The customers and staff of the restaurant, weary of month after month of nothing but bad news, death, and destruction, toasted us then broke into applause. I was touched at Josh's gesture, and the restaurant management graciously provided our meal on the house. The food was excellent, and because of our recommendations to that effect, would become a popular hangout for pilots in the mood for a hearty meal and relaxed atmosphere.
After a wonderful evening of laughter and conversation it was time to leave. As my friends climbed into their cab I wished them well, and Beki and I went our own way. A glance at my watch showed that time was running out, and we made our way to her upstairs bedroom where we fell asleep in each other's arms, as happy as two people could possibly be.
Jason W. Smith
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. The author has not accepted any remuneration for this work.HTML by Robert Morgenstern
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