Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Day of Days

Date: 12 March 2008
Location: USS Nimitz, off the coast of Okinawa

Family and Friends-

Sometimes this job is just ridiculous. Like the attached picture (which has nothing to do with this story, but is still pretty cool, our squadron jet keeping up – quite unexpectedly -- relations with the Russians !). You look back on the day you just had, not really comprehending it actually happened. It seemed so real, TOO real, at the time, but when you sit down in the comfort of your own room (and you don't really appreciate the comfort of your own room, even if it is shared with 5 other dudes, until a day like today) to sit and ruminate over it, you can only imagine that it must have been a dream. And thus I write to understand it.

The day started out normally enough. Get up, grab some chow, roll into the ready room an hour before the brief. A few changes that we weren't aware of – namely that this would be the first time I would be flying the re-tanking jet so I could get familiar with the systems involved in air-to-air refueling. We were scheduled to do a low level, section (2-plane) bombing mission against a random point in the ocean. From the outset, we realized this probably wasn't going to happen, because a quick glance outside showed that there are broken and overcast cloud layers at about 2000 feet, and this means we don't have our requisite weather minimums.

We launch anyway as scheduled to get the tanking familiarization out of the way, and maybe practice some GPS guided munitions practice up high. Before we launch, the actual tanker who launched 45 minutes before us comes over the radio with a pilot weather report and tells all concerned that there are very few pockets of clear air between the deck and 23,000 feet.

The launch, however, goes off as planned, and we are the first off the deck. We had initially briefed to rendezvous with my lead aircraft at 16000 feet, but passing that altitude and still in the clouds, we audible a rendezvous at our backup of 23k. Finding this clobbered as well, and knowing our mission is probably not going to happen anyway, we keep climbing to see how thick the clouds are. We finally break out on top at 31k. When we get up there, I amusingly tell my WSO, "Wow, this is the highest I've ever been before…" He later relates that once he hears this (he being a LtCmdr with 15 years in various jets), silently tells himself, "oh, boy its gonna be one of those days…"

We finally locate our lead and surprisingly enough, he has found a patch of clear air about 40 miles from the ship in the mid teens, so we make it over there and rendezvous with him. On the way over, a flight of three Hornets from the Marine squadron pass in front of and below us, which didn't seem odd at the time, but later we would unexpectedly be meeting up with them in a place far from the boat. Anyway, we manage to get my re-fueling tanker stuff out of the way, dive through the layers to see if anything below is workable, and unsurprisingly, it isn't.

Checking in with the ship's approach controllers, they marshal us Case III, which means that the weather is pretty bad near the ship, and stack us at unusually high altitudes. They did so thinking there was clear air for us to hold in while we waited about 30 minutes for the launch before us to complete. This was not the case, and we start hawking our wing lines and canopy to ensure ice isn't accumulating on the jet (ice can only form where moisture is present, and this is especially true at higher altitudes where the temperature is below freezing and in clouds). Fortunately, we push at our assigned time, and make our way down.

When descending out of the Case III marshal stack, the controllers use two discrete frequencies depending on where we are from the ship. As we got closer and further down, they requested the usual switch. We went to the frequency we were directed to, and all hell was breaking loose. My windscreen was awash in rain, and even though it is 2 in the afternoon, I have to dim my displays and put up my tinted visor because it is so dark. Both of our precision approach methods are down, so the pilots coming aboard are being directed over comms as to where they are on glideslope and azimuth. Additionally, the ship keeps turning to chase wind such that the direction of our runway literally keeps moving in a circle. You are on centerline one moment, and the next instant an invisible line drawn from you to the ship (granted 10 miles away) has you coming at it perpendicularly.

Anyway, I've never seen conditions this bad. Over the freq we hear guys ahead of us with the dreaded "CLARA SHIP" call when they are on final approach to the boat. Clara, in naval aviation terms, means you don't see something. A simple "clara" means you don't see the ball telling you where you are in terms of altitude, and is somewhat common. The Landing Signals Officers (LSO) can talk you back into a position to see the ball, and execute a landing. Clara Ship means you cant see the ship. At all. You are three quarters of a mile (in todays case, even closer), flying 140 mph, descending into the unknown, trusting only the instruments in front of you and the calming voice of God coming through your headset. Imagine driving in the worst thunderstorm you can imagine, and you cant even see the lights of the cars in front of you. That's pretty much what it is, except three dimensional, with that third dimension (altitude) being the most critical element. But like I mentioned, Paddles (our nickname for the LSO's, from the days when they literally used to wave paddles around to let pilots know where they were on glideslope – which is why we call their job "waving a pass"…anyway), is talking us down as he can see our lights cutting through the rain and mist.

My first attempt at this I get waved off (meaning I have to go around) as soon as my WSO calls CLARA ship. The winds were out of limits for landing, so they just sent me around. Normally this wouldn't be a big deal, but since I'm flying a tanker platform, and oh by the way we are carrying the unexpended practice bombs and their associated rack too, the amount of fuel I have is a lot less than it usually is (we have a max weight with which we can land at, and the more things you put on the jet, the less fuel you can have when you land, as the weight of fuel is the only variable that can be altered. You start out with a lot more fuel, which is nice, but in the end there is always a tradeoff). So basically, the next pass its either trap, or divert to a nearby Air Force base.

The guy ahead of us got waved off as well, and he makes it around. He happened to be on of the Marines earlier mentioned. Except at the last minute, they change the final bearing on him by 30 degrees. Imagine coming into a commercial airport and all of a sudden the runway shifts to the right. He manages to make it over to his perceived center line in time, and has a great approach going, considering he cant see anything. We can hear Paddles telling him in their most relaxed voice, "you're on glideslope, a little come left, on glideslope, on centerline…" and then an exasperated, but calm "waveoff, waveoff, winds." The guy had the approach suitcased, and then bam, at the last minute, he gets sent away. From Tower: "311, you signal is Divert." They aren't even bothering with in flight refueling at this point because the weather is so bad, so they just send him off to the Air Force base 150 miles away.

And then it is my turn. This is the point at which the out of body experience begins. They talk about training taking over, and you don't really appreciate that until it actually happens. Your body just does what it has been seasoned to do time and again. It felt eerily like a simulator, except we never hear the reassuring "okay, you're on freeze now, you can come on out," Anyway, I admit I really didn't consciously know what was going on. My hands just moved. I tip over at 3 miles, and descend. The controller tells me to take 600 feet (in retrospect, this was a bad move, because as the later talk on indicates, when I heard the first low call, I became spring loaded to put on power when I didn't necessarily need to). I descend. The instruments that give us instant lineup and glideslope are still down, so Im doing this all based on rough numbers. My heart is racing, but I am consciously trying to control my breathing and wiggle my toes, which actually really helps. The controller tells me to call the ball. My WSO responds "CLARA ship" again. I hear the paddles talk on. "You're LOW…you're LOW coming up…good correction…you're a little high…lined up left, right for lineup…call the ball when you have it…you're a little high…right for lineup…" "Ball." I have a ball, but I cant see line up…for all I know Im going to hit the Paddles shack on the left side of the ship or the superstructure on the right. "Roger ball…a little high, easy with it…EASY with it…come left…right for lineup" (at this point I can hear the collective silent prayers as I see the ball zoom off the top of the lens and I desperately try to will it back on – a stable ball means you will more than likely trap)…"power back on, bolter bolter bolter. ARRGGH!!! I missed all the wires.

"113, your signal is divert, take heading of 120, climb at your discretion, contact Strike." I guess I actually expected that to happen, and whaddya know it did. I was going to Japan.

The only time I had done an emergency profile was in the simulator in a jet that was relatively clean of external stores. This time I had a lot of extra drag, and a 100 knot headwind at altitude. We are at a fuel state of 4,300 lbs, burning 7,000lbs per side per hour during the climb. I know that we will make all this up when we eventually descend, but it's a bit scary to see your fuel march down, with most of the distance left to travel. We make it to 40,000ft (a new altitude record again!) bring the power back to idle (fuel flow, 800lbs per side, whew!) and descend. That part was uneventful except for the icing we got and the associated caution which makes life exciting, but soon enough we were back into warm air, the air base was right as advertised, and we landed uneventfully. We landed with 2000 lbs of gas, and after flying out at the ship for so long, being at an airfield with 12,000 feet of runway as opposed to the 850' we have to work with felt extremely strange, and luxuriously long. Two of the Marine hornets were there, as well as another Navy hornet who had tried to tank, didn't get any flow from the hose after numerous plugs after miraculously finding some clear air to do so in, and made the quick decision to call uncle and head our way. He landed with 800lbs of gas. That, to a jet guy, is pretty much the scariest thing ever. We also had a Prowler land after us.

Of course, the Air Force wouldn't give us gas at first because we didn't have our credit card or authorization in hand to get fuel. I kid you not. It took an hour of haggling to finally convince them we were who we said we were, we didn't have any documentation because we planned to land on THE BOAT!, and at one point they even hooked up our jet, started fueling it then promptly stopped because higher authority wanted something in writing. I mean, we are on the same side right??? Defense appropriations are for the whole DoD, right? (I know better than this, as indeed the whole pie approach is about as far from the truth as the truth lies, but its fun to hassle the Air Force for being quintessentially and painfully bureaucratic every time they get the chance).

We eventually get our gas and take off for more excitement. Its somewhat telling that I actually feel more comfortable in the cockpit than I do on dry land at this point. Maybe it's a sense of control, or reverting to what we know we can handle. I dunno, but it was a very brief and interesting feeling that came over me. We check in with the boat, and they want to recover us right away. I guess the weather had gotten so bad, they canceled all the other launches for the day, so the deck was clear for us to land. This is a surprise to us, as we expected to wait for about an hour. We zoom down from 33k to 2k in a matter of minutes, dumping about 9000lbs of gas (about 1,500 gallons…i.e. about 9 months worth of rent for me, yet somehow when you work for the government, all concept of money seems to go out the window) on the way to get below max trap (wouldn't that extra fuel have been nice to have, say three hours ago…but water over the dam at this point, one of the many ironies of this job).

The first time around the second try is again a repeat of the last fiasco, except we finally have the misnamed "needles" (a boat controlled vertical glideslope and horizontal lineup indicator, which is actually a little circle that looks like a target, and its counterpart "bulls eye" which are no kidding needles, go figure), and the comm channels are silent with only us out there, which is a blessed respite from the cacophony of sound that made up the last recovery. Thank the Good Lord!!!! Something is finally going right finally. Now I actually know where I am in relation to the ship. Still cant see the darn thing until in close (maybe 1000ft from the back of the boat), and its still raining like you read about but I get to a good start and Paddles talks me down.

I see the ball…and can see the ship, but have no idea where centerline is, once again.

"Little right for line up..come left…good correction, on centerline."

One ball high, need to bring it down, but keep it energized, oops not enough power off

"a little high, Easy with it."

Right before I touch down, I think, ive got this. The ball is two balls (of five) high and ever so slowly trending down.

A slight tug, then unbelievably I see the end of the ship approaching and its not slowing down…YOU HAVE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME!!!! I race off the end.

"Bolter bolter bolter, hook skip."

I later find out my hook came down EXACTLY on top of the three wire (the ideal wire to catch) and knocked it around a bit, dragging it for about 10 yards, then slipped off. Literally two inches either fore or aft and it either would have landed before the three and caught it, or just beyond it and grabbed the four. This is just not my day.

Regardless, I am in the air again. Food is down there. And suddenly I'm not nervous anymore. Probably because I used up all my adrenaline in the past three attempts, and have none left to spare. This last attempt starts out the same as the others, CLARA everything until the last few moments, a few in close lineup calls as I still cant see centerline until im about to touch down, and then that blessed blessed deceleration. The world has stopped moving around, I hear a "nice pass, dude" from my WSO, and as has only happened on the carrier, my left leg is shaking so bad I can hardly control the brakes and nosewheel steering the legs movement is responsible for.

An hour later, we are down at chow, as the other pilots gather around to hear our story. They want all the details. They add their own complaints about the ridiculousness of the Air Force. They talk about craziness behind the boat and commiserate. And for a few moments, Im the new guy who got aboard, who everybody wants to hear from. I talk more in that hour than I have probably my entire time here. I slap the back of the Marine who diverted with us when I see him in the officers mess, and Slugz, my WSO, gives me a surreptitious high five, and another "well done." I guess this is how a ready room becomes cohesive, the accomplishment of difficult tasks successfully.

I read somewhere yesterday ("Moneyball", actually, great book) that commercial airline pilots and baseball players crave places of sensory depravation. This now makes sense to me. I'm pretty sure all the boredom associated with this job is to compensate for the moments of mind-boggling action doing things that shouldn't be possible, but are done anyway, because they have to be. Crazy.

Hope you all are well…I truly miss you all, and as I put each of your names to this letter, truly and fondly remember the impact each of you have had on me. I love these guys, and this profession, but there really is no place like home.



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