Friday, April 02, 2010


“Jackhammer, Spear One Three, One Four checking in, AR complete in Dakota at flight level two three zero requesting clearance to Tango Delta four five for fragged tasking with Knife Zero One.”

We had just come off our first tanker of the day, a large three engined KC-10, the equivalent of a DC-10 used by commercial airlines, replenishing our fuel tanks after the hour long transit from the ship into Afghanistan. Our air wing had been conducting these missions for a little over a week, but even in that short span of time, we were beginning to get a feel for the lay of the land.

Over the primary radio came an unusually urgent reply from the British female who was directing air traffic in the southern portion of Afghanistan that afternoon. Female controllers are always mesmerizing to listen to, especially the ones with exotic accents. Perhaps this is planned – I think we take in what they say and actually respond to it better than a male's voice. This may be why all the emergency voices within the cockpit – “Engine Fire, Engine Fire” “Bingo, Bingo” – are women’s. Anyway:

“Spear One Three, you have been re-tasked to support TIC Echo Mike in Tango Foxtrot Three Five, contact your JTAC, callsign Orion Four, on Indigo Seven Four. Elevator to flight level two one zero for your transit en route.”

A troops in contact situation had arisen, and as a result, the Joint Tactical Air Controller on the ground had requested immediate close air support to assist him in combating local Taliban and insurgent forces. As we looked on our chart, it appeared that the killbox we were directed to, Tango Foxtrot three five, was right on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Only in exceptional circumstances were we authorized to violate the red line drawn on the map.

My heartbeat hastened, and the first thing that popped into my head, much to my surprise as to its vehemence, was “those damn Taliban bastards…” I was leading a flight of two F/A-18 Super Hornets into combat for the first time, with the skipper of our squadron and our training officer on my wing, both evaluating my performance and preparing to help the guys on the ground if need be.

This was certainly not what we had been briefed about, nor was it in an area we were then familiar with. A relatively benign overwatch scenario near Kabul had morphed into a possible kinetic situation with live fire being exchanged between combatants near a politically sensitive international border. I had to take a deep breath as I quickly ran through the procedures for employing the weapons on board, should it come to that.

Ten minutes later, we checked in with Orion Four on our encrypted frequency. We passed him our check-in information, and got the following reply:

“Spear One Three, One Four roger that. This is what we have going on here. About fifteen mikes ago we had a mortar round fired on our position. The suspected target escaped on foot about one and a half clicks into Pakistan into what appears to be a cave. We need you to sanitize the opening and let us know what you see. You are NOT, I repeat, NOT authorized to engage in Pakistan at this time.”

Part of me was relieved as the situation had deescalated somewhat, but the adrenaline was still coursing from the urgency in the voice of the previous controller. Spring-loaded to bring overpowering firepower at one moment, at the next expected to wait while we figured out the situation and took a step back from rash decisions. This would be a tricky nut to crack. Welcome to Afghanistan.


A few days before we started flying combat sorties, our skipper and Air Wing Commander (CAG) spoke to all the aviators. Nearly a year in training for these few months ahead, it was time for the pep talk. They were pretty short and to the point, but a few things stuck out.

Our Skipper: “Final release of weapons lies with you in the cockpit. When it comes down to it, neither me nor CAG will be in a position to tell you what to do. You will be responsible for ensuring proper hostile intent and identification has been met. You have been trained to make the right decisions, and we trust you. Now go execute.”

CAG: “There are two reasons why we do this and have prepared for this day for over a year. The first is that we have the honor of defending our country and fighting alongside the men and women on the ground who are keeping the people back home safe. Secondly, we do this because each and every day we get to see if we have what it takes, if we meet the standards expected of us. If the trust placed in our judgment and tactical proficiency is indeed deserved. Prove you have what it takes.”

The day began early with the mass brief. A quick update of weather up the Boulevard, our transit route into Afghanistan, and then in country. A tactical update with current operations ongoing in Afghanistan, followed by discussions of what each element of two aircraft was tasked to accomplish that day. Political and cultural descriptions sprinkled throughout, giving context to the missions. Lessons learned from the previous days, and things to watch out for today.

We then broke off into our various sections. The flow was pretty standard: an hour and fifteen minute transit from our carrier operating area to the south of Afghanistan, hit an Air Force refueling platform, provide close air support for an element on the ground for about 45 minutes, hit another tanker, go back for another 45 minute period of CAS, hit our third and final tanker, then make our way back to the ship. All told, over six hours in the air.

As this was only my third mission, I was still trying to figure out a routine in order to ensure I wasn’t forgetting anything when we finally walked to start up our jets. I ran through everything in my mind. ID card and dog tags. Check out a 9mm Sig from the squadron duty officer with associated ammo. Check out my blood chit and evasion maps. Review my game plan if I for some reason had to eject; if I get captured, if I get rescued. Check for an extra survival radio battery. Grab a few Cliff Bars and Piddle Paks. Fill up my water bottle. Get a seat pad. Fuel card and T-handle from maintenance in case we have to divert. Night vision goggles with bracket, just in case we get extended into the night hours. Products the Ground Liaison Officer had given us for each JTAC we were fragged to support that day. Smartpack with answers to nearly everything that may arise in flight. My flight bag was stuffed – I wasn’t sure it would all fit into the cockpit.

I’ve found there is a strange sense of comfort in the snugness associated with strapping into these airplanes. All our survival gear hugging tightly and perfectly fitted to our heads and torsos. Four leg straps, two lap belts, two shoulder harnesses keeping us immobile within the ejection seat. Publications and maps and the necessities for survival stuffed into the cranny just to the right of the seat. During primary flight training, I remember some of the flight instructors who originally flew large airplanes with spacious cockpits brag about their luxuries. I liked having nowhere to move – it was as if the airplane was now a direct extension of my body. A 59,000 pound hunk of metal to be manipulated by a mere 200 pound man. Forty thousand pounds of raw and untamed thrust to be harnessed by mere fingertips and neural synapses. Talk about leverage.

Once we were started, we taxied to the catapult, awaiting the official launch to commence. All of our systems worked as advertised, the check-in with our wingman was uneventful, and we were a full up round. We waited for twenty minutes in silence doing nothing. Hurry up and wait.

I snapped out of a brief daydream to the yellow shirt on my right waving his hands, indicating I need to taxi forward to bring the launch bar into the catapult shuttle. He looked to his right, then his left, then shot his right arm out. Tension.
Throttles mil. Launch bar up, light is out. Flaps full, indicating full. Engine instruments look good, nozzles look good, hyd pressure looks good. Stick forward… aft…left…right…rudders full left…full right. I’m good to go. “I’m set in the back.” Look out to the left, the Shooter pumps his fist into the air three times. Throttles full afterburner. A deafening roar fills my ears, even encased behind the thick glass bubble of the canopy and double hearing protection. I give a snappy salute to the Shooter. He salutes back and touches his left hand to the deck while kneeling down. My right hand grabs the handle on the canopy bow in front of me, my left arm locked keeping the throttles at their maximum setting. A quick breath in, waiting in the instant before the impulse takes effect.

We are plastered to the seat. Instantly you know it’s a good cat shot and we’re going flying. A 59,000 lbs, asym 3 combat shot is simply astounding. Nothing in the world is like it. Your head pressed back against the headrest such that you cannot even move it. Planes and people and flight deck blurs as your vision constricts to the soda straw in front of you. Accelerating from 0 to nearly 200 miles per hour in 2 seconds. Finally released from the acceleration and free of the deck, it takes a moment to come out of the haze, but you do, take a quick check turn to the left, bring the gear and flaps up, and accelerate to 300 knots at 500 feet.

“Spear One Three, One Four you are clear to join.” The Air Boss comes over Tower’s frequency and informs us our wingman has been launched in tandem with us, and is a few hundred feet to our right. There sits a sleek grey jet skimming the blue water on a bright day, slowly snuggling up on my wing. I’m reminded of why I do this.
After those few moments of sheer adrenaline and exhilaration, the next hour is remarkable for its lack of anything remarkable. So too is the land we soon find ourselves flying over.

Pakistan is absolutely desolate. I’ve flown over the expanses of the Western United States, passing over the deserts of New Mexico and rocky vacuum of West Texas, but this is something else entirely. It is the visual definition of godforsaken -- endless sand amidst dark gray rock outcroppings, no water, no greenery. There are washes aplenty where in the rainy season it appears rivers flow, but not now. There are a few oases of civilization, but even these are mere dots of black in a sea of dust. A constant haze layers just...sits over the entire region, and the only time you are out of it is when flying above 20,000 feet. It’s like being over a different planet.

The demarcation between Pakistan and Afghanistan is only on our political maps. The landscape shows no mention of a “border.” One endless sea of barren soil gives way to the next. But psychologically – psychologically there is a shift that takes place. I’m over the Line. This is no longer a training mission over the desert of Nevada, but an incursion into another sovereign nation. Our bombs are real. Our decisions have consequences. There are people who would love to shoot me down.


“Orion Four, Spear One Three is sensor on that target. Looks to be a cave entrance with surrounding buildings, no movers seen. Confirm coordinate Seventy-Three Delta, Golf Quebec, 9-4-5-2, 2-6-1-3.”

“That’s a good read back Spear One Three, copy that entrance and no movers. Request you search around that area a report back anything suspicious.”

We kept our orbit flowing, skirting the border as close as we could stand without actually going over it. Once again the lay of the land gave no indication that there were different countries. Villages and paths flowed across the dotted black line on our moving map within the cockpit, and outside one mountain gave way to another valley. This was quintessential tribal land, the people and cultures not restricted by international agreements but rather centuries and even millennia of intermarriage and caravans of trade. Here we were, acutely cognizant over a line in the sand, adhering to it while the mostly neutral, and likely hostile, peoples below bore more allegiance to their village elder than either Islamabad, Kabul or NATO Frameworks.
Our enemies and adversaries, after eight years of running and hiding and causing havoc, know how to exploit these political requirements. My WSO, callsign Creature, and I ruminated as we monitored on the fact that the cave this insurgent escaped into likely had numerous exits far from this entrance we were glommed onto. These guys aren’t stupid. Tunneling and underground networks have been used against us to great effect in the past, Korea and Vietnam being the most notable. Run to where we can’t get them after a quick strike. They say in war, never accept a fair fight. Insurgents know this better than anybody.

Three missions in, and we had stumbled upon the classic difficulty of a war such as the one we face in Afghanistan. We are forced to respond to hostile situations rather than shape them to our advantage. Our superior firepower arrived too late to catch fleeing and savvy perpetrators. That and the fact that superior firepower doesn’t really matter in the long run. The bad guys look like civilians. The civilians are suspected of being bad guys. In either situation, months of hard earned trust can be lost from a misplaced perception leading to a misplaced weapon.
A few days later I was supporting a British JTAC, perhaps the most professional I have ever worked with. As we returned from our mid-cycle refueling, we got word from him that they had taken fire from five insurgents who had escaped into a wooded region next to a canal. He was revved up, the normally calm descriptions giving way to a bit of stress and faint sounds of gunfire in the background. We got our sensors into the suspected target area, immediately finding a “hot-spot” with our infrared sensor and what looked to be people running back and forth between it and a building. Artillery fire had been launched into the region; perhaps this was a round that hit something. The JTAC followed with interest. Our suspicions were high, we were ready to go kinetic if need be.

Soon though, things didn’t add up. There were these hot spots all over the place. As the sun set, little red specks popped up outside our cockpit on the darkening land. It turned out they were camp fires. Our suspicions were unfounded. Later on the transit home, in the hour of nothing but straight and level fight, we discussed this within our two man crew. The running could have been kids playing as they are wont to do around campfires everywhere. How do you balance the benign with the threatening? A similar situation a few days ago: one of the guys in our squadron was watching a convoy of Army vehicles transit down a road when all of a sudden one of them exploded as an IED detonated underneath it. Asymmetry at its most poignant.

After spending less than two hours in comms with the Brit, and knowing nothing but his tactical callsign, a bond and kinship was developed that I cannot explain. The protector and protected, seeking to accomplish the near impossible and quell a home-grown insurgency so that security can be maintained for countrymen halfway around the world, many of whom will never understand what is occurring on their behalf. He mentioned he is headed home in a few days after seven months on the ground, glad to be returning to the UK. What I wouldn’t give to spend an evening in some London pub trading stories with him.

It is bitterly ironic that the Twenty-First Century sanitized war of technology (Shock and Awe, Network Centric Warfare, etc) we were promised by strategists and politicians and military industrialists has instead given way to one where a culture far inferior to our own with respect to economics and development is in many ways neutralizing the greatest military power the world has ever known. The War of Necessity is the one we have no idea how to win.

But we are trying. In an upheaval of the Rules of War, it’s a good day when we return back to the ship with all of our weapons unexpended. It means that the troops on the ground had no need to bring a rain of fire from above. In that particular region, on that particular day, the strategy of pacifying a restive population and winning their trust has been accomplished, even if but for a moment. Success is not measured by the number of “kinetic events,” but rather the lack thereof. The easily exploitable political requirements we operate under are, interestingly, the very policies that stand the best chance of defeating this wily foe.

Despite the ambiguities, it’s good to finally be doing something that has been for me over five years in the making. When I’m not flying over the beach, I look on the scheduling board to see when I next get to go. When I’m flying over the beach, there is deep satisfaction in what we are doing, even if the long run portends uncertainty.

So while the debate rages in Washington, and our military and political leaders fight over what should be allocated and who should be supplemented, we fly our daily missions dealing with the ambiguity that nearly incapacitates democracies. Seeing if we measure up to what is expected of us. It is all we can do.

God Bless,

Liberty Call

This was definitely something I could get used to. High atop the Park Hyatt hotel in Tokyo, I was eating dinner with two of my fellow aviators. Surrounding us was a panoramic view of one of the most densely populated cities in the world, and the points of light beaming from every direction left no doubt as to the statistic’s truth.

The place called itself “The New York Grille,” and while it styled itself after a very upscale western establishment, the characteristics were undeniably Japanese. My friend Fu had invited myself and Chainsaw to accompany him on this excursion (the names are real…), and since I had wanted to see the sights, I readily accepted. Plus, as a single guy with no financial obligations at home and nothing else to spend my money on, a lavish dinner was becoming more of a tradition than anything in port. Some guys liked to drink beers by the pool – a small cadre of us chose the opposite route.

Tasting menus, wine pairings for each course (to be fair, I just let Fu do the choosing – I’m far from a wine bon viviant), white linen tables while a jazz trio hummed in the background. Confident men and their well dressed ladies, business being conducted, celebrations being celebrated. After nearly a month aboard ship, with grease everywhere on the white walls, fried food being the norm, and the same flightsuits worn day in and day out, the contrast was stark. The bare necessities of shipboard life suddenly transitioning into the literal lap of luxury.

Our hotel was in the trendy Roppongi district, surrounded by gaudy displays of the elite of society: Prada, Gucci, Tiffany’s, Rolex. We had an American celebrity at our hotel passing through the lobby when we checked in, to be seen quite a few times during the four day adventure. Ferrari’s, Aston Martin’s, and even the occasional Rolls Royce greeted us in the hotel’s parking each evening.

That aside, it was relaxing and comforting to be in a place where life was normal. From my vantage point near the center of the restaurant, I spied a young couple on some sort of date – they had a table on the edge of floor-to-ceiling windows with a drop of nearly 75 stories. I was intrigued to watch this Japanese pairing – the late twenty something man accepted the check, and with a shy smile and near whisper, his female companion gave the thank you repeated universally throughout the world after an unforgettable evening. Across cultures and languages, it gave me pause to consider the emotions that are unwavering across the human race.

Tokyo was our first stop outside the United States, and perhaps an appropriate one for the mission we are on our way to undertake. The United States military still has a significant presence on the island nation, over sixty years after Japan’s defeat during World War II. I’ve been reading David Halberstam’s “The Fifties,” and I found it interesting that in the aftermath of that war, in what all elements of our society now believe to be effective techniques in nation building, there was significant political opposition to our now heralded saints President Truman and Secretary of State Marshall.

It seems that both sides of the aisle blamed them for “winning the war, but losing the peace.” The War was supposed to end the tyranny of fascism and bring about the democratization of Japanese society. And yet it didn’t go according to plan – at first. It would be hard to argue that Japan ever emulated the American version of democracy. For over fifty years, and until the watershed elections of the past month, the Japanese people were ruled by one party. But they prospered nonetheless, and have charted their own course under our benign occupation.

(As an aside, we arrived days before this momentous vote, and I noticed nothing that would indicate an election was happening. This may have been due my acute foreignness and lack of understanding of the language, but there were no signs, no overt advertisements, nothing like an American race. Perhaps that is the nature of Parliamentary elections, but I think it also was a reflection of the Japanese people themselves, and the subtleness with which they carry on with their society.)

I don’t really believe history repeats itself in an absolute sense, but there are certainly lessons to be learned that can generally be applied. The first and foremost of which is that it takes decades to truly discover the effect of foreign policy decisions, especially those that involve tens of thousands of troops in far off places. I think it would be safe to say that Truman’s stubbornness in the face of shortsighted political opponents paid off in the long run. And had far reaching consequences, both for good and ill, that we are seeing to this day.

The enlightening thing about being removed from your native land is that it provides a degree of perspective, and a wave of possibilities that open up if the traveler is willing to just observe. Moving on from the heady subject of Democracy with Japanese Characteristics, let talk about something a bit more entertaining: Baseball with Japanese Characteristics.

I’ve seen some fanatical sports fans in my life – but nothing compares to the Japanese. Most baseball games in the United States are pretty subdued affairs from the standpoint of fan interaction, except for maybe the World Series. In Japan, every game is like a college football game on steroids.

The first thing that caught our attention was that we could bring beer and food into the stadium. Wally the Beer Man was actually Yukio the cute brunette in a skirt (tasteful…), which was obviously a big hit. As soon as we took our seats, we noticed that the stadium was starkly divided: The Yellow and Black of the Hanshin Tigers along the third base side through left field, and the Blue and Black of the Yokohama BayStars (the home team) from the first base line to right field.

Pandemonium is the best word to describe every half inning. The fans of the team in the field, from the first pitch to the third out, chanted their team slogans at the top of their lungs. Everything was somehow coordinated, and the tens of thousands of fans knew exactly what to shout when. Each team sported a pep band (loud!) and huge flags that were flown in their section of the outfield stands. This went on for nine innings – constant noise and colorful displays. An amazing display of endurance if I’ve ever seen one. And there were cheerleaders. Our XO mentioned in passing that an enterprising junior officer should find out where they went after the games to hang out, but to my knowledge, we never found out…

It was a fascinating microcosm of their culture. Absolute devotion to a particular cause, individualism suppressed to support the common goal. Even amidst the chaos, politeness ruled – there were no violent outbreaks or vulgar feuds between the opposing fans. A culture built on hierarchy and honor. It was somewhat embarrassing as we Americans walked away from our section: littered throughout were the remnants of our evening while the surrounding sections previously occupied by locals were as if no one had even been there.

Tokyo was eclipsed not less than two weeks later, however, by Singapore. There is an old joke comparing Air Force and Navy fighter pilots. It goes on for some time, but the last line has something about Zoomies spending time at home with their wife and kids, while the single Naval aviator picks up the hottest girl in the bar – that bar, of course, being in Singapore. I understand the joke now.

Since I am by nature a political being, I’ll begin from that angle. Singapore is a benign dictatorship with a democratic process that is one of the most economically open and successful countries in the world. Utterly remarkable. I previously mentioned Democracy with Japanese Characteristics – Singapore has its own.

While America rages over health care and every other imaginable issue under the sun, the Singaporean people are apathetic – a native’s word, not mine. I met up with a very close friend of mine from college who I hadn’t seen in over two years, and since he now lives there, was able to see the city from a very unique perspective.

Its economic openness is reflected in the people that inhabit it and the languages it considers official: Chinese, Indian, Malayian and English. Immigration is highly encouraged, although the application process can be somewhat strict and drawn out. The market seems to rule everything, to great effect. Even the lower classes seem to be quite prosperous when compared to the rest of the world, and even American poor. It doesn’t hurt that Singaporeans save at a prodigious rate, and their adversity to risky investments has allowed their economy to miss most of the worldwide financial meltdown.

One party states are able to make decisions that are unpopular, but ultimately good for the society – in Singapore’s case free trade. They are also able to invoke unity that in adversarial democracies like America would never stand – the element that most stood out to me was a poster invoking “national unity to defeat terrorism” on many of the bus stops. Even after having never been attacked! Especially for one who loves the give and take of political discussion, it was interesting to see this single party government produce results without debate.

But autocracy does come with a cost. Laws and punishments that are, to put it bluntly, draconian by Western standards. Death by Public Hanging for drug distribution, caning for various relatively minor offenses. A press that is hardly free, and a society for which libel is frequently invoked by the government. The Wall Street Journal was recently successfully sued for defaming the government when it ran an editorial in its Asian edition critical of the ruling regime. Elections are held, and although there is an opposition, they are routinely routed – albeit fairly it must be said.

In discussing this one party system with my friend while walking down the very affluent shopping district – once again, with the Gucci’s and Prada’s and Tiffany’s and Rolex’s – we ran through the democratic Asian countries that this seems to be the case with. South Korea, up until the late 1980s, was basically an autocracy. So too was Taiwan and the Philippines. We’ve already discussed Japan. China and Vietnam have become increasingly capitalistic, increasing the wealth and prosperity of their peoples remarkably (with admittedly mixed human rights results), while maintaining the single-party grip on power. Prosperity, more than anything else, seems to prevent the inevitable uprising that would occur in America towards a ruling party.

The inclination towards engineering over politics is ever present as well. It was a sight to behold within the central library to see it packed with patrons reading in all corners and along every wall. I was most intrigued by their transportation infrastructure and method of attempting to keep traffic somewhat manageable – clearly with mixed results. To own a car, you must pay an annual fee that is set through an auction system. X number of permits are allocated, and the top X bidders get them for a set time frame. This greatly drives up the price of new autos, but there seems to be no lack of desire to possess them.

Additionally, much like the much publicized London system, there are various corridors throughout the city that cost a given amount of money at particular times of the day. So, for instance, a main thoroughfare may cost $1.00 to transit between 4pm and 8pm, but be free after that. This fee is deducted from a machine on each car that basically operates like a transportation debit card, and is also linked with the parking garage system. Many of the garages have sensors over each spot, letting potential parkers know which garages are full, and signs are posted throughout the city so you have an idea of where to go. All the garages are fully automated, and the debit system tracks when you enter and leave, deducting the appropriate (and remarkably inexpensive) amount.

Their housing plan is also quite intriguing. Public housing makes up a large percentage of living units, but instead of merely subsidizing rentals, the government forces its inhabitants to actually buy their property (subsidized based on income). After five years, they are able to sell it with no capital gains taxes. With the required ownership, public housing, at least what I saw, was remarkably clean and well kept – nothing like the projects that have beset American urban centers. To be sure, there are those that game the system, and make it work to their advantage, but for the most part, it seems to both incentivize responsibility effectively and provide housing to everybody who needs it. Real estate is such a hot commodity, that instead of asking a woman to marry them, a suitor may instead ask “will you buy an apartment with me?” (If you are under 35, only married couples can own real estate). Romantic.

The political, economic and transportation situations being what they are however, Singapore is a must see for any international traveler. The Night Safari, perhaps the only one of its kind in the world, was spectacular – lions, tigers, elephants, giraffes, rhino’s, and all the nocturnal animals from around the world you never get to see awake and active in most Zoo’s. Plus there was something sensual about the Indian woman in the precise British accent who narrated the tram tour that brought everything to life.

Clarke Quay is a mesmerizing array of clubs and shops semi-enclosed by a unique glass roof and boardwalk of the Singapore River. Lots of very late evening were spent exploring this and Boat Quay. The Raffles Hotel, a vestige of British imperialism, stands proudly in the center of the city at a mere three stories, but with a history as rich as any hotel in Europe. For a nation whose self proclaimed pastimes are merely shopping and eating (half the downtown district seemed to be one huge above and below ground interconnected mall), there is certainly a lot to experience.

Soon enough though, it was time to leave and continue on our way. Days within re-embarking, we were informed that our deployment has been extended by two months. This wasn’t entirely unexpected, as the rumor mill was in full force prior to the official announcement, but still gave us a bit of pause.

No doubt more ports will be experienced, but for now we have a new and pressing focus: our first combat missions are mere days away. With that, I bid you all farewell until next time.

God Bless,


The Transit

Distracted. When my mind came to, that’s the first word that popped into my head. There’s an adage that gets repeated over and over, usually due to personal or near-personal experience: The Boat is always trying to kill you. In some way or another, the only way to keep yourself safe is to stay alert. So being Distracted sounded my internal alarm bells.

Not that I could really be faulted for it. During daylight man-ups, there are moments before each flight that allows for a few minutes of reflection. The Air Boss has yet to call away the start, we are snuggly strapped into our flying contraptions, and relative silence pervades the usually busy steel expanse dwarfed by the endless water surrounding it. There really is nothing to do but…chill.

Last year, when I first got to the squadron, these minutes were spent in fevered review of what was about to transpire. Making sure the jet was started properly. What would we do if something went wrong? And of course, the landing at the end.

But now, all these concerns are pushed to the side as I gaze out of my perch ten feet above the flight deck. I can start this plane in my sleep. I cant remember the last time I looked at the three pages of checklists attached to my kneeboard. If something goes wrong on deck, I just instinctively push the buttons to get to the correct display. Being Distracted isnt helped by the warm and humid weather; the sun high above over the deep blue of open ocean. Nor is it helped by the myriad of people in the rainbow of shirts moving and flowing like coordinated chaos through rows and rows of grey machines.

Yellow shirts walking alongside moving aircraft, the “grapes” refueling just landed jets. Green troubleshooters hooked up via small black cords into the nose of random jets talking to aircrew while the brown shirts prepare the planes for the next event. White safety officers ensuring that nothing untoward is occurring.

My mind thinks about my sister and her new baby. What it was like holding her and smiling when I think of all the work involved in the few hours I spent with her in my arms. Moments with old flames, walking the Mall, driving through the rain in Albuquerque, symphonies in San Francisco. Musing that my view of home is the entire United States: When a weather map of the country was shown on TV a few days prior, my eyes involuntarily flitted between Minneapolis, Lemoore, Houston and Washington DC. But when it snaps back to the reality of now and being Distracted, I convince myself to deal with this moment. My little part in the dance must go right.

Sometimes the innate, and unspoken, teamwork involved in this job stuns me. I remember a few weeks ago, I was the airborne tanker for the largest recovery of airplanes we had experienced thus far on cruise. It was an hour and a half long cycle, which to put it in laypersons terms, means we barely had enough fuel to cover our mission.

It also so happened that the Nimitz was in the middle of running away from a submarine during an exercise, and thus could not turn into the wind to catch airplanes, further extending our flight time. Many of the planes coming back had been airborne upwards of four hours, having refueled from Air Force Big Wing tankers to extend their endurance, but at this moment in time, many were low on fuel. As we were working Blue Water operations, meaning no suitable land based divert was available, my aircraft would be the primary go-to asset for gas if something went wrong and pilots couldn’t land.

Throughout the hour prior to the recovery, I was sweating the numbers to ensure we had enough fuel to give. It wasn’t looking good. The plane wasn’t running as efficiently as we had assumed, and we had to pad our own landing fuel numbers down to complete our primary mission. When we checked back in overhead, we heard the ominous call from our Skipper’s plane: “101 will be tank plus one on the ball.” Meaning that if he got waved off or missed all the wires, he would have to refuel.

Finally, the sub was defeated. The Nimitz turned into the wind, and from our vantage point overhead at 7,000 feet we watched the stack flush. The Case I day Visual Flight Rules, Zip-Lip pattern is something to behold, even on a stressful day like this one. Each squadron has an assigned altitude where they hold overhead, and watch the planes below them cycle down. Ideally, the first section is breaking into the pattern just as the port waist cats have launched the last aircraft from the next cycle. The off-going recovery tanker follows them down, starting from 7k, then going to 5k, 4k, 3k, and finally 2k as all the aircraft below vacate their altitude and break into the landing pattern.

Everything went seamlessly. All nineteen aircraft made it down without a single bolter, and almost no communication. I think I heard three or four words total over the entire 15 minutes it took to land everybody. Our reserve fuel didn’t have to be used by anybody, and we were the last to land. When I finally got on deck, it was an intense relief, but my mind immediately tried to grasp what we had just accomplished. This is just what we do on a daily basis, and so I dont think we always appreciate how complex these evolutions are, but the implicit coordination floored me.

All the aircrew knew exactly what to do and when, and executed to perfection. The ship kept the wind down the deck, and the deck crews quickly got the just landed planes out of the landing area so the next one could land 55 seconds later. One after the other, just like that. There is concern among the national security crowd that China is getting a carrier, and what its implications are for the Pacific – but there is something subtle about the finer points in carrier operations, and the experience of 50 years can’t be bought off the shelf.

But we aviators sometimes get wrapped up in the minutia of everyday aviation. Why are we here? Why do we fight? Does flying really, I mean really, matter in the big picture? Is it better to be executing policy, or making it?

These are the questions that have been burning within me since I first set foot in the Cradle of Naval Aviation in Pensacola, FL three weeks after graduation from college in 2004. They are the questions that make me go back and forth as to whether or not I want to make this a career. No answer is forthcoming.

Afghanistan. That’s where we are headed, even if we do spend weeks transiting the Pacific Ocean en route. The mission there has remained the same since 2001, but our tactical role has changed immensely.

The opening weeks of the war there were open season for our forces. If it moved, it was destroyed. But as the political situation has evolved, our role has necessarily become less permissive. That dreaded word politics gets thrown around, but it is in fact the heart and soul of warfare. Practitioners of our art are in many ways consumed by the movements of battalions, and the minds of generals. We are reluctant to asses the intentions of statesmen, because their decisions are not black and white; there is not necessarily an ideologically “right” answer, and for those trained to close with and destroy our adversaries, this presents a cognitive problem. Yet that is exactly the mindset being forced upon us. It is an appropriate one.

We will be fighting in such a way that our biases will be against employing weapons. It is better to let the bad guy get away than kill a civilian. Our tools are not perfect for this fight. We have jets able to break the sound barrier, evade enemy radars and weapons, link with forces around the world, and our job will be to be as a sentry, orbiting overhead watching. For men and women drinking tea with tribal leaders and building a society from rubble. Aviators may talk a big game, but that’s where the real action is. On the Ground is where Change and Historical Frameworks are being cultivated.

This is the modern face of war, and it is…surprising. Mountains of paperwork, endless legal jargon, new tactics that emphasize subtlety over subjugation. We revere the Chesty Pullers and Pappy Boyingtons with their chestfuls of combat accolades, but Lawrence of Arabia is our forefather in this battle. The guy who went native, and saw history as an interconnected, intercultural storyline not beholden to any one Time or Country. This is the hardest of all personalities to absorb and emulate, but do so we must. And our wartime leadership is beginning to reflect this reality.

Will it work? We shall see.

So during our transit we mix the mundane with the multitude of uncontrollable forces that inform our progress. We dwell on the home we left behind while attempting to shape a country that keeps ours occupied in thought and deed. It is a month that has blazed by, promising a future of unexplored foreign ports, firsthand lessons in international diplomacy, and the possibility of the unexpected every day.

Other than that, life is pretty boring on the ship.

God Bless,