Friday, April 02, 2010

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,


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