On the Line 2.2

by Steve on September 24, 2007

Back to 2.1

The eastern sky was starting to hint at the coming sunrise so Ted made his way below decks in search of coffee. He was scheduled to fly with the first launch of the day as the recovery tanker, a boring but critical mission. The recovery tanker was the first aircraft to return to the ship and the last to land. Once the planes started to trap aboard the Reagan, the recovery tanker would establish an orbit overhead the ship at three thousand feet so anyone that returned low on fuel or was having trouble getting aboard could come up and hit the tanker for extra gas. Because the tanker wasn’t needed until the recovery of aircraft began the crew was usually tasked with a secondary mission but never one that took it far from the ship. Most of these secondary missions were spent working with Alfa Sierra, the controller responsible for maintaining an accurate plot of all surface contacts within hundreds of miles of the carrier. Surface search: establish a radar plot and identify all contacts. Not the most exciting job but definitely better than drilling circles above the ship waiting for thirsty fighters to come get gas. Appropriately the radio call sign for the recovery tanker was “Texaco”. Some crews in Ted’s squadron wore patches with the Texaco star on them proclaiming “open 24/7”. Ted made his way to his squadron’s Ready Room to check the flight schedule and see what surprises it held.

Ted scanned the schedule and was surprised to see a new name next to his. He cornered the squadron Operations Officer, LCDR Mark Phillips; “what’s with my new pilot, OPSO?

“XO wanted you in her right seat…”

“Her!” Ted cut in, “What the hell. Why can’t you just leave me with Mac, somebody needs to watch over his ass.”

“Mac’s no nugget. You did a fine job of showing him the ropes and now we need your skills to mentor our newest pilot, LT Cheryl Williams. We all knew this squadron would start getting females sooner or later, you don’t have a problem flying with a woman do you?” Phillips asked and regretted it as soon as he said it. “I’m sorry,” he added. “That was a stupid question.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Ted replied quietly. “All I ask for is a skilled pilot. At least tell me she’s good and not the product of political correctness on some Admiral’s part.”

“According to her record she was top in her class all the way through. Anyway, you two have the recovery tanker with the oh-seven-hundred launch with the usual surface search on top so you better get moving.”

“Yes Sir!” Ted replied with a certain amount of friendly sarcasm. He was only two years behind the OPSO and would be up for promotion himself next year if all went well. Ted’s first fleet squadron tour had been cut short when the squadron was shut down as part of the politically mandated Force Reduction. He had opted for back-to-back sea tours in order to get all the required qualifications. A normal sea tour with a fleet squadron would have been three years and two deployments. Ted only got one deployment under his belt before they closed the doors and disbanded the squadron. His orders to VS-28 were only for one year but that would get him another deployment and all the experience that came with it. Then he could move on with his career assured by the fact that he had all the right checks in the right boxes.

LT Cheryl Williams was every Captain’s nightmare: she had just the right amount of curves in all the right places. Enough to make a grown man look twice and more than enough to make a hormonal nineteen-year-old sailor lose focus on his job. Most Captains were not opposed to women in the Navy as a matter of policy unless that policy showed up on their ship. The Captain of a warship had to deal in reality on a level that the Pentagon planners and politicians had forgotten. It was one thing to proclaim that women could fill billets on combat ships in the US Navy. But the execution of that policy presented all sorts of problems. Sometimes the particular ship was a problem; the older carriers had not been designed for co-ed operation and living spaces had to be redesigned. That was not an issue on the Reagan, she was the newest carrier in the Navy and had been designed from the keel up for the modern Navy including women.

Ted and Cheryl completed the briefing, got into their flight gear and headed for the flight deck to preflight the jet. Cheryl checked out the exterior while Ted climbed in and checked the systems. Since this was primarily a tanker hop they would not have anyone in the back two seats of the aircraft. Ted could run the systems he needed for surface search from the front right seat. If they had been tasked with a tactical mission the Viking would have a full crew of four: pilot, a flight officer in the front right seat serving as copilot and back-up to the tactical coordinator or TACCO in the back along with an enlisted sensor operator.

Cheryl came in the through the hatch, pulled it closed behind her and climbed into the left seat next to Ted. “Are we all set in here?”

“Good to go. Everything OK on your preflight?”

“Yeah, one of the main tires has two layers of cord showing in spots but it’s already noted in the maintenance books.”

“Maintenance procedures call for replacement with three layers showing. We get to come back and slam that tire into a carrier deck when most sane individuals wouldn’t drive their car with a tire like that. Gives you a nice warm fuzzy feeling doesn’t it?” Ted asked.

“Just great! You ready to crank this bucket up?”

“Sure. Starting the APU,” Ted replied. The APU or auxiliary power unit was a small turbine in the belly of the aircraft that supplied bleed air for starting engines and power until the main generators took over. As soon as the APU was on line Ted started turning on navigation and weapons systems.

Cheryl signaled to the plane captain standing in front of the nose for engine start and that started a flurry of hand signals and action by the deck crew. Shortly the plane captain, after checking that all of his people were ready, responded with the engine start signal.

“Starting number one engine,” Cheryl announced. She flipped the #1 start switch which opened a valve and allowed bleed air from the compressor stage of the APU to enter the turbine of the engine and start it spinning. Once the engine reached the required RPM she brought the throttle forward to the start position which dumped jet fuel into the already spinning engine. Ignite the fuel and watch the gauges to make sure the General Electric TF-34 engine was behaving properly. Once the number one engine was up and running properly she went through the same sequence on the number two engine. With over twenty aircraft starting up on the flight deck the noise and exhaust were overpowering. The sweet kerosene smell of jet fuel permeated the cockpit of the S-3 forcing the crew to strap on their oxygen masks. Once they ran through the after-start checklist and taxi checks Cheryl made one final visual sweep of the cockpit to make sure everything was in its place. “Okay, I’m ready when you are. What did you get for our final gross weight?”

“I came up with thirty eight five,” Ted replied meaning thirty eight thousand five hundred pounds total including the aircraft plus fuel and external tanks.

“Me too. Let’s get rid of the chocks and chains.”

Ted gave the plane captain the appropriate hand signals to remove the chocks from the wheels and the tie-down chains that secured the jet to the flight deck. That set in motion another choreographed sequence of furious activity. Once the jet was ready to move Ted made the call to the Air Boss, the commander who owned the flight deck of the USS Reagan and the airspace within ten miles; “Boss, 703 is up and ready.”

“Roger, 703. Understand you’re my Texaco for this evolution?”

“Affirmative Sir.”

“703 proceed to cat 1. Once airborne climb to 5,000 feet and orbit overhead the ship. I’ll have the first section of Tomcats join up on you and one of them will check out your tanker package to make sure everything’s working. Once we confirm you can pass gas you’re cleared to contact Alfa Sierra and work the surface plot until I need you overhead for the recovery.”

“Wilco,” Ted replied, aviation shorthand for will comply.

Cheryl was laughing as she taxied the jet forward under the direction of the plane captain. “Package check, pass gas – tanking sounds like so much obscene fun. I don’t know why you guys hate it so much. After all it’s flight time and another trap in the log book.”

You’ll learn soon enough, Ted grumbled.

Cheryl continued to follow the directions her plane captain was giving until he handed her off to one of the Yellow Shirts. The flight deck crew of a carrier is color coordinated. She could tell at a glance what a person’s responsibility was by the color jersey they wore. Red Shirts were weapons, Purple Shirts or Grapes were fuel, Brown Shirts were plane captains and their crews, and White Shirts were final checkers. Yellow Shirts had the dangerous job of orchestrating the movement of aircraft on the deck. They were either Directors or Shooters and held the highest responsibilities on the deck. 703 being the first plane to launch was taxied straight onto the number one catapult. While the White Shirts gave the jet a final inspection and hooked the launch bar into the shuttle, Cheryl went through her own final checks. One of the cat crew appeared next to Ted’s side of the jet displaying a digital weight board about the size of a laptop computer showing 38,000 dialed in. Ted signaled to increase the weight and a few seconds later the board came back up with 39,000 displayed. “I’d rather be 500 over than 500 under,” Ted commented over the intercom as he signaled his acceptance of the thirty nine thousand pound gross weight.

“A little extra shot in the ass going down the cat can’t hurt,” Cheryl agreed.

The crewman holding the weight board turned and showed the new number to the catapult officer in charge of the number one cat. He confirmed with his talker that was tied into the network of people coordinating the launch above and below decks that the new weight setting for 703 was thirty nine thousand pounds, a thousand pounds heavier than what had been briefed for the launch. The call came back that the steam release setting for cat one was set for a thirty-nine-thousand pound Viking. The talker in Pri-Fly sitting behind the Air Boss announced the same settings which brought a grunt of approval from the Boss. Back on the deck, the Shooter for cat one gave Cheryl the run-up signal which she acknowledged by bringing her engines up to full throttle. 703 was now in tension; launch bar hooked into the shuttle, hold-back fitting engaged behind the nose gear, and engines straining to be set free. The Shooter made a final visual sweep to make sure everyone was clear and everything was in its correct position. As his eyes met those of the operator on the deck-edge console that controlled cat one, he hesitated and watched as the operator armed the cat and raised both hands in the air. The Shooter turned toward the S-3 and waited. Cheryl made one more check of her instruments and saluted the Shooter. One final look up and down the deck and the Shooter crouched down under the wing tip of the jet and touched the deck. As soon as the operator saw the shooter touch the deck he quickly reached down and punched the launch button on his console. There was no turning back now. High pressure steam was instantly released into the cylinders of cat one. Like shells in a pair of giant cannons, the pair of pistons inside the cylinders shot toward the end of the deck. The shuttle up in the deck track was connected to the pistons so when all that steam hit the pistons, the holdback fitting sheared just as it was supposed to and the S-3 was accelerated down the deck to a calculated speed at least ten nautical miles per hour over the minimum speed required for the jet to fly at its calculated gross weight. Zero to over one hundred thirty miles per hour in under six seconds and a distance of about 150 feet. Better than Disney World. At the end of its run the pistons slammed into the water brake sending a shudder through the huge ship. A few seconds later the pistons and shuttle were retracted as an F-14 Tomcat was taxied into position on cat one.

“Good shot,” Ted grunted about halfway down the cat letting Cheryl know that they should have more than enough speed to climb out at the end of the run. As 703 gained altitude they completed after-takeoff checks and Ted checked in with the controller onboard Reagan: “Departure, 703 airborne.”

“Roger, 703. Climb to angels five and orbit overhead.”

“703, wilco.” While they waited for the Tomcats to show up, Ted brought the aircraft’s tactical systems to life. The tactical plot on his scope showed several surface contacts on the datalink. Centered on the display was the symbol for the S-3 along with an associated datalink track showing all concerned that track 412 was a friendly air contact. Almost directly underneath was a friendly surface track for the Reagan. As Ted watched his scope he saw two new air contacts pop up in front of the Reagan. “Here come our Tomcats,” he commented. He heard them check in with departure and knew it would only be a matter of minutes before they popped up on his wing. He flipped the switch on the refueling control panel to start the little propeller spinning on the nose of the refueling store which supplied power. Next he flipped another switch that extended the hose and basket about thirty feet out the rear of the housing and confirmed that he had a yellow light on the panel. “All set for our package check,” Ted confirmed which brought a chuckle from the left seat.

“Boys!” Cheryl groaned.

“Just monitor Departure on radio 1 while I switch to radio 2 and take care of business.”

Ted dialed radio 2 to the Airwing Common frequency. It was a discrete channel that allowed the various aircraft of Airwing Two to communicate directly with one another without clobbering up the controllers’ channels. As such the traffic on this frequency was a bit more relaxed yet still professional in the traditions of Naval Aviation. Ted could see the symbols for the section of F-14’s start to turn back toward the ship on his display.

“Ripper flight, Gambler 703 on common,” Ted broadcast.

“Flash this is Pop in 102, what’s your current position?” LCDR Phil “Pop” Jones replied from the back seat of the lead F-14. Jones was an experienced RIO or Radar Intercept Officer and as such he had been paired with one of the new pilots assigned to The Red Rippers of Fighter Squadron Eleven (VF-11): LT Butch “Smoke” Grady.

“We’re at five thousand overhead at three o’clock.”

“Roger, do me a favor and start heading east. We’ll join up on you in a few and you can drag us toward our CAP station while we check you out.”

“Not a problem, Pop.” Ted set the heading bug on the displays to ninety degrees and made sure Cheryl noticed the change.

A few minutes later Ted saw the two F-14’s join in formation off the S-3’s left wing. “OK Pop, you’re cleared in for a plug.”

“Roger, I’ll take three hundred pounds just to confirm good transfer.” Jones watched as Grady maneuvered the Tomcat in behind the Viking. Refueling was always fun he thought, especially since all he could do was watch as Grady attempted to guide his refueling probe into the basket trailing behind the Viking. The retractable refueling probe on the Tomcat folded out to the right of the cockpit and if Grady overshot or missed, the basket would end up bouncing along the canopy just inches from their heads. The basket was a little larger in diameter than a garbage can lid and shaped like a funnel so in theory once you got the probe inside the rim of the basket it would guide right in. There was not much turbulence at their altitude so the basket was fairly stable. Jones had seen plenty of times where the basket was moving around wildly and his pilot was forced to stab at it. Grady plugged on his first try and pushed the basket forward a few feet. The light on the rear of the refueling store when from yellow to green and fuel began flowing from the tanker to the fighter.

“Good flow,” Jones radioed once he verified that his total fuel on board was indeed increasing.

“Roger.” Once three hundred pounds of jet fuel had transferred Ted flipped the switch off and the light changed from green back to yellow prompting Grady to back out and clear his Tomcat out on the right wing of the Viking.

“Thanks for the package check,” Ted called.

“Pleasure doing business with you. See you in a little over an hour.”

Since the Viking was technically the lead aircraft in a three-plane formation it was Ted’s responsibility to detach the Tomcats. Ted gave the Tomcat on his side the kiss off signal which told the fighters that they were cleared to detach from their lead. He watched as Jones flipped him a salute and then pulled up into a high performance climb, afterburners glowing. The second fighter crossed under and kicked into burner, climbing to join on his lead. The roar of the four General Electric F110 engines in full afterburner could easily be heard and felt in the Viking’s cockpit. Ted knew that Grady and Jones had put on that little show intentionally just to remind the Viking drivers that their jet wasn’t nearly as fast or powerful.

“Assholes,” Ted mumbled over the intercom with a smile.

“What, his is bigger than yours?” replied Cheryl with a laugh.

“Okay smartass,” Ted shot back before getting back on the radio: “Departure, 703. Texaco is sweet.”

“Copy 703, you’re cleared to switch to Alfa Sierra for tasking until recovery.”

“703 switching Alfa Sierra.”

Ted already had a good radar plot going and most of the contacts on his scope already had assigned datalink track numbers meaning that a previous flight had identified them. Even if a surface contact was traveling at a speed of twenty knots it would take it over a day to transit the three hundred mile radius around the carrier battle group. Maintaining the surface plot was usually pretty mundane; update the distant tracks that were out of range of the carrier’s own radars and identify any newcomers. A submarine would stir things up but the days of the Soviets playing hide and seek with every carrier the US sent out were long gone. That didn’t stop Ted from looking though. A pop-up riser that appeared within range of his radar or a sinker that disappeared were the classic indicators that a submarine had just used his periscope and antennas.

“Alfa Sierra, 703 checking in,” Ted called after switching frequencies.

“Roger 703, proceed east, ID and rig any unknown tracks or new contacts.”

“703 wilco.”

“Okay, another day of traffic cop on the high seas,” Cheryl groaned.

“I thought all you cared about was bagging flight time and traps.”

“It helps when there’s a little excitement thrown in to keep me awake.”

“Well how ’bout setting me up to rig radar contact 102 with some nice photos for the boys in Intel?”

“How fast are you with that camera?”

“Fast enough as long as you get the distance right. Take us down to two hundred feet, line up about a quarter mile off his starboard side parallel to his course but one-eighty out so you run me along his side from bow to stern. Extend, do a two-seventy and bring me across his stern. Extend again, do another two-seventy and take me up his port side. Just be sure you don’t cross his bow within a mile. I don’t want some idiot shooting at us claiming self-defense.”

“Here we go.” Cheryl pulled the throttles back and pushed the nose of the jet over into a dive for the surface. As she accelerated she cracked the speed brakes to keep her airspeed within limits. The S-3 was no threat to win any speed records unless it was pointed down and then it dropped like a brick. She eased back on the stick, thumbed in the speed brakes and gradually leveled out at two hundred feet above the surface of the Atlantic. Four hundred twenty knots sure looked fast at two hundred feet, she thought. The contact was growing fast, another container ship, Ted noted as he prepared his camera. Three shots down the starboard side, one of the stern, and three more as the jet blew past the port side.

“Got what you need?” Cheryl asked.

“Yep, take us back upstairs.”

Cheryl pulled back on the stick trading airspeed for altitude. For the next hour they rigged a few more contacts and continued to update the surface plot. Ted fell into his routine without even realizing it. He had coached Mac in much the same way; taking the raw talent of a junior pilot fresh from the Fleet Replacement Squadron and picking up where the instructors had finished. The FRS gave an aviator the knowledge necessary to survive in the unforgiving carrier environment but it took experience to turn the training into skill. The tradition of pairing new pilots with experienced flight officers and vice versa was like so many other traditions in carrier aviation: learned in blood. Ted was surprised to admit to himself that he was actually comfortable flying with Cheryl. She certainly lived up to her reputation. He noted with satisfaction that she was not timid with the jet. Her flying was aggressive but not careless. She reminded him a lot of Susan in that respect. As they climbed out from their last contact, Cheryl turned and headed back for the ship. Recovery time for their launch was approaching and the aircraft were already stacking up above the ship in preparation for landing. The next launch was already underway and as soon as it was complete the previous group would begin landing. Cheryl joined up with the oncoming tanker already orbiting at three thousand feet and plugged into the basket long enough to confirm good fuel transfer. Being late for a recovery was a cardinal sin; the carrier had to turn into the wind in order to bring her planes back aboard and that fact made her predictable and therefore vulnerable. A recovery cycle was a well choreographed evolution with the ultimate goal being to get the planes aboard as quickly as safety allowed. With the entire deck crew working as one the Reagan could bring planes aboard at an optimal rate of one every forty-five seconds. As the time ticked down the Reagan appeared as though she had a tornado of steel spiraling above her with all the jets circling above at predetermined altitudes. The dance started when the Air Boss gave the “Charlie” signal for the first jet in the stack.

One by one the stack got shorter as the pilots each took their turn, coming in for the break. Unique to carrier aviation, the “break” was a maneuver again designed to keep things moving as quickly as possible. In stead of long straight-in approaches at landing speed, the jets would circle with only their arresting hook lowered. When their time came each pilot would fly down the ship’s course at eight hundred feet still at a high rate of speed from descending out of the stack. Once past the bow of the ship each pilot would time his or her break maneuver such that rolling out on the downwind leg would give enough separation from the jet in front. When the timing was right the pilot would pull the throttles back and roll into a hard left, high G turn to bleed off the excess speed and roll out on the downwind leg abeam the carrier. As soon as the pilot decelerated to the proper speed the landing gear and flaps would come down helping to slow the jet even more. Extending past the stern of the ship, the pilot would time his turn and enter another one-hundred-eighty-degree turn while descending and hopefully roll out “in the groove” behind the ship on centerline and on glideslope.

Ted watched from his perch above the ship as a Hornet rolled out in the groove. He was all over the place, Ted noticed. Then the coaching calls from the LSO platform started: “Left for lineup… Right for lineup…  Power… Power!”

He commented to Cheryl, “Looks like we’ve got our first customer. This guy called the ball with minimal fuel and I don’t think he’s going to make it aboard on his first pass.”

Before Cheryl could reply, the radio crackled, “703, hawk the Hornet on final.”

“Wilco,” Ted answered. “Okay Sis, drop to twelve hundred feet and reef this airplane around in a tight turn so that we’re in front of this Hornet if he bolters.” Ted extended the basket as Cheryl worked to position the tanker so that it would be lined up in front of the thirsty Hornet if he missed the wires and climbed out looking for enough fuel to make another pass at the deck.

More calls from the LSO platform, “Power” followed by “Wave-off, wave-off.” The LSO waving this jet had decided the pilot couldn’t salvage a sloppy approach safely and sent him around for another look but first he needed gas.

“He’s climbing out, get in front of him,” Ted prompted.

Cheryl went to full power as she rolled out of her turn. Once established well in front of the climbing fighter she pulled the power back and stabilized at two-hundred-fifty knots. The Hornet driver plugged on his first attempt and once he had the needed fuel he detached and dropped back into the pattern for another pass. Apparently the extra fuel calmed his nerves; he made it aboard on his second attempt. They hawked one more jet that was low on fuel but he trapped on his first pass.

With one plane left in the pattern, Cheryl dropped out of the tanker pattern and headed down the wake of the ship at three hundred knots. She judged her separation from the jet on downwind and snapped the Viking over on its left wing pulling the stick back toward her lap. The high G, high angle-of-bank turn bled energy faster than she anticipated and she rolled out on downwind a little low but caught it and corrected. They went through the landing checks and rolled out behind the ship on centerline, on glideslope, and on speed. Not bad for a nugget, Ted thought.

“Three quarters of a mile, call the ball,” came the call from the LSO.

“703, Viking ball, five-point-five,” Ted answered. He sat back and watched as Cheryl flew a near perfect pass. She got one minor line-up correction call but by the time the LSO had caught the light drift and called it Cheryl had already corrected for it. Damn! She IS good. The Viking slammed into the deck snagging the targeted number three arresting cable.

As they were directed clear of the landing area Ted commented, “I’d say that’ll get you an OK-3.”

Cheryl smiled. In the sadistic parlance of the LSO’s grading system an OK-3 was as good as you could hope for. OK being the best, the worst was a “no-grade” meaning you were close to being waved off and lucky to be alive. A no-grade would have a dramatic negative impact on her landing grades and she was as competitive as the next guy. She wanted nothing but green marks by her name on the squadron’s “Greenie” board where the pilots’ landing grades were posted for all to see.



Michelle September 25, 2007 at 10:50

Keep it coming, Steve.
Keep it coming.
You don’t think we’re greedy, do ya?

Steve September 25, 2007 at 21:18

Greedy? Never.

Demanding? Maybe but that’s what keeps me going. It’s amazing the errors and just plain bad material that I see as I go back over this material I wrote last year in preparation for public scrutiny. As I edit, rewrite, add, and delete I keep thinking “must write new material before the gap closes completely.” The more I post the closer we get to the unfinished ragged edge but then that’s pretty solid motivation. It wouldn’t be fair to leave you hanging now would it?

Thanks for the encouragement.

Michelle September 26, 2007 at 14:56

What can I say?
It would seem that I am just a naval aviation junkie. Not that there’s anything wrong with that 😉

Seriously, I doubt that I will ever tire of reading this stuff. So long as its well-written of course. Once upon a time, I was a Clancy junkie. He ain’t got nothing on you guys.

baddob September 29, 2007 at 13:32

Nice story “Gambler”.

One technical note- port orbit overhead rendevous port for tanker L-R clear.

Tough running that circa early 90’s “B” computer with all the bells/whistles (Alligator) from the front- only the best “FO’s could do it!


Steve September 30, 2007 at 17:34

B2, thanks – I knew there was something a bit off on that tanking. Brought him in on the right and then cleared right (into the wing even). It’s been over 12 years now which is precisely why I count on you guys to keep me honest. Fixed it – I hope.

badbob October 7, 2007 at 9:58

No problem. Glad to help. It’s been about the same for me since they trusted me to touch a control but I had many more years of practice, 20+! Seems to be finally leaking- out past the few brain cells I have left, despite my trying to jump in from time to time over at Lex’s!

What with the Brave New World of Naval Aviation they’ve created!

This may help for those around the CV episodes.:


Can’t believe it’s on the internet but hell, what isn’t!

Personally, I’m real curious ’bout how you’re gonna approach this women in da Navy thang. Me being a dinosaur and all..Everone seems to take it (or act like it) that it’s nothing at all (Lex being prime example) however, I know that can’t be true 100%..unless they’re serving the present Navair generation saltpeter in da bugjuice!

One more thing: Make shore there aren’t any snakes in/about where that dog is stoopin’..Near as I can figure, where yore livin thars big ol rattlers and moccasins thereabouts!


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