On the Line 4.1

by Steve on February 17, 2008

Ed: It’s been a while. Much longer than intended. One of the benefits of going back through material that I wrote many months ago is I get to edit. Again. There was another piece that was supposed to appear here but it’s now on the floor. It didn’t add to the story line, it wasn’t necessary to advance the plot. It’s now on the floor. As I wrestled with it in an effort to make it fit just a bit better I realized that I was forcing it where it shouldn’t be. It seemed like good background when I was tapping it in but if I remember correctly that was a rough day up in the woods when the words weren’t coming but I had a self-imposed quota to meet. It’s agonizing to make a cut like that but it needed to be done.

Back to 3.6

The deck crew and the aviators were settling into the rhythm of cyclic operations and things were really starting to click in a way that made the old salts proud and yet nervous at the same time. Like walking on a high wire, if you lost focus for just a second it could all come crashing down. Ted and Cheryl made their way through the maze of jets, gear, and crew toward 703 for another tanker hop. As they went through their procedures to prepare the jet for flight Ted watched the chaos outside the cockpit. The flight deck never ceased to amaze him. To the untrained eye it seemed like total unorganized confusion yet in reality it was the fine-tuned effort of a bunch of kids that professionally launched these aircraft every day. Sure the old hands kept an eye on things but the majority of the deck crew was very young. The average age of the sailors on the flight deck was nineteen. Had they not enlisted in the Navy most of them would be flipping burgers, glued to the X-Box, or just generally getting into trouble as hormonal teens do. For some of these kids the military was the only way out of a bad situation, the fastest means of breaking the cycle, Ted thought. A real cross-section of American society, some were privileged, others not so. Some came from the inner city, some from the suburbs, yet others came from rural areas where generations were born, lived, and died within a fifty mile radius. For them the old Navy recruiting slogan “Join the Navy and see the world” actually meant something.

Ted watched as the jet blast deflector or JBD was raised behind an E-2C Hawkeye in preparation for launch. The JBD deflected the fury of the heat and blast from the aircraft’s engines vertically into the air above the deck. Without the JBD members of the deck crew could get burned, blown down the deck, or both. The distortion of the E-2’s exhaust and prop wash was visible above the JBD as the pilot of the Hawkeye brought his engines to full power for the cat shot. The tail shook and then rocketed down the deck. A few seconds later the Hawkeye was airborne and climbing away from the ship. Ted had his second radio tuned to Departure frequency and heard the co-pilot of the Hawkeye call “601 airborne. A few seconds later as Cheryl taxied 703 across the lowered JBD he heard the Hawkeye call again.

“Departure, 601. We have a starboard engine fire warning light.”

“Roger 601. Extend to five miles, climb to Angels three and enter the stack as soon as you’re stabilized. Dump to trap weight. You’ll be the first one aboard.”

“601 sure sounds calm to be on fire,” Cheryl commented.

“Fire warning light off the cat is fairly common in the E-2,” Ted replied. “There’s a fine wire running around each engine compartment that’s designed to break when subjected the extreme heat of a fire. When that wire breaks, the corresponding fire warning light illuminates in the cockpit. Unfortunately that wire has been known to fail on its own due to the repeated stresses of deck cycles. A fire warning light without secondary indications like visible smoke and flames or rising engine temperatures is just part of flying the E-2 off the ship.”

“No wonder he sounded bored.” Cheryl concentrated on lining the jet up on the cat. The yellow shirt in front of her was giving her little correction signals to get her launch bar in the shuttle.

601 came back up on the radio only this time it was on the deck frequency owned by the Air Boss. “Boss, 601. We’ve got a no-shit fire up here. We’ve shut down the starboard engine, pulled the fire handle, and run through all the checklists. We’ve still got smoke coming out of that engine. Current heading of 095 for 15. We’re going to stay well clear until we have this sorted out. Get our rep to dig in the book and see if we’ve missed anything.”

“Wilco 601. He’s on it now.” Each squadron sent a pilot or flight officer up to Pri-Fly as a safety observer to back up the Air Boss and Mini Boss for every launch and recovery. The Air Boss and his assistant were both senior aviators having commanded squadrons of their own in prior tours. Their task was to insure the safe launch and recovery of the air wing. They owned the flight deck and the airspace within ten miles of the Reagan. They were in constant communication with anyone and everyone that had anything to do with moving aircraft. At the moment all eyes were on the poor squadron rep rapidly flipping through the E-2C NATOPS manual hoping to find something that would help out his fellow pilots and flight officers but there was nothing in the book that covered what to do if the fire extinguishing system failed to put out the fire.

“601, Air Boss. We’re drawing a blank down here. How’s it looking?”

“Boss, the smoke’s getting heavier and we’re starting to see actual flames from around the engine.”

“What about trying a steep dive to blow it out?”

“We thought of that but don’t have the altitude. We’re dumping fuel and climbing but at launch weight with single engine rate-of-climb I don’t know if we’ll get high enough to dive before the wing burns through.”

As the emergency played out, the ship continued to launch aircraft. 703, the oncoming tanker, was the next aircraft in line for launch. Cheryl felt the shuttle engage the launch bar and tug against the hold-back fitting. The shooter gave her the run-up signal so she pushed the throttles against their stops, took a moment to confirm the engine instruments were all indicating normal, and wiped out the controls one more time for good measure. With a quick look over at Ted she was satisfied that they were as ready as possible, snapped a quick salute to the shooter, and braced herself for the shot.

A few seconds later as the Viking established a positive rate of climb, Ted checked in with Departure. The urgent reply came as no surprise, “703, maintain heading, climb to angels five and join on 601 for a visual inspection.”

By the time Cheryl reached the stricken Hawkeye the entire engine was engulfed in flames. She made a quick pass over the E-2 and then stabilized well off to the right of the burning airplane.

“703, how’s it look?” came the call from the Hawkeye.

“Not good. The entire wing root is charred and I’m starting to see flame above the wing. The engine’s engulfed, you’re trailing flames about twenty feet.”

“601, this is the Air Boss, trim your aircraft for straight-and-level flight and bail out. I repeat bail out. I can’t take you aboard with that engine on fire and I’ve got nowhere to send you.”

Before he finished speaking the crew door on the E-2 flew open and the three flight officers bailed out followed shortly by the two pilots.

“703 counts five good chutes,” Ted reported.

“Copy, what’s the status on the aircraft?”

“Still burning and still flying, Sir. She’s headed almost due east level at five thousand feet just like the pilots left her.”

“703, we’ve got a new problem. That unmanned E-2 is only eighty miles from Syrian airspace and still flying. A few more minutes and we’re going to have an international crisis on our hands. Clear the area, I’ve got a Hornet on the way to take out the Hawkeye.”

Now that the crew of the stricken Hawkeye was safely out of the burning aircraft the situation became somewhat comical. The flaming E-2 was on auto-pilot and headed straight for Syria. In another ten minutes the Syrians would pick up the aircraft on their radar. A few minutes after that the unmanned E-2 would violate what the Syrians considered their sovereign airspace but it would be several more minutes before the internationally recognized twelve mile limit was penetrated. To make matters even worse the Sidewinder fired by the Hornet launched to dispatch the E-2 went stupid and splashed in the sea. The Hornet called “Winchester”, in a rush to get a missile in the air the red shirts had only loaded one ‘winder – the Hornet driver was out of ordnance and unable to stop the fiasco. Finally a Tomcat crew arrived with plenty of 20mm canon ammunition to splash the still flaming and flying crewless Hawkeye.

Crisis averted, the Reagan and her air wing got back to the business at hand.



Papa Ray February 17, 2008 at 23:53

I’ve never had writers block or such, but I would think it would piss you off.

But in my prior life as an engineer, I have had days when nothing I did seemed to be enough, or was wrong.

So…just do what you got to do and don’t worry about the rest. It usually comes around that things work out.

But sometimes it takes an awful lot of extra work.

Papa Ray

jon spencer February 19, 2008 at 17:35

Real nice surprise when the rss feed indicated that you had something new.
Without the rss, I more than likely would have deleted your bookmark.
Thanks for the good story.

Pig September 18, 2008 at 8:59

That brought back some memories! …30% truth / 70 % fiction. It’s a good read though.

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