“602, you are at ten miles. Say needles,” said the controller from the supercarrier USS Nimitz.
“602 negative needles,” replied “Sickboy” from the right seat of the E-2C Hawkeye.
“602, fly bull’s-eye,” the controller replied.
“602,” answered Sickboy. Given his inexperience, he knew this was not going to be an easy approach.
“Shit,” mumbled “Rattler” from the left seat of the Hawkeye. He was already working hard to manage the aircraft, and this wasn’t going to make it any easier.
“Huh?” questioned Sickboy.
“Nothing…” Rattler replied, wondering how bad his luck had to be to get him here. Maybe that was it—maybe his luck had run out. Throughout his career in the US Navy, he’d heard guys senior to him talk about a bucket of luck and a bucket of skill. You hoped the bucket of skill filled before the bucket of luck emptied. He used to laugh it off, but tonight, over the Persian Gulf in a broken E-2C Hawkeye with a very junior copilot and bad weather, he was starting to rethink the theory. Of course, now wasn’t the time to think about this; he would have time for that later…hopefully.
“602, Paddles—you up?” radioed the landing signals officer (LSO) from the flight deck.
“Paddles, 602 has you loud and clear,” replied Rattler, trying to place a name to the voice on the radio. It had to be “Grins.” He was the senior LSO on the ship, and with tonight’s conditions and this stupid Hawkeye giving him problems, he wouldn’t want anyone else on the pickle to help him land.
“Hey, Rattler, it’s Grins down here… When you get a chance, give me a rundown of what you are working, brother.” Grins was a highly skilled Carrier Air Group (CAG) LSO, and Rattler really enjoyed working with him. The only downside to Grins in this circumstance was his background flying the F/A-18C Hornet. He had logged only one flight in the E-2C to see what the pilots were dealing with when they landed aboard the ship. That was the thing about Grins: he was always there to help and always trying to learn more. Most fighter pilots tended to be too busy or not interested enough to learn about the other aircraft being flown around every day; Grins was the opposite. He was also humble, and that’s why he had “Clipper” out there with him on the LSO platform.
Clipper was Rattler’s number two guy. They had gone to flight school together and ended up in the same fleet squadron. Rattler had arrived about six months sooner, and when Clipper got there, he started telling anyone who would listen that Clipper would be a great LSO. That’s the thing about LSOs—it’s kind of a fraternity in a squadron. There can only be a few at any given time, and most new guys or FNGs want to be one. Clipper was a natural fit. He was smart as hell (even though he was better at playing dumb), and honestly, if there was anyone in the squadron Rattler wanted on the platform right now, it was him. Rattler knew that Clipper was standing right next to Grins, listening and ready to give advice to help land the stricken Hawkeye.
“Paddles from 602, this is what’s going on… Lost a hydraulic system at altitude, but honestly, man, I thought the gauge had frozen.” (This had happened to Rattler numerous times, was a known issue, and really wasn’t a big deal since there was still hydraulic fluid in the system. As the aircraft descended into warmer air, the gauge would unfreeze and start working again.) “But as we came down from altitude, nothing changed. At that time, the plane was flying fine and we started talking to the ship to get aboard ASAP. I worked on getting the aircraft configured. About fifteen miles behind the ship, I put the gear and flaps down. As soon as I heard the gear come down, the plane rolled into a sixty-degree angle of bank to the right. Took two hands and all my strength to get her level,” Rattler explained.
“What the fuck did he just say?” yelled Clipper to Grins over the aircraft noise on the flight deck and the rescue helicopter starting up.
“602, Paddles, confirm your last…an un-commanded sixty-degree bank to the right?” Grins asked.
“Affirm, Paddles. We’ve got it configured now, but I’m having a hard time turning to the left. Something is either wrong with the hydraulics, flight controls, or something else, but she is being a real beast to keep straight,” Rattler explained.
“All right buddy, how do you want to handle this?” Grins calmly asked over the radio, doing his best to hide his concern. Everyone on the ship was listening to this conversation, and Grins knew it was only a matter of time before he got a call from the Commander of the Carrier Air Group (“CAG” for short)—or worse, the skipper—giving their two cents about what to do. CAG was an old-school fighter pilot and could do amazing things with an aircraft. There wasn’t much that CAG hadn’t done or seen, but he had never been an LSO. While he could give advice, Grins was ultimately in control.
“Grins, I’d like to give it a shot. I plan on lining up left as I approach the ship and making small corrections to the right until I land. I know I’m working with a small window here, but if it looks bad, wave me off and I’ll fly upwind and let the crew bail out, and then I’ll ditch ahead of the ship.” Rattler was matter-of-fact.
The E-2C Hawkeye’s wingspan was eighty feet, while the width of the carrier’s landing area was eighty-five feet. That would give Rattler 2 1/2 feet off of centerline before he risked hitting other aircraft, equipment, or the carrier tower. Grins knew that all nonessential personnel had already been ordered off, but he also knew that there were more lives at stake than just those aboard the Hawkeye. Grins looked over at Clipper. “Do you have any other ideas?”
“No—not unless they just bailout. Landing is risky for sure, but if anyone can do it, it’s Rattler,” shouted Clipper. “602, copy all,” radioed Grins. “We have a clear deck here and are ready for you. Listen to all LSO calls, and we will talk you down. Confirm you are configured gear down, full flaps for landing?”
“602, three down and locked; flaps full,” replied Rattler. Well, here goes nothing, he thought.
Approaching six miles, Rattler now had a little time to brief the crew. As aircraft commander, everyone’s safety was his responsibility. He was also the most senior member of the crew, not that he would need to assert that fact: everyone loved flying with Rattler. He had an ability to handle anything the E-2C could throw at him, keep his head, and take into account everyone’s input before making a decision. He was the leader of the Junior Officer’s Protection Association (JOPA), which was basically all of the junior officers in the squadron, and they looked up to him in one way or another. Now it was time for him to reassure them that everything would be OK…and maybe convince himself in the process.
“OK, let’s get everyone up on the internal communication system (ICS),” said Rattler. “Here’s how it’s going to go. I’m going to do all the talking on the radio. Sickboy, I need you to watch that gauge. I don’t care what happens—I need to know if our other system is starting to act funny. Everyone else, I’d really appreciate it if you were quiet, but if there’s something you think I need to know, then tell me; let’s not keep secrets here. I’m guessing that I will get one shot at this. The weather isn’t great, but I should break out of the clouds about a mile or so behind the boat, and then I can work the lineup issues. If they wave me off, I bet they’ll tell me to go upwind and level off and have you guys bail out. This would be a good time to mentally review your bailout procedures. I’ll stick with the plane and ditch it ahead of the ship for the helicopter to come get me.”
“I WILL STAY WITH YOU!” Sickboy exclaimed frantically.
“Sorry, buddy, but the navy has spent way too much on you for me to risk killing you in a ditch. You just got your three-year orders, and they’ll be pissed if they have to find someone else to fill them,” Rattler said with just a slight smile to break the sombre mood. “Plus, I need you to get in line at midnight rations (MIDRATS) because I’m going to need one of those famous sliders with an egg after this is all over. OK… So, anyone have any questions?”
The ensuing silence was Rattler’s answer. He laughed to himself— after all, he had told them to try and keep quiet—but naval flight officers (NFOs) sure were a different breed. Since it was their job to radio ahead to the ship and get all of the logistics in place, he was really counting on them tonight.
“All right, buddy, let’s go through that landing checklist one more time, because it would look stupid if I flew a perfect pass and forgot to put the hook down,” Rattler said to Sickboy.
“Three down and locked.”
“Landing checks complete,” Sickboy affirmed.
“All right…no need to delay this any longer. Old Salt, 602 is four miles out and ready to come aboard,” Rattler radioed.
“602, Paddles. Turn your taxi light on. We’re currently going through a rainstorm,” Grins advised.
“602,” Rattler acknowledged. As Sickboy reached up for the switch, Rattler could only laugh once again. At a time like this, he would have thought that every fiber in his body would be tense, with nervousness or outright fear gripping his mind; in reality, he was finding humor in the dumbest things. With the whole Persian Gulf around, why wouldn’t the skipper find an area where it wasn’t raining? As if the low-lying cloud wasn’t bad enough, the oil platforms and their burning fires gave the sense that he was flying upside down. Let’s just make this a little tougher.
“Paddles, pick up!” screamed the commanding officer of the ship over the 5MC.
“Are you shitting me? Right now we have a lot going on!” said Clipper to no one in particular. That was the thing that Rattler liked about Clipper: he was a common-sense kind of person. Sure, he knew how to have fun—lots of it, actually—but when the shit hit the fan, Clipper was the sort of no-nonsense guy you wanted on your side.
Grins hung up the phone, reading Clipper’s mind. “Skipper just wanted to know if we wanted him to go around and try again because of the rain.”
“Doesn’t he realize that this is serious shit? It’s not like Rattler can just eject. They lose that other hydraulic system and the only thing the fighter pukes are going to be doing for the next few days is planning the missing-man formation flyby for the funerals,” Clipper pointed out as he slammed his hand down against the control panel. He had a habit of doing that to clear his head and get back in the game…and it worked. He was back just in time to see the taxi light from 602 slowly breaking out of the clouds.
“602, Paddles: contact call the ball,” radioed Clipper.
“602, Clara ship,” replied Rattler, letting Clipper know that not only did he not have the Fresnel Lens in sight, but that he also couldn’t see the ship yet—not an ideal situation when you’re trying to land on it.
“602, you’re on glide slope, lined up left.”
Here is where it happens, thought Rattler as he began to make out the ship. “Ball!” he replied, but he knew that Clipper would talk him down the whole way anyway. OK, small correction to the right, but nice and easy.
“You’re on glide slope, right for lineup.”
OK that was the call…he was getting close, and it was time to get in the window. If he didn’t make the correction right now, he’d risk hitting equipment or people on the left side of the landing area. Time slowed and then stopped. Rapid eye movement ensured that Rattler’s gaze didn’t stagnate. Keeping your eyes moving and noticing the corrections you need to make: that was the secret to good ball flying— otherwise, things could go bad…real quick.
“Here comes centerline,” radioed Clipper.
Time had slowed just enough for Rattler to think that Clipper had made a great call, and he was really proud of how good of an LSO he was becoming. But that thought was short-lived. As soon as Rattler put in the control input to stop his left-to-right drift, he realized the controls had stopped working. He had full aileron into the left wing, and the plane was still going right!
“Back to the left! COME LEFT! WAVE OFF! WAVE-OFF!!!” screamed Clipper, but it was too late. The drift was picking up speed, and Rattler and the stricken E-2C were only about a foot off the flight deck. His scan stopped as he saw the aircraft in front of him and then the tower. In a last-ditch effort, he slammed the left rudder pedal to the floor, and with it came his final thought: God, please just take me.