Flight Deck Ballet in the Aleutians
Chill wind chews at my cheeks, flutters my eyelids, and tugs at my lips as I look past the gray bulkhead. I huddle into my green foul-weather jacket feeling the cold penetrate my body in spite of the insulation. Here on my perch high above midships there is a gentle pitch, which becomes a tremendous rise and fall at the bow some five hundred feet away. The booming of the behemoth bow burying itself in the Aleutian seas sends spray a hundred feet and more into the air. This shrouds the fo'c'sle in a frigid mist which freezes in the arctic air showering the ship with ice particles. About every thirty seconds, this cycle of the ship's rise and fall in the ocean swell repeats itself, creating a rocking motion suitable for lulling giants to sleep.
Beyond the bow the majestic wall of the island cliffs surrounds us in Sitkin Sound with white-capped peaks plunging directly into the white-capped waves and straight down below the surface to imponderable depths. They seem to call mesmerizingly to the massive flat top, "send us your planes, your pilots; come add yourself to the rubble in the icy grave at our feet."
The light blue sky ringed by those frightful mounts displays a translucent quality when contrasted with their lack of color. My vision takes me far off into the heavens through this medium. Stars here are brilliant and myriad. Some are even visible now in the daylight. The sun, weakened with the distance created by the late season's tilt of the earth, cuts a brilliant though fuzzy arc in the southern third of our window to the sky, but only for a few hours a day. Late in the morning its rise is brilliant and sudden, like a welder striking an arc. Early in the afternoon its setting is abrupt, like turning off the only spot-light in a concert hall where the audience has lighters ready to show support for their disappeared idol. Its warmth is spare, though welcome to the men whose job is working the deck below me.
My nose is seared and eyes are stung by the JP-5 jet fuel fumes escaping and wafting upward around the island structure during fueling operations forward and below. Donning amber goggles against the fierce wind, the glaring sunlight, and the caustic fumes, I watch the orchestrated ballet of launching and retrieving aircraft. Here, fifty feet above the deck on a catwalk in the superstructure, the action is laid out in a one-hundred-eighty degree panorama of color and action in contrast to it's stoic white, gray, and blue backdrop.
Looking to my left, aft about two hundred and fifty feet through the dingy yellow gantry of the flight deck crane, I see an olive drab-clad pilot and his RADAR Intercept Officer (RIO) perform a safety inspection of their F-14 Tomcat. The plane captain in his rust-colored jersey and life vest accompanies them. The three men comb the plane in an earnest search for discrepancies that could easily kill. The pilot and RIO slip into the cockpit, fit their bulbous helmets on and drop the canopy, sealing themselves from the cold cacophony on deck.
Hhhuurrphurrphph! My attention is diverted further aft near the fantail where an S-3 Viking is being started with the "huffer," an external starter which blows air into the jet's enormous turbines. The strikingly yellow paint of the huffer and the operators' blue jerseys and helmets bring them out of the background like so much color on an Ansel Adams photo.
Farther aft and up, just over the ridge of peaks comes a black speck against the pale blue. Contrails tell me that a plane is coming down to land on the pitching, rolling, heeling, yawing deck in this bowl of unpredictable swirling winds. He'll only get one or at most two chances at hooking a wire before the ship has to come about and run downwind to avoid the cliffs.
Looking down in front of me toward the angled portion of deck painted out as the landing strip, I see the four cables stretched taut over leaf springs which hold them up four inches from the deck allowing tail hooks from the planes to snatch them up for brakes. Green jerseys are making final checks to ensure operability of the pulley systems leading below decks to the hydraulic tensioners. A yellow jersey walks each cable; quickly, cautiously seeking frayed wires. He clears the landing area and looks above me at the control tower, giving a thumbs-up to the Air Boss.
Looking back I see the shape of the aircraft; it's the mail plane! The deck crewmen identify it. There's an exchange of high-fives; now a guy dancing a jig. One sailor in equipment-handler blue runs across the deck and taps a white-jacketed safetyman on the shoulder, pointing out the inbound flight. The safety guy drops backward spread eagle on the deck, jumps to his feet, and leaps into the handler's arms.
The ungainly C-2 Cod wobbles into the glide path, fighting the wind to get lined up with the faded yellow and white line down the middle of the landing strip. The deck takes one more pitch and he clears the fantail. Smack! Sparks fly as his tail hook hits the deck. His wheels touch down with puffs of smoke. The huge prop engines roar as the pilot throttles up in case he missed the wire and needs to fly again. Cable snakes out behind the plane pulling it across the deck causing the tensioners to scream.
At the end of the runway, a green jersey clears the cable from the hook and gives a thumbs-up to the yellow jersey whose hand signals direct the pilot to turn right, come forward, right some more, and look to the next yellow jersey aft. The cable slithers back into it's position near the fantail as the plane moves to its station just below me where it is unloaded by enthusiastic hands.
Just forward and right of the end of the landing strip, leading all the way into the spray at the bow, is Catapult Number Two (Cat-Two). A green jereseyed mechanic is under the front of a Tomcat guiding its nose wheel and launch bar onto the shuttle at the after end of the slot in the deck. (The shuttle is connected to the 1200 psi steam ram below decks which will provide the thrust to launch the plane.) The twelve-foot high blast deflector rises robotically out of the deck behind the plane, showing me it's white hydraulic legs, it's face forward to protect the crew and equipment aft from the coming semi-controlled holocaust.
To the right and forward, over the red-and-white painted safety line on the deck, stands the Cat-Two Officer in yellow clothes. He relays the green jersey's instructions to the pilot. Fists crossed means stop. Palms to the ground and the jet's front gear knuckles down, projecting the T-bar into the notch of the shuttle.
The green jersey assures the soundness of the gear and the connection while red-jerseyed ordinance men on each side of the plane run in and remove safety pins from missiles under the wings. The red jerseys return to safety and the green jersey moves out, scanning and pointing while turning a pirouette to assure everyone is clear. His circle is completed aiming a thumbs-up at a white-coated safety observer behind and to the plane's right as he dashes across the safety line.
The white jersey drops to one knee and frames the back corner of the aircraft with his extended arms. His posture says, "My sector is clear." He's mirrored by another white jersey on the left side of the plane, so he sends his own thumbs-up to the Cat-Two Officer.
Cat-Two looks at the pilot, points one finger up and waves it in a circle. The jet's afterburners kick in at Zone One and light blue flames shoot out the back of the plane. The yellow jersey raises another finger and the flames pick up an orange ring at Zone Two. Three fingers, Zone Three, and the rumble of the big jets becomes all-encompassing as the orange rings become cones of flame stabbing at the blast deflector. Four fingers and the resounding roar ravages my hearing. I pull on earmuffs. I've lost sight of the tips of the flame behind the blast deflector. Warmth from the blast reaches my face and the temperature is finally fit for humans. Jet fuel sears my throat and nasal passages. Five fingers from Cat-Two. Flames ricochet off the deflector. The plane shudders, straining its brakes. The superstructure shakes. My chest is a bass drum in a thrash-punk band. Cat-Two salutes the pilot, leans forward, touches the deck, points at the cliff ahead, and braces himself.
There's a pause waiting for a swell to raise the bow. It is like the moment between the hammer-fall of a flintlock weapon and the discharge of the cartridge.
There's a blast like five Santa Anna winds. I am standing in the breech while the powder charge ignites around me.
Wham! Steam hits the ram. The shuttle yanks the bullet-nosed fighter along the deck, accelerating it to 160 miles per hour within 260 feet in under three seconds. I huddle into my jacket, hiding my cheeks from the heat. The plane is lost in the steam cloud escaping along the slot for a brief moment, then it is flying. Flying out of the cloud of steam. Flying horizontal toward the vertical mountain face probing the sky just in front of it. Its nose tips up. It stands almost motionless on its flaming tail - a climber scaling the mountain, looking for a finger or foothold. Then it accelerates vertically, defying the mountain and gravity itself.
Straining to watch the plane soar into the pale blue heavens, my face pulls out of my jacket and I am surprised at how cold it is - and quiet… on Vulture's Row.