line up for a trap. While Tombstone and Batman had been over northern

Thailand, other aircraft from their squadron had been patrolling the

skies closer to the Jefferson. Lieutenant Ron “Price” Taggart’s 203

ship had been one of these.

Bumer spoke into his handset. “You’re a little left, Price,” he said.

“Come right a bit.” Taggart’s F-14 corrected. “Good … good … not

too much. Deck’s coming up.”

The Tomcat shrieked onto the deck, engines revving as the wheels

clattered across steel. The arrestor hook caught the number-four wire,

dragging the F-14 to a halt.

“I’ll give him a ‘fair,”” Bumer said, making a notation on a clipboard

in front of him. As squadron LSO, it was Bumer’s job to grade every

landing each pilot made. The possible marks were “okay,” the best

possible; “fair,” which was average and indicated the aviator had made

the proper corrections on time; “no grade,” which meant that there’d

been danger to the plane, the crew, or other personnel; and “cut,”

meaning a real screw-up, one which could have ended in disaster. The

LSO’s grades were a source of intense competition among the aviators,

with each week’s ratings posted on the greenie board off the hangar deck

for everyone to see.

Bumer looked at Tombstone. “That’ it for your squadron, Tombstone. You

come to watch Made It?”

“Is he the last one up?”

“Yup, Air Boss charlied him again a couple of minutes ago. He’s coming

around next.”

Lieutenant Commander “Di Di” Roberts stood at Bumer’s side. He was

VF-97’s LSO this afternoon and responsible for getting Made It down on

the deck. As Bumer handed him the pickle, he was already speaking into

his handset. “A little high.” Light glinted from his sunglasses as he


“Power down …”

Tombstone couldn’t hear Bayerly’s reply, but the incoming Tomcat

responded, power dropping, nose rising. Not enough … “Shit-fire,

he’s afraid of the deck now,” someone said behind Tombstone’s back.

“Still high,” Roberts said. He glanced quickly at the PLAT screen, then

back at the F-14. “Power back, just a tad more …”

Bayerly’s aircraft swept in across the roundoff, chasing its own shadow

across the deck, its dangling tailhook sweeping just above the taut

arrestor cables. Roberts triggered the pickle in his hand, and the

bull’s-eye lit up red behind him. “Wave off! Bolter! Bolter!


The Tomcat’s wheels touched with a grating squeal, and then the noise

was lost in thunder as Bayerly’s engines opened up full. The blue-gray

Tomcat flashed past the LSO platform, setting the air above the deck

shimmering with the heat of its jet wash. Then the aircraft was

dwindling into the sky ahead of the carrier, banking to port.

“That’s okay, Commander,” Roberts said calmly into his radio, “Happens

to us all. Bring her around again. Third time’s the charm, old buddy.”

He released the transmit switch on the handset and looked Craig in the

eye. “He doesn’t sound good, Bumer.”



A telephone buzzed on the console, and another officer picked it up.

“Air Boss, Di Di,” he said, holding the receiver. “Captain wants to

know if there’s a problem.”

“No goddamn problem,” Roberts replied. “Just a two-time bolter. He’ll

make it next go-round.”

Tombstone crossed to the deck railing and looked across the waves.

Bayerly’s Tomcat was a tiny silver speck now, gleaming in the sun far

beyond the rescue helo, which was maintaining its position two miles off

Jefferson’s port beam. Each time an aviator pulled a bolter, it shook

his confidence in himself and in his aircraft that much more … making

the next attempt harder.

It had happened to Tombstone more than once, and the feeling was not a

good one. He’d known aviators who had pulled ten or twelve bolters in a

row before finally making a trap. One had passed out cold minutes after

climbing out of his plane; another had walked straight down to the CAG’s

office and turned in his wings. Of all the operations expected of a

Navy fighter pilot, none was more difficult, more out-and-out scary than

landing an aircraft on a carrier’s flight deck.

“Right, Made It,” Roberts was saying into the handset. “You’re lining

up fine. Captain says if he can assist by maneuvering the boat, just

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Categories: Keith Douglass