he could taste it, feel its slickness between skin and rubber. His hands
were sweating, too, inside his gloves, and he resisted the temptation to
pull them off and wipe his palms on his flight suit.
His entire career in the Navy, it seemed, had focused his life to this
moment when everything was riding on his skill and training. He’d always
told himself that because he was black he had to be better than anyone
else he was flying with, sharper, more skillful, more aggressive. The
problem was that a lot of his bravado had been empty. Oh, sure, he’d
known he was good, but in a superficial way that had been challenged,
and seriously shaken, by the helicopter incident.
This was where everything he’d learned was laid out for all to
see–bringing a crippled aircraft down onto a carrier deck at sea.
Turning to port, he came in astern of the carrier, following her wake,
cutting his speed further now to 230 knots. “Two-one-eight, call the
ball,” he heard over the radio. That was the voice of the Landing
Signals Officer, the LSO, standing on his platform on the carrier’s port
side aft, just left of the spot where Dixie wanted to set his damaged
bird down. He could see the “meatball” now, the green bull’s-eye of the
Fresnell landing system tower that revealed, by appearing to move above
or below a pair of horizontal dashes, whether he was staying in the
correct glide path or not. To the right, aft of the carrier’s island,
the laser landing system beacon showed a dazzling green, giving him his
choice of input. So far he was right on the money.
“Tomcat two-one-eight, ball,” he called back, identifying his aircraft
and alerting the LSO that he did have the ball in sight. “Point five.”
That last told them he had only five hundred pounds of fuel aboard.
Prior to leaving the Marshall stack, he’d jettisoned much of his
remaining fuel, as well as the missiles slung from his belly and wings.
A lighter aircraft was easier to wrestle down, and if he did slam into
the deck too hard, it would be easier on the Jefferson’s flight deck if
he wasn’t packing almost a full warload and tanks filled with JP-5.
The carrier was riding calm seas half a mile ahead, looking terribly
tiny and isolated now against a very great deal of blue.
“Roger ball,” the LSO replied. “Just bring it in nice and easy, Dixie.
Everybody’s turned out for the show down here, so let’s show them what a
real hotshot aviator can do, huh?”
LSOS, Dixie had learned soon after becoming an aviator, possessed an
uncanny knack for instant psychoanalysis and treatment. The best ones
didn’t say very much at all, but what they did say was exactly right to
correct a problem, or calm shattered nerves, or snap a pilot’s mind back
instantly to where it belonged. The duty LSO had just reminded Dixie
that he had a bunch of people down there pulling for him. .. something
he’d lost touch with over the past few days.
It was a good feeling. A warm feeling.
“What’s the met rep?” he asked.
“Sea state calm, wind easterly at five knots,” the LSO replied.
“Carrier’s at fifteen knots. Easy trap.”
“Right. Keep your heads down, everybody.”
“Deck going down. Power down. .. just a hair.”
He eased back on the throttle and gave it a bit more flaps. Speed
one-sixty. .. he was coming in too fast! He dropped the throttle another
“Don’t over-corrects Power steady.”
The deck was rushing up at him now, much faster than he’d ever
remembered in making an approach before. Then the carrier’s roundoff
vanished beneath the Tomcat’s nose and he saw his own shadow flashing
along the dark steel deck ahead of him.
His wheels struck the deck, a savage clang and jolt. His hand slammed
the throttle full forward and his engines thundered with renewed life
and power, ready to take him off the deck again in a touch-and-go bolter
if his tail hook failed to connect.
But at the same moment as his engines howled to full power, he felt his