CARRIER 7: AFTERBURN By Keith Douglass

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

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