CARRIER 7: AFTERBURN By Keith Douglass

said. “Perfect weather over the entire AO.”

“That’s something, anyway,” Batman replied. “At least we’ll be able to

see where we’re flying.”

The Tomcat shuddered as another aircraft, an F/A-18 Hornet of VFA-161,

cranked up its engines on Cat Four, ahead and to Batman’s left. Hot air

roiling back from the aircraft’s twin engines made the air above the

deck dance and shimmer. Deck personnel, their duties identified by the

color of their jerseys and helmets, moved clear of the Hornet and

crouched low on the deck. The launch director dropped to one knee, then

touched thumb to deck.

Instantly, the Hornet slid forward, accelerating to flight speed in less

than two seconds as steam boiled from the cat track in its wake, a

seething, straight line of white fog swiftly dissipated by the breeze

coming in over Jefferson’s bow. From Batman’s vantage point in his

Tomcat, the Hornet appeared to slide off the end of Cat Four and vanish,

dropping off the end of the rail as though plunging toward the waves far


Then, as if by magic, the Hornet reappeared, climbing up from behind the

edge of the flight deck that had briefly hidden it from view, climbing

higher, dwindling in seconds to a speck in the blue sky above the blue


Launching off a carrier, Batman reflected, was the only time when the

aviator didn’t have full control over his aircraft.

Most aviators feared the trap at the end of a mission more than the

launch–night traps or recoveries during bad weather were the worst of

all–and Batman shared that common dislike with all other naval pilots.

At least during a trap the aviator was in control of his machine,

guiding it down the glide slope, adjusting position and speed and angle

of attack in response to the LSO’s radioed commentary, and to his own

eye, hand, and judgment. But the launch was the one time during the

mission when the man in the cockpit was literally a passenger. Just

beneath the carrier’s roof, in the catapult room, steam pressure was fed

into two enormous bottles, with pistons attached to the shuttle, which

rested in its track on the deck overhead. The FDO–the Flight Deck

Officer–was responsible for calling for just the right amount of steam,

an amount that varied depending both on the type of aircraft being

launched and on its launch weight, which might vary anywhere from 42,000

to 82,000 pounds. Too much steam pressure, and the aircraft could be

torn apart; too little, and it would not build up enough speed to become

airborne and would trundle off the front of the catapult and into the

ocean below. There wasn’t much room for error; typically, cats were set

to launch aircraft at about ten knots above the minimum speed necessary

to get them airborne.

Sometimes–not often, but sometimes–something just plain went wrong

with the equipment, and the aircraft was given a nudge instead of a

kick. Batman had seen it happen more than once. On one occasion, pilot

and RIO had ejected as their Tomcat fell toward the sea. The RIO had

survived, but the aviator had been recovered from the sea by helicopter

later, dead, his neck broken.

Even in peacetime, flying jets off a carrier was one hairy way to earn

your paycheck.

It was always a bit unsettling then to sit and wait in line for your

turn at the cat. Batman liked being in control; he was very good at what

he did–which was flying a high-performance Navy fighter–and he

disliked just sitting there, strapped into his ejection seat hoping that

somebody else got their figures right and pushed the right sequence of


He’d been giving a lot of thought to control, lately, especially as it

related to his future. Aboard the Jefferson, Batman had a playboy’s rep;

when he’d first checked in with the VF-95 Vipers, several years earlier,

he’d been something of a hot dog, young, brash, and just a bit too eager

to bend or break the regs when it suited him, especially when he was


No more. He’d met a girl two months ago, a wonderful girl. .. and he was

seriously considering giving up the Navy and settling down.

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