There’d been a time, not so many years back, when Batman would have
howled with derision at the thought that he could ever be anything other
than a naval aviator. He loved flying, loved it with a passion that put
flight at the very core of his entire life. He’d joined the Navy in the
first place precisely because, in his opinion, naval aviators were
better than any other military pilots; they had to be, to let themselves
be hurled off a pitching flight deck at 170 knots. .. or to trap on the
carrier deck after hours in the air, often in the dark and in stormy,
wet, or visibility-poor weather.
But after more than ten years in the Navy, he was beginning to look for
something more than the heart-pounding slam of acceleration when he
pushed the throttles to Zone Five burner.
He was beginning to realize that Sunny Tomlinson might just be that
Ahead, another F-14 waited on Cat Three as the dance on the deck
continued, White Shirts completing their safety checks, red-shirted
ordnancemen checking the aircraft’s weapons, making certain the arming
pins with their red-tagged wires were pulled, making double-certain each
of the F-14’s missiles–Sidewinder, AMRAAM, and Phoenix–was secure.
Then the jet blast deflector, the JBD, slowly rose from the deck into an
upright position squarely behind the Tomcat, obscuring it from Batman’s
In less than a minute, however, the F-14 ahead thundered off the angled
flight deck, its F110-GE 400 engines glowing like twin bright orange
eyes as the catstroke hurled it off the waist and into the sky,
following the Hornet. In a swirl of steam, the JBD folded back down to
the deck, and Batman eased Tomcat 201 forward, guiding it over the slot
where green-shirted hookup men ran the catapult shuttle back to the
Everywhere on the deck around him, the dance continued, an ant-heap
scurrying of rushed but purposeful behavior. Four to five hundred men
were working together on the deck, moving in close synchronization, the
entire production directed by the Air Boss in his glassed-in aerie high
up on the island, in Pri-Fly. Things were moving fast this morning, as
if to compensate for the unexpected interruption in flight activities
last night. With the survivors of the sunken Victor III’s crew aboard
now and with the Jefferson well into her operational area in the eastern
end of the Black Sea, the launches and recoveries were going like
clockwork, the carrier flexing her airborne muscles.
A Green Shirt standing to the starboard side of the F-14 held up a board
reading 62500, providing Batman with verification of the Tomcat’s total
weight in pounds–aircraft, fuel, and weapons. He nodded agreement; the
same weight would be fed to the catapult officer in his domed-over
hideaway on the deck, letting him know just what settings to call for
from the cat crew below. Get it right, guy, Batman thought with a flash
of gallows humor. In fact, every man and woman aboard the ship knew his
or her job as well as he knew his.
But there were so many things that could go wrong. Not even the
instruments were fast enough to keep up with everything that happened
during the catstroke; launch was a supreme gesture of blind faith in
shipmates and in technology.
A Red Shirt held up a bundle of wires, each with a red tag fixed to one
end. There were six of them, representing two AIM-9M Sidewinders and
four AMRAAM radar-guided missiles. .. correct. A clatter of chains
beneath Batman’s feet told him the hookup men were securing his
nose-wheel to the cat shuttle.
The final checklist run-through proceeded swiftly and with a taut
economy of motion. The launch officer held his hand high, circling
tightly, and Batman eased his throttles forward to full military power.
He checked the motion of his stick, forward, back, left, right. .. then
the rudder pedals, left, right. All clear, all correct. A red light high
on the carrier’s island next to Pri-Fly winked over to green.
“Green light,” Malibu called.
“Hang on to your stomach, buddy. Let’s find us some elbow room!”
The launch officer, standing to the F-14’s right, was taking a last look
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