The angled rays of the early morning sun slanted across the blue-green waters of Pearl Harbor, glinting off the ships of the fleet nestled there. One of those ships was making her way towards Pier Hotel, her movement barely perceptible. Harry Ferguson and his wife wound through the throng gathering at the foot of the pier. As they did they kept glancing towards the giant ship silently gliding into her berth alongside the pier. The ship was the USS Constellation and she was returning from the Persian Gulf, where she had taken part in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Among the five thousand crewmen on board the Connie was their son, an F14 Tomcat pilot. They had not seen Van for many months and now they had come halfway around the world to see him step down onto the pier. Harry’s wife could not hold back her tears and Harry himself had difficulty controlling his emotions.
As a Navy pilot, Harry had once flown from ships like this one. It had been many years since he had been on a carrier and he had forgotten how enormous were these great ships. The Connie loomed ever larger as she closed with the pier and settled into her berth. Harry watched as the ship’s lines were thrown down to the pier and secured to large iron cleats there. Very soon, the brow would be put in place and the crew would begin to leave the ship. His pulse began to quicken.
Memories of Harry’s own service on board the USS Kitty Hawk flooded across his mind. That service was thirty-seven years ago, but those memories were still vivid. He could still smell the jet fuel, still hear the catapults flinging airplanes into the sky, still feel the gentle roll of the ship as the sea tried to have its way with her. Those memories might fray around the edges, but they would always be there. They were the memories of a lifetime, experiences which could never be understood by someone who had not gone through them. You had to be there.
There was a word, actually three words compressed into one, that Harry Ferguson didn’t like and rarely used, never within earshot of others and seldom even to himself. He said it only in moments of stress or frustration. An errant shot on the golf course might provoke it, or perhaps dropping a drink he had just mixed. It seemed to capture certain feelings in just the right way, at just the right moment. Now, taxiing his A4 Skyhawk onto the number 2 catapult seemed as good a time as any.
“Godammit,” he mumbled softly into his oxygen mask as he peered over the nose of the aircraft and followed the signals of the plane director. It was a moonless, overcast night and he could see only the illuminated wands of the director and the faint amber glow of his instrument panel. What am I doing here?
“Here” was the flight deck of the USS Kitty Hawk, which was gently slicing through the South China Sea as she turned into the wind before flinging off the first of eighteen aircraft poised for this night launch. In the cockpit, Harry could feel the slight list of the deck as the ship turned; then he felt the great ship level herself as she settled onto the launch course.
The wands slowly guided his aircraft into position, straddling the cat track. He inched the plane ahead until he saw the wands cross in an X, then gently applied his brakes and smoothly stopped the aircraft. He felt the plane wobble ever so slightly and he knew that back there in the dark, someone was attaching a cable to the rear of the plane. This was the holdback cable which connected the plane to the flight deck and which would prevent the plane from moving forward until the moment was right.
Now, the wands began moving again, slowly, slowly, and he responded by releasing the brakes and cautiously adding power, moving his plane forward until he felt the tug of the hold-back cable. Now, he knew, a crew would fix cables from a point beneath each wing to a shuttle in the catapult track. The cables formed a slanted “v” and, in a few moments, the shuttle, connected to a powerful steam-driven piston beneath the track, would accelerate Ferguson and his aircraft from a standstill to 125 knots in a distance of just 250 feet. The sensation would be almost like that of an orgasm.
As he set himself for the catapult shot, Harry glanced to his right and saw the plane of his flight leader, John Dawson, dimly outlined on the Number 1 catapult. John would go first. Harry turned his attention back to the plane director who indicated with his wands that Harry was now under the control of the catapult officer. For the tenth time, he checked his instruments. All were normal.
Now, Harry heard John’s engine as it wound up to full takeoff thrust. He could feel the vibrations. From the corner of his eye, he saw John’s wing tip navigation lights suddenly illuminate. This was the ready signal. Until he saw these lights, the catapult officer, known as Shooter, would not initiate the catapult stroke. Seconds later, in a roaring flash, John’s aircraft hurtled down the track, left the flight deck, and disappeared into the black. It happened so quickly that it seemed not to have happened at all.
Now, glancing down to the port side of his plane, Harry saw a crewman holding an illuminated slate board on which was written the weight of his plane. He checked the figure and confirmed it by shining his flashlight on his raised left thumb. “Weight OK,” it said. Now, with his wands, the plane director passed control of Harry’s plane to the Cat Officer, who raised one wand into the air and made a circling motion. He was asking for full power. Harry slowly pushed his throttle forward and then grasped the lever so that he held both the lever and the throttle in his grip.
This was it. Harry made sure the engine was at full thrust, checked his instruments one last time and placed the back of his helmet firmly against the headrest. That would prevent his head from being thrown backwards as the airplane was thrust forward. He looked straight ahead, took a deep breath, then flicked a toggle switch that turned on his wing lights. The catapult officer saw the ready signal, took one step forward and dropped to one knee as he inscribed in the air a slow, sweeping arc of yellow, ending with his wand pointing towards the bow. The launch signal.
With a great whoosh, Harry was propelled down the track, his back compressed against the parachute pack behind it. He felt the plane leave the deck with a thump. At the same time, all visual references were lost. Now came the hard part. If everything had worked as advertised, Harry would leave the deck at 125 knots; plenty of flying speed, he knew. But the sudden acceleration left all the air pressure instruments useless for the first few seconds. The airspeed indicator and, more importantly, the vertical speed indicator, were fluctuating wildly. It was impossible to know for sure what the airplane was doing; so Harry did the only thing he could do: peering intently at the artificial horizon on his instrument panel, he eased the plane into a 12-degree nose-up attitude while holding his wings level. And he waited.
The flight deck was just 80 feet above the sea, so he did not have long to wait. If the plane did not hit the water in those first few seconds, the pressure instruments would start working and he would know what his plane was doing. In the daylight, the pilot could see what was happening. If something went wrong, a light cat shot for instance, and not enough flying speed, he could do something. But in those first few seconds, the only “something” was to eject. At night, he waited and he hoped for the best.
Tonight, there was no problem. The catapult shot was normal, the critical few seconds passed and Harry’s pressure instruments began giving him essential flight information. When a fully-laden Skyhawk was catapulted, it settled about 20 feet right off the bow, stabilized and very slowly began to gain airspeed and altitude. So, as a squadron-mate once put it, “No sweat. If you don’t hear a big splash in the first couple of minutes, you’re okay.” There would be no splash on this flight, not yet anyway.Harry had not been aware that he was holding his breath, but as the pressure instruments began to work and he saw his plane begin to climb slowly back up through 80 feet, he exhaled loudly into his mask. Okay! he thought, and reached forward to raise the landing gear lever which retracted the wheels. He heard the gear tuck in with a thunk and he kept his eyes riveted to the instrument panel, straining to scan them all as quickly as possible. Each one told a different story. Only after he passed 1,500 feet did he dare to lower the nose very slightly and begin to accelerate. Then he raised the flaps and, with a rush of excitement, was on his way.
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