WHAM! She was expecting it, but still, the sound made her jump. A hundred yards from where Monica stood one of the flight deck’s steam catapults slammed against its stock, sending a fighter jet screaming off the bow end of the deck and into the air—whoosh!— and disappearing into the dark.
CRASH! A second jet pounded into the deck’s stern to her right, its tailhook snagging one of the four arresting wires strung across the deck like booby traps. The cable screamed as it stretched out violently into an elongated V, slowing the jet from 150 mph to zero in a two-count to stop it from careening off the deck’s angled landing strip.
Goggled and green-jerseyed handlers rushed forward to chock and chain the beast. Monica knew them all by their gait and gestures, had each one’s physical signature memorized. Her crew’s lives depended on these guys.
WHAM! Another cat shot, and whoosh! another jet disappeared into the dark. CRASH! Another 25-ton jet pounded into the deck.
Her big brother had told her that the contrast between below decks and above was like night and day. That didn’t even come close. The three thousand–odd sailors toiling away in their steel ant colony below could go for weeks, months, without ever breathing open air — but up here everything was a mass of exploding chaos. Yellow-jerseyed “shooters” signaling jet launches with their elaborate ballet; white-shirted “paddles” feeding the incoming pilots chunks of complex data with a wave of their glowing light sticks; green-jerseyed Martians swarming everywhere, checking and double-checking every facet of the machinery before takeoff. The roar of jet blast as the next pilot rammed the throttle forward, sending a blaze of blistering exhaust back into concrete-and-steel blast deflectors raised on their servo motors just in time to catch the inferno. The Air Boss up in the tower, all-seeing, his amplified voice booming above the din, directing everything like a benevolent Eye of Sauron.
And that smell! that mix of diesel fumes, jet fuel, and salt air. Every time Monica stepped off the catwalk and out onto the deck it hit her again, like echoes of a first high school kiss. She loved it. Couldn’t get enough of it. Wished she could bottle it.
Launching and landing these jets was the most dangerous job in the world — and it was Monica’s job to provide a safety net and bring some sanity to the madness. The Lincoln carried forty-eight fighter jets and just six helicopters, but the helos were always, always, the first to lift off and last to land in any launch cycle, circling the ship’s starboard side in three-hour shifts so there’d always be at least one helo in the air with a rescue swimmer on board, suited up and ready to plunge into the drink in the event a plane went down.
Every helo squadron had a different motto. “One team, one scream.” “Train to fight, fight to win.” “Our sting is death.” All of which sounded to Monica more like they belonged to jet fighters. Not the Black Falcons, though. The day she’d gotten her assignment to the Falcons and learned what their motto was, she’d immediately felt at home.
“That others may live.”
Their helo was coming in now, winding up its final loop, another already in the air to take its place. As it settled onto the port edge of the deck in front of them, Monica thought again how much the Knighthawk resembled a praying mantis with its big cockpit window eyes.
In the seconds before takeoff, she always said a silent prayer herself.
She’d be damned if anyone else on this deployment lost their lives. Not on her watch.
To be continued….
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