Richard had completed his preflight and BIT (Built in Test) for his systems and had informed his pilot Chuck Riorden that all systems were go. He watched the Super Hornet in front of them on Eisenhower’s port catapult launch, felt the shuttle strike the water break and noticed the jet blast deflectors lowering to the flight deck surrounded by steam emanating from the catapult. He rogered the flight deck crewman hoisting the Super Hornet’s launch weight and informed Chuck what it was then double checked that the wing lock indicators or ‘beer cans’ were flush with the wing indicating the wings were down and locked. This was a visual backup to the warning and caution panel array of lights that informed both cockpits of the aircraft’s status.
He felt the war bird move slowly as Chuck added power under the flight director’s command to taxi forward onto the catapult and into position over the shuttle. A quick glance around him brought into view the various flight deck personnel surrounding the aircraft. He observed the squadron troubleshooter, Aviation Airframe Mechanic Petty Officer Second Class Warren give a thumbs up to the catapult officer indicating that from his last minute inspection the Super Hornet was ready for launch.
After acknowledging the troubleshooter’s thumbs up and that the jet blast deflectors had been repositioned behind the aircraft the catapult officer gave the hand signal to Chuck to select military power. Both crewmembers felt the aircraft enter tension as the holdback attached to the flight deck ensured that the aircraft was immobile. After a quick last minute check and an affirmation from Richard that he was set Chuck responded to the catapult officer’s command for combat rated power, or afterburner. After making a last minute check of all personnel involved, and seeing the position of the ship’s bow to ensure it wasn’t moving downward, the catapult officer answered Chuck’s salute and crouched to touch the deck with his right hand indicating to the sailors manning the catapult to launch the aircraft.
Richard felt the transverse acceleration or ‘g’ force pressing him against his seat, noticed the airspeed indicator working and informed Chuck of that fact by softly voicing “off the peg” over the ICS or cockpit intercommunications system.
After Richard confirmed that Chuck had rotated to the correct attitude and was raising the gear and flaps he reported “Airborne” to Climax, Eisenhower’s tactical call sign. Chuck accelerated the aircraft to 400 knots, made a port clearing turn and after ensuring they were clear of all traffic left 500 feet for 15 thousand feet, the pre briefed rendezvous altitude with their flight leader Showtime 204.
Showtime 204 had previously reported airborne to Departure Control and had been advised to switch to tactical frequency ‘Button 4’ or 255.5 megahertz. Button 4 was the frequency that both aircraft would be working on with an Aegis Cruiser, the USS Lake Champlain designated as the Air Warfare Commander. Richard did the same and reported a brief “two’s up”. Lead responded with a double mike click.
“Contact, left 8 miles.” Richard advised Chuck as he tracked their flight leader who was in a gentle left turn to an assigned heading of 080 degrees permitting them to make a running rendezvous with the lead aircraft. “Port to 060 degrees.”
Richard continued with commands until advised by Chuck that he had visual contact with their flight leader and would join up.
Once aboard in wing position Lieutenant Commander Rick Skyles in the back seat gave them the hand signal to indicate all systems were up. Richard responded with the same signal to advise the lead aircraft that their systems were up and fully operational.
Commander Jack Silver, the lead pilot and Squadron skipper gave the hand signal to Chuck to reposition their aircraft into the combat spread position which was the Navy’s tactical formation with two aircraft.
“Red Crown, Showtime 204 and 206 are up; state Tiger (fully operational and fuelled).” Rick Skyles radioed.
“Showtime 204, Red Crown, roger; Vector 070 degrees for station, elevator Angels 20 (climb to 20 thousand feet).” The air controller on the cruiser directed.
“Showtime 204, Wilco, out,” Rick Skyles answered.
For the previous 2 months Eisenhower had been in the Arabian Sea on station from where she had been conducting missions over Afghanistan in support of NATO operations. Richard and Chuck had flown continuously over Afghanistan until they had developed a good familiarity with their operating area. Almost all of their missions were close air support with occasional SAR (Search and Rescue) and CAP (Combat Air Patrol) missions to break the routine. Unlike the early phase of the War in Iraq there was no enemy Air Force over Afghanistan to worry about. Recently there had been a brief stand down in NATO ground operations because of a temporary truce between the Government of Afghanistan and the Taliban.
It was at this time that Eisenhower had been ordered to sail westward. There had been a lengthy public exchange of heated words between the leaders of Iran and Israel for several months and the Israeli political leadership was implying that they would not hesitate to take preemptive action if they felt their national interests were at stake. As a result the Eisenhower Battle Group had been repositioned westward closer to the Gulf or Oran. Most of the aircrews didn’t think there was much chance of action because Iran’s President had been making threatening statements against Israel for several years without any overt military action. They had been through this drill before. The upside of the recent move was there might be a chance of a port call at Qatar. Possible but not likely, Richard thought.
The aircrews had been briefed that the Iranians had been sending ‘snooper’ or reconnaissance aircraft out to reconnoiter the fleet. These were usually the slow moving maritime patrol aircraft designated P3 manufactured by Lockheed and transferred to the Imperial Iranian Air Force. Now used by the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force they frequently sortied out to keep tabs on the fleet and occasionally ‘buzz’ the ships including the carrier. It had been several days since such a sortie so the aircrews were expecting the likelihood of one today.
Once on assigned station the aircraft entered a port orbit, or were ‘anchored port’ with max conserve (fuel conservation) power settings on the throttles. Both aircrews kept a focused visual and electronic surveillance.
The Iranians didn’t show up on their watch so when the relief section of CAP aircraft were enroute Showtime Flight was vectored back to Climax for a daylight recovery. Return and landing were uneventful.
Richard sensed something was up when he entered the Ready Room. Commander Don Feathers, the squadron Executive Officer or ‘XO’ immediately approached the Skipper and whispered something to him.
After their brief conversation the Skipper turned to Richard and said: “Richard I need you to come with me and the XO to my stateroom. I have something to tell you.”
When the three men entered the Skipper’s stateroom he noticed the ship’s chaplain, Lieutenant Commander Deborah Barker standing next to the Commander’s desk.
“What’s up, Chaplain?” Richard asked expectantly.
“Richard”, she replied, “please sit down. I’m afraid I have some bad news for you.”
Richard immediately thought of Catherine and Bernadette.
“Are my wife and daughter OK?” He asked as he sat down. An ominous feeling of dread engulfed him.
“The ship received a message from the Red Cross and from Fifth Fleet an hour ago. Your wife Catherine suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm today and passed away. Your 2 year old daughter Bernadette apparently became frightened and upset about her mother and wandered into the back yard and fell into the swimming pool.