Reunion

Fiction Contest Week

By Admiral James Winnefeld (ret.), U.S. Navy 

On board the USS Ranger, North Arabian Sea, 1925 local time, 10 January 1984

“They aren’t really going to launch us into this crap, are they?”

“I dunno, Boz.”

The aircraft carrier Ranger had just finished her turn to the southwest, preparing to launch the last sorties of the night. In the distance to starboard, flashes of lightning illuminated the leading edge of the winter Shamal storm that had sped down the Persian Gulf and spilled into the Gulf of Oman.

“Everyone on this deck is thinking the same damn thing: the Iranians aren’t coming out in this stuff, so why do we have to go up there tonight?”

“You wanna be the one to pose that question to the Air Boss?”

“Jimi, is anyone looking out the window? It’s gonna be right on top of the boat when we come back.”

“Just remember, Boz: ‘We’re not happy ‘till you’re not happy.’”

A yellow-clad flight deck director appeared beside the jet, barely visible in the dim lighting, and with a brisk motion of his wands ordered removal of the chains locking the Tomcat to the deck.

“Looks like we’re going flying, Boz. Parking brake’s coming off.”

Five minutes later, past the jet blast deflector, checks complete, and the gentle bump of the jet hitting the holdback fitting.

“Yep, I’m definitely not happy, Jimi.”

The catapult director swept a yellow wand forward and held the other overhead, followed shortly by the thump of the tensioned catapult. Full power, controls and instruments checked, the signal for afterburners, lights on when ready. A sharp downward and forward jolt as the Tomcat accelerated down the track and rotated into inky blackness broken only by flashes against the clouds to the northwest.

“DEPARTURE, PACK 102 AIRBORNE.”

“ROGER, 102, RIGHT TURN TO CLEAR THE MARSHAL STACK. SWITCH STRIKE.

Changing radio frequencies, Scaggs murmured “At least they’re turning us towards the weather. Thanks for that.”

“STRIKE, PACK 102 CHECKING IN, THREE-THREE-ZERO AT TEN MILES.”

“ROGER, 102, PROCEED TO LIMA, BUTTON 12 FOR YOUR CONTROLLER. REMAIN GREATER THAN 15 MILES OFF THE COAST—WE’VE HAD A FEW CLOSE ONES TONIGHT WITH THE SOUTHERLY WINDS.”

Hendricks chuckled, “I guess everybody’s good for something, even if it’s a bad example.”

During the 1970s the now-deposed Shah invested in the port of Chabahar, on the east side of a small bay along the rocky desert coastline of southeastern Iran. To defend it, Konarak airbase was built on the west side of the bay, and hosted F-4D Phantom fighters previously purchased from the U.S. Even in the wake of the Iranian Revolution and tensions between the two countries, the likelihood of an Iranian F-4 challenging a carrier was low. But who knew? With little else for the air wing to do, it seemed prudent for the Ranger to maintain a combat air patrol station during flying hours, just in case.

Joseph “Jimi” Hendricks and Robert “Boz” Scaggs were the first pilot and naval flight officer from their squadron’s rookie, or “nugget,” class to be allowed to fly together. Crewed together since the beginning of the deployment, the only thing they had in common was callsigns derived from musical artists’ names. Hendricks had grown up deep in rural Oklahoma. An amateur bull rider with few prospects for professional rodeo, he seized on a different approach to risk-taking revealed in a magazine article on naval aviation, which drew him to Officer Candidate School in Pensacola, Florida.

Scaggs came from a vagabond salesman’s family that migrated among a host of cities in the northeast. Graduating from the Navy ROTC program at Rutgers, he lacked the vision to be a pilot and became a radar intercept officer, or RIO.

“What the hell!”

Halfway through their climb, bumping in and out of puffy clouds, a bolt of lightning kicked Hendricks’s feet off the rudder pedals and mildly shocked both crew’s lips through the microphones in their oxygen masks.

“You okay Jimi? Did that hit us?”

“Dunno. Lost my night vision but I can still see the instruments. Engines are good and I’ve got no caution lights.”

In a shaken voice Scaggs replied. “Roger. Should we head back?”

“How’s your radar?”

“It dropped offline but it looks like it’s trying to restart.”

“I think we’re okay, Boz. And we’re almost on station in the clear. Let’s stick around.”

With the approaching Shamal barely to the west of their assigned station, the dim lights of Chahbahar began to appear ahead. Hendricks turned the Tomcat to establish a north-south track, maximizing their radar coverage of the airfield. On these sorties he enjoyed turning his cockpit lights as low as possible, maintaining station using the lights of the Makran coast for a position reference and the stars for heading. No stars tonight, though, thanks to the high pre-frontal overcast. Hendricks and Scaggs were enveloped in darkness.

Just before their second turn to the south, the bright yellow master caution light suddenly lit up in both cockpits.

“What’s up, Jimi?”

“Bleed duct light. Air Source coming off.”

“Roger, securing the radar.”

“I’ve got smoke up here. Dumping cabin pressure, watch your ears.”

“Roger.”

“Hate to say it, Boz, but I’ve now got a right engine fire light, and the controls are tightening up.”

“PACK 102, HOTDOG RED, TURN SOUTH IMMEDIATELY.”

“Crap, why didn’t they give us a Hotdog Yellow call? I should have turned right away.”

“ROGER, WE’RE, UH, DEALING WITH AN AIRCRAFT PROBLEM. TURNING NOW, WILL ADVISE.”

“Boz, this is not looking good. Engine fire, cockpit’s filling with smoke, and I’m really wrestling snakes up here. We’re gonna have to eject before I lose control. Do a quick mayday call, but don’t do it on guard cause of where we are. Then let me know when you’re gonna pull.”

“MAYDAY, MAYDAY. PACK 102 HAS ECS, ENGINE AND CONTROL PROBLEMS. EJECTING NOW AT CURRENT POSITION NORTH OF MOTHER AT CAP STATION LIMA.”

The ejection occurred in slow motion for Hendricks. After the canopy blew off, he saw the red lights of the instrument panel recede below as his seat rocketed up its rails, almost immediately followed by the deceleration of his parachute opening. Looking up in the darkness the chute appeared to be in one piece, and he went through his post-ejection procedures.

Wait a sec. Am I missing something, or did my seat just malfunction? It’s supposed to freefall me to 14,000 feet and then open the chute, but it sure felt like it opened right away.

Let’s see, a thousand feet per minute descent from 20,000 feet, that’s around 20 minutes. With more than 30 knots of wind from the south, that’s at least ten miles of drift. We were 15 miles off the coast when the duct light came on and, thanks to me getting preoccupied, we kept going for at least a minute at 240 knots indicated airspeed, which is roughly 360 knots true. That’s six miles or more plus ten. Holy crap, I could easily land inside Iran.

On board the USS Ranger, 1955

The captain’s phone on the bridge made its usual irritating buzz.

“Sir, Air Ops here. We just got a mayday call from Pack 102 on their station frequency. It sounds like they’ve ejected. We’ve got two beacons on guard frequency, which would correspond to their seat radios.”

“Damn. Okay, where are they?”

“That’s the bad news, sir. They’re on Lima station. With the prevailing winds, we think they could land in Iranian territorial seas.”

“Okay, get the flag staff working on permission for a helo to penetrate 12 miles. I’ll call the admiral myself. I assume you’re launching the alert helo. Meanwhile, turn Ranger north and close the coast.”

Five miles southwest of Chabahar, Iran, 2007

After a lengthy freefall, Scaggs’s parachute had automatically opened. He inflated his life jacket, released his oxygen mask, and pulled the handle to release his life raft, which inflated and dangled below, stabilizing his parachute. Descending through the undercast felt surprisingly like stepping into a freezer. Already shivering, he released his parachute risers as his feet hit the water and plunged into the cool choppy water. Bobbing to the surface, he grabbed the raft’s lanyard, pulled himself forward and up, rolled over and landed on his back.

At least I made it this far. Time to break out all the toys. Radio on, pencil flare ready. This is gonna take a while.

Two miles inland, west of Konarak, Iran, 2013

The descent seemed to take forever, with the lights defining the bay growing closer every minute to his right. Hendricks could readily tell the wind would carry him well ashore on the west side of the bay. With a sickening feeling he crossed over a coast road and continued towards a dark spot beyond.

The ground appeared just before he landed, and he braced himself. Turning his parachute perpendicular to the wind combined with the soft soil managed to break his fall, though the impact knocked the wind out of him. The parachute dragged him through the sand for several seconds before he managed to release his shoulder fittings. He stopped abruptly in a cloud of dust, gasping for air.

Regaining his breath, Hendricks rolled over and gingerly stood up. Although everything hurt, it all seemed to be in working order except for a sharp pain in his left shoulder. He retrieved his parachute and seat pan, deflated his raft with his survival knife, and gathered everything into a pile, placing his helmet on top.

With the stars blotted out by the high clouds, his only sense of direction was the southerly wind blowing from the coast, which meant the dim lights he saw were to the east and south.

What the hell do I do now? First, I have to get away from here. Moving towards the coast is tempting, but it’s not like I’m gonna swim out of here, and there are lights and people in that direction. If I head north maybe I can get to where a helo can safely pick me up.

He pulled his survival radio out of his vest, turned it on, and immediately heard the strong, insistent signal of a distress beacon.

Damn!

Frantically digging into his pile of equipment for his seat pan, he pulled out the radio beacon—which activated when he ejected—and turned it off. The loud beacon on his survival radio immediately stopped; yet a weaker beacon remained barely audible.

Must be Boz. If his seat worked, he’s probably in the water. Hope he’s OK.

All this crap is heavy. I’ve got to hide it, but don’t want to dig. Maybe I can lug it to a better spot.

Hendricks removed his torso harness, unzipped his g-suit and added it to the pile, then put his harness back on to retain its attached survival gear: water, radio, flares, knife. He then gathered up the pile of equipment and started walking north.

Five miles southwest of Chabahar, 2115

Helo lights in the distance!

Assuming it was not Iranian, Scaggs fired his first flare. The H-60F helicopter spotted it right away, quickly established a hover, and lowered a swimmer. After a quick check, the swimmer hooked him to the hoist. Soon he was lying, still shivering, on his back on board the helicopter. It was a textbook recovery. The hoist operator yelled over the rotor noise coming in the open door: “Who are you?”

“Scaggs.”

“Have you seen the other pilot?”

“No. Not possible. Too dark.”

USS Ranger, 2120

The bridge phone buzzed. “Captain, the helo’s picked up the RIO, Lieutenant Scaggs. No sign yet of the pilot. We initially heard two beacons, but everything went silent after Scaggs got in the helo. They’re still arcing around up there looking, but no luck so far.”

“What’s the staff saying?”

“They want to look for another 30 minutes inside Iranian waters. They’re working with FIFTH Fleet to decide whether to pass a message to Iran via Oman.”

“Any reaction from Iran?”

“Nothing yet that we know of.”

Northwest of Konarak, Iran, 2120

It was a tough slog across the soft, sandy soil. The events of the night had drained Hendricks’s strength, and his sore left shoulder made carrying the equipment harder with every step. He stopped for a moment, sat down to rest, pulled out his radio, and turned it to guard frequency. There was nothing but static.

The radio had three modes: transmitting a beacon on 243.0 MHz, also known as guard frequency, and two-way voice on either guard or 282.2 MHz.

I wonder if they’re calling me, thinking I’m in the water. Do I leave this thing on, hoping to hear them, but running down my battery? Should I transmit on guard? Or switch frequencies? What if the Iranians hear me? I sure wish we’d briefed this, but I guess nobody expected anyone to end up in Iran.

Hendricks turned the radio off, re-stowed it, and looked at his watch, noting that it was just after 2130. He picked up his gear and continued north.

After 30 more minutes walking through the sandy terrain, he gradually began to see a low silhouette rising before him. When he drew closer it became a dense thicket of scrub vegetation, standing about five feet high, a hundred feet around, inside a dry wash. Relieved, he pushed into the brush, pulled an extra can of water out of his seat pan and stashed his equipment, carefully covering the orange and white parachute.

He backed out of the thicket and circled around it, continuing to the northwest. It soon became clear he would need to walk between a small cluster of buildings to his left and a brighter set of lights to his right.

If I’m going to keep going this way, I need to eventually talk to someone so they can pick me up.

He pulled out the radio once again, listened to the static on guard frequency, and then transmitted.

“THIS IS PACK 102, IS ANYONE UP THIS FREQUENCY?”

He immediately regretted it.

“BALEH.” And in broken English: “WHO IS THIS SPEAKING?”

USS Ranger, 2158

“Captain, we just heard a brief transmission on guard, asking if anyone was up. It was very short, but we heard the words ‘Pack 102” followed by an accented response asking who was calling, then dead silence. We’ve gotten a few inquiries from the Iranians on guard about our helos, which are now back over international waters.”

“I guess that’s good news and bad news. The pilot must be alive, but the Iranians know something is up based on the seat beacons, the helos flying off their coast, and now the radio call. Ask the staff if we can send a helo back in to continue looking. Can we do it covertly?”

Northwest of Konarak, Iran, 2400

After the radio scare, Hendricks continued walking, shifting to the northwest to pass between the two sets of lights. He checked his watch again.

Midnight, five and a half hours until dawn. Tired, but got to keep going.

As he pressed forward, he noticed an intermittent light piercing the dust-laden darkness. As he moved closer, it suddenly dawned on him that he was looking at a rotating aerodrome beacon.

Of course, they use those here, too! Ha—they even have the two white flashes alternating with green for a military airfield! This warrants a closer look—maybe I can learn something useful.

Hendricks shifted course slightly to his right, aiming for the left, or west, end of the right-hand line of brighter lights. He had carefully crossed two roads, passed another copse of low trees and crossed another two hundred yards of open dirt when he ran into the diagonal corner of a fence line. He followed the fence to the left around the corner, then continued on a straight line to the north along the fence.

After a hundred yards, he looked to his right and saw an airplane that looked like a Boeing 727 directly across the large perimeter road that ran inside the fence. The jet was parked inside a hardened structure consisting of two high north-south vertical walls, open on either end, with a concrete hangar and a small parking ramp set between.

Wow, this really is the airfield. I’ll walk a little further along the fence to see what I can see, then I’ve got to get the hell out of here before daylight.

Further along, another shelter—this one empty—rose out of the darkness, away from the fence. A hundred yards north and yet another set of walls closer to the fence, this time with two concrete shelters. Parked outside the southern hangar, backlit against dim lighting, was the silhouette of an F-4 Phantom.

It looks beautiful. I wonder whether ole’ Mehdi ever flew any of these jets.

Hendricks’s thoughts drifted back to his early days in flight school, just before the Iranian revolution in February 1979. The Shah had sent his future F-14 pilots to be trained in Pensacola, Florida alongside the U.S. Navy. Though he never had any direct contact with them, Hendricks was skeptical of the Iranian pilots’ reputation for difficulty with the swim requirements and the hilarious mistakes they sometimes made in the cockpit. He smiled, recalling stealing a blue Iranian uniform hat lying among all the other hats near the entrance of the Pensacola Officers Club. He had given it to a roommate, but still remembered the name stenciled inside: “Mehdi Bayat.”

His guilt about the prank—how would the officer ever get another hat?—was erased by the subsequent Tehran embassy hostage crisis. But he sometimes wondered about the fate of First Lieutenant Bayat. Did he manage to stay in the U.S. or go home? Did he flee later during the revolution? Was he persecuted, or did he end up flying in the Ayatollah’s air force? Is he even alive?

As he walked further, the fence turned slightly to the right then back to the north. Soon Hendricks saw, close to the fence, four empty aircraft ramps with a small building in the center, angled away to the northeast with a direct path to the runway beyond. Just beyond to the east he saw the backs of four arched-roofed aircraft shelters angled in the same direction, with their own ramp to the runway. The ends facing him were closed.

Cool. These must be their alert shelters. Wish I could see inside, but I don’t see any activity.

He moved further north, reaching a patch of scrub brush angling towards the fence that offered better cover. As he moved, he gradually saw the ramp feeding the second set of shelters. Another aircraft appeared, parked in the open.

Holy crap! I can’t believe it.

USS Ranger, 0200

“Sir, the helos are running low on fuel, with no sign of Hendricks and no more radio calls. Since the helos went dark, we’ve heard nothing more out of Iran, but Fleet is getting worried about an Iranian response.”

“OK, bring the helos back and tell the staff what we’re doing. Tell the Air Boss I want them back out at first light.”

Konarak Air Base, 0200

A Tomcat on the ramp? We were never told F-14s are based here—they’re supposed to be fighting the Iraqis. Maybe it’s here on a cross country—I’m sure the night life in Chahbahar is hot! Or maybe they’re getting worried about us and are checking this out as a potential base. Or is it something we’re supposed to see?

Hendricks backed away from the fence and sat. He pulled out his radio, but once again only heard static on both frequencies.

I’m guessing both Ranger and the Iranians think I’m in the water. That’s good. But if I transmit on either frequency before I get to a safe place, the Iranians might be able to tell I’m ashore and start looking for me, and my tracks will make me easier to find than a lost steer. Best to stay quiet for now.

But that damn Tomcat is sitting right there in the open, with a frigging starter cart next to it!

Naaah. Even if I got it started, then what? But . . .

Decision time. Head west, find an empty spot, then come up on the radio hoping for a helo rescue, or take the bull by the horns? The first is the smart play, but what the hell! If I can start the airplane just before daylight, I’ll have a fighting chance. Good thing I kept my torso harness! No time to go back and get my helmet, though, even if I could find it.

Konarak Air Base, 0500

After waiting and resting in the shelter of the underbrush, Hendricks stood up, passed through a derelict portion of the airfield fence, and walked cautiously towards the closest aircraft shelter.

I walked down the dry riverbed at survival school when they told us not to, and it worked, so maybe this will work as well.

Pausing to crouch by the dense brush growing next to the low wall at the edge of the tarmac, he confirmed the absence of any activity near the shelters. He took a few minutes to rehearse in his mind the exact sequence of tasks he would have to perform in order to get the Tomcat started.

OK, first light approaching, time to go. Never did the faint heart win the fair maiden.

He stepped over the wall, walked past the first set of concrete ramps, crossed seventy-five more yards of desert to the first shelter, then angled directly towards the Tomcat on the tarmac. Heart pounding, he pushed the cart’s electrical cable into the receptacle behind the F-14’s nose wheel, then quickly stepped towards the air connection near the left main tire.

Suddenly, out of the darkness: “cheh ghalati daari mikoni!?”1

Hendricks froze for a moment, then slowly raised his hands and turned around. A single person faced him in the dim light.

“An American name tag on a flight suit? What are you, a spy? Some kind of saboteur? You’re not dressed like either one.”

“Lieutenant Joseph Hendricks, U.S. Navy.”

“Well how about that. Why are you here?”

Hendricks nodded towards the airplane. “I had to jump out of one of these off the coast, and the wind blew me ashore.”

“And now you have a big idea about stealing this jet.”

“Maybe.”

“Bold! And where would you go?”

“Back to the carrier.”

“That’ll be a neat trick. They won’t shoot you down?”

“I’ll have to take that chance. Better than spending time in an Iranian prison. And I can always eject if they won’t let me land.”

“You’re lucky. Ejection seat parts are the one thing we’ve had no trouble getting. The rest, not so easy.”

“What are you gonna do with me?”

“It’s not what I’m going to do with you, it’s what you’re going to do with me. You’re taking me with you.”

Hendricks put his arms down. “You’re kidding.”

“No, I’m very serious. I hate it here. I want to leave. I love my Iran, my Persia, not the Iran of bloodthirsty mullahs and corrupt Revolutionary Guards. I’ll go get my gear.”

“No, you’re not going anywhere. I’ll take you with me, but I don’t completely trust you yet. Besides, we can’t waste any more time, it’s getting lighter.”

“So, what, you want me to fly without being strapped in?”

“Who said anything about you doing the flying? Do you even know what you’re doing?”

“I’ve got two Iraqi kills in this airplane. How many do you have?”

“Sorry. Didn’t mean that. How many carrier landings do you have?”

“Ah, good point. But I still need to be strapped in.”

“Alright. You trust me, so I trust you. You take the harness. Just promise to put the eject lever in “pilot”—if you punch out, you go alone. By the way, what are you doing out here this time of morning?”

“Believe it or not, I left my prayer mat in the cockpit when we arrived last night. The Guards keep a close eye on religious fervor, Hendricks, and I needed it before morning prayers.”

“Call me Jimi. What do I call you?”

“Mehdi.”

“You’re kidding me. Mehdi Bayat by chance?”

“How do you know my last name?”

“I’ll save it, but I do have a story for you, and I can’t wait to hear about those MiG kills. Let’s get moving. Anything I need to know about the jet?”

“It’s a piece of crap.”

Hendricks wriggled out of his harness and handed it to Bayat, put the radio in his flight suit breast pocket, climbed the ladder and settled into the cockpit. The Iranian hit the start buttons on the cart, and the diesel engine and gas turbine air blower roared to life. The F-14’s electrical system clicked on after several tries, and air flowed into the cockpit shortly thereafter. Hendricks hit the left engine start switch and moved the throttle to idle once the RPM rose.

So far so good!

Bayat disconnected the F-14 from the cart and scrambled up the ladder. Hendricks already had the right engine in its start sequence and lowered the canopy.

“Nice work, Mehdi,” Hendricks yelled over the cockpit noise. “We’ll have to go with the ladder down. Right generator won’t come on. Wings coming forward. I’m not even going to try the flaps. Won’t bother arming my seat, either, but you go ahead.”

Glimpsing people running from the shelter towards the aircraft, Hendricks quickly steered the Tomcat down the ramp and onto the runway.

“Afterburners aren’t working!”

“Yeah, sorry about that—you’ll have to go in mil power only.”

At 140 knots Hendricks eased back on the stick and the Tomcat lifted into the now-still air.

I can’t believe we pulled this off. Wake up everybody!

The F-14 entered a right turn past a sliver of rising sun, and almost immediately was over the water, headed south.

USS Ranger, 0605

“Captain, sir, sorry to wake you. We have indications of an aircraft launching out of Chabahar and heading towards us. We believe it’s an F-4.”

“Launch the alert 15 fighters.”

“We’re doing that right now, sir.”

South of Chabahar, 0610

Hendricks leveled the F-14 at 20,000 feet and dialed up the Ranger’s radio beacon. The needle and distance indicator both spun for a few moments then locked on: due south at 80 miles. He pulled out his radio.

I guess it’s OK to talk now! Boy is Ranger going to be surprised.

“GRAY EAGLE THIS IS PACK 102 ON GUARD.”

“CALLING GRAY EAGLE ON GUARD, SAY AGAIN?”

“THIS IS PACK 102. AIRBORNE IN AN IRANIAN TOMCAT OUT OF KONARAK AIRFIELD, HEADED SOUTH TOWARDS MOTHER.”

“IS THIS SOME KIND OF JOKE? IF YOU’RE ON THE FLIGHT DECK MESSING AROUND, KNOCK IT OFF.”

“NO! THIS IS LIEUTENANT JOSEPH HENDRICKS. I NEED TO LAND THIS JET ON MOTHER.”

“Mehdi, any fighters on alert at Konarak that could launch and mess this up?”

“Two F-4s in 30-minute alert, but they’ll never get off that fast.”

USS Ranger, 0615

“Captain, I have an update. We just got a call on guard that appears to be from the Iranian aircraft, claiming to be Lieutenant Hendricks.”

“You’re kidding.”

“And he wants to land here.”

“Ooohhkaaaay. I assume we’re doing a pull-forward for the alert launches, but I don’t want to land an Iranian Tomcat on Ranger.”

“What should we tell him?”

“Clear him to approach the ship at slow speed. Send one of our fighters to a station off Chabahar, and the other to rendezvous with the Iranian. I need to know more.”

“Aye, sir. We’re also hearing noise from Konarak tower that they may be launching an alert.”

“Any other good news? For heaven’s sake, make sure the admiral knows what’s going on.”

North Arabian Sea, 0628

“Mehdi, there’s an F-14 approaching from our left side. It looks like he wants to join. Now you’ll get to see a real Tomcat!”

“GRAY EAGLE, BRAVE 204. WE’RE WITH THE IRANIAN JET. I CLEARLY SEE HENDRICKS IN THE FRONT SEAT BECAUSE HE’S NOT WEARING A HELMET. THERE’S SOMEONE ELSE IN THE BACK SEAT, ALSO WITH NO HELMET, BUT I HAVE NO IDEA WHO IT IS. WE’RE SWITCHING HIM OVER TO 282.2.”

“PACK 102, HOW DO YOU HEAR?”

“VERY SCRATCHY.”

“ROGER. MOTHER’S CLEARED YOU FOR AN OFFSET DESCENT TO 1200 FEET IN THE VICINITY OF THE SHIP. I’LL STAY ON YOUR WING. WHO’S THAT IN YOUR BACK SEAT?”

“LONG STORY.”

After a few minutes: “PACK 102, BRAVE 204. MOTHER’S DIVERTING YOU TO MUSCAT, OMAN.”

“I HAVE A FUEL TRANSFER PROBLEM THAT’S GETTING WORSE. DON’T HAVE ENOUGH TO MAKE IT TO OMAN. NEED TO LAND ON MOTHER NOW.”

“ROGER, I’LL GET BACK TO YOU.”

After a few more minutes: “PACK 102. GRAY EAGLE WANTS YOU TO FLY ALONGSIDE THE SHIP AT A HALF MILE AND A THOUSAND FEET AND EJECT. YOU ARE NOT, REPEAT NOT, TO LAND ON MOTHER.”

“BRAVE 204, ONE SMALL PROBLEM. I GAVE MY TORSO HARNESS TO THE PERSON YOU SEE IN THE BACK SEAT. I CANNOT EJECT. MY ONLY OPTION IS LANDING ON MOTHER. I ONLY HAVE 2000 POUNDS OF USABLE FUEL, SO WE NEED TO GET THIS DONE ASAP.”

Pierside, Naval Air Station North Island, California, 16 April 1984

The crane lifted the freshly painted F-14A off the Ranger’s starboard aft elevator and gently deposited it on the pier, where it was quickly connected a tow tractor. A brake rider climbed into the front seat.

Two figures, one in a flight suit and the other in civilian clothes, stood in the shadow of a small utility building near the pier. As the tractor drove off with the Tomcat, one turned to the other and, in an accented voice, said, “I always meant to ask, was that a real fuel transfer problem?”

A shrug. “Like we say back in Oklahoma, lettin’ the cat outta the bag is a whole lot easier than puttin’ it back.”

Admiral James A. “Sandy” Winnefeld, U.S. Navy (Retired), graduated from the Georgia Institute of Technology with a degree in Aerospace Engineering and received his commission through the NROTC program. He began his naval service as a fighter pilot, flying the F-14 Tomcat during several deployments to the Western Pacific and Arabian Gulf regions, and serving as an instructor at the Navy Fighter Weapons School, also known as TOPGUN. During this period he also was senior aide to General Colin L. Powell. After fighter squadron command, he graduated from the Navy’s nuclear power school and subsequently commanded USS Cleveland (LPD-7) and USS Enterprise(CVN-65). He also led the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group while supporting operations in support of our troops in Iraq. Later he commanded NATO Joint Command Lisbon, Striking and Support Forces NATO, and the United States Sixth Fleet. After serving as the Joint Staff Director of Strategic Plans and Policy, he assumed command of United States Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command. He retired in 2015 after four years serving as the ninth Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the nation’s number two ranking military officer.

Endnotes

1. “What the heck are you doing?”

Featured Image: “Iranian F-14 Tomcat Aircraft” by HDI VFX (via Artstation)

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