Their vulnerability window was drawing to a close, and they were southbound now at a leisurely, almost reluctant pace, watching with a philosophical eye the sun crawling grudgingly down towards the horizon, watching the baked khaki of an ancient land rolling patiently below them. They have done violence today, but the land below them seemed unimpressed - it had a long and well-accustomed knowledge of men and their violence.

The USAF F-16’s flowed north, filling the cap stations they themselves had just voided, looking sleek and lethal - they had passed by them left-to-left a few minutes back. In Hammer 12, the XO’s wingman had rocked his wings in a tentative salute to his on-station relief, but the F-16s had either not seen the signal or had not acknowledged. They had concerns of their own among which the off-going Navy jets were not included - their shift was just beginning.

The wingman checked the INS data on his horizontal situation display - feet wet in 12 minutes and change. Figure a half hour to the tanker for the back-side top off. An hour until their scheduled recovery time - really, the next launch with (he consulted his kneeboard card) 12 to shoot. Figure: 1+15 until he’d be on final with a max trap fuel state of 4500 pounds of gas. One 500-pounder unexpended.

It was quiet now on the radios now, the Navy having cleared the comm circuits to let the USAF check in with the ASOC, with the DASC, and little left for the wingman and his lead to say to each other.

The wingman would soon be starting his Level III upgrade process - the apprenticeship that would take him from his current position near the bottom of the tactical totem pole as a qualified combat wingman to the next step - the coveted position as a combat section leader. He attempts to anticipate the leads intentions and actions, much as a 15-year old novice driver will follow his father’s movements on the steering wheel from the back seat of the family car, quietly, trying to learn, preparing himself for his own test.

Two aircraft, one will. As a section leader, he will have the responsibility of preparing and delivering mission briefs for himself and another pilot, one junior to himself. After qualification, he will lead the basic tactical element of naval fighter aviation - the two-ship. His thinking will shape and enunciate the plan; the wingman’s task will be to learn it. The lead’s decision-making processes will execute the plan; his wingman’s task will be to support it. The lead will debrief the plan; the wingman will learn at his elbow. His knowledge, leadership and skill will be central to the two-ship’s mission success, but much more than mission success will ride upon his leadership - the wingman will place his very life in his lead’s hand, unquestioningly, without hesitation. If the lead were to fly into a mountainside with the wingman in formation, the recovery team would expect to find two crash sites, on the right, the wingman, to his left, the lead. Two aircraft, one will. It had always been thus.

It would always be thus.

He will spend much of the next three to four months preparing himself to jump to the next level of tactical understanding through applied study of a rigorous syllabus, with academic achievement tests and standardization check rides, the latter flown with hard-eyed weapons school instructors, TOPGUN graduates, “patch wearers” men who are not his friends and not his allies. These are men who are only obliquely interested in his success - instead, they concern themselves with tactical primacy, the delicate balance of lethality and survivability, tempered aggressiveness. These are the warrior monks through whom the wingman must eventually pass at first in the middle stage of his long and continuing journey. They are the keepers of the flame, and every junior pilot is acutely aware of the trial that lies before him.

In preparation for those check rides, he will consult with those of his brothers who are senior to him, to learn from them the nuggets that led to their own success. He will lead senior aviators around the ship in training missions. Eventually, he will even lead these men in combat missions over the beach. The entire time he does so, he will be under taut evaluation, his leadership subject to instant revocation in case of an error of judgment, airmanship or leadership. Not everyone will make it - not everyone can think, and fly, for two. For that reason, before ever he leads a junior pilot anywhere, he will lead every instructor-qualified pilot in the squadron several times. He will lead the CO on training missions, talking to him as though he were the rawest nugget, fresh from the training squadron, always aware that his ability to teach and lead is what is being evaluated. He will in fact lead this XO, himself a recent TOPGUN instructor. With that in mind, Hammer 12 watches his lead very attentively. His watching is all the more intent in that, in accordance with the custom of the single-seat fighter tribe, no extraneous communications are permitted. No earnest questions. No careful explanations. He’d heard it before, they all had: You’ve got a question? Take notes. Ask me in the debrief. All I want to hear from you is, “Two,” “Mayday,” and “Lead you’re on fire, eject.”

The wingman does his best to guess when the XO will shift from frequency to frequency as their two-ship traverses the battle space divisions below them. He pays much less attention to the XO’s direction to other two-ships returning home to mother - those are decisions of a strike leader, a very senior role, and one the wingman cannot hope to obtain this tour of duty. Instead, the wingman will focus on his lead’s actions in controlling their two-ship. For the wingman, this is the task at hand - to use the vernacular, he will shoot the alligator closest to the canoe.

He will check out with the E-2 soon, the wingman thinks, and feels a small tingle of gratification as the lead calls “feet wet” to the orbiting airborne battle control platform. Through Sabre next, and again, the XO shifts through the Kuwaiti air traffic control. The wingman looks below to see the undifferentiated haze of Kuwait give way to the pewter-colored northern Arabian Gulf, the Shaat-al Arab waterway, the ports of Um Qasr and Khor az Zubayr falling behind them, the looming mass of Iran no very great distance to the east, an omnipresent weight of a territory very close to hand, not quite hostile, but very far from friendly.

“Fence out,” the XO orders on the aux freq, startling the wingman from his momentary reveries of battles not yet fought, battles that might or might not ever be fought. Obeying the XO’s direction, and slightly embarrassed at not having anticipated it, he busies himself with the combat checklist once again, this time in reverse sequence, progressively turning his aircraft from a bristled ball of poised lethality waiting only final fail-safe overrides - trigger pulls, commits-to-launch, release-enables - into something which, while never quite resembling a commercial airliner, is nevertheless two or three links down the kill chain.

One kind of tension leaches away as the aircraft becomes progressively safer while another kind of tension grows as the XO navigates their two-ship towards the air refueling track for the recovery top-off. Fortunately, the wingman has become relatively accustomed to this particular rite of passage, and the rendezvous and refuel go uneventfully. Clearing to starboard and descending to the minimum risk recovery profile, the wingman again plays the game of anticipating the headings the XO will steer on the way back to mother, the frequency changes. Any moment and the XO will switch them to the ship’s Combat Direction Center for a check-in, right about…

“Hammer 11, say your state?” on the aux radio.

Right - he’d need my fuel state to check in with, the wingman thinks, replying, “Hammer 12, base plus, ah - 2 point 4.”

“Hammers, switch Strike on prime,” followed by, “Strike, Hammer 11, 12, 340 for 62, low state base plus 2.4″

“Hammer 11, Strike, looking,” replies a tired voice, the Third Class Operations Specialist in fact, back on watch after his six hours off - nearly one hour spent waiting in line to eat an early lunch, 15 minutes spent in the actual eating of it, two hours studying for an upcoming rating exam, an hour spent shooting the breeze in the berthing and an hour’s nap prior to levering himself out of his coffin rack, still dressed in his coveralls and heading back down to CDC for yet another six hours on duty, staring at a radar screen.”

“Hammer 11, Strike, you’re sweet and sweet, cleared to proceed.” Good IFF checks, the wingman thinks - always good to know that other people know you and love you. Especially when some of them are manning Ticonderoga-class cruisers and Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, greyhounds of the sea, all poised potential and grim lethality, all of them keenly interested, fascinated, riveted to the task of defending the carrier from inbound threats moving at tactical speeds and who aren’t squawking friendly codes. Briefly, the wingman is captivated by a sudden vision of glittering electronic eyes, phased-array radars contributing to a datalinked operational picture, that picture under the keen observation of hard-eyed tactical watch standers, a strange symbiosis of men and machines and maritime battle space dominance, of sensing everything. Of knowing everything. There is much here behind a curtain, much he does not understand, much he does not yet need to know.

Coming up on 50 miles, the wingman thinks, looking at the ship’s TACAN symbol on the horizontal display. Soon we’ll switch to…

“Strike, Hammer 11 flight switching Marshal,” and on the aux radio, “Hammers, switch button 15 on prime.”

“Hammer 11, Strike, cleared to switch Marshal, check-in.”

Marshal, thought the wingman, sitting up a little in his seat. Now the we come to it - a daylight, Case I recovery. All done zip-lip, after the Marshal check-in - no radio comms. Here is where I must pay attention, take notes, be prepared to ask questions. Here is where I must learn.

Soon, I will have to do this from his position…

(To be continued…)