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A seven-month Kitty Hawk cruise

Deep, blue, and dangerous

If you live in San Diego you have probably heard the term ‘‘WESTPAC” more than once.
  • If you live in San Diego you have probably heard the term ‘‘WESTPAC” more than once.
  • Tailhook Photo Service

When the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk left San Diego Harbor on the morning of January 13, 1984, the people who were in the know realized that when she returned, it would be without some of the men who sailed away with her that day. This was not fatalistic thinking, merely realistic supposition. There are dangers inherent to being at sea. It is even more dangerous on a warship, still more so if that warship is an aircraft carrier. With well over 5000 men about to spend at least six months in the confines of a twenty-year-old ship, in an environment where live ammunition, volatile fuels, and the hazards of naval aviation all coexist, the odds were in favor of at least some sort of tragedy.

A sailor is sucked inside a jet intake one night.

A sailor is sucked inside a jet intake one night.

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But that morning, as the low clouds burned off and the huge ship slid past the pleasure boaters in their dwarfed sailboats, no one was thinking such thoughts. The throng of relatives at the quay wall at North Island waved and blew kisses and wiped away tears. It could have been a scene from a war-era film; there is a timelessness about men going down to the sea in ships. The scene that was missing was the one where a guy grabs his buddy and says, “Ya know, Mac, I got a feelin’ I ain’t comin’ back this time.” Everyone aboard knew that someone wasn’t coming back, but each person was sure that it wouldn’t be he. The Kitty Hawk glided past the gawking tourists up at Cabrillo National Monument and out into open water. Dress uniforms and caps came off, the sea and anchor detail stood down, and the workday began. WESTPAC ’84 had begun. Coiled in some dark hold deep in the ship was tragedy, and what remained was to find out who would be its victim.

When you stand at Seaport Village or along Harbor Drive and look across at North Island, it looks big.

When you stand at Seaport Village or along Harbor Drive and look across at North Island, it looks big.

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If you live in San Diego you have probably heard the term ‘‘WESTPAC” more than once. It is what the Navy calls the months-long deployments (once you’re out there you never really know for sure how long) that West Coast ships make to the western Pacific and Indian oceans. The seven-letter simplicity of the term masks all that encompasses life at sea on a warship. The complexities, pains, and fears of extended separation from family. The life of deprivation: no women, no beer, months without fresh milk, intervals with wilted produce, the ennui of institutional food. The repetition of working days, the routine, the endless hours, the ubiquitous sea and sky. Months of sailing on a humid, hazy patch of sea everyone on board calls Gonzo Station. Then, too, it is liberty in a foreign land. A few days off in Subic Bay, Philippines, or Pusan, Korea. Australia if you're lucky. Hong Kong and Singapore are possible, as is Japan. Places that are alien. Phattya Beach with exotic, black-haired Thai women. A few days to look around, to get drunk perhaps, and spend a night with a bar girl in some clapboard shack. Or just to sightsee, to wander the ground of a place you once read about in a book.

The birds are an aircraft carrier’s raison d’etre.

The birds are an aircraft carrier’s raison d’etre.

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It is all these things and more. And it is also that coiled danger. There are fires at sea, plane crashes, men overboard. A hundred ways to die that you can think of and a hundred more that you can’t. In the back of everyone’s mind is the knowledge that this is the military, and war is sometimes only a step away. Visions of apocalypse: smart missiles, suicidal Arabs, and a world on the brink. WESTPAC is all the moments in a piece of life where men live very slowly and very quickly at the same time. If you have been there, you know what it is. For those who haven’t, there are sea stories.

March

Two months into the cruise. In the space of weeks we go through seasonal changes in climate. From the tropical Pacific where the water temperature is in the eighties, to the icy Sea of Japan, where one afternoon snow flurries blow wildly over the flight deck. Then south again to the warm Philippine Sea. We have become minor celebrities by way of a collision with a Russian submarine. It gives us all something more to talk about. Mail arrives from home with clippings from local newspapers. The small gash in our bow causes no pressing problems for us. The Russians don’t respond to our radio inquiries about their condition. The sub limps away. We can guess, though: an 85,000-ton ship hitting a 5000-ton sub is like a car hitting a bicycle. They were hurt.

A pilot can lose it for an instant and auger in, a $30 million funeral pyre.

A pilot can lose it for an instant and auger in, a $30 million funeral pyre.

Tailhook Photo Service

There have been close calls, but thus far there have been no tragedies. In the Sea of Japan a young sailor walks behind a jet, and the blast from the engines picks him up like a scrap of paper and blows him overboard, out into space and seventy-seven feet down into the sea. The fall doesn’t kill him and the helicopter picks him out of the water before he freezes up. It doesn’t always work that way. On the Ranger a guy went overboard and he didn’t have his life vest secured. They found the life vest, but the guy wasn’t in it. In another incident, aboard Kitty Hawk, a sailor is sucked inside a jet intake one night. All the headgear the flight deck people wear makes working around the planes disorienting. You can hear engines turning, but you’re not always sure which ones they are. At night it’s worse. And so this guy is coming up from under the jet to check something and then in an instant he’s inside it. No one sees him go in, and this poor bastard is in there, inside a jet engine, for two minutes. In there with the roaring, the spinning fan blades, being pulled toward death the way tree limbs are fed into a wood chipper. Then somebody sees sparks: things being sucked out of the guy’s pockets and pieces of his cranial helmet cut off by the blades. They signal the pilot to shut down the engines, and when they go over there this guy comes crawling out of the intake. Somebody says, “Holy shit!” but no one hears it over the noise of the other jets.

The planes, looking like dangerous flying insects, are built for combat.

The planes, looking like dangerous flying insects, are built for combat.

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For days there is something to mull over and talk about, not the least of which is that there are people who are pissed off because one very expensive jet engine has been downed for repair or replacement. An airman who works the flight deck tells me, “That dude was lucky, man. The F-14 is a very forgiving bird. If he'd gone into an A-6 or an A-7, he'd be dead meat right now. The intakes on those birds have one hundred percent kill ratios.” Then he looks at me and there is an involuntary smile on his face, the kind of smile that comes up on your face when you’re scared or sad or guilty and you’re trying to hide it. Trying to control the smile, he says, “I’ve never seen a guy actually go into an intake. They say you come out the other end as a human mist.”


In the Indian Ocean when it was so smooth it was like gliding along on top of a mirror.

In the Indian Ocean when it was so smooth it was like gliding along on top of a mirror.

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When you stand at the water’s edge at Seaport Village or along Harbor Drive and look across at an aircraft carrier docked at North Island, it looks big. Big enough from there, and that with the distance between to scale it down. Up close the ship is almost incomprehensible; a sailor tells me about how he brought his mother to see thp ship, and when they got out of the car at pierside, she mistook it for a building.

The details are lost in the actual physical presence of the ship. Standing up on the flight deck, over four acres of floating runway, or down in the hangar bay, the huge indoor jet parking garage, you sometimes have to remind yourself that you are at sea. I am remembering in particular a period of a few weeks in the summer of 1983 when the Kitty Hawk was undergoing sea trials. The jets were not aboard the ship then, and since the planes become the focal point of activity onboard, there is a chance in their absence to gain perspective on the ship itself. In such times there is little that appears warlike about it. It is more like a floating industrial plant. Snarling tractors and fork lifts rush about. Men are welding, painting, repairing, moving, storing, cleaning. The motion and activity go on day and night, and it is confusing at first to find that there is no tangible end product, the way a factory sends products out the door. The work here is in preparation only, preparation for the jets.

In this 85,000-ton world, there is everything that a small city would have. A post office. A bank. A chapel. A hospital with full operating rooms, dentists, a library, a gym, laundry and dry cleaning operations. A radio station, a television studio, and a cable TV system. Food service operations that can feed 5000 men several times a day in half a dozen locations. There are machine shops, repair shops, computer centers, and an air traffic control center. And of course there are living quarters, in varying degrees of discomfort, for everyone aboard. Just like a small city, there are problems: fistfights, crime, drinking and drugs, and more. There are places in the ship, void spaces and remote compartments, storage rooms, where people can hide. There is a distilling apparatus somewhere in the ship. The investigators know about it, but they don’t know where. One night a sailor on patrol pokes into a corner and discovers two homosexuals having sex. It is not uncommon, I am told. “This is the world out here, man,” someone tells me. “The only thing missin’ is women.”

When the planes do arrive, the scene is radically altered. The birds are an aircraft carrier’s raison d’etre. We are out here to fly planes, the captain tells us. And we do. The noise is the biggest change. There is a constant din made up of the roar of jet engines, the staccato whup-whup-whup of the helicopter rotors, the deep thump all over the ship as the catapult throws a jet into the sky, the banging and clattering and screeching of the arresting gear as a returning plane catches the wire. There are horns and gongs and whistles, and blaring loudspeaker announcements. A pair of Styrofoam earplugs is always in your pocket. The other big change after the planes arrive is the number of men aboard. With the planes have come the men who fly, service, and support them. So now there are lines of men everywhere: at meals, the convenience stores, sick call.

All this, because Kitty Hawk has now become a warship. She is armed. The planes, looking like dangerous flying insects, are built for combat. They are sleek, sharp, angular. The tools of war are around us: missiles, bombs, twenty-millimeter cannon ammunition in coiled belts. Marines with loaded M-16 rifles stand guard as the ordnance is moved around, loaded into storage holds deep in the ship, or loaded on the planes. The technology is stunning. In the midst of all this hi-tech wizardry, to be merely human is to be vulnerable. Missiles guided by magic, cockpits that are video game heavens, computer weaponry, jets that streak across the rarefied skies at twice the speed of sound. It is impossible not to admire it. Impossible, too, not to fear it; the stuff is cold looking. The bombs and missiles have an armored reptilian ugliness. There is a snakelike sleekness, a serpentine aerodynamics to the jets themselves. Weaponry is phallic, domineering, threatening. And above all it is powerful, silently commanding respect. When it is handled, it is handled with care.

April

We are at Gonzo Station, a patch of blue 10,000 miles from San Diego. The cruise has begun in earnest now. In the troubled coordinates of the ancient world we will spend the longest at-sea period of the WESTPAC. There is a collective will at work. It consists of 5000 hearts and minds that are wishing they were not here in the North Arabian Sea between India and the Arabian Peninsula but were instead in places like Imperial Beach, Mira Mesa, Tierrasanta, Chula Vista, or Penasquitos. They dream of backyard barbecues, cold beer, the monotone of a baseball game from the TV set, a swim at Mission Beach or the Strand, bikinis, frantic love-making with wives or lovers, Mexican food, a motorcycle ride. If that force of will could be harnessed, the ship would skim over the miles of sea like a speedboat and come to rest at the quay at North Island again. But the Kitty Hawk is not heading east, toward California, but instead west, toward Oman.

The blue is all around us. I heard these black guys call it “the blue” and there was a paradox of simplicity and depth about the way it was put that caught my ear. I was up on the flight deck at sunset. We were alone, it being one of the rare times when the other ships in the battle group had gone out of sight beyond the horizon. The wind was whipping up over the bow and we were rising and falling . with the swell of the sea. Sri Lanka was to the north, and the sunsets of late had had a fiery magic, like brushfires sweeping across the sky. One of the black guys said to his buddy, “Man, look at all that blue!” And his buddy said, “Yeah. An’ we in the middle of it, man. We in the main blue.” The main blue. The central blue. The sea could be as different as the places we sailed. In the middle of the Pacific, hundreds of miles from the nearest coral atoll, it was a bright, deep blue, a blue that almost hurt your eyes. In the wake of the ship, where the propellers churned it up, it was aqua. Closer to land it was green. In the Yellow Sea it was, no lie, a yellowish green. In foul weather it was a murky gray. In the Sea of Japan it was a hard, cold, dark blue, and to look at it was to know that those were not just sea stories they told about only having a few moments before your limbs froze if you fell into it. There were days in the Indian Ocean when it was so smooth it was like gliding along on top of a mirror. There were other days when even an aircraft carrier was rolled by thirty-foot waves. The blue changed. It had temperament. When you watched men stand and stare out at it, you knew that its mystique was not your sole property. Peachfuzzfaced warriors from Tennessee and Iowa, and kids from the inner city who had never seen so much room before. Old sea dogs who have been out to most of the places where there is sea. You leave a person alone when he's staring out like that.

Infrequently, mention is made of the fact that we have not lost anyone yet. It comes up merely in the form of an aside. We are not yet halfway through the deployment, and the toughest part, the monotonous days when the period at Gonzo has grown long, are yet to come. There has been another close call. During a storm at sea a huge wave hits a platform jutting from the starboard side of the ship and sweeps two men overboard. The sea is rough, and it is difficult to spot a small figure floating in the white-caps. But there is a helicopter on the scene and both men are rescued. The Kitty Hawk has been lucky again.

Here at Gonzo the haze is not a cool night and morning one, like San Diego’s. This haze is not a sea spray, not an atmospheric fog, but instead a terrestrial phenomenon — sand from the sprawling deserts of the Arabian Peninsula that the wind has picked up and blown scores of miles out to sea. In a superficial sense it is merely an irritant. Granules get in the eyes and noses of the flight deck personnel. The sand gets into the jet engines, into everything, and creates havoc for the maintenance people. The pilots bitch about it because it limits visibility. In a deeper sense, though, one which is almost subconscious, this haze is eerily discomfiting. Looking out, there is the feeling that something is lurking beyond it. And perhaps something is: just to the northeast is Iran, a country living in the Fifth Century but possessed of twenty-first-century weaponry. All the way down the chain of command, this knowledge is on our minds. We man battle stations regularly to practice. Scenarios are drawn up and presented; imaginary Muslim kamikazes dive at us from the sky. We drill and never lose. Beyond the haze the Iranians drill also, and presumably they don’t lose, either.

This is the Middle East, the Cradle of Civilization. The Iranians don’t make us all that uneasy, but there is something unsettling about this sand, this haze. Pilots returning from flights over the peninsula talk about the miles upon miles of trackless desert, the reds and browns, the sun-baked earth. A flight officer tells me, “It isn’t like flying over the desert in California. This place is spooky.” Supersonic jets fly over Bedouin camps where the way of life hasn’t changed in thousands of years. Even the air here is ancient. It is thick and hot, as if it were stale air from some tomb. We may get a light sea breeze, but it lacks freshness and gives little relief from the humidity. Nearby are man's roots. Mesopotamia, and the first cities. To the west is Africa, where the homi-nids, beasts on the brink of becoming men, hunted and gathered. Perhaps this is why we are uneasy here. There arc animosities in this area that predate the New World. Here began the roots of all wars; here were forged the swords that have yet to be laid down.

May

The younger and the older want only to stay alive and get home. This month brings jumbled visions. Some of us identify May with the sun, the first swims of the year in the chilly ocean water at Pacific Beach. Others say that there are still lingering winter rains. Baseball, the first Padres home games. We watch the day-old scores, and friendly rivalries develop. Small things become of great interest.

Monotony of sorts has set in. We have been away from San Diego for nearly four months, at sea here at Gonzo for forty days. The heat and humidity, the ubiquity of the sea and haze, have all become a drain on us. The individual days have lost meaning. It is the most dangerous time, the time when people can get careless. They can step into jet blast and get shot off the deck like a human cannonball. They can walk in front of an intake. A pilot can lose it for an instant and auger in, a $30 million funeral pyre. Safety becomes a watchword, and we are reminded of it all the time. It is now becoming a matter of when. I stand up on Vulture’s Row, the observation catwalk on the island above the flight deck, and watch flight operations. I look at the figurines in helmets and working gear below, like the toy soldiers I played with as a kid, and I wonder which one of them it will be. By some counts we hear, the Ranger, which was returning to San Diego as we left, lost nine men: six in a fire, two airmen, one overboard. The Midway, the carrier we relieved here at Gonzo, lost a plane and a pilot. One night we have a reminder of the Ranger fire. A fuel leak in one of the main machinery rooms shoots flammable liquid toward hot metal. It is in the same place that the fire on Ranger broke out. Luckily, an alert sailor tears off his shirt and stuffs it in the rupture until the firefighting team arrives and secures the leak.

Day after day we launch planes. They crouch on the flight deck and roar like bottled thunder, and then the catapult flings them out into the sky. They fly away, becoming smaller, dark stars against a universe of blue-gray sky, and vanish. Hours later, when they return, they announce their arrival with the whining, protesting shriek of their engines as they shoot past the ship and turn back inbound. Then they land, a tailhook catching the steel wire, a final full-power roar of the engines, a controlled crash, and a roller-coaster stop. The thunder goes back into the bottle.


Luis, a thickset Chicano from Texas who lives now in Chula Vista, invites me to tour the space where he works. It is Number Four Main Machinery Room, one of the engine rooms. From where I meet Luis we descend five levels, well below the water line, deep in the ship. It grows hotter as we go down, and I smile to myself over the descent-into-hell symbolism. We enter the space and it is like a blast furnace. The sweat pours off my body. Even with ear protection there is tremendous noise. I can barely hear Luis shouting. He smiles and points to a thermometer. It reads 114 degrees.

The space is like the grotto of a lunatic industrialist. To me the pipes and ducts seem to run nowhere. Everything seems to be randomly connected. The details of what runs where, what tube carries what fuel, are lost on me. But there is logic and technical sense to it all, and Luis understands it. We go through the maze of dials, gauges, meters, and switches, Luis explaining the function of each. Across the room the giant shaft that turns the propellers spins endlessly. This is where it is done. The diesel fuel, the steam, the life fluids of the ship are pumped from here. Luis points to a pipe and says something I cannot hear. He sees that I don’t catch it and so he ends the tour and we go out to the ladder.

“I was trying to tell you about that pipe,” he says. “They got superheated steam in there. If it got a little hole in the pipe it would shoot out of there, and you can’t see it ’cause it’s invisible. It’s so hot and there’s so much pressure that if you walked into it, it would cut you in half.” He paused. “A guy told me that there wouldn’t be no blood ’cause it would be . . . what do you call that?”

“Cauterized.”

“Yeah. You think that’s true?”


Roy, a short, muscular sailor from the Bronx with thick arms and a dark, Mediterranean bronze to his skin, is a throwback to another era. He has a swagger to his walk, and you can picture him on the deck of a Roman galley or a Spanish galleon, sailing to war. His demeanor is outwardly amiable, but he is always ready for a good fistfight. He is a hard drinker, he brags about his women, and he throws a good punch — he is a sailor’s sailor.

Roy works up on the flight deck with the F-14 Fighter jets. He would not be anywhere else. The noise, the dangers, and the excitement of the flight deck mesh well with his disposition. That, and something else, something deeper. Roy is living another life up there on the roof. In his own world he is a jet pilot, a life he lives vicariously through the pilots he knows and works with. Roy would give anything to fly one of those birds.

“I got dreams like anybody else. My dream is flying one of those F-14s.” Roy shakes his head. “That’s the worst thing about life. I fucked up. I never got that education. I’ll never fly a jet, and there ain’t anything I can do about it anymore.’’

You can see by the way pilots talk about flying that they know it is different from other things. Kids want to be firemen and policemen, soldiers, baseball players, and presidents. When they grow up a bit, they want to be doctors, lawyers, writers, engineers, and businessmen. A lot of them become those things. Few become jet pilots, and so it remains, beyond all the other dreams of a boy, the dream. You see it in the faces of fathers and sons at air shows. They stare at the jets and imagine themselves squeezed into that pocket rocket, screaming around the heavens. Power and speed, defiance of God and gravity, a life and work that is often only a split second from eternity. There is something magical about it.


Time is supernatural at sea. It moves in torturous slow motion and yet huge chunks of it have passed each time you check a calendar. There is no reference point to the world we left. The mail is time-delayed, news is sometimes ten days old when it comes, the reply to an inquiry can take nearly a month.

Gonzo days roll on. Still we have not lost a man, and now people are beginning to talk. Wouldn't it be amazing if. . .? But you don’t want to jinx it. Heads up, stay on the ball. Something has to give. Fate depends on luck or God, depending on whom you talk to. One day in the passageway I ask the chaplain if he thinks we can make it back to San Diego without losing anyone. He replies, “God willing.” To the same question, Chief Baker replies, “If we’re real lucky, and I don't know if this ship is that lucky.”

June

One night a sailor on one of the destroyers in the battle group leaves a suicide note on his bunk and then goes out to the railing and throws himself into the sea — without a life vest. The kid is serious. He vanishes into the blackness. At morning muster the note is discovered, and despite all the hours and miles that have gone by, a search is made. Just for the record, really, so the kid’s parents can be told that an effort was made. The Kitty Hawk launches a jet and a helicopter. At least the pilots will get a little flight time. And then, some 200 miles back, the amazed jet crew finds a needle in a haystack; the kid is still treading water after ten hours without a vest. The copter shows up and picks him out of the water, and the kid starts chatting amiably as if he were some hitchhiker who had just gotten a lift. That night he sleeps under guard in the Kitty Hawk's sick bay. In the morning he is flown out, on his way to a hospital in the Philippines where they will tinker with his head. Chief Baker, who seems to know something about luck, says to me, “If I was that guy I'd get my ass to Vegas fast. That guy has got luck, man.”

When I ask the chaplain about this episode, he says, “The Lord works in some strange and wonderful ways, doesn’t he?” Chaplain Den Dulk is energetic and eternally positive. He has done graduate work on the psychology of long-term separations in military families, and much of his energy is directed toward counseling both sailors and their dependents back home. He enjoys a good joke, and he is forever mentioning his favorite quote, attributed to Andrew Johnson; “Being on a ship is much like being in prison, except that on a ship there is the added danger of drowning.” Strange things have been happening to me, and I am now curiously watching the effects this long at-sea period is having on me. For instance, the other day I saw a crushed orange peel on the deck, and for an instant I swore it was an autumn leaf. I was suddenly back in the Sierras camping, breathing the mountain air, hiking the solid ground. When I came back to reality, I picked up the orange peel and threw it overboard.

Another time was a Sunday on the flight deck when the day had been declared a holiday and there was no flying. Crews were washing the jets, and the water from the hoses evaporating off the hot flight deck gave off summer smells. I found myself in Kensington, washing my car in the driveway behind my apartment. It lasted only a moment.

On this day of relative peace and quiet, San Diego is on the mind of every man. You can walk around the deck and hear snatches of conversation:

“Hey, man, remember that chick we met at that party in El Cajon? The one that wanted to come back to the ship with us? We gotta call her when we get back.”

“I got a letter from my old lady; my kid said his first word.”

“Oh yeah? What did he say?”

“She said it sounded like ‘dog.’ We ain’t got a dog, though.”

“Maybe he was talkin’ about your wife, man.”

Footballs arc through the air, joggers puff through the stifling humidity, there are shouts and laughing voices. The frenzied beat of hard-rock music, sounding tinny in the wide-open space of the flight deck. Fills the afternoon, booming out of shoulder-carried cassette players. This recreation day is coming to an end. The sun goes behind the haze, although it is not yet below the horizon. There is nothing but sea around us, except for the other ships in the battle group. They are around us in formation, like chess pieces. Out beyond the haze, Omani Bedouins are gazing at the sky and wondering why the jets didn’t come over today.

To the north, there has been chaos. The Iraquis and the Iranians are going on a rampage, sinking oil tankers with their Exocet missiles. We have been here more than sixty days. The U.S.S. America, our relief ship, is only days away. Once again, the collective will is aimed at one goal: getting out of Gonzo. It is a matter of time versus the passions of Arab conflicts.

Word goes around of a death over on the America. We still have not lost anyone, and now there is a belief that we can get back to San Diego with everyone.


There is an F-14 inbound with a landing gear problem. It makes a pass over the ship and you can see that the gear is down but not locked, so that when the jet lands, it is likely that the wheel assembly will collapse. Word gets passed quickly, and all over the ship men gather around the closed-circuit TV screens that continuously show flight operations.

The F-14 circles overhead as the pilot tries everything to get the gear to lock, but his efforts are futile. On the flight deck the big steel net, the barricade, is rigged across the landing path. Firefighting tractors are moved into position. Nearby jets are hooked to other tractors and moved to safety. Losing one plane is bad enough. Someone prays aloud for the net to hold. I am jolted by the awareness that the net doesn’t always work, and now

I add my tension to the rest of it in the room.

“I saw a net give out on the Enterprise," an older chief says. “The bird went through it and over the side.’’ “Did the pilot get out?’’ I ask. He looks at me as if I’m the dumbest bastard he’s ever seen and then just shakes his head.

“I saw a guy miss the whole friggin' net once,” says another man. “The jet went right over. Pilot punched out but the bird had flipped on its side. Ejected him right into the side of the ship.”

The F-14 makes another pass. He is just burning off extra fuel now, trying to avoid a fire when he hits the deck. His weapons load has been dumped into the sea, and now he comes around again.

“He's comin’ in this time.”

“This is it. . . . This is it.”

“This guy is a good pilot.’

The tension in the room makes your chest tighten. On the small black-and-white screen the jet comes into focus, growing larger. The wings wag a bit, adjustments. The jet comes in. “C'mon, baby . . .”

In an instant, the jet touches the deck and the gear gives out. Skidding on half its belly, the plane slides into the barrier net. It skids on and then suddenly, when it seems to be out of deck, the jet has stopped. A wild cheer goes up. The tension vanishes instantly, and it is as if a cool breeze has swept the room. On the screen, the jet is sprayed with firefighting foam and the two airmen are helped out.

“Beautiful.”

Chief Baker says to me, “We are lucky. We’re goin’ home with all hands. I can feel it now.”

The chaplain has his assessment: “The good Lord was smiling on this

ship and the folks back in San Diego today.”


There are still a lot of miles to cover and an ocean to be crossed. Somehow, though, San Diego seems as if it were only just over the horizon. The eagerness to get home has become a positive force. It isn’t over yet. There is another month to go on this WESTPAC. There will be more flying, and down in the bowels of the ship the aging pipes and conduits can still suffer a mechanical hemorrhage. The inherent danger pays no heed to the proximity of home and the end of the deployment. Behind us is a place called Gonzo Station, half a world from San Diego but probably, in its element, a place where we were closer to some basic truths than most of us will ever be again while we live. But no one is thinking about that right now. We’ve been away a long time, and we want only to get home.

The Kitty Hawk returned to San Diego on August 1, 1984. No lives were lost during the seven-month cruise, a feat which high-ranking Navy officials talked about for weeks after.

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