All Systems Down
All Systems Down
Sirens blared across all twenty-five decks of the USS Gerald R. Ford.
Lieutenant Kelly Seong grabbed her flight suit from the wall and slipped inside, practiced hands buckling the straps of her Aramid coveralls. “Another damn drill at 4 A.M,” she mumbled as she attached her flotation vest and checked her oxygen mask and survival gear. Not that she really needed to. The equipment hadn’t changed since her last flight five hours earlier. But protocol kept her alive.
Red lights flashed, and the boing, boing, boing of the alarm ricocheted along the corridors of the ship. Sailors ran to stations. A petty officer shouted orders to passing swabbies. Despite the cacophony, men and women hurried through the upper decks with purpose. General Quarters drills occurred frequently. Every Jack and Jill on the Ford supercarrier had an assigned station and knew where to be.
Well, nearly everyone. Kelly exhaled sharply. Where the hell was Orion?
“You seen Beetlejuice?” she asked a cadre of her squadron mates. The men shrugged and raced on, a playing-card spade peeking out from the back of the flight helmets they carried under their arms. They were Black Aces. First to fight, first to strike.
Orion, as far as she was concerned, hadn’t yet earned the ace on his helmet. He was what they called a “nugget,” a first-tour aviator fresh from naval flight training. Technically, he was her weapons systems officer. The wizzo. In the cockpit of their Super Hornet, he engaged air-to-air or ground targets and operated the laser- and satellite-guided ordnance. In a “turn and burn,” Kelly would make the turn while he dropped the burn. She would if he were any good. Unfortunately, he was as green as a grasshopper. And here she was, expected to mentor the bastard.
She checked his bunk then the hangar deck. Alarms blasted too loudly to call for him, and the rush of hundreds of sailors made it hard to spot his little cornbread head. The other airmen of the Black Aces beat feet to the ready room. GQ brought the supercarrier alive, even in the dead of night.
Not that the ship ever really slept; 24 hours a day, the “Jerry” hummed with activity. At any given time, two-thirds of the four thousand souls aboard would be awake, working on the floating fortress currently cruising two hundred miles east of Honolulu.
Kelly beelined past the flight lockers toward the ready room where the rest of the squadron would already be waiting. If her wizzo couldn’t get his butt in the saddle he’d suffer the consequence. Over her career, she’d seen better pilots than him wash out.
She peered in the ready room. Not there. Then back to the lockers.
“Jesus, what time is it?” Orion Bether shouted above the din, in that whiny voice that set Kelly’s fist to balling up all on its own.
He slinked over to his locker and was now making a hash of getting into his flight suit. Just like a damn nugget.
She punched him in the shoulder. “Beetlejuice!” she shouted. “Where the you been? You look like hell, by the way.”
“Ouch!” He groaned, massaging his shoulder.
Like Kelly, Orion had been pulling twelve-hour shifts, though that was no excuse for the bags under his eyes and his generally un-shipshape appearance. His sandy blonde hair, short and squared, still managed to stand up like a sailor’s happy sock after a six-month deployment. He dropped one of his Nomex flight gloves, revealing, most glaringly, that his flight suit hadn’t been fastened at the crotch.
“It’s balls thirty. And for fuck’s sake, if you’re going to button salute a boat goat, at least get her to buckle you up at the end.”
Orion reached down and cursed, fumbling to pull the strap closed while juggling his helmet and flotation vest. Kelly didn’t wait for him, leading the way to the ready room. He hopped after her.
“She’s no boat goat, Moonshot. She’s a 2-10-2 if I’ve ever seen one.” Then he laughed that obnoxious cackle of his. A girl who was just a two on a scale of ten when on land could easily be a ten out on deployment, where the ratio of men to women was forty-to-one. When they got back to land she’d be a two again. Few Navy men were below a dalliance with an ugly girl at sea.
“Listen up!” The call spun them around in salute. Mike Montez stepped into the room right behind Kelly and Orion. The squadron commander was a short guy, black hair, usually calm as a pickle in a salt bath. But in the light of the hangar deck, his dark cheeks were flushed, eyes excited. “Black Aces,” he said, “this is not a drill. I’m going to repeat myself. This is not a drill.”
“Sir,” Kelly said. “The call on-speakers sounds a lot like a training exercise.” During a true GQ, loudspeakers would call all hands to man their battle stations. Tonight, there’d been nothing but sirens.
“Chrissakes, Lieutenant Seong. I know what I know, and we’re buns to our guns. Maybe they’re having some technical difficulties up on the island.”
That drew some laughter. The Admiral sat up in the island—the control tower rising above the flight deck—and wherever he went, snafus seemed to follow.
“I don’t know much, but here’s what I got,” Montez continued, sweeping his gaze across the eighteen pilots in front of him. He bit his lip and smiled, like he was about to give them some good news. “Ten minutes ago, at zero-four-hundred hours, our radar sweeps caught more blips than your collective wives have boyfriends. And they’re moving in on our position. It might be nothing. Might be seagulls or flying peckers. But, sonafabitch, it looks a lot like bogies. I don’t have more details than that. So get in your birds and beat wings west. Stand by for orders when you’re airborne.” He clapped his hands. “To stations!”
Hallelujah. It wasn’t a drill. Maybe she’d actually get to see some real action, for the first time in years.
“Lieutenant Seong. Lieutenant Bether.” Commander Montez stopped Kelly as she advanced on the exit. “Hold up.” While the other pilots, flight engineers, and wizzos ran out of the ready room, Kelly and Orion pressed in close to their commander. “Brush and Wildfire are coming off a training run. Their bird is hitting the trap in two minutes. She’s got live ordnance and half a tank of fuel, at most. I want you two to take her up the minute she lands.”
“A hot switch?” Orion asked.
“Yes, Lieutenant. Now get your asses up and aft.” He tore out of the ready room, leaving them alone.
“I’ve never done a hot switch,” Orion confessed.
“Then this is on-the-job training.” Kelly helped Orion into his flotation vest, then handed him his helmet. “How fast can you run, sailor?” The question was rhetorical, and she didn’t wait for him to answer before dashing up to the hangar deck. Orion fell in, close behind.
Kelly had performed hot switches many times and didn’t feel any nerves. It meant that she and Orion would have just three minutes to switch out with the landing flight team. They’d forgo the normal preflight checks and would have less fuel. The bonus was they’d be lead jet in this foray—and Kelly loved to lead.
Sprinting through a narrow corridor on the hangar deck, she located the ladder to the flight deck. A sailor, running the opposite direction, clipped her with his shoulder. Dozens more men pushed past. The siren wobbled and shifted. A grinding noise now.
Why had the general quarters alarm changed? It didn’t matter. With both hands she grabbed the rails and ascended to the surface of the supercarrier, into the October night.
The flight deck of the Jerry shone through the darkness, illuminated with a thousand bulbs. A vibrant city. A red-light district at night. Officers and mates hopped over the lighted pathways. Adrenaline seeped through her, pulsing in her veins. She hoped, as she slowed to a safer speed, that the fight would last long enough for her to get in a few good hits.
Starboard, the six-story island dominated the landscape, the most prominent structure on an otherwise flat surface. From there, the air boss and mini boss would direct the dozens of F-35C Lightning II and F/A-18E/F Super Hornet aircraft that shuttled across the deck, ready to catapult into the sky. She scooted past the island, around munitions in large, white bins and over cables, following markings to where she’d rendezvous with her own multirole fighter jet.
Sweat dripped down her face, though whether from the heat or anticipation she couldn’t tell. Even two days before Halloween, the North Pacific sizzled. In a lot of ways, it felt like her hometown, only hotter. And muggier.
What time is it back in Duluth, anyway? It had to be early afternoon. Mom would be working the phones to sell combines and tillage equipment to small-acreage Georgia farmers. Pop would be out buying sweet plum candy for the trick-or-treaters.
Kelly forced away thoughts of home. She needed to focus.
More sailors swarmed the deck of the supercarrier, like a thousand bees in a shook-up Coke can, zipping to stations. Every man had a purpose, his role indicated by his shirt. Maintenance guys, hook runners, and catapult crews wore a forest green vest over a somewhat lighter green shirt. Chock and chains wore blue. Purples supplied fuel. Red shirts loaded bombs. But to Kelly, they were all faceless nobodies that existed for the sole purpose of getting her bird ready to fly.
There was only one thing Kelly liked about the Navy. Flying.
Everything else about this service branch sucked. Two weeks out of port and the food started to taste like preservatives and powder. The racks stunk. The showers were so small the crew called them “rain lockers.” And then there were the shower bunnies—clusters of hair, grime, and semen that stopped up the drains.
But flight was life.
Nothing on earth compared to soaring at eleven-thousand feet and watching the target approach in an instant. Flights were long, and the payoff was short. But nothing made her feel alive like rolling in over the bad guys at Mach One, pushing that button, and watching ordnance erupt below.
Of course, it had been years since her last active duty combat. The world was quiet. Too quiet. No wars or even military conflicts. Maybe America had just flat out won. Maybe there would never be another world war. Her gut yawed at the thought.
Up ahead she saw her carrier-capable Super Hornet on approach to land, fourteen feet above the deck, tailhook out to snag the arresting wire—the trap.
The Super Hornet landed flawlessly, catching the trap and accelerating. The pilot brought it to full power at the end, just in case the wire broke and he had to pull up to get off the carrier. It had been known to happen, and this kind of accident killed men on the flight deck as well as in the plane.
Fortunately, the wire held and the jet jolted to a stop.
Kelly didn’t have time to celebrate the other pilot’s safe night landing. The flight crew ran to the plane and hauled out the boarding ladder from a jigsaw-shaped door on the side of the fuselage. As soon as the pilot and his weapons systems officer climbed down, Orion scampered up the ladder. Kelly followed.
Buckling into her seat, calmness filled her. Everything was routine. She punched in her coordinates and performed a quick inspection of her flight controls. “Beetlejuice, systems check?”
His reply came in through her helmet. “Systems a-go.”
“LSO, this is Bravo-60 on a hot switch. Gimme a CAT. Over.”
The landing signal officer, a white shirt, waved a pair of traffic wands, incandescent red, signaling her toward the bow. “Bravo-60, you’re on CAT Two. First in line. Over.”
There were four “CATs”—short for catapult—on the Jerry, like the starting blocks at a track meet. Once fired, they could launch a thirty-three-ton aircraft off the deck in seconds. And when the Jerry really got going, she’d be launching birds off all four CATs at once, sending a death-dealing warhawk into the sky every twenty seconds.
Kelly obeyed the white shirt’s signals across the deck until she rolled to a stop at CAT Two. The magnet clicked below. The white shirt indicated the go-ahead with his traffic wands. The air boss shouted a confirmation. Her catapult was cleared for takeoff.
“Bravo-60 is ready,” she said through her radio.
“Full shhhszzshhsshhshszzzshzz,” a reply came from the tower.
“Tower, I’m getting a lot of static on your end. Repeat the command.”
“They acknowledged ‘full tension,’” Orion said over her shoulder.
It went against protocol not to have heard the command herself, but she could see the white shirt flagging her forward. And hadn’t her squadron commander required haste? Damned Navy. Pay a billion dollars for a plane, can’t maintain a working radio.
“Whatever,” she said. “Full tension is go. Military power is go.”
A yellow shirt, the plane director, touched his helmet, nodding to the shooter. And with that, the shooter fired the CAT, launching Kelly’s Super Hornet forward.
The G-forces of the catapult slammed her back in her seat, head and neck straining to stay upright. The combat fighter broke free down the stroke, accelerating to more than 160 mph in mere seconds. The CAT threw her jet off the flight deck and over the open sea, in starlit darkness, ascending, and the punch of acceleration knocked into Kelly like a body blow, as it did every time. Violent. Loud. The catapult could launch her a thousand times over the ocean and she’d never get used to it.
She pulled the aircraft away from the water and brought the wheels up into the fuselage. They soared, airborne.
“Beetlejuice, I’m going to take this bird west. Radio the carrier to see if you can get us specifics on these radar blips.”
The darkness outside stretched into eternity, ocean and horizon melding together, both black and indistinct. At night, she always tried to take it slow and let her flight tools do their job. They called it “flying the instruments.” She called it common sense.
Down in the void of the Pacific, her strike group would be at battle stations. The guided missile cruiser and two destroyers would be circling the Jerry, protecting her. A nuclear sub patrolled the waters a quarter-mile below the surface. Even the combat support ship provided a defensive flank for the supercarrier, their flagship.
Kelly swiveled back toward the vertical red and horizontal blue lights of the optical landing system that pilots called “the ball.” Beyond, white lights dotted the deck, illuminating the runway. Otherwise the carrier sat in obscurity. Quiet.
“Beetlejuice, do you have a copy from the island?”
“Negative, Moonshot. They’re radio silent over there.”
“Try the emergency channel.”
She could hear him clicking through stations. “Nah-nothing.” His voice caught like a deer mouse in a snap trap. “Our, uh, our radio must be out. With the hot switch, we didn’t catch it.”
“That’s crazy. It was working a minute ago. I’m gonna give it a try.”
Kelly moved her dial to the emergency channel. “Bravo-Bravo, this is Bravo-60. Come in.” On the other end, the shush of static. “Come in, Bravo-Bravo.” Nothing.
“Try one of the other birds,” Orion suggested.
“Who’s in the air?”
Orion craned his head around. “I don’t have a visual on any others. Do you see any on radar?”
Kelly tapped her cockpit radar display. “I’m not picking up any birds. We’re on lead. They should be right behind us.”
That ticked her off. It was just like the Navy to send her out in the darkness against an unknown threat without anyone on her six for backup. “I’m circling back. We’re no good to anyone with a tits-up radio.” A hard turn of the stick brought the plane windward and back to the east.
“Jesus, Moonshot. We need orders to head back, right?”
“You wanna radio in for new orders?”
She rolled her eyes and continued to follow the protocol that prioritized the safety of the plane and its pilots. They flew back toward the supercarrier.
As they neared, Kelly fixed her gaze on the flight deck, a half-mile away but still clearly visible. Bathed in moonlight. Beautiful.
One by one, the lights on the USS Gerald R. Ford blinked out. First the red lights of the landing strip. Then the white deck lights. Then the optical landing system, the ball. All out. Gone in less than a second.
Kelly gasped. Sweat collected on her palms and between her fingers. This was impossible. In the eight years she’d flown for the US Navy she’d been in some hairy situations, seen some real crazy things. But no one she’d ever flown with had ever seen the lights of their carrier turn off. Wasn’t supposed to happen.
“Beetlejuice, are you seeing what I’m seeing?”
“Shit … we’re gonna crash.” His voice held an edge of panic.
“Anything from the island?” Blood beat at the back of her eyes. “Anything from the Jerry at all?”
He didn’t reply at first. Then a prolonged exhale of “Craaaap.”
The only light on deck came from a lone F-35 shooting forward on the catapult, down the stroke. She could tell even from here it wouldn’t be fast enough. The CAT hadn’t been correctly calibrated. Or it had lost power.
In slow motion, the catapult propelled the jet until it flipped lifelessly off the bow and toward the sea. At the final second, the pilot ejected—an explosion from the cockpit that sent him vertically into the sky. Then the last light winked out as the jet disappeared into the Pacific.
With her world now illuminated only by moonlight, Kelly never saw the pilot land. Never even saw the splash of the F-35 hitting the water.
But it didn’t matter. A fellow pilot losing a plane into the ocean didn’t matter. The blackout on the Jerry didn’t matter. At least not compared to what was happening inside her plane.
“Was that Tater’s bird?” Orion said over her shoulder.
Kelly didn’t reply. Instead, she stared at her cockpit controls. The systems on the Super Hornet were failing. The Navigation Forward Looking Infrared—the advanced sensors that let her see—dropped offline. The Doppler ground mapping radar followed. Then the target designator that delivered laser-guided bombs.
Even those system failures paled in comparison to the reading from the fuel gauge. Where the hell are we going to land? Her hand shook on the stick.
And the dial moved steadily toward empty.