DANCING WITH THE DRAGONã
March 2002 Release from
The People’s Republic of China poses the most dangerous military threat the United States faces early in the twenty-first Century. The U.S. is the only barrier to Chinese ambitions in Southeast Asia, particularly in the South China Sea.
The accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in May of 1999 caused a crisis from which Chinese-U.S. relations have never fully recovered. The diplomatic abyss widened on March 22, 2001, when Singapore allowed, for the first time, a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier to make a port call in the Republic of Singapore. Chinese leaders viewed the port call as an official announcement of yet another U.S. naval base in the region, one with direct access to the South China Sea.
On March 31, 2001, nine days after the USS Kitty Hawk arrived in Singapore, the uneasiness between Washington and Beijing snowballed into a quasi-crisis when a Chinese fighter plane collided with a U.S. Navy EP-3E Aries II reconnaissance aircraft.
Faced with a new U.S. administration, China timed its belligerence to make a point. The military and civilian leaders in Beijing were not sure whether the newly elected U.S. president would stand up to a resurgent China, or whether he would expose the softness of Washington’s willpower.
Would the White House continue its delicate dance with the dragon, and possibly trade Los Angeles for Taipei in a face-off with China, or would the United States quietly leave the South China Sea?
Many of Beijing’s questions were answered when Islamic extremists attacked the United States on September 11, 2001. In the aftermath of the unprecedented disaster, the American people had galvanized behind their president. Not since Pearl Harbor had their resolve been as strong and as resilient. The message—“Assault the United States of America and we will rise up to vanquish you.”
Knifing through the calm seas off the coast of southern California, USS Abraham Lincoln and her battle group turned into the wind for the last aircraft launch of the evening. High above the Nimitz-class super carrier, a luminous commander's moon dominated a black canvas splashed with millions of twinkling stars. Except for a few isolated thunderstorms in the southern California operating area, the balmy night was perfect for carrier training exercises.
The slippery flight deck, dangerous enough during the day, but extremely hazardous during night operations, was alive with airplanes, tow tractors, yellow-shirted aircraft directors, and green-shirted aviation boatswain's mates prepping the two forward catapults. Bathed in a soft haze of red floodlights, shadowy figures with yellow flashlight-wands carefully guided pilots around the crowded maze of airplanes waiting to taxi to the catapults.
From bow to stern, the 4.5-acre flight deck of Abraham Lincoln was a genuinely hostile environment of screaming jet engines, blazing exhaust gases, whirling propeller blades, guillotine-like arresting gear cables, and foul-smelling catapult steam mixed with jet fuel and salt spray.
Listening to the low whine of his two jet engines, Lt. Comdr. Sammy Bonello saw two wands of light suddenly flash on in front of his plane. The time had arrived—no turning back now.
Following the taxi director, Bonello released the Super Hornet's brakes and taxied his sleek two-seat F/A-18F across the jet-blast deflector behind the starboard bow catapult. Despite all my years as a fighter pilot, these night carrier operations still give me the creeps, he thought.
Unlike day operations, when pilots can visually and viscerally tell if a catapult shot is good, night operations rob aviators of critical visual cues. When the catapult fires, the pilot accelerates under heavy G-forces straight into a seemingly endless black hole. The sensation is an eerie feeling of being completely at the mercy of fate. To say the least, night catapult shots and landings (traps) on the boat are character-building exercises.
Manning the backseat of the supersonic, twin-engine strike fighter, Lt. Comdr. Clarence "Chick" Fossett went through his checklist and then gazed across the busy flight deck.
Even with the additional anxiety of night operations, Bonello and Fossett could wring the best from the Super Hornet's combination of performance and firepower. The single seat F/A-18E and two-seat F/A-18F are evolutionary upgrades of the combat-proven F/A-18C/D Hornets. The newest night-strike fighters are able to conduct unescorted missions against highly defended targets early in a conflict.
This evening Bonello and Fossett would be flying a routine training mission with a more junior crew from the VFA-113 Stingers of Carrier Air Wing Fourteen.
Fossett, the weapons systems officer, adjusted his oxygen mask, and then looked down at a sailor holding a lighted weight board. Noting their total weight for the catapult shot was correct, he gave the teenager an okay signal with his flashlight.
"There's a confirmation on sixty thousand pounds." Chick glanced at his kneeboard. "Lookin' close this evening."
"Yeah, we'll be a little tight on gas." Feeling the normal amount of oxygen escaping from his mask, Sammy completed his takeoff checks and set the trim for takeoff. He glanced at the full moon and then looked at his instruments. "If we run short on gas we'll hit the tanker."
"We're always short." Fossett glanced at the catapult officer. "That's what makes this so damn much fun."
Sammy adjusted his helmet visor. "If we lose an engine, I'm gonna concentrate on the HUD—you back me up."
The heads-up-display could easily spell the difference between a deadly crash and a successful single-engine landing back aboard the ship. Projected at eye level on the windscreen, the HUD provided the pilot with his plane's angle of attack, airspeed, attitude, and rate of climb.
"Roger that." Fossett checked the status of their wingman. "Ham's gone into tension—looks like a go."
Casting off a momentary feeling of claustrophobia, Sammy glanced at the other Stinger F/A-18F; it belched long, jagged white/orange flames from its powerful General Electric turbofans, each producing twenty-two thousand pounds of thrust. He turned his flashlight on in case of an electrical failure—nothing like a dark cockpit when the grits hit the fan.
Shortly after Bonello saw the Hornet's exterior lights flash on, the all-weather, Mach 1.8 fighter squatted on the catapult, then blasted up the flight deck and thundered into the inky darkness.
Sammy watched the twin yellowish-orange streaks as the pilot made a shallow clearing turn and started climbing. Okay, God, it's our turn.
"I'll counter any roll or yaw with rudder and stick," Sammy said. Swirls of hazy, reddish superheated steam drifted out of the port catapult track, but Bonello's practiced routine was taking over and shoving his anxiety attack aside. "Throttles will remain at military or min burner. I'll snap the rollers up and jettison the luggage if we have a problem."
On cue Sammy followed the yellow-shirted taxi director as he positioned the airplane in the catapult shuttle. Following a signal from the taxi director, Bonello eased off the brakes. The catapult fires with such force that brakes would be useless in trying to stop the launch. The tires would simply explode, sending deadly shrapnel flying down the cat track.
Deck crewmen scurried beneath the powerful aircraft as they prepared the jet to be launched. Bonello and Fossett felt the Hornet squat, then, at the command of the yellow-shirt, Bonello raised the launch bar. Out of habit he reached for the ejection handle between his thighs to make sure he wasn't sitting on it—split seconds count in the carrier business.
Seconds later the catapult officer, known as the shooter, began rapidly rotating his lighted wand.
"It's show time." Sammy inched the throttles forward into the detent, locking his left hand on the throttle grip. The engines spooled up to an earsplitting howl as the blast deflector took a beating from the tremendous heat of the white-hot flames. The airplane shook and vibrated while Sammy completed his final cockpit checks and did a wipeout on the flight controls.
"Stick forward, aft, left, right, rudders right and left," Bonello said, verifying the movements of the major flight control surfaces.
"Lookin' good, Burner."
"Hydraulics, oil, rpm, and EGT are normal," Sammy said, monitoring the exhaust gas temperature and the master caution panel. "Everything looks clean—I like it." He braced his helmet against the back of the ejection seat. "You ready?"
"Here we go." Bonello took a breath of cool oxygen and snapped on his external lights, indicating that he and his jet were ready to fly. Sammy reached forward with his right hand and grabbed the catapult handle to brace for the launch.
With their pulse rates increasing, Sammy and Chick anticipated the crushing G-forces that would hurl them into the dark void beyond the bow. Their destiny, whatever it was going to be, would be out of their hands for the next few seconds.
The catapult officer made one final safety-check of the flight deck, and then dropped to one knee. He pointed his flashlight-wand toward the bow, giving the signal to launch the Super Hornet.
After a short pause the catapult fired, hurling the strike fighter from zero to 152 knots (175 mph) in 2.1 seconds. Sammy's helmet was pinned to the ejection seat headrest as his eyeballs flattened, causing momentary tunnel vision during the impressive shot. He uttered a guttural sound as the airplane raced toward the black emptiness—the dark void waiting to trick him into taking a one-way trip to the bottom of the ocean.
Off the end of the flight deck and finally climbing, they filled the cockpit with a mutual sigh of relief.
"Good airspeed, good shot," Sammy said. His adrenaline-induced sensory overload was becoming more manageable. Thank you, God.
He snapped the landing gear handle up and immediately made a clearing turn. "How you doin'?"
"Couldn't be better—let's see how quickly Ham can get aboard."
"I'd bet about forty-five seconds," Bonello said.
While they continued to accelerate, Sammy cleaned up the Super Hornet. Trimming for a normal climb profile he reduced power a small amount while they intercepted an arc around Lincoln. Bonello and Fossett checked in with the departure controller and contacted the strike controller while they waited for their wingman to rendezvous with them.
Less than two minutes later, Lt. "Ham" Hamilton guided Stinger 303 into a loose parade position. "Dash Two's aboard."
"Okay, Ham." Bonello smoothly advanced the throttles to continue his climb. "Let's switch to Black Eagle and go upstairs."
Sammy keyed his radio. "Black Eagle, Hornet Three-Oh-Seven, flight of two, state thirteen-point-eight."
"Roger, Hornet Three-Zero-Seven." The mission systems operator in the E-2C Hawkeye airborne-early-warning aircraft closely watched the two strike fighters.
The latest version of the venerable Hawkeye incorporated a mission computer upgrade for the nerve center of the weapons systems, an advanced control indicator set that revolutionized operator interface in the combat information center, and a sophisticated navigation suite with state-of-the-art laser technology.
The Hawkeye systems operator keyed his radio. "Three-Zero-Seven, for weather avoidance recommend heading one-niner-zero."
"Okay, that's one-ninety on the heading, Three-Oh-Seven," Sammy said as the flight climbed through seventeen thousand feet. He eased into a shallow bank and scanned his instruments at the same moment the isolated thunderstorms to their right were silhouetted by a bright flash of cloud-to-cloud lightning.
"Black Eagle, Hornet Three-Oh-Seven has a request."
"What the hell is that?" Lt. Lou Emerson, Ham's weapons systems officer, interrupted from the backseat of Dash Two. "Sammy, we have a strange looking bogey at nine o'clock high! See it?"
All eyes turned to the left.
"That's the moon—the one they landed on in ‘69," Chick radioed. "Did you forget your glasses again?"
"No—off to the right," Emerson said. "Just below the moon."
"Yeah, I see it," Sammy said. A warning signal flashed in the small reptilian section of his brain. He felt a cold chill run down his spine, a sensation caused by fear and adrenaline. "Black Eagle, what are you painting at our nine to ten o'clock, let's see, about twenty-five to thirty thousand feet?"
A long pause followed.
"I'm not showing anything in that area."
Sammy stared at the object for a few seconds. "Well, I'm telling you that we have a bogey at our nine o'clock high."
"Stand by, Three-Zero-Seven. I'll check with Mother and Chancellorsville—see what they have."
"Copy," Sammy said, smoothly altering course to intercept the unknown bogey. Okay, settle down.
The Hawkeye systems operator contacted the carrier and then the Ticonderoga-class Aegis cruiser.
Fossett adjusted his air-to-air radar and studied the screen. "I don't show a thing—there isn't anything there."
"Lou, do you have anything on your scope?" Sammy asked.
"Negative, but whatever it is, it's moving to the left."
"He's right," Hamilton said. "It's passing under the moon, looks like it's movin' at about four to five hundred knots."
"Hornet Three-Zero-Seven, Black Eagle."
"The boats don't have anything."
"Copy," Sammy said, watching the object. "We're gonna get a visual ID on our bogey."
"Keep us informed."
Bonello studied the round, bright, bluish-white object. It appeared to be a ring of lights with a large dark center. It decelerated for a few seconds and then rapidly accelerated in a steep climbing turn. "Holy shit!" he swore to himself.
"Sammy, did you see that?" Hamilton asked.
"Yeah, I saw it." Bonello was trying his best to sound calm and collected. "I've never seen that kind of action."
Cotton-mouthed, Hamilton was transfixed by the apparition. "That was a real bat-turn—unbelievable."
"We can’t match that," Sammy said.
"What the hell is it?"
"I don't know, but the Gs would scramble your plumbing."
"Maybe it's a drone," Lou Emerson said. "An experimental UAV or UCAV, something without a pilot."
"I seriously doubt it," Bonello said, breathing more rapidly.
The radios were quiet for a few moments while the crews considered their next move.
"Ease back into cruise," Sammy said. "Let's go for knots and see what we have here."
Hamilton clicked the radio button twice, acknowledging Sammy's call, then advanced the throttles to stay in cruise formation.
"Burners," Sammy said, shoving the throttles all the way forward. "Let's see if we can catch this thing."
"We're hangin' in there," Hamilton reassured him.
Climbing through twenty-three thousand feet, Bonello banked the Super Hornet in order to rendezvous on a constant bearing line with the object. Seconds later the bogey leveled off above the jets and rapidly reversed direction to the left. Feeling warm perspiration on his forehead, Sammy snapped the straining fighter into a tight port turn, and then leveled the wings.
Bonello tensed as his reflexes went into survival mode. "Ham, drop back in trail and give me some maneuvering room—a little space to operate."
"How about if I drop back to Texas?" Hamilton inched the throttles aft a notch. "Be careful."
Fossett keyed his radio. "Hey, relax."
"Burner, you think it's a stealth?" Lou Emerson asked.
Breathing hard, Sammy gulped oxygen as he reefed the Hornet into a face-sagging climb. "Have you ever seen a round stealth?"
"Well, not exactly," Emerson said, chiding himself for having asked such a stupid question.
"Watch your speed, Burner," Fossett said urgently. "We're gettin' way too slow."
"We're okay," he said a split second before the elusive bogey started a rapid descent. Sammy felt his heart pound as the adrenaline once again kicked in. Still in full afterburner, he rolled the fighter inverted and pulled the nose through the horizon, then bore-sighted the bright object. "We're closin' on it—whatever it is."
"Take it easy," Fossett said. "Let's not do anything crazy."
Without warning the bogey appeared to be expanding in size. A midair collision seemed imminent.
"Idle and boards!" Sammy slammed the throttles back, popped the speed brake out, and yanked the airplane into a punishing evasive turn. Oh shit! He could literally smell the fear.
"Sonofabitch!" Fossett gasped for oxygen. "Let's knock it off! Now! Knock it off!"
"I'll buy that," Emerson groaned from the back seat as Hamilton pulled six Gs to follow Bonello. "Let's back off."
"Stay with me!"
"I'm trying to hang tight," Hamilton radioed.
With his heart in his throat, Sammy snapped his head around and simultaneously closed the speed brake and slammed the throttles forward.
"It's turning, going away from us," Bonello said, hauling the Hornet around and pointing it straight at the mysterious bogey. "Black Eagle, Black Eagle, Hornet Three-Oh-Seven requests permission to—"
Startled by a brilliant streak of light, Hamilton and Emerson saw a blinding flash and then stared in horror as their flight leader's plane exploded before their eyes. The stunned aviators watched the bluish-white bogey accelerate out of sight in less than ten seconds. Their pulse rates spiked to near-aneurysm levels.
Hamilton's mind recoiled in horror and disbelief. Oh, Mother of God, what are we dealing with? Ham banked into a steep turn to stay over the general area and then keyed the radio. "Black Eagle, Three-Oh-Seven just exploded—just blew to smithereens! We need SAR out here now!"
"Say again," the systems operator asked.
"They're gone," Hamilton exclaimed in shock. "Three-Oh-Seven exploded and we need SAR ASAP!"
A suffocating stillness followed.
Ham keyed the radio. "Hornet Three-Zero-Seven has gone down!"
"Standby, hell! Do you have any other targets out here—besides us?"
Swallowing hard, Lou Emerson keyed his radio. "The bogey fried 'em, blew 'em to hell!"
"Sweet Jesus," the E-2C operator said.
COPYRIGHT © 2002 by Joe Weber