“What’s in this thing?” I shouted over the wop-wop of the Sea Knight’s rotors. One hand on the stick, I held up the leather document case, glanced at its tearaway label. “Confidential.” I shook it. In the black windscreen, the tower rose out of the darkness like a lighthouse.
“Dunno,” Pete said. “NATO junk. None of our business. Let’s just get this done and get back to the ship.”
Looming 15 miles behind the desert island, the silver silhouette of the Arabian coast drew a line between the turquoise bathwater below us and the sea of sand ahead. I aimed our nose for the base of Masirah tower and dropped to a hover for one last run.
As the rotor brake stopped the wop of the blades, Pete unstrapped and turned back to Russell, who’d been staring at his unfamiliar .45.
“You know the drill,” Pete said, pointing to the weapon. “No one comes close.”
We walked briskly to the root of the tower. Pete stamped his hands in the cold. Thirty seconds after we hit the buzzer, the door lock buzzed back.
The elevator hummed us to the control floor. The door slid open.
“So, hell’s freezing over?” Pete called in, but the genie whose bottle we’d invaded tapped his headset.
“You’re Mr…Arthur Lochried?” I asked.
He nodded, looking past my shoulder into the dark. “That’s the Eisenhower out there, isn’t it?”
We hadn’t seen the Ike in days, even though we were part of her battle group.
“Yes, yes,” he said, tapping his finger on his mike. “It’s the Ike all right. I have them on Channel Five. They’re 160 miles out. Lots of planes have launched. Listen.”
Pete walked to the radio, the blinking status indicators. Behind us was a neatly made bed.
“Do you live here?” I asked.
“Yes, of course. I’ll get some tea.”
“You can desert the tower?”
“Yes! We’re closed now! Look, I can turn out the runway lights!” He flipped a switch and the sky went blind.
“Magic,” I said. “Just turn them back on when we leave.”
He signed the receipt, then disappeared into the hall, pulling tomorrow out of the pouch.
Pete pulled up a squeaky metal swivel chair and put his feet up. The radio emitted drawls in the background.
“And Marshal, 501.”
“Make a recommendation to bring 502 down first, ah, because he’ll be (garbled).”
“501, say again.”
“Roger, this is 501, I would like 502 to come down first. Ah, once he’s dirtied up, he’s committed to a dirty Bingo.”
“01, stand by.”
“Hear that?” Pete was listening intently to the jets now, while I looked at the genie’s personal effects. “That’s his strike leader, trying to help him. They’re going to bring him down first because he has a hydraulic failure. Young guy in an A-7, Moonraker 502. He’s low on fuel, 200 miles out. Once he drops his hook, gear, and flaps, he’ll be ‘dirty,’ too, all that junk fixed in place below his jet like it was welded there. His fuel radius will be cut in half. They’ll have to bring him right in.”
“501, unable, ah, 502 is last, sir.”
“Wow,” Pete cooed in a low voice.
“What’s up?” Arthur stuck his red and silver head into the room.
“A human sacrifice,” I said, imagining myself behind the night dials.
Pete spoke with morbid excitement. “He’s got a known hydraulic failure. I’ve just realized–CATCC is figuring there’s a chance his hydraulics could fail on touchdown. His crash will wipe out the whole carrier deck for 20 minutes. Timing’s too tight, with too many planes low on fuel. So they’ve got to land him last.”
“Couldn’t they just push his aircraft over the side?”
“Even that would take time. It’s a war-at-sea strike. There are probably 70 planes in the air.”
“501, ah, Marshal, how far out did you wish to dirty up?”
“I’d like about 15, please.”
“And make that 20 if possible, Marshal, for 502.”
“Marshal, 502, could you get a squadron rep in CATCC, please?”
“502, say again.”
“A squadron rep in CATCC.”
“502, roger, stand by.”
“What’s your state, 502?”
“4.8, and I compute my dirty Bingo to be 4.1.”
There was a pause. “Bingo divert 119 nautical miles.”
I felt a chill. Bingo–the mystical point of no return, determined by fuel. A dirty Bingo cut that distance in half. With only seven hundred pounds of gas to spare, this kid was probably screwed to the moon.
“Thirsty?” Arthur walked behind a cloud of steam. Three cups and saucers were parked around a central English china pot adorned with a painting of an old farmhouse with a thatched roof. The place had a rugged door, a shepherd, and some pink and lint-colored sheep. I turned around.
“You went to King’s College?” I said, looking at an old graduation picture.
“Long time ago.”
“How long you been here?”
“A million years.”
“You’re a sort of lighthouse keeper here, aren’t you?”
“There’s more to this post than watching a Fresnel lens wheel round. I run the entire air base here.”
“Don’t you get lonely?” I pointed to a smoky picture of a blonde shaded by a weeping willow. “Who’s that?”
He waved his hand, served me, then Pete.
Pete flicked off the carrier noises and spun his metal chair in our direction. “Our crewman’s out there with our aircraft,” Pete said. “We’ll have to go soon.”
“Did that lad land all right?”
“Last I heard he was told his Bingo divert was 119 miles out if he couldn’t get on deck.”
“Do you think he will make it to the carrier?”
Pete didn’t say anything.
“There’s a chance they’ll send him here!” Arthur said. “I had better make some more tea.”
By the time he returned, I’d divined Arthur was not precisely British but the type of Canadian who ached to be British. Was that his crime? Was that why he was here? I looked involuntarily at the picture of the waved-off woman again.
“502 is three, well below glide path and on course.”
“See? Your friend’s coming in now,” said Arthur. “Everyone’s aware of his fuel state. They’ll trap him right smart, using their arresting nets as a backup.”
“Hey, I don’t know this guy.”
“502 is 2 miles, you’re going, correction–centerline is slightly left, you’re drifting right, you’re holding well below glidepath, you’re coming up now, slightly below.”
“502 on glidepath and on course.”
“502 is going slightly below glidepath, centerline is slightly right.”
“502 is up and on glidepath.”
“502, you are on glidepath, centerline slightly right, correcting, three-quarter mile, call the ball.”
“502 Corsair, ball 4.2.”
“Roger ball, Corsair, about 36 knots.”
“502, take angels 1.2, you’re cleared downwind, report abeam, heading 180.”
“502, your signal is Bingo, flaps up, hook up, climb passing angels 2, go button 14.”
We looked at each other. He’d touched wheels on the Ike but missed the last wire, and we were his only chance now.
Arthur hurried into a chair and began transmitting into an ancient gray receiver. “Looks like we’ll have company. He’s coming here!”
I grimly smiled at the NATO codeword for course in degrees.
“One hundred thirty-one miles out,” I said into the glass.
“Come to me,” Arthur summoned from his screen.
“He’s frozen stiff.”
“Should we launch?” I asked.
“Negative, negative,” said Arthur interrupting communications with the carrier. “I can’t raise him, but I’m up with CATCC. They usually send along their H-3s in trail.”
“Usually?” We stood up and looked through the floor-to-ceiling windows toward the ocean.
“I still can’t reach him.”
“Departure, Moonraker 502 on a Bingo.”
“502, roger. I’m unable to raise flaps, ah.”
“502, ah, rep.”
“Okay, did you turn the switch off, and, ah, your flaps are in the ISO position?”
“They didn’t come up at all?”
“Roger that, climb to 25 grand and, ah, start your dirty idle descent out about 35 miles.”
“And it’s a trap on the long runway. If you miss the trap, you’ll probably have about 1,200 pounds of gravy when you get there.”
“Come to me,” Arthur said.
“Still no joy?” we asked.
Arthur shook his head. “But it doesn’t matter. Our navaids are up. Help me with these lights.” He motioned to two large switches, each of which weighed as much as a flaming birch sidechair. I vomped them both to the on position and saw the blue taxiways remember their color slowly, then leap to full brightness. We waited.
“Why isn’t is he talking to us?”
“I don’t know.”
“But it’s been ten minutes. Why isn’t he in touch with the carrier?”
Arthur jumped up, pointed down. “I don’t know. There he is!”
“He’s 70 miles out.” We saw the light, a single cell stirred up on Arthur’s black radar wok, rocketing toward us.
“He’s losing it,” said Pete. “He’s just saying his call sign.”
“502, rep, say your state.”
“Angels 19.5, 1.8.”
A paralyzing silence. Then the rep’s voice. “502, you don’t have enough gas to get to your divert airfield.” The words froze down the length of my spine.
We could not hear 502 transmit in reply.
“Help him!” shouted Arthur, and he started flashing the lights of the entire base off and on, on and off, vomp, vomp, a giant, three-mile signal. We pumped the runway lights off and on like well water while I said, “Where’d all his gas go? I thought he had 1,200 extra pounds.”
“It’s his fault,” said Pete. “He could have used his TACAN for a time and distance check against groundspeed. He could have called up the field on Data 89. They’ve got everything in those things now. He’s got a heads up display in there, you know.”
“Yeah, Pete, it’s all his fault.”
“He’s going to make it!” Arthur jumped between us.
The Corsair was coming in over the waves, burning too much gas even while losing altitude. Dirty. He called field in sight in the blind. Arthur activated the arresting gear and transmitted landing instructions.
“He’s two miles from the numbers, approaching at 125 knots!”
Relieved, our host broke into a smile. The Corsair turned to a modified base leg for a landing on Runway 22, flying in a mineshaft but flying smooth, and descended to 700 feet. Then it made a funny hesitation, reduced airspeed, and turned parallel to the beach.
“Oh no, no, no!” Arthur was interrupted by the pilot’s mayday call. A couple of chugs later, he punched out. We saw the flash of his rocket-assisted easy chair directly over the waves and watched in disbelief as the Corsair sparkled into the shoreline like a discarded cigarette lighter.
“Bugs at a lightbulb.” Arthur did a little dance. With sweetness the chute opened–with lazy, full, Louisiana pregnant sweetness. “I’m just a lighthouse, with all these ships hitting the ledge.”
The pilot was awash in light now, the slow vowels of moonlight, runway lights, the open reflected night brilliance of the waves. We watched his feet, his legs, his black silhouette descend in the surf while screaming silly efficiencies at each other: “Shouldn’t we launch?” and “No, they’re sending the H-3s.” “Move.” “Now.” “Look!”
Like that. Hornet talk. Even Einstein is inarticulate when a hornet is stinging him.
The chute collapsed into the nightmare surf. Light was cheap, everywhere. Arthur had thrown all Canada into the sky so that when we saw a black figure walking out of the blinding surf dragging a helmet in the water, he was backlit like some jerk blocking a drive-in movie picture on his way to the snack bar.
Shapes of humans–criminals–rushed to the waves before stepping respectfully to each side of him, forming a stony line as he approached, sideboys in a bizarre ceremony. Then the two H-3s appeared, giant angels with their landing lights on. Their rotorwash blew down on the pilot’s wet parachute, beat it down in the night.
“They’re taking him?” I asked. “Can’t we do anything? He’s trying to walk to us.”
Arthur and Pete weren’t talkative.
I ran for the door, bolted down the stairs, and blasted across the dizzy-hot tarmac toward the crashing waves. I ran closer toward the figure but then stopped twenty feet away. He’d taken off his helmet and as he focused on me I realized he looked exactly like me, from his sweep of dark hair to the malignant beginnings of a beard. I was suddenly so thirsty. The back of my throat became a desert. Suddenly that tea seemed like a good idea. I rubbed my eyes and tried to focus on the darkness ahead as I watched myself being led off for the debrief. In a typhoon of light and sound the helicopters swept him away and disappeared into the sky.
Colin W. Sargent is a former Ch-46D pilot and graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. He edited Approach, the Navy flying magazine, before he started Portland Monthly in his home town in 1986. He is a Maine Individual Artist Fellow in poetry, has an MFA from Stonecoast, and earned his PhD in creative writing from Lancaster University. The Boston Castrato, his second novel, was published in the UK in 2016 and was released this fall in the U.S. He lives with his wife, a former Naval Officer, in Virginia, Maine, and, when possible, the rest of the world. www.colinwsargent.com.