The drive from the airport had never felt so long. My green uniform had never weighed me down, my beret had never felt so heavy. The cab came to a halt outside that white door that I knew so well. While walking up to the door, I went back two days in time.
“USS Stennis, this is Lightning 1, Scooter. We are 59 miles Southwest of Bravo Seven. Holding Flight Level 250, speed 635 knots. Lightning 2, Redwood, is 0.5 miles out, 9 o’clock. Out.”
“Lightning 1 and 2, USS Stennis November Juliet Charlie Sierra, roger. Descend to Flight Level 200, speed 595 knots. You are 104 miles Northwest of Stennis. Turn left to 170, and expect next heading shortly.”
“USS Stennis, Lightning 2, Redwood. Descending to Flight Level 200, speed down to 595 knots. Turning left heading 170, Lightning 1 and 2.”
Ending the radio call, Redwood turned around and looked at me. Speaking into the radio, he said, “Well, Bill, one last routine patrol over the Bering Sea. In two days, a new life awaits. Amanda is a really good place to settle isn’t it?”
“Yeah, of course, Jeff. It’s small, calm and is one close-knit neighbourhood. The school district is well recommended, and it’ll be great for Britt and Max. And Columbus is just an hour away. We can get the best of both worlds.”
“Let’s get these babies around for one last time.”
The Alaskan skies were cloudy, as one would expect on an afternoon in August. Flying over storm clouds was breathtakingly beautiful, every time. Below the clouds, rain and sleet lashed on the coasts of Alaska; above the clouds, there was a region of absolute calm, and light winds. The dark clouds, in their abstract shapes and unique patterns, looked like places one could only dream of.
Our radar screens were empty except for a couple of commercial jetliners flying above us, and all flight parameters were normal. Jeff’s voice came into my headset. “Remember that time over Spratly? Where those Chinese fighters chased us for 200 miles?”
I laughed and replied, “Yeah, and we were flying at half our maximum speed.”
“Oh and the time when those German fellas were trying to outdo us at RIAT? They got a good taste of our afterburners.”
“What about that time when those drunk Aussies tried to convince us that cricket was better than baseball?”
“Who in their right minds plants three sticks of wood on the ground?”
“Well, we can blame the Brits for that.”
Cruising at 20000 feet, so many memories floated past me, in my seventeen years as a fighter pilot. My training times at West Point, my first flight, my first combat injury, extended stays in so many different countries, and how can I forget my first failed attempt to land on an aircraft carrier. I recalled becoming friends with Jeff, long talks in our bunks, goofing around in bars and rec rooms, Jeff’s marriage to Shanice, watching toddler Max run around the house, meeting Linda, our first date, driving to Vegas at 2 A.M. to get married, the first time I took Brittany in my arms and surprising them on Christmas Eve. Now we were going to start a whole new chapter in our lives, and we’d finally be with our families, and be neighbours.
“Lightning 1 and 2, USS Stennis, descend to 10000 feet, speed 540 knots. You are 64 miles East of Stennis. Turn left heading 270.”
“USS Stennis, Lightning 1, Scooter. Descending to 10000 feet, speed down to 540 knots. Turn left heading 270, Lightning 1 and 2.”
We pulled into a dive, and flew into the clouds. The winds were howling, rain and ice splattered on my windshield. It felt like I was looking into the void. Everything around me was black, except for the tiny light on Jeff’s aircraft. The lower we descended, the stronger the winds became. The turbulence made it nearly impossible to hold the aircraft still.
“Lightning 1 and 2, USS Stennis, you have two Fulcrums at your 6 o’clock position, 5 miles. Increase speed to 600 knots.”
“USS Stennis, Lightning 2, Redwood. Speed up to 600 knots.”
Whilst we were fighting the wind, we had failed to notice two Russian Mig-35 “Fulcrum” fighter aircraft appear out of nowhere. From the worry in the controller’s voice, it seemed that they were onto something. We increased our speed, and our pursuers did the same. The controller made repeated calls to the aircraft to identify themselves, but no such transmission was received.
The storm worsened. The winds were pushing us off our course; our fuel reserves depleting fast. The aircraft carrier, USS John C. Stennis, was in sight. We decreased our speed for landing, the Fulcrums slowed down as well. It was a very risky ploy, attempting to land while being pursued, but it had to be done.
“Unidentified aircraft, this is USS John C. Stennis. This is your final call to respond. We will open fire, I repeat, we will open fire. This is your final call to respond.”
“Jeff, you align for the runway. The Sparrows will get a clear shot that way.”
“Roger. See you in the hangar, pal.”
I pulled off to the left, and I heard the sound of anti-aircraft guns. The Sparrows had opened fire. I looked back and saw the Fulcrums break off from their formation. One of them took a hit, and went down. The other was on my tail.
“Lightning 2, cleared to land.”
Jeff was aligned to land, and he had slowed down. I circled over the ship, trying to shake off my pursuer. All off a sudden, it took a steep dive, towards the left. The Sparrows opened fire, but it kept flying through the sky lit up by the exploding shells. What happened next, is still a blur.
My pursuer opened fire at Lightning 2, and it exploded, about five hundred feet from the ship. The my engine sounded distant; the radio transmissions, incoherent. My hands were numb over the control yoke, my eyes taking instrument readings like a robot. Before I could change my course, the Fulcrum took a hit and went up in flames. I managed to bring down my landing gear, and turned around, preparing to land.
“Lightning 1, do you copy? You are cleared to land.”
“Cleared to land, Lightning 1.”
I managed to land, for one last time. I climbed out, and walked across the rain-washed deck. Many deck crew and air crew, said comforting words and embraced me. I didn’t talk to a single soul, I didn’t consume a single morsel of food and I didn’t get a single wink of sleep.
The moment kept playing in my head, in a loop. It felt like a part of me had been separated and cast into oblivion. It seemed like forever when gave me that last thumbs-up, that last grin and those last words. I couldn’t believe that he wasn’t here. We’d been through everything together. I thought of Shanice and Max. And then, it hit me. I would be the Casualty Notification Officer, and I’d have to break the news to them.
I knocked at the door of Shanice’s house. I hadn’t mustered up the courage to tell Linda, let alone Shanice. My years of training and experience had never prepared me for something like this. I heard Max shout, “I’ll get the door, Mom!” My mind went blank. Max opened the door and shouted in glee, “Mom, its Uncle Bill! He’s back!” I tried to smile at him, and ruffled his hair. Max was a fine twelve year old. His brown hair, pointy nose and green eyes, resembled Jeff a lot. Shanice came to the doorway with a wide smile, and noticed my green uniform. A look of horror as sudden replaced her smile, and her eyes became moist. She gasped, “No!” and ran into the house. I was barely holding back tears, myself.
Max hadn’t understood what was going on. I told him, choking up, “Let’s go inside, bud. We need to talk.”
We went into their living room, and I sat Max down on the sofa. “What’s going on, Uncle Bill? Why is Mum crying?”
I didn’t know how to start. I didn’t know what to say.
“Uncle Bill, where is Dad?”
“Max, two days ago, we flew our last mission. Two Russian planes gave us a chase. We killed off both, but Jeff…”
I couldn’t go on any longer. I broke into tears. Max was absolutely still. I couldn’t bear to look him in the eyes anymore.
I must’ve nodded, because Max ran out of the room. I could hear Shanice sobbing in the dining room.
I got up, and saw a picture of Jeff and myself on the mantelpiece. It was taken back when we were cadets at West Point. I looked at his smiling face, and a single tear fell on my green uniform. And I said, “I’m sorry, Jeff. I’m so sorry.”