The last Friday, Saturday, and Sunday of this month will be Memorial Day Weekend. This is a time when we as a nation honor those who fell in service. Over the next four weeks I’d like to put a couple of names to a few of the very real people I knew who fell in service, real people you’ve never heard of who gave every single thing they had or could ever have to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.
Before I share the tale of Seven Seconds though, I’d like to make an observation.
We live in interesting times. As I go about my daily business the things that I see and hear continually remind me of the old Hans Christian Andersen tale of The Emperor’s New Clothes. I suspect many who read this have read – or at least heard of – the story. It’s a tale of swindlers who defraud a kingdom by selling the Emperor new clothes which they claim have the characteristic of being visible only to really smart people. There are no clothes, of course, the swindlers are just very good at miming sewing tasks and even better at selling an illusion. None of people of the kingdom, including the Emperor, see the clothes, but none are willing to risk being seen as dumb enough not to be able to see the magical cloth. So, they all agree that the Emperor’s new clothes are the finest clothing ever produced and that bankrupting the treasury to finance the finery was absolutely the right thing to do. As the tale ends, the swindlers have left with all the money, the Emperor is prancing around nude, and a little kid asks the zillion-dollar question. “Why is the Emperor naked?”
The moral of the story isn’t about mean swindlers or stupid kings. It’s about the people of the kingdom deciding, en mass, to lie to and cheat their fellow subjects to gain a small and illusory measure of chimeric advantage.
Today in our nation a few swindlers are selling invisible clothing, and tens -- if not hundreds -- of millions, are rushing to don the shiny mantle of victimhood. The trend is alive and well even here in rural, agrarian, America. The alleged crimes and alleged victimizers vary widely, but far, far too many folks have convinced themselves that “those people” are viciously and intentionally attacking them. For people who buy into this notion, every normal inconvenience and setback of life becomes a plot and a personal attack, and some evil person or group of persons is to blame. In this mode of thinking, all context becomes lost, and fantasy overrides reality. It’s a form of psychosis, and it’s a very dangerous game. A brief perusal of history will provide countless, chilling examples of the horrors humans can visit upon their brothers and sisters.
And now, Seven Seconds.
We’d been underway for eight months, having left Norfolk in September. Four months in to a planned six-month Mediterranean deployment the Carrier Battle Group was ordered to the Gulf of Oman to conduct contingency operations regarding the U.S. Hostages in Tehran. Ultimately we executed a hostage rescue mission. It didn’t go well. By the time May 3 rolled around we’d been continually at sea for more than 120 days.
We’d been operating hard since early January. The failed rescue mission had occurred on April 24, nine days earlier. The deployment had been long and hard and, to some extent, heartbreaking. But the end was in sight. The Eisenhower battle group was due to arrive in three days time, and after a two-day turnover, we’d head for home. But Ike wasn’t here yet, and May 3 was just another day at sea.
I was working on the flight deck that morning, one of the corpsmen with specialized training to render emergency medical aid in case of injury. A secondary job was to act as a safety observer.
The first launch of the day began and the sound became a living, breathing thing. As jets roared down the catapult tracks the rumble could be felt in every compartment, and as each catapult piston reached the end of its stroke it slammed into a water brake with a pounding thud that shook all 90,000 tons of the ship. Midway through the launch a VF-84 Tomcat taxied onto Cat 3.
From my nearby vantage point I had a perfect view and watched as the launch ritual progressed. Flight controls deflected as the pilot exercised his control stick and rudder pedals. Wings spread, slats and flaps came out, the hookup man attached the holdback fitting, then the shuttle inched forward into tension. The Shooter signaled for full power, then afterburner. The exhaust nozzles programmed wide open and twin blue flames roared to life, driving back in howling cones of fire and deflecting skyward off the raised jet blast deflector. Final checkers looked hard, then gave thumbs up. The pilot saluted the Shooter, who quickly polled the checkers and made his own final assessment of the jet’s readiness for flight. He turned and lunged forward, outstretched hand touching the deck then pointing down the cat track.
The Tomcat roared in zone three burner, straining against the holdback fitting with 40,000 pounds of thrust. In the ICS bubble the cat officer flipped up a switch guard and mashed his thumb down of the firing key. Steam flooded into the catapult and drove the cat piston forward, breaking the precision machined holdback fitting and dragging the roaring jet down the deck.
About a second into the cat stroke, about halfway through the shot, the afterburner on the right engine snuffed out and the nozzle constricted toward the MRT (full “dry” or non-afterburner thrust) setting, then relaxed into trail as the failing engine began to wind down.
At 2.5 seconds the jet left the deck and with both stabilators programmed nose up, pitched steeply into the air. Under the asymmetric thrust of the port engine in afterburner and no thrust from the starboard motor, the nose of the jet pushed to the right. It also kept pitching up.
Along with every other man who was watching, I willed the nose to come down. Off the cat, full of gas, single engine. If the nose didn’t come down the jet would stall and crash.
At six seconds the stabilators fluttered, the yaw increased, and the jet began a slow roll to the right. As it passed through 90 degrees the canopy came off as the ejection sequence was initiated. Four tenths of a second later, with the bank angle at 150 degrees, the RIO’s seat fired. The jet continued to roll and the pilot’s seat fired after another four-tenths of a second. Both seats slammed into the water ahead of the ship as the dying Tomcat crossed the bow from left to right.
The Tomcat plunged into the North Arabian Sea about 300 yards ahead of the ship and 300 yards to starboard.
Lieutenant Jack Watson was 27, Ensign John Graham 24. They did not grow old. Not counting the eight men who died at Desert One (who weren’t part of the Nimitz crew), the ship lost nine men on that deployment. Commander Dave Formo and Lieutenant Commander Nick Delello of VF-41. Lieutenants Junior Grade Mark Gontkovic and Tony Bilotti of VA-35. Lieutenant Bobby Dark of VAQ-134. AZ2 Kevin Tucker of VA-82 and MS3 William Saxton of S-2 division.