by Caroline Johnson
Caroline Johnson discusses the adrenaline-filled world of flying as she prepares to intercept an Iranian airplane in the latest excerpt from Jet Girl.
Shoes were off and my feet, in polka-dot socks, were on my desk next to a stack of letters from my ninety-six-year-old Grammy. Country music played on low in my earbuds. I blew strands of hair from my eyes and looked up from working on my master’s to gaze at Ryan Gosling, who stared back at me from multiple angles of the many posters we had hung on our walls, unwaveringly sensitive and understanding. My full-time job, as usual, had kept me up the night before, but I’d pulled myself out of bed early to study. I felt groggy and missed my family, the comforts of home, and a perennial on-again-off-again boyfriend who I’d maybe never see again. Like most mid-twenty-year-old students balancing a job, academics, and a love life (or lack of one), I was lonely, overworked, and just trying to get by. In the hallway outside my room I could hear what amounted to a fire drill. I was beginning to get annoyed. I heard five life-altering words boom over the intercom, “Launch the alert 30 fighter.”
I yanked out my earbuds, skin tightening and heart beating so hard the concussions reverberated in my teeth. The voice repeated the order, “This is the TAO. Launch the alert 30 fighter. I say again, launch the alert 30 fighter.”
This command from the Tactical Action Officer, or TAO, would, in effect, send me flying—no, screaming—at nearly the speed of sound, armed to the teeth, into an international incident with one of our country’s most volatile adversaries.
My dorm room for the past four months, “the Sharktank,” housed the six fixed-wing female aviators aboard the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush. The Bush, a nuclear-powered, floating steel fortress known as “Mother,” steamed at the head of a strike group. Imagine a dozen boats skimming across the glittering waters of the North Arabian Gulf in a V-shaped formation, like a necklace with the jewels drawing white wakes in the brilliant blue water. Don’t let the pretty picture fool you. These warships bristle with enough weaponry to turn an area the size of Texas into a smoking pile of uninhabitable ash. And what you cannot see is doubly dangerous. Down in the depths of the ocean, armed submarines plow steadily ahead, sonars on, silent and battle-ready.
The purpose of the surface formation, the submarines below, and the seventy-five hundred highly trained Sailors manning the vessels was singular: guard the crown jewel traveling at the apex of the V-formation of the necklace. In other words, protect Mother, the most lethal and versatile weapon the US can drive out onto the world’s stage. Of the nearly eight thousand people working in Strike Group Two, only three women flew the most feared plane of all, the most technologically advanced, the baddest of the bad—the $80 million F/A-18 Super Hornet. One of those three lucky girls was me, Caroline Johnson, full-time grad student, Naval Flight Officer, and Weapons System Officer. Jet Girl.
I jolted out of my chair and slammed my polka dot–clad feet into the boots directly next to my desk. Officers on alert are supposed to stay in a complete uniform at all times, but our steel-toed boots were waterproof, and I’d worn them more than fifteen hours a day, every day, for the previous four months in a climate so hot and humid you could drink the air. Rather than let my feet rot, I’d broken a rule. No time to worry about that.
Throwing the Sharktank door open, I sprinted down the hallway up the narrow ladder wells, taking two steps at a time. “Alert 30 fighter, vector 330,” the TAO said, his voice growing anxious over the intercom. Vector 330 was the heading where we would find whatever was stirring the hornet’s nest. I knew I would need to recall it later, as I could already feel the boat turning to a different heading. The four engine shafts propelling the ninety-thousand-ton carrier churned at full bore, pointing Mother’s bow into the wind in order to generate twenty-five knots of airflow across the bow. The wind over the deck provided a crucial boost for our fully loaded fighter until our two afterburners could power the plane into the sky.
Because of the fire drill, most of the ship’s doors—monstrously heavy hunks of metal sealed watertight—were all closed as if we were under torpedo attack. I heaved open the massive door at the end of the first hallway, running into a crew of firemen performing a drill in the passageway. Under normal circumstances, I might have snickered at the six Sailors in full firefighting gear, pantomiming the act of extinguishing a nonexistent fire, but right then, they were blocking my passageway.
“Make a hole! Out of the way!” I sprinted toward them, but they continued their charades.
I braced myself, lowered my shoulder, and bodychecked the first dude, sending him smashing into the wall. His fire-team leader turned to me and snapped, “Someone’s in a hurry.”
“Get out of my way!” I pointed to the intercom overhead. “There’s real-world shit going on!”
He looked up, blinking, confused, and then nodded to his men. “Move!”
I ran full-out down the hallway, knowing I needed to get from my stateroom in the bow of the Bush to the Ready Room all the way in the stern, about two hundred yards—or two football fields—away. My lungs burning and flight suit soaked, I hurdled the fifteen-inch braces that dotted the hallway every twenty feet. By yard one hundred and fifty, I was losing steam when the Carrier Air Group commander, or CAG, the second most powerful person in the strike group, ducked out of his office, clipboard pumping in hand.
“Keep going, Dutch!” he barked hoarsely. “Iran is forty miles out!”
A group of aviators waited for me in the Ready Room. “Go, go, go!” one of them said, shoving my helmet bag, complete with the encrypted codes and data for the jet’s weapons systems, into my hand. “Crocket is waiting for you.”
Crocket, aka Corn Rocket, was my pilot that day, and when I pushed into the paraloft, he was already halfway into his G-suit, deep into his pregame mindset.
“CAG told me an Iranian F-4 is inbound within our vital area,” I said and he nodded. We both understood a line in the sand had been crossed. The Iranians flatly knew better than to fly so close to us, and our job was to go intercept that plane.
“See you up there.” He winked and hurried up to the flight deck. Pilots and their Weapons Systems Officers, or WSOs, have a unique working relationship, a bond built on respect and trust. The respect is based on each other’s skills, reputation in the air, and by proving time and time again that you can not only do the job, but do it flawlessly. I had tremendous confidence in Crocket’s skills, as I knew he did in mine.
Trust is something different from respect. It is respect in a nosedive. Crocket would be flying what amounted to a fully loaded bomb at five hundred miles per hour and then landing it on a steel cork. I would be his eyes, ears, and guns as he did so. Even the most hardass, war-tested Navy SEALs think what we do is crazy. And when those guys think what you do is crazy, that’s saying something.
Eschewing the normally regimented—almost ceremonial— calm and unhurried preflight, I yanked on my $150,000 joint helmet-mounted cueing system and, leaving my harness half-zipped, ran out behind Crocket. The colossal, watertight door separating the dark innards of the ship from the bright light of the North Arabian Gulf was so smothered in grease that it looked like it had been dunked in motor oil. No civilian would have dared touch the handle, but I heaved the large lever up and laid my shoulder into it. The hinge creaked loudly as I stepped onto the stairs, my senses blinded by the Middle Eastern sun and wall of hundred-degree heat.
I climbed the greasy steps, hoping that if a plane was parked above the staircase, it didn’t have bombs under its wings. My joint helmet, which weighed about ten pounds, made it nearly impossible to look up. Forget Starbucks. Try head-butting a live warhead to wake yourself up in the morning.
Luckily, the only thing I crashed into was the overpowering reek of bacon as the vents from the ship’s kitchen breathed the heavy blue smoke of institutional breakfast meats mingled with the scent of grease. Yum. Now where is my jet?
There, on the warship’s massive deck, all the world’s premier Tailhook aircraft were lined up, combat-ready, bathed in slanting morning light. After four months on a combat cruise, the jets were pretty beat up. Sandstorms in Afghanistan literally scratched off patches of paint so that the solid gray looked like gray and brown camo, all splattered with globs of grease.
The morning dew mixed with the layers of oil on the flight deck and I slid in my boots, weaving toward the Navy’s version of priority parking—which, surprisingly, was not easy to find. Onboard the carrier, there is simply not enough room to park all the planes, so they are positioned inches apart, wings folded up in a puzzling maze of steel and explosives.
Each jet is marked with a unique number and the name and call sign of an aviator in the squadron. To ensure the fleet is rotated, for daily flying, every pilot–WSO pair is given whatever plane is currently “up” or ready to fly, and that day it just so happened that my jet, #210, was pulled up behind the catapult. I got a little warm feeling when I saw it:
LT CAROLINE JOHNSON
Since we’d already preflighted our plane before the alert, I knew everything was ready to go, but it still felt strange not to perform the usual exterior checklist: circling the plane, checking one last time to make sure the beast was secure and ready. I climbed into my seat behind Crocket and lowered the canopy as my free hand went into autopilot mode, strapping my harness into the ejection seat. The massive glass canopy met the rail, sliding forward and locking to pressurize the cabin. My ears popped as my fingers—nails painted with princess-pink polish—flew through checks, pressing buttons, flipping switches, and lightly tapping data into the touchscreen.
Outside, an eighteen-year-old plane captain in a brown shirt began to detach the six chains that secured our aircraft to the deck of the moving boat. I clipped my mask to my helmet, feel- ing the two familiar clicks, and flipped on the oxygen. I adjusted my French braid and gave it a soft tug—a bit of Jet Girl good luck. The braid was also a reminder that as a woman I was willing to die for my country that lets me fly an $80 million plane while women in other nations aren’t allowed to drive a car.
The flight-deck director signaled us to taxi, and all fifty-six thousand pounds of our missile-laden jet slowly lurched forward, the nosewheel twisting and turning as Crocket expertly maneuvered it into final position. A green light flickered when the launch bar dropped in front of the catapult. With an eye on the yellow-shirted flight-deck director to my left, I turned to my right, making eye contact with another young Sailor on deck who was awaiting my orders. I gave two hand signals, indicating our gross weight, and he communicated back to me using an old flashboard you’d expect to find in an antiques shop in Virginia Beach. I gave him a thumbs-up.
The scrawny kid ran out from attaching the holdback fitting to the aft side of our nose gear. The sun slanted hard across his face, glinting on a patch of peach fuzz on his chin. Missed a spot shaving, I thought. Hope he’s better with our jet than a BIC.
The tiny holdback fitting was the only thing keeping our plane on deck, and if it wasn’t properly attached, I was dead, and so was Crocket, and the Navy would lose one of its best toys.
No time to worry. Once the director signaled to put the jet into tension, we waited to hear the distinct click and feel the whole aircraft squat down. The squat was crucial. Any significant delay meant someone had screwed up and we should immediately abort the launch.
All right, yeah, here we go. The plane settled perfectly into its crouch, and I shifted my eyes to my rearview mirrors, ensuring the jet blast deflector, or JBD, was in place, lest we blow all the people and gear behind us off the ship and into the ocean ten stories below.
“JBD’s up,” I told Crocket. The flight-deck director waved two fingers indicating we’re clear to run ’em up.
After Crocket went through his control checks and I monitored our instruments and error codes, the two Sailors in white jerseys gave the flight-deck director a thumbs-up, hunched down below our wingtips, and braced for the roar of our Pratt and Whitney engines. Crocket lifted his hand to his helmet and dropped it in firm salute, the final signal on our part. The shooter, glancing to make sure the lane was clear, knelt on one knee and in a dramatic gesture thrust his arm down the catapult toward a clear blue sky and shimmering sea off the bow. Receiving this final signal, Peach Fuzz lowered his raised arms, ducked down, and pushed the red catapult button.
A one-second delay followed—the longest second of a naval aviator’s life. I pressed my helmet hard against the seat back behind me so I didn’t tweak my neck when we rocketed. Head firmly in place, I continued to monitor our progress. Are our systems working? Oil pressure, fuel flow, error codes. Check, check, check . . . when in God’s name is this waiting going to end?
Exactly seventeen minutes after the Bush detected an Iranian plane entering our airspace, our F/A-18 surged forward, accelerating from zero to 140 knots in 306 feet. Air knocked from my chest and vision blurry from pressure, I kept my eyes locked on our airspeed, altitude, and pitch attitude indicator. The aircraft hit the end of the deck and launched—the sensation of plowing through concrete—and my body snapped forward in a brutal whiplash motion.
I gulped for air as Crocket took control of the aircraft, flying the plane like he’d stolen it. He manhandled the jet into a huge bat turn, rolling and pulling eighty degrees, pointing our aircraft toward heading 330. The jet shook, air shrieking, white vapor pouring off its wings. We doubled back around Mother, the ship disappearing in our rearview mirrors, and I tuned our sensors ahead for a rogue Iranian airplane somewhere in the empty sky. We’re coming for you . . .
CAROLINE JOHNSON was an F/A-18 Weapons Systems Officer (WSO) in the US Navy. During her deployment aboard the USS George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier, she flew missions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria and was one of the first women to neutralize ISIS. Later during her Navy career, Caroline became a Senior Leadership instructor at the United States Naval Academy. She is now a professional speaker in the private sector.