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The pilots of the two F-14 D Tomcats on the catapults shoved the throttles of their engines to full military power at the same time. Up on Vulture’s Row, high on the carrier’s island superstructure, the off-duty observers pushed their fingers even deeper into their ears as the roar of four mighty engines at full power became an unendurable, soulnumbing crescendo.

The bow catapult officer, seated facing aft at his control console between the catapults, returned the salute of the pilot of the fighter on Catapult One, glanced at the signal light on the island — still yellow — and looked over his shoulder, down the catapult toward the bow. The bow safety observer had his left hand up, his thumb in the air. The cat officer again scanned the fighter. Still okay.

In the waist catapult control console, the cat officer there looked across the nose of the fighter on Catapult Three at the signal light on the island superstructure. He, too, checked again to ensure the deck was clear.

The light on the island turned from yellow to green.

Simultaneously both launching officers scanned the length of their cats, looked again at the planes at full power, and pushed the fire buttons on their catapults.

Down below deck, the giant launching valves opened and steam slammed into the back of the catapult pistons.

Three seconds later the wheels of the two fighters ran off the deck and the wings bit the air.

In the plane off the bow catapult, the pilot, Captain Jake Grafton, slapped the gear handle up with his left hand. He allowed the nose to rise to eight degrees nose-up and held it there as he trimmed and the machine accelerated. At 200 knots he raised the flap handle. With the flaps up, he lowered the nose of the accelerating fighter and leveled at five hundred feet below the slate gray overcast.

Now he glanced back and left. His wingman, who had launched from Cat Three, was several hundred feet away in a loose formation. Jake eased the throttles aft a percent or two to give the other pilot a power advantage, then scanned his instruments. EGT, RPM, fuel flow, oil pressure, hydraulics, all okay. No warning lights.

“You okay back there?” he asked the Radar Intercept Officer, the RIO, in the seat behind him.

“Sure, CAG. No sweat.” The RIO was Lieutenant Toad Tarkington. He and Grafton had only flown together three times before today, since Jake, the air wing commander, divided his flying between the two F-14D squadrons, the two F/A-18 squadrons, and the squadron flying the A-6E.

The Tomcat accelerated quickly, its wings sweeping aft automatically as it accelerated through.7 Mach. At 500 knots indicated, with his wingman tucked in on the left wing, Jake Grafton pulled the stick back and pointed the fighter into the overcast.

Not a word had been said on the radio. The radar altimeter and TACAN had not been turned on. And the radars of both fighters were not transmitting.

Aboard the carrier from which the fighters had just launched, the USS United States, America’s newest Nimitz-class ship, total electronic silence was also being observed, as it was aboard the eight surface combatants arranged loosely in the miles of ocean around the carrier. No radars swept the skies. No radio signals were being broadcast. Yet down in the Combat Information Centers aboard every ship the sailors sat and listened for electronic signals from Soviet ships and planes.

Russian planes were aloft this afternoon over the North Atlantic searching for the United States. They had been searching for three days now and still hadn’t found her out here in these millions of square miles of ocean. The Americans were making the search as difficult as possible. The United States had been sailing east under a thick frontal system for five days, hidden from the cameras of reconnaissance satellites ever since she left Chesapeake Bay. Laden with moisture, the extensive cloud system covered a lot of ocean. The task group dashed from squall to squall; the rain would help mask the ships’ radar signature from Soviet satellites.

The exit into the North Atlantic had been aided by two nuclear-powered attack submarines. They had sailed from Norfolk the day before the carrier and located the Soviet snooper submarine that routinely lurked at the mouth of the bay. The American boats dashed back and forth at high speed to screen the noise of the departing task group, which slipped away to the southeast while the Russian vainly tried to sort out the screw noises of the warships from the cacophony made by the American subs and the dozen or so merchantmen entering and leaving the bay.

Part of the problem for the Soviets was that the American task group was not now where it should be, on the main sea lane from the Chesapeake to the Strait of Gibraltar. It was almost two hundred fifty miles south of it. So the Russians were still searching the huge, empty ocean, looking for a silent needle that moved erratically and relentlessly.

At present, the nearest Soviet ship was a trawler outfitted with an array of sensitive antennas two hundred miles to the northeast. The trawler’s crew would tattle to long-range naval bombers if they heard anything.

The search and evasion were games, of course, for the Soviets and the Americans. Each side was training its combat crews. Each side was letting the other see its capability. Each side sought to intimidate the other in order to prevent the final war that the citizens of neither country wanted.

In the cockpit of his F-14 Tomcat, Jake Grafton listened to the Electronic Counter-Measures equipment, the ECM. This gear could detect the transmissions of Soviet radars while the fighter was still so far away from the emitting radar that the signal would not return in a usable form — in other words, while the F-14 was still out of detection range. This afternoon Jake listened in vain. No radars yet. He watched the altimeter record their progress upward, and occasionally checked his wingman visually.

The two planes emerged from the clouds at 20,000 feet into clear air. To the west the sun was still twenty degrees above the horizon, but it was blurred and indistinct above a thin cirrus layer at about 40,000 feet. The light here was soft, diffused, and the visibility excellent. Jake leveled the flight at thirty thousand feet at.8 Mach, 300 knots indicated.

“Okay, CAG,” Toad said over the intercom, the ICS. “I’m receiving the E-2’s data link. Our targets are about a hundred and eighty miles away, bearing zero two zero.”

Jake came right to that heading and adjusted the brightness and gain on the Horizontal Situation Display on the instrument panel in front of his knees. On this scope he could see a copy of the picture the RIO had on the Tactical Information Display in the rear cockpit. Sure enough: there was the threat display.

Even though the American fighters and ships were not emitting, they could see the Russians. The United States was keeping an E-2 Hawkeye radar plane airborne around the clock. This twin-engine turboprop had waited until it was over a hundred miles from the ship before it turned on its radar, and then it data-linked everything it saw back to the ships and to any fighters aloft. The Hawkeye was an eye in the sky. It had located two Tupolev Tu-142 Bear bombers approaching from the north, still scanning the sea with their radars, searching. And aboard the United States, Jake, as the air wing commander, had decided to intercept the Bears.

Now the ECM warning light on the right window frame directly in front of Jake began to flash. “We’re receiving radar signals from Ivan,” Toad said. The main ECM panel was in his cockpit, since in combat the pilot would be too busy to check it.

“I don’t want these guys to know we’re coming until we’re on their tails,” Jake told his RIO. “What’s their heading?”

“They’re going two eight zero at about four hundred knots, sir. You may want to come right another twenty degrees — then when we pass behind their port beam, we’ll turn left and accelerate and come in on their stern quarter.”

“Gotcha,” Jake said, and turned right. He pumped his fist at his wingman and received a nod in reply. The other pilot dipped his nose and crossed under Jake, surfacing on the right wing. From this position he could ease further out and turn in behind the second bomber while Jake took the one on the left.

Jake scanned the instrument panel once again. It was still new to him. He had flown the A-6 Intruder attack plane throughout most of his career and had been checked out in the F-14 only after he had received orders to command this air wing. He still had less than sixty hours in the airplane, yet he enjoyed flying it immensely. It was high-performance luxury compared to the A-6, which was subsonic and designed in the late fifties as an all-weather bomber. The “D” version of this supersonic fighter-interceptor was affectionately known as the “Super-Tomcat” and was equipped with more powerful, more fuel-efficient engines than those which powered the F-14A, engines less prone to compressor stalls and capable of being jamaccelerated in high angle-of-attack, high G-load dogfights. Fast, agile, and stuffed with the latest in air-to-air electronic wizardry, the F-14D was also going to sea for the first time aboard the United States.

The view from the cockpit took some getting used to, Jake mused. One large rounded piece of plexiglas covering both the front and rear cockpits, and broken only by a lone canopy bow between the cockpits, constituted the canopy. The seats were mounted high so the pilot and RIO would have the maximum field of view when the aircraft was maneuvering against an enemy. Jake was sitting high and forward on a large projectile shaped like an arrow head. One felt naked, but the view in all directions was spectacular. It was almost as if you were riding through the sky in a chair without the benefit of an aircraft.

As he learned to fly this airplane, Jake found it difficult to keep his right thumb off the trim button on the stick. With a computer automatically adjusting the horizontal stabilizers to compensate for flap changes, speed brakes, wing sweep, and speed changes, an F-14 pilot didn’t spend much time trimming. The other trait of the aircraft he found difficult to master was the sluggish pitch response and slow power response when the aircraft was in the landing configuration. To ease the pilot workload, Grumman had installed a thumb-operated switch on the stick that allowed the pilot to raise and lower wing spoilers to control descent on the glide slope instead of adjusting the throttles.

It was the swing wings that made this plane such a sweetheart. The Air Data Computer automatically moved the wings forward or aft for maximum maneuvering efficiency. As the aircraft accelerated through.75 Mach, the wings left their medium-speed position, twenty-two degrees of sweep, and progressed aft, until at 1.2 Mach they were fully swept, at sixty-eight degrees, and the machine had become a delta-winged projectile. To optimize maneuverability, a computer automatically adjusted the flaps and slats when the machine was maneuvering in the subsonic and transonic speed ranges. All this aerodynamic aid allowed the pilot to squeeze more performance from the airplane than Jake had ever dreamed possible.

Jake waggled the stick slightly. The stick had a self-centering bungee installed in the artificial feel system and resisted displacement from center. This control heaviness had bothered him when he first flew the aircraft, but he rarely noticed it anymore.

He scanned the sky. It was great to be flying again, off the ship and out here in the great blue empty. Under his oxygen mask Jake Grafton grinned broadly.

Sixty miles from the bombers Toad turned on the television camera system, the TCS, in the nose of the Tomcat. This camera had a powerful telephoto lens which would enable the crew to see the bombers while they were still too far away for the human eye to acquire them. Toad slewed the camera, searching. The camera automatically pointed at the target being tracked by the Tomcat’s radar, but since the radar was silent, the camera was aimed in the direction that the computer calculated was appropriate. So now Toad had to fine-tune the camera.

“I got ’em. Or one of them, anyway. I think they’re a couple thousand feet above us.”

Jake checked the picture on the Horizontal Situation Display (HSD) in his cockpit. The crew did not see raw video, but a picture optimized by computer. Now the picture was merely a small dot, recognizably a big aircraft, but just a dot nevertheless.

He looked around. To his right and rear, his wingman’s plane hung motionless, suspended in space. The clouds above were too indistinct to give an impression of motion. Far below, the top of the gray and lumpy stratus layer slowly rolled along from front to rear. It was almost as if the planes were stationary and the earth was moving beneath them. It was an illusion, of course. These machines were really hurling through the sky toward an uncertain rendezvous.

“We’re just about to cross their beam, CAG. Turn ninety degrees left.”

Jake did so. This course would lead the bombers by forty degrees, necessary since they were moving. He eased the throttles forward, then pushed them into afterburner. The wingman was right with him. He advanced the throttles another smidgen.

The fighter sliced through the sonic barrier with only the barest jolt. Mach 1.3 … 1.4 … 1.5, 605 knots indicated, true airspeed 820 knots.

Now Jake could recognize the target on his HSD. It was a Soviet Bear bomber, a huge four-engine turboprop. But at which one was he looking? The lead or the wingman? The second plane might be a mile or so away to the left or right. Bomber pilots weren’t known for flying tight formation, not over the distances they covered. These bombers were out of Murmansk. They had flown around the Scandinavian peninsula, down through the Iceland-U.K. gap, and then another twenty-five hundred miles south. After hours on station they would return to the Soviet Union or fly on to Cuba.

“Scan the camera, Toad.”

In a few seconds Tarkington said, “Got him. This guy is behind the leader. A little farther away, so he’s off the lead’s right side.”

“Okay. Go back to the leader.”

As the camera panned sky, the cross hairs on Jake’s heads-up display, the HUD, also moved. But squint as he might, the bombers were still too far away to see. The camera settled in on the first plane. Jake corrected his heading.

At fifteen miles he could see the leader under the HUD cross hairs. At eight miles he came out of burner and pulled the nose up, allowing the gentle climb to bleed off his airspeed. Had this been a shooting interception, he would have launched his missiles long ago.

At five miles he gestured to his wingman, sweeping his open hand in a chopping motion to the right, then kissed off the wingman by touching his oxygen mask and sweeping his hand away, splaying his fingers. The other pilot gave him a thumbs-up and turned away to the right. He would join on the second Bear.

Two miles from the bomber Jake said, “Burn ’em, Toad.” The RIO turned his radar to transmit. Jake knew the bomber crew would hear the fighter’s radar on their ECM equipment, which no doubt they had turned up to maximum sensitivity. At this range the noise should sear their eardrums. And the crew would know that if this had been a wartime intercept, they would be dead.

The F-14 climbed rapidly toward the stern quarter of the bomber, Jake reducing power to decelerate to equal airspeed. He turned to the big plane’s heading and joined up just below and behind it. The bomber was the color of polished aluminum, a silver gray, with a red star on the tail and under one wing. Jake could see the gunner in the tailgun compartment looking out the window. The barrels of the 23-millimeter twin tail guns were pointed aft and up, at the limit of the gimbals. They didn’t move, Jake noticed, which was nice. The two governments had promised each other that their servicemen wouldn’t point weapons during these encounters, since the person on the wrong end of the weapon tended to get nervous and jittery and had a weapon of his own. But it was a long way from the diplomatic conference table to the skies over the Atlantic and Pacific.

Jake turned right and came up alongside the bomber’s right wing. He could now see into the copilot’s side of the Bear’s cockpit. The copilot was staring across the hundred feet of empty air that separated them.

“Just stay here, CAG,” Toad said. “I’m getting pictures.” In the rearview mirror Jake saw Toad focusing a 35-millimeter camera.

In the cockpit of the Bear a camera was being pointed this way. “They’re taking our picture, too,” Jake said.

“Not to sweat, sir. I have the sign against the canopy.” Jake knew the sign Toad was referring to. Printed in block letters on an eight-by-ten-inch piece of white cardboard was the word “Hello.” Under it in letters equally large was the word “Asshole.”

When Toad had six shots of this side of the bomber, Jake dropped below the plane and Toad kept snapping. Then they photographed the left side of the plane and the top, ending up back on the right side, where Toad finished out the roll. These pictures would be studied by the Air Intelligence officers for indications of modifications or new capabilities.

By the time Toad was finished with the camera, the other F-14 was joined on Jake’s right wing. Jake knew the RIO of that plane was busy photographing his fighter against the bomber. One of these pictures would probably be released by the navy to the wire services in the States.

“Okay, CAG,” Toad said. “Our guy’s all done. I’ll just flip Ivan the terrible bird and we can be on our way anytime.”

“You’ve got real class, Tarkington.”

“They expect it, sir. They’d feel cheated if we didn’t give them the Hawaiian good luck sign.” Toad solemnly raised a middle finger aloft as Jake lowered the Tomcat’s nose and dove away.

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