From C-C-Cold War Syndrome
Egyptian Air Force pilots are a macho lot. Especially Egyptian F-16 pilots. More macho, I think, than Latinos.
I had the pleasure of escorting a group of 20 of them on a one-day visit to the carrier John F Kennedy, which was operating off the Egyptian coast in the southern Mediterranean. One of the normal duties of the naval attaché.
We gathered at the Egyptian military terminal at Cairo International Airport to await the arrival of our transportation, a U.S. Navy C-2 Greyhound—the COD, short for Carrier On-board Delivery. The COD shuttles passengers and cargo between the carrier and bases ashore within range of the ship’s operating area. It can accommodate over 20,000 pounds of cargo or up to 39 passengers. Usually, it’s a mix of the two.
It’s rarely foggy in Cairo, but it was that morning. The Egyptian F-16 pilots seemed a little nervous about the weather and were impressed when the C-2 landed on time in the low visibility conditions.
Their reaction surprised me, as these were highly experienced pilots. All of them were graduates of the Egyptian Air Force Academy, were now in their early to late 30s and had racked up many hundreds of hours of flight time in MIGs and U.S. Air Force jet trainers as well as their recently acquired F-16 Falcons.
Emerging from the heavy fog, the COD taxied in and shut down in front of the terminal. A crewman came inside and briefed our little assemblage. He also handed out flight helmets and flotation vests and asked us to put them on before leading us out to the aircraft.
When you fly as a passenger in the COD, you face backwards. That’s because the aircraft comes to a sudden stop when it traps—that is, when its tail hook snags one of the four arresting cables stretched across the carrier’s flight deck. While the aircraft decelerates abruptly from over a 100 knots to a complete stop, its passengers tend to continue forward like speeding projectiles unless constrained. By facing the wrong way, you have the seat back to cushion the inertia of your fast-flying body at the moment of arrestment.
We strapped into our seats as the cockpit crew started the C-2’s twin turbo prop engines, each producing more than 4,000 horsepower.
This was all new to the Egyptian fighter pilots. None of them had ever been aboard an aircraft carrier before. Nor had they ever flown like this, suited up for an unexpected crash landing and strapped in backwards in preparation for an intended one. They laughed and joked apprehensively in Arabic as the aircraft taxied out to the active runway for takeoff.
There was no delay. We rolled onto the runway and the pilot smoothly advanced the power levers to the takeoff setting. Facing backwards, our bodies were pressed lightly against our lap and chest straps as the plane roared down the runway.
That’s when it happened. One of the Egyptian F-16 pilots—a man named Mohammed something or other—threw up. He tossed his cookies right then during takeoff.
Fortunately, he’d grabbed a “barf” bag, so everything was neatly contained. Nevertheless, he was thoroughly embarrassed by his unmacho-like behavior. His squadron mates tried to console him.
The rest of the flight to the carrier was uneventful. For the crew, that is. When we descended into the landing pattern, the COD’s rear cargo door, really a hinged loading ramp, opened half way. Standard procedure. It gave us a peculiar rearward view of the sea, which seemed to slide around willy-nilly as the aircraft maneuvered for landing.
Then it happened again. Mohammed filled another bag. Whether it was the rough air down close to the water or his anxiety over the imminent trap, I don’t know. But macho Mohammed tossed.
We trapped aboard a moment later. Suddenly we were no longer flying, but sitting motionless on the flight deck.
Mohammed tossed up again.
The COD shut down; we prepared to disembark. Mohammed recovered. Everyone slapped him on the back as we filed off the plane. Obviously, he was still embarrassed.
We remained on board JFK for several hours and were treated most hospitably by the residing admiral, the ship’s captain and his crew. We were treated to a tour of the carrier, then to lunch. Later we observed the operational launch and recovery of a dozen F-14s. Needless to say, our Egyptian guests were awed by the whole thing.
Then it was time to reboard the COD for the return flight to Cairo. Flight helmets and flotation vests back on, strapped in backwards. Another briefing.
This would be a catapult launch, much different from our smooth rolling takeoff from Cairo earlier that morning. We taxied into position. After deck crew personnel had hooked our nose gear to the catapult, the pilot stood on the brakes while taking the engines to takeoff power.
With 8,000 horsepower working in opposition to the brakes, the aircraft shook violently as we waited for the signal to launch. Any moment, the catapult would fire and, in roughly two seconds, hurtle us down the short flight deck and into the air—from a standstill to well over 100 knots (115 MPH) in less time than it takes to scream, “Holy Shit!”
Now facing rearward isn’t really so good for a “cat shot.” A raised carpeted panel at the feet of each passenger, like a kneeler in a church pew, enables you to use your legs as a brace against the sudden thrust that occurs during launch. Also you’re instructed to cinch your lap and chest straps as tightly as you can and to cross your arms over your chest straps so you don’t slip through them.
When the cat fires, the g-forces are incredible. Your arms come away from your body, the air is compressed out of your lungs and the skin of your face feels as though it’s being pulled off. The sensation lasts only a couple of seconds, but for that brief moment, it’s a complete rush.
Just before launch, Mohammed threw up again. He was still tossing when the catapult fired and off we went.
We were flying again. Mohammed threw up again. His buddies consoled him again. So much for lunch.
When we reached cruising altitude, I unstrapped and went up to the cockpit to thank our crew for their services, knowing I wouldn’t have time to do that after we landed.
Both pilots were lieutenants, both 24 years old. The copilot was a young man from Illinois. The pilot at the controls was from California.
As we crossed the north coast of Egypt, I returned to my seat. Wanting to discourage a flood of visitors to the cockpit, I closed the curtain that separated the flight station from the cabin.
The landing in Cairo was perfect. Even so, after we were safely on the ground and taxiing to the flight line, Mohammed tossed again. Fortunately, the C-2 crew had brought plenty of barf bags along on this mission.
When the plane came to a stop in front of the terminal, we removed our flight helmets and vests, thanked the cabin crew and filed inside. The F-16 pilots were ecstatic over their once-in-a-lifetime experience. They gathered around Mohammed, who still looked a little green, and tried to cheer him up.
They thanked me profusely for arranging their trip to the JFK and for shepherding them around all day. Knowing how macho they were as a group, I couldn’t resist tweaking them a little.
“The U.S. Navy was pleased to have you gentlemen as our guests today,” I said to get the official part of my remarks out of the way. “I just want you to know something about the pilots who flew us out to the ship and back.”
Apparently, they’d been curious about that, judging by the eager expressions on their faces.
“Your pilots today were quite young—just 24 years old.”
The macho Egyptian fighter pilots were stunned by that revelation. How could so much responsibility be entrusted to pilots so young, they wondered. They grinned and murmured in Arabic for a moment among themselves. When they quieted down, I told them the rest.
“And the pilot at the controls,” I continued, pausing a moment for dramatic effect....“was a woman!”
You guessed it. Mohammed threw up.
“Older than you by a day, wiser than you by a year.”
Footnote to Toss Up. In the first edition of Cold War Syndrome, these Egyptian officers are erroneously referred to as F-15 pilots. In fact, the Egyptian Air Force flies the F-16. The error has been corrected in the current edition of CWS.
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