Chapter 3: Blood on the tarmac
Now over three months into the program, first solo’s successfully behind them, the trainee’s might have been forgiven for thinking things would relax a little.
So not the case.
As summer hit in Cold Lake the pressure rose along with the temperature. On the ground it cleared a hundred degrees ... up in the air, enclosed in the airtight bubble that passed for a cockpit, it felt ten times worse.
Everyone was sweating ... in the heat and under the stress of taking piloting an F-18 to a new level ... from plane to weapon ... from solo to formation flying.
More than one instructor told them that the most intense, high pressure stage of the training program was learning to fly in formation. Flying a plane solo – a lone bird in the sky – was one thing. Now they had to learn to fly in conjunction with at least one other plane which required a whole new set of skills.
If any trainee had a weakness now was the time to fix it, before it became something that would spell the untimely end of their careers.
“You’re a solid flier Lorne,” Major Baker said at one of Evan’s regular review sessions. “More than solid ... but I’m wondering about your Achilles heel ... this early in a career in the Hornet everybody has one. For Jones it’s landings. For Merlin it’s rushing. I haven’t seen yours yet but I know it’s there.”
“What about you Sir?” Evan asked, curiosity and the need to redirect the conversation both driving him. “Did you have an Achilles heel?”
“I suspect mine was the same as yours son,” Baker said, not letting himself be distracted. “I’ve read your file Evan,” he added, expecting that to be explanation enough.
Evan’s eyes shot up to meet his instructors ... his pulse ramping up a notch as he considered the implications of that statement. “Ah ... how far back does that go Sir?” he asked weakly.
“All the way,” Baker replied kindly. “You’ve worked hard to overcome what anyone would acknowledge as being personally difficult for you. Flying formation is about control and you've got that in spades. Don’t make this any different in your head. It’s not.”
“No Sir,” Evan tried to keep himself expressionless even as his emotions surged. "The past is the past," he reminded himself.
Major Baker looked at him for a moment, perhaps expecting Evan to say more. When he didn’t, Baker let out a breath that might have been disappointment, before nodding. “If you’re having difficulties, you come to me,” he said firmly. “No burying it under the carpet because that’s the kind of thing that’ll only end in disaster.”
“Yes Sir,” Lorne all but snapped a salute, his tone was so brisk and ... military.
“Dismissed,” Baker finally let him off the hook, his expression thoughtful.
Evan jumped up and barely restrained himself from hurrying out of the room. It seemed that even doing his training across the border wasn’t far enough away to escape the events he didn't want to talk about ... not that he’d ever really tried to escape.
His father ... what had happened to him so many years ago ... was a part of Lorne. It defined him in many respects; Evan knew that. But flying ... and in particular flying the F-18 to its fullest capacity was what he wanted to do. What he needed to do. And he’d let nothing stand in his way, especially not his own weaknesses.
Formation flying for combat had been around since World War 2. One pilot alone in the sky with a blind spot on his tail was vulnerable. Two pilots, each watching out for the other, weren’t. In modern flight - in an F-18 going 400 miles per hours with rear view mirrors that might as well not have been installed they were so ineffective - it was even more the case.
Everyone wanted to be the lead ... the guy running the show up in the air. But to get there they had to prove themselves as wingers first. A winger’s job was to watch the leads tail – his ‘six’ – to maintain visual and to take his cues from them alone.
As with every new phase of training, the rookies were talking about it days before they actually had to do it.
“Anyone not flown formation in some form?” Neil asked, the boys all gathered around one of the Mess tables for dinner for once. Usually at least one of them decided even the small amount of time required to sit down and eat was too much, skipping meals in favour of studying and eating on the run.
“I’ve only done it a few times,” Cade admitted. “And only in the CT15 Hawk.”
“That’s plenty,” Marcus pointed out. “Anything’s gonna seem pitiful compared to doing formation in a Hornet anyway.”
“True,” John agreed. “My mate – the guy who did the program two years ago – said you can’t be prepared for how big and scary another Hornet looks when you’re staring at it’s under carriage from 15 feet away.”
“The F-16 would be similar though, wouldn’t it Evan?” Drew asked curiously.
“I guess, but the Falcon’s not as twitchy as the Hornet,” Lorne explained. “Getting into position is one thing – making it look smooth is another – and being comfortable that close to another plane is a whole other ball game.”
“Did you do much formation work?” Cade asked.
“Not really,” Evan admitted. “Not much call for formation flying in high speed research.”
“But you have done some though, right?” Cade persisted.
“Yeah I’ve done it,” Lorne replied. “To be honest it’s not my favourite part of flying but it doesn’t have to be. You just have to get it done.”
“Kind of worrying when they tell you the first mission objective is to not hit the other guy,” Paul pointed out.
“Yeah,” Drew laughed. “Makes it sound a lot more difficult when they put it that way.”
The others made various comments in agreement before the conversation shifted on to other topics. Evan zoned out, eyes on a dinner he wasn’t seeing as he replayed that conversation with Major Baker. He had no doubt the Major’s eyes would be firmly fixed on him during their first formation flight, no doubt looking for any evidence of that Achilles heel he’d talked about. Not that it would mean Lorne would fail the course if he showed it – he’d have to explain it though, explain himself and that was a place Evan didn’t want to go.
“You okay?” Drew asked quietly, the rest of their group not noticing as the conversation continued to flow around them.
“Huh?” Evan snapped back to the present, blinking a couple of times before he realised what he’d done. “Sure – just tired,” he dismissed Drew’s concern lightly.
“Sure,” Drew returned sceptically.
“I gotta get back to the books,” Lorne stood up abruptly. “Boys,” he nodded to the table at large, taking his leave before anyone could protest.
First formation flights were usually one plane with trainee and instructor and a second with two fully qualified pilots in attendance. Lorne, composed and calm, suited up for his first mission with steady purpose.
“Ready?” Baker asked, arriving already suited up.
“Yes Sir,” Lorne replied confidently. Flight plans had been lodged and Evan had studied up on everything that would be required of him, repeating things over and over until he could recite it cold. The mission had to go well ... there was no other option.
“Let’s go then,” Baker led the way from the office out across the tarmac to his plane.
Pre-flight checks that had taken Evan twenty minutes the first time were now taking fifteen ... still three times as long as a seasoned F-18 pilot but well up there as far as the rest of the trainees were concerned.
Evan never tried to rush ... even that day when the motivation was there ... the experienced pilots in the other plane were already set to go while he was still only half way through his checks. Ignoring that, ignoring everything except the litany of checks running on automatic in his head, Lorne completed all the requirements and was soon doing his first synchronised take off, another plane beside him feeling a hell of a lot closer than was really comfortable.
“Let's park her off the wing,” Major Baker requested as soon as they were at 20,000 feet, doing 375 miles per hour.
“Off the wing,” Lorne reiterated, powering forward until they were beside the other jet.
“Take us closer,” Baker encouraged.
Lorne gradually moved the F-18 in towards the other plane, maintaining equivalent speed and trying his damndest to make it as smooth as possible. Judging how close he actually was wasn’t as hard as might be expected. There was a formula and all he had to do was follow it ... missile tip at the end of his right wing lined up with the maple leaf emblem printed on the side of the plane ... check. Pull forward until flush with the burner cans on the jet beside him ... check. And presto ... they were now flying within fifteen feet of the other plane.
It felt close ... really, really, close. All the muscles in Evan’s forearms and lower legs were tight as he controlled the stick, holding position until he was told otherwise.
“Relax Lorne,” Baker said quietly. “You’re there.”
“Yes Sir,” Lorne replied, actively trying to do as ordered. He held the off wing pattern for moments longer before Baker finally spoke again.
“Move her to line astern,” he requested the next pattern without commenting on the completion of the last.
“Line astern,” Lorne acknowledged, gratefully dropping back from the side of the other jet. Reducing speed just enough to be able to get into position at the rear of their companion F-18, Evan then pulled forward gradually.
The stick in his hand shook with the turbulence of the other jets engine blast ... his chair shaking a good thing because it meant he was in the right place.
“Hold it steady,” Baker urged.
Lorne found the line astern pattern easier in some respects even though the effects of flying so close to the back end of the other plane were so much more obvious.
“Drop it back Lorne,” Baker finally instructed.
Line astern pattern completed without incident, Lorne did as instructed, returning the plane to a more distant side by side flight position.
The last part of the days mission was to maintain relative position while the lead plane did a flat turn. Lorne’s heart rate kicked up as he prepared for the final sequence. The hand he’d relaxed around the stick tightened unconsciously when the jet beside him dropped its right wing, presenting Evan with an in your face view of the undercarriage. It loomed beside him, bigger and scarier than he'd imagined it would be. His instincts said pull away, create distance ... it was a natural urge he had to fight hard to resist. Keeping with the lead plane was actually easier the closer you stuck ... it was harder to follow the line if you dropped too far back.
“Okay, take us back to base,” Baker said when they were done with the turn.
“Yes Sir,” Lorne replied, gratefully bringing the plane around and taking a heading that would have them there within minutes.
Usually the flights were too short ... he was never ready to land, always wishing for just a few moments more. Today was different ... Evan wanted to land it and tick all the boxes he needed to – desperate for some alone time so he could process the days experience and then put it away. He was counting on the first one being the hardest, on it getting easier the more formation flying he did in the Hornet.
“Well done Evan,” Baker said once they were back on the ground and walking away from the aircraft.
“Really Sir?” Lorne was surprised. He’d been sure what he’d been thinking and feeling had translated somehow into his performance in the air.
“Yes,” Baker grinned. “Let’s debrief now – you can tell me how you think it went.”
Nodding, Evan followed his instructor into one of the lecture rooms, watching quietly as the other man loaded the HUD recording and began the playback.
Seeing his performance, hearing himself calmly responding and reporting his actions was strangely reassuring. He sounded in control. That was good, right?
The tape came to an end and Baker switched off the overhead before coming to prop himself up on the table in front of Evan. “Overall that was a superior performance Evan,” he said simply. “Your prior flight experience came through out there – it was a lot smoother than the average rookie.”
Superior was the top grade a trainee pilot could get ... it meant you’d had a perfect run. Evan had expended so much energy worrying about not revealing his ‘issues’ with formation flying that he hadn’t allowed himself to consider how it would feel to actually do well.
“Superior?” he repeated stupidly.
“It didn’t seem that way to you?” Baker asked interestedly.
“Not really Sir,” Evan admitted. “I’ve done a little formation flying before but ... well I guess it won’t surprise you to learn that I never really enjoyed it.” He grinned for the first time that day. “I didn’t think today was a disaster but I was too focussed on not fucking it up to notice how well it was going.”
“Well, there’s hope for you yet,” Baker said in amusement. “We might just have you enjoying it before we’re done with you.”
“I hope so Sir,” Evan let more emotion that he’d intended show with that statement. Clearing his throat awkwardly, he continued. “I don’t suppose I can ask you to keep this one just on the records Sir?” he asked hopefully.
“Worried about being in the limelight again?” Evan almost groaned at the amused expression on his instructors face.
“Not exactly,” he tried to explain. “Maybe its more the unfair advantage ... I’m not exactly a ‘rookie’ in the true sense of the word, am I Sir?”
“Having flown the hell out of an F-16 does give you an edge,” Baker agreed thoughtfully. “Fine – this time I’ll put the results in your record and leave it at that. Next time though, assuming you continue with the superior flying, it'll have to be a public one.” The Major made eye contact with Evan as he continued. “You’re working just as hard as the other rookies Lorne – maybe not in the same areas – and not in ways any of them would be aware of. Don’t down play that.”
“No Sir,” Evan said awkwardly, resisting the urge to squirm in his seat.
“Okay – we’re done here,” Baker said. “Go – just don’t hide for too long.”
“Thank you Sir,” Lorne got up quickly and strode from the room, trying not to worry about the fact that Major Baker was beginning to know him too well. Man, he really needed to get a look at what was written in his file.
“We missed you last night,” Drew told Lorne at breakfast the next day.
“Yeah – sorry,” Evan replied unapologetically. “Had some stuff to work on. Sleep to catch up on.”
“But your flight went okay, right?” Drew persisted.
“It was fine,” Lorne returned. “What about you – how’d it go?”
“Mine was fine too,” Drew’s expression didn’t match his tone. Evan frowned, looking at the rest of his class, taking real notice for the first time that morning. The air of doom hung almost visibly over them and Lorne’s stomach dropped.
“What happened?” he asked seriously, seeing that he’d missed something big while he’d been off smoothing out his emotional edges. Looking around again he realised that one of their number was missing. “Where’s Paul?”
“In with the review board,” John explained. “None of us know the full story ... just that something didn’t go well yesterday.”
“Bad enough for them to take it up official channels,” Marcus added.
“Shit,” Lorne muttered. That didn’t sound good ... things only went to the flight review board when disciplinary action was being considered. “He didn’t say anything last night?”
“He went missing too,” Drew’s tone wasn’t accusatory but still Evan felt a little guilty.
“If I’d known something had gone down I would have forgone the extra sleep,” he said.
“Not much you could have done,” John pointed out.
Everyone fell silent, the mood at the table glum. No one wanted to think about it but the fact was that most courses had pilots dropping out for whatever reason. Usually it was because they couldn’t master one of the basic elements every fighter pilot had to conquer but every now and then a pilot would be failed from the course for making serious mistakes.
Paul rejoined the group later in the morning, not saying much even when John questioned him. They fell back into their routine but something felt off ... they were all waiting for the other shoe to drop and two days later it did.
It wasn’t Paul who told them ... by the time Lorne and the others found out he was already halfway to Vancouver. It was breakfast again when Major Baker joined them.
“I need to let you guys know that the review board revoked Captain Merlin’s flight status,” he said, his tone grimmer than any of them had seen previously. “He’s been failed from the training program ... all of you will need to report to training room 6 for a complete debrief of the situation. 0900 hours.”
“Yes Sir,” Evan echoed his class mates, exchanging glances with Drew as they watched the Major walk away.
“Paul didn’t say anything to any of you?” John asked.
“No – nothing,” Drew spoke first, Lorne nodding his agreement.
“I asked him specifically if he was okay,” Evan added. “He told me not to worry about it. Couldn’t get any details out of him.”
“Sounds like that’s about to change,” Cade muttered weakly.
“Yes,” John agreed. “Come on guys – let’s go get this done.”
Half an hour later Lorne sat in one of the front row seats in the training room next to Drew, listening to Captain Reed – Paul’s instructor – discussing the flight as they watched the HUD recording.
“Captain Merlin deliberately skipped a number of key safety checks pe-flight,” Reed explained. “Any one of them could have resulted in a fatal failure of the planes systems. He then compounded that problem by powering to 83% on taxiway Delta.”
Evan winced - that was well beyond the accepted power levels for taxi speeds. What could Paul have been thinking?!
“When questioned, Captain Merlin advised that he’d skipped some of the pre-flight checks in order to cut down on the time taken to be ready for takeoff,” Reed continued. “He sped on the taxiway for the same reason. The mission was completed successfully but deliberate decisions to circumvent safety protocols can’t be condoned.”
“The review board looked not only at this mission but at Captain Merlin’s record during the program,” Major Baker spoke next. “He’s been red ticked for rushing more than once in the past ... it’s a pattern of behaviour we can’t enable. These are mistakes than could result in the loss of lives, not only Captain Merlin’s but his instructor's as well. For this reason the board decided to cease Merlin’s training.”
Evan frowned ... Paul had never admitted to being red ticked, even during the weekly officers meeting. Lorne had known he’d been told more than once about not rushing but that was it. Being red ticked was serious – it meant your instructors comments regarding whatever mistake you’d made were written into your permanent record in glaring red ink. The instructors called it a red tick but the pilots called it blood on the page. That said it all really – too much blood and you were out.
“He just left?” Cade in particular seemed visibly upset by the news.
“Captain Merlin was given the opportunity to stay at Cold Lake,” Baker revealed. “With the slight chance of being accepted back into the program at a later date.”
Lorne’s eyebrow rose – that wasn’t something he’d expected to hear.
“He declined,” Baker said simply. “That as well as the chance to make his farewells. He was rightly concerned that this set back would affect his classmates. You all need to learn the lesson this example provides you with and then move on. Captain Merlin was quite adamant that nothing affect the success of anyone in this room.”
There were a few more questions before the class was dismissed with the reiteration that they must all refocus on their training. Evan’s thoughts did dwell on Paul for a time but the beginning of formation flying was accompanied by an even heavier workload. They were all handed 100+ pages of formation flying regulations with the instruction to learn them all for a test the following day.
By the time they were done with that and the next stack of material took its place, the emotional edge over what had happened to Paul had diminished. None of the class would forget the guy who’d executed cheap magic tricks at the breakfast table almost without thinking while telling them about his lastest conquest. They’d lived in each other’s pockets for three months and that wasn’t a bond that just disappeared. But they had to go on. If it had happened earlier in the course they would have gotten a replacement ... instead they were down to six men with two thirds of the course still to go.
“Captain!” Evan looked up from the flight plan he was about to lodge to see Captain Riley walking towards him.
“Crap,” he muttered, looking for a plausible get away and not finding it. Since his actions the night of their first F-18 flight he’d studiously avoided Steph Riley, knowing full well that she knew he was avoiding her but doing it just the same.
“Captain,” he greeted her congenially.
“Not running away today?” Steph went straight into attack mode.
“Ah ...,” Evan glanced around, noting the lack of audience, and sighed. “Listen – I should have apologised for my behaviour ages ago. You put me on the spot but that’s no excuse.”
“I’m not looking for an apology Evan,” Steph smiled, looking a lot friendlier as she relaxed a little.
“You’re not?” Evan frowned in confusion.
“No,” Steph almost rolled her eyes in exasperation. “I know you rookies don’t get a lot of time off but I was thinking maybe next time you do ... sometime soon ... we could have a drink.”
“Together?” Evan hated to look like an imbecile but the whole conversation was so not what he’d expected that he was floundering on unfamiliar ground.
“Yes together,” Steph insisted, the unspoken “what are you, an idiot?” still pretty obvious.
“Just so we’re clear here,” Evan persisted, “you’re asking me out ... on a date?”
“So it seems,” blue eyes sparkling, Steph laughed. “Kind of feels like pulling teeth though so I can’t be sure.”
“Funny,” Evan said with a straight face. His mind raced as he considered the situation he’d unwittingly landed himself in. Steph Riley was ... Cade’s description came back to him loudly ... hot. She was hot ... maybe a couple of inches shorter than his own 5 ft 9, athletic but feminine, with dark hair that really made her blue eyes stand out vividly. Realising suddenly that he was staring, Evan looked away, flushing slightly. “I’m not sure that’s such a good idea,” he said quickly.
“It’s a drink Evan, not a marriage proposal,” Steph didn’t give up easily. “Live a little.”
“Ah ...,” Evan hesitated. He wasn’t usually inept with women but he didn’t usually consider fellow officers as fair game either. Getting seriously involved with someone wasn’t on his agenda ... didn’t mean he hadn’t enjoyed female company from time to time but the situation was always fully understood by both parties. He was a healthy, red blooded male, not a monk, but he also wasn't given to casual encounters either. It was a difficult line to walk – not one he’d ever considered walking with someone he could run into at work the next morning. Still, one drink couldn’t hurt, right?
“Okay – one drink - soon,” Lorne finally decided.
“Friday night,” Steph grinned. “1900 hours – don’t be late.”
“No Ma’am,” Evan replied, watching with a faint smirk as she turned and strode away again, pausing at the door to glance back at him with a wave before she disappeared outside.
“Shit,” he muttered, shaking his head. “Bad idea Evan – bad idea.”
“What are you muttering to yourself about?” Drew appeared at Evan’s shoulder suddenly.
“Don’t do that!” Lorne shot him an exasperated look, his heart racing.
“Sorry,” Drew was unrepentant. “What’s a bad idea?”
“Drinks with Captain Riley,” Lorne admitted awkwardly.
“You’ve got a date with Steph Riley?” Drew asked incredulously.
“Hey, don’t act so surprised,” Evan protested.
“I’m not surprised at her,” Drew chuckled. “I just never thought you’d get distracted by a woman.”
“I’m not distracted,” Evan insisted. “She put me on the spot and I couldn’t say no – not after that stunt I pulled.”
“Sure,” Drew laughed outright. “You’re just being a gentleman here ... no interest in her ‘package’ at all, right?!”
“Get your mind out of the gutter,” Evan retorted. “Not all of us have your approach to the opposite sex ... Easy.”
“Well – don’t be too nice or you’ll end up married with six kids,” Drew didn’t take offence.
“Whatever,” Lorne didn’t bother saying goodbye – leaving his friend standing in the corridor he headed for the desk to post his flight plan.
From close quarters they moved into long range formations ... from two planes in the air at one time to four. Patterns were still controlled by the lead plane and then mirrored by the second pair. It might not sound that difficult until you factored in formation flying under true combat conditions where everyone had to maintain radio silence. They flew close enough to be seen, but far enough away to make it a challenge at times.
How did four planes communicate without the pilots being able to speak? Keeping visual was crucial ... the winger had to spot the lead, wait for the appropriate cue, and the follow. Something as simple as changing direction was a carefully orchestrated sequence of movements. The lead turned first, towards his winger. The winger would see the turn, waiting until the other guys nose was pointing at him to start his own turn. The lead would cross under the winger, the rear pair doing exactly the same thing until they all ended up back in the basic square configuration again.
Evan didn’t have a problem with long rang formations; he’d been up a few times since the first close formation flight and relaxed just as he’d hoped. Long range didn’t carry the same emotional punch for him either ... he carried out his first mission without incident, eager to get out there and do it again.
The rest of his class were similarly successful, with only one incident making it to the next officers review. Cade had lost visual on his lead ... that wasn’t the mistake though. The mistake had been in failing to let his lead know that he was flying blind – that the lead was vulnerable to attack. It had only been a matter of a few seconds but in combat that was enough to see the end of both planes.
Cade took the red tick as his due and they all learned a valuable lesson. Major Collins reinforced it by telling them none of them would be able to maintain visual 100% of the time ... communication was the key.
The topic fit in well with the theoretical material they were studying on CRM – cockpit resource management. It was widely understood that the primary cause of most aviation accidents was human error. Failures of interpersonal communication, leadership and decision making in the cockpit. Along with reams of notes on the subject they had to read about and watch footage of prior incidents ... specific to the F-18 so they could understand it at the personal level. It was real and the consequences were also real.
And then it was Friday night and Lorne was regretting his momentary lapse of weakness even as he made his way to the recreation rooms for that drink with Captain Riley.
“Evan,” she greeted him with a teasing smile. “I thought for sure you’d come up with some excuse not to turn up.”
“Really?” he didn’t admit that he’d been very tempted to do just that. Sitting across from her, he glanced around the room, noting the glances they were getting. “I don’t know whether to be amused or insulted by that.”
“You were pretty obviously reluctant,” Steph said more seriously. “You don’t have to stay you know ... I’d understand.”
“We’re here now,” Evan said lightly. “Might as well make generating the new rumours I can see forming right now worthwhile. What can I get you?”
“Just a beer,” Steph replied.
Nodding, Evan rose and gave their order, bringing two beers back to the table and sitting again.
“You like it here - in Cold Lake?” Steph began with the basic small talk.
“Sure, especially now it’s a little warmer,” Evan replied. “Feels more like California.”
“That’s where you were before?” Evan nodded. “They don’t have F-18 training programs in the states?”
“They do,” Lorne shrugged. “This is the one I got invited to ... it’s not like you can say no hoping you’ll get another one down the track.”
“I guess not,” Steph smiled.
She had a way about her that had Evan relaxing as they talked about the base, her joint role assisting the course director as well as managing the ongoing training needs of those assigned permanently to the base providing a point of discussion that had Evan learning a lot about how the base operated.
Steph had been around the base for a couple of years and had plenty of stories to tell too ... they were laughing about one involving the maintenance crew’s creative way of bagging a pilot with a knack for causing them considerable work when Evan realised how late it was.
“Man, I have to get back,” he said reluctantly.
“Me too,” Steph agreed, standing and holding out a hand to him.
He let her pull him up ... they’d had more than just that one drink but neither of them was anywhere near drunk. “Walk me to my room,” she said firmly, keeping his hand and urging him to move with her.
“O-kay,” Evan replied, amused at her take charge approach.
They walked in silence across the base to the housing section, Steph stopping when they arrived at her door.
“This is me,” she said unnecessarily, turning to look up at him. “Thanks for the drink Evan ... and the company.”
“You’re welcome,” he smiled as he added “it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.”
“Very funny,” she smacked his arm lightly, laughing when he gave an exaggerated grunt of pain in return. “You’re an ass,” she told him teasingly.
“But you like me anyway,” Evan teased back.
“I do,” Steph replied, suddenly serious. Before he could step back, she’d put a hand to either side of his face and urged him down to receive her kiss.
He could have resisted.
But he didn’t.
Instead he kissed her back ... and when the first one ended he initiated the next one, this time backing her up against her own door and pressing his body into hers.
Her response was immediate and clear – she gave as good as she got, making her position on where it seemed they were heading very clear.
“Evan,” she moaned, wrapping her arms around him and holding on tight. “More.”
“Yes Ma’am,” he whispered, intent on following that command to the best of his ability. A small part of his brain was trying to alert him to all the reasons he’d been reluctant to go down this kind of road with a fellow officer but the way Steph was running her hands up his back ... under his shirt ... completely drowned that out.
Fumbling their way inside they continued to kiss, the room illuminated only by the moonlight reflecting through the uncurtained window.
Evan did have a moment of chivalry when she broke away, breathlessly inviting him to stay before pulling him back in again.
“Steph,” he grabbed her hands and held them tightly as he urged her to look at him. “This can’t -,”
She pulled a hand free and pressed it to his lips, stopping him from finishing. “No strings,” she said firmly. “I’m no more interested in settling down than you are. That doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy this,” she said openly. “It doesn’t always have to mean everything, does it?”
“No,” Evan agreed. Taking her hand again he raised them both to his lips and kissed them. “No it doesn’t ... as long as you’re sure. We can’t take it back in the morning.”
“I won’t want to,” Steph said firmly. “I’m sure ... so stop talking and kiss me already.”
“You’re so bossy,” he said in a low tone, kissing the protest from her lips before she could fully voice it.
“You wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t,” she broke the kiss to remind him.
“Good point,” Evan replied. Informed decision made, he let himself be drawn into the familiar ritual that was at the same time unfamiliar with a new partner. Aware of how much the intimate act would reveal about him, he took command, controlling even as he let the passion have free reign.
Evan didn’t see the world as black and white ... it was shades of colours that sometimes complimented and sometimes clashed. The military was a classic example ... men flying planes in the name of peace - except those planes were loaded down with weapons that could deliver massive destruction without the pilot ever looking into the faces of the victims. To live in that world you had to understand that everything was a balance ... a choice between positive and negative depending on the given day. The brand of sex he was engaging in was the same ... the most intimate of acts undertaken with someone he really didn’t know that well ... the intimacy of strangers. Did that make him a hypocrite? Was the answer different because his partner didn’t want the greater intimacy implied any more than he did?
Back in his own room in the early hours of morning, lying awake staring at his ceiling, Evan was no closer to an answer than he’d ever been. The only thing he was sure of was that anything more serious wasn’t for him. He’d seen his Mom devastated ... broken ... lost without his Dad. He’d been the innocent bystander, he and his sister, caught up in the aftermath of the negative side of real relationships conducted in real life. Feelings like that had consequences he wasn’t willing to participate in.
Rolling over, Evan buried his head in his pillow, determined to get some sleep. Like every day at 410 squadron, the next would be a busy one. He needed to have his wits about him to stay in the game.
I have the basic training plane (for pilots wanting to fly jets) for the Canadian Air force being the CT15 Hawk - it’s the plane listed now but I couldn’t confirm how long that’s been the case. I’ve embellished a fair bit in this chapter, adding things like the CRM from research independent of Jetstream. Still, most of the good stuff, including the fact that students have failed for the reasons Paul Merlin was failed for – one of the students in the show almost met that end himself and was just lucky something else happened to save him from that – came from the show. I used wikipedia for anything else that doesn't sound like it could have come from Jetsteam. It probably doesn't need to be said but I'll say it anyway - there is no kissing in Jetstream.
Chapter 4: Darkness calls
The jet engines roared loudly in the distance ... he could feel the vibrations all the way down to his core. Looking eagerly up at the sky, he bounced on his toes in excitement, desperate to be the first to spot their approach.
“Where is he?” he thought impatiently. In his young life even a few minutes seemed too long to wait for something as exciting as this.
“Honey,” his Mother’s tone was full of love, amusement and pride. “Don’t look away now ... he’ll be here before - ,” she broke off abruptly and he knew immediately.
Something was wrong.
“Mom,” his voice was a whisper only he heard as she grabbed his hand absently, her attention focused skywards.
The planes came in ... out of formation and one of them flying low ... too low ... smoke trailing the right wing.
“Pull up,” his words were echoed by his mother’s voice, her grip on his hand tightening painfully. “Oh please God, please ...,” she said tearfully.
The plane continued its deadly course, the pilot clearly unable to answer their prayers.
“Eject,” he mouthed the word without sound, and then again, loudly “Eject!” Pulling away from his mother’s hand he began running. Faster and faster, crying now as he saw the plane disappear behind the tree line. “EJECT!” He yelled it, still running.
The boom shook the ground.
He heard his Mother screaming out in pain and despair ... the sound of agony he’d never forget ...
Roaring fire engulfing the sky ... engulfing him ... consuming everything that made them who they were ...
Evan Lorne shot up in bed abruptly, panting harshly, covered in sweat.
“God,” he dropped his head into his hands, trembling in the aftermath of a dream he hadn’t had for many years now.
It wasn’t even an accurate dream ... he wouldn’t have known which plane was his fathers and he certainly wouldn’t have been close enough to feel the heat of the fire.
But that wasn’t the biggest inaccuracy ... in reality he and his mother hadn’t been there the day his father had been killed. They’d been at home none the wiser, going about their daily life as though everything were all right ... unaware of the fate that had already been dealt to them. A part of Evan always regretted that ... that his father had died in front of thousands of strangers while his family – the people who knew him and loved him, the ones most affected by it – were at home not knowing they should start mourning him. Perhaps that was why his subconscious always insisted on placing him firmly within the nightmare ... a witness to an event he could never escape ... in dreams at least. In real life he’d managed to accept that history was what it was, that things couldn’t be changed.
That not everything was within his control.
Glancing over at his bedside clock Lorne groaned at the time illuminated there ... 03:27. It was early but there was no way he was getting any more sleep that night. He never did after one of those dreams.
Hauling himself out of bed he pulled on some track pants, a shirt, and running shoes and quietly left his quarters.
Running hadn’t helped in his dream and it didn’t help now ... but it gave him something to do and at the end of the day that was about all he could expect.
Four months into fighter pilot training and the rookies had gotten used to the way the stakes continually changed, escalating as each new element was added.
This time it was the tactical phase – turning jet pilots into jet fighters. Making use of radar, weapons and a tactical mindset to demonstrate they could be what a fighter pilot was supposed to be.
Did they have what it took to answer the call to arms that happened every time an intruder snuck into Canadian airspace? Because, be they smugglers up to no good, an airliner that’d innocently drifted off course, or worse, the F-18’s would be the ones sent up to investigate. And they’d do it by going from a standing start to full fuel, weapons armed, and in the air inside of five minutes.
They were called scrambles and they happened regularly. It was a job every fighter pilot was trained to do because ultimately the primary task of Cold Lake was to watch the country’s back – to defend Canada and her airspace. Guys who’d been around for years had scrambled hundreds of times to intercept suspicious aircraft ... the rookies who made it to the end of their training would be doing the same, some of them answering alerts in only a matter of months. They had to understand what was required.
Evan and his classmates listened attentively as Major Collins explained their first tactical mission.
An instrument only intercept.
Using their radar alone to intercept a bandit from head on, turning and falling behind to 1000 feet without being spotted, and then flashing their opponent with the plane’s identification light.
Catching up with a bandit wasn’t just about speed ... if it was the F-18 would win every time. The Hornet was powerful enough to be up to whatever its pilot required of it. The big challenge was learning to direct all that power so that you arrived at the right place at the right time. For that you needed radar ... on the ground and in the cockpit.
“This is more like it,” Neil commented excitedly as the rookies walked from the training room after the session. “Getting up there and fighting it out with the enemy. Like the Red Barron.”
“It’s not a game Sunshine,” John said sternly. “Some of these guys have intercepted public airliners straying into Canadian airspace ... if they’d been ordered to they would have had to fire on civilians.”
“You’re right,” Neil’s shoulders visibly slumped as he took the implied criticism. “I didn’t mean ...,” he trailed off awkwardly.
“I know,” John slapped Neil’s shoulder lightly. “You just have to watch what you say Neil ... show a little respect for history.”
Neil nodded, his expression thoughtful.
Evan listened to the two men talking, not feeling the need to add his two cents worth. He always felt a little uncomfortable when talk of specific engagements began. To him things like Bosnia were held up as examples for what could happen – they made the decision to apply military force sound simple when it was anything but. Made it impersonal when at the heart it was about individuals and what they’d suffered, endured, or been asked to do.
They had plenty of time to appreciate history as airborne tactics were presented and discussed in the days leading up to their first intercept flight. They also learned everything they ever wanted to know about radar and then some.
The first thing being that radar wasn’t as simple as a layman might expect ... the green blipping light flashing a warning that an enemy was approaching was a stalwart of every submarine movie Evan had ever watched. In reality there were numerous methods for sending out a radar signal and receiving it back, as evidenced by the inches thick book that talked about them.
Of course they didn’t need to know about all of them ... they just had to understand the concepts and the specific systems used by the F-18’s. The AN/APG 73 Hughes I band pulse-Doppler radar system designed for both air-to-air and air-to-surface missions. It incorporated search, track, and track-while-scan modes for complete look-down shoot-down capability as well as Doppler beam sharpened sector and patch mapping, medium range synthetic aperture radar, fixed and moving ground target track and sea surface search capability. And that was just the overview ... the detail was impressive and complex and had to be understood before they could effectively employ the systems in live flight.
But hey, what was another hundred or so pages of information to absorb after the thousands they’d already covered?!
Although Lorne had gone up with each of the instructors a number of times, when it was time for one of those ‘firsts’ it always ended up being Major Baker who accompanied him. His first attempt at intercepting was no different.
“He’s away,” Major Baker adviced as Lorne taxied down the runway. For intercept flights trainee and instructor took off after the bandit – one of the other instructors flying solo – was already in the air.
“Clear for takeoff,” Lorne announced, pulling forward on the stick. “Here we go with the cans,” he added, firing the burners.
They took off, heading in the same direction as their bandit – today it was Captain Reed, their safety officer, call sign Bean.
When it came to finding a target, it was a big sky but luckily Lorne had his own wingman of sorts. Radar control back at the base, watching every pilot’s back, deciphering the various bleeps and blips so that they could deliver the pilot to the right patch of sky.
From there it would be up to Evan and his F-18 radar to do the rest. It wasn’t just scanning for a needle in a haystack ... like with formation flying there was a formula and Lorne was good at executing those. It was all about trusting them and trusting yourself ... well, that and being able to run formulas in your head really fast.
“We are 40 miles out,” Lorne confirmed communications from radar control.
Out that far away from the target there wasn’t a lot to see ... just a sea of clouds and the sun blaring down from a monotonous blue sky. It all looked pretty much the same no matter what direction you were looking in. An experienced pilot might spot a bandit under those conditions but a rookie wouldn’t stand a chance.
“Alpha five one setup number 1 ... tape’s on, fight’s on,” Captain Reed announced over the comms that Lorne’s first intercept attempt was a go.
“Five two fight’s on,” Evan confirmed.
He scanned the sky, craning his head to increase his range of sight ... and saw nothing.
Not that it mattered since the day’s assignment was to use his radar to intercept the bandit.
“Fight for your benchmarks,” Baker encouraged from the backseat, echoing Lorne’s thoughts.
Running his own calculations and relying on them ... that’s all he had to do.
Piece of cake, right?
At 40 miles out Evan had the F-18 eight miles left of the target ... benchmark one – check. At 10 miles out he started his turn towards the target that was still approaching him ... benchmark two – check. At 3 miles out his nose was pointing dead ahead at the bandit ... benchmark three – check.
The flight path and speed established then allowed for him to sweep around behind Captain Reed’s aircraft and creep up on his tail ... and benchmark four – check.
Lorne executed the manoeuvre perfectly, dropping behind the other F-18 at a distance of 1000 feet. Flashing his identification light to signal the successful intercept, Evan couldn’t help the grin that swamped him.
“Great job,” Major Baker called out, sounding almost gleeful from his instructor’s chair.
“Thank you Sir,” Lorne replied, trying for an even and business like tone.
“Let’s see if that was just a fluke,” Baker said. “Alpha five two, go again.”
“Five one, resetting,” Reed confirmed. A few moments later he spoke again. “Alpha five one setup number 2 ... tape’s on, fight’s on”
“Five two fight’s on,” Evan confirmed again.
As before he chased his benchmarks, hitting each precisely. The idea was that the bandit would continue on its flight line, unaware that you were stalking it from the other direction. A good intercept would have you on its tail with weapon’s locked before it knew you were there. A bad intercept was like sending out a gold engraved invitation for a party at your location.
“Where’s the bandit?” he thought, wondering for a moment if he’d messed up one of his calculations as he dropped to what he’d thought was 1000 feet behind the target. That was the real challenge ... you were travelling 25 miles every 2.5 minutes closing on the target at a rate of 2000 feet per second. Calculating lateral separation involved using the target aspect and multiplying it by the distance. If you were out by as little as 5 degrees you’d miss the target by 3 miles ... outside visibility range.
“Ah, there you are,” he said under his breath, sighting his target in the blinding sunlight. Flashing his identification light as before he grinned when Reed acknowledged the intercept.
“Excellent work Lorne,” Baker complimented him. “That's it for today ... take us back to base.”
“Yes Sir,” Lorne dropped his left wing, sweeping the plane down in a long angled u-turn. “That was pretty cool,” he said once they were heading in the right direction.
“Nice work Lorne,” Reed’s voice over the comm interrupted them before Major Baker could reply. Looking to his right, Evan saw the other F-18 pilot drop his craft in to fly side by side.
“Thanks,” Evan said, doing a visual with the universal thumbs up to the other pilot.
“We ever had a rookie make both intercepts first time out?” Reed asked Baker.
“I’d have to check the records but I think not,” Baker replied. “At least not in my time on base.”
“But I’m not a real rookie,” Lorne felt compelled to remind both instructors. “Done lots of flying in the Falcon similar enough to be a real advantage.”
“The boy’s modest,” Baker said to Reed. “Probably blushing right now in fact.”
Reed laughed. “You might fly like an Ace Lorne but you really have to work on that fighter pilot bravado if you want to fit in with your new squadron once you’re done being a rookie.”
“I’ll work on it,” Evan grinned, the implicit assumption from both his instructors that of course he’d pass the F-18 fighter training course just the kind of boost that bravado needed.
“We’ll help you with that back on base,” Baker added.
Lorne barely refrained from groaning audibly. “I’m sure that’s not really necessary Sir,” he tried in a hopeful voice.
“Ah but it is fun,” Baker replied with a chuckle. “Suck it up Love ... and take the kudos where you can get it because sure as hell the first time you stuff up I’m gonna be up there making an example of you.”
“Yes Sir,” Evan said reluctantly.
Jet landed and squared away, Lorne followed his instructors across the tarmac back to flight departures and arrivals – the place where pilots converged while they got ready and waited for jets to be cleared for use. The place they returned to get rid of their gear and give first reactions while they waited for their flight data to be downloaded for assessment.
“Two for two from the rookie,” Baker announced loudly as they walked into the office. Most of Lorne’s team wasn’t present but Cade and Marcus were both there, gearing up for their first intercept flights.
“No way!” Cade grinned, holding out a palm for a high five. Lorne shrugged uncomfortably, before slapping Cade’s palm, his own smile feeling a little weak.
“All the flying I did for Dryden FRC really helped,” he downplayed his success. “It’s not exactly cheating but I’m not taking credit for a first time home run here.”
“Well congratulations anyway buddy,” Marcus stepped forward and slapped Lorne across the shoulder blades, grinning as Evan staggered forward a pace before straightening.
“Thanks guys,” Evan returned. It was one of the things about fighter school that he wished he could talk up more. That had been genuine delight and pride on the faces of both his class mates. They were stoked that Evan had made both intercepts first time ... his success reflected on their whole class and each of them felt the glow of that. There was no competition between the rookies ... they weren’t competing against each other for a place on a squadron – they were competing against themselves. Any success, their own or reflected from their classmates, helped them all to feel confident.
The rest of the class completed their intercepts with varying degrees of success. Cade, Drew and John made one successful intercept, Marcus and Neil came close but came in too fast on their second attempts and were made before they could get into position behind their bandits.
“You’re the fighter, you control the intercept,” Major Baker said during their combined debrief.
The learning curve at 410 squadron was steep ... under that kind of pressure everybody made mistakes and that was fine. As long as they didn’t make the same mistakes next time ... because if they did it could very well spell the end of their time with the Cougars.
“I hear you nailed your intercepts today,” Evan looked up to see Steph Riley grinning down at him. Since their first ‘date’ the two had managed another two dates, falling easily into a casual relationship that suited each of them.
Steph had made herself available as great company when Evan needed a break but didn’t take offence when he couldn’t make time for her. And it wasn’t just an act – she understood that his training and study came first. He’d come a long way to be where he was and Steph knew that nothing would be allowed to get in his way. If she wanted to spend time with Evan, enjoy a level of intimacy with him, then she had to accept that.
And she did ... although a part of her had begun to wonder whether settling down was really as bad as she’d always believed.
“News travels fast,” Evan said wryly, waving a hand at the seat across from him in an invitation for her to join him. He’d brought some reading down to the recreation room with the intention of grabbing something to eat and studying too. He could afford to put the work aside for an hour or so.
“It does when a rookie breaks all the records like you’ve been doing,” Steph replied.
“Damn,” Evan muttered, “that’s just ... wrong.”
“Why is it wrong?” Steph frowned. “Everybody thinks it’s great.”
“Yeah, except that I’m not exactly a rookie,” Evan shot back impatiently. “Doesn’t anyone here know anything about F-16s? Flying one of those, even an experimental one, isn’t like dusting crops. I’ve got a shit load of very similar experience to draw on that none of the other rookies have.”
“So what you’re saying is that it’s not fair to count your performances against the records?” Steph asked to clarify her understanding.
“Exactly!” Evan sat back in his chair, nodding his agreement.
“Clearly you don’t see it the way the others do,” Steph said almost gently. “They’re all beyond thrilled to be a part of this particular class because your class number will go up on the record wall ... their class number will be up on that wall. The success of one of you is a success for all of you.”
“I know that,” Lorne returned, running a hand through his hair. “I just wish it was all prefaced with a reminder that ‘Captain Evan Lorne has flown a Falcon' ... what I’m doing isn’t that impressive. What the rest of them are doing is.”
“This is why we chose you to be our Rookie Most Wanted,” Steph looked across at him fondly. “You’re just so ...nice!” She grinned when Evan groaned in dismay.
“Don’t do that,” he pleaded. “I thought I’d almost lived that one down.”
“When you leave the country for good, then you can live it down,” Steph replied. “Well ...not live it down as such, but you won’t have to hear about it anymore.”
“Yeah ... funny,” Evan mock glared at her.
“You wanna come back to my place later?” Steph made the invitation casually.
Evan looked down at his books before returning his gaze to her. “I’m sorry Steph ... I really have to finish reading those tonight, otherwise ...,” he trailed off, feeling awkward and unsure of what to say. It was situations like this that had him thinking he really shouldn’t have started something he wasn’t sure he wanted to continue. Well, of course he wanted to continue – their first night together had been pretty hot – he just wasn’t really up to the extra effort required to maintain even the casual relationship he now found himself a part of.
“It’s okay Evan,” Steph said with an easy smile. “No strings, remember ... and certainly no apologies required.”
“I’ll take a raincheck?” Evan offered questioningly.
“Done,” Steph agreed, getting to her feet. “I’ll leave you to your work then ... I’d hate to delay the date of that raincheck.”
“Thanks,” Evan grabbed her hand as she passed him, pressing a quick kiss to the back before letting her go. He watched her for a few moments before returning his attention to his books, missing Steph looking back from the door and visibly deflating when she saw that he’d already forgotten her.
He was born to fly in the inky blackness.
There was no other explanation for the ease with which Lorne undertook and completed his second intercept mission, this one conducted at night. Cold Lake was a flat plain stretching out for miles in all directions ... there was nothing there except the base itself. When it got dark it got really dark ... and with the new moon night time was as black as it got.
It should have been hard ... and for all the other rookies it was.
With good reason.
Doing a mission in the darkness meant the absence of a visible horizon to orient yourself to. The only lights you had were the ones on your jet and they hardly cut the darkness at all. Worse than that, lights on the ground looked a hell of a lot like stars ... if Evan imagined what flying in space would be like, a night run in the Hornet had to be pretty close. Up and down still there but pretty much interchangeable as far as visual perception went ... surrounded by a blackness that was only broken by the presence of tiny pinpoints of lights that could have come from anything, any distance away.
It should have been disorienting ... before their first night run Major Baker himself talked about night flight disorientation. How it had claimed the lives of pilots throughout history. In the darkness it was easy for your brain to trick you as you struggled to make sense of your location in a world with few external pointers to help you out. It could make you think you were turning when you weren’t. It could make a runway seem longer or shorter than it really was. And if you fixated on a specific light coming in to land you could become confused into thinking the jet was moving in ways it wasn’t.
They were warned about the dangers and rightly all of them felt a little nervous on the nights they were scheduled for their first run in the dark. If that wasn’t bad enough they’d be taking off and landing in two ship formation. Lorne wasn’t sure if it was meant to be reassuring, but hearing Major Collins himself say he’d never gotten comfortable with that didn’t exactly inspire Evan’s confidence.
So, walking out to his assigned F-18 in the last minutes of dusk, Lorne wasn’t sure what to expect. Major Baker strode beside him, the two silent as they approached the aircraft. Evan did his checks inside of ten minutes, keeping their ‘bandit’ for the evening, Major Collins this time, waiting only five minutes instead of the usual ten.
“Sir, mind if I ask you something?” Evan asked as he waited to get clearance from flight control.
“Sure,” Baker replied.
“Is there a reason why it’s always you instructing the first time I do something new?” Lorne asked quickly. He’d wondered about it a few times before but wasn’t sure it was the kind of thing he should ask. In the end he’d decided if Baker didn’t want to explain he’d just tell Evan to mind his own business ... which would be fine.
“You’re a novelty around here,” Baker replied with a hint of amusement. “I’m guessing you’re not aware of the fact that you’re the first non Canadian to be invited to 410 squadron. Usually we assign the international pilots to other squads after they’ve done some F-18 training in their own countries. You’ve got an impressive record. I guess I’m just curious to see what you can do ... first up before you’ve transitioned your prior experience to the Hornet.”
“Oh,” Lorne wasn’t sure what to make of that. “Ah ... thank you Sir.”
“Any time,” Evan could hear the smirk in Baker’s voice.
“Alpha five one you are cleared for takeoff,” the confirmation from flight control came through before Lorne could say more.
Coordinating their efforts, Lorne and Collins took off in synchronised fashion, powering into the sky just as the sun’s last sliver of light disappeared along with the horizon.
Evan craned his head from side to side as they reached 20,000 feet.
It was dark ... really dark.
But he didn’t mind ... in fact, it was invigorating in a way Lorne hadn’t expected. He’d done night flying before but only a couple of times and nowhere as dark as Cold Lake.
“All right son?” Baker asked from the back seat.
“Yes Sir,” Evan returned promptly. Collins broke away to become the bandit while Lorne maintained their course.
“Alpha five one, bandit is 40 miles away at two o’clock,” radar control reported a few minutes later.
“Alpha five one, set up number 1 ... fight’s on, tape’s on,” Collins reported to confirm they were good to proceed.
It was all down to instruments. To a belief in your machine, your knowledge and what your senses were telling you.
The first two were no different than a day time intercept and Evan had already nailed those. The last was the challenge but strangely Evan didn’t find it so. It was nothing he could pin point ... no spot of light or hint of grey to break the darkness ... nothing that he recognised and aligned himself too. It was almost as if there was something inside him ... his own internal compass that had him knowing exactly where he was, even in the absence of anything to confirm it.
It wasn’t a challenge to work out which way was up ... he just knew.
“Ten miles away and beginning turn,” he reported, smoothly shifting the stick to change heading.
“Three miles away and we have bandit dead ahead,” he said moments later.
“We are on the bandit’s six, lateral separation 1000 feet,” Evan grinned as he flicked the identification lights on. They blared sharply in the darkness, alerting Collins that he’d been locked onto.
“Nice work,” Baker had been silent for the entire trip. Now his tone was almost thoughtful as he gave out the positive feedback.
“Alpha five two, go again?” Collins asked.
“I’m pretty confident our boy can repeat that performance,” Baker replied. “Let’s take it back to base and give everyone an early minute.”
Lorne changed heading, taking the F-18 back to Cold Lake. When Major Baker remained silent, Evan couldn’t take it.
“Is something wrong Sir?” he asked worriedly.
“No!” Baker shot back. “No – sorry Evan. That was a beyond superior performance. Couldn’t have done it smoother myself.”
“Thank you Sir,” Evan’s tone was still puzzled.
“You applied for NASA didn’t you?” Baker asked out of the blue.
“I did Sir,” Lorne replied. “Made the short list but ... well, the competition was pretty stiff.”
“I was just thinking it’s a shame you couldn’t have taken the people making that decision up for a night flight,” Baker surprised him by saying. “You’d be a natural in space ... if you ever got the chance to fly something up there.”
“Maybe next time Sir,” Lorne replied, making it clear he hadn’t given up on that dream yet.
“That’s the spirit,” Baker chuckled. “You know what the squadron’s motto is, don’t you?”
“Noctivaga,” Lorne replied.
“Know what it means?” Baker continued.
“Ah,” and suddenly Evan was grinning, “wandering by night, Sir".
“Kind of appropriate that you’re here, isn’t it?” Major Baker pointed out.
“I’m glad to be here Sir,” Lorne replied. He meant it too ... at that moment in time there was nowhere else he wanted to be than in an F-18 surrounded by the darkness. “Permission to run a few patterns Sir?” he asked hopefully. It was a tall order ... the risk of becoming disoriented heightened with deliberately challenging up and down.
“Knock yourself out,” Baker returned with audible confidence.
Evan tested that internal compass as he did a series of horizontal rolls, following that up with an inside loop and a three turn spin. Finishing up with an inverted straight flight that he transitioned into an inverted inside spin he righted the plane and continued on their original heading back to base.
“Was that all instruments?” Baker asked curiously.
“Ah ... some of it,” Evan admitted. “The rest was just ... I can’t explain it Sir. I just ... know where we are ... somehow.”
“That’s gonna make even a few of the veteran’s envious son,” Baker replied.
“Maybe it can be our secret then Sir?” Evan suggested hopefully.
Baker was silent for a moment. “Sure,” he said finally. “If that’s what you want.”
“It is,” Evan said simply. “Thank you Sir.”
“I’ll put a note on your file though,” Baker said. “Just in case one of those NASA types comes looking.”
“I’d appreciate that Sir,” Evan said with a smile.
The side by side landing with Major Collins went off without a hitch. Lorne followed the two instructors back to the flight centre, sure that he’d learned something valuable about himself that night.
Usually the rookies only hung around the flight centre if they were scheduled for a flight themselves. Night flights were being done one per night so the place was deserted. Lorne got out of his gear, sat through a flight debrief that was nothing more than a formality, and then retired for the night.
Drew’s night flight wasn’t for another two days ... Evan knew he was worried about it but couldn’t get him to articulate why. The best he could do was help the other man run through all the procedures, practice his lateral distance calculations and then wish him luck.
Lorne was in his room studying two hours or so after dusk when someone knocked rapidly on his door.
“Drew?” Evan frowned as the other mans obvious agitation. Urging him to come in, Evan closed the door and then turned to look at his friend. “You okay?”
“Apart from the fact that I’m probably about to get kicked out, I’m just great,” Drew replied grimly.
“What happened?” Lorne asked.
“What didn’t happen!” Drew shot back. Pacing in the space between bed and desk, he shook his head. “It was a disaster man ... an absolute disaster. I’m only here to tell you about it because Major Wilson took over control.”
“Damn,” Evan muttered. That was a rare event – an instructor taking control from the rookie. “Look, sit down and just tell me what happened. Maybe it’s not as bad as you’re thinking.”
“It is,” Drew insisted but he sat down on Evan’s desk chair, scrubbing a hand through his dark hair and leaving it a mess.
“Start at the beginning,” Lorne suggested, moving away from the door to sit on his bed.
Haltingly Drew told his story. Take off had gone fine but as soon as he’d been in the air surrounded by darkness he’d become uncomfortable. “I couldn’t tell which way was up,” he admitted. “It was so fucking dark and what little light I could pick up looked like stars to me. Everything looked the same.” He shrugged as he made eye contact with Evan. “I was up there with the course director in the back seat and I knew I was struggling but I didn’t want to admit it so I just kept going.”
“What happened next?” Evan kept his tone casual and non judgemental.
“I completely screwed up the intercept,” Drew admitted. “Collision course screwed up ... there was nothing there and then suddenly the other Hornet was looming up in front of us. I froze ... if Major Wilson hadn’t taken back control we wouldn’t be here talking about it.” Drew laughed harshly. “You should have been there during the debrief. I swear both of them looked pale ... Collins said it’s the closest he’s come to pulling the ejection lever in years. Watching them run the numbers was humiliating.”
Lorne nodded, knowing exactly what Drew meant. The flight tape was a record of absolutely everything ... how much left and right rudder, how much power ... hell, sometimes it seemed like it even measured how comfortable you were – how close to the edge you were feeling.
“It was all me,” Drew admitted. “Too much power on the turn in, completely screwed up the calcs, everything just drilling us to that point of almost impact.” He sighed. “I completely suck ...,”
Lorne sat silently ... mind turning over the possible things he could say to help Drew gain some perspective.
“Well, don’t you have some kind of comment?” Drew demanded.
“Everybody makes mistakes Drew,” Lorne pointed out seriously. “You -,”
“You don’t,” Drew shot back, interrupting him.
“Hey, I’ve made plenty of mistakes,” Evan returned impatiently. “You’ve got no idea how many ... I’m getting fucking tired of reminding everyone about that. And anyway, this isn’t about me, it’s about you!”
Drew sighed. “You’re right,” he said in a low tone, looking at the floor. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay,” Evan waited until Drew looked up again before continuing. “They’ll give you another chance,” he said.
“I know,” Drew said. “That’s what I’m worried about.”
“Look, it was your first time up there in the dark,” Lorne pointed out. “You didn’t know what to expect. Now you do. You’ll get it next time.”
“And if I don’t I’m out,” Drew concluded grimly.
They both knew it was true ... make a mistake once and you were made to sit through it and learn from it. Make it again and you’d hear those words no rookie wanted to hear ... that they were ceasing your training. Translation – goodbye and don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
“You can do this,” Lorne insisted. “You’re a great pilot Drew ... up till now you’ve had a clean run ... you wanna be impressed by something, be impressed by that!”
“And it’ll count for nothing if I can’t do this,” Drew pointed out.
“So you’ll do it!” Evan shot back. “Where’s that positive attitude? Because, mate, this isn’t you.”
“You’re right,” Drew groaned, running his hands through his hair again. “I built this whole thing up in my head, you know? No reason for it really.”
“Then we’ll just unbuild it,” Lorne replied purposefully. “When are you scheduled to go up again?”
“Monday night,” Drew replied. "Four days".
“Perfect,” Evan grinned suddenly. “That gives us the weekend to find someone who’ll lend us a plane for a night. And I know just the person to help us with that.”
“What are you planning?” Drew asked worriedly.
“Just leave it all up to me,” Evan returned, getting up from the bed. “Now get out of here – go get some rest and forget about this for now. We’ve got more theory sessions tomorrow and I don’t want you falling asleep at your desk.”
Drew grimaced but let himself be guided into action.
Lorne closed the door again and headed for the phone.
“Steph?” he spoke as soon as there was an answer on the other end. “I’ve got a favour to ask you.”
Saturday afternoon Drew and Evan sat in the backseat of Steph Riley’s 4 wheel drive, on their way to a local airfield. Steph had come through, calling in a favour of her own with someone she knew who worked there. She’d granted Evan’s favour but insisted on coming along.
“This is gonna be boring,” Evan tried again to convince her to just drop them off. “It’s not even gonna be dark for a few hours yet.”
“I’m looking forward to seeing you fly,” Steph said simply.
Drew chuckled and Evan shot him a quick glare that didn’t dissuade him. “Gotta see whether he really is that good with his hands?” he joked.
“Oh, I already know the answer to that one,” Steph winked at Evan in the rear view mirror when his eyes shot to hers.
“Hey!” he protested, desperately trying not to blush.
At the same time Drew burst into outright laughter. “That is way too much information,” he got out.
“See if I go easy on you now,” Evan muttered under his breath, struggling not to laugh himself. It was good seeing Drew relaxed and more his usual, easy going self, even if it had come at Evan’s own expense.
In short order they arrived at the airfield, typical of such places with a few hangars, a main office and a small collection of basic aircraft. The one they were being granted free use of was a Piper PA-28 Cherokee - all-metal, unpressurized, four-seat, single-engine piston-powered with low-mounted wings and tricycle landing gear.
“Uncle Jimmie,” Steph greeted the owner of the flight school with a familiar smile. He was one of those ‘weathered’ individuals ... of indeterminate age beyond an ‘above 50’ label, tall and lanky with the look of someone who spent a great deal of time outside squinting into the sun.
“Stephie,” Jimmie grinned as he pulled her into a fond hug before setting her back at arm’s length. “You look thin – have you been skipping meals again?”
“You’re just as bad as Dad,” Steph protested in a tone that suggested it wasn’t the first time she’d heard similar accusations.
“Uncle?” Evan muttered, raising an eyebrow at Drew.
“I guess it pays to have family in the right places,” Drew whispered back.
“Uncle Jimmie,” Steph grabbed Evan’s arm and drew him forward, with Drew following along. “These are the students I told you about. This is Evan Lorne and Andrew Rider.”
“Sir,” Evan greeted the older man respectfully. “We really appreciate you letting us use your facilities, especially on such short notice.”
“Steph doesn’t ask for many favours,” Jimmie replied. “Besides, I’m looking forward to seeing a real pilot put the Piper through it’s paces.”
Evan shot Steph a surprised look but was wise enough not to comment on that. “We’ll be careful Sir,” he said instead.
Nodding, Jimmie led them out across the tarmac to the plane that would be theirs for the day ... it was a far cry from a Hornet but still Evan was looking forward to it. The beauty of using a training plane was that it had dual control ... when they got to the night flying portion of their day Evan could retake control if it became necessary. Putting himself in the role of instructor felt a little strange but Drew seemed confident in that at least.
Jimmie ran through the pre-flight checks with Evan and Drew repeating each of them so they’d be personally satisfied the plane checked out.
Then, gathering Steph up in a one armed hug, he returned to the office and left them to it.
“Nice guy,” Drew commented.
“Yeah,” Evan agreed.
“Steph must really like you a lot,” Drew continued, his tone casual as he assessed Evan’s reaction.
“Ah ... I guess she must,” Evan grimaced, uncomfortable. “Can we not talk about that right now?”
“Sure,” Drew agreed. Looking at the plane he grinned suddenly. “You wanna go first ... see what she can do?”
“Never in doubt,” Evan laughed, jumping up onto the wing on the co-pilot’s side and opening the single door. Clambering over to the pilot’s position he strapped himself in as Drew climbed in after him. “O-kay,” Evan muttered, switching everything on and getting the engine started.
Within minutes they were air borne, the pace feeling so leisurely it was almost like floating ... it was an odd feeling, not unlike driving on the freeway doing 100 and then having to slow to 50.
Evan got a feel for the plane first, just flying some basic patterns and testing her manoeuvrability. “Hold on tight,” he announced, swiftly shifting into more challenging patterns.
Double stall turn, eight point roll, figure M, reverse outside loop, inverted reverse Cuban eight, and more.
One after another Evan executed all the aerial drills most acrobatic pilots could do with precision and a flair that was uniquely his. Drew said nothing as he was carried along on an unexpected high adrenalin ride. When Lorne finally returned to a normal flight path and headed back towards the air field, he spoke.
“You never mentioned being a member of an aerial acrobatics team.”
“That’s because I’m not,” Lorne returned blandly. “I ... took an interest in it a while back ... did some classes. Feels good to cut loose every now and then.”
"Is that where you flew formation?" Drew asked curiously.
"Yeah," Evan admitted. "Of course it's a lot slower than doing it in the Hornet - just barely compares."
"So the aerobic thing is what ... just a hobby?" Drew queried.
"Sounds about right," Lorne agreed.
“And that’s all there is to it?” Drew persisted, sceptical. “Because we’re not exactly talking standard stuff here. Most pilots can’t even do half of those patterns. Seems like more than just an interest to me.”
“Leave it,” Evan shot his co-pilot a quick look before returning his focus to the front window.
“Okay,” Drew replied easily, settling back in his seat, keeping the rest of his questions to himself. Over the last four months he’d learned not to push Lorne when he didn’t want to talk. It was like pushing at a blank wall – a huge, heavy and impossible to move wall.
Evan landed the plane and taxied to the refuelling pumps.
“Your turn,” he said lightly.
Andrew took his turn in the pilot’s seat with Evan at his co-pilot, showing that he knew a few manoeuvres of his own. As afternoon turned into early evening and night announced its impending arrival they regrouped in Jimmie’s office for dinner.
“Nice flying,” Jimmie said like he was commenting on the weather.
“That’s an understatement,” Steph muttered under her breath.
“Hey, pride of the air force and all that,” Evan and Drew shared a smug grin. “We had to make it look good.”
“Well, you succeeded and then some,” Steph replied.
“As I understand it the real reason you wanted to come here is still to come?” Jimmie asked.
“Drew just needs some familiarity with night flying before he goes up in the Hornet again,” Evan explained.
“What he’s not saying is that I sucked the last time I went up,” Drew admitted honestly.
“You got any experience instructing?” Jimmie asked Evan curiously.
“Ah ... not exactly,” Evan replied honestly. “I was just going to ...,” he trailed off. “I’d welcome any advice in that department Sir,” he told Jimmie.
“Let me go up instead,” Jimmie suggested succinctly. “I am a qualified night instructor.”
“Gladly,” Evan slumped back in his chair, grinning in relief. “I’m more than happy to hand this one over to an expert.”
Jimmie quickly took over after that, taking Drew to another office for some theory, Piper Cherokee style. As the two walked across the tarmac a short time later, Evan stood at the office window watching.
“He’ll be fine,” Steph put a hand to Evan’s shoulder.
“I know it and you know it,” Evan agreed. “It just needs for him to know it. Stuff like this gets in your head ... the mental game can bring you down just as easily as a lack of skill.” Turning away from the window, Evan drew Steph into his arms and hugged her close. “Thank you for this,” he said.
“You’re welcome,” she replied, leaning back and smiling up at him. “I was seriously impressed with your flying ... so was my Uncle and that’s saying a lot.”
“I’ve had a lot of practice,” Evan dismissed his skill with his usual modesty. He hesitated a moment before speaking. “You called in a family favour because I asked ... I ah ... I hope it doesn’t cost you too much down the track.”
“It bothers you, doesn’t it?” Steph sighed, shifting out of his arms to take up a position beside the window. “Don’t worry about it Evan – I’m not expecting anything in return.”
“That’s not what I meant!” Evan protested. “I’m just ... concerned that we’re getting a little out of our depth here. I’m a career soldier Steph ... even this early in my career I know that. Sure, I’ll be here for at least a year post graduating but then I’ll be going home to be posted who knows where.”
“You’re concerned that I’m getting out of my depth,” Steph countered. Turning, she faced him with her arms folded across her chest. “I’m not going to pretend I don’t care about you and if that’s a problem for you then you should speak up now.”
“I care about you too,” Evan said quietly. “Casual doesn’t equate with callous and I’m a little hurt that you’d think otherwise. It’s important to me to set the right expectation here ... that’s all. This isn’t about using each other for sex ... but it’s not about picket fences and 2.5 kids either.”
“Stop worrying,” Steph stepped forward and took his face between her hands, drawing his eyes to hers. “I understand you Evan Lorne ... I haven’t taken out a subscription to Brides Monthly and I’m not likely to, not even for you, no matter how cute you are. Your future is still entirely your own. Is that clear enough for you?”
“Pretty much,” Evan smiled. “My ego’s certainly been reduced back to a manageable size.”
Pulling his head down, Steph kissed him – passionate and purposeful, it had his blood going by the time she broke away.
“Not so fast,” he said in a low tone, pulling her back in and showing her some of the upside of getting involved with Evan Lorne ... well, within the bounds of standing in her Uncle's office while his friend took the flight that could define his future career.
“Thanks for doing this,” Drew said, glancing over at Jimmie as he readied the Piper Cherokee for takeoff.
“I understand what it’s like to want something and fear falling short,” Jimmie said. When Drew looked to him in surprise he chuckled. “You’re assuming I was always a flight instructor but I’ve been somewhere close to where you are now.”
“Did you make it through?” Drew asked.
“No,” Jimmie admitted. “My body got the better of my ambition ... I couldn’t handle high G’s and in those days they didn’t have g-suits as good as today.”
“I’m sorry,” Drew said softly.
“I made the best of what I could do,” Jimmie explained. “For me, that was enough. Would it be for you?”
“I don’t know,” Drew admitted. “My family is so proud of me ... and to be honest I never wanted to be anything other than a fighter pilot. I have no idea what I’ll do if I can’t be that.”
The conversation paused as Drew powered up the plane and took them down the runway, achieving take off speed and easing them into the sky. His thoughts were on what he was doing but in a background kind of way, the upfront in your face ones solely focussed on Jimmie’s words.
“Does the Hornet scare you?” Jimmie asked curiously.
“No!” Drew said immediately. Sighing, he nodded. “I guess a little ... well, maybe not the Hornet itself. It’s stuffing things up in a spectacular fashion that scares me.”
“Fear is a fighter pilots real worst enemy,” Jimmie said.
“Yeah,” Drew had heard that before and only recently begun to appreciate what it meant.
“Flying without fear isn’t exactly smart either,” the older man pointed out. “Every plane is unforgiving in the hands of a pilot who doesn’t respect it. Feeling fear and doing it anyway is a factor of the job.”
“There is no bravery without fear?” Drew questioned.
“Something like that.” Jimmie was silent for a moment, letting Drew set their course through the night sky in a wide arc around his airfield. “Do you think your friend flies without fear?” he asked curiously.
“I never really thought about it,” Drew admitted in surprise. “I guess I was assuming something like that. Evan is just so ... competent and confident but in a modest and unassuming way that makes it impossible to be anything other than impressed. He’s ... solid ... dependable.”
“I took the liberty of doing a bit of research after Steph asked me to help you,” Jimmie revealed. “I still know a few people ... asked a few questions about this Yankee fly boy who has my niece asking for help.”
“Find out anything interesting?” Drew couldn’t help but ask. He and Evan were friends and Drew certainly thought the other man had let him in more than the other rookies but he was still very much a closed book. Evan said little and kept a lot hidden, doing it all with a good natured smile and a humbleness that made it impossible to take offence.
“There was a Jonathan Lorne who flew with the Blue Angels back in the late seventies,” Jimmie said. “And while I can’t say for sure I’m guessing Evan is his son.”
“The Blue Angels?” Drew asked. “Aren’t they the US Navy’s flight demonstration squadron?”
“They are,” Jimmie said simply.
“Did you find out what happened to this Jonathon Lorne?” Drew suspected he knew the answer but wanted to hear it anyway.
“He was killed during an air show in 1981,” Jimmie revealed quietly. “In front of thousands of people. In a Hornet very similar to the one’s you boys are flying now.”
“Shit,” Drew muttered. “That’s worse than I was expecting ... Evan said his Dad was killed when he was ten ... I thought maybe a car accident or something like that.”
“So I ask again ... do you think your friend flies without fear?” Jimmie asked.
“No,” Drew’s tone was bleak. “How the hell does he do it? Why does he do it?”
“I can’t answer the why,” Jimmie replied, “but the how seems clear enough. He confronts his fears and conquers them. Like his interest in aerobatic flying ... that takes on a whole new meaning when you know his background, doesn't it?”
“It does,” Drew agreed.
“Do you know where you are right now?” Jimmie changed the subject abruptly.
“Ah ... in a Piper Cherokee with you?” Drew suggested uncertainly.
Jimmie smiled. “In a pitch black sky you seem to have no trouble navigating.”
Drew’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “You did that deliberately.”
“Evan believed your problem had nothing to do with skill and everything to do with your brain,” Jimmie explained. “He told Steph something about you having an overactive imagination that was always going a mile a minute. All I did was give that part of your brain something else to think about.”
“When I get back down there ...,” Drew threatened before laughing ruefully. “I might not know him as well as I thought but he’s certainly got me pegged.”
“People with things they don’t want to talk about are usually keen observers of others,” Jimmie pointed out. “So, how about doing a few basic patterns? Just to convince yourself once and for all that you do know up from down, even without the daylight to guide you.”
Drew nodded, smoothly taking the little plane through some basic rolls and loops.
“Lesson over,” Jimmie announced lightly when he was done. “And I’d say you passed with flying colours.”
“Thank you Jimmie,” Drew’s tone was rich with gratitude. “Seriously ... I don’t even know how to thank you for this.”
“Pass that course ... be as good a friend to Captain Lorne as he’s been to you,” Jimmie suggested. “And do a few barrel rolls for me the next time you’re up in the air.”
Drew laughed. “Now that I can do,” he promised.
Back at the base Evan went with Steph, leaving Drew at their dorm without a comment from the other man. Drew had filled them in on his flight once he and Jimmie had returned to the offices. Evan felt a deep sense of relief that his plan had gone even better than he’d expected. Drew had looked at him with an unreadable expression a few times on the way back to base but hadn’t said anything so Evan had just assumed he was still processing the day’s events.
“Did I thank you?” Evan asked Steph, following her into her room and gathering her into his arms.
“You might have but you could always thank me again,” Steph said with a meaningful look.
“I certainly could,” Evan agreed, devoting himself to the task with serious intent.
In the end Drew passed his next night flight with ease, what he’d learned from Jimmie translating to the Hornet as they'd all hoped. It didn’t wipe out his previous failure but it got him over the line and that was all that mattered.
It was just as well too because their next big challenge had a very big carrot at the end of it.
Plot a course to fly you and your instructor 2000 miles south to Los Angeles airport in an F-18 and land at a huge and unfamiliar airport in a crowd of aircraft. Do that and you got to spend two days playing tourist.
“You must be looking forward to this one,” Marcus pointed out as the six of them locked themselves into a small room with a big table and what seemed like a hundred maps.
“Yeah,” Evan grinned. “I’ve been on a commercial airliner landing at LAX and it’s a friggin’ mad house. Orderly and controlled but a mad house none the less.”
“Thanks for that man,” Cade complained. “That’s just what I needed to hear.”
“Sorry,” Lorne replied, unrepentant.
“Are you guys gonna be ready to brief us on the flight plan any time soon?” They all turned as one to see Major Collins standing in the doorway.
“Ah ... yes Sir,” John replied for all of them. “We were just finishing up.”
“Ten minutes,” Collins ordered before leaving them to it.
“Shit, we gotta hurry,” Neil said, drawing all their attention to the half completed flight plan.
They made it ... with a few seconds to spare, and had their collective flight plan approved by all the instructors.
A small bag packed - the F-18 didn’t have a luggage compartment, just a small pod on the wing - and they were ready to go. Lorne allowed himself to feel some of the excitement visible on his classmate’s faces as they all walked across the tarmac, six F-18’s ready and waiting. He was going home ... not just to the States but to California. San Fransisco, where he'd grown up and his Mom and sister both still lived, was a five hour drive away but plenty close enough for him to be able to spend the weekend at home.
It was a two hour plus flight with no stops, no in flight meals, and nothing even resembling in flight entertainment. Lorne’s instructor, Captain Reed, was already complaining about his ass going numb half an hour into the journey. Privately Evan agreed ... the seats were hell and he only hoped he wouldn’t feel the ‘call of nature’ before they got to LA because there was no way he was attempting to use a piddle pack with his back seat occupied.
There was chit chat amongst the planes as they covered ground, the flight path taking them over some notable tourist sites. Some of the rookies had brought their camera’s into the cockpit and used the idle time to snap photos out the windows and of themselves.
Evan had to chuckle to himself as he listened to some of the radio chatter. How far they’d come ... from having a death grip on the stick every second they were in control to relaxing enough to take photos.
When they flew over Las Vegas, a glowing cluster of lights standing out amidst the nothingness of the desert, Lorne refocussed. They were close.
And then they were there, becoming six more planes in a traffic jam that even the veterans would admit was stressful. LAX was classed as high density space ... it was busy and confusing and everyone was in a hurry. At Cold Lake, a landing F-18 was a priority but here they were just another plane being squeezed into the line landing at a rate of one every two minutes.
“Centre, this is Cougar three zero on approach, how do you read?” Captain Reed made contact as they began circling.
“Cougar three zero, LA tower. Maintain holding pattern.”
“Acknowledged,” Reed replied. “And now we circle,” he said to Lorne in an easy tone.
It was an unnerving experience, especially after they began to get visuals on all the other air craft also circling. How it was possible to coordinate so many planes without someone messing up was beyond Lorne and he just thanked his lucky stars it wasn’t his job to control all of that.
Finally they got the confirmation to proceed to a landing pattern.
“Runway lights should be visible pretty soon,” Reed told Lorne.
“I’m visual,” Lorne announced moments later.
“Cougar three zero LA tower, you’re four miles, runway 24 right clear to land, wind calm.”
Lorne acknowledged the direction, taking them in and landing smoothly without fuss or ceremony.
“Good job,” Reed complimented him as he slowed them to taxi speed.
Landing was just the beginning though ... from there it was a thirty minute trip to get to their parking space ... luckily they could follow the dotted line the whole way there.
All six F-18’s landed without incident, the rookies and instructors meeting up and talking excitedly as they made their way to the terminal.
There was paper work to complete ... Major Collins took care of that for them and finally they were walking through the public terminal towards the exit.
“Evan!” Lorne turned, spotting the pretty, dark haired woman running towards him and grinned.
Dropping his bag he opened his arms just in time to receive his sister’s exuberant hug.
“God I missed you!” Elaine Lorne said even as she hugged him hard.
Evan reciprocated, aware on the periphery that Drew had dropped back to wait for him. “Missed you too,” Lorne said in a low tone.
“Mom’s so excited,” Elaine added, finally letting him go. “She wanted to come too but she’s got classes at school tonight.”
“It’s only two days Sis,” Evan reminded her, grabbing her hand and guiding her towards his classmate.
“I don’t care,” Elaine said firmly, squeezing his hand tightly.
“Me either,” Evan grinned as they walked up to Drew.
“Drew, this is my sister Elaine,” Evan introduced her proudly. “Elaine, this is Captain Andrew Rider ... fellow rookie and all round good guy ... for a Canadian.”
“Nice to meet you,” Drew shook the hand Elaine held out to him.
“Evan mentions you in his letters,” Elaine offered.
“Whatever he said it isn’t true,” Drew held up his hands with a put upon expression.
“She’s smarter than that,” Evan shook his head, putting his arm around his sister and drawing her towards the exit. Drew fell into step beside them.
“How was the flight?” Elaine asked curiously.
“Long,” Evan said feelingly.
“My a- ... the ah ... the seats aren’t designed for comfort,” Drew explained awkwardly.
The rest of the rookies were milling around outside, waiting for Major Collins to locate their transport. When Evan walked out with his arm around a pretty girl there were a few catcalls and whistles.
“Hey! Settle down,” Evan called out. “Guys ... this is my sister Elaine. Elaine, this is Cade, Marcus, Neil and John – the other rookies.” Evan pointed out each and Elaine received a wave or nod of greeting. Moving on to the instructors he repeated the greetings before deciding he’d done his duty for the day.
“Sir, with your permission?” Evan waited expectantly for Major Collins to release him from duty. He’d already cleared two days of leave with Major Baker as soon as he’d heard about their cross country mission so it was just a formality. He'd miss the team cameraderie and the chance to show them some of his home town but the lure of spending time with his family was too great for him to act differently.
“Granted,” Collins said. “We’ll see you back here first thing Monday morning. Enjoy your weekend ... Love.”
“Thank you Sir,” Evan took the call sign reveal with good grace, grabbing Elaine’s hand and urging her to get moving. “Enjoy your vacation boys,” he called out as they walked away. “Where’d you park?” he asked Elaine once they were out of earshot.
“Love?” She looked at him expectantly.
“Call sign,” he admitted reluctantly. “They’re all that bad ... Don’t ask!”
Elaine laughed, pulling his arm in close to her side. “It’s great to have you home,” she said fondly.
It was over too quickly.
Lorne was a master at the quick fly in fly out visit after previous postings away from the States. Before the event he always thought even a few hours was worth it but when he was staring another goodbye in the face the limited time seemed cruel somehow.
He’d promised Elaine he’d write and call her regularly and his mother that of course he’d be careful.
No one spoke of what he was doing at Cold Lake ... he hadn’t asked for his mother’s permission before taking up the opportunity and she hadn’t questioned him.
'That' time was something they never talked about and anything connected to it got the same treatment ... even after all the intervening years.
Before he was ready he was saying goodbye to his family and stepping into a taxi in the wee hours of the morning for a five hour trip back to LAX, knowing it would be months before he saw them again.
Meeting back up with his classmates early that Monday morning Evan was quiet and introspective. They each had to work out their own flight plans home and the solitary task suited Lorne’s mood. It was another test or more to the point another in your face message. You and you alone are responsible for a 32 million dollar asset of the Canadian forces. Plotting the trip home was relatively easy but next time any of them headed out on such a long journey it might be to somewhere they’d never been, to a combat zone a world away. The sooner they got used to taking personal responsibility the better.
“Good weekend?” Drew asked him curiously, falling into step beside him as they went to log their flight plans.
“Too short,” Evan said simply, knowing the other man would understand. “Yours?”
“Busy,” Drew replied. “Did all the tourist things ... but yeah, it was too short.”
“Better than nothing I guess,” Lorne pointed out.
“True. So, is your sister seeing anyone?” Drew kept the grin off his face with difficulty as Evan shot him a suspicious glare.
“As far as you’re concerned, yes!” Lorne replied predictably.
“So that’s a no then?” Drew persisted. "Because she's pretty ... looks nothing like you."
“A guy who’s call sign is ‘easy’ isn’t getting anywhere near my sister,” Evan returned. Drew laughed, drawing a rueful laugh from Evan as well. “She’s my little sister,” he excused. “The big brother routine is kind of instinctive.”
“I’m sure she appreciates it,” Drew replied.
“Not so much,” Evan laughed. “Strangely, having your air force brother looming around when your date arrives is a bit intimidating apparently.”
“But fun though,” Drew suggested.
“Payback for little sister crimes too numerous to mention,” Lorne explained with a gleeful grin.
The two men logged their plans and then it was time to gear up again. All too soon, Evan found himself landing at Cold Lake ... back to the grindstone and the unrelenting pressure that was 410 squadron.
He wouldn’t have it any other way.
As usual I must acknowledge the Jetstream program for any cool ‘pilot sounding’ in air dialogue as well as the basic activities covered in this chapter. The labelling of the planes as Alpha whatever or Cougar whatnot all come direct from Jetstream too (I don't know if there's a system for designations and didn't want to stuff it up trying to be original), as does the example calculation for lateral distance. Everything else came from wiki research, my husband’s brain, and even some of it from mine!
I decided on Evan's sisters name ... no real reason for choosing Elaine beyond it being the first name that occured to me. I can't recall Lorne ever revealing a name so I had to use something. Ditto on his father's name. Also, I took a little license on the timeline here ... I have Lorne’s father being killed in an accident in an F-18 while flying for the Blue Angels in 1981 BUT they were still flying the A-4F Skyhawk then. They didn’t start flying in Hornets until 1986.