Punk's War: A Novel [NOOK Book]


An F-14 aviator takes his readers into the cockpits, ready-rooms, and bunkrooms of today's Navy to show what it's like to fight in a time of so-called peace. From the opening chapter where a Tomcat fighter squadron's commanding officer botches an intercept of a hostile Iranian F-4 to the final uplifting scene, his novel reveals the inner workings of the military as only an insider can. It is a thriller without an airshow groupie's pretense, a fighter pilot's story as honest as it is riveting. The action is ...
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Punk's War: A Novel

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An F-14 aviator takes his readers into the cockpits, ready-rooms, and bunkrooms of today's Navy to show what it's like to fight in a time of so-called peace. From the opening chapter where a Tomcat fighter squadron's commanding officer botches an intercept of a hostile Iranian F-4 to the final uplifting scene, his novel reveals the inner workings of the military as only an insider can. It is a thriller without an airshow groupie's pretense, a fighter pilot's story as honest as it is riveting. The action is gripping and authentic, yet it punctuates rather than drives the plot. Seldom has fiction been so real.

Punk's War is part adventure tale, part introspective commentary. Adopting the tone of the quixotic lieutenants who populate its pages, the novel helps us understand the pressures on this new generation of warfighters. Along the way we are introduced to an engaging cast of characters: a self-centered careerist squadron commander hell-bent on fixing his tainted professional reputation; a reluctant air-wing commander more suited for life within the walls of the Pentagon than on a flight deck at sea; a battle-group commander reared in the art of driving ships, but thrust into the snap decision matrix of supersonic jets; and a host of junior officers. Seeking only the ideals they were promised, these technology-savvy aviators are products of pop culture, unimpressed by rank for its own sake and unresponsive to petitions in the name of the profession's lofty mottos. Unlike other books about the business of flying from aircraft carriers, this novel provides serious food for thought about leadership and retention--what motivates young people to keep doing what they do despite the dangers, disappointments, and personal sacrifices. Best-selling novelist Stephen Coonts describes the author as Tom Clancy crossed with Joseph Heller, his book as a refreshing twist on the military thriller.
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Editorial Reviews

Wings of Gold
It's a terrific story, beautifully written and most strongly recommended.
Summer 2001
Publishers Weekly
With suspense, drama and action as hot as a fighter jets afterburner, Carroll's account of modern naval aviation reads like Top Gun on steroids. The formula of jet pilots in conflict with superior officers and enemy MiGs will delight the military-techno audience.
Library Journal
There's lots of action in this chronicle of six months in the life of a Navy pilot nicknamed "Punk." Punk and his RIO (Radio Intercept Officer), Spud, patrol Middle Eastern skies in an F-14 Tomcat while stationed aboard an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf. They and their fellow pilots stem their tension and weariness with humor, camaraderie, and the possibility of firing a missile or two. Though Punk is a military figure, he is also refreshingly human; smart and irreverent, he falls just short of being the Holden Caulfield of fighter pilots with his streak of pure valor. In his tour of duty, Punk loses his girl, wins a medal, and doesn't get enough sleep. Along the way Carroll also deftly illuminates the full range of a naval aviator's duties, from the tedium of a strike-planning assignment to the adrenaline rush of downing planes. The jargon can get a bit thick, but narrator Richard Rohan energetically keeps things moving. The tapes will probably need to be repackaged for libraries. Recommended.-Douglas C. Lord, Hartford P.L., CT Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher

"Suspense, drama, and action as hot as a fighter jet's afterburner, Carroll's account of modern naval aviation reads like Top Gun on steroids...Speaks volumes about military careerism, aviation technology, naval operations in harm's way, and the men who fly and fight for a living."

--Publishers Weekly

"Tom Clancy meets Joseph Heller in this riveting, irreverent portrait of the fighter pilots of today's Navy. At last somebody got it right. I couldn't put it down."

--Stephen Coonts

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781612515533
  • Publisher: Naval Institute Press
  • Publication date: 3/15/2014
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 400,886
  • File size: 798 KB

Meet the Author

Ward Carroll is the editor of Military.com. During his 20-year Navy career he served in four different F-14 squadrons based at NAS Oceana and was the operations officer for Carrier Air Wing One. He was editor of Approach magazine and is currently a contributing editor for Naval Aviation News. His three books about a Tomcat pilot -- Punk's War, Punk's Wing, and Punk's Fight -- have been widely praised for their realistic portrayals of a Naval Aviator's life.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

"Punk, wake up, goddam it!"

    No. Not now. He wasn't up for the hostility right now. In spite of the noise of the phone constantly ringing at the duty desk and the maintainers doing full-power engine runs above his head and the incessant switching between red and white lighting and the blaring soundtrack and flash of the movie on the screen just feet in front of him and the angle of his ready room chair, he'd slipped into the most desirable of all worlds: Not here.

    His body mustered a strong resistance toward the transition back to here. He attempted to counter the hostility with some fleet-savvy witticism, but all he could think to mutter through his pasty dream-world mouth was, "Help me, Mr. Wizard. I don't want to be on the Boat any more."

    The Boat, the three-billion-dollar instrument of American foreign policy, was inseparable from its hostility—not the hostility that might be unleashed by a flurry of bomb-laden jets following failed diplomatic efforts, but the hostility resident inside the hull, the hostility of wake-ups punctuated by "goddam it." Though the majestic pace of the huge ship on the dark, calm seas of the Northern Arabian Gulf may have projected a certain tranquility to the dhows and freighters that passed in the distance, all was not quiet aboard the aircraft carrier. In fact, all was never quiet aboard the carrier. Somewhere between the ambitious goal of protecting the rights of the free world and simple job preservation was the buzz of the Boat—that hostility. Regardlessof the time of day or the carrier's location, there was always some load being sweated, inane or legit, and some commander running around frying a circuit about the latest tasker from any of the seven numbered fleet staffs, or railing with a handset to each ear because of the admiral's "concerns."

    "Punk, get up, you lazy, pampered nose gunner."

    He thought of Duty, the pie-in-the-sky higher calling admirals and statesmen claimed would make the hostility tolerable at times like this. They said a sense of Duty would put the whole thing in perspective. And while he was busy buying the program, he might just arc around the Naval Academy grounds and carve a few monuments and get all teary-eyed. Duty, honor, country; honor, courage, commitment—boilerplate, designed to motivate him from place to place all day long. The actual words weren't important, just their rhythmic cadence: bhoomp, bhoomp, bhoomp.

    "C'mon, Punk. We have to get on the roof and relieve the Alert 5 crew."

    Sensing the battle lost, he allowed himself the luxury of another quick mental excursion: It had been so damn long since he'd felt the warm, softness of the inside of Jordan's upper thigh, or brushed his nose across her.

    "Yo, Punky ... wake up, sleepy time ..."

    What else really mattered? Nothing. Not a thing. And the great thinkers definitely didn't develop their theories on cruise because if they'd tried they would have come up with only one finding: Sex is the only thing that matters. Life flashes at the point of imminent demise? He wanted his highlight reel to be a collection of women he'd known caught on their backs in the beautiful act of arching up and hauling their panties down across their gorgeous rumps.

    "I see you smiling, Punk. I know you can hear me. You'd better wake up, asshole, or I'm going to go oops upside your head with my helmet."

    The lieutenant finally gave a reaction to the hostility with a full stretch of his lanky six-foot-one-inch frame, and then he brought his long arms down from above his head and grabbed the scuffed toes of his flight boots. "Then who would you get to fly your ass around the beautiful Arabian Gulf, Spud?" he asked. He sensed he was perhaps semi-aroused after his brief but enjoyable repose so he chose to wait out the situation in the sitting position for a few moments. "Punk" was demeaning enough; he didn't need his call sign modified to "Woody," or the less-subtle but oft-assigned "Boner." And his backseater's caustic tone made it that much harder to relieve himself of the relative warmth of his faux-leather ready room chair.

    Actually, the chair he'd fallen asleep in wasn't his; it belonged to the squadron's executive officer, the second in command. As Punk was only a lowly first-tour lieutenant, his chair was located more in the middle of the thirty-seven identical chairs in the ready room, but when you stood the 0200-0400 Alert 15, there weren't too many people around to care which chair you occupied. The XO's chair was in the front row and came complete with a leg-stretching ottoman fashioned from an old hydraulic fluid can covered in red naugahyde, the material the parachute riggers used to cover everything.

    He ran his hand through his sandy blond hair, too long for anyone claiming the modern standard for military bearing, and glanced at the lineup on the white dry-erase board behind the duty officer. Who were they swapping with? Oh yeah, Bill Thompson and Biff. Punk figured he'd better get himself up to the flight deck in short order. He could see Biff checking his watch every few seconds and impatiently craning around in the ejection seat to see if his relief had made it to the airplane yet. Biff, the Big Fat Fighter guy, was basically a good man, one of his seven roommates, but he was not a stoic. And Punk didn't feel like receiving the business end of a whine right now. It was too early, or late, or whatever the hell it was.

    He finally rose and felt the price for dozing in the sitting position. He winced, bent over to stretch out his lower back and glanced at his everything-proof watch: Big hand on seven after, little hand on four. A saying popped into his head, something admirals used when counseling groups of sailors about their conduct on liberty: Nothing good happens after midnight and before breakfast.

    The crew grabbed their helmets along with nav bags full of charts and kneeboard cards and headed out of the ready room, but not before Spud paused to verify the film's best boy and gaffer line-up during the credit roll. "Those two are the best team in the business," he announced to no one in particular.

    They continued outboard, down the passageway toward the ladder that led to the flight deck. The two aviators walked with the grace of football players coming out of the stadium tunnel before a game: cool, but encumbered. The narrow space they traveled darkened from red lit to completely black as they reached the final bulkhead. Punk extended his hand to work the hatch that opened to the outside, but he felt nothing. The hatch was already open. The blackness outside was merged with the blackness of the unlit passageway. God, it's dark, Punk thought. If we have to launch let's at least wait until the sun comes up, please.

    The two aviators obediently followed the cones of light emanating from their flashlights as they climbed the short way to the flight deck. They moved slowly and deliberately so they wouldn't get nailed by the nocturnal predators on the Boat: open deck hatches, ankle-high fuel hoses, razor-sharp edged composite wings at eyebrow level, decks without railing, and hanging fins that were just as effective at slicing through skin as they were at guiding missiles toward enemy fighters. Punk's last flight instructor in Meridian liked to tell of the brand-new pilot in a Vietnam-era fighter squadron who'd disappeared into oblivion by walking over the edge of the carrier one night while engaged in the seemingly innocuous act of pre-flighting his jet.

    The F-14 they were about to strap themselves into was spotted on catapult three, located about the middle of the ship toward the port side, which made the jet easy to find. Punk caught sight of their airplane once through the tangle of aircraft and support tractors around the edge of the deck and noted, that as the jet stood framed in the yellow tint of limited floodlighting from the carrier's island, it looked appropriately like a lone animal watching out for the rest of the sleeping herd.

    In spite of his fatigue, he allowed himself to reflect on and be moved by the lines of the Tomcat, evidence of a fighter pilot's learned narcissistic sense as much as anything else. Where did gloved hands end and sticks and throttles begin? The question was moot.

    Christ, boy, how cliché. The thing Punk feared as much as a dual-engine flameout right after takeoff was becoming one of them, the twerps who showed up at the front door of flight school with a blank slate of a personality and slowly allowed the business of naval aviation to define every facet of their existence—guys who constantly used expressions like "the wife must've rolled in hot on you over that one" and "check six." He chided himself for his entry into the arena of the dorks. Who did fighter pilots impress? Boy Scouts and other fighter pilots.

    Punk remembered that first squadron party, where Jordan had demonstrated her disgust with the self-centered, one-dimensional aspect of it all, amidst the Wings of Gold needlepoint and aviation line art that seemed to dominate career fighter pilots' homes. She spent the night asking all the wives wearing miniature Wings of Gold pins how they had performed during flight school, and whether they found flying jets to be a challenge. There was no scene. None of the handful of well groomed, if not attractive, wives had demonstrated the sense to be offended by his girlfriend's get-a-life jab. Punk saw the women differently after that. Only Jordan had a way of reorienting Punk, at times changing his long-held opinions with a simple statement or a gesture. She would dismiss his favorite song as bubble gum or sneer her distaste for a movie and everything would change in his head. And where the wives had originally seemed full of charm and grace, they came to reek of need and servitude.

    And maybe that's what career fighter pilots wanted out of their mates. As the crews had worked to solve the world's problems during a deployment's worth of meal conversations, the topic had once landed on "the most desirable trait in a wife." While the junior officers had idealistically agreed upon "garners respect" (which barely topped "decent ass") as their platform from which to launch a lifetime of companionship, the lieutenant commanders and commanders across the table snickered and countered with "loyalty," which Punk found sadly curious, but congruous.

    He was different, or at least he wanted to be different. Loyalty was a trait one sought in a dog, not a wife. Not that he would be at peace with his wife running around on him, but why would she? He was going to be the most tolerant, understanding husband ever. And she would be married to him, the catch formerly known as world's most eligible bachelor.

    After knowing Jordan, Punk felt he could never be attracted to a woman who didn't try to stake her own claim. She had her own goals and aspirations, her own career, her own circle of friends. She was cocky like he was cocky—cocky in a good way. She was capable of changing his opinions, for crying out loud.

    He needed just two days with her now. Two hours. Two minutes.

    Spud didn't make it out of the catwalk as cleanly as Punk had. The backseater tripped on a tie-down chain several steps after his arrival on the nonskid; the unmistakable sound and expletive that followed caused Punk to chuckle and yell sarcastically back, "Watch out for those chains, Spud." Punk looked around and saw that Spud's flashlight had spun in his hand as he fell and was now illuminating his bald pate. Spud continued to curse as he picked himself up off the flight deck and, once fully upright, he used his flashlight to illuminate his left hand and gestured an "Okay," which slowly morphed into the bird.

    Punk made it to the catapult track, stepping gingerly on its greasy surface. He crossed under the jet and stood at the base of the ladder on the left side of the nose. "Hey, fat boy!" he shouted up to the pilot seated in the front cockpit of the fighter. "Time for the first-string team to come in." In response the pilot in the jet redirected his flashlight from the paperback he was reading toward Punk's face. "Christ, Biff, so much for night vision."

    "You're late."

    "No, I'm not."

    "Yes, you are. My watch is set to GPS time and it shows you're exactly nine minutes and thirty-eight seconds late ... and counting." Biff threw his meaty hands above his head. "I'm still sitting in this jet, aren't I?"

    "Well, you can blame Spud," Punk shot back as he ascended the ladder. "He woke me up late. I think he lost track of time watching Cheers for Reggie."

    "Spud's flick addictions do not relieve you of your military duties, Punk," Biff said as he strained to undo the Koch fittings near each shoulder. He was a big fellow, somewhere between fat and husky (a word Punk's mom had always been fond of). Punk watched Biff deftly torque himself out of the jet and noted that the big pilot was actually kind of nimble. Biff was very self-conscious about his genetic plight and waged a constant battle with the Navy's weight standards. His peers rode him hard on the issue, but that battle ultimately earned him respect in the squadron's otherwise insensitive world. He ate like a rabbit and worked out like a professional athlete, never scoring less than "outstanding" on the semiannual physical readiness test. Nevertheless, he remained the Big Fat Fighter guy.

    As they passed while making the switch into the front cockpit, Punk caught how Biff's face squished out of the front of his helmet. In fact, he stared a beat too long at the visage before him. Biff sensed the judgment and said, "Screw you, Punk."


    "I love this. Show up late and give me shit. I've lost twenty pounds already this cruise. It's not easy, you know."

    "Biff, Biff, relax." Punk patted him on the right shoulder. "Spud and I were just talking about how good you look."

    "I'll bet you were. Speaking of Spud, where is that old fart? My man Bill back there is as eager to get into the rack as I am."

    "Now that I seriously doubt," Punk answered as he worked himself into the ejection seat. "Nobody has logged as much rack time as you this cruise." He fished near his left hip for the connection to his oxygen mask, and once the two halves were mated, he tested the system for good airflow. He then synched down his considerably loosened lap belts and asked, "How's this jet?"

    "The oil pressure gauge was inop when we turned the jet about two hours ago so I had the ATs stick in a new—aaahh." Spud made his presence known by smacking the back of Biff's helmet as he passed on his way toward the backseat. "You're funny as shit, asshole. Glad you found us. What does that make? Four hundred-plus viewings of Cheers for Reggie?"

    "No, Biff. You're confused with the four hundred-plus times I've had to kick your ass since you joined the squadron," Spud said with an exaggerated flex of his runner's-frame forearm. "And I hope you're not complaining to my pilot about our being slightly, and I emphasize slightly, tardy."

    "You guys are late, and the day your skinny bag of bones has the ability to kick my ass is the same day that Punk beats me in a dogfight."

    "Well," Punk said, "that day was yesterday." Biff remained crouched down for a second on the front step and pondered Punk's words. Recent aviation history clicked in, and he shook his head in disgust and dismounted the airplane without another word. In turn, Spud climbed into the rear cockpit and reviewed the jet's backseat status with Bill Thompson. After a short time, lanky Bill followed husky Biff back down below to attempt whatever sleep he might be afforded before the daily grind kicked in again.

    Punk removed his helmet and perched it on the forward canopy bow. He surveyed the cockpit and the area around the jet to ensure everything was in order: electrical power unit hooked up, air starter in place, fire fighters positioned, plane captain present. Although other cogs in the machine were charged with cognizance of their function within its workings, aviators knew the bottom-line responsibility of successfully getting the fighter airborne rested with them. The higher-ups would never point an accusatory finger at a tractor driver if an alert didn't get airborne in time because the jet's starting equipment had wandered off. The crew in the plane would be at fault; or more specifically, the pilot in the plane would be at fault.

    Satisfied things were in order, Punk assumed his standard alert posture: book out and tunes on. He rummaged through his helmet bag and found the six-disc holder that was as much a part of his alert gear as his oxygen mask or G-suit. He decided that something instrumental would be the perfect soundtrack for a dark Arabian Gulf night. He laid the player down on the cockpit's right-hand console. He then trained his flashlight on the paperback and began splitting his attention between the novel and deciphering the movements outside his peripheral vision. Notification to launch came as often from a frantic, arm-waving flight deck chief as it did from the ship's P.A. system.

    After a few minutes he craned around to see what Spud was doing. Spud had also assumed his standard alert posture: He was fast asleep. How the hell does he do that? Punk had found an ejection seat to be the one place on an aircraft carrier where he could not fall asleep. He figured it was the combination of the upright angle of the seat and the fact that deep down he feared it might inadvertently go off, and he wanted to be awake if that ever happened. Unlike Spud, Punk was still naive enough to believe he had control of his mortality. In Punk's world, people didn't just crash. They fucked things away and then crashed.

    Punk further pondered the wonder of Spud. Spud had entered the Navy as an enlisted man during the early seventies to avoid the draft. He spent two cruises in the Gulf of Tonkin aboard destroyers, mostly in the wake of aircraft carriers, and that exposure piqued his interest in naval aviation. Then, as he put it, his need for achievement eclipsed common sense and he was accepted into the Navy's enlisted commissioning program, sent back to college, and made an ensign after receiving his bachelors degree.

    During the initial medical evaluation prior to flight training, the flight surgeons discovered his vision was worse than 20/20 and he was declared ineligible to be a pilot. He was not left without a flying option, however. At the time of his commissioning, the Navy had moved toward multi-seat fighters and multi-place airplanes in general, and the guys in seats other than the pilot's could wear glasses as long as their vision was correctable to 20/20. So rather than return to the ship-driving force, Spud opted for the naval flight officer program and took the leap of faith that allowed him to ride along at either side of the speed of sound while someone else drove the aircraft.

    But shortly after they were introduced, Punk realized Spud's hands-off-the-controls role in the airplane did not translate into a type-B personality. Spud was about eight years older than most lieutenant commanders by virtue of his prior enlisted experience, and he was now an old-world fighter guy. He came from the days before the ruling elite had changed everything in the names of "tolerance" and "equality," the days when a man could act like a man, or even a caveman, and no one would think to charge him with "conduct unbecoming an officer" as a result.

    Spud often described himself to Punk as a "politically incorrect Cold Warrior," further explaining, "We won the Cold War." During the five deployments he'd made in his time as an officer, he'd survived a brand-new pilot's removing the bottom half of a jet on the back end of an aircraft carrier, ejecting at 400 knots, one divorce and his current wife's constant threat of a second one, and the back bar at the Cubi Point Officers Club.

    He'd also come to love his job. He challenged common pilot perceptions about a backseater's second-class status in the fighter community. He often referred to Tomcat pilots as "nose gunners" and liked to point out how all the classified gear in the jet, "the important stuff," was in the rear cockpit. "This is a two-man fighter," Spud would pronounce. "If you don't like it, go fly Hornets."

    Much to the delight of the more junior radar intercept officers in the squadron, Spud's assertion was that it was, in fact, harder to be a good RIO than a good pilot because the RIO had to be even farther ahead of the airplane in terms of decision-making. RIOs, Spud claimed, were in the business of predicting pilot moves and preventing pilot errors. While those sentiments were tough for headstrong pilots to swallow, those who had ever flown with him knew he possessed the talent of which he spoke. Punk had lost count of how many times Spud had saved the day with a timely input from the backseat.

    In spite of his advanced age, Spud had still been born about twenty years too late. Although the act of taking airplanes on deployment and flying them on and off of aircraft carriers was inherently rife with challenges and danger, Spud's time in the barrel had not been characterized by shots fired in anger, so he was measured by a different yardstick than those tested during protracted conflicts. And historically he'd been a little sloppy with the administrative side of an officer's duties—the kiss of death in the peacetime Navy. "Airmanship" was only one small block on an officer's fitness report. Spud's chances of getting his own squadron or even attaining the rank of commander were very slim, which gave him an attitudinal peace-of-mind that ironically made him one of the Arrowslingers' more influential lieutenant commanders. He realized this tour in Fighter Squadron 104 would be his last flying job and he wanted to finish on the same tenor that had sustained him throughout his career. No hidden agendas. No need for ready room politics. No traits that might ally the squadron's junior officers against him.

    Punk shifted his gaze through the bulletproof glass in front of him and worked his eyes down the catapult track. He savored this spot on the flight deck. It made him feel like he truly was in a launch-in-five-minutes status. They'd also be airborne before the alert Hornet, which was always good in the world of bragging rights and competition at every level over every little thing. He had stood Alert 5s parked in ridiculous positions: pointed the wrong way behind the carrier's island and, in one instance, below the flight deck on the hangar bay. The aviators joked that on the Boat Alert 5 didn't mean launch in five minutes, but rather five jets had to be moved out of the way to get to the alert bird.

    And why were they standing the alert? Satellites provided twenty-four-hour cable news coverage to the ship's crew, but that medium didn't give them any real understanding of their present situation. The heavies at the Pentagon called it being "on the tip of the spear," but the average aviator knew more about NFL team standings than any immediate impact the carrier's presence was having on the Middle Eastern dynamic. There hadn't been any media coverage of the area since the last cruise missile had knifed over the Tigris months ago. The place was dead. Punk could just hear the admiral saying, "It's dead because we're here."

    Okay, he imagined his reply. But that's lame and boring and it sucks.

    A few crews had intercepted some Iranian P-3s when the Boat had first arrived in the Gulf, but no one had seen anything but commercial airliners since. They could also forget about Iraq. The daily enforcement of the no-fly zone south of the thirty-third parallel was now about as exciting as an instrument round robin over the east coast of the United States. A crew would have to troll over downtown Baghdad at fifty feet to get any response out of those guys.

    The Boat's mere presence drove the hostility and mandated the spool-up, so there he sat, a prisoner of bhoomp, bhoomp, bhoomp ...

    Time passed with Punk in the company of only his thoughts. His mind wandered back to his girlfriend. Five A.M. in the Gulf, nine P.M. on the East Coast—what was she doing now? That would depend on the day of the week. What day of the week was it? He honestly didn't know. He fished for some event that might give him a clue, but came up empty. One day pretty much resembled another on the Boat, except Tuesday was laundry day and Friday was pizza dinner day. He couldn't remember sticking his laundry bag out and they hadn't had pizza for dinner. It was time for an experiment. He pulled the disc player headset off and yelled down to his plane captain. "Sanders! Sanders, are you down there?"

    "Yessir," the grease-covered airman returned as he scrambled out from under the jet. "Is something wrong?"

    "What day of the week is it?"

    The youngster scratched the matted black hair under his protective helmet and replied, "You know, sir, I don't have any idea. I'll go ask the chief." Before Punk could object, the airman bounded off to find the flight deck coordinator. Punk grimaced. His subject had escaped from the castle and now the angry villagers would certainly be returning with torches lit.

    Chief Wixler showed up at the side of the jet a few minutes later with Airman Sanders in tow. "Lieutenant," he said up to the cockpit with his thick Louisiana drawl, "I understand you've got a question for Airman Sanders here?"

    "No, not really, Chief," Punk replied sheepishly. Chief Wixler was not going to let him off the hook that easily. They'd had words a few weeks before when the chief downed Punk's jet on the cat just prior to launch for tire pressure. Tire pressure. Punk prided himself on being ever mindful of the role of the maintainers in the mission, but that particular call had seemed a bit self-important. Moreover, it had caused him to miss the best Saudi Arabian low-level hop to date. He hadn't stayed up half the night planning the damned thing to get pulled for tire pressure. The wheels were basically round ...

    "Sir," Chief Wixler began with the studied inflection of a senior enlisted man capable of meting out criticism under the blanket of respect, "I can't have an officer tasking an airman to hunt down a trivial fact when that airman should be vigilantly standing his post by the jet. What if the alert got called away? You wouldn't want the squadron to look bad, now would you?"

    Punk winced. "Of course not, Chief, but ..." He thought about putting the situation in perspective, about explaining the context of his simple question—a lark—but he knew that would probably just cause an argument, and he definitely didn't feel like getting into another argument with Chief Wixler. The flight deck chief was a man to have on your side, not gunning for you. "I apologize, Chief," Punk finished with a let's-all-relax chuckle as he rendered an informal salute.

    "You should get yourself a good watch, lieutenant," the chief said.

    "Actually, I've got a Breitling," Punk replied, displaying to the chief the monster on his left wrist. In the darkness, the chief could tell the pilot had his arm raised, but couldn't see the detail of Punk's reference. And he wasn't about to buy into any rich-boy brand name bullshit.

    "A what?"

    "A Breitling. It's a very good watch."

    "Does it do days of the week?"

    Punk looked at the face of his watch as if he wasn't quite sure of its features. "Well ... no."

    "Then how good could it be?" the chief cracked as he slapped Airman Sanders on the back as if to say, "That's how you handle these young officers, shipmate." With that the chief returned into the darkness from which he'd emerged seconds before.

    Punk lamely called after him with, "It is very accurate," but there was no response. Punk imagined Chief Wixler would go to some dark corner of the flight deck and have a good laugh over his radio's in-house frequency with the rest of the union labor on night check down in VF-104's maintenance control.

    The lines were not as well drawn as Punk had come to believe they were during his years at the Naval Academy. Back then the world of military theory and leadership class was straightforward: the rank above you was to you what you were to the rank below you. Sure, they'd had discussions about informal chains of command and respecting subject matter expertise as a way to supervise and avoid micro management, but no one had captured the extremes of informal power in the fleet. No one had looked him in the eye and said, "You wanna go flying, officer boy? Well, the Chief Wixlers of the Navy are going to own your ass."

    No, as he thought about it now, the irony of his "development" at the exalted United States Naval Academy was that it had done very little to prepare him for life in the United States Navy. He had walked into the Yard on Induction Day one hot July morning armed with above average SAT scores and without any better ideas, and he'd left four years later with a bachelors degree, ensign's bars, and some really funny stories. Surviving the Naval Academy taught you about one thing: surviving the Naval Academy. For the average eighteen-to-twenty-year-old midshipman, the Academy was not about character and core values and professional military acumen infused into the marrow; it was about making the noise stop. What was the minimum effort required not to lose the privilege of getting away for a few hours on a weekend? A 2.0 grade point average, something even the worst crisis managers could manage. The conduct and honor systems? Hey, you rated what you got away with and only the stupid got caught. And how did you know you'd really arrived your senior year? You were sometimes allowed to wear civilian clothes and drive a car!

    But the Academy had defined him, and he knew he'd be foolish to deny it. Plus, he had loved his simple existence then, full of friends, girls, and pageantry. Hell, every day was a dress parade; every weekend was a gala ball. He even signed autographs for tourists on the way to class. America loved them because they were better than other college students, or so the Academy's leadership told them, although nobody ever really questioned what better meant. They had to be better, right? The broad-brush application of better was the only thing that grounded the frustration and angst of post-adolescent rites of passage squandered in the name of bhoomp, bhoomp, bhoomp. That and the fact that midshipmen were paid to go to college and had a guaranteed job after graduation. Who wouldn't put up with a little bullshit for that? Social retardation be damned!

    Punk scanned the horizon off the port side of the ship. The fire in the distance from an oil platform's burn-off stack had faded as the friendly orange hue of sunrise grew to the east and gradually defined the end of sea and the beginning of sky.

    The weather didn't give the aviators anything to complain about. Winters in the Gulf were generally mild: daytime highs often crept into the seventies and the sea was like glass most of the time, which meant no pitching decks for pilots to contend with while trying to land on the Boat.

    Punk's first deployment had been a storm-tossed Mediterranean Sea event. The Med in winter was a place of good liberty ports, yes, but cold, swollen seas and ice-laden skies also. The air wing had lost four aviators that cruise, not to hostile fire over the former Yugoslavia, but to Mother Nature's effects on visibility and her sometimes-unannounced burden on an airplane's flying qualities.

    Punk noticed movement off to his right. Although the ambient light was still limited in the early morning, the purposeful stride and gold-tinted visor perched on the helmet could only belong to one man on the Boat: Commander "Soup" Campbell, VF-104's commanding officer. Soup Campbell, former Topgun instructor, former Blue Angel, current pain in everybody's ass. What the hell? They weren't supposed to be relieved for another thirty minutes, and Punk didn't remember seeing the skipper's name on the schedule. Were they in trouble? Was he in trouble? Where was Chief Wixler?

    "What's up, skipper?" he asked once the CO got close enough to the right side of the Tomcat to hear conversational tones.

    "Oh, I couldn't sleep so I figured I'd be nice and spell you guys," the skipper said back up as he patted the nose of the jet. "Why don't you two head down to the wardroom and grab some breakfast and then get some more sleep?"

    Unbelievable. This man—who defined "rank has its privileges" with his old-money scion, private high school, University of Virginia pedigree, his Lexus with FTR PLT vanity plates, and his greasy she's-with-you-only-because-I-don't-want-her aura—was now here sucking up a bad deal?

    The gold visor said it all to Punk: the guy was about form over function. Commander Campbell was the only aviator in the air wing—probably the whole seagoing fleet—with a gold visor, and he never even wore it down over his eyes. It didn't function as a visor; it functioned as a crown. He was a Fighter Pilot, capital F, capital P, and he was the commanding officer now. His time had come. Prince Soup had become King Soup. He was going to pick the nightly movie in the ready room. He was going to decide on the topic of conversation in informal settings, and that conversation would always be about flying fighters so he could use his two trump cards at will: his Topgun experience ("Well, when I was at The School ...") and his Blue Angel experience ("Well, when I was on The Team ...").

    Most importantly to the career-minded, he alone was going to decide for the Navy who was in and who was out among his charges, and he was quick to lord that power over all with the veiled threat: "Don't bite the hand that feeds you." The skipper had plenty of staff duty experience up his sleeve and had served on enough promotions boards to know how to write a fitness report that could make or break an officer's record. And unlike the other two commanding officers Punk had served under, Soup never asked for lieutenant commander input when writing fitness reports on junior officers.

    Commander Campbell was not without redeeming qualities. If you caught him in his coveting phase he was downright enchanting. He could be fascinating with his cocksure swagger and worldly, crowd-dominating, name-dropping anecdotes ("So Senator Glenn says to his aides, `We're not getting on this airplane until Soup gets here!'"), coupled with his gunmetal-blue eyes, thick, gray-flecked mass of hair, and permanent tan. At first, Jordan was even taken with him ... before she was put off by his need to kiss the squadron wives and girlfriends on the lips at every chance meeting and parting.

    Maybe Punk was a bit over-critical of the skipper, but he was growing tired of always playing the game on Soup's field with Soup's ball. Actually, they were all getting to that point in a cruise where everybody bugs everybody else. Five months down; at least one to go. There may have been a light at the end of the tunnel for them, but it was yet too faint to make out. They'd been at sea for twenty-seven days now and had another week to go before pulling into Bahrain for a port call, their last before beginning the three-week transit back to Norfolk. The lab rats needed to get out of the maze for a few days.

    Without giving the commander time to change his mind about his charity, Punk unstrapped and went through the off-going routine that Biff had performed with him hours before. Heading down the boarding ladder, he noticed that Spud was still slumping forward, asleep.

    "Wake up, sleepy time."


Death on the Hellships

By Gregory F. Michno

Naval Institute Press

Copyright © 2001 Gregory F. Michno. All rights reserved.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 5
( 7 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Posted September 19, 2010

    Amazing read Of what life is like as a F-14 Tomcat Figher Pilot

    Book starts with a very confusing moment, where all the characters seem to be talking at once. You get introduced the main character right away and he takes over very early in the book. This book is for someone who enjoys reading books with very descriptive actions, and who understands military terms. The book really grabs your attention from the beginning and is an easy read from there. Mainly this book is about an F-14 Tomcat pilot and the difficult decisions involved being a United States Navy Fighter Pilot. Punk the main character is faced with not only proving himself to others in the squadron but also proving himself this is the right thing to do. As a rookie he learns valuable lessons, and death defining moments that make this book a great read for any military or aviation buff. Throughout the book there are moments that are slow and dull, and even some moments that get quite confusing, like a room full of fighter pilots discussing complex things like carrier landing and using military terms, that might make it hard to understand at times if you are not familiar with the military terms. Over all this is a Great Book written very accurately of what life is like as a Fighter Pilot by Ward Carroll who once was a navy fighter pilot too

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 7, 2005

    From an aviator's view, TOP NOTCH!

    This novel was an outstanding retrospect of the trials and tribulations of military aviation as well as the glories, rare as they may be, that are only intensified by their the moment. Ward Carroll captures this moment as well as straps you into the cockpit with SAMs, bogies, and a full of it Commander on your tail. If you want to know what military aviation is like, this is as close as you can get without taking the oath.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 25, 2004

    The true military aviators' story

    Ward Carroll nailed it! This is what military aviation is like...not the 'Top Gun' image of a bleached-teeth million dollar smile and a perfectly ripped torso. Real characters who live their lives believing in what they do...and doing it without glory. Mr. Carroll takes you in the cockpit and into the briefing room; from the cheesy callsigns (Spud??) and frat pranks, to the honest talks over a cold brew, this is the real world of a modern military aviator. It took me back to the cockpit...

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 4, 2003

    I would give it 10 if i could.

    I was at first fooled by the title. I thought, well, hoped it would be about a young punk rocker who enlisted in the navy to find themselvs or something along that line. I was acctually pleasantly supprised when it turned out to be about a young F-14 Tomcat pilot who was throwen into situations which he didnt really want to be in. It is brutally honest, and masterfully written. I have lent it out to 2 of my friends who, like me are aspiering military aviators. I have read it atleast 3 times. Not because I have no life, but because it is so captivating. From the first 10 pages your hooked. BUY THIS BOOK!! Maby with a little luck they will make a movie about it. Hopefully they will use the Tomcat and not the Super Hornet.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 16, 2002


    This books title at first made me think twice about buying it. But as soon as I bought it and opened it up i couldnt set it down. I'd look at a clock and realize i'd been reading for two hours when i thought barely any time had passed. The reviews were right its a cross between the top dog military writers but this guys younger than the lot and still has the flare of youth at hand and slams a nice dose of it into the book.The author was a pilot so he has the flying well described you can juts see what there seeing in your mind without trying. If you have some spare cash get it it wont be a dissapointment.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 2, 2002

    Someone Has Nailed It

    Ward Carroll has nailed what it is like to be a Naval Aviator today. Reading this book brought back the smells, sounds, and sights of being on the 'boat.' A must read for anyone who wants to know what Navy life is like!!!!!!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 23, 2001

    While you were sleeping

    Ward Carroll takes great strides in closing the civil-military gap with this honest look at the actions taken in our name and on our behalf by our forward based Navy everyday. The action is delivered with impeccable timing and will keep even the most diehard adrenaline junkie turning the pages. But the true value in this story comes from the well thought out and poignant characters. The protaganist, 'Punk' Reichart is the best action lead in a long time; thoroughly believable, compelling, and absolutely a guy you could and would want to know. We see the best that our society has to offer in Punk and some of his shipmates. We also see the worst in some others; nepotism, self-aggrandizement, ineptitude, and dishonor. Punk takes us through a tale of war in the skies over Iraq, war against the careerists who threaten us from within, and war with himself as he seeks to find his place in the difficult profession of arms. Military and fans of the military will love it. Those who have no idea what's going on while they pursue they lives of freedom will love it even more and owe it to themselves to read this remarkable book.

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