(Young Dr. Zack Winston, a US Navy flight surgeon, met his true love, aviator Noelle Robinson, while serving with a carrier air wing based in Japan. Their torrid affair culminated in a rushed marriage that enabled them to deploy together on USS Kitty Hawk, albeit in separate male and female berthing. They shared marital bliss in exotic liberty ports throughout the western Pacific.)
The sun had set over Kitty Hawk, transforming the South China Sea from a shimmering golden mirror to a pellucid sheet of deep blue glass. The ship plowed through the water on its return leg to home port in Japan. Inside, Zack sat in the back of the squadron ready room, watching Noelle and her fellow aviators brief for their night flights—the most dangerous of the risky operations in the life of a naval aviator.
After the brief, Zack and Noelle lingered in the ready room; their squadron mates allowing the newlyweds some private time together. Zack kissed her. “Fly safe, love.”
“Think of your next flight in ten days, on a jumbo jet with your husband at your side.” They had booked reservations from Tokyo to Detroit to Traverse City, Michigan for their second, formal wedding amid family and friends at the Grand Traverse Resort.
“Ugh,” Noelle said. “I don’t want to think about fourteen hours crammed into an over-sized aluminum tube, even with my true love.”
“Who happens to be a flight doc who gets you a supply of Ambien. You’ll sleep all the way and arrive rested; a proper blushing bride.”
She hugged him. “Gotta go. Slip the surly bonds and all.”
Noelle frowned. “Quit saying that.” She turned and left the ready room.
Zack climbed the interior stairs up to Vultures’ Row to watch Noelle’s launch and landing. Aptly named, the balcony-like exterior catwalk on the next-to-highest level of the carrier’s island provided an ideal venue for sailors to observe operations on the flight deck six levels below.
Zack watched Noelle’s confident, professional stride as she walked to her jet. He waved as she climbed into the cockpit, but she did not look toward Vultures’ Row. She knew he was there, but once she walked onto the flight deck, Noelle allowed nothing to occupy her mind except the immediate mission.
On her turn to launch, she taxied the Hornet onto the catapult. The flight-deck crew performed final checks then signaled with thumbs up. The Hornet made a slight forward bump as it went into tension on the catapult shuttle. Noelle throttled the jet up to full afterburner. A second later, the catapult hurled it forward and slingshot it off the deck in a stream of fire from the burner. Zack’s heart raced, followed by a flush of relief and pride when the Hornet established a steady climb. Noelle took it out of afterburner and soared into the black night.
A sudden flash ignited in the area of Noelle’s left engine; then another on the right. The aircraft position lights dove into rapid descent toward the water’s surface. Zack’s heart rose into his throat. Then he saw a smaller flash followed by a thin stream of light rising toward the sky. A second later, the soul-rending cacophony of combined explosion and massive water displacement shook the night. Noelle’s jet had crashed into the sea. Did she eject in time?
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