the assorted works of G. H. Spaulding

 

ZERO-g

 

From C-C-Cold War Syndrome

 

The P-3 Orion droned over the choppy, azure wave tops at 250 knots, inbound to its final radar contact of the day. For twelve hours, the big four-engine turboprop aircraft and her crew of fourteen had been exhaustively scouring the South China Sea for North Vietnamese trawlers—ships carrying arms, ammunition and supplies to the Viet Cong. 

   While no trawlers had been found, more than 60 surface contacts in the crew’s assigned piece of ocean had been investigated, photographed and plotted. The results would be forwarded to Navy intelligence analysts in Washington responsible for tracking the movement of foreign merchant ships and communist military vessels worldwide.

   The P-3’s aircraft commander, known to his crew as “Hooker,” was flying in the left seat. He held the plane steady at 200 feet as the vessel in the windshield grew visually larger. His eyes flickered over the flight instruments and the engine gages. Only three of the engines were running, number-one having been shut down hours earlier as a fuel saving measure.

   At a distance of three miles from the target, the copilot in the right seat pressed the intercom button on his yoke and began calling out the identifying features of the ship. “Course 050, speed 16 knots, weight 55,000 tons, length 340 feet, type three merchant.” As the P-3 drew nearer, he squinted to make out the paint scheme on its stack, which in turn would reveal its nationality. Panamanian.

   All that remained was for him to eyeball the vessel’s name as the pilot swung the plane past its stern for photos.

   Further aft, in the middle of the navy-gray cabin, the tactical coordinator checked the name of the merchant against a computer-generated list of such ships to verify the copilot’s visual description. Right on.

   Meanwhile, the navigator, a gangly, unpretentious young ensign known as “Blotto,” marked the position of the contact on his chart. Blotto was flying one of his first operational P-3 missions.

   With the photo pass complete, Hooker increased power, put the plane in a climb and took up a course for Naha, Okinawa, the squadron’s home base for its current six-month deployment. During the climb to altitude, Scotty, the flight engineer, restarted the number one engine. In the cabin, tactical crewmembers tidied up their workstations.

   Forty-five minutes later, about half way home, most of the crewmen were asleep, stretched out on thin camping mattresses rolled out on the aircraft’s floor. Only the two pilots, the flight engineer and the navigator remained awake at their posts.

   This was the most boring part of the mission—flying straight and level at 25,000 feet over the Pacific. Occasionally, Blotto would call forward on the intercom to assign a new course. One of the pilots would twist a knob that caused the autopilot to turn the plane to the desired heading. Seated between the two pilots, Scotty would reach forward and tinker with the power levers to maintain the prescribed temperature in the turbine engines. There was a lot of yawning.

   Hooker thought of something to break the monotony. 

   “You guys ever see a zero-g maneuver?” he asked his copilot and flight engineer.

   “No sir,” each of them responded.

   “I’ll show you one.” 

   Then he instructed Scotty to go to the rear of the plane to make sure the lid was down on the chow box, a footlocker in which skillets, pots, pans and other assorted cooking utensils were neatly stowed.

   “Aye, aye, sir,” Scotty said, giving the engine gages a quick check before leaving the cockpit. 

   On his way aft, he visited the head to relieve his bladder.

   While the P-3 was equipped with a sit-down toilet, its plumbing was not connected. Strapped against the bulkhead next to it was a white three-foot-high steel canister, about ten inches in diameter, called the “pisser” for obvious reasons. There was no plumbing attached to the canister either. Its purpose was simply to collect urine. After landing, it would be carried off the plane, emptied, hosed out and put back again.

   Normally, there was a domed top latched to the upper end of the canister to keep its contents from sloshing out. Cut into the domed top was a round, four-inch opening covered by a spring-loaded flap that a man held up while relieving himself and let snap closed when he was finished.

   But, somehow, the manufacturer had provided domed tops that didn’t fit properly. Until they could be replaced, the squadron would have to make do with topless pissers.

   Scotty made his contribution to the gallons already contained in the canister. After so many hours with so many guys drinking so much coffee, it was nearly at its capacity.

   Then he continued his trek to the galley, carefully stepping over those asleep on the floor. He found a clean Styrofoam cup and drew coffee from a huge stainless steel pot. Finally, he checked to ensure that the crew had thoroughly cleaned up the galley and put away the cooking gear before turning in.  They had and the chow box lid indeed was down.

   They had eaten well on this flight—steaks, potatoes, vegetables, salad and dessert. The remnants filled an uncovered, industrial-sized aluminum garbage can lashed to the deck by a rope threaded through its handles.

   Scotty turned out the galley lights and in the semi-darkness took care once again to step over the sleepers as he made his way forward. He paused at the navigator’s station to chat briefly with Blotto, who looked up wearily from his chart.

   “Chow box lid is down, sir,” Scotty reported to the patrol plane commander when he got back to the cockpit. Out of habit, he fastened his seat belt securely over his lap before finishing his coffee.

   “Great,” said Hooker. “Watch this.”

   This was going to be a zero-gravity maneuver. When the astronauts float in space, that’s a true zero-g condition. Many people have experienced the feeling of zero-g, even in their cars. When you go over the crest of a hill driving fast and your stomach rises to your throat, that’s how it feels.     

   Zero gravity is easy to simulate in an aircraft. We used to do it once in a while in the T-28. You would lay out one of your flight gloves on top of the glare shield and fly the plane through an over-the-top arc until the glove floated in the air. Then it was a simple matter of continuing to push the nose of the aircraft down as necessary to keep the glove floating in position above the glare shield. What you were really doing was flying the plane through a portion of an outside loop—nosing it toward the earth’s surface faster than the glove was falling.      

   Hooker turned off the autopilot and pushed forward on the yoke, putting the P-3 into a shallow dive. After gaining about twenty knots of additional airspeed, he smoothly pulled back on the yoke making the aircraft climb. Then he began the over-the-top part of the maneuver.

   Held down in their seats by their safety belts, Scotty and the copilot twisted their heads and shoulders around, peering back through the darkened cabin. They watched as the chow box lid, which had not been locked, swung open like a vampire’s coffin at the bewitching hour. All sorts of shiny cooking paraphernalia streamed upward from the box and hovered in the air.

   Likewise, steak bones, wilted lettuce, coffee grounds and uneaten leftovers vacated the garbage can to join the airborne ballet.

   Crewmen asleep on their mattresses, rose from the deck as though being levitated by a Las Vegas magician. Some awoke suddenly to discover they were airborne. They flailed their arms and legs trying in vain to latch onto anything solid, but were only swimming in place. Like those still asleep, they just kept floating about in mid-air among flying skillets, sauce pans, spatulas and oddments of garbage.

   Blotto floated up from his seat, heading for the aircraft ceiling. He latched onto the overhead handrail with one hand and snatched his chart out of the air with the other. His face was contorted in terror. Scotty and the copilot stared at each other, shocked by the pandemonium unfolding behind them. When they returned their gazes to the rear, they saw something else. The head door had swung open.  

   Through it came floating all of the urine from the pisser—gallons of it—wallowing its way through the air in a slowly gyrating yellow mass.

    The yellow mass migrated upward, toward the rear of the plane. It expanded as it floated, slowly rolling, twisting, its edges lapping out menacingly like an angry genie suddenly released from its bottle and seeking vengeance against whomever had confined it there for the last 5,000 years.

   Blotto saw it coming. Wide-eyed, he let go of his chart and, shrieking like a frightened chimpanzee, shinnied frantically along the overhead handrail making for the galley. The angry yellow mass pursued him.

   That’s when the warning lights came on in the cockpit.

   Four amber lights—one for each engine—warning that engine oil pressure had reached a dangerously low level. The lights were designed to illuminate after 10 seconds of zero or negative-g flight. 

   “Uh, oh,” Hooker said when he spotted the warning lights. 

   Then he pulled back on the yoke and leveled the aircraft off. With normal gravity forces restored, the warning lights went out.

   In the cabin and further aft in the galley, everything and everyone hit bottom. Some of the levitating crewmembers crashed to the deck. Others landed on consoles or across the backs of seats. Only their mattresses prevented serious injury. Those who had slept through their voyage into weightlessness were jolted awake when they struck whatever surface upon which they had happened to come to roost.

   Dangling from the handrail, Blotto hesitantly relaxed his white-knuckle grip and dropped to the floor. His knees buckled and he collapsed to a sitting position, cowering against the bulkhead, afraid the bizarre ordeal might recur any second.

   There were cooking utensils everywhere, scattered among the contents of the now empty garbage can. And then there was that wallowing yellow mass of urine. It splashed over the interior of the cabin soaking everything, including most of the crew. Blotto was one of the fortunate few who managed to avoid a golden drenching.

   Stunned by what he perceived as a near-death experience and by the clutter and cursing that surrounded him, he sat there, his face and glasses coated in sticky, wet coffee grounds. He reached up and peeled off a soggy lettuce leaf, which had flopped over his head like a beret.

   When the P-3 landed at Naha, its home base, the squadron commander was less than pleased that one of his senior patrol plane commanders had so cavalierly jeopardized the safety of his aircraft and crew. At least as angry that the plane now smelled like a toilet, he dispatched the embarrassed Hooker with a bucket and mop to clean up the mess.

   Most of his crew, ready to opt out of flying immediately after the incident, gave in to a collective sense of loyalty and helped him with his unpleasant chore.

   All except Blotto, who headed straight for the bar.

 GHS

 

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