All carrier aviators have a story or two to tell, and I have a tale of working the carrier at night to offer.
I am a little bit reluctant to pass on some of my stories because of the fear of honking my own horn.
On the other hand, if the tales aren’t told, what will be left in the passdown log for generations to come?
This incident happened when I did my turn in the A-6 back in the 1970’s. At the time I was young and invincible…
Can’t remember the exact date I had a singular encounter with a pitching deck, but I can bring back lots of details about the event.
It was during a WestPac cruise in 1977, I know that for sure. It was the proverbial black ass night and my trusty b/n and I were flying the last airplane to recover on board CV-64, the USS Constellation. A-6 squadrons did double duty as both attack birds and tankers. Our squadron had A-6E bombers and KA-6D tankers, a mix that could change with the addition of a “buddy store” to an A-6E. The buddy store was a tanker package, much like a drop tank but the innards of the tank were the refueling hose and reel.
Everybody got to take regular turns in the tankers, banging off the front end, hooking up with the off going tanker, taking the excess fuel so the off going tanker was light enough to land on the ship again. Then the new tanker would orbit the ship, passing fuel to the outbound fighters and sticking around through the recovery to offer fuel for the airplanes (and pilots!) that were having trouble getting aboard. After all was done and the recovery was just about complete the tanker became the last one to land.
During the day it could be an easy way to bag an extra trap or two. The tanker would sometimes launch in the first wave, give away all his fuel, trap, refuel, and go again. Kinda fun being the “yo-yo” tanker.
Nights were not fun. You spent the entire time on instruments flying in a left hand circle above the ship. I mean it when I say instruments all the time. A clear night with calm seas was not what you might think. The stars up above reflected off the calm water below and there was no telling up from down. The carrier and its luminous wake might as well have been plastered on the wall in your darkest closet. An overcast night left no light at all on the seas and there was jet black above you and jet black below.
This night I happened to be the tanker driver and the last one in.
So there I was, or more properly, there we were, me and the B/N, a few miles from the back end of the ship on final approach. All the jets ahead of us had landed with minimal problems and things were going well.
I was working the throttles and stick, following the needles (course and glide slope indicators) as we started the final approach.
What nobody knew was that the ship was just beginning to encounter really big swells from a major storm system several hundred miles away. The LSO’s (landing signal officers) on the aft port side of the ship weren’t aware of the change in the sea state and neither was I. We were all looking at black behind the ship.
At some point I began to feel as though I was beginning to over control and chase the needles a bit much. The fluctuations between where I wanted to be and where I really was on the glide slope became subtly larger and larger. Don’t know if the needles were supposed to be stabilized in spite of the ship’s movement, if they were you couldn’t tell it by my flying.
And of course I kept stirring the pot with the stick and breathing harder and making bigger power changes.
Did I mention that I always said the Lord’s Prayer to myself before starting a night approach?
What was really happening was the pointy end of the ship was starting to drop down a bit and the back end was coming up a bit. And then the pointy end goes up and the back end down. And the swells got bigger. My corrections made me think I was over controlling and my B/N’s vertical speed callouts were making no sense, a stable rate of descent was eluding me. What the $%^# was I doing wrong?
At three quarters of a mile from landing the approach controller said, “Three quarters of a mile, call the ball,” and my B/N called the ball. This is when it got really interesting, it’s the point where the pilot transitions from the needles to external cues as primary information.
I think the LSO did say something along the lines of “the deck is moving a little.” Whatever.
All I know is the meatball, which is an orange light in between two horizontal green bars of lights on the left side of the landing area, was moving. The meatball, which is a lens generated light, tells you where you are in relation to being on the imaginary perfect glide slope. If the ball is above the green lights, you are high. If the ball is below the horizontal green lights, you are low. If the ball turns red below the green lights, you are more than low. You are going to hit the back of the ship. Not good.
Most of the time I did a decent job of keeping the meatball centered on approach, but now I was not doing well at all. The meatball was going down as the butt end of the ship pitched up, which made me add lots of power in response, and when the deck dropped back down suddenly all the power I added had me looking at a high ball and I had to yank off a fist full of power. In the dark the motion of the ship was absolutely invisible to me.
Did I tell you that on a normal landing pass in the A-6 there is 8 feet of hook to round down (back edge of flight deck) clearance? At about 150 miles an hour approach speed?
Everything happened in the next few seconds really really fast. It’s a blur to remember. There was the meatball going up and down and I was chasing with corrections and the slanted rectangle of the ship’s landing area lights are coming at me.
And then meatball went red and sank off the bottom of the lens..
The LSO was hollering power power power and my B/N was shouting for more of the same and what I had already done the moment the meatball started its journey to the bottom of the lens was jam the throttles to the firewall, max power, if the throttles could bend I was going to bend them.
I was taking my own wave off, which you don’t do, but I did.
Or at least I attempted to wave off. With all the chaos and the LSO yelling on the radios and my B/N on the ICS we hit on the aft end of the landing area while I was striving mightily to take off again. The hook caught and with both engines at a full roar we came to a halt even with the ship’s island, which means we caught the one wire, the first of four strung across the deck. The wire closest to the blunt end of the ship.
Scared outta my wits would be a milder description of my state at that time. As we were taxied to our spot and shut down my B/N was using a lot of choice words and promising me he’d never fly with me again. Didn’t blame him. I didn’t want to fly with me again! My hands were shaking so bad it was hard to unstrap from my seat. The adrenalin level in my system was off the chart, I’m sure. I came so close to killing us both!
But that’s not the end of the story. All carrier landings are debriefed by the LSO, face to face with the pilot, and I had to go through that ordeal when I got to the ready room. I wasn’t ready to hear the bad things that were coming.
Of course it took a while for the LSO to get to the ready room, there were other squadrons and other pilots to debrief. I sat in the back, still shaking inside, and my B/N was not far away, totally pissed at the incompetent pilot he had just flown with.
After what seemed like a long time the LSO showed up and came right over to me. I cringed, knowing what was coming.
The first words out of his mouth were: “Nice save!”
What? Who? Was he talking to me?
Yes, he was talking to me.
It turns out that as I crossed the round down at the very end of my approach, as the LSO explained, the deck had pitched up 22 feet. TWENTY TWO FEET! He knew that because they have stuff on the LSO platform that tells them.
He then called for our approach to be replayed on the ready room monitor. You’ve seen the approach tapes before; all you can see at night are the wing lights of the approaching plane. The camera is in the centerline of the landing area looking aft and the display has horizontal and vertical lines to indicate where the incoming plane is in relation to line up and glide slope.
My approach was kind of stable at first with the wings in the middle of horizontal lines but then things started to go south quickly as the sea state changed. The last part was the worst, the image of my plane actually disappeared off the screen and the next time my jet appeared it was as the nose wheel rolled over the camera lens just a few seconds later. The LSO said the hook actually hit the deck about a foot from the round down.
After the LSO finished what he had to say and left the ready room my B/N allowed that he might fly with me again. Me, I was still shaking inside.
The next morning I went up on the flight deck before flight ops started and walked to the aft edge of the deck. I was looking for something and found it.
About one foot from the end, there was a single, shiny, brand new, solitary hook imprint in the deck.
I made many more night landings on the Connie, and never had an experience quite like that one again.
And I never stopped saying the Lord’s Prayer before starting an approach. Never.