By lex, on October 13th, 2003
The jet is going about 150 mph. In the time it took for you to read that first sentence, it would have hit the deck and stopped, the arresting gear shrieking as it converted the energy of 33,000 pounds of strike fighter through an elaborately reeved system of inch thick woven steel cables, buffered by enormous hydraulic cylinders. Upon landing, the pilot’s body would surge against the four-point restraint system, with the ballistic inertial reel locking, to keep his face from going through the instrument panel. It would be not unlike a high speed car crash. To an observer outside the jet, the noise would have been deafening.
This was in the daytime. For a pilot with even a modicum of experience, this would be considered fun.
At night, it never gets to be fun. I’ve got about three hundred night landings, or “traps.” The first thirty or forty are pretty much terrifying. Nearly absolute darkness is a given, the ship’s landing area is angled thirteen degrees to the course she steers, so the effect is of a very short runway (300 feet or so) constantly trying to sidestep to the right, while you try to keep up with it. Land short, and you taxi into the 1-wire, to your shame and dismay. You receive a bad grade. Land very short, and you will die. This is called a ramp strike, as your jet hits the roundown prior to the landing area.
Land long and you will “bolter.” That means that you will miss the wires, and having applied full power at the instant of touchdown, you will once again be in the air. “Airborne,” will be your radio call. It might as well be “failure.” As a Navy pilot, you land on the ship, that’s part of the job. Boltering means you didn’t land. Try it again. Land very long, and your main mounts will touch the flight deck, while your nose gear falls into nothingness. The downward vector thus imparted will send you down to where the dead Sailors are, and only full aft stick (into stall tone) and full afterburner will give you any hope of survival.
When I was a young lieutenant, I’d land, and like FA-18 pilots normally must, taxi up to the bow to park the jet. The directors, called “yellowshirts” for their flight deck jerseys, would always try to get you as close to the very end as possible, prior to turning you back towards the parking spot. Didn’t matter how much room they had, you were going to the top of the bow. In the FA-18, the nose landing gear is slightly behind the pilot.
Taking your turn up at the end of the catapult, your warm, pink body would be over the bottomless sea, and your mortality would be very close to hand. If the deck were greasy, or the ship took a roll, you’d end up going over the side. To stay with the jet would be certain death, to eject almost certain maiming. Twenty-five knots of wind and all kinds of hard, sharp surfaces, some of them spinning at thousands of RPM, would ensure that a broken leg would be the best case. The worst is hardly worth thinking about. Many would say that landing aboard an aircraft carrier at night is among the most hazardous and difficult things that anyone could ever be called upon to routinely do. Me, I used to hate the taxi up on the bow. There were times when I’d sit in the jet after shutting down the engines, after having been chained to the deck, with my legs shaking unable for a few minutes to move, unwilling to trust myself getting down the ladder.
When I was new to the job, there would be times at a half mile or so where the panic would try to well up: “this isn’t possible,” it would say… “it can’t be done.” Your job at that point is to stuff the demon of doubt into its container, where you could examine it more closely later, usually just as you were falling asleep. At that particular moment, on final approach, it’s just not useful. This is called “compartmentalization,” and whether it is a learned skill, or something that the service selects people for, is very much an open question. But it is a necessary survival skill.
What did you do today?