By lex, on October 18th, 2004
Successful completion of carrier qualifications, or CQ, marks a critically important milestone in the career of a student naval aviator. Landing safely and expeditiously aboard the ship is what distinguishes the Navy pilot from his more pedestrian, prosaic, even rustic, counterparts in the Air Force.
My first CQ was aboard the USS LEXINGTON (AVT-16) in 1984. The “Lex” was ancient, even then: First launched in 1942, and weighing in at a mere 42,000 tons (as opposed to over 100k on a NIMITZ class) she seemed impossibly small, almost fragile to the fleet experienced pilots that would take us out for our first CQ. She was only 910 feet long, with just more than half of that length on her angled deck landing area.
But she was also a living piece of naval aviation history, the “Grey Ghost,” thrice claimed as sunk by the Japanese during World War II, and thrice returned to the fight. During her long and illustrious career, she fought at Tarawa, Truk, Kwajalein, the battles of the Philippine Sea and Leyte Gulf and elsewhere through the Pacific, earning 11 battle stars. Her final strike into Japan was ordered to return and jettison their bombs after word was received of the Japanese surrender.
To generations of students bound for her overhead marshall stack, she represented an implacable and unavoidable obstacle on their professional journeys; the path to the Navy Wings of Gold led through the Lady Lex.
Before a student naval aviator will ever test his mettle aboard floating metal, he will “bounce,” or fly dozens of missions whose only purpose is to prepare him for carrier landings. This is called FCLP, or field carrier landing practice, and the beginning of a bounce period will for the rest of his career mark the impending reality of going to sea. On each bounce hop, a landing signal officer, or LSO will grade each of his landings as well as test his reaction to the wave-off lights and power or line-up calls. The student must not only be proficient, he must be predictable, and he must answer to the LSO commands. Students that don’t will not qualify at the field, and thus not join his classmates overhead the ship. In most cases they will be given a second chance some weeks later. Should they not field qual on their second try, they will be encouraged to seek other employment, either within the Navy, or as is more common recently, elsewhere.
On every flight you fly in training, you will fly with an instructor in your back seat until you have demonstrated proficiency, before being sent out on mission solo. Except for CQ – when you go for carrier qualification for the first time, there will be no mentor in your back seat whispering guidance on the intercomm, no one to gently help you bump the stick or throttles into their proper positions.
When you go to the ship for the first time, you will go alone.
Finally a morning broke in Pensacola, Florida for me and my band of brothers to test our skills as countless of our predecessors had. We had received a long, comprehensive brief on what to expect aboard the ship, including a hair-raising series of emergency procedures drills – what to do if the brakes or catapult should fail on deck, for example. When to stay with the aircraft, and when to eject. The point at which you need no longer bother to eject, just so we’d be prepared and recognize our impending doom, if ever we came to it.
The instructor also told us not to “look at her,” when we were holding overhead in formation. We’d get distracted from our primary task of flying in formation, with potentially disastrous consequences. Then he looked us all in the eyes one by one, shook our hands, and wished us luck.
He led us out to the ship, through the radio shifts and into the orbit overhead. In spite of his warnings, I had to look down and see her waiting there below. “TOO SMALL!” my mind screamed, and looking back at my lead I could tell my wingmen had done the same thing as I had: Our previously beautiful four plane formation became the shadow of its former self, as wings rocked left and right while student pilots snuck their peeks at the ship and then back at their lead.
Our time arrived at last, he brought us down into the pattern from behind the ship, and we got our first look at the fantail and landing area from pattern altitude. “TOO SMALL!” but never mind. My lead broke left into the downwind, and after 15 seconds I joined him.
It was his responsibility to get us all to a good abeam distance on the downwind leg, and so he did. Landing checklist complete. Once off the base turn, called “the 180″ in naval aviation since we use a continuous turn to final, we were on our own. Set up on final, “in the groove,” I made my first ever at-sea “ball call” with my side number, fuel state and name, and received my first ever “Roger, ball” from the LSO – I was cleared to continue my approach. Hook up for two touch and goes, and after the first I began to relax. Sure, she was small, but so was my airplane. She was moving, but I was moving faster. I could do this.
Then the order from the Air Boss: “925, hook down.” I lowered the tailhook, and started my third approach. Everything was going so smoothly, I could not believe I had been so concerned a few moments before. A decent approach to a nice touchdown and WHAM! The arrested landing felt like a car crash, the jet going from nearly 100 MPH to a shrieking stop in a few hundred feet. My body surged against the restraint harness and before I could recover my wits there was a flight deck director, a “yellowshirt,” jumping up and down and making antic gestures which I finally recognized as “hook up!” The arresting gear engine started its retract, pulling me backwards a few feet, and I received the “brakes on” signal. Hitting the brakes, the jet’s nose high in the air as the brakes, tailhook and the retracting cable briefly fought for control of my destiny. The arresting cable finally dropped away, and a small squad of green-shirted catapult crew ran under my nose to hook up the tiller bar with which I would be led to the catapult.
Up to the cat, a launch bridle fitted to my wings, my internal gyros still tumbling from the landing a few moments before, I was sitting in tension at full power when the “shooter” touched the deck and “WHAM” I was airborne again. The cat shot was just as violent as the trap had been, with all forces operating in the opposite direction. My mind reeled once more.
Three more landings just like that and I would be done, a qual.
I don’t remember any of them. It is all a blur of violence and noise.
But that was the point of all the training at the field, the simulators, lectures and flights. They taught us to be predictable, to listen to the LSO’s unhesitatingly, to operate a high performance jet on an almost instinctual level, on brain stem power.
But I do remember hearing four short words just after my last cat shot, and my “bingo” to the beach: “925 you’re a qual.”
No sweeter words were ever heard.