By lex, on July 1st, 2007
The forward deployed naval forces are those ships and squadrons permanently detached to the Western Pacific, and home ported, for the most part at Naval Station Yokuska and Naval Air Station Atsugi, Japan.
The op-tempo tends to be higher out west, and the training facilities more austere – there were no simulators in my day, and few accessible target ranges – so one of the things that naval aviation attempts to do is send the cream of the aviator production crop out west to serve on the tip of the spear.
Now, the distribution of talent at that level is skewed pretty far to the right side of the curve anyway, but even at that level there are distinctions to be drawn over time. Some folks learn faster and some just do better – those guys tend to be labeled “Pri A’s” – “must pumps,” first priority.
In a standard stateside squadron a CO might anticipate getting a “normal distribution” of raw talent throughout the year, with the higher performing candidates typically arriving only as deployment drew near since the opportunity to train the nugget aviator diminishes with each milestone event in the wake. If the CO begs and pleads for a really talented horse for the stable, he might be offered a “package deal” – a high quality nugget that is offset by an accompanying under-performer. It sounds like a tempting idea, but I always turned it down – sometimes the truly talented guy came with heavy ego baggage, while even the low performing guys tend to be great people that you might end up having to scrape off. Sometimes guys in the lowest performing group suddenly catch fire, but just as often they end up not quite hacking. It’s better to let them go and save their lives, maybe some other lives too and very likely one of the multi-million dollar machines that have been entrusted to your care. But doing so, even though it’s the right thing, can rip a squadron apart, especially after the guy had been inculcated into squadron life, become a part of the team and probably had their buddies pulling for them while they were struggling. For the most part I preferred to take the above average bubba to the superstar – it was always better to have a guy who could play team ball and was willing to learn.
FDNF squadrons didn’t have to make those choices. Things move fast on the tip, and the Navy does a good job of ensuring that fast movers fill the ranks.
A good thing too. When the ship gets underway from Yokuska and the airwing flies aboard for carrier quals later that day, there isn’t much time for fooling around. Unlike the SoCal op areas, wherein the ship – apart from actual deployment – is doing CQ in the same operating areas that it will be training in once quals are complete, the FDNF ship is nearly always going somewhere when it gets to sea. Somewhere the air wing can train, somewhere the ships can maneuver, somewhere the battle group will fight.
So one bright day in the late fall of 1995 I think it was, I flew out to the ship leading a four-ship for day CQ. The ocean canvas below us was torn from its usual deep and rolling swells into a piece of modern art, constantly shifting flecks of blue, gray and white as nearly gale-force winds snatched at wave tops. When we checked in with Tower, we heard the LSO’s on deck calling to a group already in the pattern, “99 bubbas, 45 knots of wind.”
I’d landed in higher winds, but not much higher – I once saw 50+ knots on a NORPAC deployment – and never in CQ. Twenty to twenty-five knots of wind straight down the angle was standard for flight operations. Forty-five was “varsity.”
If you look at the representation below, you can see that an aircraft on glideslope is approaching the ship at the proper three degree angle – the Fresnel lens, or glideslope reference is actually set at 3.5 degrees for normal operations, but the combined effects of the landing area moving away from you even as the wind “holds you back” is to flatten the “real” glideslope to an “apparent” glideslope.
When the winds get higher, the effect is to “push” the aircraft backwards off the glideslope, to send it low in effect. This can be compensated for with a higher throttle setting of course, but the power required to get back up on glideslope is much higher than pilots are typically accustomed to and power reductions have much a more pronounced negative impact than usual as well, meaning it is very easy to go back below glideslope again on a re-correction (“Rhythms” readers will remember that power corrections always come in groups of three).
I was department head, a mid-grade officer with probably about 3000 hours and four or five hundred traps – fairly experienced in other words – and I found it quite a challenge that day.
In the overhead pattern it is customary to turn from downwind to final when abeam the LSO platform, which was nearly as far aft as possible on the ship’s port side. But a turn at that point in 45 knots of wind would have placed me too long on final, well outside the 15-17 seconds the LSO’s were looking for – I would have been waved off. Over a couple of approaches I determined that the proper turn point was abeam the bow on downwind – at a thousand feet or so upwind of the normal turn point this was a sight picture that almost made me ill, it seemed impossible – on a normal approach it would have set me up to land amidships, far beyond the wires. But the ship’s forward speed through the waves and all that wind made it all work out somehow, even if the visuals at the 90 degree position seemed like something out of a circus ride – the sensation was one of somehow being pushed sideways over the tearing wave tops a few hundred feet below.
Once on final the work wasn’t done. Normally the FA-18 was a “fingertip” airplane, you flew it by caress, but that day it felt as though I was wrestling with a wild animal that had its own ideas of what it ought to do. Power control was rough, much rougher than usual as well as I fought to stay on glideslope with everything I had.
It was an unsettling experience, and I was glad when it was over – not that I was frightened per se – it was daytime after all – so much as fully concentrated, fully engaged and when complete, fully wrung out, exhausted.
On deck for the final time I was taxied to the “six pack” area where I was chained down and directed to shut the left engine down in anticipation of a “hot seat” – another pilot would jump into my still turning aircraft, close the canopy, start the left motor and jump back into the pattern.
It was always better to fly out to the ship rather than hot seat in. Flying aboard gave you time to get your stuff together, get caught up with the jet inside the jet, think about what it was you were getting ready to do. You could mentally prepare on deck – you had to in fact, if you were hot seating in – but you could never quite get comfortable. The pressure would always be on to get that jet back in the air, get it moving, get it done, and the first cat shot – not having had the benefit of “comfort time” airborne – could reliably be counted upon to scramble your eggs for a few minutes. I was very happy not to have had to hot seat in those conditions.
Nor was I particularly pleased to see the squadron’s newest nugget standing down by the ladder with a shining, expectant look on his face. I had ten times his flight time, ten times his landing experience and twelve years of being in the game on him. And I had just had my hands full. Now it was his turn.
For my own part, I had some misgivings. I don’t know that if I’d been in the CO’s shoes, I’d have sent a brand new guy out in that environment – it was varsity. But that decision had already been made and my only job was to turn the jet over to him and hope for the best. I got out, he got in, and I climbed back up after him, sitting on the lex and giving him a quick brief on what he’d find in the pattern in just a few moments. How different it would look. He sat there wide-eyed, innocent, completely trusting. I gave him a thumbs up, patted him on the back and gave him my most confident smile, all the while hoping I would see him again afterwards.
It all worked out, the LSO’s were on the ball, the kid did a fine job and met every expectation of a “must pump” even if he did come back even more wide-eyed when he was done than he had been when he left. Went on to be the lead solo for the Blue Angels a few years later, and I believe he’s on his way to squadron command now, if he isn’t there already.
It’s just that sometimes? Sometimes you just don’t know.