By lex, on May 25th, 2004
You’ve finished your mission, and returned to the carrier, setting up for your night approach and landing. If you’re lucky, you’ll have quite a few night traps under your belt, maybe a couple in the last week or so.
Not that you’d want to do it every night, but proficiency and currency are two altogether different things. And I am convinced that landing aboard an aircraft carrier at night is the hardest thing that anyone could routinely be called upon to do.
Day traps get to be fun, after a while – your skills are tested, but you have a very high degree of confidence that you’ll be successful. The horizon is in clear view, the ship and all her visual cues lays there before you. Line up is easy. Judging relative winds is relatively easy. Glide slope is apparent throughout the landing pattern, once you’re used to the sight picture.
It never gets to be fun at night, and it never really gets easy – just easier.
The first time you will have carrier qualed at night will be in your fleet aircraft. You join the fleet replacement squadron after day CQ in the training command – you’ll join them wearing your wings of gold. They will welcome you to the team; teach you how to fly the aircraft you have been assigned to in the fleet. They will teach you how to fight that aircraft, how to bomb, strafe and claw for control of the air around you. You will learn how to navigate at high speeds and low altitudes using advanced navigation systems, how to refuel in mid-air – a necessary survival skill for an FA-18 pilot. And at the very end of the syllabus, they will teach you how to land aboard the aircraft carrier at night. Hopefully you will succeed on your first attempt, some do not. Of those who do not, many will pray to succeed the next time out. Because you only get two chances, and those wings of gold aren’t permanently attached – as hard as it is to earn the right to wear them, they come off easily enough.
My landing signal officers in the replacement squadron put it to me this way: Maybe you’ll go to war, and maybe you won’t. But if you’re going to fly fighter aircraft off an aircraft carrier, you are going to have to be able to do it at night. And on any given approach, if you’re not as close to perfect as is humanly possible, you could no kidding die. Or words to that effect.
Having spent a month or more doing little but field carrier landing practice, simulators and lectures, you head out to the ship for your day CQ. You’re not in a training jet anymore – it’s a no-kidding fighter. Heavier, larger and much more advanced. But the day CQ is something you’ve done before, albeit in a different aircraft. And once you get used to the landing systems presented on your head’s up display, you’ll truly come to appreciate the efforts that smart engineers and test pilots have gone through to make the aircraft easy to fly, easy to land.
Day CQ complete, you will brief with the lead LSO for the evening CQ in one of the carrier ready rooms – a place still as alien to you now as it will be familiar in a year or so. Eventually the time will come to suit up, and test yourself against the terror machine. First comes the g-suit, over your coveralls. Then, after a brief preflight of your harness and survival gear – flashlight, strobe light, flares, radio, that too goes on, over the g-suit. Then finally you put on your helmet, and ensure that your inflight guide, kneeboard and checklists are where they are supposed to be, in a small bag you’ll carry to the jet in your hand. And then you walk out of the rigger’s shop, up to roof.
Up the starboard side, away from the landing area, away from the noise of carrier jets whumping on board, their engines running up to full power as they land, the shrieking protest of the arresting gear as it pays out under the strain of stopping 18 tons of aircraft moving at a hundred and fifty miles per hour. You make your way to flight deck control, a small compartment right forward on the ship’s superstructure, or island. There a lordly being called “The Handler” sits in his throne, watching a strangely shaped table laid out before him, a miniature version of the flight deck. Upon this desk are small cut-out figures, airplane planforms complete with side numbers, being moved from spot to spot by a junior Sailor wearing sound-powered phones – an aircraft lands, and like a magician at a vaudeville show, he’ll place a planform in the landing area, moving it from spot to spot. Sometimes it goes to the bow, for another launch. Sometimes it gets sidelined, and bolt nut is placed on the planform – you’ll learn later that this signifies an airplane being refueled on deck, and that the cut-outs are all to scale with each other, and the flight deck itself. But it is all a mystery to you at this point, some bizarre ritual whose meaning you can only guess at, and anyway you don’t care. You’ve got other things to think about.
You look around the room, feeling very ill at ease, but trying to be casual, trying not to appear concerned. Largely, you will fail in these attempts. The Handler has seen this all before, thousands of times, and he will look at you and smile slightly, but not unkindly. And then he’ll go back to his job.
Eventually he will turn to you and say, “Your jet’s on deck, just forward of the island.” So you will pick up your gear, open the hatch and stumble into the darkness. Only the landing area itself is lighted directly – everything else is shadows and gloom.
Just getting to your airplane is challenge enough – there are fighters turning engines on the deck, swinging their exhaust pipes as they taxi under the control of their directors. Even at idle power their residual thrust could knock you down, or blow you over the side. There are E-2 command and control aircraft up there turning as well, their propeller blades invisible disks of spinning murder. Even the aircraft that are silent have hazards – tie down chains to hold them to the deck, as well as snaking power lines from open deck hatches, and fuel lines that kick like living things as the hose is pressurized – all of these to trip the unwary or uninitiated, sending them lurching towards some other, unseen and more fatal hazard.
You arrive beside the jet that you will fly in – your predecessor awaits you in the cockpit, awaits the completion of your abbreviated pre-flight inspection. You give him a thumbs-up, and you hear the left engine spool down. The plane captain lowers the ladder, and he climbs out. You replace him. He’ll climb up after you, to give you a quick pass down on the jet itself. You see relief in his eyes that it is over, for now. You see pride in what he has accomplished. And then he is gone, and you are alone with your thoughts.
When the canopy comes down, you feel almost comfortable again – this environment you know. There are checklists to go through, things you know how to do. And then you are ready. The flight deck director breaks down your tie down chains and chocks at your signal, and leads you to the bow. Everything seems to be happening much faster than it did in the daytime, and your heart races as you perform the take off checklists over and over again, convinced you have omitted some critical step. In moments you are on the catapult, the engines screaming at full power – you turn on your external lights with a pinky switch on the outboard throttle quadrant, and after a few, agonizing moments of suspense, the catapult fires.
All violence and noise and a suppressed grunt that is not very far from a scream in the back of your throat as you go from a standing start to 180 mph in roughly two seconds. Hurtled from the deck, she springs into the air and your vision clears enough to see the airspeed on the HUD, and the altimeter climbing. “Airborne,” you call on the radio. “Alive,” you say to yourself…
Part 2 is here.