By lex, on May 26th, 2004
… Safely airborne, the landing gear comes up, followed by the flaps. Passing 1500 feet, a radio shift to the carrier air traffic control center’s (CATCC) Marshal Controller, who issues you vectors and altitude assignments during your climb, and passes you your holding instructions. You turnout to port away from, the ship, but you can’t avoid looking at her, a dimly lit and flickering ghost in the absolute darkness, the landing area lights and the approach lights of aircraft strung out on final approach course the only cues to her existence. No longer does she appear as she did from inside the ship, or even in the daytime overhead – her reality as a complex weapon of war, a hardened steel container with 5000 souls aboard. At this distance and in this light, she seems a brooding, implacable presence, imbued with her own unknowable vitality and purpose.
For initial CQ, you’re told to expect 15 minutes of “comfort time” before commencing your first approach. While many will dispute the existence of any degree of comfort whatsoever in the night environment around an aircraft carrier, this is designed to let you get your head on straight after that bone-rattling cat shot, and allow accomplish your let-down and approach checklists prior to throwing hurling yourself at the ship.
Holding instructions generally follow a format: “Raider 525, hold on the 160 radial, 7,000 feet. Expected final bearing is 355, altimeter 29.92. Stand-by for expected approach time.”
There is a marker showing the ship’s position on your horizontal situation display. In the lonely darkness, while carefully cross-checking your principal instruments to ensure that you are on the proper heading, you are not climbing or descending, gaining or losing airspeed, you strike a course line through the navigational marker – a 340 bearing, which yields your holding air space on the reciprocal course south-south east of the ship, the 160 radial. The final bearing is the magnetic course, adjusted eleven degrees left to compensate for the carrier’s angled deck. The final bearing need not perfectly align with the approach course; there are correction procedures once established on final. There are numerous radio calls from the controllers to other aircraft, but since they are routine, and not preceded by your call sign, your brain rejects them, they are not heard.
You work the math on your holding point – 15 + your altitude yields 23 nautical miles. Since you’re approaching the holding airspace from the downwind, you use a parallel entry maneuver to join the holding pattern, slowing to optimum holding speed.
Set up in marshal, left hand turns, six minutes exactly for one full lap. You step through the elements of your penetration / approach checklist. The canopy defog handle goes forward, and the cockpit suddenly becomes noticeably warmer. To compensate, your hand of its own volition finds the cabin temperature knob and turns it counterclockwise. It wouldn’t do to sweat, too soon. The navigational aids are all set to the proper frequencies. The divert field location is set up in your inertial navigation system – you check the range, estimate the required fuel to get there. It jibes with the numbers you’ve received from Marshal. Your hook goes down. You set your barometric altimeter warning in software at 5000, or platform – at this altitude you will break your rate of descent to avoid violating the “minute to live rule,” which states that vertical rates of descent in feet per minute will not exceed altitude remaining. Your next software warning is set at 1100, just below your next level-off altitude – if that alert should go off unexpectedly, you will know that you are “behind the airplane,” and in danger. Finally a hardware pointer, or “bug,” is set at 400 feet on your radar altimeter dial – you will not descend below 400 feet without seeing “the ball,” or glide slope indicator. Finally, you set the “Bingo bug” at a few hundred pounds above your maximum fuel landing weight. After you commence your approach, you’ll have to dump fuel in order to land. The Bingo bug should prevent you from inadvertently dumping too much gas. If you trust it. Which you don’t.
All of this is merely mechanical – it serves to keep your mind occupied, your thoughts away from the trial to come. Sufficient to the moment, the evil therein.
As your eyes adjust to the darkness, you are continuously fiddling with a numerous rheostats to dim the instrument panel lights, the console floods, the HUD and other numerous display levels – you want them to be as dim as possible, so that when the time comes to transition from instruments to the carrier’s approach aids, your eyesight will be as sharp as possible.
The radio crackles, this time the call is for you: “Raider 525, Marshal, your approach time is 32.” You write the number down on you kneeboard card, and cross-check the clock. Seven minutes and 26 seconds from now. An awkward number to work from, you turn back towards the push point, crossing it with six minutes and 50 seconds to go. Better.
Two standard rate turns of two minutes each will burn four minutes, leaving two minutes and 50 seconds collectively on the downwind and upwind legs. Divide that number by two and you have one minute and 25 seconds, but the ship is steaming away from you on both legs, so you subtract ten seconds (the speed differential between the ship and your aircraft is at a ratio of 1:10) and start your turn back towards the ship when that time has elapsed. Your heart begins to race in your chest.
In the Vietnam War, human performance physiologists wanted to examine the effects of combat stress on naval aviators – they wired them for EKG’s, attached to battery-powered recorders. When the data was later analyzed, the physiologists were surprised to find that, based on pulse and breathing rates, the aviators were under higher stress during their night approaches to the carrier, than they had been in actual combat, when they were being shot at.
You hit the push point right on time, and call “commencing.” Idle power on the throttles, as you deploy the speed brakes. A sharply nose-down attitude is required to maintain your target airspeed of 250 knots in this configuration. The ocean races up to meet you, unseen in the darkness, as your vertical velocity indicator spikes to a negative 5000 feet per minute.
You carefully watch the unwinding altimeter, crosscheck airspeed and refine your course. At 5000 feet, the female voice warning system, or “Bitching Betty,” fills your headset: “Altitude, altitude,” she croons, unconcerned. You have been expecting her.
In come the speed brakes, and you raise the nose while bumping the power up to maintain 250 kts and 2000 feet per minute rate of descent. You call “Platform” on the radio, are directed to switch to approach frequency, and check-in.
You switch freqs, but wait a moment before speaking, as you have been trained – fortunately it turns out, since the voice of the LSO’s speaking to someone ahead of you in the landing patter is suddenly heard calling, demanding, and shouting for, “A little power Power… POWER… WAVE-OFF, WAVE-OFF!”
You flinch a bit, as though you had been struck. To have stepped on that transmission would have been very bad form indeed, but while you are momentarily grateful for your training in radio discipline, you also wonder what the hell is going on down there…
Part 3 is here