By Whisper, on March 6th, 2011
Aviation photography has been a hobby of mine for over 15 years now. I truly got the bug in 2003 when the photo lab on Enterprise loaned me a Nikon D100 to take for a spin over Afghanistan and later Iraq. Earlier this year, on the occasion of a short form flight physical, my family was kind enough to throw some cash on the fire and upgrade my old Canon 10D to a 60D. I hope to make you the beneficiary of this gift as well.
I decided to take my new toy up to the flight deck during a rain storm off the Florida coast last month. Hiding in the thirty knot rain shadow behind the nose of an E-2C Hawkeye parked along the foul line, I watched the day Case III recovery. There are a hundred different things to point out in the photo above, at least one of which I did not notice when composing it.
A quick review of CV NATOPS for the uninitiated:
First of all, what is a case three recovery? Weather conditions at the boat fall in to three categories. Case I is the preferred option. It is by default a “zip-lip” recovery, there are no “ball calls”, no vectors to final, no extemporaneous chatting over the tower frequency. Case I implies visual meteorological conditions (VMC) and requires a 3,000ft ceiling and 5 miles visibility. It’s an aerial ballet without the music. Jets and props stack-up overhead the ship in time to monitor the launch of the next cycle. Each squadron has an assigned altitude and the guys at the bottom of the stack are responsible for commencing in time so that there is no open deck time between the launch and the recovery. Once the recovery has begun, the stack automatically collapses down in a Coriolis inspired way.
Case II is a VMC recovery as well, but involves getting a descent through the clouds in order to reach VMC and join the tower pattern.
This of course leaves Case III for explanation. During instrument meteorological conditions (IMC), (and always at night) we execute a Case III recovery, more specifically the CV-1 approach. It is basically an all inclusive holding, penetration, and instrument approach procedure that drops you off on a 3.5 degree glideslope behind the ship. Case III is a 1200’ extended pattern around the boat whereas the Case I pattern is kept tighter and flown at 600’. It takes almost twice as much fuel to take a lap around the Case III pattern.
The published minimums for an ILS or ACLS approach to the ship are 260’ and one half mile visibility for turbojet aircraft. Tradition demands that a “ball call” be made at three quarters of a mile to seal your contract with paddles, ensure the lens and gear are set to the right setting, and let everyone know how you mismanaged your fuel for the previous 1+30. What if you’re still in a cloud at ¾ mile and are proceeding evermore towards your 260’ decision height with nothing in sight? We have a word for that: clara. You can be clara ship, clara line-up, or just plain clara ball (usually because you’ve blown it off the top of the lens). In the event that you’re clara ship, the words that you long to hear are “Paddles contact, you’re on glideslope.”
So back to that picture… in this case it is pouring rain monsoon style, and paddles has made the call, “99, taxi lights on.” That’s a call you love to hear in marshal – a real seat cushion sucker. Hopefully, the halogen bulb mounted three feet above your nose wheel will help the LSOs see you a little sooner and facilitate that sugary sweet “paddles contact” call. I’ve expended a lot of text to tell you this – it sucks to be that guy who is about ten seconds from landing on the ship and is just now starting to break-out the rabbit lights running the length of the landing area. But hey, at least it is not nighttime!
And the thing I didn’t notice until I was reviewing the photos in my warm, dry stateroom? That poor kid sitting there with the shuffleboard stick. I’m sure his job has a title, but I don’t know what it is. I do believe, however, that he is one of the more insane people on the flight deck – I doubt even Mike Rowe would sign a waiver to try this dirty job. After a jet traps, this kid goes running out into the landing area to push on the arresting wire as it retracts through the sheaves and recedes into its below deck home. There is a large turnbuckle that connects the expendable cross deck pendant to the hundreds of feet of arresting wire that gets pulled-out on landing. Shuffleboard stick guy makes sure the wire feeds cleanly into the sheaves and that the turnbuckle doesn’t damage the other arresting gear mounts as it goes bouncing by.
The guys on the flight deck work a single shift during normal flight operations. They are up there, on average, fourteen hours a day in some of the most dangerous and demanding conditions imaginable. As you can tell from our man’s body language, it is exhausting work. The salt, however, quickly accumulates. That kid was probably in high school a year ago, and he was probably scared out of his mind his first few days on the flight deck. But if you shoved a camera in his face today and asked him about his job I am confident he would tell you: No big deal.
If you thought my description of the rain to be exaggerated, I offer you two more photos to ponder…