How To Land A Fighter On An Aircraft Carrier On A Stormy Night
For Navy fighter aircrews, the toughest part of any combat mission can be getting home. Here's how they do it.
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It’s dark—scary dark. Like when you are five years old hiding under the covers to avoid monsters dark.
There might be a few stars in the sky and maybe a partial moon above a thick layer of clouds near the ocean floor. But below the cloud deck is just a vast expanse of black ocean; every once in a while a large tanker might break up the darkness with its running lights. While it's nice to see someone else out there with you, that distant tanker really can’t do anything to help you.
“Alone and unafraid”—that's the term Naval Aviators use in jest. Flying at night over the open ocean as a naval aviator has a certain haunting loneliness to it that only a few people have experienced. The critical task of landing a multi-million dollar aircraft onto a moving vessel belongs only to you. It is a lonely task that becomes even more difficult when the weather is uncooperative.
This is where the soul of a naval aviator is forged: at night, alone, and directly behind 90,000 tons of floating steel.
Editor’s Note: Our good friend Joe “Smokin” Ruzicka has taken us inside the cockpit during an F-14 flight demonstration, explained tthe five prohibited maneuvers you just don’t do in a Tomcat, described in great detail what it was like to go to war in the F-14, taught us some “unique” naval aviation terminology, and painted an incredibly complex picture of what exactly it takes to get launched off a carrier at night. Now he is back, this time to take us through the heart-pounding process of boarding the 4.5 acre floating airport in the dark, while Mother Nature fights you the whole way.
A few things to note about carrier aviation before we take you “down the chute:”
At the end of a mission, planes return to the ship one of two ways: The standard Case I approach during the day in good weather, or a Case III, at night or during poor weather. (Case II is a mix of the other two types and used when the weather is “so-so”). Both I and III have standard procedures, routes, and altitudes that all aircraft in the Air Wing obey to ensure a safe and effective recovery of all aircraft involved.
Additionally, aircraft returning to the carrier are under the watchful radar scopes of air traffic controllers located in what is known as CATTC (Carrier Air Traffic Control Center). These controllers are some of the most competent sailors on the ship and their job is easily transferable to the civilian equivalent of air traffic controllers. I always liked to tell them they were the only people on the ship that could give an officer an order without reprisal—and the officer had to do it.
Under normal flight operations, the ship has 10 to 12 aircraft airborne during what is known as a “cycle." Each cycle lasts about an hour and a half. The ship launches airplanes at the start of each cycle to clear the flight deck, giving the deck crew enough space to reposition remaining aircraft for the next recovery. Space is a premium item aboard the carrier, and anything you can do to acquire more of it—like launching aircraft—is done quickly and efficiently.
There are four arresting wires on Nimitz class ships. An arresting hook from the respective aircraft catches one of the four wires, bringing the plane from 150 mph to a complete stop in about 1.5 seconds. Naval Aviators call it a "controlled crash." Most civilians would agree. The Air Force has no clue.
The most aft wire on the ship is #1 wire. The most forward wire is #4. The target wire is #3. You always try to avoid #1 because it is uncomfortably close the back end of the ship. Truthfully, catching any of them is considered a success. While each pilot is graded on each pass at the ship, this business is difficult enough that pretty much any arrested landing is a welcome return.
When an aircraft hits the landing area of the deck, the pilot sets the throttles to full military power (full power without afterburner). We do this so that, should the aircraft misses the wires, it will still have enough power to get airborne again. Failing to catch a wire and subsequently getting airborne again is referred to as a bolter. Failing to catch a wire and not getting airborne again results in an ejection. Taxpayers get tired of paying for jets with severe saltwater damage, therefore it is in a pilot’s best interest to touch down at full military power.
The bolter pattern is a level oval racetrack pattern above the ship that aircraft enter after an attempted landing. If an aircraft needs to get gas, the pilot elevates to the tanker pattern, which is located above the bolter pattern. When an aircraft is low on fuel, Air Operations—or “AIROPS”—designates an airborne tanker to “hawk” (monitor the situation and be in position to provide aerial refueling) for the low fuel-state aircraft.
The complex holding pattern aircraft initially enter during nighttime and adverse weather conditions is called the "Marshall Stack." The best way to visualize this pattern is to think of a stack of pancakes above the ship, with each pancake being a separate pattern. Altitude between patterns is the primary method of separation. To keep track of all this, the departure and recovery status boards, along with a graphic depiction of the pattern called “Mr. Hands,” reflect in real-time the location of every aircraft that is airborne.
When an aircraft checks in with the marshal controller in CATCC, it provides a fuel state and side number. “State” is the term used to define how much gas you have left. Instead of saying your tank is half full, pilots express their fuel remaining in pounds, which is shortened to two numbers. For example, if a Hornet with aircraft side number 301 has 6,500 lbs of gas remaining, the pilot would say “301, State 6.5.”
Initial check-in with the marshal controller goes something like this:
Aircrew: “Marshal, 101 checking in state 6.5”
Controller: “101, expect CV-1 recovery Case III approach, altimeter 29.92, marshal on the 240 radial, 21, angels six, expected push time 22”
Aircrew: “101, marshal on the 240, 21, angels six, 29.92, state 6.4”
In just a few seconds, the pilot has instructions on where to hold position behind the boat (240 radial at 21 miles at 6000 feet), what recovery pattern to use, and when he will have to hit the “push point” (22 minutes after the hour).
Note that each plane’s fuel state is added on at the end of a radio transmission because aircraft fuel state is one of the most critical pieces of information. Fuel states are tracked excruciatingly close by AIROPS and pilots are normally asked to “update state” every ten minutes. Many times a carrier may not be within range of a suitable divert airfield, meaning the only place to land is the ship—this is referred to as “blue water ops.” Fuel is expressed in pounds because aircraft weight (basic aircraft weight plus fuel on board) determines the tension setting for the arresting gear. Prior to each aircraft landing, the tension for the arresting gear is adjusted to the maximum weight for that aircraft. Additionally, distances to divert airfields are referenced by the amount of gas required to fly there. If a pilot needed to divert, or “bingo”, he would depart the aircraft carrier pattern at the fuel state required to fly to that field.
Example: Aircraft 301’s fuel state is 2.6, fuel required to Navy North Island is 2.4. Since it takes more than 200lbs of fuel to make it around the pattern to attempt another landing, Aircraft 301 cannot make another attempt with their current amount of gas. He or she will likely be told, “your signal divert” from the Air Boss.
AIROPS is the carrier’s hub for all night flying activity. There are two status boards in AIROPS: one that tracks every plane launched and one that tracks every plane about to recover. Fuel states, aircraft mission, pilot names, aircraft side numbers, landing attempts and any miscellaneous information is displayed on these status boards, which is then piped through the ship’s internal TV system for everyone to see.
On the ship’s internal TV, there's also a platform camera that shows a view from the landing area looking back to the stern of the ship. This channel is always on throughout the ship, including the bridge, AIROPS, and Primary Flight Control, where the Air Boss sits. It is also shown in all the ready rooms. Pilots routinely watch their buddies coming down for a trap or use it as a debriefing tool to see how their pass went.
Hanging out in marshal can be boring—except when you're waiting for an impending night trap. More often than not, you would rather just get the approach over with than wait for your push time. Think of the Marshall Stack as looking like a staircase from the side, with the lowest plane on the lowest step and each corresponding aircraft owning a step as you go up. Within their step (i.e. a specific altitude and distance from the ship), each plane holds in a pattern to effectively hit their push point—on altitude, on distance, on time. In poor weather, it is imperative to watch out for everyone else while also making sure you remain within your step. The main concern is to not push late, as this will cause interference with everyone behind you.
There is a song by the Foo Fighters called “Learning To Fly” that always reminds me of sitting in marshal. Dave Grohl sings a line that sounds something like “…sat around laughing in marshal at the last one down.” While those aren’t the exact words, I always felt sorry for the poor person who got the last push time given out by marshal. They had to know the other planes were laughing at their bad luck (many times this is the E-2 Hawkeye). When our squadron’s last plane had landed, our ready room duty officer would play Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” over the loud speakers.
So if you are still with us in marshal, get ready, because your push time is coming up and this is going to be a tough night. There is a broken layer of clouds at about 2,000 feet above the water with scattered layers all the way up to 15,000 feet, along with some thunderstorms nearby. The closest divert is about 400 miles away, so your only real option tonight is the ship. The sea state has begun to pick up and the ship is pitching considerably. If you were to switch the auxiliary radio momentarily over to the final control frequency, you would hear the Landing Signal Officers (LSO’s) give a few screaming “POWER!” calls to those planes currently trying to land. You don’t do this. Best to “stay in your box”; you have your own problems.
Crosscheck your watch with the clock in the jet as you cross the push point right on time at 22+00 after the hour. You calmly key the microphone, “101, commencing, state 6.0”. You sound in control, but everyone in the Air Wing knows voices can be deceiving on the radio.
You push the aircraft nose over and begin your descent to 5000 feet, what is referred to as “platform” altitude, headed towards the ship. At night, below platform is always a dangerous place to be. The “platform” call is a safety reminder of where you are.
On a clear night you can spot the conga-line of aircraft out in front of you, their night lights blinking softly against a backdrop of darkness. Not so tonight. Layers of clouds obscure any real vision you might have. This is a full instrument approach to a landing that will need all of your skill and attention.
At ten miles from the ship you stop your descent at 1,200 feet above sea level and report your position to CATCC, which says to “stay clean thru 10.” They are trying to help with the spacing of multiple aircraft in front of you. You hold off on changing to the landing configuration until just before 8 miles. Once your TACAN displays 8 miles from “mother” (aka the carrier), you quickly run through the landing checklist. Landing gear and flaps come down along with the arresting hook. You double check all of those settings and note your fuel state. You are still 6 miles away from the ship, but it is less than 2 minutes until you make your first pass.
Back on the ship, AIROPS has become a tense place. There are currently three aircraft that have “boltered” because of the ship pitching up and down in the rough seas. All three are still airborne. Two are in the bolter pattern and the other has been sent to rendezvous on the primary airborne tanker to receive gas. His state was too low to make another pass and the decision was made by AIROPS in consultation with a squadron representative to send him to the tanker. A senior member of each squadron in the air wing stands watch in AIROPS for the recovery period. They are there to help monitor their respective aircraft and relay information back to the individual squadrons.
The Captain of the ship calls down to inform AIROPS that he has to turn the ship slightly to find the relative wind. This could cause more of a train wreck than what is already happening. The ship cannot be in a turn while aircraft are attempting to land. However, finding the appropriate amount of relative wind is a crucial factor in carrier operations. Without an appropriate amount of wind over the deck, Landing Signal Officers will wave off aircraft for safety reasons and force them to go around again. On some nights, the ship will chase the wind incessantly.
Just prior to 3 miles from the ship, your aircraft picks up the ILS, or Instrument Landing System, or the “Bullseye.” This is an aircraft system that receives glideslope, azimuth, and elevation signals that are converted into “fly-to” indications (needles) on the pilot's Heads-Up Display (HUD). Then an additional system called the Automatic Carrier Landing System (ACLS) locks onto the aircraft and provides similar information. The main difference between the two systems is ACLS is a two-way communication handshake from the ship to the aircraft and back, while ILS is only a one-way communication—ship to the aircraft. Both provide azimuth and glideslope information, but the ACLS is more accurate.
ACLS and ILS are used in conjunction to lower you to a good “start” position—meaning on centerline, intercepting the glideslope at approximately ¾ mile behind the ship at 360 feet above the water with a 650 to 750 feet-per-minute rate of descent, and a controlled on-speed (not too fast, not too slow). The optimum rate of descent will vary with glideslope angle, approach speed, and headwind component, and timely corrections to the rate of descent will be critical to your success.
Remember, the runway in front of you is a moving target, so getting to a good start is a must. There is very little time to make corrections once you get closer to the ship. You carefully position your aircraft, using slight stick and throttle modifications with information from the HUD to get to a good start.
At ¾ of a mile from the ship, CATCC hands control of your aircraft to the Landing Signal Officers perched alongside the landing area. The communication goes something like this:
CATCC: “101, on course, on glide path, ¾ mile, call the ball.”
Aircraft: “101, Tomcat ball, 5.0.”
LSOs: “Roger, ball, deck's moving, you’re a little high.”
At first glance, you think to yourself how amazing it is that something over a 1000 feet long can look pretty small in the dark, but you quickly focus back to the glideslope indicator on the port side of the ship, referred to as the “meatball.” With the rough seas and the subsequent pitching deck, it is difficult to discern your glideslope position using the meatball. You have to listen to the LSOsm, who will verify your position via radio calls.
The aircraft carrier is big, so big that most waves don’t affect the ship at all. But tonight is a little different. As large swells pass the ship, the stern falls slowly, pitching the bow up above the horizon. Your brain has been trained to look at a fixed object, but with such a dramatic change of the landing area, it gets confused.
Another swell passes behind the ship, and the stern begins to slowly pitch up. Frighteningly, the stern is now staring at you instead of the landing area. The stern stays up at its highest point for 1 to 2 seconds. This slow cycle repeats itself over and over, like one of the horses on a carousel ride.
As you descend down toward the landing area, your heart is racing. At touchdown, you hear a slight “ping, ping” sound, but feel no arrestment. You immediately double-check that you are at military power, hold your aircraft attitude and begin to climb away.
The LSO’s call over the radio:
“Bolter, bolter, bolter. Hook skip bolter!”
You mutter under your breath: “Dammit!”
The LSOs have noted that your hook bounced over the arresting wires. Below in AIROPS, the Air Wing representatives who have gathered shout a collective “Aarrgghhhh!” around the room. The carrier is having difficulty finding a calm sea state and that has resulted in missed arrestments. The tension on board the ship increases. Yet another bolter. The train is beginning to wreck—ever so slowly.
Your low fuel state has now put you in a tanking situation. At the upwind position from the ship, you call departure control and tell them your fuel state. You continue to fly the wave off/bolter pattern until departure gives you vectors (steering directions) to the tanker. With tonight’s weather an issue, the tankers have flown above the cloud decks to find clear air. This makes them more difficult to spot and more difficult to reach.
In a moment of frustration, you think to yourself: “Why can’t the ship move to a clear weather area? This is a floating runway, for God's sake!” You think the ship has the innate ability to find the worst weather—most aviators will attest to this. But you can't worry about that now. You must “compartmentalize,” or concentrate only on the most important factor: plugging into the tanker for a squirt of much needed gas.
You spot the flashing lights of the tanker above and to the right. Switching to the “tanker common” frequency you slowly join on him from the inside. The drogue’s hose and basket unravel out while you extend your aircraft’s refueling probe. A flash of lightning off in the distance reminds you there is a storm hauntingly close. It is imperative to make this a quick evolution and get back to the boat.
The basket is now just 5 feet from the nose of your jet, but the strong winds are creating turbulence that is bouncing both the basket and your aircraft all around. The basket darts about jokingly while you advance the throttles in an effort to plug into the refueling probe. Your first attempt is a horrific miss. The probe catches the side of the basket and flips it carelessly away. Methodically, you put the aircraft back into position for a second attempt. Success. You see the green light illuminated on the drogue are now “plugged and receiving."
The tanker pilot radios =the amount of fuel he will be giving you. It won’t be much—enough for one or two more passes.
The tanking evolution lasts only two or three minutes, time to catch your breath. Departure control gives you vectors back into the pattern. You put on your game face. There was nothing you could have done about the hook skip, and you put it out your mind. As the tanker shuts off fuel flow, you disengage from the basket and retract your refueling probe. You are now vectored downwind from the ship for a second attempt. There is little time and no fuel to waste.
CATTC hooks you back into the direction of the ship with a steering vector. It is time to repeat the process. Methodically, you go through the same procedures, configuring your aircraft properly to land, carefully flying what your HUD is telling you to do, and praying that the ship finds a moment of a calm when you get there.
You arrive at ¾ of a mile behind the ship a pick up the meatball. You are confident and cautiously optimistic.
From this position there is only about 20 seconds to touchdown. The ship has very few lights on it, just a small outline of a box in the landing area and a few lights off to the starboard side near the tower. Darkness is the theme. You continue to focus on the meatball, listening to the LSO’s give you a soft “little power” call. You adjust your throttles ever so slightly and find an angle of attack to keep the aircraft just above glideslope. You don’t want to get overpowered in close and cause a bolter. Precision is the master key to success during the most critical part of the boarding process.
As you get closer, your peripheral vision picks up more of the ship. Things start to move faster in your brain and a feeling of ground rush (or in this case “ship” rush) begins to overtake your senses. The plane descends over the stern of the ship and down into the landing area. The few ship lights whiz past. At the moment of touchdown, you can feel the landing gear thud into the carrier deck. You already have the throttles at full military power. There is a split-second where you are waiting for that feeling of deceleration, knowing the hook has grabbed a wire.
This is the moment that separates carrier aviators from all others.
You feel the deceleration first in your shoulder harness straps, then your head, and finally your whole body as you violently move forward in the ejection seat. The aircraft tugs on the wire and pulls it out like a rubber band, bringing you to a violent—but very welcome—stop. The initial feeling is a sense of relief, followed by a recognition of just how difficult that entire evolution was. You notice your knees shaking as you retract the arresting hook and flaps, and then taxi out of the landing area.
Congratulations on a successful landing. You have added a thick layer to your aviator soul. Somewhere decks below you the ready room is playing “Ring of Fire.”
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