Veteran S-3 Viking Crewman Breaks Down Everything Happening In This E-2 Hawkeye Carrier Launch Video

Expert play-by-play and deep insight into exactly what we are seeing and hearing in this viral cockpit video of an E-2C carrier launch. 

E-2C taxi and launch
Youtube screencap

It really is a dance. Mostly described as a ballet. But I think we think only of the movements of the flight deck crews and aircraft. No. The dance is also in the cockpit and back-seat aircrew positions. It is in the head of the pilot sitting upfront having to pirouette through years of training and checklists and procedures. It is in the cognitively processed verbalizations spoken through a routine connection from one brain to others—from one who sees to the others who cannot.

This video is a tale told many times every day somewhere on the oceans of the world. A short, simple story of the movement of a machine and the men and women trying to safely make their way through well-orchestrated chaos while maintaining control of their aircraft and of themselves. While a video, it is mostly about spoken words—primarily the pilot’s monologue—over the ICS (Inter Communications System). The words are simple. But they are words designed to keep the crewmembers, who are a captive audience sitting in the back of the aircraft, aware of each movement and choreographed event that occurs, from the removal of chocks and chains to the separation of aircraft from the aircraft carrier.

I have never flown in a Grumman E-2C Hawkeye. I have, however, flown many hours in the S-3 Viking. One day, on the way out to my own aircraft, I followed the crew of a Hawkeye who were also launching from the deck of the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71). With their permission, I took a moment to peek inside of this incredible airborne early warning (AEW) stalwart of Naval Aviation that has been flying since October of 1960. I am certainly not qualified to tell the story of this video from their perspective. I am, however, still able to remember the complexity, the intensity, the adrenalin, and the variety of emotions this crew is experiencing after having done so myself over 200 times.

While viewing this short 10-minute and 46-second video, listen carefully to the words spoken. As you listen to those words, focus on the tones, the sounds, the attitudes, and the motive-power of what occurs when a naval aircraft makes its way from one point to the other across the flight deck of a bustling US Navy aircraft carrier. You are about to get a glimpse into a most incredible relationship that has been built on a 100-year-long foundation of ideas, of mishaps, of the loss of great men, and of late, women. A relationship also built of blood, sweat, and untold oceans of tears, resolve, trust—deep, deep trust—love of the profession, attention to detail, and devotion to the safety and care of fellow shipmates.

Now for the video, let the dance begin:

Okay, so the first thing you see is how the video is being shot from a GoPro camera attached to the helmet of the E-2C’s pilot sitting on the left side of the cockpit. Immediately obvious and a little disconcerting is the windscreen full of Super Hornet. Between the stubby nose of the Hawkeye and the sharp leading edges of the F/A-18E's right-wing and stores’ pylons, a brilliantly colored “yellow shirt” flight deck plane director stands ready to initiate the dance.

The first thing the pilot tells his captive, unseeing audience in the back of the Hawkeye is that the carrier’s yellow shirt has taken over from the squadron’s brown-shirted plane captain and has sent the brown shirt and possibly a squadron green-shirt (maintenance personnel) under the aircraft to “break down” the chains and pull the wheel chocks holding the E-2 to the flight deck.  

Once removed, and if the carrier deck is moving a lot due to the state of the sea, the backseaters’ stomachs might feel like that moment you first step out onto the ice with a pair of ice skates you haven’t worn since that winter a hundred years ago. 

Note the flow of the yellow shirt's arms. This may or may not be the first launch of the day. But the Hawkeye is almost always first to get airborne. Back in my day, the S-3 tended to join her on one of the four catapults. The E-2, once at altitude, would paint an aerial picture for the carrier battle group while the Viking would paint a surface picture. Today, in the absence of the S-3, the Hawkeye is the only aircraft in the carrier air wing with a powerful airborne radar capable of surveilling huge geographical swathes, which the Carrier Strike Group (CSG) now relies on to paint both the much-needed air and sea pictures.

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The cabin of the E-2 Hawkeye.

I hope you catch the sometimes-jovial, sometimes-salty comments of the crew throughout the video. These guys and gals have clearly been doing this same type of flight for a long time (as you’ll hear). They are fighting boredom. They are fighting fatigue that comes with repetition and boredom—regardless of how many hours they may have slept. They are fighting a mental malaise of sorts that can kill all of them, and potentially many more on the flight deck, in an "aircraft carrier second." 

The simplest thing can go wrong and might have gone wrong seven times before without sparking an emotion. But now, on its eighth occurrence, it will set one of the crew off on a brief ICS-tirade. The humor and anger are personality-driven. As with life all over our planet, we have and encounter all kinds of personalities. But there are those uncanny individuals who navigate the US Navy’s version of Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day with a strong sense of humor, dragging a reluctant smile out of even the sourest of sailors. It is these individuals who are the genuine heroes of the global war against boredom. Our pilot in this video is one such great soul.

Then it happens. The pilot is instructed to release the brakes and the yellow shirt does the unthinkable—something that made my heart run up into my throat the first time I saw this video: he directs the Hawkeye forward

Holy shit! They’re already parked danger-close to the Hornet. IT’S DIRECTLY IN FRONT OF THEM! After my heart rate slowed to a reasonable rate and migrated back into my chest, I had to take into account that neither of the front-seaters made any protest, but simply complied with the yellow shirt's directional commands. 

THIS is an aircraft carrier flight deck!

As the E-2 creeps forward, the yellow shirt’s hands don’t demand the pilot put on the brakes to prevent the crunching of the two very expensive aircraft. Instead, he circles his hands then starts pushing the air back at the Hawkeye. What the…?

Here is the second ‘holy shit!’ moment: as nonchalantly as if the pilot just ordered a double Frappuccino at Starbucks, he describes for the backseaters how he is being told to back the aircraft up. I had no earthly idea—even after four years on sea duty on three aircraft carriers—that an E-2 could go backward on its own! And I’m not the only one who is surprised. Narratively, the pilot points out that some of the flight deck crew were as dumbfounded as I. But everything is planned for on a carrier’s flight deck. Obviously, even with that cute side mirror, the pilots can’t see a damn thing when backing up. The yellow shirt, too, has limited vision and is relying on others to assist, providing a watchful eye from key locations around the aircraft, ready to signal an immediate stop. It is kinda funny, however, as they continue to be directed backward, how the crew comments on how long and far the aircraft is being sent in that awkward direction.

Now, let me highlight something the pilot says here, perhaps the most critical of the vocalizations offered throughout his monologue: he tells the crew that they “are backing off of Cat 2; looking like we’re going to Cat 1.” The backseaters may have been made aware of where their aircraft was parked during the briefing in the Ready Room. This awareness would be reinforced when they came up onto the flight deck and walked to the aircraft. However, once they’ve climbed inside the cocoon-like fuselage of the Hawkeye and begin to conduct their individual preflights, equipment power-up, and operational checks, their very limited view and very limited perspective of a rapidly changing outside world only contribute to the depletion of their positional and situational awareness. 

Once, with our very whiny auxiliary power unit yelling insults into the night air, I was so engrossed in my internal avionics-tunnel preflight, which consisted primarily of watching our maintenance guys swapping out broken “black” boxes, I completely missed the fact that my aircraft had been towed from the bow to just behind the waist catapult jet-blast deflectors (JBD) on the angle-deck.

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An E-2C taxis on the USS Harry S. Truman.

So the pilot reminds them where they are and where they are probably going. This is so important in the event of an emergency. If you’ve seen any of the videos of aircraft crashes on aircraft carrier flight decks, routes of escape can quickly be marginalized and an unaware backseater needs to know precisely what is going on around them and exactly where they are in order to effect a successful egress and escape. 

For example, if I’m told we’re passing the carrier’s island to our right on the way to the bow catapults and an aircraft on Cat 3 explodes, engulfing my airplane in, initially, superficial flames, I know a ground egress through the S-3’s crew hatch (on the right front of the aircraft) will have me running in the direction of the island. Once at the island, I can then get behind it to protect myself from the conflagration, finish wetting my pants, and then, possibly, participate in fighting the fires as all good sailors should do.

Another thing I want you to notice is that life doesn’t stop for the rest of the crew while the aircraft is taxiing to a catapult. Notice how a backseater asks the front seaters for some sort of input information, probably the GPS/Inertial Navigation System. Then notice, in the midst of the aircraft not only backing up, but backing to the left, which is swinging the nose of the aircraft to the right, how easily the right seat pilot complies with the request. Tons and tons of things are all going on at once, on the flight deck as well as in the minds of these crewmembers, yet their training, mental acuity, and professionalism allow them to perform layers of tasks in what is the genuine definition of “multi-tasking.” 

Such amazing souls.

“Coming forward now. Heading straight toward the catapult one JBD… right turn, slightly more right turn heading toward an elevator. I’ve got a jet off to the right turning, so we’re going to get some exhaust…”

This pilot is brilliant. He is describing even the smallest adjustments to the direction of the aircraft.

“Getting a left turn setting us up for catapult one… we, upfront, are now crossing the JBD.”

Now, there are two reasons why the pilot has made this important statement about crossing the “JBD” or Jet Blast Deflector—the large plate-like structure that rises behind an aircraft during launch to deflect the blast from its engines or propellers away from everything behind it. Think of it as a threshold point. Not quite a point-of-no-return, but an important escalation of flight crew awareness. 

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The JBD is a huge slab of steel that flips up from being flush with the deck so as to block an aircraft's dangerous exhaust during launch.

First, crossing the JBD is a signal for the mindset to change, particularly the mindset of the crew in the back. It is a warning to finish up what you are doing, store those items that may become FOD in the cockpit (Foreign Object Debris—or what, essentially, could become a missile when your aircraft goes from zero to 120 knots in two to three seconds), and adjust your thinking to the potentially life-threatening catapult launch. I’m not sure what happens in the back of the E-2, so let me tell you what I would be doing at this point in the S-3:

-INCOS tray (essentially a computer keyboard): stowed up and locked. 

-Body position: adjust to ensure I’m in the proper body position (although I should already be there) should we have to eject. 

-Harness: locked. 

-Shoulder straps/leg straps: pull, ensuring they are as tight as I can stand (ejection seat-slap can break a femur).

-Helmet visor: down. 

-Flight gloves: on, if they aren’t already. The Nomex flight suit and gloves will protect an aircrew member from flash fire or the rocket motor of a simultaneously firing ejection seat.

-ICS control: switch from hot mic to push-to-talk so when the aircraft goes to full throttle, the engine noise won’t bleed into my boom mic and over the ICS creating unnecessary confusion and noise in the cockpit at one of the most critical moments in aircraft carrier aviation.

-Mouth: shut. They don’t need any unnecessary talking in their helmets. 

-Ears: wide open to listen (listening, intently, to the front seaters talk through checklists, weight boards, wing unfolding).  

The second reason why it is so important for the pilot to announce that the aircraft is crossing the JBD is that it might accidentally be raised as the aircraft is passing over it. JBDs are very quick, powerful, hydraulically actuated hunks of steel that will easily slice the fragile aluminum skin of an aircraft in half, rupturing fuel tanks as well as human flesh. Sadly, I have heard several stories of JBDs being lowered on unaware flight deck crew.

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E-2 moving into launch position aboard the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower.

“Here is our weight board person… weight board person should be showing us a five, four, zero, zero… zero. I see it; I like it.”

The flight deck catapult weight board. It can kill you. It has killed. As a SENSO (Sensor Operator) in the S-3, I didn’t care about calculating the weight of my aircraft prior to launch. That’s that pilot shit that pilots do. Besides, I’m shitty at math. But I am deeply invested in knowing what our weight is and hearing my front seaters acknowledge that they see those exact numbers on the weight board. 

Notice I said front seaters—plural. Both of them need to agree that the aircraft carrier’s catapult crewmember has dialed in the correct weight (as the E-2's right-seat pilot did). If the weight is too high, the power of the steam catapult may rip the nose gear off. If it’s too low, then the odds are very good that as the aircraft reaches the end-of-the-bow or angle deck, it is going swimming. 

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A green shirt showing the weight board for an aircraft about to launch.

As a result of this “cold cat” situation, the crewmembers of a Viking, for example, would be taking a rocket ride up and then parachute ride down to a swim of their own. In the case of the Hawkeye, the aircrew must wait for their bird to stop flying and begin swimming so all five can get the hell out through the top of the aircraft—there are no ejection seats.  

Even then, if every one of the flight crew is in agreement that the weight board is correct there is still no guarantee that the other flight deck catapult crewmember who enters the aircraft weight from the weight board into the power-setting of the catapult will do so correctly.

Remember my point above about “trust—deep trust”?

Our friend Ward Carroll with a bit more on Cold Cats if you are interested:

As they’re taxiing up to Cat 1, note the almost mesmerizing hum of the Hawkeye’s engines. The Viking’s TF34s were very noisy, even through our protective helmet-headphones. One thing I noticed, as the E-2 is sitting there waiting for the launch process to happen, is how the pilots have their hands on the instrument panel glare shield and sometimes make gestures with them above it. It brought back to memory how my pilots repeatedly talked about how critical it was not to make any hand movements above the glare shield. These hand gestures might be interpreted by the flight deck catapult crew as a salute, inadvertently launching your aircraft when you are, in fact, not ready. Of course, this was a rule that came into play when the aircraft was at full power in catapult tension.

Note, at this point of the video, how the yellow shirt straddling the catapult finishes her directions and then walks off to the left with her arms and hands tucked against her float coat. This is a sign of a great yellow shirt who knows any movement of her arms could be misinterpreted by the cockpit crew as a signal.

“Alright, we’re lined up on Cat 1.”

At this point you have heard the backseaters dealing with some problems related to their jobs as Air Traffic Control (ATC) and Airborne Early Warning (AEW) directors. In the S-3, we had two ICS channels (if memory serves). While the aircraft is on the flight deck we were all up on the primary ICS channel. So, I find it interesting that the backseaters are already flying the upcoming mission and it is “bleeding” into the pilot’s conversation up front. 

Now, there is a critical tone change.

This change of tone is a rapid recitation of more items on the checklist to ensure that the aircraft is ready to fly. The tone change is equivalent to a Catholic school nun’s tapping of her ruler on the desk to get her student’s undivided attention. For the kids, divided attention means an aching welt on the upper surface of the hand. For the aircrew, divided attention could result in the loss of their lives. The pilot’s recitation is so rapid that, for me—three decades since, I can’t understand much of what he is saying. Back then, I would be hanging on every word, even though I’d heard it so many times before.

“We should be getting a wingspread maybe…”

“Yep… I’m clear on the left to spread.”

“Clear, right.”

Wing fold. That awe-inspiring, exciting and terrifying phenomenon of Naval Aviation. I never recall hearing my pilots call the area “clear” for the folding or unfolding of the S-3’s wings which were already high above the deck when fully spread. On the other hand, a Hawkeye’s wing fold/unfold configuration makes sense. Leroy Grumman’s fantastical wing folding system, which he purportedly designed while sitting at a table with a chalkboard eraser and paperclip in hand, is a sight to behold. Because of its range of motion, it makes sense that you hear the pilots check to make sure the area visible to them is clear. Notice how the pilot waits for the white shirts (final-checkers who sometimes have a black checkerboard painted on their white shirts) to give him a thumbs-up signal that the wings are locked. 

Apparently, the E-2 has an indicator on the leading edge of the wing fold point to indicate a locked wing, whereas the S-3 had two holes underneath each wing that the final-checkers could peer through to confirm that each wing was properly locked. Those holes were not originally there. 

As the tragic story goes, my squadron, the “Scouts” of VS-24, had a wing-fold-in-flight mishap shortly after a January 26, 1983, launch from the USS Nimitz (CVN-68) while in the Mediterranean Sea. Only one crewmember, Lieutenant Tim Dumbauld, the Tactical Coordinator (TACCO), successfully ejected and survived. It was fate: the left wing folded, causing the aircraft to rapidly roll off to the left and then tumble out of control. During the four-man ejection sequence, the backseaters go first, followed by the front a fraction of a second later. Because he was in the right-rear seat, he was on the top of the roll which kept his ejection seat in the envelope long enough for him to survive. The pilot, Lieutenant Commander Randy Dixon, the Co-Tactical Coordinator, Lieutenant Pete Moller, and the SENSO, AW2 Richard Lanzendorf, were all out of the ejection envelope and were killed. Because he survived, Lieutenant Dumbauld saved the lives of an unknown number of S-3 Viking crewmembers. He was able to tell investigators what had happened and after testing the mechanism, the holes were drilled in the aluminum skin to allow viewing of the locking mechanism.

Remember my point above about “…mishaps; the loss of great men; of blood…”?

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E-2C unfolding its wings while moving into position on Cat 1. 

I might have missed it, but I found the pilot's “wipeout” peculiar. A wipeout is a checking of all of the Hawkeye’s control surfaces by moving the yoke in all directions. The E-2 pilot did it just after the wings were spread. My pilot normally did this when in catapult tension and at full power to ensure he felt that all the controls were working. Very odd.

The final takeoff checklist items are recited. And then you hear a noticeable “Whhooooosssshhh!” try to overtake the pilot’s communication. Somebody’s hot mic starts bleeding over the ICS. Uhhhggg! That thing I hate. Notice how quickly they identify the problem and the guilty backseater assures the pilot: “Yeah, I’m trying to fix it.”

“Looks like Mom has stabled out… two five zero-ish.”

“Mom.” That’s what we call our aircraft carriers, with all the implied and intended affection. And that is what she is.

Now the pilot is transitioning to mission mode. He is still fully invested in a successful launch, but now he is informing the backseaters that the carrier, which all along has been gently turning into the wind, has possibly settled onto a final bearing for the launch and recovery of her chicks. By informing them of the “250ish” heading, he is also providing tactical situational awareness for the crew as they fly off into their mission. The all-important “ish” is the pilot’s way of confirming that the boat might still be in search of that final bearing, however.

The directing yellow shirt signals that the E-2 on Cat 1 is going into tension and passes off responsibility for the aircraft to the Shooter.

“We’re going into tension…”

The pilot pushes the throttle forward to full power. More checklist items are completed as they scan the instruments to ensure the engines are working and the aircraft is ready.

“I like it.”

“I like it.”

“We like it in the rear.”

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Thumbs-up all around just moments before a Hawkeye gets catapulted off the deck.

That final acknowledgment is absolutely critical. The backseaters are part of the team. They must “like it” as well if the aircraft is going to go flying. With the onset of full power, they may see, smell or hear things the pilots, at that moment, cannot. Smoke, fuel leaking, electrical sparking, or an odd sound of the engines or aircraft are all things they are in a unique position to experience and communicate to the front seaters.  

In the S-3, the “We like it…” wasn’t something we verbalized. Because of our proximity to the front of the aircraft, the CoTAC (or co-pilot) simply had to turn his head and see me and the TACCO holding a thumbs up to know we were ready and the back of the aircraft was good.

“Giving him a salute. He [the Shooter] is looking around. He’s looking aft… He’s looking back at us. He’s touched the deck.”

Damn! I love this guy! Complete, detailed information for the three blind mice in the back. Communication just doesn’t get any better! 

The salute is key. It tells the Shooter that your multi-million dollar, many-thousand-pound aircraft is ready to go flying. This is why I made that point, above, about keeping your hands below the instrument glare shield. At night, since no one can see much of anything, in lieu of a salute, the pilot will turn on the aircraft’s navigation and anti-collision lights to inform the Shooter that the aircraft is ready. I won’t take the time, here, to discuss what it's like taking off and landing on an aircraft carrier at night, under EMCON (electromagnetic emissions control similar to radio silence) conditions… with NO LIGHTS allowed. I only did it once during flight ops in the North Atlantic under simulated wartime conditions. I will tell you, however, that it scared the shit out of me. 

Then, the joy ride—the one they pay you to take—begins.

“Oh yeah!”

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An E-2 mid-cat shot.

When you live and fly with the same, relatively small group of people over and over, you get used to their voices and the moods those voices can convey. 54,000 pounds of E-2 going down the relatively short distance of the bow of an aircraft carrier instills its own set of emotions. But, as a backseater, you’re scanning that tone of voice to detect the slightest hesitation, fear, concern… or joy because of another great catapult shot.  

I was used to hearing my pilots say: “Good shot!” Of course, after your first few shots, the feel becomes muscle memory and despite not being able to see much from the backseat, you do know it is good. 

“Oh yeah!” is a good sound to hear.

Note, almost as soon as the aircraft is off the pointy end of the carrier, the pilot enters a “clearing turn.” After he is sure the aircraft is actually going to fly, he enters into either a right (when launching off the bow) or left turn (launching off the waist or angle) to ensure there are no mid-air collisions between aircraft that are launching simultaneously. If you don’t, the Air Boss will be reminding you, as only an angry father can, that you forgot to perform the critical turn.

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An E-2C gets airborne.

Just a few other notes. Notice that the Hawkeye stayed relatively low until reaching the point of the escorting cruiser. I can’t speak to this mission, specifically, but we might have done so under EMCON conditions to keep an enemy radar from detecting a number of aircraft popping up on their screens from one specific locale which would give away the carrier’s position. Also, notice how quickly radar/IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) information started coming from the backseaters. 

Now, once airborne, it was our turn to help the pilots maintain situational awareness of the very busy and crowded skies they were flying us off into. And you’ve got to love the backseater’s comments about eating her boom mic due to the power of the cat shot and bitching about her equipment. 

Finally, as they are passing to the left of the cruiser, the two front seaters start discussing the identity of the ship. As one who had studied surface ship and submarine recognition for years, it made tears of laughter fall from my eyes to hear the fantastic pilot say:

“I don’t know anything about boats… I just know what the carrier looks like.”

Ahhh, the simple things in life! 

U.S. Navy carrier aviation, ladies and gentlemen!

Contact the editor: Tyler@thedrive.com