As the last guys finish their dinner, we all look at each other with similar glances. Not a word needs to be said but everyone is thinking the exact same thing. The expressions say it all. It's time to walk upstairs and play ball. We've been preparing ourselves for this for years now, and it's what sets a Naval Aviator apart from every other pilot in the world. If you can't do it, the years of training leading up to this point are no good to you. As one of our paddles said, if you can't succeed at this you're useless to us as a Hornet pilot because we fly, and fight, in the dark. We have to go land this thing on the boat … at night.
We've all been behind the boat during the day. You do it in the training command in the mighty T-45. It's nerve-wracking the first few times, but once you get over the initial nerves and start getting the hang of operating around the ship it becomes a lot of fun. Day CQ in the Hornet was even better. We'd all been here before and were looking forward to coming back. Landing on the boat is what we do as Naval Aviators. It's one of the most amazing things you can experience, yet it's one of the smallest clubs in aviation. It's something you can do well, but never perfect. Every single pass is critiqued by the Landing Signal Officers (LSOs), and you're graded no matter what your rank or who you are. Being good around the boat is what everyone prides themselves on. Now it was our turn. Time to really join the club, and prove that we can do this safely, with the sun down.
We all walk upstairs with the normal banter and ribbing that's become the norm, poking fun at each other and cracking jokes. Up several decks we get to our level and make our way to the ready room. On the television the deck cameras are up and we can all see that it really is game time. The airplane guard helo is gone (meaning airborne), and it's dark. How dark isn't quite apparent yet.
I take one last look at the line up, double-check my jet assignment and walk to maintenance control like I've done hundreds of times before this. A quick flip through the book and a few jokes with the Chief gets me familiar with prior gripes to possibly expect with my particular jet, then I head to the paraloft. It's business as usual below decks. If you never get outside you can really lose track of what the world out there is doing, but it's at the forefront of my mind tonight. I suit up in my flight gear as normal, make sure I've got my clear nighttime visor on my helmet, and I'm off. The walk through the ship is very typical until I finally hit the catwalk hatch taking me outside. It's dark.
I stand still for a second after securing the hatch to let my eyes adjust to the darkness, and the hint of yellow sodium vapor lighting from the island. It takes a minute to realize there is no adjustment. It's dark. The middle of the ocean under a moonless sky is like the inside of a bottle of ink inside a sealed vault. The best way to describe it is to walk into your closet with all the lights in your house off, at night, then blindfold yourself. As I step up the catwalk I realize the tail-end of a Superhornet is over my head, as well as a 70-foot drop to the water to my left. They're packed like sardines up here. They're also turning, and I need to get to the other side of the deck. My senses peak out of pure self-preservation. I'm instantly aware of everything going on within 50 yards of me, and it's a lot. I don't need to walk into a prop or a tailpipe. Something else becomes readily apparent. I'm getting wet. "What the .... ?" Well, if we're gonna do this, might as well pull out all the stops.
As I step up to my jet, I eye it over as best I can in the dim orange light. The airplane captain greets me in the dark, and introduces himself with a salute and a handshake. There's actually a calming effect. Something familiar. A familiar face from the beach. Whatever it is, the tension is eased slightly as I do my abbreviated preflight. Abbreviated because the back half of my jet is out over the side of the ship. Looks good from here, time to man up and get out of the rain.
Canopy down, I'm strapped in, the jet is up and running with a solid INS alignment and no real problems. Let's do this.
"Tower, 303 up and ready, 38,000 pounds."
Okay … done this too … cricket, cricket. Damn, wrong freq. I get the appropriate freq channelized and check-in with the Air Boss. Seconds later my jet is swarmed by brown shirts breaking down all the chains and tiedowns. My airplane captain passes off control to a set of yellow glowing wands (the handlers) and gives me a salute with a "good luck" look on his face. Great, was the nervousness that obvious? The handler gives me the signal to start rolling forward, and with little twitches left and right squeezes me past a few other jets on deck before handing me off to another set of wands down the flight deck towards the catapult.
Several sets of wands later I'm parked behind the jet blast deflector (JBD), which is up protecting me from the jet 20 feet ahead that's at full grunt about to be shot off the front of the boat. I marvel at the choreography that's gotten me to this point. Somehow I've managed to fit into this silent dance (with two left feet) that is the moving of jets around a moving flight deck, which is launching and recovering aircraft simultaneously, at night, without a word ever being said, and mainly by guys and girls not even old enough to legally drink.
As the JBD comes down, I double-check my trim settings, radar altimeter set to alert me to any settle off the front of the ship, double-check my ejection seat is armed, all radios, navaids and datalink are turned on. My three multifunction displays are all set appropriately, and I continue to taxi onto the catapult. I roger up the weight board for the jet's weight with a circular motion from my little flashlight (too dark for hand signals) and the holdback is attached to my nose gear. The holdback is what physically restrains the jet from rolling forward at full power, but breaks free when the catapult fires.