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.
I spread the wings and continue to taxi forward to set the holdback. The launch bar comes down, and I’m directed to roll forward a few more feet. Then it comes … the signal to take tension. With a familiar “thunk” I feel the launch bar drop into the shuttle as I advance the throttles to full power. The jet squats down under the strain of the engines, I wipe out the flight controls and run through my take-off checks one last time; I’m also rehearsing my “settle off the catapult” procedures should the worst happen, and touching the ejection handle to make sure it’s not folded under my leg or something. With a check of the flight control page, the trim settings are correct, no computer problems and check list complete; now a repeater of the head-up display is brought up on the left MFD, a repeater of the attitude indicator on the right. Should something happen on the cat I’ve got four redundancies of the jet’s attitude now staring at me. I should also add that from the JBD coming down to me taking the catapult has all taken place in about 25 seconds.
With the jet at full power, just shy of the afterburners, and a quick triple-checking glance, I look left at the catapult officer and give him a salute. Not really for him, he can’t even see me, it’s too dark. More so for my own familiarity. With my pinky finger on the throttles I click forward the exterior light master switch, and the deck comes alive with the light of the form lights, red and green nav lights, and strobes. This is the official salute that I’m ready.
Left palm open and pressed against the throttles (so I don’t inadvertently pull them back from the force of the cat shot), right hand up on the canopy grip, and I press my head back against the seat looking forward down the cat. The only light in front of me is the green cat status light. I’m about to be shot into a black rainy sky, why? With that thought the jet squats again and then it comes. WHAM! I slam the throttle to full afterburner and stare at the airspeed to make sure I see three digits by the end of the cat stroke. Over the span of the next 310 feet and roughly two seconds, myself and my jet have accelerated to over 175 knots. At least that was the last speed I saw prior to the jolt of coming off the front of the ship. It almost hurts. As the jet rotates itself to a nice climb attitude I grab the stick, raise the gear and pull the throttles out of blower. You know what? It’s freakin’ dark out here. I make my airborne call and get switched over to marshal. Kind of like approach control for the ship. I also realize that I’m in the weather, and it’s dark. This sucks. I check in and my marshal instructions are immediately force-fed to me.
“303 take angels 7, marshal mom’s 310, expected final bearing 124, expected approach time two one.”
If they could see me right now, they’d probably wipe the drool off my chin as my brain tries to remember what was just said. Amazed at myself for actually catching all that, I climb to 7,000 feet and point myself northwest. The marshal distance is a function of altitude to keep things simple. Add 15 to your marshal altitude. I’ve got my radar looking out in front of me, and before long there are several hits on my radar in front of me, above and below. It’s the marshal stack. This is a good thing as it means I’m going to the right place, those hits are my friends out there already established in holding and I get warm and fuzzy. As I look down at my clock and speed up to roughly 400 knots, I realize my push time is three minutes away, and I’m 30 miles away. Not gonna happen. I request a new push, and establish myself in holding. For the next few minutes I’ve got “comfort time,” which really is just used to think about what I’m about to try and accomplish.
Something finally goes my way when I hit my marshal fix at exactly 22 miles just as the clock ticks through my push time.
“Marshal 303 commencing, state 7.4, altimeter 29.75.”
“Roger turn right 150.”
“Sweet,” I think to myself. Vectors means I don’t have to fly the full arcing approach. As I descend I keep checking my radar altimeter bug and rolling it down. More than a few guys have lost track of what they were doing and flown themselves into the water, after all, it’s a dark black hole out here. Especially in the weather. With a quick glance at my weight I see I’m a few hundred pounds above max trap weight. Perfect, I’ll arrive behind the boat right at max trap weight. No need to dump gas to lighten up. As I get vectored behind the ship for a datalink approach (an ILS of sorts), I level off at 1,200 feet and realize I’m out of the weather. How can I tell? There’s a light off to my left at about 14 miles. I have to land on it. They did studies in Vietnam, and guys had higher pulses and blood pressures behind the boat at night after a mission than they did when they were getting shot at. I now know why-it’s dark out here. There are a lot of things that can go wrong. Back into the weather I go as I get a quick turn to final and intercept the ACLS, which brings me down to about 1,000 feet before it drops lock.
“303 negative needles, negative bullseye.” This night just got better.
“Roger continue, reattempt lock on at 2 miles.”
“Yeah, sure,” I say out loud to myself, and I continue down using the tacan radial to navigate. Just then I break out and see out in front of me a flashing red light, amongst the 12 or so lights I can see that comprise the postage stamp out in the distance I’m supposed to land on. It’s the laser line up behind the boat telling me I’m left of course, of course. Why drop lock on centerline? Well, I can solve line up, there’s a start. With a steady amber light telling me I’m lined up with the ship now, I just work to get “on the ball.” At a mile approach finally just gives up with the ACLS.
“303, ¾ of a mile, call the ball.”
“303 Hornet Ball, 6.9.”
With a calm “roooger ball” the familiar voice of paddles takes the edge off a little. I’m working the strongest crosswind I’ve ever experienced in my 25 trap career, flying the ball out the left side of the canopy, rather than through the HUD like normal. This sucks, and it’s flippin’ dark out here. As I fight line up I can feel the burble that the ship’s aerodynamic wake puts out as I approach the ramp, and the ball reflects this as I try to fly my head through the four-foot window it represents.
The “ball” is a yellow light between a set of green horizontal datums. It represents your position to the appropriate glideslope. Above the datums you’re high, below you’re low. At the start of the pass at three-quarters of a mile, from full high to full low is about 21 feet of altitude. At the ramp it’s about four feet. Right at the wires, each cell of the ball represents nine inches (so says paddles).
I bring on the power to stop the settle. As the ball starts to sag in close I bring on more power and in my peripheral vision I can see I’m over steel. A few split seconds and a few more power corrections as I stare down the ball staring back at me and a familiar WHAM. I touch down with a rate of descent of around 900 feet per minute, enough to destroy most other airplanes. I bend the throttles over the stops going to full afterburner, but I’m greeted with a familiar feeling of being slammed forward in my straps as I slow from 145 knots to zero in about two seconds. With the jet at a stop, and the blowers still blazing, I throttle back and hear the one thing I reminded myself not to do.
“Lights on deck.”
DAMN! Lights come off on deck at night. Lights on indicates an emergency and I told myself to remember that. It’s just not part of the habit pattern during the day. At least not yet for me. This is all in the two seconds since I’ve stopped of course, but I’m still irritated. With a familiar yank backwards the wire drops away from the tail hook, I see some yellow wands giving me the hook-up sign. I roll out of the landing area, folding my wings and cleaning up the cockpit (resetting flaps, trim, my radalt, etc).
Thirty seconds later I’m sitting behind the JBD, takeoff checks partly complete, trim set, with the jet in front of me at full tilt ready to be shot. Happy to still be alive, I think about the last pass, and how I can better energize the jet, and where I need to make power corrections to fly a better pass. Then the JBD drops, and some yellow wands in the darkness start motioning for me forward onto the catapult. It’s dark up there, and I have to do this about a half-dozen more times. This is going to be a long night.