Tue 18 Oct 2005
They rolled out down the carrier’s wake, and the wingman can tell by the churn behind that she’s making almost all of her own wind, the four great shafts thrashing the screws to drive her through the water. This will have implications in his approach turn, and in fact close in on final, and he puts a mental footnote on the observation. In his momentary peek out side, he sees a relatively steady deck, for which he gives a silent, unformed but nevertheless sincere prayer of thanks. Focusing closely on the task at hand, he closes up the formation overhead the ship, knowing as always that it would be better to be dead than to look bad, especially around the ship.
Two thousand feet above the ship, his lead starts a gentle left turn at the bow and as the two-ship moves well past the bow and approaching the abeam position five miles out on downwind, the wingman can ease out a little, and steal another look at the ship. Too small, he thinks sadly. Still too small. He finds a two-ship of FA-18’s from their sister squadron across the holding circle, looks again, eyes narrowing, at the flight deck. If the wingman is any judge of men, he thinks that the XO will want to be the first to break and land aboard the ship. He will not want to be beaten to the overhead.
Now approaching the wake again, the wingman closes in again, while sneaking one last peek at the flight deck - looks like three to shoot, one Super Hornet going to the bow catapults, two heading to the waist. A line of steam off cat 3 and a sun glint from a canopy points him the EA-6B Prowler just off cat 3, finishing it’s clearing turn and then leveling off below them until clear of the overhead pattern.
Next lap to downwind the wingman sees the XO’s head stare fixedly to the left, over to the waist catapults. Suddenly seeing what he wants to see, the XO stabs his hand down again, palm down, signaling for a descent. The wingman sees both FA-18’s on the waist catapults, preparing for launch. The throttles creep up as the XO descends, adding airspeed to the airframes, power on the machines. As the airspeed builds, so too the g-loading increases and now they’re level at 800 feet. For the wingman everything is about formation now, no more peeking out, his hands moving a quickstep dance on the throttles as the airframe howls from the high speed and high air density at low altitude. A flash of gray below and left as the carrier’s fantail flashes by in his peripheral vision. The XO passes a “kiss-off” signal just then and the wing is treated first to the sight of his lead’s belly as he banks the aircraft into a left turn at nearly 90 degrees, then an explosion of vapors as he wraps his machine into a high-g turn, shredding all the energy that just been added. He broke at the fantail, the wingman thinks. A “hot” break. For his own part, he would never dare a hot break, not with his current experience level. It’s cool to see, dramatic and exciting to perform. Maybe a little too exciting, the wingman thinks - leads pushing the flight deck pretty hard. Below and to his left he passes over the FA-18 off of cat 3, looks back and sees cat 4 fire, the final Hornet struggle into the sky. It will be a race to get the deck changed from launch mode to recovery order.
This will be tight, he thinks.
On the flight deck, the waist catapult crews labor like galley slaves in the still searing afternoon heat, cursing and sweating as they secure cat 3, bring the shuttle back aft, sealing the cover designed to protect the tires of landing aircraft. Hectored chief petty officers shout and gesture, one eye on the work being done, the other on the lead FA-18 starting his descent from the 180 position. Maybe 45 seconds. Maybe a few seconds more. In the tower the Air Boss watches impassively. This will either happen or it will not. If it does not, he’ll hear from the Captain, thirty frames forward, in his sacred chair, wrapped in his austere mantle of unassailable authority. A safety rep runs down cat 3, kicking at the spacer bars, kicking at the shuttle cover - he passes a thumbs up to the Arresting Gear Officer on the starboard side who acknowledges the signal, even as the petty officer slips out of sight on the port catwalk. Cat 4 is easier to wrap up - the shuttle is brought aft and stuffed out of the way, clear of the landing foul lines.
The AGO scans the deck aft - all clear - the LSO’s stand on their platform, radio headsets held to their ears, in their other hands, the wave-off switches, known as “pickles” held high over their heads, the signal that they know the deck is not yet ready, not yet clear. Petty officers on the platform bark messages into sound powered phones - FA-18 in the groove, hook down - set landing weight to 34,000 pounds. Down in the arresting gear engine rooms, four sets of wires are appropriately set to catch a max weight FA-18 landing at 160 mph. Red lights turn green on the Air Boss’s control console. Still the main deck status light is red. On the platform an LSO keeps up a rhythmic chant, “Foul deck… foul deck…” as the lead Hornet rolls out on final. The arresting gear engine petty officer-in-charge barks back in his own sound-powered phone circuit, and on the LSO platform on of the petty officers listens now for a moment, before shouting to the LSOs, to the world in general, “Gear and lens set Hornet, foul deck!”
He’s closer now, a half mile, moving fast, now at a quarter of a mile, almost at the go/no-go point, the “wave-off window.” Much closer and he’ll be committed to a landing, perhaps on a deck that isn’t ready. In half a dozen minds on the flight deck, in the tower, on the bridge the worst case scenario plays out - a fast moving tailhook pulling out an out-of-battery wire, the wire paying out but not slowing the jet, the cable parting under the extreme forces, hissing and snapping across the flight deck and into the crewmen lined along the foul line, cutting men in half while the crippled jet plunges into the sea, too fast to stop, too slow to fly. The nightmare image passes as the Arresting Gear Officer, satisfied that the last crewman is clear of the foul lines, presses down on his dead-man switch, clearing the last fail-safe, turning the flight deck status lights green.
“CLEAR DECK!” shouts the back up LSO, as both he and the controlling LSO snap their wave-off pickles down beneath their arms, fingers still caressing the guarded switch. That was close.
Five seconds later an FA-18C screams in the arresting gear like a trapped beast, the wire paid out behind it.
On the platform, the back up LSO resumes his chant, “Foul deck… foul deck…”
After counting off 19 seconds from the lead’s break turn to downwind, the wingman started his own left break- much less aggressively than his lead, but still a good turn, the g-forces pulling at his head, his forearms, pushing him down in his seat. He brings the throttles smoothly back aft to flight idle, thumbing the speedbrake out. Under the combination of idle power, high “g” and speedbrake deployment, the jet rapidly decelerates, and at 250 kts he lowers the landing gear and flaps. The landing gear make abrupt hydraulic coughs and grinding sounds in their transition, the sound instantly overcome by the wind noise as they fall into the windstream while the flaps cause the jet to pitch bobble up a bit. Gear down and locked and the sound goes to a reduced, but still elevated pitch from normal flight. With the gear down and verified locked, and the flaps down, he must continuously trim the jet’s nose back up as she slows down to approach speed.
Established now on downwind now the timeline seems to accelerate, and the wingman races to complete his landing checklist, dial his radar altimeter warning bug down to 400 feet (the LSO warning: “Never go below 400 feet without a ball” flits in his head). His abeam distance is 1.3 nm - a little tight - and he drops the right wing for a moment to build some separation before reversing back to the left to start his descending approach turn as the carrier’s fantail goes by, this time in the opposite direction.