(We're returning to the carrier from a day VFR flight. I'm No.2 in a flight of four (a "division"). You're squeezed into the cockpit with me; I'll just pretend you're not there. Besides, taking a passenger in my fighter is against Navy Reg's, so let's keep it between us. The Skipper has the lead A/C. The flight is "Red" flight, after his callsign (but to "Mother" he'll be "Gruesome O-five", the squadron's callsign and his tail numbers). As the junior pilot in the flight (a "jg") I fly as the skipper's wingman, "Red-2". A LCDR leads the second section of two; his wingman is another j.g. who's barely got the numbers on me. We're flying in a comfortable "free cruise" formation, in an easy port turn. I'm on the left wing, balancing the formation, while 3 and 4 are on the right. We're on the Marshal (carrier approach control) radio frequency, in a delta (holding) pattern at 20,000 feet, 30 miles from the ship. The skipper ordered "Hook down" before we entered the delta pattern and I've checked the hook down indicator. Checks good. It's about 10 minutes to our "charlie" (landing time). Here we go.)
Cruise formation is relatively relaxing. As the inside A/C in the turn I'm actually well below the leader, keeping the same relative wing positions as in straight and level flight. The 2 A/C on the starboard side, on the outside of the turn, simply pivot with the leader and maintain altitude. Here's a radio call coming in to the skipper.
"Gruesome five, Allstar marshal."
"Gruesome five, go."
"Gruesome flight cleared to descend, heading 090. Allstar lies 050 at 32. Fox corpen 030. Switch Allstar tower, call 8-mile gate. Good-day, sir."
"Gruesome, roger, and thank you. Red flight button 2."
We're on radio button (channel) 3, so I do the switch to 2 without looking at the knob. The skipper nods his head to the left, indicating a tightening turn. I tuck in closer and lower. The lead gives the "tomahawk chop" hand signal to level wings, and we roll out heading 090. Followed immediately by a descent hand signal – the hand moving forward and down. We push over. Skipper's head comes up and back, signal to decrease power. I do, almost to idle. Staying in position. Skipper cracks the speed brakes barely open, the signal that in half a second they'll be coming all the way out. All our boards come out, but we're overtaking the lead. I'm all the way back at idle with full boards, and in two seconds I'll be overrunning him. But he sees that and nods his head forward, he's adding power. We all do and now we have maneuvering thrust. Even with boards out we're doing 350 knots because of the steep descent.
Passing 10,000 feet. We should intercept the ship's 210 radial about ten miles out. Not that I care right now. Navigating is the flight leader's concern. I'm just busy holding formation and looking for the lead's hand signals.
The skipper nods left and I tuck down for the turn. We've picked up the radial. After 60 degrees of turn he tomahawks and we roll out. My left thumb's on the speed brake switch 'cause I know the skipper's boards will be coming in. There won't be a signal for that. Here they come. Boards in. Add a little power to catch up again. Here we are. Pretty good. Here's the level-off signal from the lead – his hand drawing a horizon across the dash; and the power up head signal (forward nods) at the same time. We're all still hanging in there. Pretty soon it'll be time to cross over to a right echelon and tighten up the formation.
Skipper's up on the radio:
"Allstar tower, Gruesome O-five at eight miles with four."
"Roger, Gruesome O-five. Your signal Charlie."
Here it comes. The skipper raises his left forearm vertically, his hand in a fist at the top of the canopy. He repeats the signal on the starboard side as a caution to the section. This is the signal for me to "cross over" to the starboard side, which will create an echelon formation. The section leader, No.3, moves his section wide to make room. I close up on the lead, move down for vertical separation, and cross under (OK, it's called a cross-over, but you cross under) and behind the lead A/C, popping up in position on the starboard side. The skipper signals with his open palm forward, moving his hand forward: Tighten up into parade formation. We move forward into parade echelon. This is where the hard work begins for the wingmen. But it won't last long. We're about 5 miles out; we'll be at the ship in 40 seconds. There's only one thing to do here; fly the parade gouge. At wingtip to canopy at 400+ knots, everyone had better be smooth. I don't look in the cockpit, I don't look forward, I don't look around. My eyes are glued to the lead A/C, my head cranked about 70 degrees to the left. It takes innumerable little corrections, constant but subtle, to stay in position. Simultaneous corrections with power, elevation, and lateral separation. When you're first learning this it may take you half a year to get over chasing the correction that you needed to make in the previous half-second. You fish-tail, you porpoise, you "PIO" (pilot induced oscillation). It doesn't take much of this before you're sweating. (For most aviators – and this statistic has all the merit of hearsay – tight formation flying is one of their least favorite exercises. Not everyone wants to be a Blue Angel. But I digress.)
I'm so focused on the lead that I don't notice the ship coming up under us. Of course I'm expecting it. Suddenly the lead "blows a kiss" with his hand and disappears in a hard port turn – the break. Suddenly I'm the lead. I get to look forward. I quickly check the horizon and the climb indicator to insure we're level (we are). Check altitude 800 feet. Right on. Speed 430 knots. I've been counting seconds since the Skipper broke, and at six seconds I break, as per the preflight brief. A rapid port roll to 70 degrees, power near idle, boards out, lose about 200 feet of altitude for the downwind leg. I roll out after 180 degrees of turn, and the ship is a little more than a mile to port, as it should be. I see the skipper ahead, just turning in off the 180 degree position. I may be a little closer to him than I like. We'll see. I'm approaching 220 knots, drop the landing gear, configure the wing for landing: flaps, slats, boundary layer control. Gear indicates down and locked. We don't make "gear down" calls at the 180 in the carrier pattern. The LSO (Landing Signal Officer – your friend during the landing) needs the radio frequency clear to communicate with the aircraft on final approach. I check the harness locked, and take a couple of seconds to look around the cockpit for anything loose. I find a loose flip pad and stow it in my flight suit. Anything loose in the cockpit becomes a missile during the arrested landing. Check speed brake in. (Some A/C types fly carrier landings with the boards out or partly out. The reason is that some jet engines take longer than you'd like to spool up from a low RPM to full power. So, for example, if you fly the pass at 84% RPM with the boards in, it may take you a full second to get full thrust. In case of an emergency wave-off that could be too slow. But if you fly the pass with the boards out at 89% RPM, you might spool up in half a second – the boards come in nearly instantly – and that's a big safety gain.) I'm back up on the throttle to keep flying speed. On final approach I'll fly angle of attack for speed, but downwind I fly the airspeed indicator, keeping speed up for the turn to final.
The skipper's through the 90 as I reach the 180 abeam the LSO platform. That's perfect; it'll give us nearly 30 sec's separation. I commence my turn to port as the ship continues to steam toward my tail. That's one of many differences between a carrier and an airfield: The airfield rarely steams away from you at 30 knots while you're landing. The skipper calls the ball ahead of me. I'm approaching the 90 degree position. About 500 feet altitude is right. Tricky thing now is, I've been lined up by the ship's course, but that won't be the landing direction. The landing area is on the angled deck, which on this carrier is at an angle of 11 degrees off the ship's course. I'm approaching the top of the groove, where I'll intercept the glide slope and pick up the ball. I use the ship's wake as a gouge, crossing past it before rolling out in the groove. I'm aware of the plane guard destroyer behind the carrier, and the "angel" helo hovering to starboard. And I'm highly aware of the fact that smoke from the ship (a non-nuke) and the plane guard is drifting directly aft over their wakes. That means there's no natural wind to speak of. When there is natural wind, the captain will steer the ship off the wind to have the relative wind down the angle deck. This makes for fewer cross-wind problems for the pilot on final approach and less stress on the landing gear on touchdown. (Reduced lateral forces.) But now, with no wind, the captain makes wind over the deck (an easily misunderstood phrase) by simply steaming the ship at close to 30 knots. This brings the wind down the axis of the ship, meaning a cross-wind from starboard, which the pilots must be aware of. Worse, it moves the "burble", the air disturbance caused by the island structure, directly into the groove in close. Must be prepared for that, and be ready to add power when we hit the burble.
I'm looking for the ball out the port windscreen as I roll into the groove. There I have it. Make the ball call:
"Paddles, Gruesome twelve, "Gator", ball, fuel state 3.1, Manual."
LSO: "Roger, ball. You're fast."
I am a little fast. (I've been distracted by writing.) The LSO can tell my speed both by the aircraft's attitude (if he's experienced) and – easier – by the angle of attack lights mounted on the front of the aircraft specifically for the LSO. Red light=fast, Amber light=on speed, Green light=slow. I have the same "idiot lights" in the cockpit, directly in my field of view as I'm looking at the mirror. They're easier to see than the angle of attack gage, 'cause you can't be looking at the instrument panel on final approach. The lights are even shaped (a green "high chevron" – slow; a red "low chevron" – fast; and an orange "donut" – just right), perhaps for the color blind.
I see myself going slightly high, too. High and fast is a bad mix. I'm flying a manual pass, not depending on autothrottle or ACLS. We need to fly manual controlled passes from time to time, or the skill won't be there when we need it. I pull power and hold the nose steady. I need to correct gradually, not all at once; then again, not too gradually, or I won't get down on the glide slope. I'm locked on the ball; dimly aware that the skipper is still in the spaghetti. But that's normal. He should be clear just a few seconds before I get to the wave-off point. If the deck is still fouled when I get there it's another trip around the pattern for me. While the LSO is keeping an eye on me, his assistant keeps repeating (not over the radio) "foul deck", until the landing A/C is clear of the landing area and across the foul line. At that point the Air Boss lights a green light and the LSO hears "clear deck". It's often a matter of a second or two between the "clear deck" call and the wave-off point.
The meatball is gradually centering on the mirror; I'm still slightly fast (low chevron and donut). Pull the nose up slightly. When flying a manual pass, you control rate of descent with the throttle, and speed with the nose position. Seems counter-intuitive, and that's why you have to work at it.
"Check your line-up!"
Yeah, I've drifted slightly to port. More crab to starboard. Even in the best of circumstances, when the wind is directly down "the angle", the carrier is still moving away to starboard at some speed, so you always have to crab. Today, with the captain making wind, in a manner of speaking, this is magnified. Here, I'm fixing the lineup. Flying the pass means constantly crosschecking Glide slope, Speed, Lineup; Glide slope, Speed, Lineup. Most pilots worry most about the glide slope, because a mistake there seems most likely to make beneficiaries out of your family. But a lineup mistake can be equally fatal. Almost all lineup problems are right-to-left drift, since the ship is moving off to your right. If the drift is bad enough, especially if you catch the last wire (No.4), you can drift right off the flight deck, still attached by the hook.
Here's the burble. I know it's coming, I'm on with a couple of percent of throttle, to avoid settling. One second later I'm over the ramp, and at touchdown. My eyes are still on the mirror, not on the deck. Immediately on touchdown I push the throttle to 100 percent. I don't know yet whether it will be a trap or a bolter. Ah, that feeling! Perhaps more lucky than good this time. The harness straps are digging into my shoulders, as my body is trying to go through the windscreen. The feeling of stopping from 170-some miles per hour in less than 2 seconds can only be experienced, not described. In addition to the forward deceleration there is the vertical deceleration. The vertical velocity at touchdown is about 13 feet per second, which is the equivalent of being seated in a chair and dropped from a height of six feet. This is not good for your back, in the long run. Together, these decelerations are ... well, indescribable.
So here I am on the deck. The hook has caught the 2-wire (I was slightly lower than the target 3-wire, but safe), my brain unscrambles in about half a second; I'm still at full power. And Red 3 is calling the ball behind me. A yellowshirt (flight deck director) runs up from next to the island, gives me the power back signal. I come to idle. This allows the cable to pull the A/C back somewhat, and the cable should slip out of the hook point. When the hook is clear of the wire the yellowshirt gives the Hook up signal. I raise the hook, my eyes glued on the yellowshirt. That's where I'll be getting all my directions, and if I don't follow them immediately there will probably be a fouled deck for my playmate behind me. The yellowshirt gives Come ahead, Turn right, and Fold wings signals, nearly simultaneously. I power up, move forward, turn right (and he tells you how far to turn right), and fold the wings. When I'm across the foul line the yellowshirt passes me on to a mid-deck director who will guide the A/C toward its parking spot on the bow. As I'm following his directions and moving forward, I see in my mirrors that Red 3 is safely on deck.
Just parking the aircraft can be an adventure. I'm passed on to a final yellowshirt who will bring the A/C to its final spot. The idea is to park all the A/C on the bow, along the port and starboard edges of the deck, and facing diagonally toward the center and forward, so that the flight deck tractors can hook them up and move them to the stern for the next launch. So the yellowshirt aims me toward the forward starboard edge of the deck. He signals "Come ahead". I come ahead. My cockpit is now over the water; I'm looking back at the yellowshirt on the deck. He's looking at my nose gear, which is about ten feet behind the cockpit. I'd like to turn now. It's 70 feet down to the water. He says come ahead but slowly. I come ahead imperceptibly. Finally he has rattled me enough and gives the turn signal. I'm hoping he has figured the track of my main mounts right, or I'll be in the drink. So far it's gone well. I've never actually gone over the side, and I have no idea how close I've come. I don't want to know.
The A/C is stopped in its spot. I go through the pre-shutdown routine. The plane captain chocks the wheels, installs wing-fold and strut locks, and tie-down chains. On his signal I shut the engine down and clamber out, trying to stay out of harm's way as I thread my way across the flight deck. The yellowshirts are of the opinion that there's no more hazardous condition than a pilot loose on the flight deck, out of his aircraft. I'm sure they're right.
The flight is done; all that's left is to pour coffee in the ready room and debrief. The debrief is sometimes actually useful and can clear up issues and mysteries of the flight. I know today one of the guys will ask, "Who the hell was that with you in the cockpit?"