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While it’s true that all-night landings are scary, some stand out. The memory of this particular landing remains so vivid I can almost smell the sweat despite the buffer of over thirty years. It happened the summer of 1989 in heavy fog and low visibility off San Diego, flying aboard the USS Enterprise (the “Big E”) during the Air Wing’s final pre-deployment night landing practice.
By now, most of you have probably seen a YouTube video showing the cockpit view of a night carrier landing. But for everyone else, let me set the stage.
On every night carrier landing, the pilot must at some point transition from flying on pure instruments to integrating the information from both the instruments and the lights on the ship. The lights along the side and center-line of the landing area show your horizontal alignment and side-to-side drift. This first picture shows the view through the HUD on a clear night a few seconds before touchdown. There’s a lot of information there. What isn’t there is the horizon; that line that shows where the sky ends and wetness begins.
(Look closely below the center of all the green and you can see the yellow flight deck edge lights and the vertical red lights that mark the “blunt end” of the ship. )
To the left of the flight deck is the “Meatball”; a gyro-stabilized assembly of five fresnel lenses arranged in a vertical stack with a horizontal bar of lights. It shows your position on the glide slope. High is bad. Low is very bad. Be In the middle! (The picture to the left shows the aircraft on center-line and slightly high. Notice how closely the aircraft are parked along both sides of the landing area.)
When landing during the day, this view occurs about four seconds before touchdown.
But at night, you see blackness on a black background until about ¾ of a mile, when you look for and hopefully see the landing area lights and the “meatball”.
The Landing Safety Officers stand on a platform, even with the flight deck where they can confirm that the landing area is clear and monitor the approaching aircraft’s glide-slope and alignment to ensure a safe landing.
Remember all the planes parked on each side? This is why alignment is as critical as glide-slope. If you’re too far left or right, you will hit something. If the LSOs even suspect that it might happen, or if they see that someone or something just entered the landing area, they turn on the flashing red “Wave Off” lights and the pilot goes to full power to avoid landing.
It was 1989. The “Big E” was cruising off the coast of San Diego, its home port. Its eight nuclear reactors and four huge propeller shafts were pushing it along at a leisurely 10 knots. The summer night was typical, with an intermittent low cloud deck or fog layer from the surface up to about 1,200 feet. Beneath the clouds, the visibility went from less than a ½ mile up to just under one mile. Everyone would be flying precision radar-guided approaches with minimum ceiling and visibility of 200-feet and a ½ nautical mile. If the clouds dropped lower than that or the ship hit a thicker fog bank, the aircraft would be waved off and sent back to San Diego for the night.
I was an experienced A-7 pilot with a few thousand flight hours and a few hundred carrier landings and was comfortable flying the A-7. The Air Wing had completed all its land-based training prior to deployment. Now the Air Wing’s F-14 Tomcats, A-6 Intruders, A-7 Corsairs, S-3 Vikings (Antisubmarine), and E-2C Hawkeyes (Airborne Early Warning) were scheduled for their final practice carrier landings before we headed to the Indian Ocean. The winds were light so the sea was relatively smooth and the flight deck steady. But that made fog more likely. The ship’s Captain would spend the evening looking for holes in the rolling fog banks.
There were four Tomcats and two A-6 Intruders and a couple of A-7’s scheduled ahead of me. Everyone had checked into their assigned holding pattern waiting for the carrier to turn into the wind and begin the night’s flight operations. I was at 13,000 feet, with three or four more birds stacked above me.
We would remain tuned to the same Approach frequency during our descents and landings so we wouldn’t have to switch frequencies during the radar-guided approach and chance losing radio contact. You could hear everyone calling the beginning of their approaches (“205 pushing at 8” – A Tomcat starting its descent from 8,000 feet.) A minute late, the next higher aircraft would leave holding and start its descent.
On precision radar-guided approaches (using the ship’s radar and its controllers), as you approach the minimum altitude you start looking for the carrier flight deck lights. Approach Control prompts you to report when you have the carrier in sight: “205: ½ mile, call the ball.” At that point, if you can see the flight deck lights and meatball you respond “205, Roger Ball”.
But if the visibility or cloud layer is too low and you don’t see the flight deck lights and meatball, you call “205 – Clara”. The LSOs are on the same frequency and usually respond: “205 Wave it Off” meaning: “We agree that the visibility has dropped too low and you have no chance to make the landing. (So, go away.)”
I listened as each aircraft ahead of me made their approach and by the time I started my descent, the first two aircraft had already called “Clara” and been told “Roger; your signal is Bingo.” That meant they were cleared to return to the nearest airfield ashore as expeditiously and directly as possible. As was typical off the Pacific coast in summer, the cold ocean water caused a fog layer over the ocean while over the land, the air was dry and clear and you could easily land without any radar assistance.
I continued my approach listening to each of the eight preceding aircraft call “Clara” and was beginning to believe that tonight I might just be sipping some suds in North Island with the rest of my squadron and fellow Air Wing crews instead of sleeping in a bunk bed aboard ship. But I continued the approach knowing that the ship might suddenly find a hole in the fog bank. That is approximately what happened.
Yes, approximately. I felt good about the approach. (OK, I nailed it!) But like my predecessors, when I hit the missed-approach point at ½ mile and looked for the ball and flight deck lights, I saw only darkness.
I called “405, Clara”. My hand was starting to add full throttle for the missed approach, anticipating the call to “Bingo” when instead the LSO responded “405; you sound good – Keep it coming.”
I “sounded” good? That was an unusual call. It meant that they could see me even if I couldn’t see them, and that I was still in a position to safely land. It was a shorthand way of saying “Take another look!” Things are happening fast now. I have to split my focus between the Heads-Up-Display (HUD) to keep my wings level and my speed and my rate of descent correct, while looking into the darkness to find the meatball and landing area. In less time than it took me to write the previous sentence, I finally see the ship and the ball and call “Roger Ball”. But the picture is wrong. While looking for the ball I’d dropped my right-wing a degree, starting a small drift to the right. The glide slope was perfect but if I didn’t change something I was headed right for the “island”, the control tower.
At that point, my adrenaline and reflexes took over. I had to get the aircraft back into the landing area and flying parallel to the center-line or I would be clipping one of the aircraft lined up along the edge of the landing area. Luckily the A-7 is relatively nimble and since I was its only crew, I didn’t have to worry about being smooth. What I did next I can only describe as a “Gorilla move”. Without finesse, I violently rolled hard left and then back to the right to sidestep back into the landing area while getting my vector parallel to the center line. I just wanted to get back into the safe zone. Catching a wire was a lower priority.
My left hand on the throttle made the necessary corrections to maintain my airspeed and proper descent rate despite my extreme angle of bank changes and suddenly I hit the deck. (Of course, every carrier landing feels like you “hit” the deck. Landing point accuracy trumps a soft landing. Except at Air Force bases – but that’s another story…).
I went to full throttle (in case of a missed wire and unintentional touch-and-go) but instead of zooming back into the night sky, I was stopping. Somehow, I’d caught a wire.
As I rolled to a stop the flight deck director signaled me with his flashlight wands to “throttle back” and raise my hook to clear the landing area. I followed his directions as he passed me to the next director on the bow. As I pressed the brake pedals my legs shook from the adrenaline. Five minutes later I was parked on left side of catapult 2 facing the island and got the signal to shut down. I pulled the lever to safe the ejection seat and unstrapped. Climbing down, I looked toward the landing area. The deck was clear except for me and a couple of planes that had landed earlier in the day.
It was a long walk back to the Ready Room. The LSO, a young Lieutenant, came in just as I sat down.
We knew each other from having worked together the previous six months. I looked up and smiled. “Hello, Crusty. Quite a night out there.” I tried to sound more casual than I felt.
“Right! Nice landing Commander.” With the pleasantries dispensed, he jumped into the debrief. “You were locked in until just before you called the ball. It looked like you dropped your right-wing slightly but you made a good correction and caught the #2 wire.”
“Yeah – visibility was pretty awful. I’ve never heard that ‘You sound good – keep it coming’ call before. I thought I was a Bingo like everyone else.”
“Well, you were stable all the way down and the visibility had increased slightly just before you hit the wave-off point. If you’d been a nugget or out of position we’d have waved you off.”
“Good to know.”
“You got an ‘OK’-underlined. Nice job.”
“Thanks. So, nobody else made it?”
“No. After you, the Air Boss decided it was too dicey so we sent everyone else back.”
“Crusty” left and I headed to the wardroom for a small snack to give my metabolism time to calm down. A little later I watched the recording of my landing on the closed-circuit TV and was surprised that it didn’t appear nearly as dramatic from the outside as it had from the cockpit. Just a slight wing drop and wobble before touchdown. That explained the good landing grade.
But despite the LSO’s assurances and routine debrief, I knew that it had been a close thing tonight. They couldn’t see what I saw in that split second before my correction. I wondered whether my deceased grandfather the airline pilot, had been with me once again. Is that how I was able to do just the right thing when it was required? It was then and remains now, a reassuring thought…Published in