Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, October 4, 2011

100 Years Of Naval Aviation

Part I: The West Coast’s only strike-fighter wing, Naval Air Station Lemoore, trains F/A-18 pilots for the runway at sea

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On January 18, 1911, Eugene Ely became the first person ever to land an aircraft on a ship. He did so in a 60 hp Curtiss Model D, which was constructed from spruce, bamboo and doped linen, and had a maximum speed of 43 knots. He touched down in the pusher biplane on a temporary wooden platform on the USS Pennsylvania, anchored in the San Francisco Bay.

Today, June 28, 2011, I'll also land for the first time ever on a ship. I'll do so in a 36,000-pounds-thrust Boeing F/A-18 Hornet, constructed from exotic heavy-duty alloys, and has a maximum speed of Mach 1.8. I'll touch down in the fighter jet on the flight deck of a moving aircraft carrier, at a location so classified that even I don't know where it is.

Ely's landing 100 years ago was under the pressure of thousands of spectators, including high-ranking naval officers and a horde of journalists asking questions. Should he have inadvertently lost control in the direction of the ship's steel mast, a canvas awning had been rigged as a barrier.

My landing right now is under the pressure of, well, myself, and I'm the only journalist around. Should I not make the grade, an operator in the backroom is ready to simply press the simulator's reset button.

Central California's Naval Air Station Lemoore is home to the U.S. Navy's entire West Coast stirke-fighter capability. The Strike Fighter Squadron 122 provides F/A-18 Hornet training for carrier fleet replacement. A landing signal officer (left) works with training pilots to fine-tune their approaches. The Optical Landing System (right) includes a row of green datum lights, from which a pilot can gauge their position relative to the glideslope; the ball, which indicates the aircraft's position above or below the glideslope; and wave-off lights, red flashing lights that are operated manually by the LSO and command a pilot to execute a go-around.

1 In The Hangar
The supersonic all-weather Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet strike-fighter jet excels at dog fighting, and is known for its tactical abilities. Lieutenant Kyle "Nac" Hartman, a NATOPS Officer for the VFA-122 Squadron, briefs the F/A-18 cockpit layout and safety procedures.
"Keep the carrier in the lower-left quadrant of the crosshairs," F/A-18 instructor Ben "Julie" Charles tells me at three miles out, as I intercept a 3.5-degree glideslope on the Hornet's head-up display. "The ship is moving away, so it will eventually self-correct to center." On an angled deck, the final bearing is approximately 10 degrees offset from the ship's heading. "During the day, we reference the heading of the ship," he explains. "At night, we reference the final bearing. The tricky thing is that the final bearing is continually moving to the right." I'm glad it's daytime in this machine.

At ¾ mile out, a carrier pilot will "call the ball" and fly the remainder of the approach visually. The corrections become smaller and smaller. I do my best to fly this formidable beast delicately and precisely, but the sight of my first-ever carrier is so awe-inspiring and nerve-wracking that I momentarily freeze on the controls. I also forget to breathe. Excitement and tension take over.

"A little high, bring it down!" Julie jolts me from my stupor, and I nudge the control stick forward ever so slightly. I'm still holding my breath. Perhaps it wasn't ever so slightly enough, because the landing feels and sounds more like a smack than a squeak. But it's a landing. In a fighter jet. On an aircraft carrier. Just like Maverick. (Sort of.) Before I can exhale, the F/A-18 comes to an abrupt stop. Its tailhook has successfully caught on one of the deck's four arrestor wires. (Does it really matter which one?)


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