On being a landing signal officer in rough weather…
I was a Landing Signal Officer as a lieutenant. A good job for a junior officer: you got to meet and know all the other pilots in the air wing (not just in your squadron), you learned a lot about landing well by watching others land poorly, and it got you out of duty on fly days.
The LSO stands with his teammates on the port side, aft, usually about 30 feet or so aft of the 1-wire. To his right (as he faces aft) is “the net.” The net is essentially a large basket hanging over the side to hurl yourself into if the guy flying the jet decides to “land early.” You don’t want to be in the net, it means you haven’t done your job very well and someone has probably died (maybe several someones) – but it also gives you a fighting chance of escaping the cartwheeling wreckage and fuel fed conflagration which follows such a spectacularly poor landing as a ramp strike. On the LSO platform with you are four or five LSO’s in various stages of qualification, and two enlisted phone talkers, wearing sound-powered phones about their necks, the headsets draped over their ears. They spend every day and night on the LSO platform, and are as familiar with aircraft landing as any paid-for-it junior officer LSO. They ensure that the arresting gear and optical landing system are set appropriately to the type of jet on final.
As an LSO, the job is to help the pilots “get aboard” by hawking their line-up, glideslope and angle of attack (AOA), the combination of which has a direct correlation to aircraft performance. You also grade each landing, or “pass,” and every grade goes up on a board in the ready rooms for all the other guys to see, point out and make antic gestures over. Being a naturally competitive group, everyone wants to do well of course, but the real purpose of grading landings is to make the pilots focus on doing it well when it’s easy, so that they can do it all when it’s hard. And it does get hard. LSO’s all have the nickname of “paddles,” since in the old days they used actual ping-pong paddles to help control the pilots on landing.
Since the landing area is angled 11-13 degrees (depending on the ship) from the longitudinal axis, the runway has the appearance of side-stepping continually to the right as you approach. The ship is in her element, which means that it is moving as well, rolling, pitching and heaving. Deck movement is somewhat correlated to sea states obviously, but less obviously it also corresponds to swell periodicity: a rough cross sea may actually cause less movement than a gentle sea at just the right intervals.
When the deck is moving, especially at night, it gets “interesting” pretty quickly. Night landings will make you old in and of themselves, but throw in ramp movement and you can start feeling rather old-fashioned right on check-in with approach. You might still be 20 miles away, but the guy four or five jets ahead of you in the landing queue is getting advice like, “the deck’s down, you’re a little overpowered… decks up, you’re slow, power… decks down, don’t chase it! Power… POWER!!!… Don’t climb!… bolter, bolter, bolter.” And back at 20 miles, your stomach starts to turn over.
The guy generating those soothing utterances is the LSO. He’s doing the best he can, but on a dark, moonless, no-horizon night (darker than a hat full of a@@holes), he hasn’t got much to work with. With no visible horizon he’ll ask for a destroyer to take plane guard station, but that can be disorienting as well, as the plane guard is moving herself. An optimal approach will have the tailhook point clearing the round down by 14 feet. The deck can move plus or minus 15 feet on a bad night, and if you’re out divert range, the pilots are committed to either landing aboard ship or going for a swim. Recovery rates drop from ~90 per cent to less than 50 per cent on a bad night – every other pass will be either a waveoff (no chance, out of parameters) or a bolter. On the bolter, your hook misses all the wires, off you go for another try.
Anyway, after that absurdly long intro, here’s the tale of the worst night I ever saw as an LSO – one of those few occasions when you’re happier with the idea of being on deck wishing you were in the air, than in the air, wishing you were on deck:
The night starts out with your humble scribe in his rack – not my duty day to wave the paddles. The phone rings, and the senior LSO on the air wing staff asks me to come up on the flight deck to back him up. The other staff LSO is having a hard time getting aboard, and the deck is really moving. I’m flattered really, garsh.
I get up on the roof, grab my “pickle” (a corded handle that controls the wave-off lights, among other things) and radio handset and set to work. Now then, what’ll it be? First down the pike is a roommate of mine, flying an FA-18 Hornet. Great jet, but it settles down off glideslope like an attorney in court when underpowered. Goes from looking great to OH MY GOD in just about no time. He lands early, a “taxi 1-wire” that no kidding uses up all the available runway and a little more besides. The hook point (although we do not recognize it at the time) has struck the round down aft of the landing area, with the main mounts just clearing the ramp.
That’ll focus you pretty quickly, and we powered the next two guys over the wires to compensate. The third guy, in an S-3, makes a huge correction to go from “no-chance high” to right there on the three wire with a landing so hard he hurt his back and had to be helped out of the aircraft.
Roomie comes around again, and we’d like to see him a little higher too – a few power calls does the trick, but he adds a little more for mom and the kids and has a long bolter. Really long. The main mounts touch the deck, but the nosewheel goes over the side. The nose falls through, he goes over the end on a downward vector and we lose sight of him as the bow rises again. Sixty feet before he’s wet, we’re all looking for the tell-tale splash. Someone keys the radio mike, but no one can think of just the right thing to say… what seems like an eternity later, he pops up in front of the bow, climbing at a 20 degree flight path angle with the afterburners lit. Keeps climbing that way for a bit, too. Everyone gets one more gray hair.
Next up is the second staff LSO, the one that’s already had a hard time getting aboard. He’s been to the tanker to get some gas, and is willing to give it another shot. He really wants to get aboard, it’s considered bad form for an LSO to struggle in the landing pattern. He’s looking pretty good up until just inside a quarter of mile, when I see a green flash on his AOA indexers that tells me he’s a little slow, a little underpowered. I lean over to tell the other LSO that he might need a power call, when the deck drops out from underneath us. When it moves that rapidly, the gyros in the glideslope indicator on the ship can’t keep up – the pilot will think that he low with the deck up and vice-versa when it goes down. Our guy sees the meatball rise and goes to idle power, dropping the nose.
Looked like a turd dropped from a tall moose. My “little underpowered” comment dies on my lips, transforming to a screaming “WAVEOFF, WAVEOFF” call. The pilot cobs the throttles, but jet engines take a while to spool up from flight idle. Unsatisfied with his engine response, he pulls the nose up to stall, which doesn’t help matters all that much. To make things worse, the deck starts to rise again, and I’m treated to the sight of a Prowler (EA-6B, four souls aboard) in full stall, a hundred feet away, partially obscured by the deck – I can only see the top half of his jet, mid fuselage on the belly up to the cocked up nose. The rest is below flight deck level.
Ever wonder what thoughts go through your mind in that last instant when you know you’re going to die? What words will be on your lips when you meet your maker? Hope it will maybe be a brief prayer, squaring away all the black deeds that color your soul?
I’ve had a couple of opportunities to get as close as I ever want to get to that point, and found that the words that drip from my lips to God’s ears are not of the quality likely to recommend my soul to the good place. At that particular moment, my life didn’t flash before my eyes and I didn’t whisper “momma.” My only thoughts were, “I’m farked,” or words to that effect.
Somehow, miraculously, the deck, which had been rising, fell away tentatively. As though unsure that this was the right thing to do. The Prowler’s engines caught up, and he danced by us in wing-rock, almost fully stalled.
When I regained my personal motor control, I looked over to “the net,” where by rights I ought to have cast myself. Two or three of my teammates stood there transfixed, holding on to each other at the very deck edge, unable to make the leap. Of the two enlisted phone talkers, who didn’t get paid for that kind of sh!t, there was no sign, except that of their sound-powered phone cords dangling over the side, swinging slowly from left to right. They’d seen enough. They bailed.
Much smarter than their officers, those fellas.