We grade every landing that a pilot performs aboard the aircraft carrier.
There’s a board in every ready room, displaying the color-coded grades. Everyone in that highly competitive environment knows exactly where he fits in the hierarchy of the one thing which separates every Navy pilot from his terrestrial, mortal counterparts: Landing aboard the ship. You could have an outstanding mission, replete with shacked targets, dead bandits and superior airborne leadership. But if you came back and landed on the “ace,” the one-wire, it was a bad hop.
It’s not only what wire you catch (although that is important) – it’s how you get there. While it’s pretty hard to get a good grade on the one-wire, and impossible if you bolter, there are nearly as many 4.0 two-wires as there are three-wires.
Smooth, predictable and controlled. Or at least making it look that way.
Because we’re all about appearances.
Actually, the reason why we grade landings is part of a continuous process improvement plan – we work hard to do it well when it’s easy, so that we can do it at all when it’s hard. And it does get hard. Chinese algebra hard, when the deck is moving, and the weather rolls in, and the moon is a distant memory of a time when it didn’t suck, quite so bad.
So the grades:
OK – An “Oh-kay.” A 4.0 grade, pretty much the best that you can do – above average, in other words. There’s also the OK (Oh-kay, underline) – reserved for outstanding landings with significant complicating factors – an engine out, for example. You don’t count on OK.
Next is a (OK), or “fair” pass. Fleet average. The parentheses are used in LSO shorthand to indicate “a little.” So a (OK) is a little OK. A 3.0 grade.
Next is a bolter, indicated by a “B.” A bolter is a 2.5 grade – better than the worst normal pass, the “No-grade” (2.0), defined as “below average.” A No-grade is ugly, but safely ugly. Nevertheless, you don’t want to make a habit of being safely ugly. You’re not getting paid for that.
Next down the list is a “wave-off,” a 1.0 grade, defined as “unsettled dynamics, potentially unsafe.” The “eat at Joe’s” lights come on, you add full power, and are asked to try again. Harder.
Finally comes the worst grade, the “Cut.” A 0.0 grade, defined as “unsafe deviations inside the wave-off window.” The wave-off window is that moment in space and time where no matter what the LSO tells you to do, you’re going to land. Somewhere. You definitely don’t want to get many of those. They’re career enders.
Anyone who maintains a GPA above 3.0 is professionally safe. Anyone who’s GPA starts with a 2-point-anything had better start working harder.
The LSO’s use shorthand to grade a pass – something written down as: (OK) OC NEP-BC /IM (NEP-CDIC) SDAR LOBDRIW 2, would translate into, “Fair pass: over-controlled a little not enough power on the ball call, fly through up in the middle, a little not enough power on the come-down in close, settle/decel at the ramp, low, flat, drift right in the wires. Two-wire.” As a pilot, you’d like to hear as few comments as possible, since comment quantity has an inverse relationship to landing quality.
At the end of every line period (anywhere from three weeks to three months, depending on what the carrier has been doing), the air wing will gather in the ship’s forecastle (pronounced foc’s'l) for an awards ceremony. There are songs, and skits and much buffoonery before awarding those pilots who have passed a milestone (100, 200, 300 traps, etc) and finally the “Top Ten” in landing grades. It’s a lot of fun, especially if you’re in the Top Ten. More especially still if you’re the number one guy, the “Top Hook.”
Because landing aboard the ship at all hours, and in all conditions, is what we do. I mean, anyone can merely fly a fighter. Right?