‘m not sure where the term comes from. I just know that every carrier pilot knows what it means. And nearly everyone who hasn’t had a “night in the barrel” lives in fear of the night that the bill comes due.
And everyone that has, understands…
In the summer of 1987 I was deployed to the North Arabian Sea – a fresh graduate of the FA-18 training squadron, a “nugget,” I was new to all of the experiences of the fleet. My official mentors were the department heads and senior officers: the XO and CO. But my real mentors, the ones who taught me the essential survival skills of the junior officer, were my JO brothers.
Some of them were nearly three years senior to me. Some only a matter of months. It didn’t matter: They were the collective voice of experience, and I was an empty vessel, waiting to be filled. There were many things to learn. Including the meaning of the whispered phrase, “night in the barrel.”
Maybe you’ll get to see someone else have one – you’ll be in the ready room watching the evening’s movie when the word comes down from the watch that Lieutenant Scratchensniff is having a hard time. You’ll pause the movie and turn on the PLAT – the pilot’s landing aid television – in order to watch the whole thing. Sometimes it can be a real circus. A real hoot. Pass the popcorn.
I’ve written before about landing aboard the carrier, how hard it can be. I’ve written too about doing it at night – something that is still for me, and ever more will be, the hardest thing that a person can routinely be called upon to do. I’ve told you before how the expectation is for first-attempt success , that anything else is frowned upon. But I don’t know if I’ve ever shared with you how much of this is skill (a fair amount) and how much is confidence (a very great deal more).
And what happens when a temblor in the former can lead to a collapse of the latter.
Because when that happens, my friends, you are on your way to experiencing your own personal night in the barrel. And the scary thing, for a tailhook aviator, is that he never quite knows when it’s going to happen.
It can start out innocently enough. You come back to the ship for your night trap, call the ball and get a “foul deck” wave-off. It’s too bad – you could wish it hadn’t happened. Flying the approach is difficult, draining, and if you had your way, you’d only do it once on any given evening. But a foul deck can happen – maybe the guy ahead of you was slow getting out of the wires, and getting clear. Maybe there was some miscommunication in one of the arresting gear engines and the weight setting wasn’t just right. Maybe some momentarily amazed flight deck crewman or maintenance man tripped over a tie down chain in the darkness, and stumbled across the foul line and into the landing area. Doesn’t matter – all that matters is that the deck wasn’t clear, the wave-off lights came on, and you get to do it again.
No big deal. It happens.
And maybe that was the night that you were having a bit too much fun and didn’t bring back quite as much fuel as you would have liked, in a more nearly perfect world. Or your tanker went down , so you didn’t get any mission gas. Or the launch took longer than it really ought to have. Doesn’t matter – all that matters is that you are a little lower on the gas than you’d really like to be. And so you’re very highly motivated to get aboard next time. Before you make a third approach – one in which you have to land. Because you’re a fleet pilot doing blue water operations and there isn’t anywhere else to go. It’s either land or swim.
So you make your second approach and when you think you’ve got the deck made the ball starts to settle down just a little bit and you let it, because, hey – if CNO didn’t want you to catch the one wire, he wouldn’t have put it there. But the LSO is there to serve as quality control, and from his point of view, you haven’t got the fantail made, so he gives you a couple of emphatic power calls. And as you know full well, there’s nothing harder to do than to get back up to glideslope on a carrier approach and not overshoot through it in close, leading to a
Now you feel the first tickle of doubt, the first itch of fear. Sure, you’ve got one more look before you need to go to the tanker. But hitting the tanker is a sign of professional failure – you’re supposed to be able to do this the first time at least 90% of the time, at night. It’s the minimum standard. You get paid extra, for this. There’s a certain expectation.
You know that deep within the bowels of the ship, the senior officer observation machinery has been activated, that countless sets of slitted eyes now fix on your side number on the grease board, on your name beside that side number, that lips are being pursed and opinions formed. In the carrier air traffic control center, the skilled approach controllers talk to the overhead tanker in tones of quiet but professional urgency, giving him your positional data in the pattern – if you bolter or get waved off again, the tanker pilot’s job is to be waiting for you at one o’clock and 2000 feet with the refueling drogue extended – just where you’d want him to be.
But you don’t want to go to the tanker – going to the tanker means failure, and you’re a fighter pilot and fighter pilots are not allowed to fail. It means that while the rest of the recovery is complete, 5000 men and women have the time to silently contemplate your contribution to the team effort. And maybe find it lacking.
But sometimes tankers go “sour” – the refueling gear, routinely checked immediately after launch, sometimes fail in flight. And if you bolter again, or get waved off, you go to the tanker and get however much gas he can spare, but it will never be enough to make you comfortable, only enough for another couple attempts. Worst case you get to the tanker and find that it is sour – in that case you are committed to either a barricade landing or ejecting alongside.
A barricade arrestment is even more dangerous than a “normal” trap, if they allow you to try it – the aircraft itself will suffer enormous damage – the barricade net is designed to stop the aircraft, not to coddle it. And the landing geometry is daunting, especially at night. The barricade is designed for aircraft that can’t arrest normally, like the A-4 whose landing gear didn’t come down in the photograph above. Not for stone-handed plumbers who style themselves as fighter pilots.
Not at night.
And ejecting alongside? The ultimate failure. The Navy gave you a jet, and you couldn’t bring it back. Even with all your expensive training. Even with everyone else trying to help you.
What was the number of that truck driving school?
So when your third look at the deck comes around, you’re very highly motivated to make the bad thing stop. Because even if the tanker is “sweet” rather than sour, there’s nothing to say it’s going to get any easier afterwards, and you’re starting to doubt yourself. Starting to wonder if this is still possible. Starting to wonder what they’re saying down there, on the ship. Starting to wonder why you hadn’t joined the Air Force, with their lovely 10,000 foot runways, firmly cemented into place.
And at this point, it’s not unlike gambling – they guy who’s playing black jack, has tons of money, and nothing to fear? He’ll hit on 16, catch a 4 and win. The guy who needs a seven to make his 14 into a 21, so he can win and make his mortgage payment? He’ll draw a ten.
Because when you really, really need to get aboard, is precisely that moment when everyone knows that you really, really want to get aboard. And what they know, and you don’t, is that wanting and needing are not at all the same thing.
So you work your butt off on the third approach but you’re feeling a little tired, a little nettled, more than just a little bit concerned. And most of all you don’t want to bolter, so when the ball starts to rise in the middle of the approach you pull power and bunt the nose because, by God, you’re not going around again.
Except that the LSO has seen quite enough, thank you, as the engines sound like they’re shutting down and you’re moving the airplane around like you’re having a seizure. So the wave-off lights come on again – not because the deck is foul this time, but because you’re flying like a kid playing a video game rather than a naval aviator. And the LSO isn’t paid to gratify that sort of thing with a landing.
And as you stare for a moment, unbelieving at the cognitive level even as your well trained hands ram the throttles to the stops and rotate the aircraft to the flyaway attitude, the controller comes up with a voice of dulcet sweetness and informs you, as though it were the most natural thing in the world, that your tanker is at 1 o’clock, two miles, angels two. And asks you to report him in sight.
Oh, yeah, precious. It’s a night in the barrel. Only this time you’re not watching it, safe in the ready room, smirk on your face and popcorn in your hand. No.
This time you’re on stage.