Established now on downwind now the timeline seems to accelerate, and the wingman races to complete his landing checklist, dial his radar altimeter warning bug down to 400 feet (the LSO warning: “Never go below 400 feet without a ball” flits in his head). His abeam distance is 1.3 nm – a little tight – and he drops the right wing for a moment to build some separation before reversing back to the left to start his descending approach turn as the carrier’s fantail goes by, this time in the opposite direction.
The velocity vector on his HUD resembles a simplified aircraft symbol, and provides almost all his initial angle of bank and rate of descent data – it’s driven by dampened inputs from his laser ring gyro inertial navigation system, and so provides near instantaneous performance feedback. A bit of throttle off at the 180-degree position, a little bit of forward stick pressure to maintain on speed angle of attack and 30 degrees angle of bank – he was a little tight on the abeam distance.
Initial rate of descent is about 200-300 foot per minute, and he’ll look to increase that to around -500 FPM at the 90-degree position. At the 90, he hopes to be at 500 feet or so above the sea, using the precise information provided by his RADALT, or radar altimeter. Once he starts the approach turn from the 180 to the 90, he’s going to be on the gauges all the way. First “peek” outside is at the 90.
Ugh. The visual picture is that he’s high and tight – too close to the ship, well above glideslope. But he flicks the panic wave away with the half-formed thought that it always looks that way at the ship – she’s sailing away from him at nearly thirty knots and he’s still being blown downwind. Too, the landing area is offset eleven degrees to port from the ship’s longitudinal axis – he has a bit more time to turn than is intuitively apparent. Still, it’s hard to overcome the desire to really wrap the jet up and dump the nose. It takes discipline. He has discipline.
Back on the gauges. Approaching the 45 position, he should be somewhere between 375 and 425 feet on the RADALT. Another peek outside – yes, there’s the yellow meatball, cresting slightly above the horizontal green array of the reference datum – a little above glideslope. “Altitude, altitude,” and it’s the female voice warning system, “Bitchin’ Betty,” but it’s OK, he has a ball and can continue the descent.
Not a bad place to be. 325 crossing the wake. Perfect.
Rules to live by:
1) Never lead a low or a slow.
2) If you’re low and slow, add power and maintain attitude until the ball is in the center, then accel to on-speed.
3) Always lead a high or a fast.
4) If you’re high and fast, decel to on-speed and then work the ball down to the center.
5) Fly the ball to touchdown. Don’t give up.
Fifteen seconds. Rolling out with the left edge of the ship’s churning wake under his left armpit, and the meatball in the center, he sets the velocity vector at three degrees nose low, should get us to -700FPM or so, checks AOA and line-up.
13 seconds. A little fast out of the turn, lined up a little left. A little throttle off, a little right wing down, don’t overshoot. Lead the power back on, rate of descent increases with angle of bank, don’t want to go low. Don’t want to get slow.
10 seconds. Lineup is walking away to the right, yes, she’s making her own winds, that’s what happens, going a little high too, cross check the rate of descent, a little right wing down to catch it, a little power off. Flicker slow, a little nose down to get on speed. Ugh! Not too much, need power add a little…
“A little power,” on the UHF and that’s the LSO calling, and there goes my OK pass he thinks with seven seconds to go, and he has to add more than he’d like because you don’t get to not respond to the LSO and now he’s a full ball high and going flat, so it’s power back off and maybe a little forward stick, just a little to get her started down to maybe, what? -800 FPM? More?
Still a little high but getting closer to glideslope and now he remembers again: She’s making her own wind – there will be a sizeable burble at the fantail.
In the moment of flying that abbreviation stands in for a detailed academic understanding of an aerodynamic phenomenon known as “the burble.” This phenomenon is caused by a turbulent pocket of air washing around the ship’s island structure, flowing aft and over the fantail. When a ship is operating at sea with high natural winds the effect is negligible since the natural breeze goes right down the unencumbered angle deck, but when the carrier has to generate her own winds, the effect is to bring the wind over the deck from slightly to starboard of the landing area, washing over the island structure. This turbulent air eventually intersects with the glideslope very close to touchdown, and can cause the unprepared aviator to settle rapidly below glideslope, risking an early wire, a wave-off, or worse.
None of that will fit in the pilot’s head at this moment, however. At an almost instinctive level, he merely abbreviates it to, “Watch out for the burble,” which will equate to, “Be prepared to add power. Lot’s of it.”
Four seconds. Still a little high, but not daring to pull too much power off because of the burble, can’t be underpowered when that hits, where is it? Still high and…
“Right for lineup,” and damn! he got distracted and drifted left, and now he’s got to do the automatic response to the LSO call, the right wing down and whoops! There goes the burble and…
“POWER!” yes, yes I know and how’s that for power? and WHAM! And he’s on deck, that warm and familiar feeling of a car crash, the arresting gear cable paying out behind and the jet bucking and kicking like a bronco at the county fair as all her kinetic energy and momentum is transferred to the trembling wire screeching out of the hydraulically dampened cylinders below the flight deck until finally it all comes to a kind of shuddering balance, the wire all paid out and the jet still screaming at full power and finally he can ease the throttles back, back to ground idle now and where’s the yellowshirt? Where’s the taxi director?
Ah, no, he’s all the way up there at the 12:30 position, which means he almost certainly caught the one wire, the ace and that’s a no-grade every time in the daytime, and never mind his first taste of combat what was what, twenty years ago? Or only a couple of hours it feels more like the former than the latter. Hook up, yes, yes, and fold the wings: NO. Wait on the wings, they have to safe the Sidewinders, but he can unlock them and flaps to a half should be fine and nosewheel steering to high gain, a hard turn and power up to clear the landing area there’s more coming in behind us, quick-quick and now STOP! Abruptly, clear of the foul lines, the squadron flight deck chief jumping up and down and trying to get his attention and what does he want? Oh yes, he wants to know the aircraft status and it’s an up jet so here’s a thumbs up, and meanwhile the ordies are swarming around, and it’s HANDS OUT of the cockpit, up where everyone can see them while they safe the ordnance. FOLD WINGS and there’s the scream of a jet behind him, trapped in the wires and looking up there’s two more overhead in the break, and he’s passed back to the director who clears him up to the bow. COME FORWARD slowly now, breathing coming back to normal, he taxis with all due deliberation up between the closely packed fighters parked on the bow catapults, and soon he’s passed to the final director, all the way up on the point of the bow, legs spread around the cat track on cat 1, leaning back into the breeze, almost out over the edge with nothing between him and the devil but the deep blue sea. Now STOP! And HOLD RIGHT BRAKE and COME FORWARD, and he’s turning towards the cat track, now the nose of his fighter is out over the sea, and it’s lonely out there and frankly a little scary, if a brake should fail just now it would all be over in a moment’s time, the going over the side, and cart wheeling just that little bit and he’d never have time to get out and hardly have time to be afraid if it actually happened, so he likes to practice for it when he can.
Now the nose is safely past the farthest point, he’s back over the flight deck, the breeze actually helping him to turn the fighter back towards the fantail, now down the track and taxiing aft and close as ever he might fit to the deck edge on his left and the last parked FA-18, his lead, still in the cockpit after all it’s only been 45 seconds or so between their landings. One more hard turn and STOP! LEFT ENGINE OFF! Left throttle off and a series of warning tones, L GEN, L BOOST LO, and that’s all normal as is the throng of extravagantly perspiring flight deck crewmen swarming around his jet OFF BRAKES to push it back to the very deck edge and STOP! And now the plane captain runs beneath and straps tie-down chains to padeyes on the flight deck, to hard points on the jet with the yellowshirt standing there, sweating impatiently.
At last the deed is done, the jet tied down and the yellowhshirt passes control to the plane captain, running back to the top of the bow to help park the next fighter in line, coming up the bow.
Ultimately the plane captain consults with flight deck chief, who in turn consults with flight deck control via the radio headset on his cranial protector and at last the signal is given to shut down the starboard engine, the mission is complete. The pilot breathes a sigh of relief and pulls the right throttle off, makes sure there’s no loose gear around the glareshield before he opens the canopy, finds the switch under the rail to raise and OH MY GOD IT’S HOT OUT THERE!