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For LSOs embarked at sea, no other phrase elicits more apprehension as these four words: paddles to the platform!

More often than not, this 1MC announcement means an aircraft from the previous launch is returning early because of a minor malfunction, or the landing signal officer (LSO) team responsible for that day's recoveries had spent too much time jacking around and is late for the next recovery.

In the case of the former, paddles must quickly make their way to the aft end of the ship with as few injuries as possible. (Legend has it that one of the most famous LSOs of all time, Cdr. John J. "Bug" Roach, was void of all skin on his shins because of the number of times he was required to traverse the countless knee-knockers between the forward wardroom and the LSO platform.)

All LSOs who've waved for any period of time, however, can easily reminisce about a single harrowing event, an event that indelibly changed their perspective of the mostly routine nature of recovering onboard aircraft carriers. For me, that day involved my first at-sea period as a newly designated CAG LSO during a COMPTUEX. Our air wing was operating under the watchful eye of COMCARGRU Four as we worked for our blue-water certification. For a CAG LSO, no other evolution is shrouded with "so little to gain, yet so much to lose." To my recollection, no CAG paddles ever won an award for making sure the air wing received their cert; however, quite a few have lost extremely vital parts of their anatomy for not getting it.

I stood in ready room 6 watching one of my LSOs debrief a rather lackluster pass to an F-14 driver (most of their passes were that way), when the "Paddles to the platform" call snuck into the room. Scant few 1MCs were operational in Tomcat ready rooms back in those days. The noise of myriad announcements during general quarters tended to interrupt the roll 'em.

I immediately directed the team to head to the platform. Following them, I imagined what scenario would present itself once outside the skin of the ship, maybe a Hornet with an AMAD caution, or a Prowler with slat issues. I was not prepared for the situation as we opened the water-tight door near frame 230. It was just after 1500, the sky was as dark as the night before at 2300, and it was raining sideways.

To fully capitalize on the synthetic training available during this COMPTUEX, the captain and the navigator had found the only severe thunderstorm in the entire VACAPES operating area. They had parked "mom" right in the middle of it. As you would expect, my raingear was in my stateroom on the O-2 level, some 150 frames away. This event was going to be fun.

As the V-2 folks got the platform raised and began the task of hooking up handsets, the phone rang. The air boss had something on his mind. "Paddles, we're bringing event four back early, the weather is dog-squeeze, there's icing up to 35,000 feet, expect a Case III recovery, with the first aircraft at four miles."


I did my best Vince Lombardi and told the team, "This is what we get the big bucks for" (roughly an extra dollar a day in flight-deck, hazardous-incentive pay). As we readied the platform for what would be an extremely interesting recovery, I got a little edgy. The deck was relatively steady, but I couldn't see the island from the platform. I could only wonder what the visibility would be like at three-quarters of a mile. As it turned out, I didn't have to wonder.

As CATCC handed off the first aircraft to paddles, I heard, "601, slightly left of course, above glide slope, call the ball," to which the rightseater in the Hawkeye replied "clara." Not only could they not see us--even with their windshield wipers approaching 325 swipes per minute--much to my disappointment, I couldn't see them.

"Wave off, wave off" I directed. Alright, I've heard this one before, just make the call paddles, "99, taxi lights on." This event was going to get very interesting.

LSOS ARE TAUGHT at the very advent of their waving careers to maintain the proper perspective when on the platform. That perspective is defined in many ways, and perhaps the most effective is viewing the carrier landing from the eyes of the person you're waving--each and every time. Doing that in these conditions added a level of anxiety well beyond that experienced during normal ops. If aircrew couldn't see the ship, paddles would need to talk every airplane all the way into the "spaghetti." LSO talkdowns are an art form unlike any other. Some paddles do their best John Wayne impression on the radio. Others tend to "love" the pilot into the wires, sounding like they're looking for a date. Despite the flavor of the voice, the calls paddles make are vital to the recovery of airplanes in varsity conditions. LSOs are required to metaphorically strap themselves into the airplane they are waving and fly it all the way to touchdown using a vernacular that is foreign to the uninitiated.

The second airplane down was an F-14, the driver of which also happened to be an LSO. He would be undeniably keyed up as he came down the chute, glued to his instruments, and surrounded by an ethereal world of rain streaks and lightning. CATCC called, "205, three-quarters of a mile, right of course and correcting, call the ball."

"205, clara."

"Fly your needles," I replied. I still couldn't see him, despite being sure he had his taxi light on.

After what seemed like 30 seconds, but probably was closer to one and one-half, there it was, a faint light, almost where I expected it to be.

"You're a little low. Come left. A little power. There's centerline. Back to the right. Back to the right. Power. Come left. You're a little overpowered. You're a little high. A little power to catch it. DLC, DLC, don't climb." Touchdown.

Twenty seconds of pure terror and adrenaline, and a 54,000-pound airplane and its two crewmembers were on deck amidst a wash of rainwater and soaked-to-the bone flight-deck personnel. Sixty or so seconds more and we get to do it all over again. Twenty-nine passes later and the remaining 10 airplanes were on deck. No one got hurt, no one diverted back to the field. What at first glance had been one of the most terrifying recoveries I have ever been a part of quickly became just another day at the office.

As I made my way below decks to do the standard walk-around debriefs and empty my flight boots of rainwater, I finally let go of the pent-up sigh I had retained for the last 45 minutes. I was eager to get into some dry clothes, and even more eager to talk to the air wing and get their take on the recovery. Our first stop was ready room 8, where the pilot of 205 still was at the maintenance desk vainly trying to type up his yellow sheet with his trembling hands. He turned to face us, and his eyes were like saucers. I awkwardly asked him if he enjoyed his flight. He grabbed me, my team lead, and the backup LSO in one swift motion, and gave us a bearhug that was void of stereotypical male ritual.

"Thanks, paddles" was all he said. I replied, "No worries," and did an about-face and headed forward to ready 7. There wasn't much more to say.

Landing aboard an aircraft carrier is never easy and seldom routine. Very few other professions can be so utterly rewarding--and at the same time so extremely unforgiving in the same exact moment--as waving airplanes. That day still reminds me of why I chose this vocation, and why I continue to stick around today.

By Cdr. Robert Wedertz

Cdr. Wedertz is the Officer in Charge of the LSO school, NAS Oceana, Va., and was a CVW-7 LSO.
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Title Annotation:landing signal officer
Author:Wedertz, Robert
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2010
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