Level of trust.
I was part of a group that just had launched. Another wave from the previous event were airborne and in line to recover before me.
As the air wing converged on the ship, every aircraft was shuffled into the marshal stack. While waiting overhead, large thunderclouds continued to develop, and I found it more and more difficult to keep from flying into zero-zero conditions.
With the radios tuned to the approach frequencies, I heard the play-by-play as the first few aircraft approached the ship. The first call that was broadcast by paddles was "99, taxi lights on" for recovery. Normally, carrier-based aircraft recover with only their exterior and approach lights on at night, and with lights completely out during the day. A request for taxi-landing lights to be switched on for any recovery meant that visibility was low, and paddles couldn't see an approaching aircraft until it was well inside three quarters of a mile from the ship.
At times like this, pilots must rely on the skills they have built since day one of their carrier-aviation training, while also placing an enormous level of trust in the LSO cadre. Landing a jet on an aircraft carrier is never a routine event, but it becomes all the more harrowing with challenging environmental conditions.
As more and more pilots struggled to get aboard because of high seas and reduced visibility, the approach controller would push further back everyone's approach time. I faced the added challenge of closely managing my fuel while waiting for what assuredly would prove to be a difficult approach.
As my fuel slowly burned away, I knew if I did not get aboard on my first pass I would face a trip to the tanker, or an emergency divert to an unknown airfield in a foreign country.
Finally, my turn to commence the approach arrived. Reaching my approach fix, I accelerated to 250 knots, extended my speed brakes, and began my descent on a standard Case III recovery profile. The whole time, I could hear paddles talking other pilots aboard as the deck pitched and rolled in the high seas. At the three-quarter-mile ball call, pilot after pilot reported "clara ship," signifying their inability to see any part of the carrier. Once paddles could break out the bright approach light, they would call "paddles contact" to the pilot, and deliver power and line-up calls to get the aircraft in sync with the flight deck. Anytime paddles did not think the approach should continue, he would signal wave off. In conditions like these, an overall recovery rate of 50 percent is considered a success.
I leveled off at 1,200 feet and turned to intercept the specific course to drive me toward the ship. Just inside 10 miles, I extended my landing gear, dropped the arresting hook, decelerated to approach speed, and completed my landing checklist. As I looked through the windscreen, the conditions were truly zero-zero. The conditions were so thick that my taxi light reflected off the clouds, making the possibility of breaking out even more remote.
AT THREE MILES, I followed my instruments and tipped over to intercept the 3.5-degree glide slope that would eventually lead me to the ship's landing area. Visibility was not improving, but I was encouraged that the previous three aircraft had recovered, mostly thanks to the skill of my colleagues on the LSO platform.
At one mile, I glanced at the water, and barely made out the whitecaps. That's usually a good sign that you're about to break out, but my forward visibility still was zero. Three quarters of a mile from the ship, the approach controller directed me to "Call the ball," implying that I should be able to see the landing area and the visual glide slope. I saw nothing, and replied with, "Clara ship," just like all the aircraft that came down before. Soon, the LSO responded, "Paddles contact, you're on glide slope."
Paddles talked me down to a landing. At this point, my job consisted of listening to paddles and responding to his voice calls. Unlike a normal approach, I only was aware the ship was getting closer and closer. Failure to properly respond to LSO calls could have led to disaster.
About five seconds before touchdown, my jet descended out of the fog and the ship appeared in front of me. Touchdown occurred so quickly I had no opportunity to do anything more than make a last-second check of lineup and advance my throttle to full power. I then felt my jet abruptly decelerate after catching a wire.
By Lt. Matt Antel
Lt. Antel is with the LSO school, NAS Oceana, Va., and flew with VFA-211.
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|Title Annotation:||landing safely with low visibility by trusting your approach controller|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2010|
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