Not quite a rock star.
I can't remember who said it, and it doesn't matter. It was something I had never expected to hear come my way. I had heard the horror stories of guys being tapped as a Pri-A and going straight to a squadron already on deployment. They always were the rock stars who excelled well above and beyond your average primary, advanced and FRS student --not average guys like me.
Turns out you don't have to be as much of a rock star as I thought, you just have to be one of two guys next in line to finish the FA-18 FRS when the Navy needs two Pri-A pilots. Like any other person would do, I immediately started looking at the squadrons that were already deployed or deploying within the next couple of months. I came to a real and sobering conclusion: While I would complete the FRS on the East Coast, I would be going to a West Coast squadron already at sea.
Carrier qualifications (CQ) continued with a few hiccups before I headed to the boat from NAS Oceana. I was no less nervous than my previous CQ det in the T-45.
The weather over USS Enterprise (CVN-65) delayed the first wave from launching on time, so the second wave of Cat 1 pilots took off just after the first wave was airborne. The plan was for the two other pilots and me to come into the break off of the wing of a Cat other. That way, we could tackle the day pattern under some sort of normalcy. That plan was blown up by the marshal controller's call telling us that the weather was Case III, which meant we would all be coming down as singles for a straight-in (it upgraded to Case II before we broke up the flight.) As Dash 4, I would go down first and enter the break. Dash 3 would come down at some point behind me, and then the other two.
By the time I got down to 1,200 feet and eight miles, I still couldn't see the ship. I continued to 800 feet, but it wasn't until three to four miles out before I could make a "see you" call. My first attempt at the break resulted in a "spin it" call from the boss. My second attempt was a depart and re-enter. The third try was another spin call, followed by a second depart and reenter. By the time I established myself in the pattern, I only had gas for one touch-and-go and then a trap.
The winds behind the boat were different from what we had experienced during field carrier landing practice (FCLPs) back at the field. Winds were gusting, and the burble behind Enterprise is a little more exaggerated than Nimitz class ships. The rest of CQ was tough because of the weather, but manageable. I returned to base after completing CQs having been introduced to unexpected procedures, bad weather, gusty winds and an overall challenging situation.
Fast forward exactly one week. I had qualified on a Sunday evening about 100 miles east of Oceana. By the next Sunday, I was on the other side of the world in Guam, waiting to hop on a COD to fly out to USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70). When I arrived on board, I was greeted by my new squadronmates. They began to introduce me to fleet-squadron life.
There are rules about how long a pilot must wait to fly after traveling over multiple time zones. We also had no-fly days as the ship steamed West, so it was a while before I got back into the cockpit for fleet CQ.
I was pumped to buckle up in the mighty Hornet and pick up where I had left off in FRS CQ. I briefed with one of the more senior guys in the squadron about the admin portion of flying around the boat, and then with our senior landing-signals officer (LSO) about CQ procedures.
I looked at the platform camera, seeing a little overcast, but nothing significant.
The early portion of the flight went well. I was surprised with my ability to fly decent form and hit the tanker on the first try. But, as naval aviators know, the most important part of any flight at sea was still to come, and maybe I was a little too confident.
We checked in with marshal, who relayed that we would be Case III, half flaps, and 33,000 pounds max-trap. I was OK with doing a CV-1 approach down to the straight in, because you are almost guaranteed to show up to an on and-on start. However, this half-flaps configuration behind the boat was foreign to me. I don't remember having ever flown the Hornet in the half-flaps configuration aside from fam-2, which was simulating a single-engine approach onto a 10,000-foot runway. I certainly hadn't done it because the winds were too high.
At my push time, I hit my DME on course and on time. But I was too fast, which led to the controller having to remind me to slow down. He eventually gave me vectors to fix the timing problem I had created. I then hit the point that makes the approach become real: the final-approach point at three miles.
I tried to tell myself it was just like CQ at night, but it wasn't. I was still in the clouds and probably a little behind the jet at pushover. I can't remember exactly where I broke out and saw the ship, but it was somewhere around a mile and a half. This view startled me --I had quickly forgotten what the sight picture was supposed to look like. I called the ball just like I had in the FRS (minus adding my last name), and that was about the last thing that went well.
"Roger ball, 43 knots."
I hadn't seen more than 30 knots, but I didn't really have time to think about how that was going to affect my approach. Tracking down glide slope wasn't hard from the start to the middle, but lineup started to fall out of my scan as I tried to focus on the ball.
"Right for line up."
My ears heard the call and my eyes made the mistake that every pilot knows better than to make. I stared at the landing area to correct my line up and stopped scanning the ball or referencing my VSI and velocity vector. (Looking back at my tape, I saw that as soon as I put in the lineup correction, my velocity vector fell from the crotch of the ship, back aft to the round down.)
"Power. Power. Power. Wave off! Wave off!"
Max blower was all I could do. I was along for the ride, not a feeling any carrier pilot enjoys. As I refocused on the ball, I watched it fall through all six cells below the datums and turn bright red.
I just had accomplished two firsts: my first flight in the fleet and my first "cut pass."
The lead LSO told me afterwards that I had actually touched down about 30 feet forward of the round down and hit so early that my tailhook had time to bounce up, skip the 1-, 2- and 3-wires, and then come back down to grab the 4. To say that my feet were shaking as I tried to taxi the jet to park on the flight deck is an understatement. The aftermath of the pass was a mix of embarrassment, frustration, anxiety and just being thankful to have survived.
I learned that while LSOs will generally give new guys a hard time and make fun of nuggets on a regular basis for their inability to fly the ball well, they are on that platform on every approach as your last line of defense when it comes to avoiding crashing into the back of the ship. I also learned that I was not as mentally prepared to fly in challenging conditions as I thought I was.
Landing a jet on a moving runway is difficult enough. Doing it with low visibility, high winds and in a configuration that you had maybe only flown once before requires focus and discipline that I had yet to develop. That mental preparedness starts before the morning of your flight, the beginning of CQ or even the first time you strap into the Hornet. It should have started for me the first time I stepped foot in the spaces of the fleet replacement squadron. That's when I heard that I could be flying my first approach in the fleet, off the coast of Hong Kong, and in conditions that would have canceled FRS CQ in a heartbeat.
Approach the FRS syllabus with a mindset to be fully prepared to deploy anywhere in the world within a week of your FRS CQ. Take full advantage of every opportunity to be ready for your first pass at the ship in less than ideal conditions.
LT. WILLIAMS FLIES WITH VFA-113.