Marine Capt. William Mahoney had just taken off from the USS Bataan when he realized that getting back aboard the amphibious assault ship was going to be hairy.
One of the four sets of landing gear on his single-seat Harrier wasn’t working — the one directly beneath the cockpit of the “jump jet,” which slows down and hovers before landing with a bounce.
Mahoney flew a low pass over the Bataan; observers confirmed that the nose gear was stuck. Then the landing signal officer in the ship’s control tower suggested using a piece of equipment Mahoney had never heard of: a sort of padded stool placed on the flight deck that could cradle the aircraft’s nose — if he could put the plane down just right.
Harrier pilots pride themselves on landing neatly aboard warships, in virtually the same spot every time. Unlike carrier-based planes, which use a tailhook to catch a wire stretched across the flight deck, Harriers use engine exhaust directed downward — “vectored thrust” — to make a slow, stabilized descent.
This time, instead of landing atop a giant X painted onto the nonskid surface of the flight deck, Mahoney would have to aim for just a few square feet.
He couldn’t even see the bull’s-eye he was aiming for.
“So I’m at 20 feet, stabilized, and I can’t see the stool. I don’t even know it’s there,” Mahoney said in a Marine Corps video. “I didn’t see it coming over the edge of the ship. I looked for it. I remember looking for it, thinking, ‘Oh, boy, this is going to get interesting.’?”
Mahoney willed himself to forget that his nose landing gear didn’t work and focus on just getting the plane onto the deck.
The landing signal officer talked him in, making sure the Harrier was properly aligned before clearing him to land.
He idled the engine. The working landing gear hit the deck. He felt the nose drop.
“It dropped more than I expected,” he said. “But at that point, I was along for the ride.”
Mahoney had landed squarely on the middle of the stool. The nose bounced once and came to rest.
Adrenaline rushing, hands quivering, it took him a moment to remember how to shut off the jet.
“It was a pretty big relief,” he said in the video. “I didn’t realize how much I was shaking until I got out of the aircraft.”
He also hadn’t noticed that the normally busy flight deck had been cleared of people and equipment before he landed, just in case something went wrong.
A stream of flight-deck personnel, in color-coded coats, rushed toward him.
Maj. Gen. Joe Anderson, a retired Marine aviator who still flies Harriers, saw the video of Mahoney’s June 7 landing in the this week in the Mediterranean Sea.
He witnessed a few “gear-up” landings on amphibious ships — they used to pile mattresses on the flight deck to soften the blow. The stool was new to him — “absolutely brilliant,” he said.
Like a great athlete, Mahoney made the feat look easy, Anderson said.
But having worked as both a Harrier pilot and a landing signal officer, Anderson knows just how nerve-wracking the experience was for both.
“The pucker factor between the two of them was off the charts.”