An aircraft snags the arresting cable during a landing aboard the USS Kitty Hawk. The thick cable is pulled out until the jet stops, often close to the deck's other edge. The force adds tremendous tension to the wire.

An aircraft snags the arresting cable during a landing aboard the USS Kitty Hawk. The thick cable is pulled out until the jet stops, often close to the deck's other edge. The force adds tremendous tension to the wire. (Roy Allen Hoffman / U.S. Navy)

ABOARD USS KITTY HAWK — On Jan. 29, the final evening of carrier qualifications — flight operations practice at sea before a cruise — an F/A-18F Super Hornet coming in for a carrier landing snapped the arresting cable designed to stop aircraft rapidly.

The cable snapped in two places, sending the jet tumbling overboard and injuring six on deck, two seriously.

It was one of the worst disasters that could happen on the flight deck, but no one was killed. The pilots were rescued; aircraft parked on the flight deck somewhat shielded sailors working nearby.

That evening was Strike Fighter Squadron 102 pilot Lt. j.g. Jon Vanbragt’s second time landing on a carrier at night.

“Normally it’s a smooth deceleration” after the jet snares the cable, Vanbragt said recently. “The jet kind of balked. I saw the lights at the end of the runway go under us.”

“The wire sort of felt different,” added Lt. Cmdr. Markus Gudmundsson, the weapons systems officer who sits in the rear seat. “When we got to the end it was pretty evident that something was wrong. It was a race to the ejection handle at that point.”

Gudmundsson hit it first.

“I remember seeing the flash of the rocket from the ejection seat,” he said. “I remember sailing through the air. It was really dark, and really quiet.”

Gudmundsson hit the water safely and his parachute detached. He waited calmly for the rescue helicopter to come.

On the other side of the sinking jet, Vanbragt had a different experience.

He saw the fireball from the ejection rocket and the parachute riser race past his head. His seat and the angle of the aircraft going over propelled him in an awkward direction.

“I thought I was upside-down. It was all very fast,” he said.

He hit the water disorientated and his parachute did not detach.

That’s when the edge of the ship crept closer.

“I was paddling like a madman and I wasn’t getting anywhere,” he said.

Vanbragt was pulled underwater by the parachute. The ship turned off engines on that side to prevent sucking the pilots under. Vanbragt finally struggled free and surfaced.

“I could see the tails of the jet sticking out of the water,” he said. “I had no idea what had happened. I think I was in a pretty deep state of shock.”

Two helicopters from Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron 14 flew nearby. Search-and-rescue swimmers from both helos prepared for their first-ever rescues.

The helicopter carrying Petty Officer 2nd Class Bennie Romiti arrived first.

“I looked down and saw the parachute in the water and that’s when I knew it was serious,” he said.

He dropped into the inky dark water and began looking for a pilot near the parachute. It took a few frantic minutes until Romiti saw Gudmundsson floating safely a short distance away.

“Most of the chute was under water,” Romiti said. “My first concern (was) we didn’t get him.”

Moments later, rescue swimmer Petty Officer 2nd Class Jerard Cook arrived in the second helicopter and rescued Vanbragt.

On the flight deck, the accident had a disastrous impact. The wire whipped back and wrapped around a parked helicopter, causing serious damage. The tip of the wire continued and struck sailors working nearby.

Two of the six injured sailors remain hospitalized in the United States, according to Navy officials.

But had the helicopter not been there and had part of the wire slipped overboard, the damage could have been horribly worse.

“If [the helo] hadn’t been there, there would possibly, and probably, be a loss of life,” said Senior Chief Petty Officer Corey Hunt, senior rescue swimmer for HS-14. “We know for a fact 613 (the helicopter’s tail number) saved lives.”

Some of the injured sailors are from HS-14.

The threat of cables snapping, plus aircraft explosions and collisions, make flight decks among the Navy’s most dangerous workplaces.

In 1996, a snapped wire killed a USS Nimitz sailor and seriously injured four others. In 2003, a wire broke on the USS George Washington, injuring about a dozen sailors.

After that accident, the Virginian-Pilot newspaper reported that since 1980, arresting-gear-related accidents had been associated with three deaths, 12 major injuries and five minor injuries.

The shipwide reaction to the Super Hornet accident was immense. After their rescue, Gudmundsson and Vanbragt went below deck and found an entire emergency clinic set up in the hangar, with rows of stretchers, ranks of medical personnel and hundreds of sailors waiting to donate blood.

The injured sailors were taken to Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan, for treatment. The two most seriously injured were flown to the States; the other four are back at work.

The two pilots had a few days of medical evaluations after the accident. The carrier qualification had ended and the Kitty Hawk returned to port for a few days. But then it was time to return to sea — and to flight operations.

Neither pilot said he felt spooked, because jet pilots face so many inherent dangers. But Vanbragt said he was relieved his first post-mishap landing was a routine one.

“It was nice,” he said, “to use the boarding ladder to get on, and off, that aircraft.”

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now