Calling the 'cat-shots'
FOR THE bluejackets aboard the carrier, it is a day like most other days at sea.
Everywhere there are sailors on the move — in the narrow passageways, on the ladders connecting the many decks, deep in the innards of the ship. Some have finished work; others are just beginning.
Below deck the 20-knot speed of the 80,000-ton ship is almost imperceptible. "Just like a rock," a sailor says. "The Forrestal was the first of the super jobs. She's still a helluva good ride."
Topside, the blue-green waters stretch out toward the horizon, where a lone merchant steamer plods along — its cargo-packed hull running low in the water.
ON THE BRIDGE Capt. Charles F. Demmler, commanding officer of Forrestal on its eighth Mediterranean deployment, finishes a breakfast of bacon and eggs at his duty station.
Looking below to the flight deck, Demmler watches men in yellow jackets signal planes to the ship's four steam catapults in preparation for the first launch of the day.
From a separate vantage on the flag bridge, Rear Adm. George C. Talley Jr., commander of the U.S. 6th Fleet's Carrier Division 4, studies the same scene.
Aft of the bridge structure, in Primary Fly (the equivalent of the control tower on an airfield), the "Air Boss" and his control teams pore over flight data.
Planes are lifted from the hangar bays to the flight deck on a huge elevator and the Forrestal (CVA 59) heads into the wind as flights ops begin.
The first plane catapulted across the bow is an E2A Hawkeye, an early warning aircraft that formally operates 100 miles in front of the carrier.
In rapid order, F4 Phantom fighters and A4 Skyhawk attack planes dart down the Forrestal's two runways and are airborne.
After each launch the 200-foot catapults are returned to start positions. Like giant slingshots, they rocket the planes skyward with a hissing sound. Trails of steam follow the "cats" and drift across the flight deck.
MEN WORKING in the open wear padded muffs ("Mickey Mouse ears") to protect their hearing from the noise of the jets. Blast deflectors are raised from the deck as Phantoms turn on the power.
Cat-like, the men on flight deck move about, as if they had rehearsed their jobs a thousand times. By instinct and training, they know precisely where to stand, and what to do. There is no room for error.
Every sailor's job is designated by the color of his jacket — yellow for flight and hangar deck directors; red for ordnance and crash crews; green for catapult, arresting gear and maintenance men; brown for plane captains (crew chiefs); white for medical service; purple for fuel crews; and white-and-black check for safety inspectors.
Joining the launch are the heavyweights of the air wing — the 21-ton KA3B Skywarrior refueling tankers and the 20-ton RA5C Vigilante recon birds.
AFTER LAUNCH comes recovery — an exercise that always tests a pilot's mettle, no matter how many times he experiences it.
Aboard the Forrestal the angled deck and two-runway system make it possible to continue to launch on the forward catapults while recovery begins on the angled deck.
Approaching from the carrier's stern, pilots try to catch the third of four arresting cables that span the after section of the flight deck.
As Skyhawks and Phantoms enter the landing pattern, a destroyer cruises off the stern — in rescue position.
SAILORS in the destroyer navy often refer to the huge aircraft carriers they accompany as bird farms. The reference is tongue-in-cheek, for even the most hard-nosed destroyer man has a down-deep appreciation for the operational skills required aboard their big sisters.
As for naval aviation, there is no doubt that it is more precise and demanding — for pilots, deck crews and controllers — than any other type of flight.
NAVY PILOTS are a breed of their own. Like professional football players and mountain climbers, they do what they do because of the intense physical and mental challenge of operating sophisticated aircraft from the limited space of a moving deck.
Between briefings in the ready rooms of a carrier they joke, smoke, drink coffee and discuss the technical aspects of their profession.
"If I weren't flying for the Navy I'd be flying for somebody else. It's in the blood. I know of no greater satisfaction," says Phantom pilot Lt. Dick Slassted.
"This is the most demanding flying in the world. On a black night everything looks the same. It's the lack of a horizon at night that fouls you up ... Everyone should experience a 'cat-shot' and an arrested landing on a carrier. There's nothing to compare with these two aspects of naval aviation for thrills."
"It's the vertigo that makes night flight off a carrier so dangerous. Until you get three-quarters of a mile beyond the ship you can't tell which end is up. You just have to believe your instruments," says Skyhawk pilot Lt. Tom Harding.
"Landing can be just as bad. Sometimes you have to come in on a deck that's moving 40 feet up or down. The three wire (number three cable) is what you want. You have about 120 feet (the distance from the first to fourth arresting cables) to play with, and no more than 10 feet of leeway in altitude. If you miss the cables, or if your tail hook bounces over them as it sometimes does, then you have what we call a bolter, and you have to make another pass. No matter how many times you do this, it's never easy."
If in landing a pilot catches his tail hook as much as 20 feet on either side of the white-and-yellow centerline, the cable involved is replaced because of the added strain inflicted by the off-center catch.
The hydraulically controlled arresting cables are set in accordance with the speed and the weight of the incoming aircraft.
CARRIER aviation is a young man's game. Age range of pilots in attack and fighter squadrons runs from 25 to 35.
Harding says he prefers the mission of the subsonic Skyhawk and other attack aircraft to that of the fighter because it involves more diversified roles and more low-level flight. A supersonic fighter, the Phantom normally is flown at much higher altitudes.
The role of the Vigilantes is to conduct all-weather multisensor tactical reconnaissance; Skywarriors refuel the carrier-based attack and fighter planes in flight.
The Hawkeye is the first aircraft designed specifically for early warning. By flying in front of the ship it extends the eyes of the fleet. A secondary mission is to pick up control of the fighters when enemy aircraft have been sighted.
Carrier aircraft operate day and night in just about any kind of weather. They are capable of conventional warfare roles, such as those conducted in Vietnam, or nuclear missions.
Pilots soon become rusty if they don't get practice. This means long hours of day and night operations at sea.
BECAUSE carriers must maintain a 24-hour alert, someone is always on duty. Even as the catapults launch planes and as the giant cables snare them on recovery, some off-duty sailor is trying to catch 20 winks.
The noise, particularly on landing, is deafening on or near the flight deck; deep in the holds it is muffled. Here, where the ship gets its power, it is necessary to look at the clock to tell day from night.
The 15-year-old Forrestal and the 25-year-old Roosevelt, both extensively refitted in recent years, are the two attack carriers now on duty with 6th Fleet in the Mediterranean.
With their sister carriers in the Atlantic and in the Pacific, they represent the ultimate in an an which dates back to the early years of the century.
The carriers make up the backbone of the modern Navy. In essence they are mobile airfields which can be rushed to a crisis area on short notice.
The daily flight operations that are routine at sea represent a continuing refinement of equipment, technology and training methods. Putting it another way, the art of landing an aircraft on the deck of a moving ship is constantly being revised and improved.
Newcomers and old salts alike never seem to tire of watching these ships do what they do so well. Even to witness the launch and recovery ops aboard an attack earner is high drama.