USS Carl Vinson pilots work to keep their landing skills sharp
ABOARD THE USS CARL VINSON — About every three or four minutes, the ready room of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 147 shakes and rattles as if a giant roller coaster just rumbled overhead.
It’s so loud, that for a brief moment the pilots and officers catching a breather barely can hear themselves speak.
But they never complain: Each repetitive thump and clang on the flight deck means that another plane has landed safely — no small feat 120 miles from shore.
“Of all the things we do, landing is probably the most critical phase in flight,” said Lt. Cmdr. Erik Etz, F/A-18 Hornet pilot and operations officer for “The Argonauts” VFA-147, one of four Hornet squadrons deployed with the USS Carl Vinson. “Even though it is something we do day in and day out, more pilots have died landing over the past five decades aboard carriers than have probably been killed in combat.”
In February, the Vinson, a nuclear-powered carrier from Bremerton, Wash., and aircraft from Carrier Air Wing 9 arrived in the Western Pacific to fill in for the Yokosuka-based USS Kitty Hawk, which recently returned from the Persian Gulf. The Vinson docked at Yokosuka on Saturday.
Militarily, it was a low-key deployment.
But with about 80 aircraft on board, the Vinson rarely is quiet.
The pilots practice their craft on average four days a week. From noon to midnight, fighter jets land on and take off from a flight deck about three football fields long. On this deployment, between 100 and 120 sorties launch per day, Navy officials said. The call may never come to engage the enemy, but the pilots have to be ready.
“Practice bombs can be replaced by real bombs, and we can go out and do the real thing without missing a beat,” Etz said.
Unlike riding a bike, the skills required to wrestle a 160-mph fighter jet onto a moving carrier need constant refreshing.
“It’s like having muscle memory, but it’s more of a whole-body memory,” said Lt. Cmdr. Stan Jones, an F/A-18 Hornet pilot with VFA-147. “When you’re getting shot at, your nerves are really running. You can fall back on your training without having to think about it.”
With practice and training, the seemingly impossible becomes a piece of cake — well, almost.
Jones and Etz say daytime landings on the carrier are fun. They don’t get nervous. In fact, they and the other 16 pilots in the squadron maintain a friendly rivalry by comparing who’s completed the most successful landings. The “Greenie” board in the Argonauts’ ready room lists each pilots’ names followed by a row of colored stickers. A pilot on the ground grades each landing: green dots are “OK,” yellow is “fair” and brown is “no grade.”
“It’s a way to keep everybody motivated because it is so important to land well,” said Hornet pilot Lt. j.g. Courtney King.
King is a greenie herself. Only 26, King has been with the Argonauts for only three weeks. Unlike the more seasoned fliers, she gets nervous almost every time she glides her Hornet onto the flight deck.
“A lot of things are running through my head — everything they taught me: ‘OK, I need to look at this, I need to look at this, and I need to do this.’” she said.
King, from Oklahoma City, had to demonstrate she could land on a ship at night near shore before deploying with the Vinson.
She says night landings can be especially tricky. Pilots must rely on the aircraft’s instrument lights, the center line of lights on the flight deck, and an optical lens that indicates whether the plane is coming in too high or too low.
Forget about peripheral vision.
To arrest the aircraft, the pilot must “tail hook” one of four steel cables — each about 40 feet apart — on the deck.
Too high, the plane misses the cables and keeps flying. Too low, and it could smack into the back of the 24-story ship.
“Night landings are about the toughest thing that we do,” Etz said. “I think most of us agree that no matter where you are, when you have to come back and land aboard the ship at night, that’s the hardest part of the mission.”