HITTING THE DECK : It Is Tricky Trying to Snag an Aircraft Carrier Cable at 150 M.P.H.

Times Staff Writer

Pilot Karl Trahan inched his F/A-18 Hornet into position on the aircraft carrier deck and watched the jet fighter ahead of him go through its final checks. With a thunderous blast it disappeared into the darkness.

Now, it was Trahan’s turn.

The launch crew moved in and out of the white cloud of steam as they hooked his plane to the catapult. He felt the butterflies, the anticipation, the anxiety.

The young Navy ensign took a deep breath, held it, turned on the lights of his fighter and prepared to be zapped from zero to 190 m.p.h. in two seconds. Being hurled from the Navy aircraft carrier by a catapult is called a “cat stroke,” the 24-year-old Trahan explained. “They push a button and you’re fired. You say to yourself, ‘Here it comes.’ I hold my breath. Some scream. You got to do something.”

Now that his F/A-18 was airborne the hardest part was still ahead. Trahan had to get the jet back on the carrier deck in the black of night. He knew that during the day the deck resembled a small postage stamp at three miles. At night, well, he wasn’t sure what it would look like.

Trahan, of Abbeville, La., was one of seven Marine and Navy pilots from El Toro Marine Corps Air Station who went to sea last month to qualify at what aviators consider the hardest task of all: landing a supersonic fighter jet at night on a moving aircraft carrier deck. None of them had ever done it before.


The carrier Independence steamed northward at 33 knots about 120 miles off the Southern California coast. The seas were calm and the cloud cover was above 1,000 feet. As darkness fell over the ocean, the deck of the 80,000-ton carrier, with a crew of 5,000, came alive.

Helmeted men wearing yellow, green, blue and brown life vests appeared from below. The shrill noise of jet engines interrupted the sounds of the wind. Steam puffed from the catapult that yanked the planes from the deck at awesome speeds.

The “air boss” barked orders over the public address system. The yellowish lights from atop the bridge lit the floating tarmac below. The dim lights made it appear surreal. In sharp contrast to the sweet sea air was the smell of jet fuel and burning rubber that peeled offthe wheels of F/A-18 Hornets and F-14 Tomcats when they hit the deck in what are essentially controlled crashes.

Like a nighttime stage spectacular, the dancers were stretching their legs and warming up. When in full swing--planes landing, taking off, and moving about and up and down from the hangar deck below--it looked like a ballet. There was a gentle flow, a tempo, a sense of timing.

No matter how beautiful the ballet, bringing that plane in with the nose up, hook down, clearing the outer ramp by a mere 11 feet at 150 m.p.h. produces excitement even in the most veteran pilots.

“It’s kind of weird,” Trahan said. “You can see the lights that outline the landing area on the deck, but you can’t see the carrier in the darkness.” Until you get in real close, he said, the landing area appears to be nothing other than a flat strip in a sea of black. But the pilots all know that the deck they are about to land on is 60 feet above the water.

“Night landings don’t allow you to rely on your senses,” Trahan said. “It made me believe in myself and trust completely in what I had learned.”

The trick, according to the pilots, is to keep the nose of the plane up eight degrees and snag one of four cables that run across the deck with a hook that hangs from the tail of the aircraft. There is only 32 feet between each cable. The short distance from the first to the last wire is calculated in fractions of seconds when traveling at 150 m.p.h. or more. As soon as the plane hits the deck the pilot rams the throttles to full power in case the wires are missed or they break.

When the hook catches and reels out the cable, the flight ends abruptly in about 300 feet. The pilot’s head whips forward.

At night, the F/A-18s, F-14s, S-3s, A-6s and EA-6Bs approached the carrier on a straight line that extends at least eight miles from the ship. The aviators used two electronic guidance systems to maintain proper glide slope.

About a three-quarters of a mile from touchdown their eyes leave the instruments and lock onto a ray of bright light beamed from the carrier deck. This light, which pilots call a “meatball” because of its shape, warns the aviator if his aircraft is too high or low. This becomes his ticket home. He periodically glances at the dim deck lights to make sure he is horizontally on line.

Sometimes the pilots need help on their approaches.

Instructors, who congregate on a small platform just feet from where the jets hit the deck, talk to the pilots on the radio. The inflection of their voices mean as much as the words. “The deck’s pitching” or “come left” or “right for lineup” or “attitude” or “you’re slow.” A low approach could easily end with the instructor yelling, “Power! Power! Wave off.”

“Landing on a carrier, especially at night, is what’s its all about,” said Navy Lt. John Foley, a landing signal officer from El Toro who taught, coaxed, ordered and helped the pilots through the rigorous nighttime carrier landing qualifications.

Foley, 29, of Laguna Niguel, who recently was named to the Navy Blue Angels flying team, explained the importance of the qualifications: “The pilot could be the best fighter pilot in the world, but if he can’t land on a carrier he’s no good to the Navy or the Marines. That’s how important this is to these guys.”

Two decks down in Ready Room 4, pilots from El Toro’s Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron (VMFAT-101) prepared for their nighttime launches and landings. They listen closely to advice from Foley and instructor Lt. Cmdr. Steve Ross, who together have nearly a thousand carrier landings, hundreds at night. They know that the carrier deck is a dangerous, split-second environment.

Marine Capt. Stephen Pomeroy, 33, sat alone in the Ready Room and mentally reviewed every move he would make in his F/A-18 from the time he started the engines on deck until he shut them down. What if the catapult shot is weak? When do I eject? What about my fuel level? Remember keep your nose up, don’t flatten out on the final approach.

Pomeroy is a “transition” pilot from the old F-4 Phantom jet--which the Marines plan to phase out. His trip to the Independence marked the first time he landed an F/A-18 on the deck of an aircraft carrier. It was his first nighttime carrier landing.

Although he has a total of 2,500 hours in the A-4 Skyhawk and Phantom fighter jets, Pomeroy, known as “Roid,” knew that night carrier landings required a great degree of concentration. “There is little room for error. You do it and you do it right.”

Trahan, Pomeroy and the other pilots, a mixture of Marine and Navy aviators, for weeks had been making night practice carrier landings on one of the runways at the Marine Corps Air Station at El Toro and on a military landing strip on San Clemente Island. Field carrier landing practice, a precision approach and touchdown, is done under the close watch of landing signal officers who grade each attempt as to lineup, speed, glide slope and angle of attack.

VMFAT-101 at El Toro provides F/A-18 Hornet training for Marine and Navy pilots who have just graduated from Naval Flight School. The last phase of the advanced training is nighttime carrier landings. The school provides refresher training for pilots returning to the cockpit from desk assignments and to those aviators moving from other aircraft to the F/A-18.

It is one of three Hornet training schools run jointly by the Marine Corps and the Navy. The schools are designed to provide “combat-ready training” for Navy and Marine pilots enabling them to “attack and destroy surface targets day or night and to intercept and destroy enemy aircraft under all-weather conditions.”

The runway at sea is measured in hundreds of feet, not thousands like at El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. The deck, coated with black, coarse, non-skid paint, moves up and down. Depending on the winds, the carrier could be moving away from the plane at more than 30 knots.

Pomeroy was convinced that if he concentrated during the approaches everything would work out fine. He attempted to explain the degree of concentration: “You are driving down the freeway at 70 m.p.h. and three cars ahead of you begin braking. The brake lights startle you even though there’s plenty of time to stop. It would be too late on final approach to a carrier. You would have bought it.”

The El Toro pilots were required to make at least five nighttime landings and a dozen during daylight.

All the pilots qualified, some with ease, others with difficulty.

Trahan quickly completed 20 carrier landings, four touch-and-gos and two “bolters” (failed to snag a wire and had to go around) in three days and three nights. He was ready to leave the carrier.

Before going to sea, Pomeroy said if his first landing was good, he would have a good round.

It did not work out that way.

A father of four, Pomeroy, a graduate of the Citadel Military College of South Carolina, was the last of the group to qualify because of a string of unfortunate events.

The first night aboard the Independence, most of the others got their first taste of night landings, but Pomeroy sat in the cockpit of his Hornet for hours without leaving the deck. The “air boss” never called his plane to the catapult.

On the second night, Pomeroy lifted off and after only one successful landing a warning light indicated an unsafe nose landing gear. Pomeroy was ordered not to land on the carrier, but, instead, to Miramar Naval Air Station in San Diego.

He landed there without incident. But as the lanky Pomeroy was climbing down from the cockpit, a small ladder that was incorrectly attached by the ground crew, gave way and Pomeroy tumbled to the tarmac.

The next day Pomeroy received another F/A-18 and he made the short flight back to the Independence. Saturday night he did not have enough time to complete all his required landings. He was back out Sunday night to finish up. He was the last one of his group to qualify. All the time, Pomeroy’s right wrist was swelling bigger and bigger.

“Pomeroy did a good job,” instructor Foley said.

“But I would have to say I was surprised when I saw him back at El Toro and he was wearing this big, old cast that covered most of his right arm. That’s the arm the pilots use to guide the plane.”

Pomeroy had broken his wrist in the fall at Miramar.

“He never said a word to us about it,” instructor Foley said. “He flew that plane the last two nights with a broken wrist. That’s pretty hard to do when your landing on a carrier at night.”