Night Landings on Carrier Test Pilots to Limit


Eleven pilots from the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station fidgeted nervously this week, waiting for the sun to go down so they could show their stuff.

They had trained for years to make their first nighttime landings on an aircraft carrier, a feat even the most seasoned fighter pilots claim “can raise your heartbeat to that of a scared rabbit.”

“I flew into combat 33 times in the Persian Gulf,” said Navy Lt. Michael E. Lofy, 29, a member of the training contingent that accompanied the young Marine and Navy pilots to the aircraft carrier Nimitz. “The big heart rate did not come during combat over Iraq and Kuwait, but when I got back to the ship and started landing on the carrier in the dark.”


Every fighter and attack pilot flying for the Navy or Marine Corps has qualified at night on a carrier--they have to make six landings at night and 10 during the day. If they can’t do it, they can’t fly. The joke out at sea is: “If they can’t sit it down here, they can head back to land and fly for the Air Force.”

But for this crop of pilots and countless others who have come before them, the challenge of landing a plane on a carrier at night is as daunting as the task is difficult: Working in darkness, the pilot has to bring in a jet at speeds that can top 150 m.p.h. and hook an arresting cable 4 inches off the deck in a space that is roughly 20 feet wide and 100 feet long.

Missing in any direction can mean the end of the young pilot’s career. Coming up short can be fatal.

To execute the maneuver, the pilot is guided to the deck by little more than a bright beam of light and a lone landing-signal officer. That officer stands in the darkness and speaks to the pilot over a radio, helping him line up the plane with the landing deck during the last three-quarters of a mile.

That final approach “is the moment of truth,” when “you totally rely on your training and yourself,” said Marine 1st Lt. Tracey A. Farris, 25, of Nashville, Tenn.

All sorts of dangers lurk in the darkness, pilots say. The worst mistake, and probably a fatal one, is to come in too low or too slow. That leaves the pilot short of the runway, making it almost certain that the plane will slam into the ship.


But even with such a small margin for error, the 3-year-old El Toro training group--known as VMFAT 101--has had only one fatal accident. In that crash, a jet went down in the darkness between the California coast and San Clemente Island.

That record is a credit to the pilots’ training. To reach the “moment of truth,” the pilots who gathered this week already had spent more than two years flying the the A-4 Skyhawk. For the past eight months, they have been at El Toro piloting the F/A-18 fighter.

They capped that time with a month of special preparation--attending lectures, flying simulators, and doing practice carrier landings on specially equipped runways at ElToro, El Centro and San Clemente Island.

On Wednesday, as the Nimitz steamed northward about 70 miles off Baja California, Navy Lt. Mark Hubbard gave the final briefing for the night landings. Hubbard talked rapidly, sprinkling a little personal advice in between the facts and figures.

“Listen up. There will be a lot going on out there tonight,” Hubbard said. Stopping and pointing to one of the pilots, Hubbard asked how he would react to one possible emergency situation.

The pilot answered promptly and crisply.

Pilots say the trick to landing aboard a carrier--day or night--is to keep the nose of the plane up eight degrees and snag one of the four cables that run across the deck with a small hook that hangs under the tail of the airplane.

On the night approach, the pilots use instruments until they reach a point about three-quarters of a mile from the carrier. Then they shift their eyes from the glowing green panel and lock onto a bright ray of light beamed from the carrier deck.

The light, called a “meatball” because of its shape, warns the aviator if he is too high or low.

As they drop to the deck, they have only a split-second to calculate, since the four cables, one of which they must snag, are only 40 feet apart. As soon as the plane hits the deck, the pilot pushes it to full throttle. That gives the pilot the power he needs to become airborne again and avoid plunging into the water if he misses the cable.

While it is the landings that pose the greatest danger, even takeoffs from the 4.5-acre deck of the Nimitz have their risks.

“Things happen fast. You have to check your flaps and make sure the trim is correct,” said Marine Lt. W. Calvin Smith, 26, of Fairhope, Ala. “There is a lot of switch-flipping before you are launched.”

Then, he said, people jump away from the plane, and it is hurled from the deck by a steam catapult, going from motionless to 170 m.p.h. in less than three seconds.

Still, landing poses the greatest challenge.

“It is not fun and it is dangerous,” said Lt. James R. Knapp, the senior carrier landing instructor. “It is where a vast majority of mishaps occur because there is a complete loss of depth perception. The things you feel and the things you see and the way the mind interprets them are incorrect. You have to avoid the way you feel.”

The task, warned Navy Lt. Harry Hoffman, an instructor, is to, “know thyself, and then fix it!”

That’s a lot to ask, even of a trained pilot. And the stress is evident. During the Vietnam War, Hubbard said, researchers attached sensors to pilots’ bodies to see when they experienced the most anxiety during night missions over North Vietnam.

The highest readings were not when the pilots braved ground-to-air missiles or flew in areas patrolled by enemy aircraft. The greatest stress was when the pilots came home and tried to snag that cable.