It is a moonless night 175 miles off the coast of Southern California and Francesco Chierici of Rochester, N.Y., has just completed the most difficult and dangerous feat in aviation.
Using light from the constellation Orion to help him see the horizon and maintain his sense of equilibrium, the 28-year-old Navy lieutenant has landed a $40-million F-14 Tomcat on the rolling deck of the Abraham Lincoln and brought the 25-ton plane to a screaming halt in less than a heartbeat.
“Night landings on a carrier get a little easier the more you do,” Chierici said as he waited below deck for his landing to be graded by other pilots. “But they never get less scary.”
Indeed, stress monitors hooked up to Navy pilots during the Vietnam War showed that the gutgrabbing tension involved in landing on a carrier, particularly at night, exceeds even that of being in aerial combat and facing murderous fire from an enemy.
First, the pilot must spot the carrier thousands of feet below, nothing more than a pinpoint of moving, unsteady light on a black sea, sometimes obscured by clouds, the carrier’s deck lights muted for security. In seconds, the pilot must find the proper approach angle, set his cockpit instruments and keep his eyes on an electronic device on the deck known as the “meatball,” which sends out a beam of light to tell him if he is too high or too low.
Most important, the pilot has to keep his nerves steady and his heartbeat under control as he wrestles the plane onto the black-painted deck at 150 m.p.h. And he must keep his eyes on the “meatball,” not the deck, waiting instead for the deck to rise up and trap the speeding plane with a neck-snapping thump.
The dangers of carrier aviation became front-page news in October when Lt. Kara Hultgreen, the first woman to fly an F-14 fighter, crashed at sea and was killed while attempting a daylight landing on the Lincoln. She was the 10th aviator since 1992 to die while flying an F-14, although not all the crashes involved carrier landings.
Any flier with much time in service can, if pressed, summon up a list of friends who have crashed and died.
“I’ve been in the Navy 10 years, and I could probably mention 20 to 30 friends who didn’t make it,” said Lt. Ray Roberts, 32, who flies the A-6E Intruder, an attack bomber, referring to fellow fliers who have died landing on carriers and other accidents.
Roberts, who flew 38 combat missions in the Persian Gulf, doubles as a carrier landing signal officer helping other pilots by giving instructions by radio in the precious seconds before touchdown.
“Landing on a carrier is as tough as it gets in aviation,” said Cmdr. Mike Babin, a 21-year veteran of naval aviation who heads the Lincoln’s aircraft control center, which tracks all planes in the air through radar and other electronic gear.
“The danger,” Babin said, “can be mitigated through training, but it cannot be eliminated.”
The ability to make carrier landings--particularly at night when the deck is pitch-black and a pilot must rely on instruments, instinct and instructions from the landing signal officers--is what gives Navy pilots an elan, some might call it a swagger, unique even among military pilots.
Landing on a carrier is the most dangerous part of an already dangerous business.
“Carrier landings are what make us different than the Air Force,” said Lt. Derek Ashlock, 30, who flies the F/A-18 Hornet, the Navy’s newest attack fighter. “Our deck is rolling, pitching, bobbing and running away from us. And (the carrier) is never in the same place that we left it.”
Even pilots with hundreds of landings say their hearts begin to pound furiously and their legs get rubbery every time they descend from the darkness to a carrier. The feeling of exhilaration and dread remains long after the fliers are down and being debriefed.
“It’s an adrenaline rush you can’t imagine,” said Lt. John Petranek, 27, who flies the E-2 Hawkeye, an early warning and communications plane. “Every time you do it successfully, you know you’ve cheated death.”
Back in San Diego at Miramar Naval Air Station, where Chierici’s BlackLion Squadron is based, an F-14 can take 8,000 feet or more to roll to a safe stop on a stable, smooth runway.
But at sea, on a deck that can be heaving as much as 30 feet up and down, or rolling and shrugging side to side in a motion called a Dutch roll, or doing any number of other gyrations, the same landing must be accomplished in 400 feet.
Although the Navy emphasizes training, safety and the importance of “duality” or backup systems to reduce human and mechanical error, the difficulty and danger of carrier landings remains. It is a fact that Navy aviators--admittedly a competitive, intense, gung-ho group--accept as a condition of employment.
Too little power and a plane can stall out or crash into the carrier short of the deck, a deadly kind of accident known as a “ramp strike.” Too much power and a plane can skid off the deck into the water. A loss of control by the pilot and the plane can swerve and hit the tower or other planes.
“The best description I ever heard of a carrier landing is that it’s basically a controlled crash,” said Lt. Cmdr. Brian Norris, 31, who flies the F-14. “And the cost of any deviation is very high.”
To compensate for the uncontrollable factors of weather, visibility and the motion of the carrier, pilots rely on a combination of electronic wizardry, human skill and an old-fashioned device at the back of the plane with a name now known in a much different context: Tailhook.
As the name implies, a tailhook is a steel hook protruding at the back of the plane that drags the deck and grabs at one of four thick wire cables strung tightly across the deck at a height of about six inches. The first cable is 150 feet from the beginning of the deck or ramp, the others are spaced at 40-foot intervals.
In the split second the plane hits the deck, the pilot pushes the throttle to full power in case he needs to lift off for another pass. If the hook grabs one of the cables, the tension yanks the speeding, straining plane to a halt in a hail of metal-on-metal sparks amid the deafening roar of supersonic engines.
It is roughly equivalent to stomping on the gas pedal and jamming on the brakes at the same time at a speed of up to 150 m.p.h.
The goal is to hit the third wire. If a pilot hits the first wire, he is considered to have landed short and is marked down, and if he hits the fourth wire, he is considered to have landed long, and is also marked down.
A pilot’s grade for every landing--which factors in speed, wing stability, glide path and the ability to hit a line down the center of the deck--is posted in the squadron ready room.
Cameras are trained on the flight deck to catch all landings and takeoffs, and live action is shown on monitors in squadron rooms and officers’ quarters. Many squads make tapes from the monitors, which the Navy encourages for self-improvement.
The only exception is when a crash occurs and the monitors are immediately turned off by a central control. The videotape is immediately locked up, to be examined only by top officers.
The nuclear-powered Lincoln, which is based in Alameda and is the newest of the Navy’s 12 carriers, has a complement of more than 80 aircraft and more than 5,000 personnel. It is the largest warship the world has ever seen.
It has a top speed exceeding 30 knots, which means it can easily generate the 25 to 30 knots of head winds needed for flight operations. The ship is 1,092 feet long and the flight deck is 257 feet wide at its broadest.
But the size of the deck can be deceiving. Only a portion is available for landings, and a plane with a 60-foot wingspan that misses the center line can hit the tower or be perilously close to the edge and a drop to the water.
“The parameters of the boat are very non-negotiable,” said Lt. Carey Lohrenz, 26, one of the first women to fly the F-14. “You can’t afford to have a bad day.”
Every aviator has tales to tell about his or her first carrier landing.
Take, for example, Rep. Randall Cunningham (R-San Diego), who shot down five enemy aircraft over Vietnam and is now a member of the House Military Affairs Committee and probably the biggest champion for carrier aviation in Congress.
He has vivid memories of his first carrier landing in 1967 aboard the Lexington. A day earlier, one of Cunningham’s fellow trainees had skidded off the runway and crashed into the sea. The friend broke his back and nearly drowned.
With his friend’s fate on his mind, Cunningham began to experience vertigo as he tried to land on the Lexington’s pitching deck.
“I thought I’d run out of oxygen before I ran out of gas,” Cunningham said. Later landings became easier but they never became routine.
“Many was the time I would get out of the cockpit and literally kiss the deck and say, ‘Gotcha again,’ ” he said.
Pentagon figures show that during the last decade the Navy each year has suffered two to three major accidents per 100,000 flying hours over sea and land. Because Navy pilots fly about 1.2 million hours a year, that makes for two dozen accidents a year designated as Class A, meaning they involve death, major injury or destruction of an aircraft.
The danger is so obvious that it is discussed matter-of-factly by fliers. Most of the fliers on the Abraham Lincoln have accomplished hundreds of carrier landings but the apprehension about what could go wrong never disappears.
“I find I fly better if I’m aware of what could go wrong,” said Lt. Chris Dryden, 27, an F/A-18 pilot. “When I go off the catapult, I think ‘Is this the time I’ll lose an engine.’ And when I’m flying, I think, ‘Is this the plane that wants to kill me?’ ”
The latest fatality among the Lincoln pilots was Lt. Glennon Kersgieter, 29, whose F/A-18 crashed into the sea immediately after being launched by the catapult Jan. 28. Kersgieter was the fourth Navy flier assigned to the Pacific fleet to die in a crash since Oct. 1. The cause of the crash is being investigated.
The results of all crash investigations, which are unsparing in pinpointing human error, are forwarded up the chain of command for possible use in revising the Navy’s operation manual for pilots, particularly the sections on avoiding tragedies. For that reason, fliers say, the manual “is written in blood.”
Neither the plane nor Kersgieter’s body were recovered. Planes were being launched and landed (or “trapped”) within 30 minutes of the crash as the training mission of the Lincoln continued almost without interruption.
“For the first day or two, I couldn’t believe ‘K-nine’ (Kersgieter’s nickname) was gone,” Ashlock said. “People die on the boat. It’s sad but it’s true.”
A memorial service for Kersgieter was held aboard ship in the “anchor windlass,” a huge compartment below deck where the Lincoln’s two 30-ton anchors are stored. Almost 400 fliers and sailors were in solemn attendance.
Officiating at the memorial was Father Bob Milewski, the ship’s Roman Catholic chaplain, who officiated at a similar memorial in October for Hultgreen. Such memorials, he said, have spiritual and tactical objectives.
“Squadron commanders will tell you that when a squadron loses someone, the squadron can lose focus, which can’t be allowed to happen,” Milewski said. “A memorial service allows the squadron to refocus, to experience catharsis and a ritual closing, and then to continue the mission.”
Francesco Chierici, whose night landing just hours after the Kersgieter memorial was rated top-notch by his peers, is aware of the risks. So is his family, but they understand his passion for flying, a passion that is undeterred by the daily prospect of death.
“People get killed in this business,” he said quietly. “But if you can’t go out after a friend has died and go right back to work, then you belong in another job, because it happens.”