“Hitting the boat” is an expression from the Naval Air Training Command in Pensacola Florida that refers to the first time an aspiring Naval Aviator (a flight student) lands an airplane on an aircraft carrier. On Monday I wrote about THE most momentous event to ever occur on August 6th the bombing of Hiroshima some 75 years ago. However, August 6th also marks the date in 1968 when then 2nd Lieutenant, L.S. “Butch” Mazzuca brought his T-28C aboard the USS Lexington.
Modern aircraft carriers are more than three football fields long, displace 97,000 tons and have a ‘ship’s company’ of roughly 3,500 men and women to support an air wing component of approximately 90 aircraft and 2,500 pilots and aviation support personnel. And taking off from and bringing an aircraft such as an F-18 back on board ship is far more than the sum of the laws of physics and aerodynamics. The pilot has to make precisely the right control movements at precisely the right moment, at precisely the right altitude and at precisely the right airspeed, all of which requires, skill, attitude, confidence, understanding, discipline and knowledge.
While my MOS (military occupational specialty) was 7642, i.e., a CH-46 pilot, before I began actual helicopter training my first ten months in flight school were spent learning how to solo, to do aerobatics, navigate with instruments and landing on an aircraft carrier–and all in fixed wing aircraft.
So today, I thought I’d explain “to the best of my recollection” (hey it was 52 years ago) just how it’s done. And I’ll begin by describing the mirrored landing system used by the Navy to assist the pilot in bringing his aircraft back aboard the carrier. Known as “the lens” It’s a system of lenses and directional lights positioned near the stern on the port (left) side of the ship and provides the pilot with a visual reference of the glide path to the pitching deck.
After entering the ship’s landing pattern, the pilot begins his (or her) approach by flying a downwind leg (flying in the opposite direction the carrier is traveling) with landing gear, flaps and tail hook down. When abeam of the ship the pilot turns the aircraft towards the ship and begins setting the aircraft up for its final approach.
At about three quarters of a mile astern of the ship, at 800 feet of altitude and 150 mph the pilot lines up on the carrier. (Note, all aircraft have different landing speeds, but for purposes of illustration let’s assume this particular aircraft lands at 150 mph.) The pilot is then instructed by the Landing Signal Officer (LSO) standing near “Lens” at the stern of the ship to “call the ball.” The “ball”, and abbreviation for “the meatball,” as the reflected light from from the mirrored landing system is known and that the pilot sees from the cockpit, lets the pilot know he or she is lined up on glide path.
After “calling the ball,’ the pilot’s task is to fly the glide path (which pitches and rolls with the ship) at a specific airspeed until he “traps” one of four arresting wires on the deck of the ship. (Note: some of the newer carriers use three arresting wires.) To successfully bring an aircraft aboard ship the nose of the aircraft must pass through an imaginary rectangle in the sky just to the aft of the ship that’s eighteen inches high by thirty-six inches wide. Meanwhile, with the ship moving at a close to flank speed (nearly 40 mph) the imaginary rectangle isn’t just moving, it pitches and rolls with the ship.
In addition to remaining on the glide path, the pilot must also keep the aircraft within ½ mph of its designated airspeed. If the aircraft is flying at 149 mph and its landing speed is 150 mph the laws of physics will not allow the aircraft to come aboard; 149 mph is too slow and the aircraft will experience a “ramp strike,” i.e., it will hit the fantail of the ship and ruin the pilot’s whole day. If on the other hand the pilot is fast (say 151 mph instead of 150,) he or she will miss the arresting wires and will be forced to “wave-off” and go around again—which is not only embarrassing but dangerous—too many wave-offs and the aviator may soon find himself with a shore base squadron.
The time lapse between when the pilot ‘calls the ball’ and touches down on the deck is about 15 seconds. And the actual landing takes place in an area roughly 150 feet long by about 40 feet wide where the aircraft must “trap” one of the arresting wires with it’s tail hook. Once trapped, the aircraft will decelerate from 150 mph to zero in less than 400 feet (about 1.2 seconds.)
Night operations take the skill and stress factors to an entirely new level. Navy doctors have measured the heart rate of pilots flying combat missions and discovered that the heat rates of pilots landing on a carrier at night are higher than when measured in the heat of combat with surface to air missiles whizzing past them.
Every carrier landing is critiqued and debriefed by the Landing Signal Officer and every pilot is graded on his or her performance regardless of rank or experience level. Now as a flight student I wasn’t flying an F-18 Super Hornet in 1968, I ‘hit the boat’ in the T-28 Trojan, a monster of a trainer roughly equivalent to a World War II fighter such as the Navy’s Hellcat—but vintage aircraft or not, it sure didn’t make the experience any less exciting.