The Question

by Steve on May 24, 2006

It invariably gets asked. Usually at parties or gatherings where stories are told once the beer starts flowing and someone gets curious. “What was it like? What was the most terrifying experience you had flying off carriers?”

That would be the night my pilot got vertigo. Without a doubt. Night tanker hop. (There’s that word night again, dark one too.) We launched as the recovery tanker aka “Texaco”. Extra gas in the air for those unfortunate souls taking their turn in the barrel, having trouble getting aboard. First joined up on the off-going tanker overhead the ship and took the lead so he could plug in and confirm the on-coming tanker “sweet”. That done we swapped the lead again and plugged in to take his excess fuel to get him down to max trap weight without dumping.

It was a dark night over the eastern Med with no moon and a nice haze to obscure the horizon. Stars above and lights from shipping on the sea below all blended into a dark, hazy bubble with dots of light all around. My pilot, flying formation on the other tanker, was completely outside the cockpit relying on the other pilot to get us where we needed to be. Our job was to stay on his wing. Standard procedure in the overhead tanker pattern was to fly an orbit, a constant-rate turn. For some reason never explained the pilot of the lead aircraft was flying a race-track pattern: 180 degree turn, straight leg, 180 degree turn, straight leg and so on. My pilot was thinking constant-rate turn when he was actually in and out of turns all the while keeping his scan glued to the plane mere feet to our left. Time came for us to detach. Break off from the lead, my pilot brings his scan back inside on instruments and his brain rejects what he sees. At 5000 feet over the Med he rolls inverted, lets go of the stick and tells me, “You have the aircraft – I can’t tell which way is up!” Rather odd time to be testing me on unusual attitude recoveries but…

For the next half hour I flew gently around in the dark describing each move I made while he stared at the instruments trying to get his inner ear in sync with the movements. “Now we’re going into a 30 degree right-hand turn, etc. etc.” Once he declared he was cured I gave control of the jet back to him. We orbited overhead in the tanker pattern listening to the recovery in progress below. Once everyone else was aboard we were vectored a few miles out behind the ship and hooked back in to intercept a straight-in. I watched the ACLS needles track and when we hit the glideslope we started down. He was moving the aircraft around a bit more than usual but it had been a rough night. As we closed in on the ship he began overcorrecting, chasing.

“You ok?” I asked.

“Make sure you call vertigo on the ball,” came the response.

“Ah, ok.” (Oh s#%t!)

No time to second-guess, we’re seconds from landing. LSO calls, “Three quarters of a mile, call the ball.”

“Got it. Call it,” he says from the left seat.
“702, Viking ball, 4.5, vertigo on the ball,” I reply to the call from the platform.

Silence. Our wings are rocking and yet I hear no coaching from the platform so I start chattering like a verbal auto-pilot. Right wing down, wings level, now your left wing’s down and so on. Still no calls from the boys on the platform. As we cross the ramp the radio finally comes to life, “STOP ROCKING YOUR WINGS!”

From the left, “God I hope we don’t bolter.”

We didn’t. Good thing too. Come to find out the reason the gods were silent was we were on centerline, on glideslope. There was nothing to say. They timed his rocking and locked him up with that non-standard call just as we rolled wings-level coming across the ramp. Nice touch.

Might have to work that into the book.

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