Putting it on the Line

by Steve on July 8, 2007

Those of you who have been here before (and thank you for returning) may have noticed in the sidebar that there is a novel in the works. I wrote a short story years ago after leaving the Navy that floated around gathering dust until a little over a year ago when I left gainful employment to devote all my effort into producing a full-fledged novel based on that short story. Not an easy task. A year later I found myself only half-way finished and faced with a good opportunity to re-enter the world of the responsibly employed. I’ve been back at work now for 8 months or so and during that time have rarely touched the novel that I invested a year of my effort toward completing.

I must complete it if for no other reason than my own sanity, even if it never reaches publication. It draws heavily on my experiences in the world of Naval Aviation, we’ll call it a military/political thriller inspired by the likes of Clancy and Coonts. I was well on my way when I discovered Lex and “Rhythms.” Admittedly this discovery caused a momentary panic attack of self-doubt for I had never read a better illustration of life around a carrier. Hopefully we can convince him to twist all that talent into novel format. Now I’m not attempting to steal any of his thunder, just offering up my own piece for you Rhythms addicts to digest and discuss amongst the family. The challenge that I deal with every time I pick up this work-in-progress is to find the fine line between technical accuracy and readability for the uninitiated: I hope that the end result will be enjoyed by both those who have flown off carriers and those who have never set foot on one.

1994 was the last time I flew in a War Hoover and 1991 marked my last trap aboard a carrier so I certainly welcome technical corrections from those of you more current than myself. As for the rest of you, feel free to make any constructive criticism you feel inclined to offer.

Here you go (remember – work-in-progress – be gentle but firm!) 😉

The jet was descending much faster than normal – nine hundred feet-per-minute sink rate at 150 knots. Both numbers dangerously close to the design limits of the landing gear on the aircraft and the arresting gear engines below the aircraft carrier’s flight deck. The team on the Landing Signal Officer’s (LSO) platform had their hands full getting fully functional aircraft aboard. Five days of steady wind out of the north had pushed the sea into large angry swells, large enough to cause even a ship the size of a carrier to feel the added motion. Now they were faced with an emergency thrown into the mix. LT Neil Thomas concentrated on the approaching aircraft from his perch on the LSO platform. He triggered his handset and made the radio call, “Three quarters of a mile, call the ball,” as the Lockheed S-3B Viking aircraft rolled into the groove lined up for landing.

The pilot of the crippled jet, LT Bill “Mac” McKenzie, worked the stick and throttles with calm determination. “Got it, make the call,” he told his Flight Officer over the intercom.

LT Ted “Flash” Gordon keyed his radio, “705, Viking ball, 3.5, no flaps,” as the jet screamed toward the back end of the boat. For the sailors tasked with recording the chaos, this short call gave them the aircraft side number and type, verified the pilot had visually acquired the Fresnel Lens or “meatball” ( “ball” for short – a visual landing aid located to the left of the flight deck), fuel remaining in thousands of pounds, and the nature of any emergency. In this case the jet’s flaps were locked up requiring a no-flap approach at a much faster speed than normal. This information was also passed to the arresting gear crew so they could make the proper settings based on aircraft type, gross weight, and approach speed. Landing area clear, arresting gear set, deck crew ready – the Air Boss in the tower gave the order “Clear deck” and the light in front of Neil changed from red to green. “Clear deck,” he announced to his team on the platform. He lowered his arm which he had been holding above his head as a visual signal to the LSO team indicating the deck was not ready. During routine daylight flight operations the USS Ronald Reagan and her crew could recover an aircraft every 45 seconds until the recovery was complete. Neil was in charge of all recoveries as the senior LSO. Each squadron had two or three LSO’s and there were always several on the platform for a recovery evolution. Ultimate authority rested with Neil – he was the Air Wing LSO affectionately known as “Paddles” and reported directly to the Carrier Air Group Commander or CAG. If Neil didn’t agree with one of his fellow LSO’s he could override any instructions coming from the group on the platform.

“Roger ball, no flaps, deck’s down – don’t chase it,” Neil responded.

Even as Bill heard the pitching deck call from the platform his hand was inching the throttles back in a gut response to the visual sensation that he was going high.

“Mac, you’re going to settle – keep the power up,” coached Ted from the right seat. The hair was starting to stand up on the back of his neck.

“Shut the hell up, you’re starting to sound like my wife,” he snapped. The barb lacked his usual lighthearted tone.

The danger in landing on a pitching deck is the tendency to ignore the lens, chase the deck down as it’s sinking and then not anticipate the upward motion in time to avoid a hard landing or worse. Neil saw the approach lights on the jet’s nose gear go from on-speed to slow just as he felt the deck begin to come up.

He keyed his radio again, “Power!” The jet was close enough that he could hear the engines spool up in response to his coaching. Still not enough. “POWER!” That got another bump on the throttles but the deck was still coming up and the tailhook of the S-3B Viking wasn’t going to clear the edge of the deck by the desired margin. It IS going clear isn’t it? If there’s any doubt… he mashed the pickle switch activating the wave-off lights and backed up the flashing red lights with a “Wave-off!” call on the radio as he heard the engines spool up to full power.

In the cockpit, Bill slammed the throttles against the stops to climb out of an approach that had gotten away from him. The wave-off was a surprise coming as it did well inside what he considered the normal window for being sent around to try again. He thought that as ugly as the approach was, he was committed. Concentrate! Keep the nose down, let the engines lift you out of this mess! He didn’t correctly anticipate the increased thrust from the engines and the aircraft was rotating into a nose high attitude but it wasn’t climbing quite yet, the rotation simply put the tailhook that much closer to the deck.

“Attitude!” Neil screamed into his handset, an urgent reminder to Bill to get the nose back down. The sink rate had bottomed out but the nose-high attitude robbed the needed clearance to keep the jet flying. All things converged at once in a meeting that shouldn’t have taken place. The deck came up to meet the plane that was being directed to fly against geometry and physics. The tailhook scraped down the deck sending a shower of sparks into the air until it snagged the number one arresting cable. It was a textbook in-flight engagement of the carrier-deck arresting gear. The plane was still flying, main landing gear about two feet off the deck, and accelerating from a final approach speed that was already close to the upper limit for the arresting gear engines when it engaged the number one wire. The in-flight engagement compounded by the high approach speed induced stresses on the arresting gear and the aircraft that were well in excess of design limits. Something had to give. Bill felt the tug of the wire BEFORE the landing gear slammed into the deck and knew immediately what had happened. “Hang on,” he told his crew. The plane was decelerating quickly… and then it wasn’t.

Neil saw the wire drop away from the hook and take a large chunk of metal with it. The hook point had separated! The engagement had slowed the airplane well below the speed that would be required to climb out.

Bill pulled the throttles to idle and jammed his boots on the brakes. “Stay with it!” he yelled to his crew over the intercom system as both main tires blew. Sparks streamed from the hook shank and the main mounts as metal met metal. On deck but out of control, the jet skidded down the landing area in a drift toward the left side of the deck and the pitching sea some ninety feet below. Bill engaged the nosewheel steering and worked the brake pedals to turn the left drift away from the deck edge and back toward the remaining deck. As the jet started to respond to his inputs, the nose gear caught the #3 catapult track causing a sharp veer to the right. This sudden change in direction threw the plane off balance and the left wing tip impacted the deck sending up a new sparkler trail. The jolt and roll were too much for the young sensor operator strapped in the seat behind Bill. A bright flash and loud “whump” marked the Sensor Operator’s sudden departure as he ejected fearing that the beginning of the roll was to be followed by a free fall into the sea. A second later the wild ride came to a screeching halt as the crippled jet stopped on the foul line directly behind the turning engines of an F/A-18 Hornet.

From his vantage point up in the top of the island, the Air Boss started barking orders over the phones and radios. The Hornet driver shut down his engines, the deck crew towed the damaged Viking clear of the landing area, the airborne SH-60 helicopter quickly rescued the missing Sensor Operator from the sea, and the arresting gear crew stripped the #1 wire from the deck. Within minutes the carrier resumed normal aircraft recovery operations. The remaining aircraft orbiting overhead now had only three arresting cables to shoot for but catching the #1 wire was considered bad form anyway.

Ted extracted his sweat-soaked body from the jet once the rest of the crew had gone below. This was anything but a routine work-up cycle: the weather had been terrible ever since the Reagan departed Norfolk and many of the junior aviators were making their first traps on a fleet deck. Ted had seen his share of traps during his first fleet tour but he’d never seen such a run of bad luck. He took one more look at the jet that had almost killed him and started to shake. On his way to his squadron’s Ready Room he stopped by the avionics shop. The maintenance space where his enlisted technicians operated was well off the path to Ready 2 where the crews from Sea Control Squadron Twenty Eight (VS-28) briefed and debriefed flight operations but right now he needed a smoke. His wife Susan would be pissed if she found out about this periodic habit that Ted seemed to pick up on the ship. Smoking on-board the Reagan or any Navy ship was forbidden but the hardcore nicotine addicts all had their ways around the policy. Petty Officer Second Class O’Brien had just lit up when Ted rounded the corner.

“Thought you might be headed down here, Sir,” O’Brien said as he flipped his pack of cigarettes toward the worn out officer. “Figured you might need to calm your nerves after that little trip tonight.”

Ted winced. “So you saw the show, huh?”

“Caught the end of it on the display screen up in Maintenance Control. That jet’s going to be in the hangar bay for a while. Aren’t you glad you decided to stick around?”

“Oh sure. Watching junior pilots try to kill my ass. There are times, this being one of them, when I wonder why I stayed but I’m a junkie – I need my fix. The adrenaline rush of a cat shot in a twenty-five-year-old jet, the terror of a night landing with Billymac at the controls – it’s all good!”

The phone rang and O’Brien automatically grabbed it, “Avionics Shop. Yes Sir, he just came in from the deck. Right away, Sir.” He hung it up and turned to LT Gordon, “Duty Officer’s sweating bullets, Skipper wants to see you and Mister McKenzie ASAP.”

“Yeah, I figured as much. I imagine everyone wants a piece of us tonight. Tear up a plane and people tend to get rather excited around here. I’m sure the old man wants to discuss his new safety record.”

Ted left the shop and headed through the maze of hatches and passageways that would take him to Ready 2. He stopped at the Pararigger’s shop long enough to shed his flight gear where he met up with Bill. They paused outside the door to the squadron’s ready room, bracing themselves for what was surely waiting on the other side of the door. Before they could open it, the door flung back and a mob of their fellow junior officers surrounded them reveling in the fact that the crew of 705 was still alive. The celebration didn’t last long.

“Flash, Mac, get your asses in here!” Commander Joe Hart, the squadron Commanding Officer had been waiting long enough to work through his concern and had already graduated to spooled-up anger at the loss of a jet once he learned the crew of four was safe. They had to wait for the rush of JO’s evacuating the ready room to subside before they could make it through the door. Once inside Ted wasn’t surprised to see most of the Department Heads, arms crossed, standing behind CDR Hart. Ted’s boss, LCDR Baker the squadron Maintenance Officer, reached out and squeezed his shoulder in a show of silent compassion for the younger officer.

“What the hell happened up there today, Mac?”

“Skipper, the deck was pitching and I guess I wasn’t ready for it. I thought I was already committed to the landing when I saw the wave-off lights and the whole thing caught me off guard. I must have over-rotated on the climb-out and the hook snagged a wire. In-flight engagement followed by a failure of the tailhook. By then I was too slow to fly out of it.”

“No shit, Mac. I saw all that on the screen down here. What the hell happened in your head? You’re not a nugget any longer, Ted’s been flying in your right seat for over a year now. You were slow in responding to the call for power. LSO had you pegged. You were chasing the damn deck, flying by the seat of your pants instead of relying on the guy on the deck backing you up. Neil had his damn feet on the very deck that you insisted on chasing down. By the time you showed up in the pattern, Neil had already successfully waved seven jets. He had the timing nailed and yet you didn’t trust him. Your ass had a better idea of what was going on! How many times have we briefed pitching deck procedures? You know better than to spot the deck on a day like today. And Flash, you let him get away with it. Trust your LSO and trust what the lens is showing you unless the LSO decides it’s unreliable. You got sloppy and you cost me a damn mishap – at least I don’t have to write four letters tonight. Go see the Flight Surgeon and once he gets through with you, get cleaned up.” CDR Hart, veins bulging, turned to his Operations Officer, “OPSO, we’ve got us a permanent Duty Officer until Mac gets cleared by the Doc and the accident investigation is complete. Lieutenant McKenzie, enjoy your desk, you’ve earned it. Now both of you get out of my sight for a while!”

“Aye, Sir!” The officers spun on their heels and were out the door before any more damage could be inflicted upon them.

Next…

{ 12 comments }

Rick Wahler July 8, 2007 at 21:13

Steve,

Good start–I love this stuff. I’m looking forward to the continuation. Particularly, I’d like to know how Das Naven deals with incidents like this–what happens to pilots/crew in the follow-up process. Grandpa Pettybone suggests that some shouldn’t be around anymore. How often does that happen? Present the human element amidst the technical.

In the way of constructive help, I found a couple of sentences a bit confusing & had to read and read them. This is one example: “Both numbers dangerously close to the design limits of the landing gear on the aircraft and the arresting gear engines below the aircraft carrier’s flight deck, thought LT Neil Thomas as he monitored the approach from his perch on the Landing Signal Officer’s (LSO) platform.”

Steve July 8, 2007 at 21:56

Thanks for your input Rick. I agree there are a few that need to be re-worked and you picked up on one of my least favorites – it’s already targeted for help later on in the process.

UPDATE: I changed the first paragraph – probably not for the last time but I couldn’t stand having readers stumble in the opening paragraph!

STEVEC July 9, 2007 at 15:10

I might be wrong here, but it seems to me that I read that the USS Reagan has only 3 arresting wires(?) instead of 4. Something to do with the deck configuration related to launching aircraft…at least that is my memory, faulty as it sometimes is. If I’m wrong, I’d be interested to know which other ship, maybe, is the one I’m thinking of.

Nose July 9, 2007 at 17:13

This is obviously BS! If it were a good story it would center on the LSOs and how all of this affected them!

Nice work.

N

Steve July 9, 2007 at 19:45

I’ve heard it never pays to argue the point with an LSO! Nose, did they do away with one of the arresting cables on Reagan?

Nose July 10, 2007 at 5:14

I think SteveC is correct. They made the engines, purchase cables, and CDPs stronger and able to take more hits, and got rid of one of the wires.

Haven’t heard anything about whether anyone likes it or not. If it were up to me they would number them 1,2, and 4. I never used 3 myself.

N

Pinch July 11, 2007 at 10:59

Correct about Reagan’s wires. Above-water-line weight had become a huge problem so in an effort that both reduced maintenance and reduced weight, a complete arresting gear engine and associated equipment was dropped. All the old hook-to-eye ratios and distances between wires was kept so no changes, huge or radical or otherwise are a result.

Renee July 11, 2007 at 14:44

Meant to tell you I really enjoyed the read yesterday. I have passed it on to others in the office. Keep up the good work

Rick Wahler July 11, 2007 at 23:08

Hey, much better! Now, are we going to have to bug you (like Lex) for moremoremore?

Steeljaw Scribe July 12, 2007 at 7:23

Hmmm, methinks there might be a FNAEB in the offering?
– SJS

Jim C July 13, 2007 at 12:28

Steve,

Great post. I’m looking forward to the next installment. As was said above, I guess we’ll have to start bugging you for more.

Jim C

Greg H. October 28, 2007 at 5:03

Goor Friend Steve,

In the interesting story, where are the red & green lights located that signal a foul or clear deck?

Your Friend,

Greg

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