Leading Edge

Navy carrier operations combine training, skill, and dedicated hard work

April 1, 2003

It's been dry for three weeks and the Mooney is ready. But at 5:30 a.m. it's raining and the sound of thunder makes it clear that I will be driving — not flying — to Norfolk, Virginia, to join the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman for an overnight cruise. The ship is 100 miles offshore conducting training exercises in preparation for action in the Persian Gulf — or wherever the Navy sends the battle group. Aside from the gee-whiz part of seeing the technical and teamwork marvel that carrier operations represent, it's a chance to look at a serious safety culture.

I am transported to the ship via C-2 aircraft, lovingly referred to as "the COD" and used to transfer critical and live cargo. The Navy acronym stands for carrier on-board delivery, but the ancient Grumman turboprop bears strong resemblance to the inside of a fish when its rear boarding door is dropped down to swallow the nine visitors that comprise our group. The passenger bay holds about 30 passengers and there is one small window on each side. It is dark, hot, and noisy, much as I imagine Jonah found the inside of the whale. However, the grimy, high-mileage machine gets the job done.

We are issued inflatable life jackets and "cranials," pseudo-helmets to protect our hearing, eyes, and noggins. "Just a precaution," the group is reassured. The big deal on the way out to the ship is the trap, when the COD catches one of four arresting wires on the carrier. The deceleration from 91 knots to zero takes about two seconds. Four-point harnesses in each aft-facing seat secure the passengers. The pilot advises us about 10 seconds prior to the impending crash. We sit in the dark — waiting, waiting. Whamm!! Rowrr. There is no doubt that the COD has landed but will it ever fly again? The engines go to full power on touchdown, adding to the din, just in case the hook and arresting wire don't connect. That leaves enough airspeed and about 300 feet to get airborne again for the bonus round, but the hook catches and the COD clears the landing area. Our crew says goodbye and, without shutting down, takes on return passengers and cargo.

Capt. Mike Groothausen meets us enthusiastically and reels off the ship's impressive vital statistics. The Harry S. Truman is the Navy's newest carrier, a nuclear-powered behemoth that took almost 10 years to build and was commissioned in 1998. It is 1,096 feet long — as long as the Empire State Building is tall — 251 feet wide, and it towers 20 stories above the waterline — this is one large ship. Proving that Archimedes was right, the Truman displaces about 100,000 tons and pushes through the water at speeds in excess of 30 knots. The next fill up with nuclear fuel will be in about 16 years.

The flight deck encompasses 4.5 acres with four catapults and the capacity to handle more than 80 tactical aircraft such as the F-14 Tomcat, F-18 Hornet, EA-6B Prowler, and E2C Hawkeye. There are four elevators to move aircraft from the flight deck to the hangar deck, one floor down. Each elevator can usually handle two aircraft and makes the 30-to-40-foot drop or ascent in about three seconds. It's a freight elevator on steroids.

Despite his passion for the hardware, Capt. "Groot's" real affection is for the crew. All the officers on board echo this as they recognize the energy and sacrifices made by the young people who run the ship. The average age on the flight deck is 19, until our group arrived, when it went up by several years. We are encouraged to ask questions and probe their knowledge but most important, to let them know that the job they're doing is appreciated. There are top-gun pilots, ordinary pilots, machinist mates, culinary specialists, fuelers, firefighters, and supply specialists — hundreds of skill sets among some 5,000 sailors in all when the air wing is aboard. About 800 of the sailors are female and every job is gender neutral. All that matters is getting the job done — right.

Our tour group, like everyone on the flight deck, is issued a float coat, another cranial, and a color-coded jersey. This identifies who needs to be where and when. The instructions are simple — stick close and don't wander. It's 60 feet to the waterline and it takes the ship a mile or so to stop. To date, the Truman has a perfect record with no personnel bumped, jumped, or blown over the side.

First stop is the catapult where aircraft are slung off the front of the ship. Much attention is devoted to getting the aircraft properly hooked, locking its folding wings in place, and ensuring the engines are developing full power. If everything doesn't work just right...well, that's bad.

The British pioneered the angled landing deck, which simplifies the logistics of moving aircraft about and allows takeoffs and landings to occur simultaneously. The handling officer and his team probably relax with a Rubik's Cube to keep their mental edge. Every move must be anticipated with literally just inches to spare. Hangar rash is a constant concern for the crew chiefs. Fortunately, there is no problem with matching the aircraft's paint color — it's all gray. Park something three rows back and it could take 30 minutes to dig it out. The planners use a low-tech system of markers, grease pencils, and various wing screws, nuts, and washers to show the location and status of aircraft. This is one of many contrasts on the carrier that uses everything from World War II techniques to the latest electronics.

The landing concept is simple even if the execution isn't: Fly a precise glidepath and drive the aircraft onto the ship. Don't bother to flare since there is little runway and, with lots of skill and a little luck, the tailhook will catch one of the arresting cables. If all else fails when you're out of fuel, nerve, and ideas, a barrier net can be erected to catch the aircraft. As mentioned earlier, touchdowns are solid — with descent rates between 700 and 1,000 feet per minute. I've personally made some hard landings and ridden through thousands more with students, but nothing like that.

Flight ops are usually into the wind and since the ship can easily generate 30 knots of wind in addition to whatever nature provides, it helps launch and land aircraft. Maximum allowable crosswind component is about 7 knots and the ship is angled slightly off the true wind to compensate for the angled landing deck. The helmsman — in this case a young woman — endeavors to maintain course within 1 degree. It takes a lot of concentration. Watching operations in daylight, there is a profound sense of respect for the cooperation it takes to put all this together. If ever there was a definition of teamwork, this is it. At night it's even tougher. Aircraft appear out of the darkness flying the ILS and visually transition to the ball, or optical landing system, about three-quarters of a mile aft of the ship. There are no visual cues except for the runway and the ball. This is the ultimate black-hole approach.

Just aft of the bridge is an elevated open area, Vulture's Row, where spectators can look down on the flight-deck proceedings. If you ever fluffed a landing with a crowd of onlookers (vultures, or worse) at a small GA airport, imagine doing it in front of all your shipmates and peers every time. To add insult to injury, there are hundreds of closed-circuit TVs throughout the ship that report every approach, landing, and touch and go. So it's not just the deck crew that sees any transgressions — everybody is a spectator and a critic. The camera is located on the runway centerline in the touchdown zone with cross hairs projected on the screen, looking up the glidepath. It is immediately apparent when an arrival starts to deviate. As soon as the aircraft hits the deck, the view switches to the bridge to capture the rollout or touch and go. Each approach is scrutinized and scored.

The weather shifts from hazy darkness to light rain and then to brilliant lightning overhead as the storm system that canceled my flight catches up to the ship. We're not in the outflow area of any cells so operations continue, but as one of the pilot observers notes, "It's not a varsity play, but it's getting close."

Watching from V-Row, the tailpipes of the F-18 Hornets glow orange or white as the hook snags the wire and the pilot goes to afterburner to maintain the energy needed for a missed landing or "bolter." Air bosses occasionally remind new pilots to "throttle back, son. You're not going to make the boat go any faster" when they've held onto the power a bit longer than needed after a trap. It's understandable why there might be a touch of adrenaline and you can almost hear pilots making deals with the devil or their deity. "General Electric [the engine manufacturer], give me all you've got and if I survive this trap we'll go easy on the next one, I promise." That easy trap, of course, never comes.

This is a psychological game and, as in all flying, there is a fine line between overconfidence and respect for the environment. If you're not comfortable with responsibility then aviation is not for you, but cockiness frequently leads to an unrecoverable situation. The Navy's training and evaluation system takes all this into account. In GA, our selection process is less rigorous and the responsibility to stay within our personal capabilities falls almost entirely to the individual. You are the air boss, the squadron commander, the flight dispatcher making every decision, and some of us go further out on the limb than training or experience would dictate as prudent.

During a bolter, there is a brilliant shower of sparks as the hook drags across the deck. A Prowler roars and sags into the darkness. There is always a finiteness in carrier operations. Jet engines are notoriously thirsty at sea level, and fuel state is a constant concern. When "nuggets" or new pilots are having their turn, the ship is staged so an escape to a shore landing is possible in the unlikely event someone doesn't get it together. After one nugget's sixth unsuccessful attempt, Navy legend has it that the landing system officer remarked, "You've got to land here, son. This is where the food is."

Some aircraft have Category III autoland capability just like their civilian counterparts. The pilot never sees the deck of the ship until just prior to impact. The system is consistent, emotionless, and every approach is wired, but there is much less satisfaction than in doing it yourself. However, when the weather is really low, and there is no alternate nearby, there is comfort in knowing that "George" has an outstanding track record. Considering the complications of automatic shore landings, it's truly amazing when the airport is working to windward at 30 knots or so.

The air boss runs flight ops and acts as tower chief from the top level of the bridge. Six aircraft fill the pattern and spacing is critical, just like at a busy GA airport. There is a noticeable speed differential between the turboprop Hawkeyes and the jets. Haze and sun take their toll on pilots and ship-based personnel alike. This would make a great eye-care commercial. Occasionally, somebody gets out of sequence and a quiet "Aw shucks" is muttered while things get sorted out. Sometimes the deck is fouled with a prior landing and the choreography is disrupted. It's no big deal, just go around and make it count on the next one. Navy pilots likely get many more go-arounds — or "wave-offs" as they refer to them — than other pilots. That is something GA pilots could practice more. Our record is not so good in this area of rapidly changing pitch, power, trim, and airspeed.

On the day of my visit the proficiency schedule requires two traps and two touch and goes. Then there are night traps. The next day, it's the same and for the next six weeks the training continues. This ensures that the flight crews, deck crew, fuelers, and ordnance handlers know what to do and when to do it. Wherever the battle group is assigned, there are no easy outs. A typical mission to Afghanistan might involve a three-hour flight with airborne refueling inbound, two hours in the country and over the target, and three hours home with another refuel. Then, after all that, comes the night trap in weather. Most other occupations don't require this level of intensity.

No one can afford to miss their assignment — the fuel load has to be accurate and the ordnance must be hung perfectly from the wing with safety pins in place until it's time to go. The handlers have to clear landed aircraft from the deck in about 45 seconds because the next arrival is coming down the slot. Departures must go on schedule lest the staging area get clogged. It's all interwoven.

There are two not-so-subtle reminders that things don't always work right. A 15-ton crane is parked next to the bridge ready to remove a ruptured bird from the landing area. It would be a pity to push a $90 million aircraft over the side if it can be salvaged, but there is always the time factor as other inbound aircraft loiter, burning thousands of pounds until bingo fuel, then someone has to do something, quickly. The other reminder that life can get serious in a flash are the omnipresent firefighters in silver heat-resistant suits at their stations adjacent to the touchdown zone — waiting, watching, and ready to move toward an inferno in seconds. Fire is the biggest fear aboard a ship that carries three million gallons of jet fuel and enough bombs and missiles to dismantle a city. Fire doors and double bulkheads are everywhere throughout the ship, along with sprinkler systems and fire hoses. The hangar deck is divided into three zones with enormous doors that slam shut in a few seconds. Woe to anyone or anything that stands in the way after the alarm sounds. Firefighting observation stations behind fireproof glass look out over the hangar deck. If a fire breaks out it must be quickly contained, and somebody has to direct the operation from on high. Down on the deck there are literally dozens of aircraft, tugs, and ground support gear that are tough to see around even when the visibility isn't blocked by smoke and flame.

The combat control center guards the airspace and the water space out to roughly 150 miles from the ship. A carrier is a juicy target to any aggressor and, as such, the Truman has some formidable defenses. When an unidentified aircraft penetrates the defensive perimeter, interceptor aircraft are sent to rectify the situation. Ship-to-air missiles and a fascinating lethal device, the Phalanx — which looks like R2-D2, the Star Wars droid — provide extra protection. Mounted on the stern of the ship, it tracks any inbound target automatically and spews 90 heavy metal rounds per second to discourage intruders and missiles.

Submarines also pose a threat, and it's not only high-tech nukes that are problematic. Some of our current enemies have old diesel-powered subs that are very quiet, hydrodynamically speaking, when running on battery power. Low-tech, third-world weapons have proven to be every bit as nasty as the latest toys. Sonar, antisubmarine warfare aircraft, helicopters, and support ships complete the defensive package.

Fifty-caliber machine guns are mounted as needed in multiple defensive positions around the ship to provide 360-degree coverage when in port. The lessons of the USS Cole, the guided missile frigate that was attacked by suicide terrorists in a small raft, have been learned well.

Despite its primary function as a warship, the Truman serves as home to thousands for six months at a time during deployments, and the logistics of just taking care of the human needs are significant. The visitor accommodations in officer quarters are adequate, if not sumptuous. Two bunks are stacked against one wall, with a closet and desk for each occupant on the other and a small sink in the corner.

Enlisted personnel are assigned bunks, which are packed three deep and surrounded by curtains in open bays. The duty day runs 24/7 and there isn't enough space to have multiple shifts so, if flight ops are running 12 hours a day, as they often do, the flight support team will have a 16-hour day with two hours of pre- and postflight work.

Our quarters are one deck below the catapult, and there is no such thing as silence here. The blast deflector emits a hydraulic whine and then a clunk as it locks into place. The launch link is locked onto the aircraft nosewheel with multiple clicks and bangs. The aircraft engines are run up to full power, followed by a mighty slam as the catapult hurls the aircraft off the front of the ship like a toy. There are cable-dragging noises, and another clunk, as the blast deflector is lowered to allow the next customer a seat. Earplugs and a pillow over my head only slightly muffle the metal-to-metal reverberation as each sortie launches. The flying Navy knocks off at 0022, I'm told by my bunkmate the next morning. Our tour guide confirms that after a few nights everyone is either used to it or so fatigued that they sleep normally. I do.

Meals are a high point on board a warship, just as on a cruise liner, and the culinary team takes great pride in making it good, fast, and in quantity, with four feedings a day and more than 18,000 servings. Despite the demands of moving about the ship, only a few elevators are used for the aircraft and for ordnance delivery. Everybody else uses ladders. That's not enough exercise to offset the excellent cooking, but three formal gyms and other exercise gear wedged into almost any other open space on the ship, other than the flight or hangar deck, help the crew work off the stress and calories.

It's time to leave only 24 hours after we arrived, and the hot breath of the COD's exhaust is a reminder of the upcoming cat shot. No aircraft has enough juice to get off the deck without some assistance. Cranials on, goggles down, harnesses tight, and lean forward with head down. Don't want anything to move or snap. Sorry, but there is no carry-on luggage — it tends to reposition itself violently during departure. Facing aft, which worked to advantage on arrival, works against us in the launch.

I know the sounds well as the engines run up. The loadmaster and team wave their arms and yell as a warning while we sit in the dark again, waiting. With a whoosh and several instant Gs, the COD lunges from zero to 115 knots in three seconds. Clear of �he ship, the old lugger decelerates until the engines can overcome the airframe and prop drag. For land-based aviators, our first moments of flight are gentle and embracing. The Navy way is a literal boot-in-the-butt to make the transition a positive experience. But just to show that they are capable of finesse, the pilot greases it on at Norfolk.

These carrier skills are not developed overnight or even in the Navy's extensive formal schooling. It takes years of experience to acquire the know-how and to pass it along to the new crewmembers. The United States is the only country that maintains such a force and if it were to be disassembled, as some suggested after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it would take a decade or more to get the expertise back. The safety lessons of the past 60 years, learned at great expense, would need to be relearned with significant additional loss of life and equipment.

Ask anyone who owns either boats or aircraft to confirm that fielding a battle group of nine ships and more than 80 aircraft is expensive. The magnitude of this operation, the sheer number of people, the hardware, the months of preparation, and the immense consumption of everything from jet fuel to scrambled eggs costs billions. In return for that investment, the U.S. gets a highly flexible offensive/defensive system. The response can be precisely calibrated from subtle diplomacy to all-out war. It's up to the civilian leadership to use this power wisely.

There is much to be learned from the attitude and procedures used by the Navy to achieve its mission. It's a blend of skill, aptitude, lots of training, and the desire to do it right — even when no one is looking. GA pilots would do well to emulate this approach. It works.

Bruce Landsberg is the executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.