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Nailing the meatball Nailing the meatball

Carrier landings on the 'USS George Washington'

A visit to the 'USS George Washington' aircraft carrier provides a glimpse into the life of service members who toil around the globe on our behalf to maintain the freedoms we enjoy this holiday weekend. Never content with the status quo, flight test pilots demonstrate a new system for making carrier landings safer and more efficient.

The Grumman E-2C Hawkeye emerges from the dark shadow of the aircraft carrier’s towering island, its wings folded. A moonless night, the twin turboprop maneuvers across the ramp, lit only by the dim lights embedded in the deck. Everywhere, crew members scurry about, staying clear of the eight-blade propellers and the 81-foot wings as they unfold. The crew’s red, green, blue, yellow, brown, and purple shirts signify their role in launching the early warning aircraft.

Following the direction of a deck coordinator’s light wands, the pilot soon plunks the nosegear against the catapult shuttle and work begins anew by the deck hands to ensure the airplane is ready to launch safely.

The jet blast panel emerges from the deck, another signal that the launch is imminent. The quadruple tail surfaces and the towering dome atop the fuselage shudder as power is advanced. The pilot wiggles the control surfaces for a final check and then gives the ready signal. As one former naval aviator puts it, the pilot also pushes the “I Believe” button, attempting to assure himself that his colleagues outside and the equipment around him are truly ready for the wild ride ahead. A spotter makes one final check of the area and with the push of a button the steam-powered catapult hurtles the big airplane off the slowly rising deck and into the night. We onlookers gasp as the Hawkeye grabs air and struggles away. The deck hands, confident in their work and their equipment, hardly look and quickly begin preparations for the next one.

“I hate night operations,” declares an F/A 18 Super Hornet pilot, a common chorus among carrier pilots. What is an interesting challenge during the day for the talented pilots becomes a serious risk when the sun goes down. But the bad guys don’t necessarily sleep at night, so maintaining night proficiency is mandatory.

The Hawkeye crew makes a left traffic pattern and soon plunks down on the angled deck for a touch and go, one more step toward proficiency. Meanwhile, just off to the right, an SH-60 Seahawk helicopter hovers under the stars, ready to swoop in for the rescue should it be necessary.

The 'Ouija board' is low-tech, but highly effective in keeping track of where aircraft and other equipment is on the busy flight deck. The aircraft cutouts and the board are to scale, so if it fits on the board, it will fit on the deck.

For the crews, our arrival on the USS George Washington aircraft carrier was routine, but for those of us who were experiencing a landing trap for the first time, it was anything but. The creaky old C-2 Greyhound twin turboprop carried us from Norfolk, Virginia, out to the carrier, a couple of hundred miles off shore in the Atlantic Ocean. Sitting backward in the windowless cabin, we listened intently through dual levels of hearing protection as the engine sounds changed and the gear thunked into position. As if flying down a drinking straw, the pilot expertly flew a three-degree glide path to the moving runway, catching the coveted number three wire as we were slammed into the seat backs.

The arrival kicked off our 30-hour stay on the massive carrier, which was doing sea trials of a new flight control system designed to make it easier for pilots to nail the three wire every time. Fewer bolters means less fuel, safer operations, and faster recovery of the squadron.

The new system, called Magic Carpet, fully leverages the Super Hornets’ flight control surfaces to help keep the pilot on the proper glide path as the carrier surges along at some 25 knots or so, creating the headwind necessary to allow the swept wing fighters to fly slow enough to safely land on the short runway. Turning final, the pilot flips on the “delta path” mode of Magic Carpet. Once the ship’s speed is entered, the mode computes a three-degree glide path to the deck, the same glide path the pilot sees via the “meatball,” the Fresnel lens system that provides visual guidance to the pilot. If the meatball shows the pilot high, he need only blip the flight control stick down a couple of times to center the ball. As soon as he lets go, Magic Carpet continues its three-degree descent. Too low, the pilot blips the stick up and lets go.

The goal, according to Capt. David Kindley, F/A-18 and EA-18G program manager, is to improve safety, reduce costs, and improve landing efficiencies while keeping control of the aircraft in the hands of the pilots. The Super Hornets are capable of auto landings, but the autoland system requires much longer final approach spacing and an assortment of gear and equipment on the aircraft and the ship to all work to perfection. Magic Carpet is just a software change to the aircraft’s fly-by-wire flight control system. When engaged, Magic Carpet uses whatever of the flight controls it needs to maintain that three-degree descent, instantaneously and constantly deploying increments of flaps, rudder, ailerons, and elevator to counteract wind and turbulence.

Despite all the advanced technology, signal flags still play an important role in naval aviation.

Test pilots Matthew Dominick and Christopher Montague reported that the test program during the last two weeks of June proved the capabilities of the system, dramatically lowering the standard deviation for touchdown points compared to normally equipped Super Hornets. “Landing aboard the ship is an administrative task,” said Dominick. “Training for it takes away from the time we could be devoting to the real mission of being out there protecting our troops on the ground.” In addition, the stabilized guidance allows the pilot more mental capacity to focus on things around him during that final 18 seconds before landing on the pitching deck.

“It’s dangerous,” said Montague, of landing on a carrier deck, an understatement for sure. Magic Carpet, once deployed to the fleet over the next couple of years, is intended to reduce the risk and may well reduce training time and recurrency demands, points that Kindley hopes to demonstrate over the remainder of the testing period.

Meanwhile, to us landlubbers, the short visit to the carrier was a reminder of the sacrifices our service members make day and night around the world. Day in and day out, personnel on the carrier, home at times to as many as 5,000 sailors and air crew members, work in dangerous, uncomfortable, and confined positions to ensure our freedoms at home. While enjoying your Independence Day celebrations this weekend, stop for a moment to say thanks to a service member for what he or she has done to keep us safe and free.

  • A flight deck coordinator on the "USS George Washington" aircraft carrier looks to the spotters in the cab raised from the deck for the all-clear. With that he will give the F/A-18 Super Hornet pilot the signal to power up for a catapult launch. Photos by Chris Rose.
  • It takes a village, it seems, to run a carrier flight deck. The shirt colors identify various team members and their duties. Average on the flight deck: 19.
  • A Super Hornet pilot nabs the three wire during a trap, the goal when landing on the carrier. The crew is testing a new flight control system called Magic Carpet, which is meant to help pilots catch the three wire every time.
  • Fire crews and equipment are strategically placed around the flight deck. With all of the heavy gear, they rotate out every hour during normal flight ops. When deck temperatures topped 140 degrees Fahrenheit last summer in the Middle East, they rotated every 30 minutes.
  • While never routine, traps and catapults become methodical for the crews.
  • A landing signal officer (LSO) €”holds the pickle, a switch to turn on the red wave-off lights if a pilot isn't properly aligned for the approach. The LSOs are all pilots who can tell from afar whether a landing pilot is properly set up for a safe touchdown. The LSOs grade each approach, creating a mostly healthy tension between those flying and those watching--€”and certainly a lot of spirited debriefing banter.
  • The Super Hornet's fly-by-wire flight control system uses flaps, ailerons, and rudders in any combination it needs to deliver the response requested by the pilot through the joystick. In "Delta Path" mode, the Magic Carpet approach system commands instantaneous response of any flight control to fly a three-degree path to the moving carrier.
  • PriFly as seen from Vultures Row. Primary Flight Control oversees aircraft movements on and around the carrier. Vultures Row is the observation area where nonflying pilots can point out the shortcomings of their peers landing on the deck below.
  • High-performance scopes help sailors keep track of aircraft in the pattern and look for threats in the area around the carrier.
  • An EA-18G Growler, a surveillance version of the Hornet, in front of the "George Washington"'s island. The carrier, powered by dual nuclear reactors, was commissioned July 4, 1992, and goes in for its first refueling in 2017, where it will also receive a four-year-long retrofit, extending its life at least another 25 years.
  • A Super Hornet on a touch and go off the angled deck as crews prepare a Growler for a catapult off the forward deck. With two steam-powered catapults on the forward deck and two more on the angled deck plus the wires on the angled deck, the Washington can launch and recover dozens of airplanes an hour, day or night.
  • Helicopter crews take a break. Whenever flight operations are underway, a rescue helicopter is in flight above the carrier.
  • The key to carrier landing is the "meatball," a Fresnel lens system that, somewhat like a VASI, provides stabilized approach guidance indications to the pilot.
  • "Don't Tread on Me" across an SH-60 Seahawk horizontal stabilizer is good advice on any flight control surface and a warning to those threatening American freedoms.
  • The "USS George Washington" ties up at port in Norfolk, Virginia, after a two-week training session in the Atlantic Ocean.
Thomas B. Haines

Thomas B Haines

Editor in Chief
AOPA Editor in Chief Tom Haines joined AOPA in 1988. He owns and flies a Beechcraft A36 Bonanza. Since soloing at 16 and earning a private pilot certificate at 17, he has flown more than 100 models of general aviation airplanes.
Topics: Technology

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