Hitting the Deck, With 25 Tons

THE Navy pilot banked his plane and looked down through his canopy at the great aircraft carrier cruising the ocean, thousands of feet below. From that altitude, the ship looked like a bathtub toy and the landing deck like a postage stamp. He had to land on it. There was no other place to go: The nearest land was 2,000 miles away. Like two seahawks with wings spread, the flight leader and his wingman descended in circles to the giant ship. The carrier had just completed a sweeping turn into the wind, which was now blowing 40 knots over the flight deck. The large red wolf heads visible on the F-14's tail showed they were from Fighter Squadron One, the Wolf Pack, one of the best in the United States Navy. The flight leader, call sign Wichita One Zero Three, came into the flight pattern for landing.

The 25-ton fighter was two minutes out with two planes ahead. The first, a tanker, hit the deck and quickly got out of the way. Forty seconds after the tanker came an A-6 attack bomber. Deck control had less than a minute to find a place to park the bomber before the Tomcat landed.

With a little experience you can close your eyes and tell what's coming in by the sound of the plane's engines. An F-14 fighter's two jet engines say just one thing: power. Power that will fly the plane vertically for thousands of feet skyward. Power that approaches twice the speed of sound. Power that breaks the sound barrier like a thunder clap, with the plane disappearing from sight before the sound strikes you. Now, that power was muted, turned down to a low whistle to maintain minimum air speed, just over 150 miles per hour.

The F-14, movable wings extended, grabbing for maximum lift to stay in the air, completed a graceful turn. The fighter lined up astern 300 feet off the top of the wake boiling behind the speeding carrier.

The clear voice of the flight leader, call sign Deacon, came over the loudspeaker in Flight Control aboard the ship: ``Wichita One Zero Three Tomcat Ball Five Oh.'' One brief call with the squadron identity, aircraft identity, an acknowledgment of the ``meatball'' - the Fresnel lens system that would guide him in for landing, and fuel weight. The response was quick, short: ``Roger Ball Tomcat cleared for landing.''

The landing signal officer and his crew immediately riveted their attention on the fast bird coming in. The arresting gear crew set the thick cable's tension for the weight of the plane and fuel to bring the speeding plane to a complete stop in less than three seconds. The carrier group commander watched from his bridge highabove the flight deck, ready to react to an emergency and grade the pilot on his landing.

Perched on a catwalk 50 feet above the flight deck, my attention was also riveted. I recognized the red wolf's head, the plane number. My heart stopped for a moment, then beat faster. One Zero Three was not just a Navy pilot bringing his F-14 fighter aboard the aircraft carrier - it was my son. The plane now maneuvering to get aboard the ship held a very special, personal attachment for me.

My thoughts and prayers flew with him, and my memory flashed momentarily to earlier days. The little guy who used to stand, nose pressed against the fence, watching the Navy Reserve pilots land at our local naval air station. The young ROTC cadet making his first solo flight and bouncing six feet into the air on landing. The ensign who survived the rigors of flight school, always insisting, telling them, he wanted to be a fighter pilot. And graduation, the day he got his wings, the day he became a naval aviator.

THE giant carrier, over four football fields long, still rolled and pitched, but slowly and majestically as befitted its great size. I held my breath and hung on to the catwalk railing. The action was swift, yet in slow motion to my eyes. Twenty seconds to go. Line up with the angled flight deck constantly moving away as the ship plowed forward, wheels down, speed brakes out, tailhook down, and wings tilting up and down to catch the roll of the ship.

Deacon flew and listened with all senses alert to the Landing Signal Officer for corrections to his approach. At the same time he pushed the throttle full-forward for maximum power in case he became Bingo, the call for having missed the arresting cables and needing immediate full power to get into the air and come around for another try. Action at this point was in milli-seconds.

The second-seat radar intercept officer behind the pilot braced himself. He had no control over the landing. Five seconds off the heaving stern and decision time, no wave-off, no second thoughts, bring it in, you're on your own, pilot. One second the fighter was flying, the next all 25 tons hit the deck, tires screeching in protest. The tailhook grabbed one of the four arresting cables, stretching it like a giant inverse slingshot, jolting the plane to a stop so fast its wheels momentarily rose off the deck.

At the moment of impact, pilot and radar officer were kept from pitching through the windscreen by great webbed harnesses fastened to their ejection seats. A fleeting grin and thumbs up from the radar officer completed the landing.

Feeling a full measure of gratitude, mixed with pride, at what I had just seen, my thought nevertheless screamed ``get out of the way, Deacon'' - the wingman's F-14 was hurtling in right behind. Tailhook up, nose-wheel steering engaged, throttle forward to taxi speed, the two big jet engines at a slow whine powered the plane quickly to starboard and out of the way.

Up the deck, Tomcat One Zero Three rolled to a parking place, and into the care and pride of a smiling plane crew. Our commander had done it again, with class.

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