All the best,
The Lords of Landing
"Right for lineup...don't go low...a little power...." At sea, the last word belongs to...
by Peter Garrison
The A-6E Intruder bomber thunders past the USS Abraham Lincoln's starboard side and rolls into a nearly vertical left bank. Condensation flickers above its swept wings like white fire; its airspeed bleeds rapidly from 300 knots to 150 under the drag of the five-G turn. In the cockpit, the inflatable G-suit snaps tightly around Lieutenant Brian Kasperbauer's legs. His eyes dart from the dancing blur of black instruments to the horizon beyond.
Parallel to the aircraft carrier, Kasperbauer rolls level. Check speed, dirty up with gear and flaps, double-check tailhook down. Twice he lifts himself slightly from his seat, twisting, adjusting his posture and the feel of the seat pad on his thighs--the nervous gesture with which he habitually begins each pass at the boat.
On the landing signal officer's platform near the carrier's stern, the hook spotter examines the A-6 through binoculars. Meanwhile, an F/A-18 Hornet is on short final, a swift imperturbable projectile. Ropes of vapor stream from its wingtips like an illustrator's speed-strokes. It roars by the platform and traps, the LSOs genuflecting to see which wire it caught. "532, gear and hook down," calls the hook spotter, and the phone talker shouts "Foul deck!" Lieutenant James "Snapper" Knapp, the controlling LSO, turns to the bookwriter. "A little long in the groove," he shouts over the din of the deck. "Stopped rate of descent in the middle, a little high in close, OK 4-wire."
"532, Intruder, ball, 5.6," Kasperbauer radios, confirming his identity, his sighting of the glideslope indicator, and his fuel level.
The Intruder rolls out in the groove. Now the normal smoothness of flight is replaced by a series of sharp jolts. With small, swift control movements Kasperbauer--call sign "Ghost," both for the "Kasper" and for his prematurely gray hair--juggles the luminous amber ball on the port deck edge whose alignment with a row of green lights tells him he's on glidepath. The sound of the two turbojet engines continually jinks up and down. Fifteen seconds. The ship is large already; the landing area looks wider than long. The Hornet is just turning off the far end of the angled deck. No distraction! Meatball--lineup--angle of attack... Kasperbauer doesn't wait for the ball to tell him what to do, but nudges it just to the top edge of center, where he can best see it move. There he plays it, cat-and-mouse, mastering rather than following it, with swift firm motions of the stick. He's flying in expanded time: Fifteen seconds take as long as a minute of normal life.
"Foul deck!" calls the phone talker. "Foul deck!"
Snapper holds his arm aloft, a signal to the air boss, chief controller of flight operations, that he knows the deck is obstructed. He can hear the fluctuating engines of the Intruder as the gray blip, seemingly motionless in the sky half a mile away, slowly grows.
"Clear deck! Gear set, 380, Intruder!" The arresting gear is set for the 38,000-pound aircraft; the deck is ready. Snapper lowers his arm and glances at the televised image from the deck centerline camera. He squeezes the press-to-talk button on the telephone handset he holds to his left ear.
"Right for lineup."
The quiet voice floats in the center of Ghost's head. A tiny correction; he had allowed himself to drift a few feet to the left of centerline. Five seconds to go. The most difficult seconds: he is nearing the narrow end of the funnel, where deviations in the path of the 19-ton jet are measured in inches. The deck is rising on a swell as he descends. He's at the ramp--the aft end of the flight deck is already behind him--he seems headed for a point far down the deck--a quick correction for lineup, wing down, wing up, just a few degrees in a split second--the deck is coming up--the headset voice soft but with a warning crescendo: "pow-WERRRR"--and the wheels squash onto the deck. He feels the blips as they roll over the three-wire and the four-wire, and as his left hand--Trap!--pushes thrust up to full power, the airplane slows and a massive force, gentle at first but building fast, drags his torso forward.
Snapper turns to the bookwriter. "Pitching deck. A little high all the way, a little lined up left in the middle, OK 3." The next jet, an F-14, is already in the groove.
Ghost and Snapper: their contact is brief, impersonal, almost wordless. Like dancers or athletes, they know each other intimately through the discipline of a shared expertise. Between them they achieve, with a reliability that makes them appear routine, things that are in fact nearly miraculous.
Flying jets onto an aircraft carrier requires, in addition to certain natural aptitudes, intense training and constant practice. The pilot must control speed, attitude, and position with microscopic vigilance. At the aft end of the flight deck--"at the ramp," in the carrier pilot's jargon--the window through which the arresting hook must pass to catch the target third wire is only two feet high. An airplane weighing 20 or 30 tons and spanning 20 yards must reach that narrow slot at precisely the right rate of descent and attitude. The hook dangling from the airplane's tail is supposed to clear the ramp by at least 10 feet; but the ramp itself, in heavy seas, may be rising and falling 15 feet and sashaying side to side in a figure-eight as well. And all the elements--speed, attitude, height--are linked. A change in one causes changes in the others. Carrier landings resemble those games in which you try to roll one ball bearing into its well without allowing others to roll out of theirs.
The lightest penalty for imprecision is humiliation. The gravest is sudden and violent death.
Technically difficult as they are, however, day landings in calm seas, once you've got the knack, are pure fun; Navy pilots would trap and shoot all day if they could. But night landings are different. Any night landing can turn into a struggle with vertigo, illusion, and terror. A pilot's heart can pound harder when he's making a night pass than it does when he's dodging surface-to-air missiles or dogfighting. Night allows no mistakes. It replaces the familiar and inviting deck--"where the food is"--with a shifting trapezoid of faint lights outlining a blacker hole punched in a black sea. The pilot hurls himself at that hole, trying not to flinch at the "deck rush" that floods his peripheral vision as he crosses the ramp and the blackness around him suddenly resolves itself into the carrier.
Commander Chris Nutter, a veteran of 700 traps and the executive officer of VFA-137, an F/A-18 squadron on the Constellation, tries to convey to non-pilot friends the sensations of the night landing: "Imagine that you're in a car without headlights going 150 miles an hour down a narrow dark road toward a one-car garage illuminated by a single light bulb. If you get through the garage door, your car will stop automatically. And the garage is moving around. That's what the night landing is like."
The pilot does not run this gauntlet alone. He has a partner, another pilot on the deck who watches him and guides him home: the quiet voice in the headset, the landing signal officer. Surprisingly, the LSO can judge the path of an approaching airplane, even in fog and darkness, better than the pilot can. This fact of carrier life came to light in 1922, when Kenneth Whiting, a commander aboard the Langley, the Navy's first carrier, grabbed the hats of two sailors and ran out onto the deck to wave them at a pilot making an ugly approach. The role that Whiting's impulse created quickly became an institution.
Today everyone calls the LSO "Paddles" and his job "waving," but the words are anachronistic. Until the 1950s, when the optical glideslope was introduced in the U.S. fleet, the LSO had stood at the stern, sometimes clad in fluorescent overalls, illuminated at night with ultraviolet light, waving two paddles like be-ribboned tennis rackets at the approaching airplanes. He was a human glideslope, signalling pilots right or left, higher or lower, faster or slower. His gestures were a mixture of semaphore and mimicry of the approaching airplane. Both arms up, for instance, meant "You're high, come down." When the airplane was in position to land safely, the LSO would lower his left arm and jackknife his right across his chest--the "cut" signal--and the pilot would chop the power and drop the nose slightly to put the airplane into the wires.
Much of the personal touch was lost with the introduction of the optical glideslope. In the old days LSOs tended to be conspicuous characters, often outlandishly dressed (or, in World War II in the Pacific, hardly dressed at all). One found his way into fiction: James Michener's big Texan, Beer Barrel, in The Bridges at Toko-ri. "Beer Barrel is my shepherd, I shall not crash," the pilots intone. Beer Barrel smuggles beer onto the ship in his golf bags. He waves drunk.
Beer Barrel is a caricature, but he embodies an insight into the relationship between pilots and LSOs. His alcoholism is a metaphor for the irrational and uncanny quality of his perceptions--his "zen." In fact, when the LSO was still waving paddles the job demanded a sort of unconsciousness. "There is not enough time to mentally analyze the situation and then give a signal," a World War II LSO wrote. "Most of the time you don't even know what signals you're giving." The pilots still sense that today. When you're flying at unyielding steel at 130 knots, trying to spear that tiny garage in the dark, you want the LSO to be more than a mere rational being. You want him to be a magician. You want him to be infallible.
Most LSOs are pilots, and most are junior officers; only a few--the carrier air group LSOs, of whom there are only two or three per ship--have many years in the job behind them. Most LSOs volunteer for the position; when there is a shortage of volunteers, a few are assigned to it because they seem to possess the right mix of flying skill and personality. The position is in many ways untempting. LSOs work long hours exposed to cold, wind, and wet, often far into the night. The mess is closed by the time they finish. And the responsibility is greater than in any other job open to a junior officer. Finally--and for many pilots this is the key objection--LSOs generally get to fly less than their squadron mates do.
Those who do volunteer for the job are people who are attracted to rather than repelled by responsibility. The seriousness of it draws them, as does the opportunity to be a conspicuous and central figure on the ship, one of a small and elite fraternity. They like the "coolness" of the position, the visibility, and the fact that of all the anonymous and interchangeable myrmidons on a carrier, they are among the few who personally matter.
LSOs need to be above-average ball fliers themselves. Not that it makes any difference to their eye; non-pilots could be LSOs, and a few have been, especially during World War II, when LSOs were chronically in short supply. Retired Captain Monroe "Hawk" Smith, a former F-14 pilot and chief of staff of the naval air force's Atlantic fleet, puts it nicely: "You don't have to be a dog to judge a dog show." But it's really a matter of credibility. Pilots unhappy with their grades shouldn't be able to console themselves by thinking: What does he know? He's never done it!
Every LSO attends classes at the LSO school in Oceana, Virginia, at least once. It's run by Philadelphia-bred Lieutenant Commander Tom Quinn, a big man with a comic gift and an ear for aphorisms. "LSOs aren't gods," goes one of his favorites, "they just have god-like qualities." Each lecture begins with an off-color joke--obligatory in Navy schools--and between lectures the classroom TV runs tapes of mishaps: a deckhand being sucked into an A-6's engine inlet (he miraculously emerges, somewhat the worse for wear), a Tomcat hitting the ramp and exploding, an A-3 making a faulty barricade arrest that causes seven men to die. As a three-day class for veteran LSOs ends, Quinn, whose waving days are over, says, "I envy you so much, but I'm so glad I don't have to go on that platform again because I've seen things that would turn you white."
Most of a new LSO's training takes place not in school, however, but on the platform. He is sent up with a white flotation vest with "LSO" or "Paddles" stencilled on the back; he supplies his own dark glasses and, preferably, a funny-looking wool cap. He watches approaches...and watches approaches...and watches approaches. At first they all look alike. Then, like eyes slowly growing accustomed to darkness, his perceptions sharpen. He begins to see the tiny undulations of the airplane with respect to the horizon, even a horizon marked only by the single light on a destroyer swallowed in fog three-quarters of a mile away. He learns to listen for the power changes, the sibilant whine of turbojets and the hoot of the S-3 Viking's turbofan engines, and he measures their magnitude, frequency, and timeliness. His eye learns to gauge an airplane's speed and attitude by minute signs: the wedge of fin peeping above a wing that tells him the airplane is too flat, or the bit of sky between wing and stabilizer that says "nose too high."
He learns the infinite variations of the approach and the quirks of the airplanes and their pilots (although it's an adage of LSO impartiality, not always observed, that you wave the tailhook, not the pilot). He anticipates the influence of the winds on the "burble," the eddying of the air around the aft end of the carrier's tower, or island, through which pilots fly close to the ramp; the "moth effect" that draws pilots to the left, toward the ball, because they concentrate on it rather than the deck; the tendency to "settle on the ball call" at night, because pilots feel that they're too high when they come off instruments and first see the ball. And the quirks of the airplanes: the tendency of the A-6 and EA-6B to settle on lineup corrections; the F-14's slow power response and its susceptibility to hook-skip bolters (failure to trap because the hook bounces over the wires) when the pilot corrects for a slightly high approach; the S-3's vulnerability to the burble, especially with starboard winds; the critical importance of lineup for the big-span E-2C Hawkeyes.
Armed with an encyclopedia of miscellaneous knowledge, the LSO waves an increasing variety of aircraft under a widening range of conditions; eventually, most likely at the end of his second cruise as LSO, he earns the "wing qual" that permits him to wave every type of aircraft in the wing, day or night. By the time he earns his wing qual, he has seen thousands of passes. His memory is well stocked with worst nights. Carriers recover airplanes under unbelievable weather--on nights of fog, rain, or snow, with ceilings of 200 feet, visibilities of a quarter or half a mile, in which airplanes materialize at the stern only five or 10 seconds before they trap; and in seas on which the deck dances to a wild, syncopated tune. These are the nights when, after the recovery, the pilots sink into the tattered seats in the ready rooms with the deepest sense of shared relief, and for a change receive the LSO's visit with more affection than sarcasm.
The LSO platform is a small rectangle protruding from the port side of the ship by the first arresting cable, bathed by turns in the hot eye-smarting fumes of jets at full power and the deeply chilling ocean wind. It's traditionally been unfurnished, but that's changing: On the Constellation, a resourceful LSO managed to get approval for the addition of a bench using the novel argument that VIPs, who are frequently guests on the platform during carrier qualifications, might get tired of standing. A windbreak shields the platform, and two of its edges drop off into a net, where everybody is supposed to jump if an airplane hits the ramp. At the aft edge of the platform is a black box containing communication equipment, a TV screen that shows the image from the centerline camera buried in the flight deck, and devices for reporting the type, distance, and speed of the approaching aircraft, the speed and direction of the wind over the deck, and the magnitude of the ship's motions.
Attached to the console by a long cable is the "pickle," a black handle with two switches. One of them operates the waveoff lights: red lights flanking the meatball that tell the pilot to abandon the approach. The pickle switch is the LSO's last resort for keeping pilots off the ramp.
There's usually a small crowd on the platform. At the very least there will be two LSOs: the controlling LSO, who is junior, and the backup LSO, often a carrier air group LSO or team leader, who stands behind him. Other junior LSOs on their first cruise in the job may be present to gain experience. One of them may serve as bookwriter: he takes down the controlling LSO's comments about each pass in a small notebook. There are also two enlisted men: a hook spotter and a phone talker.
Their routine is simple and endlessly repeated. The LSOs hold the pickles overhead as the approaching airplane enters the "groove," the final three-quarter-mile of the pass. This is a signal to the air boss, high in the island, that they know that the deck is "foul," not ready to receive an airplane. When the deck goes clear, a red light on the deck edge turns green, one or two voices on the platform call out "Clear deck!" and the LSOs lower the pickles to their sides.
After the initial "Roger ball," the controlling LSO's communications with the pilot are usually sparse, but the more trouble the pilot is having, the more the LSO will talk to him. Early in the approach, his calls are informative or advisory; close to the ramp, they become imperative: The pilot must obey them immediately. The most imperative of all calls is "Waveoff!" Thus, the pilot's traditional final authority over his flight is shared, in a carrier approach, by the LSO.
After an airplane traps, the book writer records the LSO's comments--and, if the pass was "colorful," the LSOs exchange witty remarks about it--and the next airplane appears in the groove.
When he senses a pilot is having problems, the LSO starts with what they call "phone sex" or "sugar talk," a patter of brief encouraging remarks mixed with subtle guidance. A lot of talk--"liplocking the guy"--is discouraged; pilots can stop flying the airplane, just waiting for the next instruction from the LSO. But an even, sympathetic voice makes a great difference to an unnerved pilot.
Almost every pilot at one time or another has a problem getting aboard. He makes pass after pass, five or six of them, until everyone else in his sortie has landed. He goes to the tanker, which is the only other airplane still aloft. Then the carrier air group LSO comes on. He steadies the pilot with brief, calm remarks, and when the airplane is at the ramp he uses his "buffalo call." Each experienced LSO has his buffalo call, the utterance he uses to keep the pilot from flinching from the deck at the last moment. The phrase itself doesn't matter--it can be as simple as "Don't climb" or "Don't go any higher"--but there's an art in its use, a precise tone and timing that is part of the virtuosity of a good LSO, and it brings the pilot into the wires.
When the deck is pitching severely or if the optical glideslope is not working, the LSO calls for the MOVLAS--manually operated visual landing aid system. The MOVLAS is a surrogate for the meatball, in a way a throwback to the man-to-man days of the paddles. The LSO controls the airplane through a chain of command worthy of Rube Goldberg. He senses a deviation and moves the MOVLAS accordingly. The pilot sees the MOVLAS and adjusts as though it were the meatball, and the LSO feels--ideally--that by moving his hand on the MOVLAS controller he moved the airplane. The MOVLAS gives the LSO the ability to target any wire, and to anticipate the movements of the deck; he can also exaggerate his movements, so that deviations seem larger to the pilot than they are, if he wants the pilot to react more vigorously. The pilot becomes his robot, the approach almost a virtual reality game.
After all the aircraft in a sortie have trapped, the LSOs go down to the carrier air group LSO office, a tiny narrow gray room below decks near the platform. A couple of them confer over the pass book. "Wait, I've got two 301s. Was there a 201?" "Yeah, he came after the Hornet that boltered." One man hunches at the keyboard of a desktop computer, keying in the records of a previous recovery. Overhead in the corner, a movie airs on the TV. Conversation lags and attention turns to the screen as a woman emerges from a shower. "Hi honey, I'm home!" a young lieutenant cheerfully calls to her.
Then three of the LSOs are off to hunt the pilots down in the ready rooms, the parachute lofts, and the maintenance control rooms where they report gripes about the equipment. The LSOs are now no longer controllers but teachers, and their manner may be magisterial or comradely. The debriefing takes 30 seconds. There's a technique; they learn it at LSO school. Hold the grade book so the pilot can't see it. Never start the debriefing with "okay." Make eye contact. Speak clearly and firmly. Review the book with other LSOs before you talk to the pilots: Don't critique one pilot for another pilot's mistakes. If you have to fake it, at least know what wire the pilot caught, because the pilot will probably know that. Never undercut another LSO. Sense the receptive moment for advice. Preface criticism with a compliment. Don't vacillate. And never, no matter how much a pilot argues, change a grade.
Most pilots are attentive, nodding as the LSO reels off his description of the pass. They murmur thanks, or sometimes a gibe--"Where's your guide dog today, Paddles?"--or an explanation of a mistake, or a simple "Thanks for keepin' me off the ramp." Then the little knot of LSOs is striding off to a ready room at the other end of the ship.
Every pass gets a grade, roughly similar to those you got in grammar school. Apparently, somebody high up decided that too much praise is bad, so the best you can do is "OK." A perfect pass (preferably flown under adverse conditions--say, with an engine out) gets an OK underlined, to distinguish it from an unadorned OK, or, somewhat worse, an OK in parentheses which means "fair." If you mess up badly enough you get a "gash"--a diagonal slash through the little grade-box, meaning a below average pass, a D. At the bottom of the list is a cut, your school's F, meaning "gross deviations inside the waveoff window." The basic distinction is really between safe passes and unsafe passes; a cut is an unsafe pass.
Squadrons record the grades on the "greenie board" in the ready room, so called because OK passes get green dots. At the end of the cruise the pilots with the best grades make the top 10 and get shoulder patches to sew onto their flightsuits. But grades are really just a spur to the pilots--highly competitive, Type A personalities, they will be quick to tell you. They bolster their competition with a steady traffic of bets whose common currency is alcohol. "Rat's last one was a fair. He owes me a Sam Adams." (Pay-ups must wait until shore leave or the end of deployment; alcohol is not allowed aboard U.S. Navy ships.)
The grades don't go beyond the ready room and the carrier air group LSO office, where they're added to a computer database that's used to spot trends. Everyone knows that you can be a good pilot and not a top-notch ball flier, just as you can be a good basketball player with a low free-throw percentage. But if it weren't for the grades, just getting aboard would be enough, and a faultless pass to a three wire would be no different from a bumpy ride to a one or a four. Pilots would get lazy. They would cut the meatball some slack. Eventually, some would hit the ramp.
Most LSOs leave the job after three or four years. When they hang up their paddles they say goodbye to the icy wet nights on the platform, to the monotony of field carrier landing practice and the tension of night carrier qualifications, to the fear for the pilot who's on his fourth or fifth pass and still can't get aboard. Goodbye to the exhausting nights when each action, each word or omission of a word, each reaction or failure to react could mean a pilot's life.
They should be glad. But most of them retire from waving with regret. At the end of the worst nights--nights when terms like "comrade," "protector," or even "savior" did not adequately express the relationship of the LSO and his pilots--they trudged from the platform drained, but with a sense of relief and accomplishment that nothing else could match. They have played a starring role on that platform, and they know that nothing in their future is likely to equal it.
Originally published in Air & Space/Smithsonian, April/May 1995. Copyright 1995, Smithsonian Institution. All Rights Reserved.