It wasn’t a dark night, or stormy weather, or icing. My carrier air wing had been on cruise aboard the aircraft carrier CVN-75, USS Harry S. Truman for six months and we were on the way home. We had spent the last six months in the Mediterranean Sea, and I had spent the last six weeks flying combat sorties during the initial invasion of Iraq. It was mid-April, 2003, and one supposedly easy training flight turned into the most challenging landing approach I’ve ever flown, and the first time I ever seriously contemplated ending a flight in the Atlantic instead of on the deck of an aircraft carrier.

Carrier air wings coming out of the Med usually wind up deployments in the same way. The ship transits the Straits of Gibraltar and steams west for the Azores. The air wing flies again for a few days, then beds down for a few days as the ship steams across the Atlantic. Finally, the air wing performs flight ops off Bermuda or the Virginia Capes, where those pilots that will make the next cruise get a few arrested landings to keep them current, as the subsequent deployment is already planned before the preceding cruise is complete.

I was junior enough in the squadron to make the next cruise, so I was scheduled to fly. The purpose of the flight was to get me a catapult launch and and a trap. It was an easy day flight and supposedly stress-free, or so I thought when I saw the flight schedule the night before. The next morning, I saw the geniuses in ops had changed the event to a WASEX, a war at sea exercise. This was a mission commander check flight for our S-3 squadron, and these events were usually goat-ropes. We had spent the last 3 months preparing for and executing offensive air support and hadn’t flown a multiplane large force exercise in at least four months. During the mission commander’s brief, us fighter guys exchanged looks of misgiving. After the brief was over, the F-14 and FA-18 crews got together in the Tomcat ready room for a little chat.

“OK guys,” said the senior guy, a F-14 Tomcat pilot, “this is what we’re really going to do. We’re one week from home and we haven’t flown an LFE in four months. Nobody gets within a mile of anyone else. Everybody has a hard altitude. No ACM. These S-3 guys will never know the difference.” Everyone agreed. This whole WASEX idea was for the birds anyhow.

My flight was a four-ship of FA-18s designated as the Red Air for the WASEX, the opposing force. I was the section leader, the third man in the flight. Man-up, start-up, and launch was all vanilla. I noticed the ceiling was about 1000' overcast - not awesome, but not terrible either. I launched off the front end, climbed up to 23,000 feet in clear blue air, overhead the ship and joined my three squadron mates. Together, we set off for the rendezvous point. As we climbed through the low 30's, a voice cut through the silence.

“99, on guard. Check in on Marshall. Lone Warrior on guard out.”

This made my insides go cold. If the carrier was initiating a recall, it usually meant someone went into the drink and the ship wanted a roll-call. My flight lead immediately directed a switch to Marshall, the carrier’s “arrival” frequency. It took a few tries for my lead to get an answer, since every aircraft airborne was trying to check in at the same time. To my surprise, Marshall issued us approach instructions, stacking each individual airplane up in thousand foot intervals in the standard method for instrument approaches in bad weather or at night. My flight swung slowly around to point back at the aircraft carrier.

“Marshall, say reason for approach assignments.” Finally, one of the F-14 guys asked the question. I dreaded the response… “mother has experienced a recovery casualty…”

“Mother’s weather is less than 100 and one-quarter.”

Gulp. This was really bad. Two hundred foot ceiling and a half-mile visibility was the lowest authorized. Any lower and approaches became really difficult. It sounded to me like the carrier wanted everyone to come back to home plate, so that if the ship could find a patch of good weather the recovery could commence immediately. The radio came alive again.

“99, mode one approaches.”

To make things more interesting, the carrier was directing coupled ACLS approaches - the automated carrier landing system. A mode one ACLS is when the jet gets data-linked to the carrier’s precision approach radar and the airplane flies to touchdown on its own. If the carrier was directing this method the conditions must be really poor. I started to get concerned.

Blade 204, flight of four, Marshall mother’s 150 radial, angels 11 through 14. Stand by for approach times and final bearing. Wingmen check in with side numbers and states when established.”

We descended slowly through 15,000 feet and my lead began to detach his wingmen. At 13,000 it was my turn. I broke away and leveled off, setting the airplane’s max endurance fuel flow. I sat in the holding pattern for about 45 minutes as the ship tried to find better weather. Occasionally I’d hear encouraging things like “mother’s weather is 200 and a quarter”, or “expect approach times in five minutes”.

The ship finally issued approach times after I’d been airborne for an hour. I was a little below my fuel ladder, but not dangerously so. My max trap weight worked out to like 6,500 pounds of fuel, so I’d have at least two attempts before I’d have to tank. I wasn’t feeling so hot about my ACLS, though. The system was reporting a degrade. It seemed like forever before the first airplane in the stack commenced his approach.

The weather was clear blue, but the ocean was concealed by a smooth sheet of white from horizon to horizon. It looked like the tops of the clouds reached to only a thousand feet or so, but according to the ship they reached almost to the water’s surface. I started to work my timing problem, to arrive at my approach fix on time, at 250 knots, and all without jockeying the throttle around too far from my best endurance power setting. I did a reasonable job. About a minute from my push time I realized I’d be a little late, so I pushed up the throttle and accelerated to 300 knots to make up some time. I wouldn’t be exactly on, probably about 10 seconds late, and there was no way the CATCC controllers could see the deviation on their radar scopes. Sure enough, I’d be ten seconds late. I made the radio call on time.

“202, commencing. 7.2” I was about 700 pounds above my max trap fuel weight. So far, so good. No need to dump gas. A few seconds later, not enough so anyone would notice, I arrived at the push point and started down. I brought my throttles to idle, thumbed out my speed brake, and descended at 250 knots towards the clouds and ocean hidden 13,000 feet below. At 5000 feet above the water I put my speedbrake in and slowed my rate of descent.

“202, platform.” I reported passing through 5000 feet.

“202, Marshall. Switch approach button 16.”

“Approach, 202 checking in at 14, 6.9.”

“202, approach, roger.”

I could hear aircraft in front of me on the instrument approach making the calls required when Mode one, fully coupled approaches were in use. I leveled off at 1,200 feet, now about 12 miles from the ship. I put in a mild right turn to correct to the final bearing.

“304, coupled,” reported the F/A-18 two airplanes in front of me. The pilot slaved his aircraft to the carrier’s approach radar and datalink.

“304, sending commands,” the approach controlled sent a test control message to the airplane to check the datalink and response.

“304, command control.”

“304, approach. Fly mode one.” Good for him, he was coupled and the jet would fly itself to an arrested landing.

I dirtied up at 10 miles, then through five miles on-speed, with my landing gear, flaps, and hook down and ready to trap. Fuel was good, no need to dump.

“202, approach, 5 miles. Call your needles.” The approach controlled asked me to crosscheck my ACLS with my actual position relative to the carrier, to ensure the ship had locked up the correct airplane.

“202, on and up.” I was on azimuth and below glidepath. “202, approach. Fly needles, report coupled.” I was ready to give my ACLS a try. Responding to a datalinked message from the ship, my up-front control initialized. I selected CPL, and held my breath.

Deedle, deedle! The master caution tone sounded, and I saw an AUTOPILOT caution on my display. ACL flashed in my HUD. Great. I paddled off the autopilot and reset the master caution light.

Maybe it’ll work when I get on the glidepath. Coming up on three miles, tipover. At 3.2 miles, starting the nose down, looking for the three degree descent flight path required to keep me on the glideslope. Once established on the descent, I tried to couple again. No luck. Two airplanes in front of me, the radio came alive.

“304, approach. Three-quarters of a mile, on and on. Call the ball.”

“304, clara, coupled.” Sweet, the guy in front of me was at 380 feet and couldn’t see the ship.

“304, paddles. I hear you, keep it coming.” The landing signals officer’s voice cut through my concentration.

“304, paddles contact.” The LSO saw the airplane and took control of the approach. “Ball!” the FA-18 in front of me must have broke out of the clouds and seen the optical landing system. I continued my inexorable descent towards the undercast.

Poof. In the clouds at a thousand feet. Visibility zero.

Deedle, deedle! Awesome. No mode one for me. I’ll keep trying.

I tried to couple at least twice more. I told myself I’d settle down and fly the manual approach at a mile and a half. One more try. Deedle, deedle! No luck. Passing a mile and a half and 600 feet, still in the clouds. OK, enough of the coupling. I need to fly this approach and get aboard. Right of centerline, on glideslope. Come left. There’s 500 feet, still in the clouds. Now left of centerline, come right to correct. A little low. Slow scan, get on course. Now left of course. Put in a correction to the right. A little high. 400 feet.

“202, three-quarters of a mile, right of course, slightly high. Call the ball.”

“202, clara, manual.” I tried to stay calm even though I expected not to see the ship.

“202, paddles. Keep it coming.”

Now I’m right of course. Coming left. Just like that, I fall out the bottom of the clouds and I can see the ship. I’m right of course, really right. Right of the island and getting closer. Coming back to the left, and a little high.

“Ball!” I sound relieved. Just for a second.

“Wave off, right side,” the LSO sent me back to the pattern for my troubles. I shoved the throttles up to the stops and climbed away, retracting my landing gear and flaps. Climbing, I burst out into the blue sky and breathed again. Angry that I flew such a sloppy approach and apprehensive because I had to go try it again. If I failed, I’d have to tank. If the ship would even launch a tanker in this weather. It was possible I’d have to eject if I couldn’t get the airplane aboard.I resolved to worry about those problems later and focus on flying the best approach I’ve ever flown in my life.

The ship vectored me around to an eight mile final and I dirtied up through the turn to base leg. On final, the ACLS gave good indications but would not couple up. I tried once and focused on flying the best on-and-on approach I’d ever done. Down the chute I focused on my instruments with a clarity that is challenging to recapture. I was dialed in to the airplane’s motion, it’s energy state. I anticipated deviations and corrected for them before they became gross. I was one with the airplane as I descended through the clouds towards the deck.

“202, three-quarters of a mile, on and on. Call the ball.”

“202, clara, manual,” much better start this time.

“202, paddles. Keep it coming.” Still in the clouds, I focused on the instruments and flew the jet on course and glideslope. 10 SEC flashed in my HUD. Almost down.

I blew out of the clouds at 150 feet over the water. The ship was right there, in my windscreen, occupying the whole world. I was on course and on glideslope, with a mild left drift.

“Ball!”

“Roger, ball,” without a break, “Right for lineup. Come left.” I banked slightly right to counter the left drift then took it out with a slight left bank.

WHAM! I felt the tailhook engage the wire and decelerate me. Regardless, I pushed the throttles up to full power like every carrier aviator does for every trap. The wire payed out and I came to rest. Three wire. Whew. On deck. Still alive. I taxied right, out of the landing area, and de-armed. The yellowshirt taxied me up to the bow and handed me off to a squadron plane captain. He chanied me down and signaled me to shut down. I closed the throttles and shut the jet down.

From the time I broke out to touchdown was about four seconds. The LSO had barely enough time in the groove to fix my left drift before I touched down. I engaged the wire exactly on centerline and glideslope for a three-wire. All this for a CQ refresh masquerading as a war-at-sea exercise.

I sat in the cockpit for five minutes after shutdown, waiting for my legs to stop shaking.