Great news FighterSweep Fans! We have a ton of great footage from the flight deck of CVN-74, the USS John C Stennis. We had the chance to go out and observe Carrier Air Wing 9 (CVW-9) hone their skills on SUSTEX (sustainment exercise) in preparation for their deployment in a couple of months.

The airwing is composed of 3 F/A-18E squadrons, 1 F/A-18F squadron, 1 E/A-18G squadron, 1 E-2C squadron, 2 H-60 squadrons (MH-60R and MH-60S) and a detachment of C-2s. After a few days of carrier qualifications (CQ) to regain currency, they entered cyclic ops and started flying numerous Air-to-Air and Air-to-Surface training sorties as well as Large Force Exercises.

Flight ops aboard an aircraft carrier are always very impressive; just hitting a tiny moving target by itself is a great feat. When you get a dozen airplanes to do it 45 seconds apart, visually, comm out, the Air Force should start feeling pretty insecure.

This small area is what separates the Navy from the Air Force.
This small area is what separates the Navy from the Air Force.

During cyclic operations, the daily flight schedule is divided into events usually 1 to 1.5 hours in length. When an event occurs, the airplanes scheduled to fly will launch, and then the ones from the previous event will recover once the launch is complete. In aviation, most people are familiar with VFR and IFR operations. In good weather, pilots can fly VFR and operate completely visually. When flying in clouds or poor visibility, they must fly by reference to instruments under IFR. The aircraft carrier has similar concepts called CASE I, CASE II, and CASE III.

CASE I operations truly highlight the skills required to fly around the boat that only Naval Aviators get the privilege of doing. By the time an event begins, aircraft will have already RTB from their mission and organized into a 5-mile-wide stack above the carrier. The stack starts at 2,000 feet and altitudes are separated by 1,000 feet. There are two squadrons per altitude holding across the circle from each other. Just by looking down, the aircraft at 2,000 feet will use their judgment to determine when the last aircraft will launch. When they think it’s time they will commence into the initial and then break into the landing pattern. The other squadron at 2,000 feet will then follow them down. The squadron at 3,000 feet will go down to 2,000 and then they will all follow down in turn. The stack will collapse in a downward spiral until each aircraft has landed.

The first jets down have the honor and privilege of “breaking the deck”, meaning that they would have rolled out into the “groove” (final) just as the last jet has launched and the landing area is clear. It’s even more impressive if the aircraft did a “sh!t hot break” to get there. Too early and they will earn a foul deck waveoff or be forced into the Spin Pattern. Too late and the recovery is taking too long and the ship is prolonging its predictable path into the wind.

The important thing to emphasize is that this whole process was done visually. Just by looking at either the flight deck, or the other aircraft in the stack, planes will have launched and recovered without saying a single word to the tower or each other. What’s more impressive is that it is highly efficient; planes can land and clear the Landing Area every 45 seconds. It’s awesome enough to land on a carrier, it’s jaw dropping to have a perfect CASE I recovery.  Check out the HUD footage of a legacy hornet performing a SHB:

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CASE III operations are for when the weather has gone IFR or during any weather at night. Since it would be unfeasible to do the above procedures in clouds or darkness, CASE III was devised to have much more control. Aircraft are again stacked at 1,000 foot intervals, except now they are 20 miles away from the carrier waiting to start an instrument approach called a CV-1. Each aircraft will have a holding fix and expected approach time, and each aircraft will be expected to hit the holding fix at the right airspeed, heading, and altitude, at the exact expected approach time. This ensures that aircraft will land exactly one minute behind each other at night. Still an impressive feat (not to mention the night landing)!

CASE II is a hybrid of CASE I and CASE III when the weather is marginal during the day.

CASE III Procedures once pushed from the stack.

Helping the airplanes land are the Landing Signal Officers (LSOs), nicknamed “paddles.” The name dates back to the old days before the Fresnel Lens and radios when the LSO would literally wave paddles to signal the pilots coming in to land. Advances in technology have done away with the physical paddles, but the art that an LSO performs is still called “waving.”

Some thought that LSOs would go away as planes became more sophisticated and flight ops became more routine. However, when that theory got put to test, mishap rates increased, and LSOs began waving soon thereafter.

Usually each fixed wing squadron will have 3-5 paddles and they are assigned to different wave teams. Generally, the wave team will have representation from each of the squadrons and have differing levels of experience. At all times though, the team is accompanied by the Airwing LSO, or “CAG Paddles,” who is in charge.

The almighty IFLOLS, or "The Lens."
The almighty IFLOLS, or “The Lens.”

The team members will rotate through different positions on the LSO platform. There is the controlling LSO, or “Primary” that primarily controls glide slope and assigns the grade. Next to him is “Backup,” who will ensure the aircraft is on centerline and back up the controlling LSO with glideslope. There is also the deck caller, who will face forward during the recovery to ensure that there aren’t any errant people or FOD in the Landing Area fouling the deck.

Then there’s the “Groove Timer,” who clocks the length of time a plane is in the groove. Any time outside the 15-18 second window and the pilot will hear about it. The “Interval Timer” will clock the time between aircraft landings. Finally there is the writer that will be responsible for recording all the data of the recovery and the grades that primary calls out.

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The three paddles on the radio (Primary, Backup, and CAG paddles) communicate with the pilots primarily by radio calls. If an aircraft gets too low he may get a “Power” call. If he drifts left of centerline he’ll get a “Right for lineup.” If the deck gets foul, a “Waveoff, waveoff, foul deck…” will send him around for another try. If things get a little too ugly in the pass, a “Waveoff, waveoff, WAVEOFF!” may very well save the pilot’s life. And that is the main job of the LSO: to keep everybody safe.

A wave team watches an F/A-18E Super Hornet land.

After a plane traps, primary will yell out something like this: “306, OK 3, a little overshooting start, a little too much power on the comeback in the middle, a little high in close to at the ramp.” The writer will put that information down in shorthand (OSX) (TMP.CBIM) (HIC-AR). The interval and groove times will be passed to the writer as well– “49 over 16,” meaning he landed 49 seconds after the plane before him and had 16 seconds in the groove.  A carrier landing is a task requiring intense precision and each deviation from pattern, glideslope, lineup, and on-speed AOA gets scrutinized and debriefed.

After the recovery, paddles will walk to every ready room and read the pass and grades to the pilot. At the end of the day, every pilot will have another colored chip to add to their squadron’s “Greenie Board,” and how all the pilots perform behind the boat is publicly displayed for all eyes to see.

Up to this point, all of this magic has happened on a steady deck, but check out the video below to see where both the aviators and LSOs make their money:

All in all, watching the airwing conduct carrier flight ops was awesome. It wasn’t all jets and Hawkeyes that showed skill; watching the helos expertly land in Spot 7 behind the tower was nerve wracking and humbling.

Some people have questioned the need for carriers in the future. Watching the efficiency of a mobile airfield free from political constraints project tremendous amounts of power left me with little doubt that the CVN will be a much needed naval asset far into the future. That debate, however, is for another time…

(All photos courtesy of the Author’s personal collection)