For any aviator, military or civilian, one of the most dangerous – or shall we say, incident prone – phases of flight is the approach and landing phase. Even though aircraft spend little time in this regime compared to cruising at altitude, it accounts for a large percentage of aircraft accidents or incidents.

It’s rightfully named a critical phase, where no matter what you’re flying, you pay extra attention to what’s going on lest the earth rise up and smite thee.

It’s especially true of our Navy and Marine Corps aviators that are tasked with landing on boats traversing the high seas, whether it be day or night, rain or sun.

Even with everything functioning properly, reuniting aircraft and pavement (or ship, in this case) smoothly hasn’t always proven to be the easiest feat. So imagine how US Marine Corps Captain William Mahoney felt in June 2014 when his McDonnell-Douglas AV-8B Harrier had a landing gear malfunction while operating off the USS Bataan.

A Harrier assigned to VMA-223 "Bulldogs" departs on an evening flight
A Harrier assigned to VMA-223 “Bulldogs” departs on an evening flight with, count ’em, 4 down and locked

Deployed as part of the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), Captain Mahoney of Marine Attack Squadron 223 (VMA-223) “Bulldogs” took off to perform some landings aboard the ship for currency. Immediately after departing the ship, he noticed his landing gear had malfunctioned and quickly pulled the power back to avoid overspeeding the gear.

Captain Mahoney checked in with Paddles, the squadron’s landing signal officer (LSO), and flew over the ship to confirm the landing gear abnormality. The jet’s nose gear was still tucked away, meaning he had only 3 out of 4 down and locked. It’s not a typical issue, and now the problem was how to go about getting the jet and pilot safely back aboard the ship.

Not many enticing options surface when you’re out to sea and have a landing gear problem, but luckily the Bataan carried a contraption uniquely designed for this situation. The stool-like device was chained to the deck where the Harrier lands, and Captain Mahoney was talked down by his LSO, where he placed the Harrier’s nose perfectly in position on the de facto cradle. During his approach the flight deck was clear of all personnel, but as soon as he landed the deck was swarmed with multi-colored shirts waiting to congratulate Captain Mahoney on the landing.

A pair of VMA-223 "Bulldogs" pilots strap on their jets prior to departing on a local mission
A pair of VMA-223 “Bulldogs” pilots strap on their jets prior to departing on a local mission

It’s often said jokingly that any landing you can walk away from is a good one, but Captain Mahoney takes it even further by saying “we pride ourselves on landing on the ship perfectly in the same spot every time… but there’s no way to train to land in this kind of situation… When we go out and do what we do there is zero room for error. Whether you are landing a single seat aircraft on a ship or employing ordnance, you have to get it right the first time.”

Captain Mahoney got it right, and that jet even flew again later on during the deployment. For his incredible efforts and skillful display of airmanship, he was recently honored with the US Armed Forces Air Medal.

Congratulations, Captain!

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