Question: I really enjoy the cruise videos from the Navy guys. There’s just something about the teamwork and precision required by everyone on deck that I find both fascinating and thrilling. I have noticed that different pilots use different hand signals to the deck crew right on takeoff. Sometimes it’s a simple salute and thumbs up, sometimes they seem to slam the canopy with a fist…I’ve even seen the Hawaiian Shaka. Do these have any significant meaning, or are the differences just the personal expressions for each pilot? ~Jeff S. from Atlanta, GA

Good evening, Fightersweep Fans! Today we have a great question about flight deck operations aboard an Aircraft Carrier! The question brings up a lot of good points about what it’s like to operate on the flight deck; it definitely does require “teamwork and precision” and is certainly “fascinating and thrilling.” Flight deck operations are carefully orchestrated and inherently very dangerous, therefore clear and concise communication is absolutely essential. It’s commonly known as “controlled chaos.”

While many squadrons’ cruise videos are exciting, a lot of the footage is dramatized to boost the videos’ appeal. Knowing I have a GoPro on me, I may add an extra fist pump going down the catapult to boost the cool-factor on camera.

Photo courtesy of U.S. Navy.
Photo courtesy of U.S. Navy.

In reality, the hand signals for all of the launches and recoveries are nearly identical. If a pilot invents a move on the fly, it may be misunderstood to be something else leading to a potentially devastating outcome. This is not to say that Naval Aviators don’t have a “pregame” ritual, just like superstitious Major League Baseball players, but it is usually not in the form of something that could confuse the crew on the Flight Deck.

What I can do to better answer this question is to go through all of the procedures and hand signals for launching and recovering aircraft to help illuminate what exactly happens in these sweet videos.

After startup, when the pilot indicates he is ready to go flying, he will pass the thumbs-up to the Plane Captain. The Plane Captain and pilot will then standby until a Yellow Shirt arrives to take over control of the aircraft. An aircraft on the flight deck never moves unless under a Yellow Shirt’s control. Whether it is taxiing or being towed, these “directors” will always be there to control the aircraft’s movements.

As a general rule, all signals passed to pilots will be passed above the waist and all signals to others on the flight deck will be below the waist. The Yellow Shirt will first confirm the thumbs up to go flying, and then pass the signal to “break down” the aircraft. Sweeping motions of the arms indicate that the chocks and chains will be removed and that the aircraft will be held in position with only the brakes.

After the plane is broken down, taxi signals are used to direct the aircraft around the flight deck. These signals are universal in aviation: waving arms to taxi, one arm bent to indicate a turn. All of the aircraft turns will be made at idle power, to avoid sweeping high amounts of thrust and sending people overboard. Yellow Shirts are not allowed to move while taxiing an aircraft. This is to prevent the illusion that an aircraft is moving when it is not (especially crucial at night!). When the aircraft reaches the Yellow Shirt that is controlling him, he will be “passed” to the next one that is waiting for him with a point in the direction of the next director. The aircraft is taxied to one of the four catapults and the route, direction, and sequence of airplanes is all prearranged and controlled by the “Handler” in Flight Deck Control. They even have contingency locations for aircraft that go down and can’t make the launch.