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Carrier Landings At Night Are White Knuckle Equivalent To Combat

January 26, 1991

ON BOARD THE USS AMERICA IN THE RED SEA (AP) _ ″Foul deck 3/8 Foul deck 3/8 Foul deck 3/8″ Cmdr. Mac Williams bellows, waving off a fighter-bomber wobbling out of the night sky after a five-hour combat strike over Iraq.

The engines howl as the FA-18 Hornet, just yards off the fantail, lifts and heads back out across the water. Its afterburners ignite the ocean an angry gold.

A loud groan escapes the half-dozen landing service officers that shepherd Navy pilots back onto the approximately 800-foot runway. The previous plane was not quite out of the way, and now the pilot waved off will have to go through the ″white knuckle experience″ all over again.

The landing is tough in the best daytime conditions. At night, pilots view it as the adrenaline equivalent of flying ″downtown″ - a dogfight or a bombing mission. Or maybe it’s worse.

″It’s pretty much a controlled crash,″ said Lt. Eric Doyle, a 27-year-old pilot from Whidbey Island, Wash., who flies a radar jamming plane. ″You have to pump yourself up again. You get the big adrenaline rush. Even with the stress of flying downtown, the heartbeat and the tension factors are the same.″

It’s not just the need to safely hit the almost pitch-black, Lilliputian deck. Pilot also are graded on each effort by the landing service officers - all pilots and peers.

″They’ll get you down on the night they know you’re not having the best luck, and then they’ll hammer you for grades,″ said Lt. Paul Jenkins, 28, of Chicago.

Pilots are judged on the angle of approach, on speed and on which of the four deck wires they hook to arrest the airplane - kind of like a fly hitting the right section of a spider’s web.

Grades range from the highest ″OK, no comment″ to a low ″dangerous.″ Pilots who do not land at night for a week lose their qualification.

Williams talks quietly into a microphone to the pilot as the other landing officers on a tiny platform just off the runway feed him information.

A light on the planes’ landing gear indicates whether the computers think everything is in order - glowing amber (just right), red (too low) or green (too high).

″You’re low. OK. Nice and easy on the power,″ Williams murmurs.

Pilots are not supposed to look at the deck - their nose goes low if they do - but instead line up with their instruments and lights on board.

″You’re still thinking about how well things went or how some things didn’t go well and you don’t want to screw up right at the end when you are almost home,″ said Hank, a 29-year-old A-6 Intruder pilot from Annapolis, Md., who asked that his last name not be used for security reasons. Hank flies off the USS John F. Kennedy which, like the America, is based at Norfolk, Va.

Sparks erupt from the steel deck as the tail hook hits and gropes for the arresting wire. If pilots miss the wire, full throttle allows them to roar off again, but they suffer the ignomy of being called a ″bolter.″

And, as in combat, a mistake can be fatal.

″It’s the most demanding thing. You put all your concentration on making it perfect. You recover from it and you find yourself shaking,″ said Lt. Cmdr. Don Barbaree, 35, an F-14 fighter pilot from Virginia Beach, Va.

In double-seated planes like the F-14 Tomcat, night landings also are harrowing for the radar intercept officer.

Pat, a 30-year-old F-14 pilot from Virginia Beach, said his radar officer often taps him on the helmet with an alligator clip on a piece of wire containing a ″pilot treat″ such as candy.

″He’ll say ’Be a good pilot,‴ Pat, who also asked that his last name not be used, said with a laugh.

Navy pilots say night-landing skill separates the men (them) from the boys (the pilots who land on land), who might as well glide home since they have 10,000 feet of runway to hit.

″It’s the difference between trying to make a basket in a hoop sitting next to you and trying to make one across a parking lot,″ Jenkins said.

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