Risk At Sea: Would You Do This?
This being the centennial of U.S. Naval aviation, I expect we'll be receiving our fair share of interesting information about this worthy celebration. Links to the videos at right (on YouTube here and here) were sent my way last week, and although I'm a voracious consumer of the Military, History and Discovery Channels, I somehow missed this. It's a PBS production and very well executed. Both deal with how carriers and pilots cope with challenging conditions at sea, specifically pitching decks when launching and recovering aircraft. Each is 10 minutes long and they're worth watching. Go ahead…I'll be here when you get back.
What I found most interesting about the scenario depicted in these videos is not so much the activity itself—although that's gripping—but the judgment call to undertake flight ops in conditions that bad in the first place. As one of the narrators notes, the skill of landing on an aircraft carrier is perishable—perhaps more so than any other kind of flying. Before a deployment, Navy pilots have to re-qualify and they're required to fly regularly during the deployment to stay current. But the Navy doesn't like to do "blue water" ops if it can be avoided, blue water meaning the ship is out of range of land bases so aircraft in extremis won't have any other option but to get aboard. The gain is generally not deemed worth the risk, but it evidently was in the situation depicted in the videos. Looks like command thought the wing needed work and was willing to risk it, although conditions were probably worse than they bargained on. The CO and the air wing commander put it on the line in these kinds of decisions, because if they lose an airplane or two, they might have some 'splaining to do.
This shows how risk assessment in military flying is very different than in the civilian world. Several of the pilots were heard to remark that they just couldn't see the payoff for operating with 20-feet plus of ramp movement. But they don't get the pleasure of being PIC and calling the whole thing off. In civilian flying, you'd get a gold star for good judgment to stay on the ground. In the Navy, they get to man up and go flying.
What's not clear from the video is how the risk of something going wrong on a single recovery is stitched into the whole. When the ship is pitching that much, the risk of a disastrous ramp strike or an airborne engagement that trashes the arresting gear puts the entire wing at risk because there's just one runway. Crews are trained to restore to a ready deck quickly, but it still takes time and aircraft in marshal waiting for approach clearance never have much of that. The Navy's solution—as the ship did here--is to keep as much fuel airborne as it can, but those tankers have to recover, too, so there's no free lunch. I'm sure the skipper was sweating out all those possibilities.
Last year, before the air show at Lakeland, I was talking to Dale Snodgrass, a well-known show performer and world's most experienced F-14 pilot. I don't know how we got onto the subject of difficult traps, but he told me his worst experience occurred during the 1980s when he had been launched in the Barents Sea to intercept a Soviet Tu-95 Bear, an airplane that habitually shadowed U.S. carriers. During the Cold War, not launching the intercept wasn't a choice. In mountainous seas, it took Snodgrass 13 passes to get aboard. Think about that next time you have to go around once in a gusty crosswind or take another whack at the ILS because you drifted off the localizer. I'm not sure I could hold the focus for that many attempts, but that's what a Navy pilot has to do to avoid a cold swim.
And why, of course, the skipper in this operation felt the reward was worth the risk. Not for nothing do they say the more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war.