Risk At Sea: Would You Do This?

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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.

Comments (29)

Just another day in the office for one who wears the Wings of Gold. We all signed up to do a job .... sometimes easy but many times difficult. Some found it too difficult and "turned in" their wings while others chaulked it up as just another "night in the box".

just an ole (old) Crusader Aviator

Posted by: garnett haubelt | June 19, 2011 9:04 PM    Report this comment

Didn't get to see the videos. Message says blocked by some agency or other for copyright reasons. copyright? On YouTube?

Posted by: Rodney Durnin | June 20, 2011 6:21 AM    Report this comment

Flying is always a risk; that goes for Sun & Fun or just pleasure flying a B-17 over Aurora. That's what planes were made for. Loosing the hardware (with no personal injuries) is fine.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | June 20, 2011 7:28 AM    Report this comment

Having relatives who've participated in these sphincter-puckering evolutions and have described them to me in very colorful terms, I suppose I really didn't need to see the videos.

But I find it mildly annoying that PBS, beneficiaries of a generous and superfluous subsidy from our tax money, has "blocked [the videos] in your country on copyright grounds. Sorry about that."

In other words, only non-citizens the country which paid for both the Navy and PBS are allowed to watch the videos.


Posted by: Jim Carroll | June 20, 2011 7:31 AM    Report this comment

I applied for press credentials for a carrier visit--it took 8 years of government "lost paperwork"--but that's another story.

It was on the Abraham Lincoln--doing a pre-deployment workup for a West-Pac deployment. Everybody was getting requalified. The Captain and the CAG intentionally took the ship into rough seas and weather for qualifications--there is nothing like the "real thing"--but unlike the video, they did have the option of going back to a land base if things got too bad. I was able to go to the LSO station for day and night operations--and there were many missed approaches. I also visited the ops center, where they constantly keep track of each aircraft's fuel status, number of approaches, and approaches remaining. A surprise--every Navy carrier-based fixed-wing airplane can not only TAKE fuel, but can "Buddy fuel".

Several takeaways for us in GA--if you TRAIN to minimums, you won't develop a big sweat when you actually have to FLY to minimums. Takeaway number 2--sometimes, in attempting to make training "real", we CREATE an emergency where none existed before--as this unit did in conducting training in "blue water" (no diversion to land) operations.

Paul--if you haven't done it yet, apply for a 3-day press cruise. It can be the basis for a ton of stories and insights--and the Navy can always use the publicity.

Posted by: jim hanson | June 20, 2011 8:01 AM    Report this comment

I was on the Enterprise for 4 years during 'Vam and I never tired of watching flight ops from "steel beach". When I started flying myself, I gained a new respect for the skills those guys had (it was all guys back then).

Posted by: Jerry Plante | June 20, 2011 8:41 AM    Report this comment

And then there's those guys with not one, but two, anchors on their wings (NFO's) that have to watch it happen night after night from a "pilot-not-flying" seat. It's especially thrilling if the NFO also happens to be a rated pilot, and frequently the more senior crewman paired with a junior aviator.

I always thought that second anchor was there to keep us from ejecting after the LSO screamed "Power. Power! POWER! WAVEOFF!! WAVEOFF!!".

I wrote my first will in 1968 when assigned to CarQual with the first Ensign pilot to fly the EKA-3B.

HAHough (NFO A-3's & A-6's)

Posted by: Unknown | June 20, 2011 9:16 AM    Report this comment

The whole documentary series is well worth watching. Ten or twelve episodes about carrier ops. Fascinating stuff, from an aviation standpoint as well as from a sociological one. You can get it on itunes.

Posted by: Jeff Alsup | June 20, 2011 10:40 AM    Report this comment

Sitting on a boat in Nanaimo, BC, so PBS has the video blocked "for copyright reasons", whatever that means. But I enjoy watching the carrier ops on the Military Channel, Discovery, etc. I'm pretty good at short field landings, but I can't imagine doing it at twice or three times my approach speed on a runway that moves up and down. I was Air Force and thought the Air Force pilots were pretty super, but there's no doubt that Naval aviators learn some incredible skills that the rest of us don't have.

Posted by: Cary Alburn | June 20, 2011 10:45 AM    Report this comment

These carrier ops are one of the few activities that routinely require groups of human beings to successfully perform to the limits of their abilities.

While the process makes for great drama it is expensive in terms of both lives and equipment, which is why it will soon all be automated. Like the mail pilots who flew at night in bad weather without radios, nav gear or proper maps, people will look back and say "I can't believe they did that".

Posted by: John Wilson | June 20, 2011 10:58 AM    Report this comment

I was a trouble shooter in VF96, F4 squadron on Enterprise 1967 to 69. As I recall, twice we were conducting flight OP's with water coming onto the bow. Once was off San Diego, a blue bird day except for the monster long swells. There were little boats running around us going up and down easily on the swells but we were pitching heavily. The shooter would time it so that the bow was coming up when we launched aircraft including 96 F4's. They came back aboard.

The other time was in heavy weather far at sea. maybe there were Bears about, I don't recall, but even walking was a challenge. It's not like we were bouncing because Enterprise is smaller than Nimitz class, Enterprise is longer, has the biggest flight deck, lighter and faster than all the others. She was the flagship not just the Navy back then but of the nation. The oldest ship in the Navy now except for the Constitution, She is scheduled for retirement in 2013. Brings a tear to my eye!

Posted by: Tom Nimsic | June 20, 2011 11:24 AM    Report this comment

I was a helicopter Rescue Swimmer in the 80s so I got to be there when things went wrong. While I always had a lot of respect for the fixed wing pilots, what is often overlooked is the skill of our Helicopter pilots landing in the same conditions on the small decks of the escort Destroyers, Frigates, and Cruisers.

Posted by: MICHAEL AKERS | June 20, 2011 12:18 PM    Report this comment

Rodney, Jim, Cary, and anyone else experiencing problems with the videos because of where you're located: YouTube is looking at your IP address to determine where in the world you're located, and if the IP doesn't match up to a known bank of addresses in the country of origin, you get that message by default. If you're on the go (as Cary is), you may be able to watch them when you get back to your home base. If you're outside the U.S., though, you may still have trouble. Networks and studios license a lot of the content they use in their finished productions (music, footage, etc.), and sometimes getting clearance from all the parties and countries involved is just too costly for them to follow through with the licensing. PBS and BBC are both known for this, since they (1) produce programming one a wide range of subjects, (2) license a LOT of music and footage in documentaries, and (3) get a lot of their funding from public monies and would prefer to spend that on filling out their schedules rather than internet licensing. If you're particularly curious and enterprising, there are ways around regional filtering — but, alas, you won't read anything about that here on AVweb. ;)

Posted by: Scott Simmons | June 20, 2011 2:18 PM    Report this comment

We did it in the forties on straight deck escort class CV's. Shorter is not better. A 500 foot hull can almost pitch at anchor.

Posted by: JACK WILLIAMS | June 20, 2011 7:42 PM    Report this comment

Americans should be compelled to watch stuff like this. Most don't appreciate how difficult and dangerous it is, for our military (not just pilots) to be prepared for war, rescue or other situations. John Boyd, who was probably one of the most controversial and gifted fighter pilots who ever lived...actually critisized some conservative squadron commanders, back in the '50s and '60s, for having too few training casualties and therefore not having real enough training scenarios!

Posted by: Steve Tobias | June 21, 2011 2:00 PM    Report this comment

The SH2 LAMPS helos almost always conducted "blue-water ops" because there's an awful lot of water more than a couple hundred miles from shore. And we didn't have ACLS like the Hornets do today, either. Heck, they don't even have real flight controls, they just make inputs to the autopilot! We depended on LSE's to get back on board, more than one of whom was the lineal descendant of "Beer Belly" as depicted in the book and movie "The Bridges of Toko-Ri".

RAdm. George Tarrant: "Where do we get such men?"

Posted by: MICHAEL MUETZEL | June 21, 2011 10:20 PM    Report this comment

Sure wish i were shooting those approaches. I watched them with my three year old so maybe he will get a shot at it one day. Of such men are made. How about the experienced guy who nailed it the first try near the end!!! Of course we should train for difficult situations. Ideally all of the pilots would end up being first try proficient.

I betcha I could plant my mooney on those wires.

Posted by: Brad Vaught | June 22, 2011 12:12 AM    Report this comment

I reckon if I was the baddies I'd attack in the worst weather possible. So training for that seems defensible. Just as importantly, that Commander must be willing to put his team under massive pressure to expose weaknesses and create experience. If a few aircraft end up in the drink, as tough as that is, I'd rather those lessons be learnt now than with the added stress of war.
What a crazy but intoxicatingly awesome thing it must be to master carrier operations - as much as that is possible.

Posted by: John Hogan | June 22, 2011 7:02 AM    Report this comment

After watching these videos, my already great respect for Navy aviators has only increased. WOW!!! God-Speak, folks!!

Posted by: Vic Renaud | June 22, 2011 11:13 AM    Report this comment

I got to go on a one-week "Tiger Cruise" from Pearl Harbor to San Diego on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln in March with my son-in-law, a Navy MH-60R helicopter pilot. I was USAF (1963-1968) at a SAC base. We had a couple dozen aircraft, maintenance facilities, hospital, dining halls, living quarters, etc., etc. - on about 25 square miles of land. They had all of that on a ship about 60 aircraft and about 5,000 people!

Watching these men and women work was something to see. The "controlled chaos" that it takes to do so much in such close quarters is amazing. I wish all Americans could see these (mostly young) people serving their country with pride in what they do.

We had an airshow on a day when the ship was pitching and rolling about 30 feet at 8-10 second intervals. It was a nice clear day, but watching the F-18 landings from below decks on closed circuit TV (it was too hairy to let the civilians go up) you could see how challenging it is under such conditions. There were actually very few bolters - I think because they were returning from a 6-month tour in the Persian Gulf and proficiency was high, although they remarked that these were the roughest seas they had seen on their entire cruise.

I'm in no position to judge the Commander who ordered his crews up in tough conditions. His crews now know that they're capable of getting down under those conditions, and that's worth a lot if they ever have to launch when it's like that.

Posted by: Walt Woltosz | June 22, 2011 12:22 PM    Report this comment

The risk balance is, by necessity, very different between military aviation and civil aviation.

In GA, what's the risk you take when you choose to abort a risky flight? You might be late to your destination. In commercial aviation? Your company loses some money and some people are annoyed. Minimal real risk.

In military aviation, if you choose to abort a risky mission, you run the risk of people losing their lives (think search and rescue, close air support, supply missions, etc). In military aviation it is sometimes riskier NOT to fly.

I would suppose this commander used this risk balance when authorizing poor-weather ops.

Of course, beyond that there is always the "train like you fight, fight like you train" thing.

Posted by: Alex Rudy | June 22, 2011 12:30 PM    Report this comment

As one of those guys who wore the two anchor wings (NFO), you have to trust the pilot in the left seat, and hope that he knows what he is doing. To bolter on a pitching deck and then having to go up to the tanker on a black night just adds to the 'pucker' factor. Then going to MOVLAS where the LSOs are controlling the "Ball" you hope that they have it on the ball.

It's part of the job and while you might not like it you just have to go out and do it.

Jammer (NFO S-3s)

Posted by: Ron Malec | June 23, 2011 9:09 AM    Report this comment

When you have a "dynamic" situation on problem recoveries, it was interesting to watch the action at the control center below decks as well. Not only do they keep track of how much fuel everybody has (and get fuel into the air if needed) but they re-prioritize arrivals as neccessary.

Oddly enough, they don't do it electronically, they do it with what they call the "Mr. Bill Board"--a guy moves plane shapes by hand (of course, he is called "Mr. Hands")for aircraft relative to the ship. The display is displayed at several stations by television monitors. I asked why, in this age of electronics, it was still being done by hand, and was told--"we tried that. We found that we were making so many changes that we just went back to the old way. Example: If we have a guy making his last pass at the deck due to low fuel, we will coordinate a tanker to be 2 1/2 miles in front of the ship if he misses--that way, all he has to do is climb to altitude and hit the tanker. That's hard for us to do electronically."

Another manual consideration--with fast-tempo deck operations, they don't have time to hook up a tug on the aircraft--a group of deck hands just pushes the aircraft around. The engines are still running--the guys are very close to them, the deck is heaving, the aircraft is rolling, and the deck may be slippery. Dangerous stuff!

Posted by: jim hanson | June 23, 2011 9:46 AM    Report this comment

"...beyond that there is always the "train like you fight, fight like you train" thing."

There's also the old maxim reportedly attributed to General George Patton, "The more you sweat in training, the less you'll bleed in combat."

Posted by: Gary Dikkers | June 23, 2011 11:41 AM    Report this comment

As Scott said: "Rodney, Jim, Cary, and anyone else experiencing problems with the videos because of where you're located: YouTube is looking at your IP address to determine where in the world you're located, and if the IP doesn't match up to a known bank of addresses in the country of origin, you get that message by default."

There IS a solution - it's called VPN - Google it. I am in Costa Rica and have no problem getting ANY content world-wide. My Witopia VPN creates a "virtual tunnel" to a IP address that will appear to be anywhere I need it to be.

Posted by: Walter Freeman | June 23, 2011 4:02 PM    Report this comment

A couple thoughts on Jim Hanson's post (PART 1):

" A surprise--every Navy carrier-based fixed-wing airplane can not only TAKE fuel, but can "Buddy fuel""
- Among the fixed-wing aircraft on a carrier deck, most of the time the gas-givers are in the minority (currently only F-18 E/F Super Hornets). All the jets can receive fuel, however. And if it's on a carrier deck, has a prop or rotor (at least in the Navy) it generally can't take or receive fuel.

"-if you TRAIN to minimums, you won't develop a big sweat when you actually have to FLY to minimums"
-I think you really hit the nail on the head here. To my knowledge, we are the only country in the world that conducts routine carrier "cyclic ops" at night, in extreme weather conditions, sometimes without a divert. While routine carrier ops provide a very good level of proficiency, there is nothing that can replace the actual challenges of a really dark, nasty night recovery. We choose to do it so that when we HAVE no choice, we can.

Former S-3B Viking "Hoover" driver

Posted by: Mike T. | June 24, 2011 10:18 PM    Report this comment

A couple thoughts on Jim Hanson's post (PART 2):

Everyone knows the landings are hard. But one of the biggest surprises during my first deployment was how gratifying it was to be part of such a large group of individuals - from the deck handlers to the air traffic control guys - who had to get very complex, dynamic tasks correct every time or face dramatic consequences for the entire ship and air wing. Many of them were still teenagers! To successfully launch and recover aircraft during challenging night conditions - aircraft whose complex systems are functional, who are refueled, rearmed, and often repaired in less than 1 hour between events, who make the next takeoff on time - requires a massive team effort who's difficult task cannot be overestimated.

It feels great to grab a wire (ANY wire if it's dark and scary out). But to even be in the position to try means a whole lot of non-flying professionals have excelled at their job once again.

What a great thread - I've really enjoyed all the comments.

Former S-3B Viking "Hoover" driver

Posted by: Mike T. | June 24, 2011 10:19 PM    Report this comment

I have enormous respect for these guys. I had a chance to hang out with three guys from the George Washington after they returned from a tour of the gulf back in the 90's. At the time I was the ops director for the Boston 4th of July fireworks and concert. I also coordinated the flyovers. These guys put on a great show (I can tell that story another time) and I had a police escort bring them back from the field to our ops center after their part of the show. One of the pilots told me about a stormy night when he was the flight lead. All the other airplanes went feet dry (to land) as they could not get on the carrier due to low ceilings. He and the CAG were the only ones left in the pattern and he was low on fuel. The skipper decided they could not launch any tankers so he had one shot to get aboard or he was going swimming. I can't imagine; low ceilings, a pitching deck and one shot to get aboard. He said he broke out of the clouds and had 2-3 seconds to lineup and and land. He trapped. The only guys to get aboard that night was this Lieutenant and the CAG. As he parked the airplane his crew chief came running up and helped him out of the airplane. When his legs hit the deck his knees buckled and the crew chief was there to catch him. He knew. The Lieutenant said a carrier landing on a pitching deck at night is the scariest thing there is.

Posted by: DANA NICKERSON | June 25, 2011 7:35 AM    Report this comment

"The best 3 things in life are a good landing, a good orgasm, and a good bowel movement. Night carrier ops is one of the few places where you get to experience all three at once!"

Posted by: jim hanson | June 25, 2011 11:51 AM    Report this comment

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