‘On one (and only one) mission, however, I and my crew were fearful of running out of fuel and having to ditch,’ Vernon Wright, former Naval Aviator.
Aircraft carrier air operations include a launch and recovery cycle of embarked aircraft.
Launching and recovering aircraft aboard aircraft carriers is best accomplished nonconcurrently, and cyclic operations are the norm for US aircraft carriers. Cycles are generally about one and a half hours long, although cycles as short as an hour or as long as an hour and 45 minutes are not uncommon. The shorter the cycle, the fewer aircraft can be launched/recovered; the longer the cycle, the more critical fuel becomes for airborne aircraft.
After the last recovery of the day, all of the aircraft are generally stored on the bow (because the landing area aft needs to be kept clear until the last aircraft lands).
How do US Navy pilots find the carrier after a mission to recover their aircraft?
‘This question comes up from time to time and the answer given always discusses the dead reckoning method of navigation,’ Vernon Wright, former Naval Aviator, explains on Quora. ‘Not to belittle dead reckoning because it is primary, I have not heard anyone mention the need for good eyesight. As an anti-submarine warfare helicopter pilot during the “Cold War” I depended on dead reckoning to return me to the carrier on many missions, and it was always able to bring me back to a position reasonably close to the destination. At the end, though, it is up to the aircrew to use their eyes to locate and identify the ship. This can be quite challenging at night or with fog or rain in the vicinity of the ship.
‘On one (and only one) mission, however, I and my crew were fearful of running out of fuel and having to ditch. Before launch we had been told that the ship would not transmit any electronic signals from the ship, and the aircraft were not allowed to transmit any electronics when their position was inside a 25 mile radius of the ship. After navigating about 300 miles by dead reckoning back to the ship’s position of intended movement, returning about 2:00 a.m., we could not see any sign of the ship. We set up a search pattern to look for the ship but had seen nothing before encountering a “Low Fuel” state. Recalling we had been briefed that a very brief radio call was permitted if a plane returned to the ship with an emergency, we prepared to get a radio direction finder cut on the ship IF a plane were to make such a call.’
‘Some people say that God takes care of pilots and that may have been true that night because a twin engine plane came back and reported that he was on single engine. His radio transmission lasted only about one second, but we were able to get a bearing to the ship. As we turned and followed that bearing we almost immediately entered a squall line about a mile thick and on the other side the ship was plainly visible. We were extremely happy to sleep on the ship that night.’
Photo credit: Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Jeff D. Kempton