40,000 pounds of Rhino with motors screaming at full power was yanked down the 300 feet of catapult in a violent acceleration from zero to 170 miles per hour in just two seconds…
Francesco “Paco” Chierici is a former U.S. Naval Aviator with 3,000 flying hours and produced the award winning naval aviation documentary Speed and Angels. The following story contains excerpts from his first book Lions in the Sky.
Her breathing quickened as she heard Slammer’s voice answer, “Copy Boss. Romans this is Paddles, your signal, Charley. The deck is steady, wind is twenty-fiveknots, slightly axial. Come on down!” he barked like a game show host. Charley was the code for “time to land,” so this was it. Showtime.
She glanced around the pattern to check the interval on the plane in front of her and her right hand wandered to the hook handle yet again. A feeling of heightened calm settled over her as she blew out a big breath. Dingle piped up,“Alright, let’s do this thing. Anything you need from the back, you just ask, girl.Okay?”
“Okay,” she responded, flicking their intercom system to HOT so they could communicate without fumbling for the switch.
She concentrated on maintaining position behind the Rhino ahead; she was third in the Gladiator sequence. As she turned toward the stern end of the ship she leveled her wings, exiting the holding pattern. She glanced over her left shoulder as the Reagan receded, loathe to lose sight of the haze gray ship. At five miles astern she dipped the nose and swooped in a gentle descending 180-degree turn. She leveled off at 800 feet pointed at the ship, the foamy wakejust under her left shoulder. She glanced at her speed in the Heads-Up-Display, confirming 350 knots. Peeking out she spotted a plane a mile ahead, anotherin the break and another already on down wind. She could hear the amplified sound of her own breathing through the intercom now and a part of her cracked up thinking she sounded like Darth Vader after he’d run some wind sprints.
“Use the force,” she whispered to herself.
“What’d you say?” Dingle asked.
“Nothing buddy.” Her body was practically humming now, every nerve end crackling with high voltage, her brain the calm in the middle of the storm. This was where she wanted to be, right here, right now. A few heartbeats later she was flying over the ship, offset a bit to the right, still at 800 feet. She glanced down and saw the first Rhino smack onto the flight deck.
Dingle said, “Looks like Dusty just trapped. Two-wire.” She scanned the horizon again for her interval and spotted it, probably Pig or Moto, just rolling out on downwind. As the ship passed behind her she turned to face the Heads-Up-Display, making sure she kept the proper heading and altitude as she counted off the seconds in her head. At fifteen she simultaneously said, “Here we go!”, rolled the big fighter onto its left wingtip, smoothly pulled the throttles to idle, thumbed out the speedbrakes, and pulled back on the stick. After 90 degrees of turn the speed dropped to 250 knots and she slapped the gear handle down and thumbed in the speedbrakes. She glanced at the gear indicators confirming they were indeed three-down-and-locked as the big flaps and slats programmed themselves down to increase lift as her speed decreased. She leveled off at 600 feet on downwind, about a mile abeam the ship. The power came up and she felt the plane settle into the familiar approach attitude. So far, so good: gear down, flaps down, hook down, on speed.
They flew down the length of the ship a mile away, from bow to stern on downwind at 600 feet above the rolling waves. She noted the moment her wingtip passed the stern and forced her eyes back inside the cockpit to focus on the approach turn. The muscle memory kicked in and she set the wings at 27 degrees while adjusting her power to hold the initial descent rate of 100 feet-per-minute. From the corner of her eye the massive gray hulk of steel begged for her attention, but she forced herself to stay on the instruments, now going to 200 feet-per-minute, still on speed, still 27 degrees of bank. With 90 degrees to go she hit 450 feet above the ocean and looked out to crosscheck her progress. Her heart skipped a beat; the Reagan looked impossibly close. But she reminded herself the sight picture would change as the ship churned away from her and the wind pushed the plane further aft. “Stay on target,” she whispered as she forced her eyes back in the cockpit.
“Four-fifty at the ninety. Lookin’ good Quick,” Dingle said in his most soothing voice.
She cracked the throttles back a hair, increasing the descent rate to 500 feet-per-minute. A moment later she sensed the wake passing under.
“Three-seventy-five crossing the wake. Perfect,” Dingle reported.
She peeked out at the ship, analyzing how the turn was progressing as she scanned the centerline markings on the flight deck. She eased her wings a bit to prevent an angling approach and as they left the wake behind she began her transition to the outside scan. The ball was, miraculously, smack dab in thecenter! She took a breath and transmitted, “Two-zero-seven, Rhino ball, seven point five.”
As she eased her wings to level, Slammer’s voice answered immediately, “Roger ball.” Now the inside instruments were dropped completely and she began the mantra of the outside scan: Meatball, Lineup, Angle-of-Attack. For the next fifteen seconds, nothing else mattered in her world. Despite that, curious and rebellious parts of her brain were sending interesting distractions that she struggled to filter out. She noticed a plane launching in a cloud of steam from the bow catapult. The jet in front of her was still not fully clear of the landing area and the arresting cable was dragging back, rushing to recoil to a ready position tautly strung across the landing area. She could hear her breath. She thought of Darth Vader. She thought of her dad. Meatball, Lineup, Angle-of-Attack. The plane was clear, the wire was taut. She stared at the meatball, daring it to move. Both hands were in constant micro motion, the right moving the stick forward and aft, left and right, never stopping, always correcting, and theleft gently coordinating the two throttles with the movement of the stick—a hair of power off, a hair back on, the undulating whine of the engines synchronous with the motion of her arm. She sensed the steel beneath her as the gray mass of the USS Reagan filled her periphery. No more Vader in her ears; she washolding her breath. Still she fought the entropy of the ball, a million adjustments as it tried its damnedest to squirm from the center. Meatball, meatball, meatball, SMASH!
As it is supposed to, the collision of her wheels on the deck caught her by surprise. Her head snapped forward with the impact of the landing and she reflexively jammed both throttles to the stops. A nanosecond later she was thrown against her shoulder harness with the violence of a NASCAR pileup asher hook snagged a wire. The momentum of her 40,000 pound plane traveling at 155 miles per hour combined with the 28,000 pounds of thrust blowing from the motors did pitched battle against the massive hydraulic arresting gear pistons metering the cables at a harshly decreasing rate, relentlessly reigning in the plane trying so hard to fly away. She went from flying to stopped in 300 feet; 155 miles per hour to zero in two furious seconds. She was paralyzed for amoment, dazed and surprised by the sudden lack of need for aerial corrections, feeling like most of her brain had blown through her helmet and continued intothe sea ahead.
Suddenly the voice of god burned through the haze. “We’ve got you Two-Zero-Seven. Power back.” The Air Boss’ admonition clicked everything into place. She sheepishly brought her throttles back to idle as she looked out the rightside of her cockpit. Jumping up and down in frustration at her delay, the young Yellow Shirt was emphatically waving his hands, signaling her to keep her feet off the brakes. She nodded and felt a jerk as the wire tugged her back. The Yellow Shirt immediately motioned the thumb of his right hand into the palm of his left, signaling her to raise her hook. She shook her head like a dog to clear it as she struggled to remember where the damn hook handle she had already touched five million times was located.
The next sound injected a fresh jolt of adrenaline through her system—Moto’s voice, sounding a little higher pitched than normal. “Two-One-Two, Rhino ball, six point six.” She needed to get her shit together and clear the landing area in ten seconds or they would have to wave Moto off.
“Roger ball” she heard Slammer answer over the radio. She flicked the hook handle up and looked back at the Yellow Shirt. He was giving her urgent taxi directions, commanding her to add power and make the right turn from the landing area.
As she goosed the throttles Dingle piped up, “Don’t forget the wings, Quick.”
“Shit,” she swore loudly over the intercom, forgetting the HOT mic was on, as she fumbled for the flap handle. The Yellow Shirt kicked one of his legs a couple times exhorting her with pantomime to hurry up. As she finally cleared the landing area he motioned her to slow down, then he gave her the wing fold signal. She nodded and flipped the handle, glancing out the right side to see the wingtip coming up. Beyond that, she took in Moto’s Rhino about to land just behind her.
She returned her attention to the Yellow Shirt who guided her into another right turn, now pointing aft, and waved her on to the next Yellow Shirt, adiminutive girl who looked small enough to be blown away by a summer breeze, much less focused streams of hot jet exhaust. She nodded as the screaming roar of another jet in the wires blasted through her helmet. “Sounds like Mototrapped,” she said to Dingle.
“Yes Ma’am. I’m lookin’ right at him. He’s caught a three wire, just like us.”
“Atta boy,” she whispered before she blew out another big breath. She followed the direction of the young woman on the flight deck who motioned her to turn right one more time, so that she now faced the landing area from the shadow of the massive ship’s superstructure behind her. The Yellow Shirt signaled her to set her parking brake and then handed her off to a Brown Shirt, one of the plane captains. “Looks like they’re going to top us off before we get shot again,” she told Dingle as more Brown Shirts scurried over with massive chains to tie her plane to the deck. Moments later a team of Purple Shirts ranover carrying a huge black fueling hose. She watched them disappear beneath the wing and for the first time she was able to catch her breath.
Another plane howled in the wires a few feet from her. She’d lost track of who it might be, probably Bud and Luvma. “Hey, you got a second to talk?”Dingle asked tentatively.
“Yeah, what’s up?” she answered, wondering what could be wrong.
His voice exploded in her headset. “That was fucking AWESOME! Oh my Jesus that was the coolest thing I’ve ever done. Let’s do it again! And again!” he screamed in her ear.
She grinned behind her oxygen mask and nodded while she watched the Purple Shirts carry the fueling hose away. “I’ll be here all day and night. Don’t forget to tip your bartenders and waitresses.” She looked down at her hands and noticed them shaking so fast they were vibrating, not because of fear but because her body was hopped up with enough adrenaline to light up a city. You couldn’t ask for a better high than this. Her plane captain popped out from under the wing giving her a thumbs up. She glanced at her fuel gauge and told Dingle, “We’re all set. Call the Boss and let him know we’re good to go.”
“Boss, two-oh-seven is up and ready,” she heard Dingle transmit. A minute later a Yellow Shirt approached and signaled the plane captain to remove her tiedowns. Before there was a chance to contemplate, she was moving again. When she came to a stop she was parked behind the massive metal plates protecting her from the blast of the plane on the bow catapult. She and Dingle were just in front of the ship’s island, four stories below the massive glass enclosed bridge. She felt self-conscious, sure the captain was perched in his big chair staring down at her, frowning like a test monitor concerned she wasn’t taking the task seriously, having altogether too much fun. She heard another roar of engines followed by a thud rippling up from the deck through her plane. The blast deflectors dropped flush with the deck and she saw the Rhino that had just launched climbing up to pattern altitude.
“You think the trap was fun, buddy, this is going to kick you in the ass,” she told Dingle as she taxied forward slowly, her feet dancing on the rudder pedals in response to the steering directions from the Yellow Shirt. As her plane inched toward the catapult track, a team of maintainers materialized out of the ragged tufts of whipping steam, ducking under the wings and intakes, tugging and banging at panels, checking for any mechanical defects. On the signal from the Yellow Shirt, she lowered the launch bar on the nose gear and felt it snuggle up to the shuttle on the catapult track, the piece of equipment that would slingshot her from the deck once the full force of the pent-up steam was applied. The Yellow Shirt was positioned about thirty feet to her left, standing rigidly upright with his forward arm pointing stiffly toward the bow and his other arm cocked skyward at a ninety-degree angle. She recognized the move as the signal that the plane was now under tension, the steam building in the big reservoirs below the deck for the imminent launch. She slid both throttles up to the stops and the big plane bucked and heaved unnaturally, blasting away with its massive engines but unable to move. She looked inside her cockpit, scanning the engine instruments for any anomalies, wiped her control stick in a full sweep to ensure the flight controls were free, and kicked the rudder pedals left and right. Everything looked good.
“You ready?” she asked Dingle.
“Hell yeah!” he replied. She grinned inside her mask as she turned her head to the Catapult Officer who was watching her expectantly. She snapped a crisp salute, signifying she was ready for launch. Her right hand slid off the stick to grasp a handle about eye level on the canopy. The F-18 computers didn’t appreciate any pilot interference during the catapult stroke; any input would cause havoc so she literally had to hang-on to the handle until the wheels left the deck. She leaned her head back against the ejection seat, and peeked out the corner of her eye at the Catapult Officer as he returned her salute. He then lunged forward onto one knee with an arm outstretched toward the bow and touched his fingers to the deck.
“Put your head back,” she reminded Dingle as she tensed, waiting for the shot. They were a rock in a sling pulled back so far the rubber bands were humming.
“What?” he answered as the steam hit the shuttle. 40,000 pounds of Rhino with motors screaming at full power was yanked down the 300 feet of catapult in a violent acceleration from zero to 170 miles per hour in just two seconds, pushing her body back against the seat with the force of a moon launch. If his head wasn’t back before, it sure was now.
As the acceleration hit her chest she opened her mouth and let the crush of Gs push out a scream of exultation for the length of the stroke. She imagined the letter strailing away behind her, tumbling in her exhaust, “YAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHH!!”
Photo credit: U.S. Navy
Artwork courtesy of AircraftProfilePrints.com