Naval Aviator tells why during cat launch pilots of aircraft with conventional controls can hold onto the control stick whereas pilots of FBW aircraft must keep their right hand up off controls

Naval Aviator tells why during cat launch pilots of aircraft with conventional controls can hold onto the control stick whereas pilots of FBW aircraft must keep their right hand up off controls

By Dario Leone
Nov 13 2023
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Catapult shots

An aircraft catapult is a device used to allow aircraft to take off in a limited distance, typically from the deck of a vessel. In fact catapults are usually used on aircraft carriers as a form of assisted take off.

Noteworthy, during a catapult launch F/A-18 Hornet pilots, F/A-18 Super Hornet pilots and F-35 pilots have to keep their right hand up off the controls. Why is that?

Ken VanderHorst, former US Navy A-4 and F/A-18 pilot, explains on Quora;

‘I flew A-4s and F-18s off carriers.

A-4 Print
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Fly by wire aircraft cat launch

‘This question relates mostly to fly by wire aircraft. The nature of the flight control systems of fly by wire aircraft requires the pilot not touch the flight controls during the catapult stroke. Doing so could seriously confuse the flight control computers and make the aircraft difficult or impossible to control once it leaves the deck. Watch videos of F-18s and F-35s being catapulted from a carrier and you’ll see the pilot not touching the control stick and with right hand firmly on the canopy rail handle.

‘Scroll forward to 0:58 in this video and watch the F-18 pilot’s right hand.

‘Scroll forward to 13:54 in this video and watch the F-35 pilot’s right hand.

Conventional aircraft cat launch

‘On aircraft with manual/mechanical controls (like the A-4) it’s not only OK but standard procedure to hold onto the control stick during the cat stroke. However, you don’t want to put in a lot of control inputs during the cat stroke. This is because the aircraft is pre-trimmed to normal climb attitude before the launch. If you’ve got a lot of stick input at the end of the cat stroke, the aircraft will suddenly lurch in the direction of the stick input as it leaves the deck. This is bad. And no, the control surfaces and control systems will not be damaged in any way by moving the control stick during the cat stroke, but it will make the pilot look really bad when the plane lurches off in some direction when it leaves the deck.’

VanderHorst concludes

‘And if the lurch is excessive, the pilot will have his hands full maintaining control during a very delicate and potentially dangerous phase of flight.’

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Photo credit: Photographer’s Mate Airman Andrew Morrow and PH3 Don Choquette / U.S. Navy


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Dario Leone

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.
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