The Wilson Boys Hit the Boat
By Mike Wilson
Recently, my son Mikey, (age 21) and I, (age unprintable) had the opportunity to fly from NAS North Island and spend the day aboard the USS Constellation about 125 miles off the coast of San Diego. Before I tell you that story, I’d like to give you some background information. Please bear in mind that I’m not trying to impress anybody regarding my small aviation experience, I just want to let you know that the days events were going to be very humbling.
I was pretty jaded when it came to aviation. My Dad was a test pilot and all that really counted in my family were airplanes. I’ve flown professionally, have a commercial pilots license along with multi-engine and instrument ratings and about 1300 hours of flight time. I’d been out on 3 different carriers, helo'ed out once and ridden the boat out twice. I’d even watched F-8s and A-3s land on a small deck 27C boat. I’d flown the E-2/C-2, H-3 and F-14 simulators and even gotten some time in helicopters, gliders, the TA-4 and a Convair 880. I’ve been afforded opportunities to be on the LSO platform (ashore) and watched RF-8s, F-4s, F-18s, F-14s, E-2s and C –2s do Field Carrier Landing Practice (FCLP). I’ve even had the opportunity to wave a couple of FCLP passes and grade them. I thought I was Mr. “Been There, Done That and I’ve got the t-shirt to prove it”. Boy was I about to be cut down to size.
Our day began with a stop at VRC-30’s squadron spaces and a visit to the CO/XO’s office. VRC-30 provides logistical support to the fleet. They deliver parts, people and most importantly mail to the carriers and are known to make large deliveries of pizza to the flight deck crews. They're also the only designated Carrier-On-Board Delivery (COD) squadron for all of the Pacific Fleet (VRC-40 does the same in the Atlantic). CDR. Joe De Marco (CO) and CDR. Curtis Phillips (XO) were most gracious hosts and after a bit we were collected by our escort for the day, LT. Mitch Johnston, a VRC-30 Det 2 pilot and LSO. We waited around the Ready Room until we got the call to “get your gear and get to the airplane”. Being Mr. “been there”, I put my son next to one of only two windows in the cabin of the C-2 so he’d be wowed by how blasé I was about the whole thing. After strapping in, we taxied over to North Island's air terminal, loaded the rest of the passengers and launched for the boat. Pic. #1
It was solid overcast and as usual, punching out on top into the sunshine was welcome compared to drilling through the cloud layer. Pic. #2 Time en route was about 55 minutes at a true airspeed of about 228 kts. We held at our marshalling point a couple of times, (better to be early than late in naval Aviation). The always welcome sound of descent began and we broke out about 1500 feet above the water. Earlier, I’d given Mikey the camera because he’s younger, smarter and stronger than me (did I mention better looking also?). He leaned over to me and said, “I can see the wake!” Our pilot pushed the power up to enter the break and we felt the increase of G’s as the pilot reefed the C-2 into a left turn to enter the downwind. Rolling wings level, the ship appeared out the port window. As we rolled off the 180, Mikey took a great shot of the boat, pic. #3. The load master gave us the signal to get ready for the landing and then…………… CAAARRRUUUUMMPPP!!!!!!!!!, the hook, main gear and nose gear all hit the deck at the same time and it seemed that the struts bottomed out with a very audible metallic crack! We were slammed into our seats and as the hook picked up a wire, it felt like we were going to keep going right over onto our backs! …….. Surprise #1 “Mr. Been There” had NOT done THAT before! Wow, what a rush. The airplane was parked and as the rear ramp came down, we saw bombs, missiles and a bunch of “Red Shirts”(Ordancemen) pic#3A, waiting for us to get out of the way. When we exited the airplane, we were confronted with more noise, heat and movement than either of us was prepared for. We hustled to the safe side of the island, I never thought that standing around a bunch of bombs (what the Navy calls a “Bomb Farm”) would be safer than where we’d been, but it was. The flight deck can be a very dangerous and unforgiving place. A couple of days before we got to the Connie, a sailor had been blown off the flight deck at night by jet blast. He was found 7 hours later by a helicopter from another ship, cold, cut and bruised but alive. It’s a tribute to Navy leadership, professionalism and training that they have the great safety record they do. The average age on the flight deck is 19; these kids could make more money working at a fast food restaurant yet they choose to go to sea. They’re motivated and they mature in a hurry. From the Captain to the newest seaman, there’s only room for pros aboard the carrier.
We got off the flight deck and escaped to the relative quiet and safety of the hangar deck. Here the airplanes are parked about 6 inches apart with multiple tie-down chains that are ready to trip the unwary. They’re worked on and looked after by the same quality of Sailors and Marines found on the flight deck. Pic#4 shows Mikey and Mitch standing by an EA-6B.
We trekked up 10 deck levels to what’s called “vultures row”, named for all the vultures that congregate to watch flight ops from the best vantage point on the ship. The climb proved to me that carrier life is a young mans game. I surf and try to stay in good shape but I was glad when the climb was over. Mikey and Mitch however, weren’t even winded! (I’m a punk)
The boat and Air Wing were doing what’s called cyclic ops. This is when they launch 10-15 planes that go out and perform their mission. The previous launch is then recovered and they keep doing this in cycles day and night, hence the name cyclic ops. A launch was in progress when we got to the Vultures Row. I’d forgotten how impressive it is to see the airplanes tensioned on the cat, the final checker giving a last thumbs-up, the pilot going to full power, saluting the shooter once he’s satisfied the airplane’s ready to fly and that he’s ready to become a passenger for the next two seconds. The power, vibration and excitement can be felt through all 10 levels of steel decks and right into your bones Pics 5&6.
After the launch, we went down to a small mess about 3-4 decks below. We had a great Navy lunch of sandwiches, fruit and beans. Afterwards, we made our way back up, (pant, pant) to watch a recovery.
I don’t know which is more fun to watch, launches or recoveries. Both have things about them that are equally thrilling. For me, the recovery is the most fun to watch. An airplane comes hurtling towards the ship, smashes down on the deck and either catches a wire or doesn’t. If it doesn’t and all goes right, the pilot flies off the angle portion of the deck and goes around for another try. If things don’t go right, people get hurt.
If the pilot catches a wire and is hauled to a stop, the flight deck directors take over and direct him to parking. At night or in bad weather, you can multiply the degree of difficulty by a substantial amount. There’s no room for the weak or faint hearted among air or deck crews.
Navy leadership and constant training keep the accident rate remarkably low. Pics 7&8. All the photos shown were taken with a 50 mm lens. They don’t show how close we really were to the airplanes.
Photo 9 was included to show how dirty airplanes get aboard the boat. The camera and film aren’t sensitive enough to show how extensive the wear and tear is. This S-3 is a great example.
The 10th photo shows the plane guard helo crews hot switching. During flight ops, the crews do a 3hour stint flying a racetrack pattern on the starboard side of the ship. They respond to any emergency around the carrier. They’re recovered between cycles, kept turned up, refueled and the crews are switched. 3 hours seems like a long time to me when you consider the jets are usually only up for about 1.5 hours. During the time we were aboard ship, a periscope of unknown origin was spotted by one of the screening destroyers, (also known as “missile sponges” because they protect the carrier from incoming surface missiles.) and one of the helos was detached to investigate. The situation was a little tense as nobody knew if the sub was theirs or ours.
During flight ops, the deck is alive with movement. Airplanes are moved, made ready for the next launch or struck below to be worked on. This CAG VF-2 F-14 pic #11, (the stripes below the cockpit originated aboard the USS Langley, CV-1 in 1922 and were brought back by VF-2 when they stood up in 1972) is being towed aft. Sometimes the airplanes are taxied aft and turned onto the catapults. As the airplane turns, groups of the deck crew will link arms and as one, lean into the jet blast or lie prone on the deck to let the blast go over the top of them. It really has to be seen to appreciate the incredibly delicate ballet that takes place in this violent environment. Add bad weather, rain, sleet or snow, a slippery, pitching deck then throw in darkness and you have the most dangerous workplace in the world. These deck crews are smart and tough.
Our ride home! Pic# 12 is the VRC-30 C-2A that arrived to take us back to the beach. After the COD recovered, we watched the last launch and headed down to catch the “last COD home”. As we were leaving Vultures Row, I removed my earplugs and headed toward the hatchway. Just as I was opening the hatch an F-18 touched-down in the wires and went to full power! Oh man did that hurt my ears! Had the sound gone on a few more seconds it felt like my ears would have started bleeding! We qued -up behind the island and waited to board the COD. Getting word to board, we found our seats, got strapped in and waited as the airplane was started and taxied to the catapult. After a bit the throttles were pushed-up, prop RPM increased, the airframe began to buffet and shake and
We instantly felt the most INTENSE acceleration we’ve ever felt in our lives!!!! Everything went into slow motion and we were completely incapacitated. Just as we were starting to think that we couldn’t take any more of our blood rushing to the top of our head (remember we were riding backwards) the pressure went away as the airplane cleared the cat.
We were smiling, laughing and hooting at what we’d just experienced!! Mikey and I high fived each other and expressed every other form of celebration known to man. We grinned at each other knowing that we’d just done something that few people will ever experience! Man, what a ride! Here the stats: take a 52,000 lb airplane, accelerate it to 140 mph in two seconds over a distance of 250 feet! It really is a ride like no other we’ve known. That includes riding 10-12 foot waves and every other thrill-seeking adventure we’ve been on!! Mikey tried skydiving and said the cat shot was more of a rush. Anyway, when we got to the beach and landed, we were still grinning. In fact, over 7 weeks later, we still grin when we talk or even think about it. For the second time that day, ‘Mr. Been There” was eating more humble pie. I’d NEVER done THAT either! I’m really glad that my son and I got to experience it together.
After we’d turned in our gear and were relaxing (carrier flying is hard work!) in VRC-30s’ ready room, Mitch Johnston found us and gave us the hold back link (a shearable link, half of which stays with the airplane when it’s shot off the cat) from our launch. What a great memento of the day! Thanks, Mitch. We’d also like to thank LT.j.g. “T. J” Antinora also a Det. 2 pilot. He’s the guy that really made this happen and we owe him a real Bravo Zulu for his efforts. Many Thanks T.J.
About a week after our flight, T.J. was kind enough to send us certificates commemorating our trap and cat shot. They also made us honorary members of VRC-30 and honorary Naval Aviators.
Det 2 is now deployed aboard the Connie and will most likely go in harms way. We wish them fair winds and following seas.
With all the wind, noise and vibration we experienced that day, Mikey really hit it when he described what we all were feeling. To wit: “I feel like a dog that’s been holding his head out the window of the car all day”.
Thanks again VRC-30!
Here's a link to another article on COD Crews. I'd also like to say that Mike and crew were lucky as they got to leave and weren't on board for 4 (or more) straight months without seeing land. Ed (Plankowner of VRC-30 back when they had round motored airplanes!)