Aircraft Carrier Approaches

I’m often asked about operating at the ship, it is indeed a one of a kind operation, like no other. I wrote this for another site this morning. Admittedly, it is a bit technical. If you have questions ask away:

It’s been a while since my last trap; 20 years or so. But, I spent a significant portion of my life flying on and off aircraft carriers. 597 traps (200 night) on 11 different carriers, from 1983 until 1995. I was also a Fleet LSO and a TRACOM (Training Command) LSO (Landing Signal Officer).

In my books I often write about carrier operations, so I have stayed in tune.

First: there are three types of approaches. Case I, Case II and Case III. Case III is for night and instrument conditions. Each aircraft or flight is assigned a holding altitude and fix (radial/DME) then penetrates on a TACAN approach, arcs to the final bearing and then picks up a raw data ILS to the ship.

The crew must push from their fix (Radial/DME)and altitude with in +/- 10 seconds of their push time, at 250 knots. You penetrate at 250 flying up the reference radial until 15 DME, turn to put the head of the needle on your wing and arc at 12 DME until you pick up final bearing FB (which is not the same as Base Recovery Course, the BRC is the heading of ship which is 8-13 degrees different depending on angle of deck landing area). The FB is aligned with the angle deck (actual landing area). Altitude is 1200′. At that point you pick up the Carrier Instrument Landing System (like civilian ILS it gives you course and glide slope info on attitude indicator). At 10 miles (DME) from ship approx you put gear, flaps and hook down; at 3 miles you intercept glide slope, pop out speed brakes and slow to on speed (optimum Angle Of Attack AOA) and start down. In the cockpit on the glare shield (dashboard), left side is a visual AOA indicator. It has two chevrons: \ / top (green), / \ bottom (red), with a yellow circle 0 in the middle.

*as this picture shows, they changed the colors to what they always should have been. Slow is bad so is now red, green is good so now it is on speed and yellow is caution, thus fast.

Rough AOA/airspeed control and landed way right on line up.

At 3/4’s of a mile the LSO picks you up for control and you transition to a visual approach: fresnel lens/meatball (glide slope), line-up (course) angle of attack (speed). At night LSOs watch for the external approach lights (same colors as indexer) for speed, engine sound for power setting, and their eye for line up and glide slope. LSOs can see deviations before the pilots and calls for corrections over the radio for example: “power” (you are low), “right for line up” (because of the angle deck, landing area moves left to right as you approach), EASY with it” (you are going high), and the one no Naval Aviator wants to hear: “WAVE-OFF!” (you scared them, or the deck is fouled and you have to go around and try again).

The LSOs also grade every pass on a 4 point scale. Each grade is posted on a board on the ready room wall for all to see. If your grades and/or boarding rate suck for too long (there is a definite learning curve) you go home.


If all goes well; you stay on speed (yellow donut in my day, now green) that keeps your speed correct and the hook at proper height/position, you land on center-line pointed down the angle deck, AND you are on the proper glide slope +/- 2 feet; you snag the three wire go to full power, click off the external lights and when you feel that welcome tug you unlock and fold the wings…then get outta the way because your Airwing pal is right behind you. If things don’t go well: high- you bolter (miss the wires) and go around, low- you get waved off, snatch an early wire (bad grade) or hit the ramp and blow up. Off centerline- you’ll get waved off (in the EA-6B Prowler 10′ off CL put the wing tip into the noses of aircraft parked on the foul line), even if you are on centerline if course isn’t correct you can end up in the parked aircraft…highly frowned upon.


Or drag a wing tip.

BTW, at sea, at night; it’s darker than 10 feet up a black cat’s a$$.

CASE 1: Is the fun approach and is for good weather. Normally it is done EMCON, no radios. Each squadron has an assigned altitude over head the ship, you circle in a left hand pattern, normally in a flight of 2 or 4. When the flight lead sees an opening he drops to 800 feet abeam ship, outside of 5 miles, and then turns 180 degrees and runs up the ship’s wake at 350 knots. At the bow the lead breaks by kissing off the flight with a hand signal and rolling into an 80 degree angle of bank turn, speed brakes out and pull 4 g’s in the turn. At 250 knots, gear, flaps and hook down. Approaching mid-ship, you drop to 600′, check distance (1 to 1 1/4 miles)and begin to slow onspeed. Abeam the LSO platform (left side/aft on ship) start a 25-30 degree angle of bank left turn, 200-300 feet per minute (FPM) rate of descent. At the 90 position of the race track pattern, be at 450′ and establish 500 FPM, crossing the ship’s wake 325-375′ and be on-speed. In the groove you gotta be wings level for 12-15 seconds, center-line between your legs, centered ball, and on speed until touch down. Fun city. Any deviation causes a down grade, the airwing competes for best squadron and Top Ten Aviators by grade average.


phantom on the ball cv 41

CASE-II is a combination of both CASE III and Case I, when weather is above 1000 feet cieling with at least 5 miles of visibility. At least one solid layer of overcast (SOCAL in June) will cause the CASE II to be used. for CASE II the crews hold, penetrate, and fly up the TACAN FB like CASE III until below the over cast. below the clouds with the ship in sight, you enter for a carrier break like CASE I.

CASE I- S**t Hot-1 approach. Same as CASE I except you have to have more speed than altitude. 550 knots indicated at 500 feet works marvelously. You must break no later than the bow of the ship or it doesn’t count. 90 degree, 5 g left turn, speed brakes out. After 180 degrees of turn slowing thru 250 indicated; gear, flaps, hook down. Ease turn to 60 degrees angle of bank. Pull toward the 90 as gear and flaps program out. You will slow rapidly and jets have significant spool up time, so put throttles in approximately 80% range. Over the wake ease roll to 30 degrees angle of bank. Rolling into groove on centerline the aircraft will squat onspeed as the engines spool up like majic. Snatch the three wire, full power, then jerk the power off as you are drug to a halt by the arresting gear. This will bounce you out of the wire as you fold the wings, so you don’t “sh*t in the wires”, causing the guy 25-30 seconds behind you to go around. REALLY fun city! A warning: John Wayne in the break often becomes Slim Pikens in the groove…its a gamble!


So what makes it hard? Deck moving +/- 30 feet is “challenging”, ship changing course is fun, especially CASE III. Ship blowing tubes (smoke out of stack) causing you to go IFR in the groove also interesting. Single engine or other emergency approaches present their own challenges. As do various things you or your fellow Aviators screw up. Blue Water, (which means no divert), also ramps up the pressure.

It is an unforgiving profession, especially when the deck is moving!

So that’s it, quick and dirty, I’ve got to go clean the gutters. If you want to read more you can go to or amazon for my books.



Posted in Aviator book series, Military, Naval Aviation Tagged with: , , , ,
2 comments on “Aircraft Carrier Approaches
  1. Rob B. says:

    Shantini, I am sure glad I chose to land on solid concrete after watching those videos! I can’t imagine coming back from a combat sortie and still having something left in the tank to get you safely on deck! Thanks for the good read!

  2. Leland Shanle says:

    I had a blast! One thing I would have loved to do is get my hands on one of your shiny F-22 Raptors. Most amazing airshow aircraft I’ve seen.