F/A-18 Hornet landing on carrier in bad weather

US F/A-18 fighter pilot lands on aircraft carrier in conditions of no visibility

The most feared radio call a Carrier Air Wing can hear while Blue Water is:

“Ninety-Nine School-boys…landing lights on.”

My last post featured a beautiful dusk carrier landing, I was going to show a worst case scenario (night bad weather) but realized the viewer wouldn’t see anything any way. I have two traps etched in my mind where I was so riveted to the instruments I didn’t realize how close I was until the ship’s wire yanked me to a stop. With that in mind I opted for a day zero visibility trap.

Blue Water means there is no divert, the ship is too far from shore, so you get onboard or come up the starboard side and eject, then hope they find you. It is worse at night of course, The radio call, 99, means its for everyone airborne. School-boys was the collective call sign for the Midway’s Air Wing. Landing lights on is what sent the chill down your spine. We got other blast calls: “99 School-boys max conserve.”, for example meant something was wrong with the ship, Aviators were boltering (missing the wires, it was contagious) or an accident happened on deck. While it got your attention and caused you to keep one eye on the depleting fuel gauge, it didn’t strike fear like “Landing lights on”.

In Naval Aviation you never land with the aircrafts landing lights on. We used running lights (green, red and white just like a boat) and a color coded light that told the Landing Signal Officer (LSO) what your Angle Of Attack was, (AOA is basically your speed). So, when that call was made it meant the weather was so bad, not only could the Aviators not see the boat’s lights. The LSOs couldn’t see the aircraft unless that bright landing light was on. During really bad weather fun you’d get to 3/4s of a mile (where you’d normally call the ball with your side number and fuel state) instead of calling the ball, you’d call “Clara”. That meant you couldn’t see anything. You wanted to hear: “We’ve got you, you’re a little high (or whatever) continue.” What you didn’t want to hear was: “You’re sounding good keep it coming.” That meant the LSOs couldn’t see you either, even with that VERY bright light on!

The video is from the HUD (Heads Up Display) camera of an F/A-18, it is the pilots view. Airspeed is the left box, radar altimeter is the right. At the top, the numbers are the aircraft’s heading and at the bottom is a vertical moving line and a horizontal. That is the ship’s ILS approach, and represents the proper lateral and glideslope guidance that will put you on the number three wire and centerline of the landing area. Both very important; if the line goes low…you go around for another try. Left or right and the LSOs will send you around for another try. Remember there are millions of dollars worth of aircraft and hundreds of Sailor’s with in a few feet of each wing-tip. Obviously, it is super sensitive in close, we are talking 1 or 2 feet of accuracy at 150 MPH.

Watch it again. with all that in mind.

My books: The Aviator Series are progressing through the history of Naval Aviation: Project 7 Alpha, Vengeance at Midway and Guadalcanal, ENDGAME in the Pacific and CODE NAME: Infamy all are set in WW2. My latest, COLD WAR HOT, will move into the jet age and Cold War culminating in the Korean War and the Navy’s dangerous transition.

Take one for a ride!


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