Landing aboard the USS Nimitz without a seatbelt
By: T.R. Matson
As I emerged from the inside skin of the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier I was immediately assaulted with the daily aroma of shipboard life. A mix of sweat, jet fuel, hydraulics, rubber and salt air combined and entered my nose, quickly registering in my brain and producing an ear to ear smile across my face. Well into my second combat deployment, I was an Aircraft Commander in the E-2C Hawkeye with Carrier Air Wing Eleven. My crew and I, along with the other members of the CAG-11 Barbwire team were taking the fight to the terrorist groups in Afghanistan and had been doing so for many months. Thoughts of home we replaced with the rare joy of getting to fly during the day and the fact that the weather was good only made it better. As I strode to my flying chariot, I could not help but walk a little taller knowing how lucky I was, and that should have been my first clue that Mr. Murphy (of Murphy’s Law) was going to make an appearance before the day was over.
After completing a flawless man up and taxing to the bow, I followed the yellow shirt as he lined me up on catapult number two. Less than 60 seconds later after sharply saluting the shooter my crew and I were accelerating to a flying speed within 100’ and aircraft 601 was off on mission profile. My crew went to work while my co-pilot began running fuel numbers as I concentrated on flying the correct departure profile and de-conflicting from the 25 other aircraft that were taking off or preparing to land on this beautiful day. Minutes later we were reaching our profile altitude and I brought the throttles back to set my fuel flow up to ensure the aircraft would fly the exact profile to provide the Naval Flight Officers the best radar picture for the flight. I slightly reclined my seat and let my mind wonder between taking in the beautiful clear day outside and thinking of what kind of sandwich I threw together after my brief over an hour ago. That’s when Mr. Murphy thought it would be a good time to say hi.
It started with a low oil pressure caution light. Immediately grabbing my attention, I scanned the engine instruments to notice that the oil pressure on my left (and critical) engine was beginning to fall. Instinctually I brought the left throttle back to idle to help save the engine and give me more time. My co-pilot immediately grabbed the pocket checklist and made sure we had covered all our procedures while I began to coordinate with the mission commander in the back and talked to the Hawkeye representative on the ship to work an early recovery. My major concern at this point was that we were working blue water operations which meant there wasn’t a suitable divert field that we could go to. My fighter counterparts had the option to mid-air refuel but for us as the crew of 601 we had no choice but to land back aboard the carrier. Well, I say that, but we did have a choice. We could always bail out and go for a swim while the rescue helicopter came to get us. This was an option that all of us knew but none of us were thinking about, we had a job to do.
My crew worked professionally setting ourselves up behind the ship at 10 miles for a day straight in, in case we lost the left engine. We had secured the radar, dumped fuel down to maximum landing weight, coordinated with the ship to move all the aircraft out of the landing area, and spoken with the landing signals officers explaining our current emergency. About this time, I was beginning to feel like I had beaten Mr. Murphy and his law for today. This was going to be an uneventful landing that in the long run would only cost us a little flight time and create a little more work for the maintainers while they figured out what was causing the engine problems. It was also at this time where I learned that you should never underestimate Murphy’s Law. Leaning slightly forward in my seat to adjust my view of the ship, 6 miles aft I heard and felt an audible “pop” that I will never forget. I looked to my right to see if my co-pilot had heard it too and I was met with his return gaze and wipe open eyes looking back at me in complete disbelief. When I asked him what the noise was, he responded that my shoulder harness, which keeps me strapped to the aircraft and my emergency parachute, had de-rigged. This essentially meant that nothing was holding me into my seat. This would normally not be a big problem unless I had to bail out of the aircraft since, I was no longer hooked to my parachute. Of course, the other time that I needed to be strapped in was the exact moment the tail hook of aircraft 601 caught one of the four cross deck arresting wires causing my aircraft to go from 120 KIAS to 0 in about two-seconds.
Now my mind was racing trying to compartmentalize and figure out my options. I could discontinue my approach and try to reattach all the cables in my seat, but it didn’t look like that was a viable option and I had a crew to think about. One engine had already proven to be unreliable and just about this time the other one was starting to overheat. When my co-pilot asked me what I wanted to do my mind was already made up. We would trap. After a quick crew brief explaining the situation and making sure my crew knew exactly what was going on, we finished our landing checklists and called the ball. Flying as smooth of an approach as I could I tried not to think about the wall I was about to fly into when the whole aircraft and everyone in it would stop except for me. I did not have to wait long before my body confirmed what my mind pondered about this pending trap aboard the Nimitz. As the tail hook grabbed the number three wire, aircraft 601 immediately started a deceleration that brought everything to a complete stop in less than 200 feet. A split second later my body was thrown forward only stopping when the yoke caught me right between the legs and as my head and shoulders went into the glare shield. As quick as it happened it was over, and the adrenaline helped me quickly refocus my mind and get the aircraft out of the landing area and shut down. In true Naval Aviation fashion, I believe it was sometime after I shut down engine number two before my co-pilot stopped laughing at my landing. Luckily, I was seasoned enough to have a thick skin and take it all in stride. My crew and aircraft were back safe and other than a sore neck and crouch I wasn’t in too bad of shape. Of course, finding out that the flight doctor had left me a large bag of pain pills that looked like they were for horses, certainly helped my mood. We all lived to fly another day which is always the ultimate sign of a good landing.