It was the end of 2004 when, after 48 hours of travel, I arrived at my first fleet squadron, the Wallbangers of VAW-117, that had just pulled into port the night prior in Perth, Australia. I was exhausted from the travel but also very excited to meet my new family with whom I would be for the next three years. After three years of flight school and moving all around the country I was finally in the fleet as a “nugget” or new pilot, and I fully expected to be treated as such. We all heard stories of “FNGs” (new guys) coming to a squadron and not making a good first impression, so I decided to try my best to keep my mouth shut (not an easy task) and my ears open.
The junior officers had rented a condo while in port, which I learned was called the “Admin” and was a tradition. It was a place to get away from the squadron, have fun, and unwind. I entered the Perth Admin as most members of the squadron were recovering from a hard night. I did not know it at the time, but the morning after the first night in port tended to be a rough one as everyone had let loose the night prior after being at sea for a long time. It was like walking into the lion’s den, and I was fresh meat. I took it all in stride knowing it was all part of Naval Aviation, and I was just happy to be there. While most of my fellow squadron mates were nice, only a few stood out to really enjoy giving me a hard time. On the other hand, one stood out as exceptionally friendly. LT Cameron “Gazer” Hall came down the stairs looking for a bottle of water and saw me. He immediately shook my hand and welcomed me to the Wallbangers. I could tell right away that something was different. He seemed to genuinely care about me. He asked about my trip and if I had any questions about squadron life or needed anything.
Over the time that I served with Gazer I realized that was just the person he was. It didn’t matter if you were a Pilot or Naval Flight Officer (NFO), he looked out for those around him. Whether he knew it consciously or not he was always trying to make you a better person. One unique quality I learned about Gazer was that while he was the life of any party, he was also an absolute professional in the back of the Hawkeye. I would see him control large groups of aircraft with a degraded Hawkeye radar, all while mentoring the junior NFOs, and never break a sweat. I learned a lot from Gazer, but the most important thing that I learned was that those around you, those closest to you, are the most important thing. He once told me, “It is one thing to possess the skills needed to do this job, but if you cannot pass those skills on to others then it doesn’t mean a thing.”
After serving together, Gazer went on to the Greyhawks of VAW-120 to be a Fleet Replenishment Squadron (FRS) instructor. He would teach the future NFOs of the Hawkeye all the skills he had honed, both in and out of the aircraft, over his years with the Wallbangers. While serving at the FRS, Gazer volunteered to be part of the Naval tradition of carrier qualification. One of the last phases of training for a Hawkeye pilot was to complete both day and night landings aboard an aircraft carrier before moving on to be a fleet pilot. Gazer’s love of flying was so great that he volunteered to sit alone in the back of the Hawkeye, which is a requirement, to ensure the aircraft was operating properly during these flights. This would mean long flights, both day and night, and many landings at the ship with new pilots trying to get qualified. For Gazer it was an opportunity to share the milestone of Naval Carrier Aviation with the next generation of pilots.
On August 15, 2007, Greyhawk 620 launched off of the USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75) with new pilot LT Jerry Smith, instructor pilot LT Ryan Betton, and LT Cameron “Gazer” Hall in the back. The flight would last less than 10 seconds as the Hawkeye crashed shortly after the catapult launch into the ocean with no survivors. It was a tragic day for Naval Aviation and the Hawkeye Community and even more so for those who knew the crew. As for the Wallbangers, we were back at sea on another deployment and the news hit us hard. I will never forget the tears from my squadron mates as they recounted story after story about Gazer over the years. Rarely in this world have I met someone that lifts others up as much as Gazer did. While he left this world far too early, he was the kind of person who lived every day to its fullest. We should all learn a lesson from Gazer that while there are no guarantees in life, we can be the best we can be today and lift those up around us to do the same. Many years later I still think of Gazer when I go fly. The job of being a pilot is inherently dangerous at its core, but somehow I feel safer knowing that I have friends like Gazer looking down on me, guiding me to make the right decisions, and ensuring that I always find a long runway to land on with calm winds. I have to doubt in my mind that Gazer is up in the clouds with a smile on his face, soaring like an eagle on his Wings of Gold.
Understanding How to Get Your Message Across in the Most Demanding Circumstances
By T.R. Matson
It had only been a few months since I left my E-2C Hawkeye squadron, VAW-117 in Pt. Mugu, California and checked into VT-22 as an instructor pilot and Landing Signals Officer (LSO) in Kingsville, Texas. There was a lot to learn going back to flying the T-45 in both the A and C models as well as teaching for the first time in any real capacity. I had spent the previous three years flying the Hawkeye and deploying around the globe while working on my squadron tactical qualifications as well as earning my wing qualification as an LSO. That wing LSO qualification earned me the opportunity to go back to flight school and teach new students how to land on an aircraft carrier. While I was looking forward to a little relaxation after the operational tempo of the previous three years, I was still learning how to teach new Navy and Marine Corps students to ensure they were prepared for what their futures had in store for them.
A couple months after checking in and getting my basic instructor qualifications out of the way it was time to teach my first group of students the fine art of landing a multimillion-dollar aircraft on a multibillion-dollar aircraft carrier. We would start with a mass briefing. There would be an introduction of all the LSOs to the students, which in this case was three LSOs for 21 students. Next phase was after a brief ground school the students would go into the simulator for a few training events before ultimately coming back to the squadron. The next three weeks would essentially become a Groundhog Day of sorts which included a brief and usually two flights for each student. They would practice 6-8 landings before stopping and switching out of the jet so that another student could hop in. By operating this way, we could maximize the amount of training for the students and get them hundreds of practice landings in a relatively short period of time. This was a fun and stressful time for the students as they got to fly solo a lot, but each landing was being graded very carefully to ensure they were progressing at the rate they needed to before heading out to the ship.
At the end of every period of flying each LSO would debrief their seven students on every landing. It was critical to talk about trends that we saw and give the students things to work on. One important thing that we would stress was not trying to fix everything at once. It was critical to try to change just one variable and then see how that worked. If it worked, great, but if not then work on changing something else. Over the days and weeks, the students were progressing at different rates, but all were on track to leave with their friends to head to Cecil Field in Florida and to the USS George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier. As LSOs, we were also learning from the senior LSO in our group. Waving aircraft in the fleet with seasoned pilots was vastly different then waving students who had never seen an aircraft carrier. We were told that you will see different trends, but the biggest student to keep an eye on was not the one who was struggling at the field but actually the one that was doing great. A lot of times it was that student who got spooked the most when they found themselves behind an aircraft carrier for the first time.
As the carrier qualification detachment approached, I found myself excited to be sharing this experience with my seven students. To this day I can remember every aspect of my initial carrier qualification and it is truly something that sets naval aviators apart from other aviators. It is every bit of a rite of passage as anything else I have done in my career. After finishing up the training in Kingsville, TX all seven of my students had progressed to a level that allowed them to head to the carrier qualification detachment in Florida, and I was very proud of each and every one of them. I knew that some would struggle more than others, but I felt confident that all would come home completing this phase of training successfully. A couple days after flying from Kingsville to Cecil Field I found myself on the aircraft carrier. I had never been on the USS Bush before, but it felt good to breathe in the salt air and be on the LSO platform again. The differences between this training and being in the fleet were very obvious from the start. In the fleet the flight deck was crowded with various types of aircraft crammed within inches of each other, but now there was just a handful of T-45 Goshawk aircraft from both NAS Kingsville and NAS Meridian. The flight deck of the carrier seemed bigger than any other I had ever seen even though it was the same size. I was excited to get the day started and see how my students would do.
For the most part, day one was what I expected. The students who struggled at the field tended to struggle a little at the boat and vice versa with one exception. I had one Marine student who was an absolute rockstar at the field. Every landing was the same and damn near perfect for his level of training. I never worried about him making any bonehead mistakes or doing anything unsafe. Honestly, I had let my guard down. Did someone invite Mr. Murphy (of Murphy’s Law) to this carrier qualification detachment? When this student got to the ship he froze. He started making mistakes that the other students were doing at the field at the beginning of training, but all of them had learned from their mistakes. This Marine had regressed in a manner that I was starting to get concerned with and so were the other LSOs on the platform. When it comes to being an LSO you are never alone, and there is always a team up there working together to safely and expeditiously land aircraft. The other LSOs were starting to take notice of this student and it showed. At the end of day one I spent a lot of time in the ready room below deck talking to him about the basics. I was trying to get his head back in the game and I told him that he was still on track to pass, even if that was a little white lie. The fact was he had to come out on day two and show a great deal of improvement or he would risk failing this training.
Day two started with another mass briefing with all my students before they headed to the flight deck. I reminded each of them what they needed to work on in order to qualify, and I also reminded them not to do anything stupid after they had finished. We all heard stories of pilots who qualified only to fly back to the beach and buzz the tower or do an aileron roll off of the catapult launch. They were greeted with a failure and ultimately being thrown out of training, and I did not want any of my students to experience that. I took extra time with my Marine student who seemed concerned with his grades. I told him to not worry about the grades, that was my job. I told him to go back to the basics. At this point I was taking a very kind, almost parental approach to his training. I felt like it was critical to build up his confidence.
My Marine was in the first wave of students to takeoff so I would see how my approach would work right away. For the first two landings he didn’t look bad. Both of those approaches ended in a touch and go based on the requirements for training, and it was his third pass that he would put his hook down and trap aboard the carrier. I watched as he flew around the approach turn, and at the beginning he looked good. Maybe he had listened and calmed down. Unfortunately, as soon as he rolled out behind the ship, he got nervous again. While he ultimately landed on that approach, it was not a pretty landing. The Airboss of the ship sidelined his aircraft partially to get fuel, but also to calm him down. The Airboss called down to the LSO platform and told us to talk to him and calm him down or he was going to have him shutdown. He was not interested in having an accident on his flight deck. I had some decisions to make. First, I had to decide if I wanted to let this young Marine keep going or end his training right now. Second, if I decided to keep him going, I had to decide how to talk to him over the radio to get his head back on track. It is times like this that, regardless of what you are teaching, you have to listen to your gut.
When there was a break in the landing pattern, I called up my student on the radio. This was the tower frequency of the ship and everyone was listening. We did not use names as each student was given a qualification number like G-1, G-2 etc. so that we could talk to them and keep track of their landings. When I called this Marine on the radio my “pep talk” went like this. “Listen up Marine! What I need right now is for you to forget about everything else in your life and pull your head out of your butt and fly that damn plane like we both know you can…any questions?” The response I heard was a simple “No, Sir” as I was met by a dozen shocked looks from the other LSOs on the platform. I did not have to wait for a break in the awkwardness long because the Airboss immediately called down to the platform and was irate. He didn’t want the Marine to even takeoff now, but my gut told me that what I did was correct. After a discussion my student was allowed to launch, and I watched with eagerness as he flew the approach turn and set up for landing. I can tell you that beyond a shadow of a doubt it was the best landing I had seen all day from any student. The head LSO on the platform seemed pleased, and my student was allowed to continue.
The Marine ultimately went on to get his carrier qualification and earn his wings of gold. He went onto a very successful career as a Marine Corps Fighter pilot and I will never forget what he said to me when we got back to Cecil field that day. “Thanks sir, I really needed that slap upside the head…I couldn’t have done it without you.” With that I learned a very valuable lesson of being an instructor that has stuck with me. Regardless of what you are teaching, you can be the smartest person in the room but if you cannot read your audience and present the subject in a manner that they can receive, understand and process, then you are useless. Our egos often get in our way, having us think we are superior to others just because we are the instructor. Ultimately the best instructors are those who can stay humble enough to remember where they have come from, but confident enough to use their knowledge to lift up others around them. I am truly thankful for all those students over the years to whom I was able to teach the fine art of landing on an aircraft carrier, and hopefully I was able to learn as much from them as they from me.
The day started onboard the USS Nimitz with Airwing 11 as I checked the VAW-117 Wallbanger flight schedule and saw a rare sight…a day flight. Airwing 11 had been working combat operations for some time and most of that was done at night. Between all the flying, being an LSO, and also trying to handle ground jobs, it was a rare sight to see that I would have a relatively routine day flight up to Afghanistan and be back to the Nimitz before dinner. To make it better, the weather was forecasted to be great and my co-pilot was my fellow roommate and LSO “SEAP,” so I knew we would have a good time. Looking back at all the planes I’ve flown over the years, and all the different missions I have done, I always remember those flights with another junior officer in the E-2C Hawkeye to be something special. It was a time to get away from the ship and the Groundhog Day atmosphere of squadron life on a combat deployment. You would think that I would have learned at this point in my career to check for stowaways, but as I left breakfast and headed to the mass mission brief I hadn’t realized that Mr. Murphy (of Murphy’s Law) had decided that he wanted some combat time in his logbook.
The mass mission brief went off smoothly, and my crew and I walked back to ready room two, home of the Wallbangers, to conduct our crew brief before stepping to the aircraft. On today’s mission the NFOs in the back would be providing command and control for the aircraft entering and leaving the operating area while SEAP and I would ensure that the aircraft flew at the optimal attitude to give them the best radar picture possible. It may sound mundane when compared to the roles of the fighter aircraft in the airwing, but I can tell you that after flying both the E-2C and the F/A-18C, the Hawkeye came with unique challenges for the pilots on any given flight. Our crew brief went smoothly, and after covering everyone’s job and all the aspects of keeping the flight safe, we grabbed a couple sandwiches from the forward wardroom and made our way up to the flight deck.
During the preflight various crewmembers look over the aircraft and while each member of the 5-person crew has their individual role, everyone backs each other up as well. The aircraft checked good and before closing the door I remember the FDC (flight deck chief) came in one last time to check on SEAP and I and said, “Couldn’t ask for a more perfect day to fly sir!” Indeed, it was, and as the white, puffy clouds dotted the otherwise clear blue sky for the first time since reaching the flight deck, I had a minute to take stock of my surroundings. The hum of the twin engines running on the Hawkeye allowed my mind to wander to when I first decided I wanted to be a pilot for the Navy. In what seemed to be a relatively insignificant run-in with a senior officer at Texas A&M, my career path went from somewhat vague to laser focused with my goal to earn my wings of gold and land on aircraft carriers. In a series of events that would have me fly the T-37, T-44, and T-45 before finally reaching the E-2C, my life seemed like a blur that maybe for the first time was finally slowing down. With little time to spare during the launch of a flight deck of combat aircraft my mind was quickly brought back to reality. Our aircraft was checked to be mission ready, and we were taxiing to catapult three for launch.
SEAP and I had checklists to accomplish, which were done in a fluid motion of two crew members that had worked together for years. The bond of roommates during conditions like this tend to solidify friendships for life or create unbelievable tension, but in this case SEAP and I would have our career paths cross many times in the decades to come. The weight board was agreed upon, to ensure we would have enough speed to fly at the end of the catapult and our wings were spread and locked. As I taxied forward of the jet blast deflector, it rose behind us to shield aircraft and people during the engine runup. I confirmed with the mission commander in the back of the Hawkeye that all the NFOs were ready and soon we went into tension. This is when the aircraft is at the mercy of the catapult and time sped up to unbelievable speeds. I ran up both motors, checked that all indications looked good, wiped out the controls a few times to make sure nothing felt abnormal, and confirmed with SEAP that he also liked everything he saw, heard, and felt. The Hawkeye is a unique aircraft because while it is the only day and night capable propeller aircraft onboard, it produces a tremendous amount of thrust and would literally shake while in tension on the catapult. Additionally, the Hawkeye lacked one system that all the fighters had and that was the ejection seat. Carrier catapults without an ejection seat meant it was critical that everything looked perfect. If something went wrong in the first few seconds of flight our only option would be to ditch the aircraft in the ocean ahead of the carrier, which was a maneuver that we would likely not all walk away from. With all checks being good, I sharply saluted the catapult officer and waited. In what always feels like an eternity, final checks were done outside the aircraft and the button was pushed sending our 53,000lb aircraft from a standstill to flying speed in less than 3 seconds…hopefully.
After a clearing turn and cleaning up the gear and flaps, I flew the aircraft on our carrier departure and soon turned to the north to begin our climb to our mission track. In the back of the Hawkeye the NFOs were already busy at work setting up the radar and getting various radios online to coordinate with every fighter, tanker, and frankly any other aircraft that entered our area of operations. While I am not sure sitting in the back of a Hawkeye was a job that I could have ever done, I have great respect for the job those men and women do. I have seen what they have to work with, and it always amazes me the job they do. To my right SEAP was busy switching through the various radio frequencies and getting all our checklists done, and when I looked over passing 10,000’ he was already busy working a fuel ladder for the flight. Another thing that separates the E-2C from other aircraft aboard the Nimitz was our lack of inflight refueling capabilities. What this meant is that the approximate 12,000lbs of fuel we left the carrier with was all we would have to use on this mission. Regardless of how things went, what went wrong, or what Mr. Murphy threw at us, when the fuel read zero it was game over. With that in mind, every Hawkeye pilot takes their fuel planning very seriously, and SEAP was no different. When I look back over my 4 years and 1,000 hours flying the Hawkeye, every major memory seems to have SEAP involved somehow. Whether it was sitting next to me laughing about a port call, or saving my life from the LSO platform, or calming me down in the ready room after a particularly bad night landing on the ship, SEAP was always there. For that reason, I knew that nothing could go wrong on this flight that we couldn’t handle, not that Mr. Murphy wasn’t going to test us.
While the Hawkeye has an autopilot system, it is nothing compared to that of other aircraft, and it routinely just didn’t work at all. Spending six hours on mission profile trying to hold a specific angle of attack while watching the fuel very closely can be fatiguing to say the least. Throw in the ability to do flat turns (yes, they are as bad as they sound) and the drone of the engines and sometimes it took all your energy just to stay focused on flying. Today was a different story, though. The autopilot was engaged, and the fuel flow was set to the optimal rate as SEAP and I monitored radio frequencies, told stories, and enjoyed a stale sandwich from the Nimitz wardroom. It was about an hour after takeoff that Mr. Murphy gave us a small hint that he was onboard. I noticed that our angle of attack (a primary instrument gauge for all Navy carrier aircraft) was not matching up with what it should be for our given fuel flow. Without much thought I kicked off the autopilot and bunted the nose of the aircraft down a little and the AOA gauge seemed to work again. SEAP and I both shrugged it off and went back to our sea stories and sandwiches.
It is flights like this that mostly seem mundane but also go by quickly. Before we knew it, it was time to head back to the carrier. We would be doing a day, Case One arrival and approach which essentially meant we would talk to very few people, find the other aircraft, and land with a beautiful coordination that I have only seen in Navy carrier aviation. If done correctly by everyone it gets a large number of aircraft back on the flight deck in very little time. We entered the overhead stack and found the flight of Super Hornets that would be our interval and waited for our turn. The systems in the back were shut down and essentially the NFOs’ job was to just enjoy the ride while SEAP and I figured out how to get this massive Hawkeye on the relatively small flight deck below. During this time a characteristic of all carrier aviators started to come out as SEAP joked that I should do a shit hot break (SHB). What this meant is that I would work out my interval so that I could break right at or slightly behind the aircraft carrier instead of further upwind. What this did was make the landing much more difficult because there was zero opportunity to fix anything during the approach. It was essentially a continuous 360 degree turn to landing, and the Hawkeye did not offer the same visibility outside the cockpit as other aircraft, which lead to the difficultly of the maneuver. That being said I knew two things. First, there was a Marine LSO on the flight deck controlling this recovery and he was one of us. He was fun to be around and loved the constant banter of fighter guys and Hawkeye pilots. He was a great guy and awesome pilot and an even better LSO. He always loved when the E-2C tried to act like its fighter brothers. Second, there was no way that I wasn’t going to take SEAP up on his challenge. Even as he was giving me a hard time, I was already changing my interval so that I had more room between us and the flight of Super Hornets ahead. I can only imagine that Mr. Murphy was smiling somewhere on the plane as I was giving him the perfect opportunity to strike.
Before I knew it, we were 800’ above the ocean lined up behind the ship, and I was flying the E-2C Hawkeye as fast as I could get it. We were the last plane to land and all eyes were on us. Just as the Nimitz went under the nose of the Hawkeye, I pulled the throttles to idle and rolled into a left bank and pulled back hard on the yoke. The key now was to bleed off airspeed and show up behind the ship in the proper configuration, lined up for landing and the proper angle of attack. Angle of attack is extremely critical for landing on the ship because if you are too fast you will likely have your hook skip over the wires, you will bolter, and then have to try again. If you’re too slow, you are dangerously close to stalling the aircraft. For the Hawkeye I was aiming for 20 units AOA on a small gauge in the cockpit, but first I had to get the aircraft slowed and in position. There is nothing worse than doing a SHB only to get waved off for being out of position or boltering and having to try again. As we approached the 90 or base position, we were slow enough that SEAP got the gear down, flaps and rudder set for landing. Rolling through the 45 position and beginning to cross the wake everything was coming together as we finished the landing checklists and I saw the LSO give me the green “cut” lights which was my signal to land. About this time Mr. Murphy must have grabbed his popcorn to watch the show.
I have said before that during certain times flying time really slows down and this was one of them. Being on centerline when landing a Hawkeye on the ship is critical. We have very little lateral room to play with so on centerline is our only option. As I was lining up, I noticed that my AOA was still showing a little fast. I assumed we were just bleeding off excess energy from the relatively fast break. It was about this time that things outside started to look wrong very quickly. The first thing I noticed was that the nose of the aircraft seemed higher than usual. Next I saw another set of “cut” lights from the LSO which this time would mean he wanted me to add power. So far, my throttles had been at idle since I went into the break. Very quickly after that second “cut” light we heard, “POWER! POWER!! WAVEOFF!!” and I immediately pushed both throttles to max instinctively and with that my AOA indicator showed us extremely slow. I eased the nose of the aircraft down slightly to try to help gain flying speed. Thankfully the Hawkeye has a lot of relative thrust at low altitudes and after activating the rudder shakers to warn of impending stall we flew away and climbed to pattern altitude.
A quick conversation between SEAP and I determined that the AOA had frozen again, like it had previously done on mission profile, and if the LSO hadn’t waved us off when he did, we would have stalled the aircraft behind the ship with no time to recover. SEAP and I were definitely shaken but we still had work to do. After explaining to the ship what had happened and talking to our squadron maintenance representative on the radio it was decided that we would set up for a visual straight in approach. This would allow us time to get the aircraft configured and allow us to see how the AOA gauge was working. After setting up behind the ship, finishing our checklists and calling the ball, the LSOs essentially talked us down to landing giving me glideslope, lineup, and AOA calls until I touched down on the Nimitz. We taxied the aircraft clear of the landing area, folded the wings, and ultimately got chained to the flight deck and shut down the motors. As everyone else left the aircraft SEAP and I sat there for a moment. Little to no words were spoken since we had landed, and I will never forget looking over at him, and with a smirk on his face his first comment was, “I wonder how the shit hot break looked!”
We both laughed at that and got out of the aircraft and went down to the ready room. We had to write up the maintenance problem with the aircraft, debrief the flight, get my debrief from the LSO, and get some food. After talking with the LSOs, I thanked them for being there because they saved 5 lives that day for sure. There was no way to tell in a timely fashion that our aircraft was headed to impending doom if they hadn’t seen it from outside the aircraft on the flight deck. Years later I sit here and think back about what, if anything, I would do differently, and the answer is nothing. While that may sound stupid, the bottom line is malfunctions happen. It is our job as military aviators to push it and hone our skills in tough environments. Everyone played a role in our success that day, and that is how the system is designed to work. Having the experience of flying a plane like that on the razor’s edge of stalling taught me a lot of things that I will never forget and can be applied to any plane I fly. I guess you could say that SEAP and I gained a little skill in exchange for a little luck that day on the Nimitz, and like the saying goes, any landing you can walk away from is a good landing.