Mr. Murphy Gets Some Combat Time

By: T.R. Matson

            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.

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