Critical decisions make the difference between life and death.
By T.R. Matson
It was one of those dark nights that only aviators who fly off of aircraft carriers have experienced. Darker than a moonless night with no ambient light from land and just miles and miles of pitch black. Inching across the flight deck of the USS Stennis aircraft carrier, I searched my path with my flashlight in hopes that I would not trip and fall or run into anything. Without that light I could barely see past the nose on my face. Typical operations at this point as the Stennis and Airwing Nine were on deployment and in the middle of the Pacific Ocean making our way to the Persian Gulf. Blue water ops had become the norm, and while I had been here before, I took some comfort in the fact that tonight I was flying the F/A-18C Hornet aircraft that had the ability to conduct air to air refueling if for some reason I could not land back on the flight deck. On all of my previous deployments in the E-2C Hawkeye this was never an option. The fuel we launched with was all we had until we wrestled the plane back onto the relative safety of the carrier.
After conducting a thorough exterior preflight, I climbed into the cockpit of aircraft 301 for another routine flight…or so I thought. While the F/A-18C is a single seat aircraft, I guess Mr. Murphy of Murphy’s Law, where everything that can go wrong will go wrong, had climbed aboard while I wasn’t looking. He had plans to make this flight anything but routine. I really enjoyed flying aircraft 301 and had spent quite a bit of time with it the previous few weeks. While some may think that we only flew the aircraft with our name on the side, that was not the case. In fact, it was normal to fly a different aircraft in the squadron almost every day based on the maintenance requirements, which seemed endless. That being said, I had spent significant time with 301 and when I strapped in that night, I felt like the aircraft was an extension of my body. Man and machine were one, and I was ready for my training mission. Any thoughts of blue water operations and launching off an aircraft carrier with no divert airfields available were quickly replaced with doing my job and getting all the systems online and ready to launch. Within minutes the engines were started, the weapons systems were up and running, and the aircraft was ready to go. I signaled the enlisted plane captain and immediately the flight deck personnel were unchaining the aircraft from the flight deck. I was in go mode now following the directions of my taxi director, and before long I was sitting on catapult two waiting for the launch to begin.
Aircraft carriers operate in cyclic operations where they launch and recover planes on certain time intervals, and they allow the time in between for squadrons to work on the flight deck in relative safety. As I sat on catapult two on the bow of the USS Stennis, my mind had a minute to take in all the sights and smells that come with carrier operations. The mix of jet fuel, hydraulic fluid, sweat, and grease combined with dozens of young men and women working at a level of exertion that would cripple most people made for an interesting work environment. It was a work environment that I would not trade for anything. While I could not see very far in front of my aircraft due to the darkness, every other sense in my body was in hyperdrive, and I was eager to go fly.
Before long I would get my wish as I was told to taxi forward slightly so that the aircraft could be hooked up to the catapult for launch. A lot happens very quickly at a moment like this. I was busy doing my final checks of the aircraft systems and acknowledging the aircraft weight so that the catapult would be set to the correct force, all while the enlisted members of the squadron did final checks outside. To say that I was busy would be an understatement, which is why I didn’t see Mr. Murphy sitting behind me with a grin waiting to see how I would deal with what was coming. Time slows down as I was given the run-up signal, and I pushed the throttles to max power and cycled the flight controls to ensure the aircraft would fly when I reached the end of the flight deck. Since it was dark, and no one could see me in the cockpit, my signal to the outside world that I was ready was turning on my exterior lights. With the flick of my left pinky the lights came on and my fate was sealed. Seconds later I was rocketing down the catapult reaching a speed of about 150 mph in a couple hundred feet. With the hard thump of the end of the catapult I was flying, but tonight was different. As soon as I felt that thump everything went dark.
When I say dark, I mean completely black. All of my flight instruments went completely blank. All of the lights in the cockpit went out and for a moment I had zero idea of whether or not the engines were even running. Now that would be a hazardous situation in any aircraft, but on this particular night the danger of the situation was amplified by the fact that I was only 70 feet off of the Pacific Ocean and had very little time to assess the situation and react. That reaction would be the difference between life and death. It is funny how the brain works because in my two decades of aviation I have found that during the times when you would imagine that you would be the most stressed, I’ve actually found that time slows down to help. It was at this moment, 70 feet off of the water, that my mind slowed down, and I remembered a key term that was taught to us in flight school many years before. “No fast hands in the cockpit.” The instructors would tell us this over and over again, and that night in the middle of nowhere it had never been so true. I had no idea of the actual state of my aircraft, but I knew one thing: I needed to get away from the water and buy myself some time to figure it out. Consciously I had no idea of whether or not I would have to eject, but I wanted to be further away from the water, and the ship, if I had to do it. Without really thinking, I pushed my left hand as far forward as the throttles would let me, and I pulled back on the stick. I selected the landing gear handle to the up position in hopes to get rid of excess drag and then just focused on getting my bearings outside.
I was pleasantly surprised to see that the engines were still working, and I continued an unrestricted climb to an altitude that made me feel more comfortable to troubleshoot my problem. Once I felt that I was not going to fly into the water, I started to look around the cockpit to see what was working, and more importantly what was not working. None of my displays, including my HUD, were working. Cockpit lighting had also quit working, but my standby instruments looked ok. Just as I was trying to see if I could use my radios and actually communicate outside of the aircraft, the ship’s tower called me and asked me how I was doing. In my haste to climb away from the water and to relative safety, I realized that I had not spoken to anyone, and I was not following normal procedures for flying around the ship. After realizing I could communicate outside of the ship, I began troubleshooting to try to regain some of my displays before heading back to the ship. My wingman had joined up on me, and I was speaking on the radio to our squadron representative to try to figure out what I would and would not have available to me for trying to land on board the ship.
After we exhausted all possible troubleshooting, it became clear that I was going to have to fly an approach on the wing of the other F/A-18C that was airborne, and he would drop me off three-quarters of a mile behind the ship where I would take over visually and try to land. While we had practiced this in the past, it was not easy. I would only get one display back and my HUD still wasn’t working. This was going to be a tricky landing, but I had the faith in the Landing Signals Officers (LSOs) to help me get back aboard the ship. Luckily for me, I had spent four years flying the E-2C Hawkeye which also did not have a HUD. While that didn’t make this approach and landing particularly easy, it did allow me to have a skill set that could help a little. After the other F/A-18C Hornet broke away from formation, and I looked out through where my HUD display used to be, the level of concentration I had was immense. My instrument scan was completely foreign to me, but with concentration and very good LSO control I was able to get my aircraft back on board safely.
It wasn’t until after I had taxied my aircraft to parking and shut down that I really had time to reflect on what I had just been through and how closely I came to having to eject right after the catapult shot. I firmly believe that if it wasn’t for those dedicated instructors back in flight school who put in the extra effort to ensure that we were as prepared as possible, I would have made the wrong decision which would have resulted in a vastly different outcome to this flight. A large focus of our training was how to handle complex situations and adapt when things didn’t go as planned. That training more than paid off that dark night over the Pacific Ocean, alone in an F/A-18C Hornet with mere seconds to react. Later in my career I became an instructor myself, and one of the fundamental cornerstones that I would always emphasize was “no fast hands in the cockpit.”