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The Cruise from Hell

The USS Ranger, departing San Diego in February 1987. US NAVY PHOTO

$100 million here, $100 million there, it’s only money

BY MIKE HOCH
Special to the VOICE

Being acquainted with the editor of the local paper might ensure timely delivery, but the flip side is that you’re an easy target for a Column 6 badgering—I mean invitation. This is especially true when the editor discovers you’ve had what many would consider a very interesting career, one that should surely be chock-full of interesting events.

In fact, I do consider myself extremely lucky to have had two of the best jobs in the world. I call it my 20/20 career. The first 20 years I spent as a fighter pilot in the RCAF (by far the best job) followed by 20 years as a commercial airline pilot (second-best job).

Although there are a plethora of stories to choose from (some humorous, some tragic), I’ve decided to recount my one-week adventure aboard the USS Ranger aircraft carrier, one of the highlights of my aviation career. Please fasten your safety harnesses.

In the spring of 1989 I was stationed in Cold Lake Alberta, flying the F-18 Hornet, when my commanding officer informed me I had been selected for an exchange tour of duty with the United States Navy (USN). The exchange program is designed to ensure that NATO allies share the latest weapons and tactics information so that when required they can operate in a cohesive manner.

Within two months my wife, 4-year-old son, and I were packed-up and on our way to Naval Air Station Lemoore, located in the San Joaquin Valley about 20 miles from Fresno, California. For us it was quite a thermal shock getting used to the constant 100 F temperatures, but not as much of a shock as it would be for the poor Navy exchange chap who would soon be going the other way—to the joys of 40-below in Cold Lake, Alberta.

Fast-forward two years and I’m approaching the end of the Navy tour. As a reward for good behaviour (“undetected crime” as fighter pilots call it) the exchange officer is sent to an aircraft carrier for a series of take-offs and landings to achieve a carrier qualification, or “Carrier Qual.”

I started an intensive three-week training program that consisted of flying the carrier landing pattern night and day, but at land-based runways equipped with an optical landing system called the Fresnel Lens, nicknamed “the meatball.”

This system of lights is located on the left side of the runway, next to the touchdown point, and is manned by Landing Signal Officers (LSOs), who grade every landing.

The object of the game is to keep the meatball (an amber light) centred horizontally between a line of green lights. If the ball is centered you’re on the glide path; above the green line you’re high and below the line you’re low. Keeping the ball centred to touchdown will ensure you catch one of the four arresting cables on the deck of the carrier. They bring you to a full stop from 150 miles per hour in about 300 feet, which is highly useful, considering that the entire landing deck is only 600 feet long.

At the end of my land-based training I was receiving good grades from the LSOs and starting to feel confident about going to the “boat.” I can even remember thinking, “How tough could it be?”

The answer was going to become crystal clear.

The day finally arrived for our squadron to head out to the carrier, the USS Ranger, which was steaming up and down the California coast near San Diego conducting flight training operations.

Some eight pilots and 30 maintenance personnel boarded a twin-engine turboprop affectionately called the “COD,” for “carrier onboard delivery,” for the 30-minute flight to the boat. What struck me odd about the COD was that each seat had a four-point harness, and those seats were facing the rear, not the front, of the aircraft. It turned out this was another highly useful design, keeping everyone from bouncing off the fuselage when 25 tons of airplane came to a thundering halt wrenched by the arrester cable on the deck of the carrier. After this landing that seemed more like a controlled crash, we were onboard.

The aircraft door opened and we scurried off the flight deck and made our way into the bowels of the ship to find our rooms. Within minutes I experienced sensory overload. The smell of jet exhaust was everywhere, the vibrating hum of the ship’s engines interrupted by the locomotive sound of the steam catapults and the beehive of activity all around me had my head spinning. Maybe a good night’s sleep would have me ready for the next day’s flying activity.

Following our morning briefing I made my way up to the bridge and a location called “Vulture’s Row,” a spot that affords the best seat in the house for watching aircraft land and take off.

Here I was standing 40 feet above the deck right next to the landing area. It was absolutely amazing the amount of activity crammed into a football field-sized area.

The forward two catapults were operational, launching aircraft off the bow of the boat, while landing aircraft were smartly moved out of the arrestor cables and taxied into positions that had them hanging over the side of the deck, waiting to get back on the catapult to do it all again. This was obviously not their first rodeo.

The aircraft in the flight pattern at this time were F-14 Tomcats, the two-seat, twin-engine, swing-wing fighter made famous by Tom Cruise in the movie “Top Gun.” (As it happened, the USS Ranger herself also featured in the film.)

After I watched one successful F-14 landing, I could see another on final approach, about 15 seconds away from touchdown. The approach was good and the Tomcat hit the deck with the tail hook successfully snagging an arrester cable. But the deceleration that quickly slowed the previous aircraft wasn’t there.

The arrester gear had broken somewhere below deck.

Much to my surprise the F-14 continued at high speed to the end of the deck still hooked on to the cable.

The Tomcat careened off the side of the deck toward the ocean. On its descent, I saw a small puff of smoke as the canopy flew off. It was followed almost immediately by much more smoke and the bright plume of two rocket motors from the cockpit as the aircrew were launched safely clear 300 feet into the air.

Two seconds later the lads were automatically separated from the ejection seats and floating down in their parachutes, waving and joking with the LSOs on the carrier deck as they descended precariously close to the ship.

General quarters was sounded and the boat went into a hard left turn—at least as hard as a 1,000-foot-long ship can do one. A rescue helicopter appeared from out of nowhere to scoop up the aviators from the ocean.

Once the shock of witnessing all this dissipated, the first thought I had was, “These guys were very cool to be so nonchalant in their parachutes while only seconds before they had to make the life-or-death decision to abandon their multi-million dollar aircraft.”

Maybe, I thought, it was time to reassess how tough this really could be.

The boat basically went dead in the water for the next 48 hours while an investigation was carried out into the cause of the accident. This afforded me an opportunity to go on an extensive tour and visit all the departments that it takes to support a 5,000-man crew and keep 75 aircraft combat ready.

It was all very interesting but I was constantly embarrassed asking for directions every time I headed to a new location. Unlike in a passenger ship there were no signs, no windows, just a maze of endless passageways, bulkheads and watertight doors with annoying one-foot-high sills aptly called “knee knockers.” They even has a 24-hour hamburger joint that looked remarkably like a McDonalds.

Day Three on the boat had me sitting in my F-18, waiting to start up and head back to Lemoore to do some more touch-and-goes at the airfield. The Navy has a rule that you must have done some land-based training within four days of landing on the boat. Because of the mishap, we had exceeded this limit so we had to go back home for a few times around the pattern, then gas-up and return to the carrier.

When cleared for launch, I started up and proceeded to taxi from my parking spot at the aft starboard side of the carrier (I do know a few Navy terms) and cautiously headed toward the forward catapults, or “cats.”

I guess I had “rookie” written all over the cockpit because the deck marshallers were soon giving me the “Get your head out of your ass” sign for going incredibly slow. Yup, they really have signs for this…

Once at the cat, I deployed the launch bar and was hooked onto the mechanism that would soon accelerate the 18 tons of F-18 to 150 miles per hour in about 300 feet. When given the all-clear I advanced the throttles to full power and smartly saluted the catapult officer. Within seconds I was rammed back in my seat, hard. Next thing I knew I was off the end of the deck, flying nicely away.

It did take another minute or two before my brain caught up with the aircraft and I was able focus on the next job at hand, getting back to Lemoore.

Everything went well back at home base, and soon it was time to head back to the boat. Just after lunch, four F-18s launched, with me in the lead returning to the aircraft carrier, which was still steaming off the coast near San Diego.

As Los Angles Centre air traffic control handed us off to the radar control of the Ranger I found it ironic that there I was leading four F-18’s to land on an aircraft carrier, yet I was the only one of the four that had never done it.

I had the ship on my radar and as we broke out of cloud at of 5,000 feet I could just barely see a small speck at 20 miles.

Was that tiny speck the same 1,000-foot-long monstrosity I left just a few hours ago? I recall thinking that maybe this was tougher than it looked.

I closed the formation and we came up the right side of the boat at 600 feet above the water and 450 mph, splitting into a left hand turn as we reached the bow.

As I headed downwind and slowed to landing speed, the Ranger still looked remarkably small even at a mile and a half away—which in aviation distance is practically right in front of you.

I turned onto final approach with landing checks complete and the tail hook down (embarrassing if you forget).

I called the LSO and reported the ball in sight (meaning I was lined up and on glidepath).

The work load increases exponentially from this point to landing and thank goodness all the training kicks in, since it keeps you from thinking about landing on a postage stamp that’s moving at 25 miles an hour, pitching up and down.

It was almost a surprise as I smacked into the deck. My body was thrown forward until my head just missed hitting the instrument panel. I made it.

Before I got a chance to pat myself on the back, the marshallers were waving furiously for me to raise the hook, fold the wings and taxi out of the landing area. One of my squadron mates was only 15 seconds behind me.

Oh boy, another “Get my head out” sign.

I scurried to my parking spot and shut down the jet, then while still sitting in the seat, took a deep breath and reflected on what just happened. I was really starting to believe this was harder than it looked.

The next day we had another early morning briefing before we started flying operations. As the ”guest” Canadian exchange officer, I had the lowest priority to get qualified, so I wasn’t scheduled to fly for about three hours.

It was back up to “Vultures Row” to watch the flying circus.

This time in the pattern there were A-6 Intruders from Naval Air Station North Island in San Diego. The A-6 was the Navy’s bomber, with a two-man crew of pilot and bombardier sitting side-by-side. This aircraft was made famous in the book and later the movie, “Flight of the Intruder,” starring Danny Glover.

I watched the A-6s do a series of touch-and-goes getting ready for their arrested landing. I saw the lead aircraft approach with its arrestor hook down and looking good.

The aircraft touched down and snagged a cable, but then lurched left and right, then suddenly veered very hard right and headed toward the front of the boat, where, unfortunately, there were four F-18s chained to the deck, getting prepped for flight.

The first two were brand-new F-18 D models belonging to a Marine Corps squadron. The other two were F-18s from my Navy squadron.

Within a nanosecond of heading toward the parked F-18s I saw the canopy of the A-6 pop off, followed by the now- familiar flash of two rocket motors as the pilots ejected.

The now pilotless A-6 smashed directly into the first two F-18s, spinning them completely around although they were still secured to the deck.

Then the A-6 careened off the port side and dropped straight down into the Pacific.

Because the parked F-18s were being prepared for flight, numerous crew were jumping over the side into safety nets trying to avoid the approaching disaster.

General Quarters was sounded and again the Ranger went into a hard left turn. Unlike during the first accident, this time the deck was almost immediately covered in two feet of fire retardant foam since it was now soaked with hundreds of gallons of jet fuel.

Our two unfortunate A-6 Naval aviators were now in their parachutes, but unlike the F-14 lads these fellows were on a collision course directly for carrier’s bridge.

When they hit the bridge they were still about 20 feet above the deck as their chutes collapsed and lost their ability to float. Later reports indicated that both men sustained some broken bones, but all things considered they made out okay.

Once things settled down, an entire muster of the ship’s company took place and surprisingly to me the only injuries were to the A-6 crew. Have I mentioned that carrier operations were beginning to seem harder than they looked?

The boat went dead in the water again as an investigation into this second accident was convened. It turned out that the A-6’s tail hook had broken off, leading it on its fatal collision with the F-18s. This break in the action provided me an opportunity to go to the hanger deck and inspect the damage done to the Marine fighters. These aircraft with less than 50 hours of flight time and costing about $100 million dollars would never fly again.

As I headed down to my bunk I was starting to get concerned about flying again the next day. I had finally reached the conclusion that this was harder than it looked.

I’m happy to report that the rest of my carrier qualification went without a hitch. As a matter of fact, by the time I did my sixth trap (carrier landing) I felt quite confident. Entering the catapult for my final launch back to Lemoore, I was saddened as I knew this would be one of the highlights of my aviation career and something I would never do again.

Once back at home base it became obvious that I’d seen more than most pilots see in their entire time in the Navy, and in fact some of the more seasoned pilots were calling this short stint at sea the “Cruise From Hell.” 

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