By LANDON WOODROOF
Landing a plane on an aircraft carrier is not an easy task.
It takes well-trained crew members working in concert as well as a gutsy pilot to successfully accomplish what often looks easy in the movies.
Dale Lewelling performed that difficult feat nearly 500 times in his 30 years in the Navy. In his final meeting as the Rotary Club of Brentwood’s president, Lewelling walked members through the logistics of those landings, pointing out the potential dangers pilots face every time they look to touch down after a mission. He also shared some general facts about carriers to give people a general idea of their costs and capabilities.
Lewelling said that in the grand scheme of things the number of times he landed on a carrier might not amount to much, but for him each one was memorable.
“In my humble opinion it was 500 scary and sometimes exhilarating moments in my life,” he said.
Those moments are scary because of the almost unimaginable number of challenges that face pilots trying to take off and land from a surface much shorter than a normal air strip and bobbing with the movement of the ocean. Just one wrong move by a pilot or deck crew member and a plane that costs tens of millions of dollars could end up crashing in the water or on deck, imperiling numerous lives.
“The most dangerous job in the world in my opinion is working on the flight deck,” Lewelling said.
An aircraft carrier might have 65 planes on it, and close to 6,000 people working on everything from maintenance, to electrical work, to airplanes. That number of planes means a lot of taxiing, a lot of taking off and a lot of landing, which in turn means a lot of careful maneuvering by those on the deck.
“You’ve gotta have your head on a swivel” to keep aware of everything going on, Lewelling said.
Deck crew members wear different colored shirts according to their jobs. Those with the yellow shirts control the taxiing through hand signals and gestures.
“Sometimes you get good gestures and sometimes you don’t,” Lewelling joked.
The purple shirt wearers, or “grapes” as they are sometimes referred to, are responsible for fueling, while white shirts belong to safety personnel.
Green shirts are in the most unenviable position, Lewelling said. They actually have to get under the planes as they’re preparing to take off and rig the catapult system that make jets from an aircraft carrier go from zero to 180 mph in just a couple of seconds.
“Why is it a dangerous job?” Lewelling asked rhetorically. The intakes are right back there. When the aircraft’s in full power it forms a little tornado right in front of the intake…People have been sucked down the intake.”
As dangerous as working on the flight deck is, though, the pilot is the one who ultimately has to take off and land the planes safely, and his missions are the focal points of everyone’s work.
“I always argue that everything in the navy around a carrier revolves around the fact that you have to get the attack pilot to the target,” he said.
A pilot coming in for a landing has mainly his instruments and the signals of the deck crew to guide him.
“There is no communication on the radio,” Lewelling said. “The pilots can not talk to anybody on the flight deck.” The pilot can talk to the tower and the air boss “and if you do something wrong you get to talk to the captain,” Lewelling added.
As challenging as landing a plane on a carrier can be during the day, it is vastly more difficult at night. Lewelling showed a video at the meeting depicting a pilot’s view of his plane coming in for a night landing.
“This is what it looks like at night,” Lewelling said. “Pretty exciting, huh?” The screen looked pitch black. A few seconds later a dim, small speck of light was visible near the center. Lewelling said that was the tower light. Here is a video similar to the one Lewelling shared.
Virtually nothing was visible until the plane was nearly right on top of the carrier. Then suddenly you saw some lights outlining the landing area.
An F-18 pilot coming in for a landing is going about 130 knots per hour (about 150 mph), Lewelling said. Just like a plane needs a catapult to get up to speed to take off from a carrier, it needs a wire to help arrest its momentum on landing. Making sure the wires are in place is just another of the tasks crew members have to perform day in and day out.
Lewelling said that the primary purpose of aircraft carriers is to project power. He noted that presidents and military leaders will often send carriers into problem zones to make a show of force.
There are currently 10 Nimitz-class aircraft carriers in the world. Nimitz carriers are the largest carriers in the American fleet. The last to go into service was the George H.W. Bush. It cost $6.2 billion and is about three-and-a-half football fields in length.
Nimitz-class carriers have two nuclear reactors on them and can travel upwards of 30 knots per hours.
About 3,200 people are permanently assigned to Nimitz-class carriers. An extra 2,800 or so come on to work as air crew.
Lewelling described an aircraft carrier as a city unto itself, noting that carriers have their own restaurant, barber shops, laundries, etc.