LCDR Joe "Smokin" Ruzicka, the last F-14 Radar Intercept Officer to fly the Tomcat Tactical demonstration, is back to walk us through exactly what it took to strap on a 70k pound F-14 Tomcat in the dark of night and successfully get flung off the front of a US Navy super carrier via one of the ship's mighty steam-piston catapults.
Going from 0-150mph is less than two seconds just to begin a mission is a hell of a reality, but it takes a lot of work to make it happen:
I walk closely behind Corky through the passageway, making sure I have all of my gear strapped down while there is still a fraction of light. Once you step outside the hatch to the flight deck, it's likely the only real light will be a partial moon hidden behind some clouds. Corky told me to grab the back of his survival vest once we stepped out onto the flight deck and not to let go. The flight deck of an aircraft carrier is simply too dangerous for a new guy to wander around on, especially at night and alone.
Immediately after you step outside, your senses strain to help your brain figure out what is going on. Your eyes see nothing. It's too dark. You better have your flashlight out and pointed at the ground or you will step on something dangerous. Your ears hear the high whine of other airplanes turning just above you. The first thing you smell is jet fuel. Lots of it. The fumes are everywhere, but it's not suffocating, just omni-present. Mostly, you just feel the rush of wind interspersed with an intermittent burst of jet exhaust. The wind might be hot or it might be cold, depending on the time of year and the location of the ship, but the exhaust is always hot. In any case, the air is definitely moving and it creates a noise inside your helmet that can be partially deafening.
It takes about 15 seconds for your senses to adjust. You know exactly where you are— on the flight deck of the world's most lethal weapon—a United States aircraft carrier.
Corky and I momentarily step into Flight Deck Control to look at the "Ouija Board." Sometimes pilots stop by Flight Deck Control to figure out exactly where their jet is parked (or will be parked). Flight Deck Control is where the Handler sits, the individual in charge of moving aircraft both on the flight deck and in the Hangar bays. Petty Officers from the Air Department move miniature planes around the Ouija Board to replicate where aircraft are located and what status the aircraft are in (getting gas, parked and cold, etc.). Tonight our aircraft (#102) is located forward of the island in a location called the six pack that's very close to Flight Deck Control. We quickly make our way back outside to the jet.
Every jet has a plane captain who is in charge of daily maintenance of the aircraft. Normally it is one of the youngest sailors in the squadron—but the responsibility of the job is high. The Plane Captain always greets you prior to performing your walk around and gives a quick brief on the status of the jet. He or she is in charge of prepping the cockpit (to include ensuring the ejection seats are safe and locked), checking oil levels, having the aircraft refueled, as well as a number of other daily turnaround issues.
After our brief with the plane captain, Corky tells him what our mission is for tonight. Many times, the plane captain is so busy with ensuring the jet is ready to fly that he or she does not have any idea about the jet's actual mission. A great technique was always to let them know exactly what their hard work was supporting. Tonight, Corky and I will be doing a night air intercept hop that will entail us defending the aircraft carrier from two other jets in the Air Wing (Hornets) who will be providing a Bandit presentation. The plane captain grins from ear to ear when we tell him what we are about to do with his jet.
On the boat, the preflight is always quick. Mostly, you make a visual inspection to make sure nothing has fallen off the jet since the last time it was flown. Ordnance is scrutinized very closely to ensure fuse settings and arming wires are set up properly. Everything else will be left to the Troubleshooters, who are able to do a much better job of checking the safety of the aircraft than any preflight could accomplish. After a quick climb up the ladder and visual inspection of the top of the aircraft, the canopy is immediately lowered while you strap into your harness attached to the ejection seat. It is much more comfortable to be in the cocoon of a closed cockpit than leaving the canopy open. You can breathe normally, there is no wind, and you can even yell back and forth to each other.
The Tomcat did not have a battery. External air and power were used to start the engines. Today, most modern fighter jets (and commercial jets) use an APU (auxiliary power unit) to start the engines. Regardless of which method was used, as soon as the jet's electrical power came on, the Pilot and RIO do a communications check between each other using the ICS (internal communications system). If you were good buddies with the guy you were flying with, you might say something about his mother. Otherwise it was a simple "Can you hear me?" with a response of "Loud and clear, how me?"
After engine start up, both Pilot and RIO power up all of your systems. Most guys follow a checklist but also go in a logical/methodical order. My method was to start on the far left side of the cockpit and work all the way around to the right side. Getting an alignment for the jet is probably the most critical component of the startup. The Ship's Inertial Navigation System (SINS) sends a signal (by Radio Frequency "RF" or a long cable hooked into the jet) to the aircraft's INS to sync the aircraft's platform with that of the SINS platform. This data provides a level platform for the pilot's HUD (Heads Up Display), navigation information, and sets up navigation for any smart weapons on board. Today's jets also integrate GPS into the alignment, making the process quicker and more accurate.
After the systems startup is complete and additional checks are performed on both external (launch bar, refueling probe) and internal systems (FLIR, radios, etc.) the pilot gives a thumbs up to the plane captain signaling the jet is "up and ready" for the launch. At the same time, the Flight Deck Coordinator for the squadron (normally a Chief or Senior Petty Officer) radios to Flight Deck Control that this particular aircraft is ready to be launched. When the Handler is ready to sequence the aircraft into the launch pattern on the flight deck, the Plane Captain will be notified to "break down" the aircraft. This means to remove all chocks and chains from the aircraft and turn the aircraft over to a Yellow Shirt for taxiing on the flight deck. A few more critical checklist items (such as a tail hook check) are performed after the aircraft moves forward from a "tail over water" position to a "tail over deck" position.
Corky tells me over the ICS that we are being "broken down". I immediately put on my 02 mask and go "hot mike" on the Intercom System (ICS). With the ICS in hot mike mode, both the pilot and RIO can speak to each other hands free (i.e. no need to toggle the switch to speak). This is because in the carrier environment you want to be able to speak freely between each other in case of an emergency. There is no room for error on the flight deck and the delay to flip a switch to talk to your other aircrew could jeopardize safety. Unfortunately, this also means you hear the other guy's breathing—lots of it—to the point of it being annoying.
Taxiing on the flight deck—as NATOPS states—"is much the same as ashore, but increased awareness of jet exhaust and aircraft directors are mandatory." No kidding. There are many instances of a jet coming up on the power only to knock someone down on the flight deck. If the ship's deck is pitching or there has been even a recent mild rain, the surface of the flight deck becomes even more treacherous.
With a tight and crowded flight deck, the aircraft director might stop the jet anywhere available. Sometimes this is just before one of the arresting cables. A jet that is heavily loaded with fuel and ordnance may have a difficult time getting rolling again, especially if it requires transiting over one of those cables. If the pilot needs to advance the throttles at a higher rate than normal to get the jet moving, the aircrew makes a call to the Air Boss requesting to "come up on the power." This allows the Air Boss to scan the flight deck and ensure none of his crew are in jeopardy of being blown down. If all clear, the Air Boss gives the pilot permission to run up the engines with a call of simply, "Roger, follow your director".
Yellow shirts (aircraft directors) use hand signals during the day and flashlights at night to direct aircraft around on the flight deck. The flight deck is divided into three sections. From fore to aft they are Fly 1, Fly 2 and Fly 3. As a jet progresses up to the catapult, it may transition through all three sections. However, an aircraft director will likely stay in his or her assigned section. Therefore, the jet is "handed off" to a different yellow shirt as it transits from section to section. A likely spot to end up just prior to being launched is directly behind the Jet Blast Deflector (JBD). Those few precious moments sitting behind the JBD are an aircrew's final time to complete the takeoff checklist and plan for the Cat shot. As soon as the aircraft in front of you is catapulted, the JBD folds down and the yellow shirt directs your aircraft towards the shuttle.
From this point forward several things happen at once and in a very short span of time. First, the aircrew repeats between themselves the aircraft side number, catapult, aircraft weight, and single engine emergency procedures. This final run through of procedures reminds the aircrew what to do in a worst case scenario (such as losing an engine during the catapult stroke) and verifies the correct weight for the shot. Each catapult shot is adjusted for the aircraft based on aircraft total weight. There have been a few times where a weight setting was not correct and aircrew have acknowledged that weight setting, albeit incorrectly. This results in what is called a "soft shot," which can be fatal. With a soft shot, the jet may not have enough power coming off the front end of the ship to maintain a positive rate of climb.
The communication goes something like this:
RIO: "We're aircraft 102, on Cat 3, looking for a 69K shot"
Pilot: "Roger, wings are moving, if we go single engine off the Cat 'Setting 10 degrees pitch attitude, 14 units AOA max, burner, gear, jettison, RADALT (radar altimeter) set to 60 feet'"
At the same time, Troubleshooter Petty Officers underneath the jet are checking every inch of the aircraft by visually and physically inspecting all components on the jet. They touch every surface, looking for leaks, loose wires or anything that could be a potential safety hazard. Their jobs are indispensable and life saving. It goes without saying that Troubleshooters are some of the best sailors in the squadron.
The aircraft continues to taxi forward into the shuttle while the pilot verifies trim and flap settings. The RIO acknowledges the weight board to a Green shirt (catapult crew member) with a thumbs up (or a circling of the flashlight at night) and tells the pilot again what weight was set. At this point you hear a little clicking and popping, which could be the shuttle coming back from the previous shot and/or the holdback fitting being locked onto the nose landing gear. A hookup man, who is directly under the jet, attaches the holdback fitting to the nose gear. He verifies the holdback is attached properly and signals that to the rest of the launch team. The pilot and RIO know the jet is hooked into the shuttle once they see the hook up man run out from underneath the jet.
If you are carrying ordnance, the yellow shirt will temporarily pass control to an ordnance man (red shirt) who gives the "hands up" signal. Both pilot and RIO move their hands up above the canopy rail so the ordnance man can see they are not touching anything in the cockpit. Another ordnance petty officer runs under the jet and arms ordnance on the jet. The ordnance man then passes control back to the Yellow Shirt.
Once arming is complete, the Yellow Shirt passes control to the Shooter. The Shooter is in control of the entire launch sequence and has ultimate safety responsibility. He or she has verified the launch weight and that the weight setting are correct, arming has been completed properly, and the launch bar and holdback are hooked into the shuttle and landing gear correctly. If all of this is correct, the Shooter gives the tension signal followed immediately by the run-up signal.
At this point you feel the jet go into tension on the Cat with a slight bump forward. Your heart really begins to race, as this is the point where you have lost control to the catapult and you are now at the mercy of the ship. The pilot advances the throttles to military power and performs a full control wipeout—full deflection of the ailerons (spoilers), vertical and horizontal stabilizers. All eyes are on your jet. From the Air Boss and Mini Boss in the tower to the Troubleshooter who is directly under the jet watching for anything out of the ordinary.
If the aircrew (or anyone else) notices something wrong at anytime during tension (such as a caution light or a leak) a suspension of the launch is called. A radio call is made to the Air Boss:
"Suspend Cat 3, Suspend Cat 3!"
(Remember when the aircrew said which Cat they were on—you don't want to call suspend to the wrong Cat!) The pilot maintains full military power on the jet while the tower hits the master override, suspending the catapult. If an inadvertent launch were to happen, you want to be at full power—lord knows your going to need it. Only when tension comes off the jet and the pilot is given the signal to throttle back down do you come off the power.
But let's assume everything is going smoothly up to this point. For jet aircraft above a certain weight threshold an afterburner shot is required. The Shooter gives an afterburner signal, which for the Tomcat looked something like raise the roof combined with a high five. Most of the time, those guys loved to play it up with the signal and for good reason. If you ever had the chance to see a Tomcat in full afterburner on the Cat, it was a sight to behold. I don't think there has ever been more fire in such a confined space as a Stage 5 Tomcat afterburner cat shot. I would always wonder how long it would take to cook a hotdog off the back of the jet in that situation. Funny how those things cross your mind seconds before you are going to be hurled into deep, dark abyss.
With the cockpit completely lit up from backsplash light off the Jet Blast Deflector, the launch is imminent. The Shooter does one final visual check with the Troubleshooters and the Catapult Launch Team receiving a thumbs up from everyone. At night, the signal for "ready to go" is all aircraft lights on (during the day it's a hand salute). Once the Shooter sees the lights, he does the famous crouch, touches the deck with a flashlight and points forward.
When you see him touch the deck, there is a pause in time. Nothing moves. Nothing is heard. Nothing is felt. A certain silence and grace fills this void while you are waiting for the inevitable. I can only imagine how the Apollo astronauts felt when their countdown hit "zero".
At the start of the Cat stroke, you feel the jet make a slight squat. The G force hammers you back into your seat, much like someone stepping on your chest. The jet immediately picks up speed. A rush of visual cues down the left and right side of your peripheral vision let's you know this is going to be a fast trip. You hear the clicking of the shuttle as it runs down the track, the sound building as you progress down the catapult. You're on a hot mike with your pilot, staring at the airspeed indicator to ensure there is enough speed to make it airborne. Sometimes your pilot might say, "Good shot". Most of the time the trip is too quick to make an assessment.
For comparison: the new Tesla goes from 0 to 60 mph in about three seconds. The trip we are currently on goes from 0 to 150 mph in less than two. Sorry Elon, we still have you beat.
At the end of the stroke, a loud thump is heard as the shuttle hits the water break and then you are flying. The ride instantly becomes unbelievably smooth. You feel fortunate that everything worked. You are forever thankful that everyone did his or her job to get you safely airborne. It is a sense of giddiness, as if you have gotten away with something that no one else on that ship could have possibly snuck away with: Freedom.
Once again, a huge thanks to LCDR Joe "Smokin" Ruzicka for sharing his incredible insights and experiences with us. With any luck, we will have him back soon to tell us in great detail what it takes to complete a mission Navy fighters style: by landing back aboard the same aircraft carrier you just got hurtled off and in the black of night of course! - Tyler Rogoway
Photos via US Navy/DoD/Public Domain
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com