The Night Cat Shot
This was a letter I wrote home to family and friends while on station in the Red Sea. I was a pilot with Navy squadron VFA-81 Sunliners flying the F/A-18 Hornet. Many of the letters I received asked about a day in the life of a Navy Carrier pilot, and in this letter I talk about the night cat shot.
12 Jan 1991
Around 2200 the flight schedule for the next day comes out. I’m on a CAP (Combat Air Patrol) mission with, luckily, another JO (Junior Officer). I have the lead so I brief and do most of the preparation and decision-making. That means some study before the brief. I check our flight schedule and make sure it jives with the boat’s Airplan. CAP station is reviewed as well as ordnance load. How many Sidewinders (heat seekers), Sparrows (radar guided), bullets, chaff, flares, etc., will we carry?
First, we watch the TV brief. Classified info is put out along with a few jokes and some other stuff. It gives the overall picture of the Airwing composition for that launch. Then my wingman and I move to the back of our Ready Room for our face-to-face brief. Some things covered are weather, walk, launch, and recovery times, start, taxi, and cat (catapult) procedures, type of departure, rendezvous point, tanker position, fuel availability, squawk codes for modes I, II, III, IV, fuel ladder (don’t want to run short), Marshal procedures, radio and communication procedures (If either of the two old men, CO and XO, are airborne we have our own secret JO frequency on the back radio so we can chat and not get yelled at. The things you have to do to stay out of trouble.), and of course those last twenty seconds of ball flying before the trap. These are a few of the Admin items and then we get into mission specifics.
On CAP hops we’ll brief station position, altitudes, radar contracts and sorting criteria, who is controlling us, commit criteria for bogies, type of intercept, weapon status, ROE, etc. The list goes on and on and the briefs usually last 45 minutes to one hour. If not for a very thorough squadron SOP, they would last for hours. We try to standardize as much Admin as possible so we can concentrate on the mission.
Next, we go to the Duty Desk, review our assigned aircraft Gripe Book to learn of its previous problems, check out a camera, classified Authenticator, and sign the Weight Chit for the catapult launch. The junior member of the flight takes the Weight Chit to Flight Deck Control. Since this is a make-believe hop, I’ll take it for him since I’m such a great guy. I’ve never actually carried it myself when I wasn’t the junior guy, but maybe one day.
Next, we walk to Paraloft with our nav bags. First goes on the G-suit. Then the torso harness and finally our survival vest. I carry my personal weapon, a Glock 19 strapped to my chest, instead of the standard issue snub nose pea shooter. My Para-Rigger made me a really cool, nice custom fit holster. Lately I’ve been packing a Snickers bar or two and have found them very tasty. Sometimes in the daytime I’ll go to the flight deck without my helmet on, just to enjoy the sunshine. However, at night it’s always on my head. Too many unseen things to collide with.
Our Ready Room is six floors down, and we use an escalator to carry the pilots and sixty pounds of flight gear to the deck. After a few corners and knee knockers to cross, I see the hatch leading outside. A few deep breaths are taken at this point because I’m about to enter another world. It’s dark and dangerous and if you’re not careful it will kill you. That hatch is always pitch dark and seems to suck the light out of my flashlight. There is no reflection of any kind due to the dark black dirty surfaces. It reminds me of walking into a haunted house at an amusement park. What’s in there?
Once outside the hatch, which leads to the catwalk, if there is a moon I’ll see the reflection off the water. If no moon then just lots of darkness and noise. The catwalk is one small flight of steps below the flight deck and very carefully a check is made above the rail to look for the tailpipe of a turning jet or if jets are recovering. There are fueling hoses and extra catapult wires and chocks and chains and yellow gear waiting to grab you if you’re not deliberate and alert. The yellow sodium vapor lights cast an eerie glow to the men and aircraft. Looking into the lights, only outlines are seen. Many times you can’t tell if someone is facing you or turned away. Looking away from the lights, it’s reflections off goggles and more darkness. Outlines and shadows and smoky rays of light and noise and wind and steam and power and teamwork make up this strange world.
There are several hundred men topside and I search one out with a Sunliner patch so he can tell me where my jet is parked. He knows what I want and just points without my asking. Of course it’s the other end of the flight deck so I start the walk.
The wind is blowing twenty to thirty knots and everyone has a certain lean to them. Your flashlight gives you a small tunnel vision to see clearly and all the rest is noise and shadows. No faces, just helmets and goggles. I’ve gone through an entire night launch and not known who my plane captain was. It’s too dark to see and too loud to talk. We know the procedures and communication is done by signals with the flashlights. Taxi Directors (yellow shirts) have yellow wands, Plane Captains are blue and ordnance men use red ones.
There is a Tomcat starting to turn up and the Huffer (used to crank engines) drives by blasting my legs with hot air. That’s nice on those cold days. It’s a high pitch squeal that goes by on the edge of your vision. A few more steps and I begin to hear the Helo blades pounding the air. The SAR guys are on deck for a pilot switch and some gas.
Next out of nowhere a blue flashlight is stuck in my face and a hand stops me. The young kid points and screams so I can hear, “Excuse me sir, but this Tom is turning, you’ll have to go around”. He just saved me from walking through the exhaust blast. A nice gesture since it would have blown me over the side. But I don’t even thank him. I just nod the nod and go around. He knows I appreciate it and also it’s his job. One guy on each side to watch for unsuspecting jet blast victims, like me.
Soon that commotion fades along with the noise of the Helo and I come across another flurry of activity in the darkness. A jet is being taken down to the hangar deck via the elevator. Twenty men standing around, all required for this operation. To avoid hitting something the eyes move constantly from the feet to head level. Tie down chains are everywhere and after tripping over one you learn quickly.
Now the landing area has been cleared and fifty feet to my left a Hornet slams into the deck and startles me. Or maybe he bolters and gives everyone a light show as his hook drags down the landing area at 150 KTS spewing sparks and lighting up the night, especially if he scared himself and tapped a little afterburner for mom and the kids. Now that’s a real light show! Of course I try to act cool like I knew it was going to happen and it didn’t scare me. Take a few deep breaths.
Ordnance men are all over, loading and unloading and pushing carts around with the bombs of war. You wonder why all these men are needed up here. They are everywhere, little shadows and flashlights scurrying around in the darkness and noise. Yet everyone is essential. They all have a job and are busy. Heads are on a swivel, constantly checking six for that unseen rear collision. No one just “hangs out” on the flight deck during launch. It’s not allowed, and stupid.
The steam from the cats blows by. Sometimes it completely envelopes you and vision is reduced to zero. But the wait is not long with the wind. It blows by and with glimpses of your path you make your way, carefully.
Finally, after all this, and it is good for the frame of mind needed for a night hop, I shine my light onto the correct jet (the side number is what I’m looking for) and there stands my Plane Captain at attention ready to get to work launching this jet. He gives me a salute and it is returned with pride and usually without a word we start. If we’re lucky and no jets are turning close by and we have time we’ll talk about the launch and the mission and how nice it would be to go home and of course putting a bullet between Saddam’s eyes.
The Plane Captains and maintenance troops know we are compartmentalizing and most of them sense if you are in the mood to talk. Depends on the hop as to whether I can afford to relax enough to chat. Mostly now we can because we’re getting good at this Red Sea stuff. Usually just prior to cranking the jets it calms down a little. It’s been a while since the last launch and most of the turnaround maintenance is complete and things quiet a little.
Then one half hour before launch the Air Boss comes over the loud speaker and gives his spiel about getting ready. “Gentlemen, it’s time to get into the proper flight deck uniform, sleeves rolled down, helmets on and buckled, goggles pulled down, life vests on and securely fastened, let’s check around the Go birds for FOD, whenever you’re ready gentlemen, let’s crank ’em up, crank the Go birds.” It gives me goose bumps to hear that.
At this point if my wingman is close I’ll give him a nod as we each climb into our jets. Behind me up the ladder comes the Plane Captain to help with the strap in. Usually a word or two, mostly he will tell me to have a safe flight. I’ll thank him and then he’s gone, down underneath doing Plane Captain things.
I do my interior inspection, which is a pain due to the darkness, and hook on my faithful kneeboard. All systems checked and about that time the Plane Captain appears outside ready for my start signal. Usually he is toward the lights of the tower and from my perch of the cockpit all I see is the outline of a nineteen year old and the glow of his blue wands. Everyone starts at the same time and it reminds me of the Indy 500. The feel of power when all these engines come on line is tremendous.
The canopy comes down with a thud and the sound of a fine piece of machinery and then slides forward and locks into place. Things quiet down tenfold and the focus begins to shift a little toward the mission, and away from the darkness and noise, and the nervousness starts to take a back seat. Canopy down gives an invincible, cozy feel.
It takes about fifteen minutes for the checks to be completed and finally I give the thumbs up. During this time my eyes are getting adjusted to the light and the initial shock of the darkness begins to ease. The chocks and chains are removed, nose wheel steering engaged, and I arm my seat (in case I need to eject). Oxygen masks are required when taxiing on the boat so that’s strapped in place.
Now the nervous task of the night taxi. Yellow shirt (Taxi Directors) are not allowed to walk when they taxi you at night. It gives us vertigo and we lose the ability to know if we’re moving, or if it’s him. I saw a yellow shirt walk on a pilot one night and after the guy shut down he chased that yellow shirt down and I thought he was going to kill him. Sometimes I simply can’t tell how fast I’m going so I quickly glance back and forth between the yellow shirt and the side of my aircraft. It seems if you look to your side you detect the sensation of movement easier than out the front. But every so often they will taxi someone around you and you don’t know he’s coming. For a brief instant you experience total sheer terror because you think your brakes have failed and you are moving, not the other aircraft. Quickly you realize you’re stationary and then of course you look around to make sure no one realizes just how scared you are. Hey, that would be uncool, wouldn’t it? But nobody can see you anyway in the darkness.
You make your way to the catapult trying to do the takeoff checks and roger the weight board and spread your wings and make sure they’re locked, etc. The yellow shirt stands on the cat and due to the steam, we regularly have to stop and wait for it to clear. If you can’t see him you can’t follow his directions. Sometimes you can’t see him but you can see his wands through the steamy mist lighting up the dark night, just like in the movies.
One last big turn and we’re in place. Ten men or so are underneath the jet doing final checks and hooking up the launch bar. The taxi signals now are very precise and small and accurate. We develop a cadence and rhythm with these guys and soon work well together.
He turns you over to the ordies (ordnance). Heart rate picks up. They arm your weapons and then pass you back. All stations check go. Heart is pretty fast now. Yellow shirt checks with the cat officer. Cat officer says go for it and the run up signal is given. Heart beats even faster. I release the brakes (the hold back keeps me still) and add full power. One last wipe of the controls and engine check. Everything OK so I lean my head back and with the flick of my pinkie finger, turn on the lights, the night salute. Heart is screaming. Out of the corner of my eye I see the green wand and outline of the cat officer as he touches the deck, signaling launch.
Time stands very still now. About five seconds later the jet lurches forward and within less than two seconds I’m doing well over 200 mph and pinned to the seat. It takes a few seconds for my eyeballs to uncage so I can read the instruments to make sure I’m climbing. You better believe most of us tap afterburner. Does it use up a little extra gas? Sure it does, so what. It’s back to that Mom and the kids thing. It’s a big black hole we’ve just entered and your life depends on flying the instruments. This is the night cat shot and guess what? The hop just began!
Lt. Barry Hull