Spot Landing Theory

Pete "PADDLES" Moore

Originally published April 1995

Since these landing areas you test pilot types require are large enough for me to land upon sideways many times, and require runways consuming hectacres, and have approach clear zones measured in light years, obviously you must not be versed in the PROPER way to land, ie. with a tailhook on a small, heaving deck. I will remedy this in the following diatribe.

How to land on a line (thereby winning the annual spot landing contest)

First let me start by explaining some of the players. Generally they have colored shirts telling you at a glance who they are. This is because the Commander does not have the time to get to know all 6,000 men on board before he gets promoted to a desk. Pilots are not included because they have only a bit part in this passion play.

PURPLE SHIRTS are the fueling types or run the boilers. During landing exercises, these guys are not allowed above decks, mostly because they cannot seem to do anything without making some sort of a serious leak.

RED SHIRTS are primarily concerned with launching stuff over the side: airplanes, last week's trash, annoying JG Lts. They have enormously noisy and dangerous smoke emitting flinger thingees, not EPA or OSHA certified, which is why they only launch at sea outside of governmental regulations.

You do not, repeat, DO NOT, want to see someone wearing a BLACK SHIRT near the front of your plane. It means you are on fire, and should probably do something like get out of the plane before they push you over the side to put the fire out. Generally pulling the ejection handle at this time only gets you a broken handle; or worse, ejected into the superstructure. This leads me to the humorous story about a JG navigator who pulled the wrong handle and launched himself into the antenna farm on takeoff (which is probably why there is no control stick in the back seat of NAVY aircraft).

GREEN SHIRTS are generally Marines assigned to the ship because Navy guys, like A.F. types do not know how to fire handheld weapons in time of war. The Navy DOES know how to fire really big bang producing stuff, and are particularly good at shooting down 747's. The other purpose for a Marine is to provide a body to occupy various positions on board (ballast, guards for the brig, bodies for the brig, shade, etc.). DO NOT RUN THEM OVER, because it makes the Chaplain and Medics mad.

The guys wearing the YELLOW SHIRTS are your friends. These guys, mostly enlisted, are going to tell you how to land on the deck, how to park your plane, and make sure it is fueled, serviced, oil checked and arms installed. They also know where the nearest potty is and which MESS has the best chow. The head guy, LSO, or Landing Safety Officer (who is never more than an E3 because E4's are smart enough to see how stupid this all is), is standing exactly where you need to put the aforementioned tailhook in order to land on said carrier. Since the ocean is difficult to land on without floatation devices, the carrier deck is what you have to use.

There are three arresting cables (or "lines" in Navy terminology), suspended approximately 6 inches above the deck. [Actually, there are 4 wires with the #3 wire being the preferred target. This gives Naval Aviators a little leeway if they just so happen to land a wee bit short.--ed] These are set up such that they snag the 'hook and cause you to abruptly stop immediately prior to falling off the ship (bad Karma). For those who are Commander and above (we will use the term MAJOR since this is an A.F.B.), a safety net is erected, just in case. The first line is the one you want to catch. Real Naval Aviators who know exactly what they are doing usually manage to snag this one. The number two line is there for when you bounce, mostly because you pissed off the LSO or the deck hove. It is considered bad form to snag the third line, because it demonstrates to the whole ship you do not know what you are doing. Say you miss the third line, for one of the following reasons: (1) you are watching the ocean swell in excess of 25 ft; (2) you REALLY made the LSO mad; (3) this is your sixteenth attempt after a wave off; and/or (4) your rank is major or above. In this case, if you are less than, say, 10 feet horizontally offset from the deck in a positive direction, the safety net will save your butt, stop the fighter, and ONLY MILDLY annoy the yellow shirts because they have to stop everything to untangle your plane. If you exceed the offset, you are obligated by strict Naval tradition to "TRY IT AGAIN, STUPID!" The other use for the safety net is those seldom enjoyed and exciting occasions whereby some integral and important part of your plane managed to fall off just as you touched down. Some examples are: wheels, wings, hook, engine... you know, minor stuff like that. You want to catch those pieces and put them back on, because today's NAVY is environmentally conscious.

Rule #1: Navy Pilots Don't Flare; They ARRIVE. Kinda hard to land 10 tons moving at 100 kts. when the flare point moves up and down by 10 feet. That is why the carrier qualified fighters have such huge amounts of gear travel and shock absorption.

Anyway, the LSO is doing his best to show you what your attitude is as you do the final approach thing. I mean the position of the aircraft relative to the flightpath, not your personal angst. This is an interactive and constantly changing display. The LSO IS NOT a Native American trying to get your attention through sign language. For some reason, the Navy does not use a VASI or PALPI system, but prefers to train and use this manual system. Commanders do not willingly show any lights on board except for the stupid Conning Tower number which any blind fool can see for 25 miles in dense fog. The are no known published Jeppessen ILS procedures for carriers either--I guess mostly because the landing area is not stationary. The only given is that the Touch Down Zone Elevation is generally around sea level. Figure 1 shows an LSO indicating a controlled approach condition. You are in the groove, just maintain everything exactly and you are guaranteed to hit the first line. Watch your airspeed, drop the gear and flaps, METO power, and VIOLA you are there.

Figure 1

Figure 2 shows the LSO indicating you are not lined up with the centerline and if you persist in your evil ways you will probably impact the Conn Tower or fall off the other side. If you follow the "PADDLES" with a bit of bank, you too, will soon be in the groove and will probably arrive on the deck in the right place.

Figure 2

Figure 3 shows the LSO indicating you are "HIGH", or above glidepath. You need to do something to return to the proper glidepath ie. lower the nose, reduce thrust, jettison the navigator.... This signal does not mean you are required to land and submit to the "GOLDEN SHOWER".

Figure 3

Figure 4 shows the LSO indicating a "WAVE OFF". This signal means you have just screwed up big time so bad it is almost funny. You had better just start all over again, you ain't gonna make the hook. This signal is considered bad form when received by the arivee. It is usually ignored by Majors and above hence "THE NET".

Figure 4

Figure 5 shows the LSO indicating the "TOO LOW" signal. LSO's do not like this signal because if the pilot does not immediately correct the problem, the pilot will generally impact with great fanfare about the area on top of where the LSO is standing. Sometimes Majors get confused and mistake this signal for the "WAVE OFF". Then the pilot will impact the stern, cause a huge mess, and get introduced to the BLACK SHIRTS. This annoys other pilots because it tends to cause them to have to land elsewhere which leads to fighting amongst the other crews (intership rivalries and all that). Majors and newly qualified aviators usually land last.

Figure 5

This brings us to the point of determining why exactly is the LSO concerned with assisting the pilot to snag the first line. As you may or may not know, there is an old axiom in the military that says "trouble flows downhill until it is stopped by rank." Since there are very few really good places to hide on a boat not already occupied by a Senior Chief, and you will have to eventually eat, whomsoever you piss off is gonna hunt you down like a dog and make your life a living hell. You can be assigned to PAINTING DETAIL in your crew section. You will be promoted to LATRINE QUEEN. You get transferred to The USS danger RANGER or USS Enterprise (the only ship that comes to you charcoal broiled) Obviously this makes the LSO highly motivated in job correctness.

At this time you are asking yourself, "What in the world does this nonsense have to do with the spot landing contest at the THIRD ANNUAL SCOTTY HOROWITZ AND FIRST ANNUAL PAM MELROY GOING AWAY PARTY AND EAA CHAPTER 49 PANCAKE BREAKFAST AND EAA CHAPTER 1000 BARBECUE LUNCH?" (Do you realize what exactly you just read? Whew.) I will tell you. EAA Chapter 1000 has within its membership Quantity 1 ea., Description, LSO, ret. checkmarked certified to EAACHAP1000 reg 225130 section 8 paragraph 15(b). At last years shindig, it was decided to assist the spot landing entrants with the proper NAVAL way to land since the VASI system at the Flying Snake Ranch seems to be terminally inoperative. As CAPT. BOB and MAJOR NORM (Hmmm, a Major.....) are steadfastly determined NOT to install arresting gear at Rosamond Skypark, (some silly stuff about EPA and the FAA which I do not care to involve you with) they have to substitute a chalk mark and assorted flags. I think that sort of spoils the whole concept of SPOT LANDING. I mean what kind of a contest is landing on an entire runway? I also think that not having a carrier conveniently placed to add interest to the operation takes all the thrills away, but CAPT BOB is vehement in his desire to avoid unnecessary litigation. Besides, how do you get a carrier in the middle of the desert? China Lake would not let us borrow theirs.

Anyway, here's the deal: The LSO will be out there to do his job with or without the requisite carrier. You, the pilot are sort of obligated to fly the plane by the sundry and many various assorted regulations. But IF you happen to look outside on final, and see your personal LSO wildly waving his PADDLES, feel free to sort of follow his suggestions, if you are so inclined. Remember, last years soire had an LSO when the winner of the spot landing arrived.


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Revised -- 22 February 1997