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I was watching the Disney movie Planes with my younger brother, and one of the characters/planes perform a emergency landing on an aircraft carrier.

And that got me thinking...

In case of emergency, is it possible (doable) to land a small propeller-driven aircraft, like a Cessna 350 Corvalis on a military aircraft carrier?

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aircraft carrier can setup a catching net when the plane can't use the cables – ratchet freak Mar 22 '14 at 17:38
Better hope the carrier knows you are coming. Post 911, they're really twitchy. – TechZen May 14 '14 at 18:27
Any info on the turbulence behind the carrier? Being a Cub driver I would be limited more by that than landing distance. – Wirewrap Dec 16 '15 at 9:33
up vote 17 down vote accepted

As Lnafziger says, a conventional landing is impossible for anything more than a tiny aircraft STOL aircraft (Carrier 'runway' length: 200m). As you state however, if it was an emergency, the aircraft carrier has a special net which it can fold up to stop planes, and since it can stop an F18 Hornet, it could probably take your Cessna as well :)


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The trick would still be hitting that relatively low net without being too high. If you were to catch just your landing gear in the net, you would still probably stop but the results wouldn't be pretty. – Greg Hewgill Mar 22 '14 at 19:33
Do you consider a C-130 Hercules "a tiny aircraft"? – Keep these mind Mar 22 '14 at 19:55
I wonder what the propeller would do to that net?? :-) – Lnafziger Mar 22 '14 at 21:32
Um, guys, isn't that an S-3 Viking? – Fred Larson Mar 24 '14 at 16:54
@Livius: Yeah, mistaking it for an F-18 really blows my mind. – Fred Larson Mar 25 '14 at 14:58

A South Vietnamese Air Force Cessna O-1 landed on the USS Midway at the end of the Vietnam War. Fixed-wing VNAF aircraft usually flew to Thailand, and the naval evacuation was carried out by helicopter (with crews sometimes ditching in the water after the flight decks ran out of room), but this O-1 pilot wound up making his first carrier landing, with his family on board and an hour of fuel left.

Wikipedia wrote a paragraph about it and has another couple photos.

Major Buang lands his Cessna O-1 on USS Midway

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To be fair, O-1 was technically a STOL aircraft used for military observation. It could land in a parking lot. – TechZen May 14 '14 at 18:26
@TechZen true, but it was a small prop aircraft :) If the carrier is going at its regular speed for landing operations, something like a C.172 would if it slowed to stall speed only be going something like 10 knots faster than the speed of the ship. Doesn't take much to stop then :) – jwenting Oct 16 '14 at 10:43
Yeah that's the important factor - a C172 or similar stalls at around 47 knots. An aircraft carrier can travel at 30+ knots, so even assuming there's no wind (which would be a headwind assuming that carrier turned into it as normal) the plane is only travelling at a relative 17kts. Stopping from 17kts in 300ft isn't outrageous. A skilled pilot could even potentially climb from slightly below deck level and stall onto the deck, travelling even slower. With even a moderate 30kt headwind, you could actually allow the carrier to overtake you and land backwards... – Jon Story Jan 15 '15 at 11:03
@JonStory: Great, now I have to get that particular picture out of my mind. "Hey carrier, would you mind catching up a bit?" – DevSolar Jan 16 '15 at 11:46
I've got to be honest, I'm incredibly tempted to steal a C172 and a Nimitz Class Carrier and try that now.... who's up for a day trip? – Jon Story Jan 16 '15 at 16:05

A light aircraft (e.g. C172) has a landing roll of around 500 feet. There are no 50 foot obstacles to consider so the 1500 foot to a 50 foot obstacle isn't required. Thats from 60 knots to a full stop. Going from 60 knots to 30 knots (30 knots is the wind over the deck) means it will be less than half that.

So the problem is not one of the aircraft, most light aircraft with similar performance are perfectly capable of doing it without a landing hook or anything like that. The problem is the pilot, with no training or practice this will be very hard to do because the deck is moving in the swell, and its also moving sideways due to the angled deck. A bad crash is the most likely outcome.

An ex navy pilot with recent experience. Now thats a different story, even without arrestor hook etc etc they would find it easy compared to landing their big heavy jet on the deck.

The Corvalis is a hot ship in light aircraft terms with a much longer ground roll, so this would be tight. Again with skill (ex navy pilot etc etc) and wind over the deck (you can get going on 30 knots from the ship even if the wind is calm) I think it could still be done.

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Just like to add, with the carrier doing 30 knots into a 20 knot headwind, that would be 50 knots over the deck, making a 172 landing very easy only having to lose 10 knots of speed... for an experienced pilot. I am not navy trained, and I wouldn't like to try it no matter how much money you paid me. Would I ditch rather than land on a carrier? Dunno. I'm not in that situation right now so its really hard to tell. Also in that situation the 172 might not want to stay on the deck as the stall speed would be less than the 50 knot wind over the deck. – Philip Johnson Dec 17 '15 at 8:43
While experience helps, I have some reservations that an experienced navy pilot will find it easy to land a Cessna on the deck. Carrier landing is performed without flare: they just aim at a point and smash the aircraft there (with the navy aircraft having reinforced landing gear). A Cessna, even despite much lower approach speed, may not hold the impact if landed this way. Doing a flare is also not easy due to deck movement (except in a calmest sea), even if distance allows. Another factor is the airwake turbulence, to which a light aircraft will be more sensitive and exposed for longer time. – Zeus Feb 23 at 6:34

The published landing distance for the Cessna is the certified distance - that's what it needs in a worst-case, no-flaps, high, hot, zero-wind landing. Any pilot will tell you that they rarely need the whole runway.

Consider the big picture of the aircraft carrier. The ocean is HUGE (ask the people searching for Malaysia 370) and rather featureless. Private planes rarely cross large paths of open ocean as it's often the longest route to where they are going rather than the shortest. So the chances of a carrier battle group being anywhere near you are extremely small. If your plane is flying well enough to find the CBG, come in behind and line up for a landing then you probably don't need it in the first place.

In theory, light aircraft would have no technical problems landing on the deck. Lots of room with a 30-50kt headwind, no need for a tailhook or nets as you don't weigh 30,000 pounds or come in at 200kt IAS on full afterburner. The chances of a non-navy-trained pilot hitting the touchdown zone of a runway moving away from them at 30kt and pitching up and down several meters is laughably small. You would either miss and have to go around (again, if you can do that, you don't need the carrier in the first place) or make a mess on the fantail. Even navy pilots do this on occasion, but they have ejection seats.

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Note to editor: "full afterburner" is a lot more than 200 kts!". No, it isn't. Full afterburner is a thrust level. You can run the 'burner all the way up standing still. Carrier aircraft always land at full power in case they miss the cable, but the cable needs to be stronger to stop both the kinetic energy of the plane and the engine thrust. – paul Oct 16 '14 at 8:01
It's more accurate to say that they go to full power with afterburners at about the point the wheels hit the deck (in order to give the engines their 4-5 seconds to spool up if they miss the cables shortly after touchdown); approach is not, as far as I'm aware, done at anything like full throttle. – Nathan Tuggy Dec 17 '14 at 1:24
The question was clear. This is an "is it physically possible" question not "is it likely." – acpilot May 8 at 15:29

According to this page, the landing distance of the Cessna 350 is 2,350 feet.

A Nimitz class carrier deck is close to 1,000 feet long, and can travel about 30 knots. If they were going full speed into a headwind, it might be possible for them to stop in time, but it would be pretty scary, and if they ran off the end they would be run over by the carrier!

Note however that the airplane would pretty much have to be directly above it when it happened, and I doubt that the military would like a civilian aircraft being that close in the first place so it's very unlikely to ever even be an option unless it was setup in advance.

A different airplane like a Super Cub or as you pointed out a C-130, which can land in about 300 feet could do it pretty easily, even without the wind as long as they don't get caught up in the arresting gear.

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According to pilotfriend.com/aircraft%20performance/columbia/2.htm, the 350 has a no-wind landing ground run of 1550 feet and a landing stall speed of 57 knots. Steaming at 30 knots doubles the effective length of the carrier, so landing without arresting gear would be quite possible; with the carrier steaming into a stiff headwind, you could actually fly a "vertical" landing. – Mark Mar 23 '14 at 0:55
@lnafziger run over by the carrier is less likely due to the fact that u land on the angled deck rather than the straight deck. You are more likely to fall over board :) – vasin1987 Mar 23 '14 at 7:00
@Mark: You are underestimating the effect. Grossly! – Jan Hudec Mar 23 '14 at 10:49
Ok, so let's take the 2350 ft distance and 74 (1.3 * 57) knots Vref and no wind. The motion of the carrier redues the speed to just 44 knots and since the landing distance is proportional to square of speed, that leaves us with 831 ft, well within the available 1000. Of course it's still rather risky since there is no runway overrun area (aircraft with arrestor gear actually apply full power just before touch-down, so they can touch-and-go if they miss the arrestor), but in an emergency doable. – Jan Hudec Mar 23 '14 at 10:56
@vsz I agree, and mention two in my answer, and definitely the C-130 falls into the "not so tiny" category. He specifically asked about that airplane though. – Lnafziger Mar 23 '14 at 13:10

I suppose if it were an emergency (Not like torn radio aerial, more like fuel leaking/low in the middle of the ocean) you could save yourself by ditching the plane, parachuting onto the aircraft carrier. You'd be arrested by armed navy men, but as long as you don't try to fight back, you'll be taken to wherever they're going in the brig - alive. (And not drowned, marooned, or eaten by sharks) This of course would be after you beg over the radio to land. If they say yes, you can save your plane, maybe buy some of their fuel, and take off for wherever you're going (or be arrested with your plane, get taken to wherever they're going, and pay for a hangar there while you figure things out. Not sure what navy protocol on this is.

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I imagine policy is "sorry, no" because of what paul said in his answer, particularly the part about likely crashing on their carrier. – Dronz Oct 24 '14 at 23:13
What's the 100LL rate on a carrier these days. Is it self serve and do they take Amex? – acpilot May 8 at 15:34

An aircraft with a grappling hook could do it such as a Cessna which is capable of towing a banner. It wouldn't end well, but he could survive for sure. A Cessna 172 needs about 1,500 feet of runway for landing... depending on fuel load of course. Typical carrier landing zone is only about 1,000 feet. The grappling hook used to load a banner could reduce the inertia enough that the plane would not explode if it caught a landing wire, but I would not recommend it... it'd rip the plane apart. 'Traps' are practiced on land before on sea. It would be very difficult for a Cessna to capture the 'meatball' for an inexperienced pilot on an angle deck. Your runway is constantly drifting right.

The VS0 of a Cessna 172 (Down and dirty) is 54Mph, an Aircraft Carrier can easily do 46Mph if turned into the wind. A reduction of 8Mph within 1,000 feet is not impossible... so yes, it's possible.

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In theory, yes it is possible to do so. It all depends on the aircraft type, approach speeds, sea and weather conditions, etc.

During the end of the Vietnam War, a South Vietnamsee refugee landed an OV-1 Bird Dog on the deck of the USS Midway (CV-41). So, yes light airplanes have made unarrested landings on carriers in the past. If your in a light airplane with a stall speed around 30kts and very proficient on your short field landings, this should be no sweat, provided the ship can steam either at, or into the prevailing wind at 30 or so kts. If you're flying a dedicated bush airplane eg an Aviat Husky, Carbon Cub, etc designed for STOL operations, it may even be possible to stick a 3-wire (touch down and hold the main wheels in the third cross deck pendant full stop) under these conditions.

Larger, heavier aircraft have faster approach speeds and need considerably more runway to stop on. The CE-350 Corvalis mentioned above is going to require around 1500-2000 ft to land depending on ambient atmospheric conditions at sea level and calm winds, provided you can fly a short field right by the book. Even with a 30kt headwind, you're looking at an 1100 ft or so of ground roll, making an unarrested landing on a carrier impractical.

If there was no other option available to you, the deck hands could rig the barricade - a device which looks something like a tennis court net on steroids. Granted this device was designed to stop aircraft 10-20 times the weight of a Corvalis at nearly twice the approach speed and I don't know if the arresting gear attached to it have settings available for smaller lighter aircraft. If it doesn't, it could cause serious structural damage to your airplane, possibly making things worse. Maybe that's better than ditching alongside the ship, maybe not.

Another factor would be the sea itself. Carriers are not fixed airfields and in rough seas, the deck lists, pitches, and rolls considerably - think of a 100,000 ton cork bobbing in the ocean - making approaches quite dangerous for neophyte pilots. Rough swellscouldbreak the gear off or do other structural damage during a round out, or cause the pilot to strike the round out, etc. but if there was no other alternative, it's a risk you would have to take.

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Hmm, it seems like everything you answer says is already addressed by the other answers. – SMS von der Tann May 8 at 14:34

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