I'm story-boarding a novel. I'm toying with the idea of contriving a situation in which a midsize commercial aircraft is forced to make an emergency landing on an aircraft carrier. I read here that the largest plane to land on an aircraft carrier is a C130 Hercules, which it did as a series of tests. Its maximum weight when performing these tests was 121,000 lbs. At this weight, it required only 460 feet to land. And it did so without use of a tailhook, or any other arresting mechanism. The brand new Gerald R. Ford class carrier is 1,106 feet long. The landing strip on the carrier is somewhat shorter. I couldn't find numbers on this, but from photos, I would estimate that the landing strip is a little more than 800 feet long. Which leads me to my first question:

In an emergency situation, could an aircraft use the full length of the aircraft carrier's deck to land?

Assuming the answer to the above is yes, this means that our commercial aircraft has somewhat more than twice the distance to make its landing than the C130 did. Let us assume that the commercial aircraft is a B737 Classic, weighing aobut 140,000 pounds, just a little more than the C130 did during the tests. This leads me to my main question:

Could a 737 Classic safely make an unarrested emergency landing on a Gerald R. Ford Class aircraft carrier?

By safely, I mean without any passenger death. I expect that any such landing attempt would result in significant damage to the aircraft and the carrier. On one hand, the numbers seem to suggest that if a C130 can do it, so could a B737. On the other hand, I would expect that the C130, as a military aircraft, is more robust than a commercial aircraft, and perhaps able to better meet the conditions required to land on a carrier.

Also, I realize that in an emergency situation it may be safer for the aircraft to make a water landing near the carrier, and then for the passengers to evacuate onto inflatable rafts, finally to be brought aboard shortly thereafter. I will have to invent a situation which requires the plane to land on the carrier.

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    $\begingroup$ The c-130 was designed to operate from short unimproved strips, there is no way a 737 could land in 1000ft. $\endgroup$ – Ron Beyer Mar 13 '16 at 3:55
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    $\begingroup$ As a comparison, a c-130 taking off at 80,000 lbs needs 1400 ft to take off, only 500ft more than the ground roll of a Cessna 172. The problem is that the airliner would hit the deck so hard is gear would break off and end up in the drink anyway. Safer to just ditch near the carrier and hope for a quick rescue. $\endgroup$ – Ron Beyer Mar 13 '16 at 4:02
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    $\begingroup$ Adding to the difficulty: The carrier must be oriented correctly into the wind, and sailing at full speed to make the landing deck more stable by countering the effect of the waves and allowing a higher approach speed. Approaching a moving strip shouldn't be something easy for a commercial pilot. Remember the direction of the landing is not exactly the direction the carrier is sailing, because the strip is angled. See What makes it so hard to land on an aircraft carrier?. $\endgroup$ – mins Mar 13 '16 at 11:50
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    $\begingroup$ Maybe you can think out of the box. I have landed the Space Shuttle on an aircraft carrier in XPlane 9, basically by rigging the shuttle to have working rockets and landing vertically. $\endgroup$ – Michael Mar 13 '16 at 19:28
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    $\begingroup$ The landing could be made arrested. In addition to the arrestor wires used for normal operation, the aircraft carrier has an arresting net that can be raised across the landing strip and captures the structure of the aircraft. It might damage the aircraft, but for emergency landing it would get used. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Mar 13 '16 at 21:36

A classic 737 MAX landing weight is about 114,000# for a -300, less for a -500, more for a -400. But that is max. Down to "almost empty" gas tanks, knock another 8 or 10,000# off of that. Less than full pax/cargo load, several more thousand pounds off.

With a stiff breeze, say 20 knots, plus the carrier at max speed, you have maybe 50 knots of headwind. With that sort of headwind, can you stop a mid- to light-weight 737 in 1000' using full flaps, max reverse, and max brakes?

I don't have the charts with me, but I suspect you totally could, and in fact it wouldn't even be all that close. No margin for error if equipment fails, but if everything works right, those jets can stop quite well. And 50 knots on the beak is a LOT of headwind... "groundspeed" over the deck would be like 60 or 70 knots, and you can lose that in a lot less than 1000'.

I've flown C-130's and 737's, and the rate of descent on an assault landing in the Herk is nothing the 737 couldn't handle.

So... carrier landing... good to go?

Not so sure. Compared to carrier aircraft, the 737 wingspan in WIDE -- even for the "little" -500. That limits where you can plan your rollout so that you don't have an unacceptably high risk of clipping the island. Without playing with scale drawings of a 737 and the Ford's deck, I couldn't even guess if or how the geometry would or wouldn't work out.

Alternate plan that is probably no more risky for the passengers and might be a LOT safer for the carrier: ditch your (nearly out of fuel) jet close to the carrier, and have the carrier's helos and the small boats of the battle group pull the survivors off the wings or out of the water. With calm water, you get a "Sully" scenario (except with wings filled mostly with air, rather than jet fuel... Better buoyancy). In rough water, the risks go up. Way up.

But in that sort of weather, the deck landing gets lots more risky as well.

I suspect the deck landing would neither be allowed nor requested, but not for reasons of stopping performance.

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    $\begingroup$ Thanks for the detailed answer, and for bringing up the wingspan, which is something I hadn't thought of. I did think about water landing, but let's be honest--that's way less exciting for a novel! I'll have to come up with a very compelling reason for the plane to land on the carrier. $\endgroup$ – TheWire Mar 13 '16 at 4:42
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    $\begingroup$ @TheWire Because not risking the cargo or equipment it carries sink is more important than keeping the carrier operational? $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Mar 13 '16 at 5:01
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    $\begingroup$ If the plane needs to land they may accept the risk (or certainty) of hitting the carrier's island with a wing and the resulting damage - possibly even if the carrier is not willing to accept that risk. Can a plane land on a carrier without its cooperation, assuming that the carrier isn't willing to shoot it down during approach ? $\endgroup$ – Peteris Mar 13 '16 at 15:54
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    $\begingroup$ @TheWire I think attempting a water landing arbitrarily close to a carrier without hitting any part of the carrier group sounds exciting enough to me. And not to tell you your business... isn't the excitement largely in the writing? I just read Stephen King describe snow falling in a way that sounded ominous and sinister. Just snow falling. $\endgroup$ – Todd Wilcox Mar 13 '16 at 16:13
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    $\begingroup$ The B737 has a smaller wingspan than a C-130 and both can easily be accommodated on a 160' wide aircraft carrier flight deck: qph.is.quoracdn.net/… $\endgroup$ – Mike Sowsun Mar 13 '16 at 17:02

B737-500 required landing runway requirement is around 975m, while 300/400 model needs longer.

Although actual landing runway requirement is 3/5 of required landing runway requirement(dry) (FAA standard), Ford Class does not have such a long runway.

Without modification of b737, it is not likely for a b737 to land on a Ford class carrier. enter image description here

On the other hand, Boeing had proposal to develop T-43 Carrier Onboard Delivery. If Boeing won the USN contract, we may see B737-200 landing on aircraft carrier.

More details can be seen here. enter image description here

  • $\begingroup$ Last line is missing a word or two. $\endgroup$ – SMS von der Tann Mar 13 '16 at 19:37
  • $\begingroup$ A 737-500 is LIGHTER than a -300, and thus needs less runway, not more. Do you have the charts to correct the landing distance for headwinds, on the order of 30-50 knots? $\endgroup$ – Ralph J Mar 13 '16 at 22:29
  • $\begingroup$ @Ralph you right, thank you. $\endgroup$ – Him Mar 13 '16 at 22:58

In addition to the other posts: it depends on how much notice the carrier has. The C-130 landed on an empty deck; during normal operations the edge of the flight deck is lined with aircraft.

This goes double if you decide to use the full deck length instead of just the landing area. The bow area is often used for parking.

So in order to land a 737, you need to launch pretty much every aircraft that's currently on deck (which can be ~50 depending on what the carrier is doing at the moment).

Launching 50 aircraft takes a while: a carrier can launch 4 planes/minute maximum, and that's if everything has been lined up just so beforehand, every aircraft already has fuel and crew on board, etc..


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