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What is the procedure for landing on an aircraft carrier? How is the checklist different from a regular landing?

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    $\begingroup$ Much more prayer! Especially on night traps! (There may be no atheists in a Foxhole, but I wonder if there are any in an F-18 or F-14 during a night trap...) $\endgroup$ – geoffc Dec 29 '13 at 1:07
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Landing on "The Boat"

Glossary

  • Approach turn/ 180: The approach turn itself is a 180 degree turn (190 degrees at the boat because of the angled deck) that is usually broken down into 5 segments: the 180 position, the 135, the 90 (halfway through the turn), the 45 and the groove. Each respective position indicates the number of degrees left in the turn prior to rolling out in the groove.
  • (The) Ball or Meatball: an orange orb of light emitted from the IFLOLS. A green horizontal row of lights (known as the datum) indicates proper glide slope. If the ball is below the datum, the aircraft is low, and if its above the datum, the aircraft is high. Aircraft should strive to keep the ball on the happy side.
  • Ball Call: Format: "(Side-number) (aircraft type) ball, (fuel-state), (auto-throttles)" Example: "123 Rhino ball, 9.0"
  • Carrier Break: A type of left hand overhead performed at 800ft AGL and 350+kts (for hornet guys)
  • BRC: the basic recovery course. The course at which the ship is currently traveling, which does not include the offset for the angled deck.
  • Groove: the final portion of the approach (what civilians might call short-final)
  • Initial: on BRC, 3-5nm behind the ship, 800ft AGL, 350+kts, the starting point for the day approach
  • Interval: the specific aircraft in the pattern whose approach will commence just prior to yours, and whose separation you are responsible for not violating.
  • On speed: the proper AoA that will achieve the correct hook angle to catch the target wire of the carrier. On speed airspeed can be approximated by the aircraft weight, but the term on speed does not refer to airspeed specifically, but units of AoA.
  • Side number: The 3 digit number assigned to the aircraft. This is not the buno number (military aircraft don't have N numbers), it is a squadron specific identifier. I will hence refer to '123' as the default side number.

Carrier Procedure

For simplicity's sake we'll pick it up at initial. Glossary items have been italicized for ease of reading.

  1. "123 flight of x, initial", ATC will then give the required instruction.
  2. The flight will then side-step to the right of the carrier island, and begin looking for their interval.
  3. Reaching the carrier, the flight will then perform the carrier break on their interval, ensuring that aircraft will arrive in 60 second intervals.
  4. Landing checklist: 3 down and locked, flaps full, hook down, antiskid off, dispenser off, on speed XXX.
  5. Once turned downwind, the aircraft will descend from 800ft AGL to 600ft AGL (the carrier pattern is flown at 600ft), and the aircraft will ensure it has proper lateral separation (abeam distance) from the carrier so as not to overshoot or undershoot on the approach turn.
  6. Once abeam the LSO shack (or when the white of the round down is visible), the aircraft will increase VSI to approximately 200-300fpm and begin a 27-30 degree AoB turn. Proper time in the groove is limited to only 15-18 seconds. Too long or too short in the groove and the LSO can wave you off, so it is paramount that the approach turn be performed at the proper position.
  7. At the 90, altitude should be 450ft AGL, and VSI should increase to 500fpm.
  8. At the 45 the aircraft should be crossing the wake of the carrier, altitude should be 325-375ft AGL, and the ball should appear to rise. Note: Rolling into the groove, the ball should appear either centered or slightly high.
  9. Once in the groove, with a visible ball, the aircraft makes its ball call. The LSO will respond with "roger ball", which is the aircraft's clearance to land.
  10. Once established in the groove, the aircraft should be roughly 700fpm and flying the ball for glidepath. The pilot's scan becomes: meatball, lineup, AoA, meatball, lineup, AoA, meatball, lineup, AoA (you get the point).
  11. As the aircraft flies in the groove the runway will constantly slip to the right requiring small, almost imperceptible, lateral stick inputs (and matching power corrections to account for the loss in lift). The pilot will strive to keep the aircraft on centerline, on speed, with a centered ball. Note: failure to keep the aircraft on speed can result in either a bolter, or an in-flight engagement. It is imperative the aircraft maintain the proper AoA.
  12. Just prior to touchdown, as the aircraft passes over the ramp, the pilot's scan will shift to ball, ball, ball, ball, ball, and the touchdown should come as a surprise. This is referred to as "flying the ball all the way to touchdown". Pilot's that deck spot (ie, attempt to fly to a specific spot on the deck) often fly down through the glideslope at the last moment and land short.
  13. Once on the deck, the throttles will go to full military power (just shy of AB), and when landing has been assured, then the power will be reduced and the aircraft taxied off the landing area.

Shore Procedure

Naval aviation revolves around flying at the boat. It is imperative that the procedures used at the boat become second nature, that they become ingrained in muscle memory. To this effect, all shore based VFR approaches will be flown in exactly the same manner as would be at the carrier, with a few minor exceptions:

  • Antiskid will be on
  • The hook (for a non-emergency) will be up
  • Aircraft aren't required to have 60 seconds of separation, we routinely land with aircraft taxiing down the runway.
  • The throttles will be retarded unless executing a touch and go.

Otherwise, naval air stations that house carrier based aircraft all have I/FLOLS installed, and the ball is flown during normal VFR approaches to the field.


Further Reading

(Edit)

The following link, provided by the Chief of Naval Air Training Command (CNATRA), is an unclassified, publicly available, training guide used to train potential Naval Aviators to land on the boat for the first time. The procedures are nearly identical, with a few nuances related to T-45 training operations, to the procedures used daily by fleet aviators.

Legal Notice.

Link to document provided by CNATRA.

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  • $\begingroup$ "AGL" - is that relative to the ocean surface or the deck? I suppose if it matters at all it would be in the pattern. $\endgroup$ – radarbob Dec 11 '14 at 4:30
  • $\begingroup$ @radarbob Good question, its always the ocean surface. We have radar altimeters we use to give us our precise AGL altitude. Once you roll into the groove if you fly a good ball the deck height will take care of itself. $\endgroup$ – Rhino Driver Dec 11 '14 at 7:04
  • $\begingroup$ Are shore procedures even the same for people in planes that can't fly on carriers (e.g. P-3s)? $\endgroup$ – cpast Feb 15 '15 at 10:08
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    $\begingroup$ @cpast No, only carrier aircraft use carrier based procedures on shore. As for helicopters, who knows. They fly by magic anyway. $\endgroup$ – Rhino Driver Feb 15 '15 at 20:20
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    $\begingroup$ Don't think I'd ever come across this question before. Fantastic answer! Thanks for providing the detail!! $\endgroup$ – FreeMan Nov 18 '16 at 21:16
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There are a few differences in landing on an aircraft carrier versus on the ground.
I've got no carrier (or military) experience so I can't really speak to the checklists, except to say that they would be slightly different for each aircraft, but it's a subject that's interesting to me so I've done a little digging over the years.

These are the differences that always stick out in my mind:

  1. The whole airport is moving
    When setting up for launch or recovery carriers typically "steam into the wind", creating a combined headwind of whatever the winds on the sea are, plus the speed of the carrier. This minimizes the deck speed of landing aircraft, and is advantageous for takeoffs as well.
    As an example, if you've got a 10 knot breeze and the carrier is steaming along at 30 knots into the wind the effective headwind on deck is 40 knots, so aircraft landing have a deck speed (ground speed) about 40 knots lower than their indicated airspeed, which makes decelerating them easier.

  2. The arresting gear (Hook & Wires)
    Even with the headwind above, modern carrier-based aircraft - with the exception of helicopters - touch down with some substantial forward velocity. They would not be able to stop using conventional thrust reversers and brakes, so in order to actually STOP the aircraft on the deck arresting gear is used to rapidly decelerate it.

  3. The "full-throttle touchdown"
    As Cameron pointed out, part of normal carrier landing procedure is to set the aircraft's engines to maximum thrust as soon as your wheels hit the deck, in preparation for a "bolter" if you miss the arresting gear (or it fails to stop your aircraft).
    This is due to the short deck -- there is generally insufficient distance for either a rollout/stopping the aircraft with brakes or the pilot's reaction time for a "touch-and-go" when they realize they missed the wire. With the engines at full thrust the pilot is already accelerating and preparing to climb out and try again.

  4. The approach slope guidance (Optical landing system)
    This is the "ball" you hear pilots talking about in all those naval aviation movies, this is the equivalent of the various land-based approach slope systems (PAPIs/VASIs). In the US Navy the optical landing system is controlled by the Landing Signal Officer (LSO), who also issues instructions to the pilot as necessary to facilitate safe recovery of the aircraft. My understanding is other navies with aircraft carriers have a similar person on deck.


Note that all of the above is for fixed-wing aircraft.
Helicopters can and do land on aircraft carriers too, but their procedures are much closer to "normal" (land) landings, because of the nature of helicopters.

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    $\begingroup$ The airport is moving up and down, as well as "steaming" into the wind. $\endgroup$ – Dan Pichelman Dec 29 '13 at 1:22
  • $\begingroup$ @DanPichelman Indeed, this is part of why we needed LSOs and the OLS. It's hard to judge your approach when the runway is moving up and down. $\endgroup$ – voretaq7 Dec 29 '13 at 2:03
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    $\begingroup$ A friend of mine told me you put in full thrust before your wheels even make contact, because it takes a while for turbines to spool up to full thrust. $\endgroup$ – MishaP Jan 2 '14 at 23:49
  • $\begingroup$ What about the angle of attack? Is there any flare? $\endgroup$ – Thunderstrike Feb 7 '14 at 0:24
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    $\begingroup$ @voretaq7 The OLS used by the US Navy is the IFLOLS. It is a self-adjusting lens that compensates for ship movement, and aircraft hook-to-eye distance. Except for in the most extreme sea states (or for practice), the LSO does not manually control the movement of the ball. The LSO's act as a sort of visual final controller, visually monitoring the glideslope and lineup of the aircraft, and warning the pilot of developing unsafe trends during the approach. $\endgroup$ – Rhino Driver Nov 17 '14 at 21:14
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It's been a while since my last trap; 20 years or so. But, I spent a significant portion of my life flying on and off aircraft carriers. 597 traps (200 night) on 11 different carriers, from 1983 until 1995. I was also a Fleet LSO and a TRACOM (Training Command) LSO (Landing Signal Officer).

In my books I often write about carrier operations, so I have stayed in tune.

First: there are three types of approaches. Case I, Case II and Case III. Case III is for night and instrument conditions. Each aircraft or flight is assigned a holding altitude and fix (radial/DME) then penetrates on a TACAN approach, arc to the final bearing then picks up a raw data ILS.

The crew must push from their fix and alt with in +/- 10 seconds at 250 knots. You penetrate at 250 flying up the reference radial until 15 DME, turn to put the head of the needle on your wing and arc at 12 DME until you pick up final bearing FB (which is not same as Base Recovery Course, the BRC is heading of ship which is 8-13 degrees different depending on angle deck of the ship). The FB is aligned with the angle deck (actual landing area). Altitude is 1200'. At that point you pick up the CILS (like civilian ILS it gives you course and glide slope info on attitude indicator). At 10 miles (DME) from ship approx you put gear, flaps and hook down at 3 miles you intercept glide slope, pop out speed brakes and slow to on speed (optimum Angle Of Attack AOA) and start down. In the cockpit on the glare shield (dashboard), left side is a visual AOA indicator. It has two chevrons: \ / top (green), / \ bottom (red), with a yellow circle 0 in the middle. At 3/4's of a mile the LSO picks you up for control and you transition to a visual approach: fresnel lens/meatball (glide slope), line-up (course) angle of attack (speed). At night LSOs watch for the external approach lights (same colors as indexer) for speed, engine sound for power setting, and their eye for line up and glide slope. LSOs can see deviations before the pilots and calls for corrections over the radio for example: "power" (you are low), "right for line up" (because of the angle deck, landing area moves left to right as you approach), EASY with it" (you are going high), and the one no Naval Aviator wants to hear: "WAVE-OFF!" (you scared them, or the deck is fouled and you have to go around and try again). The LSOs also grade every pass on a 4 point scale. Each grade is posted on a board on the ready room wall for all to see. If your grades and/or boarding rate suck for too long (there is a definite learning curve) you go home.

If all goes well; you stay on speed (yellow donut) that keeps your speed correct and the hook at proper hieght/position, you land on center-line pointed down the angle deck, AND you are on the proper glide slope +/- 2 feet; you snag the three wire go to full power, click off the external lights and when you feel that welcome tug you unlock and fold the wings...then get outta the way because your Airwing pal is right behind you. If things don't go well: high- you bolter (miss the wires) and go around, low- you get waved off, snatch an early wire (bad grade) or hit the ramp and blow up. Off centerline- you'll get waved off (in the EA-6B Prowler 10' off CL put the wing tip into the noses of aircraft parked on foul line), even if you are on centerline if course isn't correct you can end up in the parked aircraft...highly frowned upon. BTW, at sea, at night, it's darker than 10 feet up a black cat's a$$.

CASE 1: Is the fun approach and is for good weather. Normally it is done EMCON, no radios. Each squadron has an assigned altitude over head the ship, you circle in a left hand pattern, normally in a flight of 2 or 4. When the flight lead sees an opening he drops to 800 feet abeam ship, outside of 5 miles, and then turns 180 degrees and runs up the ship's wake at 350 knots. At the bow the lead breaks by kissing off the flight with a hand signal and rolling into an 80 degree angle of bank turn, speed brakes out and pulling into a 4 g's in the turn. At 250 knots, gear, flaps and hook down. Approaching mid-ship drop to 600', check distance and begin to slow onspeed. Abeam the LSO platform (left side/aft on ship) start a 25-30 degree angle of bank left turn. At the 90 position of the race track pattern, be at 450', crossing the ship's wake 325-375' and be on-speed. In the groove wings level for 12-15 seconds, center-line between your legs, centered ball, and on speed until touch down. Fun city. Any deviation causes a down grade, the airwing competes for best squadron and Top Ten Aviators by grade average.

CASE-II is a combination of both when weather is above 1000 feet cieling with 5 miles of visibility, but there is a solid layer of overcast (SOCAL in June). You hold, penetrate, and fly up the TACAN FB like CASE II until below the over cast. then you enter for a carrier break like CASE I.

CASE I- S**t Hot-1 approach. Same as CASE I except you have to have more speed than altitude. 550 knots indicated at 500 feet works marvelously. You must break no later than the bow of the ship or it doesn't count. 90 degree, 5 g left turn, speed brakes out. After 180 degrees of turn slowing thru 250 indicated; gear, flaps, hook down. Ease turn to 60 degrees angle of bank. Pull toward the 90 as gear and flaps program out. You will slow rapidly and jets have significant spool up time, so put throttles in approximately 80% range. Over the wake ease roll to 30 degrees angle of bank. Rolling into groove on centerline the aircraft will squat onspeed as the engines spool up like majic. snatch the three wire, full power, then jerk the power off as you are drug to a halt by the arresting gear. This will bounce you out of the wires as you fold the wings so you don't "sh*t in the wires", causing the guy 30 seconds behind you to go around. REALLY fun city! A warning: John Wayne in the break often becomes Slim Pikens in the groove...its a gamble!

So what makes it hard? Deck moving +/_ 30 feet is "challenging", ship changing course is fun, especially CASE III. Ship blowing tubes (smoke out stack) causing you to go IFR in the groove. Single engine or other emergency approaches. Or various things you or your fellow Aviators screw up. Blue Water, (no divert), also ramps up the pressure.

So that's it, quick and dirty, with bad punctuation. I've got to go clean the gutters.

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  • $\begingroup$ If you want to read more you can go to lelandshanle.com or amazon for Leland Shanle's books. $\endgroup$ – Michael Hall Feb 17 at 19:02
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Navy carrier pilots routinely land the same ashore as aboard ship with the exception of the tail hook being stowed ashore (unless you have an emergency that requires an arrested landing at the field) and not going to full power upon touchdown (not prior) unless you are doing a touch and go landing (or FCLP-Field Carrier Landing Practice).

Most navy fields that have carrier based aircraft will have an OLS system at the field for continued practice during most approaches.

Attitude (Angle of Attack-AOA) is set near the start of the final approach as part of the landing checklist. This attitude has the tail hook at the lowest point and keeps the nose high.

Being on the back end of the 'power curve' with this high attitude, additionally keeps the aircraft speed over the ground slower and the power settings higher to maintain flying speed and prevent stall. Upon landing this thrust becomes excess thrust enabling the aircraft to more quickly accelerate and get safely airborne in the event of a bolter.

Additionally the higher thrust setting minimizes any spool up time because you are already near max thrust.

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    $\begingroup$ AoA is not part of the landing checklist, and, generally speaking, you should be on speed long before you roll into the groove (sh#t hot withstanding) or before you cross the FAF. Also, the proper AoA (on speed) keeps the hook at the optimum trapping height, which is far from the heighest AoA, or lowest hook height. Flying in full slow, with the hook further down, can result in ramp strikes and in-flight engagements. And if you want to get really technical, there are plenty of reasons why you might use military power prior to touchdown. For example, correcting a high in the middle. $\endgroup$ – Rhino Driver Mar 3 '15 at 19:15
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Don't know about a checklist, but I know that when they get ready to land (as in, they are about to touch down on the carrier) they set the engines to max thrust, just incase they do not hit the cable to slow them down. I thought that this video about it was cool.

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As I read over the posts one thing comes to mind that is worth pointing out if we are discussing differences in checklists between landing on the field and landing on the ship. The difference appears in the checklist with regards to how the ABS (anti-skid) is handled in the 2 environments. On land the pilot ensures that ABS is selected and on the ship they make sure it is deselected. This is perhaps more important than you would think as is borne out by the fact it was mentioned in every fly-off brief I attended.

It is an important distinction for at least 2 reasons, one maybe obvious and the other not so obvious. First, ABS is not engaged while on the deck because if it fails during taxiing it can be catastrophic. A runaway aircraft on the deck can cause all sorts of problems. Taxi speeds on the deck are closely controlled and slow. There is no need for ABS there.

Second, when you do your work on the carrier you are there for months at a time, and most of your landings are to a wire. No brakes needed on landing except when the Plane Captain tells you to apply them after pull back. The first use of your brakes after landing is commanded by the Plane Captain, and almost immediately after landing! This is an important point because old habits explode easy.

Now the time has come for the squadron to pack up and head home. The planes do a fly-off and arrive at their home base field with the anti-skid turned off. Sure there is a checklist, and your mind is transitioning from landing on the ship to landing at the field. You would be surprised how often that switch is missed, and missed by experienced pilots as well.

Every fly-off brief I attended I heard this one item emphasized, and even then forgotten at the field on touchdown. The fly-off occurred as we approached the US. The planes that could fly were launched so they could arrive at the Naval Base where the squadron was attached. Once the ship docked they had to be off-loaded and transported.

You are excited to get one of the aircraft for the fly-off, sure it doesn't have a radio, but that doesn't down it. Your family and friends are waiting for you at home. You attend the brief and the next thing you know you are airborne heading home. It was an uneventful flight in and now you are downwind at the 90, double checking your landing checklist. You do an OK underline approach to the box and immediately hit the brakes. Ooops. The ABS is not on, and the tower tells you, if you didn't hear it yourself, that you just blew your tires.

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