Wednesday, February 27, 2013

My experience as a tailhooker


(Click on any photo to enlarge.)

I can only imagine how many eyebrows were raised when readers saw that title.  Please don't tell mom.  Haha!

Lemme explain:  Anyone who has experienced an "arrested landing" on an aircraft carrier is known as a tailhooker due to the hook hanging from the tail of the plane that snags the big cable stretched across the deck and stops the plane.  



Back in the early 1990's I was volunteering at an airshow, sitting around with a bunch of the other participants after the show one evening, when several of the guys mentioned they had gone on a Navy "Civilian Orientation Cruise".  

Not being shy, the first thing Monday morning I was on the phone to the Pentagon, Department of the Navy, Office of Public Affairs, asking if they could hook me up with one of those cruises.  They referred me to the Chief of Naval Air Training Command at NAS (Naval Air Station) Corpus Christi, TX.  

The PA people there sent me paperwork, I filled it out and sent it back in....and waited.  About a year later I received a call from a Lieutenant inviting me to come to Corpus on a Sunday and prepare for a flight out to the USS Forrestal the next day. 

I checked in to a suite at the Visiting Officers Quarters and on Monday morning reported to the Officer's Club for breakfast and orientation. After a nice breakfast with some Admiral, we moved on to the flight line where we (there were 15 in my group) were issued "float coats" and "cranials" (inflatable life jackets and helmets).  Our C-2 "Greyhound" was parked just outside waiting for us.


The Grumman C-2 is a "COD", a twin turboprop Carrier Onboard Delivery aircraft.  It hauls everything from beans and bullets to the mail and humans out to our carriers at sea.


With seats installed (facing backwards) it is anything but luxurious.

We took off from Corpus Christi, TX and flew 60 miles out into the Gulf of Mexico at 10,000 feet.  While circling the carrier watching from our perch as F/A-18's, T/A-4's and T-2's conducted training operations below, the pilot invited us one at a time to come up to the cockpit and see the view.  The carrier looked like a tiny dot on the ocean from our altitude.  *gulp*

Finally it was our turn to land.  We corkscrewed down from 10,000 feet to just a few hundred in no time.  We flew parallel with and past the carrier, then did a 180 (now heading "downwind"), then 180 again to line up with the carrier from behind ("final").  Heading downwind we could feel the massive landing gear dropping into place and the flaps extending.

We had been instructed that in preparation for landing we were to sit up straight and hold our heads firmly back against the high-backed seats.  The seconds seemed like hours as we hung there, then....WHAM!


A carrier landing has been likened to a controlled crash.  That's being kind.  Luckily our hook grabbed a wire the first attempt and we were brought to a complete stop in just a couple of seconds.  Had we missed a wire we would have been a "bolter" and gone around to try again.  If our heads hadn't been held firmly back on the headrests we would have suffered a serious whiplash.

The pilot immediately folded our plane's wings and quickly followed handlers to a parking spot.  With the engines still running we exited out the back ramp where I was immediately struck by not only the noise, but the smell.  The exhaust from a half dozen or so jets turning and burning close by was almost overwhelming.  I was not expecting that!

We were taken below to one of the squadron "ready rooms" where Captain Johnson greeted us.  We got the usual Go Navy Ra! Ra! speech, then were assigned an Ensign who gave us a complete, and I mean complete, tour of the ship.  We saw the engine room (the Forrestal wasn't nuclear powered), the officers and enlisted quarters, the hanger deck one level below the flight deck where aircraft maintenance took place, and much more.  Then we had lunch with the crew....burgers and fries.  Meh.


Then it was up to the bridge for more Q&A with the Captain (2nd from left), on to Pri-Fly (the air operations center), and finally we went outside on "Vulture's Row" for more viewing.  


Best seat in the house!

Eventually it was time to leave.  While we were touring the ship their public affairs people were busy putting together souvenir packages for each of us.  


These included a nice photo memento of our visit as well as a certificate (photo, top of page) recognizing us tongue-in-cheek as Forrestal Tailhookers.  Do read it....it's funny.


We once again donned our gear and took our seats back on the plane.

  
As we taxied out to the catapult and unfolded our wings we were reminded again of the procedure to follow for launch.

We were strapped in with a shoulder harness, not just a seat belt.  When cued, I grabbed the left shoulder harness with my right hand, the right shoulder harness with my left hand, pushed my feet firmly into the metal back of the seat in front of me, and put my chin on my chest.

You could feel the engines spool up, the nose dip, and then....BANG....the most violent jolt I've ever felt.  As we were sitting facing the rear the kick threw us forward.  You could feel your eyeballs bulging forward in their sockets and your internal organs pressing hard against the inside of your ribcage.  

The explosive acceleration was over within just a couple of seconds, then we were just cruising.  The pilot later told me we went from 0-140 knots (0-160 mph) in about 2 seconds.  The rest of the flight back was very uneventful.

Interesting footnote:  At breakfast that morning I sat next to a man in his 50's (?) wearing a Minnesota Vikings windbreaker.  He explained his son (Wade Wilson) played for them.  He was a nice guy and we compared notes often during the day. 

Back at NAS Corpus after our flight home, after we said our thank-you's and good-bye's, I noticed Mr. Wilson walked back out to a waiting Army Blackhawk helicopter, jumped in, and it took off.  I asked our PA Officer host how he got to do that?  She said, "Oh, Major General Wilson can do pretty much anything he wants to around here." Ha!

I suspect in these times of budget cuts similar Civilian Orientation Cruises are no more.  Pity.  It was an experience I'll never forget.  Thanks Navy!

S

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Note:  Photos 1,6,8,9 and 10 are mine.  The others are from the internet for illustration.


13 comments:

  1. I salute you for your bravery :-), and for remembering all those details and putting it together in such a great, entertaining story. I enjoyed the surprise twist near the end.

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    1. No bravery on my part Doug...I just sat there. It was the pilot who had the big brass ones. It was quite the experience!

      S

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  2. I don't even like roller coasters so I doubt I would really enjoy that. It would have been way better if they'd taken you up in one of the Hornets or Skyhawks to do that. A Tomcat would have been even better just to spout Top Gun quotes.

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    1. Yeah, that would have been cool, but it would have taken too much fuel to take 15 people out one at a time. I was grateful to get a ride in a C-2! :)

      S

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  3. What a fantastic experience. I envy you and would love to experience this.

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  4. Your last paragraph trumped my comment which was

    "So that's where our tax money goes."

    I'm with PT on this one, I won't even go on a roller coaster!

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  5. How cool! I would LOVE to have done this! My only fear would have been the close quarters on the ship - I have a touch of claustrophobia. I'm glad you survived with "less than mortal injury." Ha!

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  6. Scott
    I knew we had something in common. I served on the USS Kearsarge CVS-33 63-65 as an ETN3

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    1. Outstanding! And thanks for your service. :)

      S

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  7. Wow - what a cool story of your experience! So you could, with some authority, confirm or deny if at least part of this quote is true, huh?

    Landing on the ship during the daytime is like sex: it's either good or it's great. Landing on the ship at night is like a trip to the dentist: you may get away with no pain, but you just don't feel comfortable. [LCDR Thomas Quinn, US Navy]

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    1. True.

      Seriously, studies have shown that landing on a carrier at night is more stressful that flying into combat. Throw in a pitching deck and that would have to be a nightmare!

      S

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  8. Really great writeup of an incredible experience, Scott.

    Thanks for sharing it with us.

    The feelings it engendered sound much like those I experienced in Capetown, breaking the sound barrier straight up on our way past 61,000 feet. Just wonderful.

    f

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    1. Of course, Fin. My pleasure. Why don't you post sometime and tell us about your Mach1+ experience?

      S

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