Doing it the old school way: carrier qualification in the 1950s and 60s

Two pilots tell their stories

The U.S. Navy’s official term for it is aircraft carrier qualification. Student naval aviators call it “hitting the boat.” An apt term considering how planes slam down on carrier decks and are snagged to a stop by arresting gear.

From the dawn of aircraft carriers before World War II, hitting the boat was a rite of passage for every Navy and Marine flight student. It made sense because, until recently, many would serve on carriers in one kind of plane or another at some point. Today, with less aircraft diversity aboard carriers, fixed wing carrier qualification is limited to Navy and Marine aviators destined for fighter/attack squadrons and some multi-engine turboprop pilots.

T-28 on carrier
A T-28C landing aboard the USS Lexington in the Gulf of Mexico.

In the spring of 1965, my turn came to hit the boat in the T-28C, a burly trainer with a 1425 horsepower two-stage supercharged R1820-86 radial engine and performance comparable to World War II fighters. Up to that point, flying T-34Bs and T-28Bs, we had mastered aerobatics, instrument flying, two and four plane formation and night flying.

Our introduction to the realities of naval aviation began about a year earlier in preflight training before even seeing a cockpit. Every student completed the Navy’s immersive, and, some would say traumatic, water survival course. It was done at an unimpressive brick building next to old flying boat hangars by Pensacola Bay, and countless aviators owe their lives to what they learned there.

The building housed a deep water swimming pool. There, we donned a parachute harness hooked to a tow line and were dragged across the pool. Students had to demonstrate that they could remove the harness and swim clear as they must if they parachuted into a stormy sea. Also, at one end of the pool there was a high platform and a crude cockpit mockup on wheels attached to rails descending into the pool. Nicknamed the Dilbert Dunker, it simulated a violent ditching and submersion.

Wearing a flight suit and sneakers, we strapped into the Dunker’s cockpit as we would in an aircraft. The device was then released, rolling steeply down rails about 10 feet into the pool pitching inverted about six feet underwater. The now-upside down student was expected to orient himself, pull the seat belt/shoulder harness quick release lever, swim down clear of the cockpit, then up to the surface. A safety diver in the pool extracted students who had difficulty. Those gasping, hapless individuals were put back in line, strapped in and did it again until they got it right. I have no statistics on students who quit under the stress of immersion or drowned although there were some.

In many ways T28C carrier landings and takeoffs were similar to how prop pilots did it going back to World War II and earlier. Like them, we got a cut signal, chopped the throttle and banged down on the deck. Takeoffs were also old school. They were high power gallops up the flight deck, rotating at the forward elevator and ambling into the air over the bow.

Like all prop student naval aviators preceding us, we did field carrier landing practice (FCLP) at Barin Field in the flatlands of Alabama farm country midway between Pensacola and Mobile. Before the war, it was a small municipal airport. The U.S. Navy took it over in 1942 and, in the next two years, 5,725 student naval aviators flying SNJs were pushed through a flight syllabus of aerobatics, night flying, gunnery, basic tactics, bombing, torpedo bombing, and carrier qualifications. And there were accidents, lots of them. In World War II, it had the highest training fatality rate of any intermediate training base, 40 deaths in 24 months. Alabama’s fields and farms as well as the Gulf of Mexico were sprinkled with crunched SNJs from mid-air collisions, inadvertent spins, mechanical failures, shipboard crashes, ditchings and occasionally the unauthorized maneuvers of students and instructors. Drew Pearson, a prominent columnist of the time, nicknamed the field, Bloody Barin. Today, it’s still a navy flight training airfield.

In World War II and through the early 1950s, a landing signal officer (LSO) on a flight deck port side platform directed pilots with paddle signals. It was an awkward, hard-to- see arrangement. Even with keen eyesight, pilots could only reliably discern paddle signals several hundred feet from the flight deck, necessitating a precise, low, close-in approach near power-on stall speed.

Carrier pattern
The plan looks so simple…

A wartime training manual for fighter pilots (at right) depicts the downwind leg 1000 to 1200 yards abeam the ship at 150 to 200 feet with landing gear down, flaps and tail hook down and landing checklist complete. Baseleg turn and descent to about 90 feet began abeam the carrier’s fantail, slowing to approach speed 7 to 10 knots above power-on stall speed at the 90 degree position. At that point the pilot is instructed to “follow indication of the landing signal officer.”

When I hit the boat on May 17, 1965, LSOs no longer directed carrier approaches with bright-colored signal paddles. Instead, final approach guidance was provided by a gyro-stabilized mirror optical guidance system known as the meatball (or ball) supplemented by LSO radioed instructions. To this day, as a nod to history, their radio call sign is “Paddles.”

The T-28 carrier pattern was more forgiving than those early days, with a 325-foot downwind to final approach turn altitude, gear down, full flaps, speed brake extended, cowl flaps open, tail hook down, canopy open and 82 knots indicated airspeed. We were drilled to concentrate on three things: meatball- line-up-airspeed, meatball-line up-airspeed, all the way down until taking the cut and crossing the deck.

Turning onto final approach, the meatball appears as a blob of light between a row of green lights representing the proper approach angle. Deviating above glideslope, the meatball appears above the green row and sinks below the green row if the plane goes low. Red flashing lights in place of the meatball signifies a mandatory missed approach or in Navy terms, a “wave off.” Close in to landing, prop pilots look for a flashing vertical row of green lights signifying a “cut” whereupon the throttle is snapped to idle, and holding the same approach attitude, the plane thumps down on deck. If the hook skips over the arresting gear – a condition known as a bolter – the LSO transmits “bolter-bolter, power and go” whereupon the pilot shoves the throttle to takeoff power while simultaneously retracting the speed brake and flies off the angled deck for another try.

T-28 FCLPs and carrier qualification flights were solo. I flew 88 field carrier landings at Barin Field over a two-week period. Then it was time to hit the boat.

LSOs grade every student approach as well as the approach of every fleet pilot landing on a carrier. It’s about a lot more than bragging rights and has implications even beyond an aviator’s personal safety. Out in the fleet, wave offs and bolters delay refueling, rearming and returning to the mission. Extra landing approaches are an added burden to aerial tankers orbiting the fleet and could constrain carriers to an undesirable course while accommodating delayed recoveries. In other words, getting on board without mishap goes to the heart of the carrier’s military mission.

May 17, 1965 was bright and clear. We took off from Saufley Field several miles north of the main Pensacola base, joined up in three- and four-plane sections, and headed south over the Gulf of Mexico to rendezvous with the carrier, USS Lexington CVT 16.

USS Lexington
The Lexington seems big when you’re on it, but not when you’re trying to land on its deck.

Looking down from several thousand feet, the carrier appeared really small. The USS Lexington, 910 feet bow to stern, and 147 at the beam, was a World War II Essex Class attack carrier, the largest in the world at the time. To envision how small it seemed, picture the touchdown zone markings of an all-weather runway. The Lexington would fit with space to spare between the threshold stripes and the 1000-foot fixed distance marker. The Lexington was refitted with an angled deck in the 1950s and by the mid-1960s when larger, more capable carriers joined the fleet, it became a training carrier home ported in Pensacola.

Our flight passed over the ship at 325 feet, 170 knots in step-down right echelon formation, breaking left in a 45-degree bank at 10-second intervals and configuring for landing as speed dissipated. Downwind 1000 to 1200 yards abeam the ship, flight procedures specified cowl flaps open, mixture rich, prop full – increase RPM, gear down, full flaps, speed brake extended, airspeed 82 knots.

The interval on the T-28 ahead looked about right but my plane’s pitch attitude was way high compared to the FCLP approaches. It took a few moments to realize that I had somehow forgotten to lower the flaps after setting the propeller to full increase RPM. Now, with flaps fully extended and pitch where it was supposed to be, I locked my shoulder harness and completed the landing checklist. At the 180, approximately abeam the ship’s fantail, I began a shallow turn toward the Lex, spotting the meatball about the 70-degree position, dead even with the green approach light bar. Reducing power, keeping the meatball-line up-airspeed scan going, I started down. The first pass was a no-landing recognition approach to a go-around. On the following approaches, the tail hook was lowered, canopy opened, and it was for real.

My logbook recorded five arrested landings, also known as traps, that I thought weren’t half bad although the LSO called “power” with some urgency several times as I got in close. After each landing and about a 100-feet rollout, the deck crew would rush up, freeing the arresting cable while I held the brakes. Then the launch officer signaled “tail hook-up.” I dutifully complied, then, with circular hand motions, he signaled an engine run up. With the engine roaring, I checked that the sump plug warning light wasn’t on, and at the launch officer’s downward sweeping arm signal, applied full power and released the brakes.

The plane galloped forward past the island superstructure. Approaching the flight deck’s forward elevator, I rotated to the takeoff attitude and, a second or two later, the flight deck disappeared and there was water beneath the wings. During flight deck takeoffs, we were instructed not to look at airspeed and were assured that as long as the engine continued to develop takeoff power we would fly. What they didn’t say, but what was implied was, if the engine failed, there was no room to stop and we would end up in the water in front of the fast approaching bow!

I thought I was doing okay, but by the fifth trap, the LSO had had it with my scary, decelerating approaches and ordered me to join the orbiting formation that would soon be headed for the beach. Apparently my airspeed scans were a little slow although I was lined up and in the groove to his satisfaction. Two extra FCLP periods were ordered and a few days later I was back at the boat, determined not to be slow in the groove.

May 24, 1965, I logged eight additional traps aboard the Lex. Only a few were what LSOs termed “OK” passes which by their definition are well lined up, on glide slope and on-speed all the way down to the wire. Later, at Saufley Field we students stood around the LSO getting our completion debriefing; “Reiner,” he said, listing several approaches, “you were fast in close.” But it could have been worse, a lot worse!

I’m grateful to that LSO for keeping me out of trouble on those carrier approaches flown so close to the T-28’s limits of controllability.

USS Monterey
The USS Monterey during SNJ aircraft recovery and launch operations in the Gulf of Mexico.

Korean War-era Marine Corps fighter pilot, Don Pritchett, who later was a Pan Am captain and vice president of flight operations, related this story about his SNJ carrier qualification experience. Back then, a successful trap required keen eyesight, near flawless flying and an LSO skilled in the choreography of paddle waving and exaggerated leg moves.

Twenty-year old naval aviation cadet Pritchett reported to NAS Pensacola for flight training in January 1951. At the time the U.S. was feverishly training pilots to throw back the North Korean invasion of South Korea. He was an excellent student and by November had completed all basic flight training with no unsatisfactory flight grades. In recognition of his demonstrated aptitude, he was selected to lead a flight of four SNJs to carrier qualify aboard the World War II era light aircraft carrier USS Monterey, steaming off the coast in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Monterey (CVL 26) was a small carrier, 622.5 feet long, 71.5 feet at its beam waterline with a flight deck width of about 1.5 SNJ wingspans. It was originally intended to be a cruiser when the hull was laid down early in World War II but the need for air power caused it to be converted to a carrier before commissioning.

Carrier optical landing systems didn’t exist in 1951. Early mirror landing systems were first installed on U.S. carriers about four years later. When cadet Pritchett led his flight of four SNJs into the break about 200 feet over the Monterey, all they had for guidance turning into the groove about 60 feet over the water and less than 300 feet astern were their young eyes, LSO paddle signals and what they learned during Barin FCLP periods. Final approach speed was about 67 mph (58 knots).

Pritchett said, “Turning on final I got a ‘Low and Slow’ paddle signal and attempted to correct with no improvement, then crisscrossing paddles above the LSO’s head signaling a ‘wave off!’ I applied full power, shoving the throttle forward as far as it would go but the plane didn’t respond and almost immediately struck the ramp and broke apart.” The engine went up the flight deck and over the side while the rest of the plane dropped backward into the Monterey’s churning wake, sinking within 30 seconds according to the accident report.

“All I remember is a loud bang and being underwater in lots of turbulent bubbles from the ship’s four screws. I can’t remember releasing my shoulder harness and seat belt, exiting the cockpit, shedding my chute and inflating my mae west.” He credits preflight Dilbert Dunker training for his instinctive, underwater escape, saying, “I did exactly as I was trained.”

He went on: “When I popped to the surface, there were very high waves in the ship’s wake, but as the Monterey pulled away the sea got less rough. A destroyer escort (DE) plane guard ship steamed close by to retrieve me, but it was moving too fast to stop and had to circle back around. The DE captain later said when he saw the crash he put the ship in reverse but it couldn’t slow down in time.” On the second pass, coming alongside Pritchett and stopping, sailors tossed a wide rope ladder over the side and scrambled down to assist him out of the water. Even with the sailors’ help he reported it was a difficult 15 foot or so climb up to the deck.

LSO signals
Not the most intuitive way to tell pilots about their approach.

A ship’s officer looked him over, determined he needed a medical checkup and, as he recalls: “Then came the scariest part of the whole experience. As the DE drew close abeam the Monterey, I was strapped immobile in a wire stretcher, hooked to cables, and hoisted high over the water onto the Monterey’s flight deck.”

Back at Pensacola he was taken to the base hospital, observed for two days and released. An accident board convened. It was wartime and training mishaps were an accepted reality. Human factors like hours of sleep the night before, what he ate for breakfast or whether he recently broke up with his girlfriend, were never considered. Officers just wanted flight facts plus a peek at Pritchett’s training record which, until the crash, was well above average. Based on LSO observations and Pritchett’s statement that the SNJ failed to climb with full throttle, and lacking any wreckage, the board accepted the LSO’s and Pritchett’s explanations. The board wrote a single paragraph report and sent cadet Pritchett on his way.

The report read:

“PILOT EASED POWER IN THE GROOVE AND AGAIN WHEN GIVEN THE COME ON. WAVE OFF GIVEN AND ATTEMPTED WITH PROP APPARENTLY IN HIGH PITCH. AIRCRAFT STRUCK RAMP AND FELL IN WATER. AIRCRAFT SANK IN APPROXIMATELY THIRTY SECONDS.”

He was assigned two extra FCLP training periods at Barin Field and was back at the USS Monterey on December 12, 1951, completing six carrier landings with no wave offs. He would go on to advanced training in the Grumman Hellcat and later fly Grumman F9F Panthers in Marine fighter squadrons.

What hasn’t changed since Pritchett and I hit the boat more than a half century ago is that carrier landings, even in today’s most advanced fly-by-wire aircraft, are still naval aviators’ most demanding maneuvers.

9 Comments

  • My hat is off to you and Don Pritchett. Hitting the boat makes landing on a 1300′ dirt strip look like a cake walk!

    I don’t know how induction heat works on an SNJ but cadet Pritchett’s plane exhibited classic symptoms of carburetor ice.

  • Carb ice, perhaps but not likely with the engine at fairly high power on those flat, carrier approaches. My guess is the LSO had it right that Pritchett just forgot to shove the prop forward to full-increase RPM position. It’s easy to forget things with so much to take in the first time hitting the boat. And with the plane in pieces at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, no one will ever know for sure.

  • I had the privilege of visiting USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) and observe day and night flight ops. wow! What an impressive time. The entire crew was extremely professional and focused.

    While day ops were impressive to watch, night ops were dazzling. On a clear moonless night there was zero depth perception and the planes seemed to arrive by magic.

    The pilots, both men and women, would get out of their a/c drenched in sweat looking like they had just stepped out of the shower.

    I was impressed by the skills and courage of everyone involved.

  • Good memories: June 24, 1960 aboard the USS Antietam, one of the first angle decks sporting a mirror-based optical landing system. We first executed two touch-and-go landings then six traps to qualify. The most amazing part was that when finished I climbed above the ship to await my flight to complete their work I felt that the entire evolution had required just one or two minutes instead of the 20-30 it actually required. Best of all, I had never had so much fun with my clothes on!

  • After two Traps and five Bolters in the back seat of a F-14 Tomcat at the Enterprise, nothing I’ve done before or since as a private pilot will ever come close.

    Hats off to all Naval Aviators.

  • Flying the F-102A (Air Force) at Key West NAS, we did night, weather formation landings. I was in the tower doing what you might call cross training with the Navy. We had many additional duties aside of flying 5 minute alert and our own training exercises.
    The tower controllers watched as two of my fellow pilots came in with night weather, landed in formation, popped the chutes still in perfect formation and taxied off to drop the chutes. This was routine.
    They were amazed!
    All I said to them that was nothing compared to a night, weather, rolling deck trap on an aircraft carrier. The Navy carrier qual fighter pilots were the best. We partied in the O’Club. I was an Air Force Captain and was not a Navy Captain—big difference. Good times.

  • All kidding aside, Arnie, you and Pritchett were two of the finest airmen and individuals I ever had the pleasure of encountering. One of the highlights of my long (and ongoing) career was working with you and Don, and Jim Duncan, and Hart and the like. Great days. All the best to you. Is Pritchett still around?

  • GREAT true-to-life story Arnold…thanks for sharing it! As a pilot that flew Air Force B-47’s on SAC alert in England and Spain, got to meet Chuck Yeager when he was in command of an F-100 fighter outfit (to give us ‘cover’ if we ever were to go to war in 1957-58), and flying F-86H’s in the Mass. Air National Guard; and have had the honor to meet a retired Navy Admiral who flew every aircraft the Navy has or had; I have always known Navy pilots are ‘crazy’, but VERY good pilots.

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