Flight Operations


"Where do we get such men?"

Early Naval Aviation
[1911 - 2011 One Hundred Years of Naval Aviation]

Retired Veterans, Indy, Kitty Hawk, Connie, Ranger
[Bremerton NOV 2012]

Argentina ARA-25; the Australia R-21; and Brazil A-12   Deck Comparison;
and CVN-72 at Pearl

USS Ticonderoga CV-14

USS Franklin D. Roosevelt CVA-42

USS Enterprise CVAN-65
Flight Quarters
211K wav
Start'em Up!
239K wav

1967: U.S.S. America with a "Whale" over her ramp, June 1967 Med cruise. Note the little Scooter parked on the port edge. Photo by Ted "Bear" Langworthy.


General Information on Carrier Flight Operations

"Flight Deck Operations"!
It's what separates the Naval Aviator from every other Aviator. The Catapult Hookup, the Launch, the Tailhook catching a "Three Wire". It all adds up to an environment that demands full-time professionalism just to survive. Those who excel in this environment truly must be classified as "The Best". The challenges are many. After a "high pucker factor" combat mission, it's the Naval Aviator that finds that home is a runway that is barely longer than the width of some land based runways, and that it is pitching and rolling across the ocean. The successful carrier landing, the "Trap" in NavAir jargon, is the ultimate test of nerve and flying skill. And to crank up the difficulty even higher, do it at night or in bad weather. And in "Blue Water Operations", far out at sea, if one can't get aboard - well the options are very, very limited; and highly undesirable.
In reality, it isn't even a "landing". The aircraft is flown onto the deck. There is no long runway to settle onto, it's a "HIGH SPEED ARRIVAL", of tons of aircraft at speeds that allow for an immediate powered return to flight if a "Bolter" (non-trap) occurs. Don't for a second think that this is a reckless dive for the deck. It's an act of supreme piloting skill supported by a highly trained, professional group of people. The pride in the skills necessary to bring an aircraft "aboard" is clearly demonstrated by the Trap Rating System itself. Every Trap is scored, and the target score is the "OK3" (3 indicating the 3rd wire). You have just flown tons of aircraft at more than a hundred miles per hour onto a moving deck and it's - "OK".

Carrier Hardware

Carrier Deck Layout Comparison

Launch/Recovery Configuration Comparison Chart
(CV-9 to CVN-65 - NOV 1963)

Carrier Comparison Chart


The carrier's catapult is a steam driven monster capable of bringing tons of aircraft from zero to over a hundred miles per hour in seconds. Not a simple steam piston with a "Yes" button, but an intricate machine requiring dedicated maintenance and knowledgeable operators. The "Shuttle" is the connection point between "cat" and aircraft. For the Skyhawk a cable bridle was looped around the nose of the shuttle and its ends connected to launch hooks in the wheel-wells of the A-4. The "Hold-back", just under the tail-hook connection point on the A-4, prevents movement of the aircraft until the catapult fires. The "Breakaway Link",inserted in the "Hold-back", fails at a specific tension when the catapult fires to allow the "Shuttle" to pull the aircraft down the deck to flying speed. The Breakaway Link and the steam pressure setting must coincide with the aircraft's type and weight to ensure a successful launch. Launch hardware (catapult and bridle configuration) varied by class of carrier, and the shuttle in particular evolved as new aircraft were designed to utilized the aircraft nose wheel strut as both shuttle hookup and hold-back. (19DEC62: E-2 Hawkeye catapulted from the USS Enterprise in the first shipboard test of nose-tow gear designed to replace the catapult bridle. A second nose-tow launch was made by an A-6A.)


A/C Holdback
A/C Holdback
Bridle and Holdback (149574 VA-153 U.S. Navy Photo by PH1 James F. Falk) Bridle Hookup The Holdback

The carrier’s landing systems includes an integrated system of visual and electronic aids. A device commonly referred to as the Fresnel Lens, or Lens for short, is designed to provide the pilot with a visual glide path for landing aboard the ship. The pilot maintains a correct airspeed while aligning the aircraft with the landing area using the centerline painted stripe and lights embedded in the flight deck during night landings. “Drop lights” are aligned with the centerline, but are placed vertically down the stern of the ship. At night, if the drop lights and centerline lights appears as one straight line, the airplane is aligned properly. Any displacement to the right or left will cause the pilot to see the corresponding angle created by the two lighting systems, allowing for corrections as needed. The Landing Signal Officer (LSO) provides advisory comments and commands to each pilot by using the radio and his ability to control certain lights on the “Lens”.

Glide Path In the early days of jet aviation, the LSO would provide glide path information by standing on the side of the deck with “paddles” in his hands to indicate his best assessment as to the airplane’s position as related to the correct glide angle. Later, a convex “Mirror” was used to provide glide path information by reflecting an amber source light appropriately positioned in front of the mirror. The amber light became known as the “meatball”. The Fresnel Lens Optical Landing System (FLOLS) was then developed somewhere around the late 1950s, using the basic concepts of the mirror. An improved version, known as Improved Fresnel Lens Optical Landing System (IFLOLS) is still in use today. In the event of a failure or excessive deck pitch, the LSO uses the Manually Operated Visual Landing System (MOVLAS).

As with the Mirror, the Lens provides the “meatball” to provide pilots with their proper decent profile, or glide-slope, during the approach. The Fresnel Lens assembly features a vertical stack of light cells (five light cells later evolved to twelve) that uses the rippled “Fresnel Lenses” that only show one horizontal bar of amber light in the stack, the position of which is dependent on the viewing altitude. A horizontal row of green “datum lights” are located on either side of the Fresnel Lens. When the meatball is between the datum lights, the airplane is on glideslope. If low enough, the pilot would see the meatball in the bottom cell, which is red.

Through the use of a “pickle switch,” held in the LSO’s hand, other lighting on the lens assembly allows the LSO to illuminate the red “wave-off” lights or, in the case of prop airplanes, the green “cut” lights telling the pilot to pull his power to idle and land. During operations with no radio transmissions, a momentary illumination of the cut lights tells jet aircraft to add power.

If the deck is pitching excessively, the MOVLAS is used and the LSO can move a handle up and down to control the position of the meatball as he visually determines the airplane’s position.

Hook to Ramp Clearance A minimum distance for each airplane’s hook to pass over the aft portion of the landing area, known as the “ramp,” is determined for each ship. This then dictates the degree of glide slope angle to be used. The Essex class carriers (27C) were considered small decks, while the “super carriers” decks provided much more room for the landing area. In general, the 27C decks used a 4.0 degree glide slope with a hook to ramp clearance around 10 feet. The big decks of the Forrestal class normally used a 3.5 degree glide slope and approximately 14 feet of hook to ramp clearance.

Because the lens is on the port side of the ship and landing area, which is aligned approximately 10 degrees to the left of the axis of the ship, the stack of light cells can be tilted to effectively raise or lower the required glideslope as seen when on centerline. The glide-slope is adjusted in this manner to ensure the “minimum hook to ramp” distance for each type of aircraft.

The Arrestment Cables are held a few inches off the flight deck by what look like upside-down car leaf springs. The number of cables vary by flight deck configuration (class of ship), from as many as seven on older ships to as few as three on newer carriers. These arrestment cables, referred to as "Cross Deck Pendants,” engage the airplane’s tailhook to stop the airplane.

Some more info on Carrier mods.


LSO Landing   Arresting Gear Site


Carrier Procedures



The "Main Battery" of the Aircraft Carrier is its "Air Wing". Unlike the Battleships of old, the Carrier's striking power is in its aircraft, not in a sixteen inch gun barrel. Only with much hard work by both Ship's Crew and Air Wing Personnel, is the "Main Battery" able to fulfill its mission when called upon.
Launch and Recovery Operations on the "Roof" of a "Flattop" is the world's most unique aviation environment. It's been referred to as a "Ballet", an intricate dance of moving machines and people. But unlike a Ballet, where less than perfection only results in poor ticket sales; poor performance during Flight Deck Operations is likely to result in accident, injury, or death. The "Flight Deck" is without question, one of the world's most dangerous places to work. It is a very unforgiving work place, and the pace is demanding. Injury or death is always but a split second away. The typical 12hr. Flight Operations "Cycle" requires 14, 16, 18 hours or more of intense focus interrupted only by hectic minutes of maintenance and repair between launch and recovery. All efforts are geared toward one goal. Get Naval Aviation's "Big Guns" in the air!

Carriers came with different flight-deck configurations. The WWII era “Essex Class” ships that the Skyhawk flew from went through two major upgrades to enable them to handle jets more efficiently and safely. The first upgrade was either “SCB-27A (hydraulic catapults,) or “SCB-27C” (steam-driven catapults). “SCB-27” included a large number of other improvements, such as a stronger flight-deck, improved aircraft elevators, new arresting gear, removal and reconfiguration of “5”inch guns, redesign of the “Island”, and many others. The second major upgrade was “SCB-125”, which consisted of the placement of the “angled-deck”, making it possible for jets to “go around” if it missed an arresting wire (aka "a Bolter"). These upgrades were accomplished between 1947 and 1959, and proved the flight-deck concepts utilized for the first “Super-Carrier”, the USS Forrestal CV-59. From the “SCB-27” upgrade came the commonly used term among naval aviators when referring to these carriers, “27-Charlie”

On the Flight Deck the crew wear a variety of brightly colored shirts. Here is who they are and what they do:

Yellow Shirts: Flight Deck Officers and Plane Directors.
These are the only people on the flight deck authorized to move aircraft, or to give hand signals regarding taxiing the a/c, or moving it.
Blue Shirts: Flight deck crew, always work under the direction of a Yellow Shirt Director as part of a designated crew. Plane pushers/handlers; chock planes, push planes, scrub the decks, and do all the tough jobs on the flight and hangar decks.
Green Shirts: Catapult and Arresting Gear people. Operate, and maintain the Catapults and Arresting Gear. Squadron Aircraft Maintenance people also were green. Brown Shirts: Squadron personnel, in particular Plane Captains. (No ship's company wear brown shirts.)
Red Shirts: Aviation ordnance crews. Load and "arm" those weapons on the aircraft. Sometimes referred to as "BB Stackers", or "Ordies". Purple shirts: Aviation fuels people. Referred to as "Grapes". Gas aircraft. Operate & maintain carrier avgas/jet fuel/ av lube oil systems.
Checker shirts: Squadron maintenance Quality Control people. Responsible for final overall checks of a/c readiness before launch. White shirts: Mail and people handlers for carrier on board delivery (COD).
White shirts with a Red Cross: Medical corpsmen assigned to flight deck during flight quarters. White shirts with a Red Cross are part of the crash crew.  

Skyhawk Launch

VA-72 Skipper Cdr. Ed Hofstra taxies to the FDR cat in A-4B Skyhawk BuNo. 144881 side number AB 501. USN photograph from Steve Pollock.
Note: Early Skyhawks did not have nose wheel steering, and for precise positioning a Blue Shirt used a "Tilly Bar" slipped into the nose wheel to steer the a/c. Following the direction of a Yellow Shirt, he routinely endured hot exhaust from a/c forward of him, and occasionally was thrown about by a pilot tapping a single brake when he forgot he was being manually steered.
Verifying A/C Launch Weight. This is critical, as it is used to set the steam pressure in the catapult.

Cat crew is attaching the bridle cable to the aircraft's launch hooks.
The Deck Edge Operator receives the signal to "tension" VA-66 Waldos A-4C Skyhawk BuNo 149556, AK-310, on the starboard catapult during flight operations in the Gulf of Tonkin, USS Intrepid (CVS-11), September 1968.
After the cat bridle is put 'under tension' the cat green shirt indicates all is ready for launch.
Cat Officer starts going through his sequence of several pre-launch safety checks.
1968: Blue Blaster A-4C Skyhawk side number AA 304 on the United States Ship Forrestal CVA-59 catapult. The man in the foreground with his hands in the air is the one that pushes the button that fires the catapult. During the 1968 - 1969 Forrestal Mediterranean cruise. Photograph by and from Warren A. Harms.
"Shooters" view of Cat Operator. Hands-in-the-air indicate the catapult is ready and that his hands are not near the 'Launch Button'.
'Shooter' (CVA-67 MAY98) gives the launch signal to the deck-side cat operator.
1968: VA-56 Champions Skyhawk BuNo 151151, NG-400, launches from the USS Enterprise. Naval Aviation News photo via Gary Verver. Note how quickly the green shirt is out of the catwalk to check on the catapult and bridle.

Early models of the Skyhawk did not have nose wheel steering, and the pilot used his brakes for directional control. To speed flight deck operations, Skyhawks without nose wheel steering were guided by a Blue Shirt (A-4C 1967) who followed the directions given by the Yellow Shirts.

All Skyhawk models used two catapult hooks, one in each wheel well, to receive a strong steel cable "bridle" that did a half-moon loop around the catapult launch shuttle.


Bridle Hook
Tilly Bar
for steering
Connecting bridle to
a/c launch hooks
VT-7 TA-4J
under tension
A-4C VA-153

Skyhawk Recovery - "The Trap"




The "Tailhook" is what separates carrier aircraft from all others. Navy aircraft that are designed to operate from carriers have to withstand the shock of arriving on-deck at flying speeds and then capturing a cable with its tailhook and coming to a very quick stop.

"The LSO" = Paddles"
"The Trap" = the aircraft's tailhook snags an arresting cable and comes to a stop.
"The Bolter" = the aircraft's tailhook does not snag an arresting wire and the aircraft continues down the deck and back into the air.

TA-4F Tailhook RAN A-4G
Tailhook and
Arresting Cable

VSF-3 A4D-2
into the barricade.

VA-94 NF-411

A-4C Skyhawk BuNo 149566, AJ-404, suspended over the port side with its’ nose just touching the water after catching the #2 wire at such an angle that it proceeded to go over the side. USS Shangri-LA (CVA-38). Official U.S. Navy photo from Jim Winchester.149566-a-4c-12feb69-va-12-aj-404-uss-shangri-la-cva-38.jpg

02OCT66: VA-72 BuNo 151106, AB-500, as it loses a SHRIKE missile during an arrested landing aboard the Roosevelt. U.S. Navy from Gary Verver collection.

29 October 1966: VA-195 Dambusters A-4C BuNo 145123, NM-513, about to go over the port side of the USS Ticonderoga, CVA-14, following a ramp strike. Official U.S. Navy photo. Note the impact area location on the drop tank.

Skyhawk CXR Emergency Procedures

Skyhawk emergency procedures for at-sea flight operations.

"Fouled Deck Range" (carrier's flight deck unable to accept landing aircraft) of the Skyhawk is dependent upon a number of factors. Engine type, fuel aboard, drag coefficient (external tanks and ordinance racks), head or tail winds, ambient air temperature, gross weight of the a/c. Obviously the idea is maximize endurance with available fuel.

"Bingo"Range" (to nearest alternate landing site) of the Skyhawk depends on the same factors described above. If the aircraft's "Bingo Range" is not sufficient to enable the a/c to reach an alternate landing site; and in-flight refueling is not available, then ditching in the sea becomes a possibility. Ejection from the aircraft is preferable to the pilot ditching with the aircraft. Fuel management is a critical task for every pilot.

Carrier Barricade arrestments are flown as a normal arrestment. However, the visual on the "Meatball" may be lost late in the approach as the barricade stanchions may obscure the mirror. If the barricade arrestment is made "wheels up", then the approach light indications will not be available to the LSO and the indexer indications will not be available to the pilot.


Field launches and recoveries.

AND let us not forget that the Marine Skyhawk Units utilized a land based aircraft launch and recovery system. There were also pernament catapult field and arrestment installations for testing purposes.


SATS Marine
A-4E launch.
NATC ground
test launch A-4E.
Ground test launch
NATF Lakehurst


Good bye to an Old Friend: Ron Stutesman on the inactivation of USS Enterprise (CVN-65)

December 1st 2012, the USS Enterprise CVAN/CVN-65 was relieved of duty in a most respectful, honorable, heartwarming ceremony. Seating on pier twelve filled almost the entire 1123 ft. length of Enterprise. The ceremony has been recorded and is available to watch at the link below. I think you will agree it was done very nicely. The proceedings commenced with the arrival of dignitaries and brass with the attendant bells. Nineteen guns, for the CNO, rudely awakened some of us, firing from the Big E's own salute guns in the starboard bow catwalk. I remember hanging out by those very guns as an itinerant plane captain and had never heard them fire until now. The Secretary of the Navy declared there will be another Enterprise, CVN-80. Everybody on the pier cheered at the announcement.

Visitation was necessarily limited to the three days prior to the ceremony. Crew were standing by for tours. This old salt's attitude was, with respect: I sailed in this ship; "I don't need no stink'n tour." I brought my wife, two daughters and five grandchildren to walk the decks of Enterprise with me. Despite losing school-time it was the right decision. They were impressed with the ship and really enjoyed the ladders and compartments and sitting in the Captain’s chair on the bridge. The adults, the ladders not so much. Most importantly they appreciated what Grandpa and his shipmates had done sailing in Enterprise. We roamed and visited all the good places to see, and I explained how everything was done trying not to be too detailed or boring. A big empty flight deck is, after all, a big empty flight deck; although... I could see the strike aircraft arranged around the perimeter, Skyhawks in the slot, Viggies parked forward of the island and a Fudd patiently turning in front of Flight Deck Control. Stepping onto the flight deck I felt a comforting familiarity as I headed for my airplane, angle parked, facing aft on cat #2 after the recovery, being refueled and waiting for the re-spot. "Where next, Hon?.... Hon!!!"

I had a surprise for the kids. While up in the island I found a Quartermaster named Tiffany, (as a civilian I have the privilege of using her first name) who agreed to help me hoist my colors. I also had with me five more smaller flags that I surprised the kids and Tiffany with. Her gracious reply: "No problem." I had them line up against the bulkhead I told them to hold their right arms out straight from the waist and then draped each arm with a flag. You should have seen their faces as each received their own personal colors. I noted a squint of pride in Tiffany's eyes. Each in turn walked up to Tiffany who smartly bent their flag to the halyard. They then proceeded to hoist away with the QM's guidance. Proud and happy doesn't begin to describe their experience or mine. QM Tiffany patiently and reverently folded each flag with their help and presented it to them, whereupon they clutched it to their heart and I saluted each, and told them "this was their flag to love, honor, protect." They were impressed, and I shall always remember, as I hope they will, that wonderful moment. Tiffany shed a tear when I hoist my colors in Honor of Mark and Frank and Tom, my pilots lost in Vietnam while also remembering my Skipper Otto and his wingman Whizzer. I like to think that these flags will be passed on to my grandchildren's grandchildren with the story of how they raised their flags on Enterprise.

On a subsequent visit, sans family, I indulged myself making traps with my model A-4 on the Flight Deck Control deck plat. I did get the attention of some visitors as well as crew who were interested in how we did things in the stone age. Although surrounded by those two dimensional modern birds it was still the classiest aircraft on the board. I also set it on cat #1 out on the deck. Your fun is where you make it. I now proudly claim I am in possession of the last A-4 that was on Enterprise. Hey, you take what you can get.

The ship, unfortunately, had already been subjected to some striping down, most notably the arresting cables were gone and the bridge was sterile. Still she cleans up well with gold painted anchors and fresh paint mostly on the starboard side facing the pier. She was, showing her age and understandable lack of maintenance. One does notice she is a little less spiffy than those days when she was the showboat of the fleet displaying to dignitaries from around the world the technological prowess of the USA, all the while proving the worth of the design to those who control the purse strings and would decide the future of nuclear powered ships. On her first combat cruise to Vietnam in which I had the honor to participate as a jet engine mechanic and Skyhawk plane captain with VA-94, the air group flew 125 sorties the first day, maintaining and exceeding that pace, setting records throughout the cruise. Enterprise, an experiment designed to last 25 years, served so well she completed 51 years of service proving the concept. I salute Adm. James L Holloway, who as Captain of The Big E on the first Vietnam cruise, paved the way for nuclear carriers. It should be noted this longevity was also the result of the extraordinary efforts, of her crews maintaining one of a kind systems well past their service life.

When I think of Enterprise I always smile. I think of my ship and her crew, the bigger than life experience of the flight deck and hours resting in an A-4 cockpit ( better than a Lazy Boy recliner) waiting for flight quarters to secure. That I got the chance to visit and bring a family I couldn't imagine having back then was truly an emotionally satisfying experience. The treatment we received by all members of her present crew was heart-warming and reflected the common experience we share. I thank her last Skipper for continuing her honorable tradition of being the first and the finest.


Ron Stutesman ADJ2

Wind Force (Beaufort #)

0 Calm <1 knot  Sea Flat

1 Light Air 1-3 knots Sea ripples without crests

2 Light Breeze  4-6 knots Sea small wavelets, crests of glassy apperance not breaking.

3 Gentle Breeze  7-10 knots Sea larget wavelets, crests begin to break, scattered whitecaps.

4. Moderate Breeze 11-16 knots Sea small waves with breaking crests, fairly frequent whitecaps.

5. Fresh Breeze  17-21 knots Sea moderate waves of same length, many whitecaps, small amuonts of spray.

6. Strong breeze 22-27 knots Sea long waves begin to foam, white foam crests are very frequent, some airborne spray present.

7. High wind, moderate gale, near gale  28-33 knots, Sea heaps up, some foam from breaking waves is blown into streaks along the wind direction. Moderate amounts of airborne spray.

8. Gale, fresh gale  34-40 knots, Sea Moderately high waves with breaking crests forming spindrift. Well marked streaks of foam are blown along wind directioni. Considerable airboren spray.

9 Strong, severe gale  41-47 knots; Sea High waves whose crests sometimes roll over. Dense foam is blown along wind direction. large amounts of airborborne spray may begin to reduce visibility.

10. Storm or whole gale  48-55 knots Sea Very high waves with overhanging crests, large patches of foam from wave crests give the sea a white appearance. Considerable tumbling of wave with heavy impact. large amounts of airborne spray reduce visibility.

11. Violent storm 55-56 knots Sea Exceptionally high waves, very large patches of foam driven before the wind cover much of the sea surface. Very large amounts of airborne spray severely reduce visibility.

12. Hurricane force >64 knots; Sea huge waves, sea completely white with foam and spray, air is filled with driving spray, greatly reducing visibility.

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