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The price of one mistake here is death

23 Apr 2004 | Cpl. Jeff M. Nagan Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort

The pace is nearly as fast as the pit service in the Indianapolis 500, with bodies moving with purpose and parts being loaded and unloaded with quickness. In moments, an aircraft is ready to be catapulted into the sky.

From the outside, the action on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier may seem chaotic, but it is actually organized, because in one moment a simple mistake could cost someone thier life.

Many Marines from Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 115 are quickly learning the difference between their tasks on the flightline in Beaufort and the flight deck of the USS Harry S. Truman.

“This is the first time I’ve been on an aircraft carrier,” said Pfc. John P. Jarosz, ordnanceman, VMFA-115. “I was a little nervous, but definitely excited, because it’s a new experience. I’ve never been this far out at sea before.”

For Marines and Sailors, an aircraft carrier offers the unique opportunity of doing their jobs in a special environment, according to Jarosz.

“It’s definitely good training,” Jarosz said. “We have to be ready for our two-month workup and a six-month cruise.”

Unlike in Beaufort, Marines of VMFA-115 have to be aware of more than just their jets, according to Jarosz. There can be up to 10 squadrons aboard the Truman at any given time. Since the flight deck is about efficiency, many of the Silver Eagles assist the other squadrons as needed.

“I’ve been trained to handle the F/A-18, but there are a lot of different aircraft on here,” Jarosz said. “I don’t know what all their capabilities are.”

The flight deck can be a dangerous place for someone who doesn’t know what they are doing, according Jarosz. One key to being safe is to ask Marines and Sailors who have been on ship before, because they have a wealth of knowledge and experience to draw from. While on the flight deck, Marines and Sailors must remain vigilant.

“Always keep your eyes open, looking around and seeing what to do and not to do,” Jarosz said.

On ship, Marines have a greater responsibility than on land, according to Jarosz. The senior Marines expect those below them to be able to do their tasks without constant supervision.

“The only real fear I have is that I’m afraid to mess something up,” Jarosz said. “It would embarrass my shop and make it look like I don’t know what I’m doing and that my staff (non-commissioned officers) didn’t teach me.”

On the flight deck, everyone is responsible for safety, according to Capt. Franklin “Puj” Hooks, aviation safety officer and F/A-18 pilot, VMFA-115.  However, there are several people who ensure the safety of those on the flight deck and about to land.

“On the flight deck, Marines and Sailors are constantly walking through prop and jet exhaust,” Hooks said. “They are focused on just the jet they are working on. They rely on other people on the flight deck to do their job while they do their own.”

Marines and Sailors depend on others to be their eyes while they accomplish whatever task at hand, according to Hooks. However, individuals must always be aware of their environment while on the flight deck.

“Last year, there was a C-2 that was about 10 seconds from landing, when a Sailor crossed the landing area,” according to Capt. Chris “Stap” Holloway, logistics officer and F/A-18 pilot, VMFA-115. “The landing signal officer had to wave off the aircraft. The Sailor made it across, but the landing hook missed him by less than 30 feet.”

Pilots also have to maintain a greater level of awareness while aboard an aircraft carrier, according to Hooks. Landing on an aircraft carrier requires a greater amount of accuracy from the pilot.

“The precision required to land in Beaufort is not even close to that on ship,” Hooks said.

The runway in Beaufort is about 12,000 feet long and about 200 feet wide, while the flight deck on the Truman is about 700 feet long and about 90 feet wide, according to Hooks.

In addition to adapting to a shorter runway, pilots must also be able to catch one of the four arresting cables on the flight deck, which is a landing area of only 120 feet, according to Hooks. This requires a pilot to fly at a perfect angle of about 14 feet over the back of the ship.

“The margin for flying is much smaller,” Hooks said. “That 120 feet area is all that separates a pilot from potential disaster.”
At night, the risk increases exponentially, according to Hooks. A common adage at night is “Half the speed, twice the caution.”
“At night, every aircraft has its lights off,” Hooks said. “Not only can the pilot not see, but neither can the deck crew.”
Regardless of the time of day, the flight deck is not an area where anyone can afford to be complacent, according to Hooks. One mistake can affect a lot of people on the flight deck.

“As soon as you feel comfortable on the flight deck, you need to get off it,” said Lt. Col. Peter “Pistol” Ponte, executive officer, VMFA-115.