MARINE CORPS AIR STATION BEAUFORT, SC -- Landing aboard an aircraft carrier is one of the most dangerous moments a pilot will ever encounter, especially when flying one of the fastest airplanes in the world - the F/A-18 Hornet. To assist pilots in this endeavor, is a guardian angel of sorts called a Landing Signal Officer, or LSO.
Recently, the Thunderbolts of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 251 not only got the chance to develop their carrier landings and launches on the USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT (CVN-71), but they enhanced their skills as LSOs as well. Working about 100 feet from the stern (back end) on the port (left) side of the flight deck on the LSO platform, these "guardian angels" are responsible for the safe recovery of fixed wing aircraft aboard ship.
To ensure the landing area is clear following an aircraft has landed, the LSO visually inspects it before clearing the next pilot inbound. He then quickly grades the last pilot on his approach, from five checkpoints: the start, 3/4 of a mile out, the middle, in-close and the ramp, just over the edge of the flight deck.
"It's a love-hate relationship between the pilot and the LSO since they are grading your every pass," said Capt. Lance "Boil" Lewis, VMFA-251 pilot and Landing Signal Officer, "but when it gets rough up there, he is the guy to get you calmed down and safely aboard."
During the WW II era, those guys were called "paddles" for the bright orange paddles they used to signal in aircraft. Ships also used blinkers and flag signals to inform pilots when it was their turn to land. Today, with aircraft descending at 650 - 750 feet per minute, with approach speeds of more than 150 mph, they rely on other methods to accomplish their mission. They use the Fresnel Lens Optical Landing System (FLOLS) and radio transmissions to guide pilots to the flight deck. The FLOLS is a series of red, amber and green lights set up in a cross hair like pattern that let the pilot know if he has descended at the proper glide scope or is in "the groove".
When in the groove, the pilot will "call the ball," a.k.a. the "meatball", meaning the center light is green and in perfect alignment -- music to an LSO's ears. If he is too high or too low, the pilot will not see a centered ball, and either the LSO will advise the pilot to "add power" or "bring it down" to get on the correct glide scope. If too far out of the parameters of the FLOLS for a safe landing, the LSO will flash the red wave-off lights indicating to the pilot to take it around and try it again.
The LSO will also back up the pilot with radio transmissions. Typical procedure is for the LSOs to keep their transmissions short and to the point. However, they sometimes need to supercede procedure to ease a pilot's mind, and get him safely aboard.
"A good landing between an LSO and a pilot is one with minimal to no radio transmission," said Capt. Branden "Dung" Bailey, VMFA-251 pilot and Landing Signal Officer, "but everyone is going to have their 'night in the barrel'."
Most pilots agree that launching off and a landing on a carrier at night can be especially nerve racking and everyone has had their own 'night in the barrel' story.
"It is a night when nothing is going right," said Bailey. "You have already missed a landing, you get bumped in the landing rotation, you're getting mad at yourself, fuel is becoming an issue, not to mention you still have to land the plane!"
On the occasion that a pilot does have a rough night, an LSO will break standard radio procedure to help calm him down. Once safely back on the ship, pilots are quick to thank their LSO and forget their 'night in the barrel' ever happened.