USS Nimitz: Tail Hook Qualifications
Fleet Replacement Squadron Carrier Qualifications CVN-68 USS Nimitz March 2022
Written by: Patrick Roegies & Jurgen van Toor
All images by authors
July 24, 2022
The first week of March CVN-68 USS Nimitz was out in the open waters to perform a week of Fleet Replacement Squadron Carrier Qualifications (FRSCQ). During this week all current fighter assets of the Strike Fighter Wings participated in the qualifications and included VFA-122 “Flying Eagles as the West Coast Fleet Replacement Squadron (FRS) for the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, VAQ-129 “Vikings as the Boeing EA-18G Fleet Replacement Squadron and VFA-125 “Rough Raiders” as the Lockheed Martin F-35C Lightning II Fleet Replacement Squadron. Depending on the experience level, the pilots assigned to the FRSCQ have to complete a number of day-time traps and night-time traps. Patrick Roegies and Jurgen van Toor were on-board CVN-68 USS Nimitz to witness the developments.
The Fleet Replacement Squadron Carrier Qualification cruise for CVN-68 USS Nimitz was also a valuable training for the sailors on board. Since March 2021, the ship had been in a major overhaul with the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard & Intermediate Maintenance Facility at Bremerton (Washington) and just returned to operational service after extensive testing. Captain Sicola quotes: “What Nimitz accomplished in just under two months is nothing short of remarkable. We have shown this crew is ready to operate at sea, launch and recover aircraft, and re-join the fight. I am extremely proud of the hard work shown by these Sailors and our air wing partners. Now that we have mastered the basics, we will continue to hone these skills to keep us ready for any contingency.”
He further continues, “The future of naval aviation relies on these new pilots to sharpen their skills as they prepare to enter the fleet. It has been a long road for these students and the improvements I saw over the course of their time with Nimitz is a testament to the dedication of these young pilots and the effort of their instructors to get them there. I hope that the next time I see them is on the flight deck as part of the carrier air wing and Nimitz family.”
CVN-68 USS Nimitz successfully commenced its “basic phase,” a series of certifications where the ship, crew, and air wing are evaluated on the basics before moving on to exercises that are more intensive and, eventually, deployment.
Between 07 February 2022 and 28 February 2022, the ship spent its time at sea without any aircraft, preparing for and participating in Command Assessment of Readiness and Training (CART) II. CART II primarily assessed the ship’s training teams, certifying that those responsible for keeping the crew proficient in their duties are doing so properly and in accordance with Navy standards. The ship’s assessment was administered by forty-eight visiting personnel by the Navy’s “Afloat Training Group” (ATG) who gave the ship a passing score and also identified areas of improvement for training.
From 28 February 2022 until 7 March 2022, Nimitz and squadrons from Carrier Air Wing 17 (CVW-17) conducted another evaluation for the basic phase known as “flight deck certification”. The purpose of this evaluation is to ensure the Nimitz flight deck personnel were prepared and qualified to launch and recover aircraft while allowing the pilots of CVW-17 to keep current on their carrier take-off and landing qualifications. The squadrons of CVW 17 that participated in the flight deck certification consisted of the “Fighting Redcocks,” of Strike Fighter Squadron 22 (VFA-22); the “Mighty Shrikes,” of Strike Fighter Squadron 94 (VFA-94), the “Kestrels” of Strike Fighter Squadron 137 (VFA-137) and the “Blue Diamonds” of Strike Fighter Squadron 146 (VFA-146) all operating the Super Hornet. These Super Hornet squadrons were supplemented by the “Cougars,” of Electronic Attack Squadron 139 (VAQ-139), operating the EA-18G Growler; the “Sun Kings” of Carrier Airborne Early-Warning Squadron 116 (VAW-116), operating the E-2C Hawkeye; the “Providers” of Fleet Logistics Support Squadron 30 (VRC-30), operating the C-2 Greyhound; and the “Screaming Indians” of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 6 (HSC-6), operating the MH-60S Seahawk.
Having passed flight deck certification, The Nimitz was then able to allow training squadrons from the Fleet Replacement Squadrons (FRS), and training squadrons from Naval Air Training Command (CNATRA) to practice carrier take-offs and landings on its flight deck. An FRS squadron is a squadron whose mission is to teach newly winged aviators and refresh aviators returning from non-flying tours on a particular platform.
Between 8 March 2022 and 11 March 2022, FRS squadrons operating on Nimitz completed their carrier qualifications. This was the first time F-35C Lightning IIs have practiced launching and recovering on Nimitz since 2014. On 12 and 13 March 2022, instructors from the newly formed Fleet Logistics Multi-Mission Squadron 50 (VRM-50), the Navy’s first FRS squadron for the CMV-22B Osprey, practiced day and night landings as well. This was the first time Ospreys from VRM-50 landed on any U.S. Navy aircraft carrier. This squadron and its instructors will go on teach future osprey pilots as the CMV-22B begins to phase out the Navy’s current Carrier Onboard Delivery (COD) platform, the C-2 Greyhound.
In contradiction to an operational cruise, the flight deck of the carrier is relatively empty when the USS Nimitz departed the San Diego harbour. The aircraft that would be participating to the Carrier Qualifications were all temporary deployed at NAS North Island, with most of the pilots that had to complete their Carrier Qualifications on board at the USS Nimitz.
Carrier qualifications in the Fleet Replacement Squadrons mark the successful completion of two years of intensive training for naval aviators who are about to move on to the fleet to serve in front-line strike fighter squadrons. The positions they will fill in Fleet squadrons are critical in the sense that these squadrons, when embarked, constitute the leading edge of national power projection and warfighting capability. By proving, they have the mental discipline and skill to consistently and safely landing a Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, Boeing EA-18G Growler or a Lockheed Martin F-35C Lighting II on an aircraft carrier, day and night, demonstrates they are ready to take on this tremendous responsibility. The Carrier Qualifications have to be performed periodically by every naval aviator. West Coast based pilots completing their Fleet Replacement Squadron training on the F/A-18 Super Hornet at VFA-122 “Flying Eagles”, the EA-18G Growler at VAQ-129 “Vikings” and the F-35C Lightning II at VFA-125 Rough Raiders”. These students are also referred to as “Nuggets”. Depending on their previous grading the students are passed on to Carrier Qualification training and the best scoring pilots might move to an operational strike fighter squadron once the carrier qualifications are completed successfully.
Besides the training of “nuggets” the carrier qualification also applies to aviators that have moved into a command function and are not directly assigned to a strike fighter squadron anymore. In order to remain current these commanders have to complete the qualification training periodically as well. The carrier qualifications are a proven method to keep the commanders current.
Depending on the level of experience a pre-set number of day-time and nighttime landings have to be performed also referred to as traps. For the “nuggets” the minimal requirement is ten day-time traps and six nighttime traps. A landing signals officer or landing safety officer (LSO) also referred to as “paddles” is trained to guide the pilot through each trap and remains in contact with the pilot throughout the entire approach. If the approach is considered to be outside the tolerated window, the LSO can wave off the approach calling for a touch and go.
Each set of qualifications starts with one touch and go where the pilot does not engage the tail hook and gets a “feel” on the approach. After the touch and go, a pre-set number of arrested tail hook landings are to be performed.
During the 10 traps a missed approach is allowed as a result of a bouncing tail hook bouncing off the deck also referred to as a “bolter” and is allowed once in a series of 10 traps unless the Light and Signals Officer (LSO) on deck has concluded the “bolter” was due to an expectation that is not the fault of the aviator. If the tail hook hits the deck very close to the arresting cable, it just might bounce off and the LSO notes this down as an acceptable missed trap.
As CVN-68 USS Nimitz sailed out of San Diego port the majority of the pilots were already on board. As the ship turned into the wind the aircraft started to arrive taking off from NAS North Island where the aircraft had been temporary deployed. The pilots that had completed their qualifications were transferred back to the mainland by means of the carrier on board delivery (COD) service operating the aging C-2A greyhound. Each squadron operates their own ready room in which the entire flight plan is briefed prior to the flight operations commence. Flight evaluation and grading takes place individually after the completion of the sortie.
Integration of Magic Carpet
During the past decade, the United States Naval Aviation has developed and implemented new state-of-the-art upgraded flight control technology. This new technology is a continuously improvement development version of the Precision Landing Mode (PLM) referred to as the Maritime Augmented Guidance with Integrated Controls for Carrier Approach and Recovery Precision Enabling Technologies (Magic Carpet). The purpose of this new technology is to make the landing of a strike fighter at 150 miles per hour on a short and narrow carrier deck runway easier and safer.
The Naval Test and Evaluation Squadrons (VX-squadrons) worked with the Office of Naval Research to develop the Magic Carpet concept to life and prove its feasibility. Given the purpose and necessity of this enhanced capability, the project initiated as PMA-265 was prioritized and received funding for the PLM project in 2016. A team of flight control experts and experienced test pilots across Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) was formed to complete the successful implementation of Magic Carpet into the operational “business as usual”.
The new Magic Carpet flight control technology significantly reduces the number of inputs a pilot has to perform during the final approach to the aircraft carrier landing deck. With its optimized automated integral control and state-of-the-art displays, Magic Carpet reduces the pilot workload by reducing the number of manual corrections and makes landing much safer and simpler. Additionally, it improves overall recovery time by reducing the number of missed approaches. Consequently, it reduces tanker requirements and streamlines training requirements. The latest upgrade of Magic Carpet based on the initial version of PLM implemented in 2016 allows pilots to use the optimized technology even under failure conditions. NAVAIR began implementing the upgraded Magic Carpet control system to the F/A-18E/F and EA-18G fleet in the fall of 2020.
Magic Carpet is a software only application with no hardware modification requirement to the original aircraft. During a single-engine approach, magic carpet helps to provide the pilot with a platform that feels very similar to a dual-engine approach, maximizing climb performance and helping the jet stay in balanced flight. Magic Carpet has also changed the way the fleet replacement squadrons train. The “Nuggets” for the F/A-18 E and F Super Hornet, EA-18G Growler and F-35C Lightning II now train operating the magic carpet system from day one.
Because of this new technology during carrier qualification deployments, the training requirements are reduced by roughly 50% as magic carpet technology will enable the aircrew to maximize flight time to train for a diverse and ever-expanding assortment of tactical and strategic missions.
The main focus of pilots approaching the carrier consists of three important factors. The first is to align their aircraft to the ships landing deck, with the goal being to catch the third of four wires in the aircraft arresting gear. The second is their angle of attack, needed to ensure the tail hook actually catches one of the four wires. The third is air speed that has to be maintained and monitored continuously even when conditions change as a result of changing the first two factors.
Even if a pilot begins his approach to the ship perfectly, every little adjustment of these three focus factors to maintain that flight path to the ship requires counter-adjustments in other areas.
The Super Hornets, Growlers and Lightning IIs were built with digital flight controls, and some automation was built into the system from the start. Magic carpet integral controls all these factors.
Magic Carpet is also referred to as a living wing as the aircraft will compensate automatically. When magic Carpet is engaged and put into “delta path mode,” the aircraft will fly on a 3-degree glideslope downwards regardless of wind and other conditions outside. Even when the aircraft flies through the turbulent disturbed air behind the aircraft carrier, as a result from landing and starting aircraft, the plane reacts and continues on its planned glideslope.
The average pilot makes 200 to 300 corrections in the final 18 seconds before landing. With the Magic Carpet technology, test data showed the first-timers making about 20 corrections while flying on the ball, with that figure dropping below 10 once the pilots got used to the system. Magic Carpet allows for more intuitive and much less required adjustments to that flight path by decoupling roll from yaw from pitch, and instead creating an integral single input that controls the ultimate goal, the aircrafts flight path. The pilot can make minor corrections to the flight path using the stick and then simply let go of the stick to stay on that new path.
Magic carpet equally applies for side-to-side corrections – the pilot adjusts and then let’s go of the stick to maintain the new direction, with the aircraft always keeping that same 3-degree glideslope for a smooth landing on the carrier flight deck. Finally, Magic Carpet calculates the movement of the carrier as it sails through the open waters and precisely understands where the shifted landing area will be by the time the aircraft will hit the deck.
Previously, pilots have to constantly guess the velocity vector, while “spotting the deck” which in often previous occurrences put them too low and may have caused the LSO on the flight deck to wave the approach off. With this new technology, the ships velocity is monitored and the pilot can estimate how fast the runway is moving to the right, and go into delta path mode and we have a different symbol, velocity vector goes away and it actually looks like a little landing area.
Increased efficiency and safety
Primarily Magic Carpet Technology increases the pilot’s safety. During testing of the system, the pilots were consistently hitting the third wire, with smooth approaches and no hard landings. Training time is precious though, and this new technology is a significant step in more efficient training as well.
Aircraft carriers, despite existing to move aircraft around, do not like launching and recovering planes. From the ship’s perspective, ships don’t like to recover airplanes because their manoeuvrability is very constrained. The Magic Carpet technology reduces the amount of time the ship’s commanding officer put the ship into the wind instead of on course to its destination. It reduces the amount of time the Captain has to worry about protecting air space around the ship, as well as keeping a helicopter with search and rescue swimmers in the air in case of a mishap.
Additionally, Magic Carpet will extend the life of the Super Hornets, Growlers and Lightning IIs, or at the very least reduce the required maintenance cycles necessary to keep the fighter combat ready.
As airframes are taken out of service to undergo that service life extension program when the airframes reached the 6,000 flight hours, the number of available fighter aircraft will decrease. This makes every single airplane important for fleet readiness. By reducing the number of attempts to land the aircraft on the carrier deck and decrease the chance on missed approaches or “bolters” the requirement to have tankers in the air also has been reduced significantly as aircraft at the end of their mission are less vulnerable on fuel status.
This will also help generate more data on fuel savings, maintenance savings, potential training savings and more, to help the naval aviation community understand how to field the system.