Carrier Ops - Divert for Low-fuel
An example of routine aircraft carrier flight ops in the F-14 Tomcat in the early 1980s, and how we always had to be ready for anything...
USS Constellation left San Diego on Tuesday, October 20, 1981, and headed into the Pacific for a seven and a half month deployment. We didn’t fly for the first few days as the ship powered west at relatively high speed. Then on October 25 we were a few hundred miles from Hawaii so we started flight ops. The ship and airwing's last flight ops had been a little more than a month before and we needed to "knock off the rust." Soon we would be flying in the open ocean, thousands of miles from land, but for the first few days it was important to have a land base to which we could divert in case of emergency. On that first day I had a 9 AM brief for an ACM flight that was enjoyable but not remarkable. Then I had a 4 PM brief for a routine night flight, with the primary goal being to re-qualify pilots who had not made a night carrier landing in more than a month.
We spent time flying radar intercepts at low speed, practicing radar usage and communications – mainly to pass time and do a little training until we started the carrier landings and qualifications, since refreshing pilot quals was the true purpose of the event. All aircraft went to holding early to conserve fuel. The ship directed us one by one to begin our approaches.
One of the first planes to land that night was an A-7 Corsair II (attack jet). It hit the deck hard and blew both main landing gear tires during the arrested landing. The exploding tires threw rubber pieces all over the landing area. The hard rubber of aircraft tires would damage any jet engines that ingested it, so the carrier’s crew immediately put into action their procedures to move the hobbled aircraft and clear the landing area.
As soon as the A-7 blew its tires, Connie’s controllers announced on the radio, “Delta easy,” the signal to be as conservative as possible with fuel. In my five months of carrier ops, I had heard this a few times and knew things could go either way from here. The problem could be solved quickly, or we might be in for some challenges. I was still relatively new at this and took some comfort in flying with an experienced pilot, Lieutenant John "John Boy" Alling, who had been in the squadron for two years and completed one deployment.
In a few minutes the Air Boss himself came on the radio – a rare event – and gave us a report, telling us they were cleaning up the mess and we should resume landings in fifteen minutes. Like every other person flying, John Boy and I calculated our fuel situation and gave ourselves pats on the back for being conservative. Fifteen extra minutes? …no problem.
About ten minutes later the Boss came on the radio again and said there were some problems clearing the deck, now the expected delay was another thirty minutes. He told each aircraft to check-in and report their fuel state. We all listened to each other and thought the same thing: still no problem. We had all been cautious and saved fuel, planning to dump it during the last few miles of our approach to landing. Aircraft had already launched for the late-night event after ours, and they included aerial tankers, but it was decided to hold the tankers for the aircraft just launched and we were told we would not be able to aerial refuel.
About 45 minutes after the initial incident, the tone of voices changed as pilots and RIOs reported fuel states and inquired about the clean-up. The situation was approaching a critical state. In our cockpit John Boy told me to get out my reference booklets and look up our divert field: Naval Air Station Barbers Point, outside Honolulu. We had enough fuel to wait a little longer and still fly to the field, so I wasn’t worried. But in just a few minutes the first aircrew told the ship they were at a decision point. Connie said the expected delay was fifteen more minutes, so the aircrew wisely decided to divert to Barbers Point.
As soon as one pilot made that decision, the rest of us quickly did the same.
I switched my radio to Honolulu air traffic control and heard a pack of Navy planes. When there was an opening in communication I checked in. I reported our position and soon the controller located us on his radar and gave initial instructions. In my cockpit I used the built-in flashlight to read the navigation chart. Since this was a field we had never used before, John Boy relied on me to describe the conditions and course rules to be used by approaching aircraft. We could see the lights of Honolulu from 100 miles away in the total blackness of the Pacific. We flew through scattered and well-defined clouds as we neared the field, descending, switching frequencies, and following navigation instructions and listening to the other diverting aircraft doing the same.
Soon we were on deck at Barbers Point. Since there was no plane captain to meet us when we reached a parking area, John Boy shut down the left engine and I climbed out of the cockpit. I walked along the back of the plane, sat down on the horizontal tail and slid to the end, then dropped about five feet to the ground. I opened a storage box tucked in the nose landing gear well to retrieve metal pins, then placed them in critical joints in the landing gear to keep it from collapsing when we shut down the plane. This is a precaution taken on every aircraft with retractable gear, but normally done by the PC. I gave John Boy a thumbs-up and he shut down the second engine. We had flown for 3.5 hours.
Another Tomcat pulled in next to us and I ran over, got their attention, and installed their gear pins. It was our XO and his RIO. The rest of the diverting aircraft soon landed and taxied over. There were about six planes. To their credit, Barbers Point sent a truck out to give us a ride to the officers quarters.
It was about 10 PM. We assessed who had made this divert and determined VF-24 XO Commander Bertsch was the senior officer, so he went to the base control tower and contacted the ship by radio. Meanwhile we arrived at the officers quarters – which was like a dorm or budget motel – and decided it would be nice to spend a night not on the ship. So we went to the beer vending machine and bought a beer each. This would be our excuse that we could not fly back that night, since it was illegal to fly for eight hours after drinking even one beer. (The rules have since become more restrictive.)
The XO arrived at the quarters a few minutes later and grabbed a beer himself. The ship was just finishing the clean-up and had their hands full recovering the event that launched after us, so they did not want us back that night anyway. Instead we were to launch the next day and be at the ship at 1 PM. So we ordered pizza and played cards, and most guys got another beer….
The next day was one of those incredibly bright tropical days with beautiful clouds. Barbers Point personnel had refueled our jets and we launched about noon. Air traffic controllers directed us to the area where Constellation was operating. John Boy and I flew on the XO’s wing to simplify the air traffic control problem. We contacted Connie when we were 100 miles from the ship. We had been written into the ship’s schedule, to land with the 1:15 PM recovery – very efficient. Each type of aircraft was assigned a mission and told to switch to a radio frequency. We switched to our assigned frequency and contacted another VF-24 aircraft that had launched to work with us.
Since we had not conducted a detailed brief we flew a training mission that we could do with minimal coordination: 2v1 short setups. Two Tomcats would act as the fighter section, while the third aircraft was the bogey. Instead of 30 miles or more, the intercepts were a maximum of 20 miles.
The short setup was great because the RIOs acting as “fighters” had a dynamic radar problem of detecting the bogey, ensuring both aircraft had radar contact, directing the intercept to gain position advantage, and talking the pilots’ eyes on to visually acquire the bogey (tally-ho or just tally). On the other side, the bogey Tomcat had valuable training at detecting two aircraft and working within the cockpit to ensure he and the pilot had sight of the fighters at the merge. We would continue through only 180º of turn before the knock-it-off call, then switch partners and fly away from each other until we saw 20 miles of separation on our TACAN navigation instrument. As we approached 20 miles the bogey would call, “Turning in, fight’s on” to begin the next run.
Since the XO and John Boy were in formation flying out from Barbers Point, we were the first fighters. I’d done this before, and always enjoyed the fast pace of 2v1 short setups. On this day the bright clouds – as well-defined as white puffy mountains – provided a grand arena for our combat as well as a sense of perspective. For nearly an hour it was: “204 turning in, fight’s on.” “Contact 15 left, 18 miles, come left 330.” “Tally left 11 low.” “Fox two.” “Knock it off, 210 outbound as the bogey.” Then, less than four minutes after last turn-in: “210 turning in, fight’s on.” “Contact 5 right, 17 miles, come right 010.” And that was just the communication over the radio; there was more over the ICS.
We flew ten or twelve runs before we had to stop to make our landing time. We flew to the day holding pattern overhead Constellation and watched the launch of the next event. When the deck was clear we descended, swept our wings in unison, entered the break, and came in for our landings.
Flight ops in the vicinity of Hawaii on a carrier headed west…we were really on deployment.
If you want more, the book TOPGUN DAYS includes fuller explanations of carrier ops, as well as a memorable flight of "short setups" against some Topgun adversaries.