—Flight deck operations—

The Midway was only one of eight carriers in the Pacific Fleet in 1971, though not all were in Westpac at once. In latter May of 1972 there were six carriers recorded operating in the Gulf of Tonkin as part of Operation Linebacker I: the U.S.S. Saratoga, Kitty Hawk, Midway, Hancock, Constellation, and Coral Sea. During October of 1972 the carriers were: Midway, America, Kitty Hawk, Saratoga, Oriskany and Enterprise. When Operation Linebacker II commenced in December of 1972, it found the Midway still putting in days toward its record setting 208 days on-the-line between April, 1972, and February, 1973. For this prolonged effort the ship and crew won a Presidential Unit Citation.

Most of ship's crew at one time or another found watching flight ops a way of killing time during the many long interludes spent on-the-line. Fellows in the air wing called us "black shoes" because of our black boondockers (leather work shoes). We called members of the air wing "airdales."

Few of us knew the details of what was happening before our eyes. We simply enjoyed observing takeoffs and landings for their spectacular visual merits. I, for one, did not fully appreciate the intricacies and dangers involved. Following is an excerpt from the introduction to a brochure made available by the Midway's Public Affairs Office entitled "A Guide to Carrier Flight Deck Operations." (The "Guide" was consulted extensively in explaining functions of the various flight deck crew later in this section.)

 

"An aircraft carrier's flight deck has been called the second most dangerous place on earth to work, and rightly so. [A strong claim for first most dangerous place would be a crab fishing ship, in winter, in the Bering Strait.] As many as 44 aircraft and 200 men are crammed onto little more than four acres of hardened steel armor plate. Searing jet exhaust can cook a man or blow him overboard. At times the air is so hot that he can't breathe. Jet intakes can pull a man off his feet and devour him. An unwary sailor can fall prey to a spinning propeller's razor-sharp, invisible arc. On the flight deck men move in many different directions in what appears to the uninitiated observer to be chaotic.

 

"Yet nothing is as organized as the flight deck of a US Navy carrier. It's like an orchestra, with each section devoted to performing a part of the overall symphony of carrier operations . . .."

I heard some horror stories during my tour on the Midway. However, the stories all took place at another time and location. One of the two most memorable accounts was about an officer who got sucked into a jet's intake but was able to hook his hands and feet around the engine's housing. The other concerned a sailor who accidentally was sprayed with aviation jet fuel. The officer survived his ordeal, blind but alive. The enlisted man was not so lucky. The fuel on his clothing ignited and due to the invisible nature of the flame he was not aware of the fact until it was too late.

Preventing FOD (Foreign Object Damage) was something for which we were all responsible. Crew members anywhere near the flight deck could not wear hats except secured helmets such as those worn by flight deck crew. Precautions were strict, and men were constantly on the lookout for anything that might be ingested into an engine. Even small objects like bolts, screws, washers, etc., could cause severe damage to a jet engine. Loss could include multi-million-dollar aircraft and human life.

FOD Walkdowns were mandatory before, between and after flight operations. A line of men extending from port to starboard across the flight deck would walk the length of the ship watching for and extracting all foreign objects. Unfortunately, one variety of FOD could not be controlled by a Walkdown, birds.

The remainder of this section will be devoted to explaining flight deck operations. Since different colored jerseys were worn to denote varying flight deck crew functions, I will place each color's abbreviation in parentheses. The following chart shows the colors.

 

(Bl) =

Blue jersey

 

(Br) =

Brown jersey

 

(Gr) =

Green jersey

 

(Pu) =

Purple jersey

 

(Re) =

Red jersey— Some of these men were members of ship's crew with Weapons Department.

 

(Wh) =

White jersey

 

(Ye) =

Yellow jersey

Below were the different types of aircraft found in the Midway's plane contingency:

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Sea King Helicopter (SH-3G1) or "Angel." It was the first aircraft launched and the last recovered, being the primary planeguard.

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E-2B Hawkeye or "Frisbee." This twin-engine, turboprop plane was launched next after the helicopter. It used an Airborne Tactical Data System (ATDS), which was linked to the ship's Naval Tactical Data System (NTDS) to extend fleet radar. The Frisbee also used its electronic equipment to provide command and control functions for all Air Wing missions.

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RF8 Crusader. This plane was used to carry out photo reconnaissance missions.

-

"Easy Way Airlines" was the CIA detachment that used a twin-engine, conventional plane that had to be refueled ashore, since the Midway did not carry fuel for non-jet engines. The plane would be used in logistics, mail and cargo flights. En route to Westpac in 1971 the Midway was advised that, henceforth, all CVAs were to base a CIA plane. Ours came out of the air base at Da Nang, Republic of South Vietnam, and returned to NAS (Naval Air Station) Alameda with the ship.

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A-7B Corsair II. Midway's primary attack plane. Each could carry five tons of ordnance at a time.

-

A-6B Intruder. The Intruder could strike in any weather condition day or night. It could lead other planes on low visibility missions and provided them with in-flight refueling service.

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F-4B Phantom II. Phantoms were used for Combat Air Patrol, escort and even strike missions, plus they were used to protect the carrier task force against hostile aircraft.

The air wing was a terrifically lethal weapon. In 1971 her planes delivered 37,000 bombs as part of 10,000 tons of ordnance dispensed. Conspiring to do the most damage were CIC (Combat Information Center), CATCC (Carrier Air Traffic Control Center), Pri-Fly (Primary Flight Control) and the bridge. Information gathering and target vectoring ensured that most of the payload was not wasted.

It was essential that flight deck operations should be as synchronous as a well-oiled clock. The air "Boss" directed all aspects of flight deck operations from Pri-Fly, Midway's control tower. This included maintaining radio contact with aircraft. He also had phone contact with the Landing Signals Officer (LSO), Air Operations, bridge and Flight Deck Control. The "Boss" directed all takeoffs, landings and aircraft deck movement and associated evolutions. He used the 5MCC (flight deck public address system) to direct and coordinate operations.

Some Midway flight deck and island pictures.

The Flight Deck Officer (Ye) directed, planned and oversaw the parking and security of all aircraft, mobile fire fighting and ground support equipment on the flight deck. His responsibility also included the security and training of all associated personnel. His division included all aircraft directors, plane handlers, tractor drivers, elevator operators and crash and salvage personnel plus his administrative staff.

The Flight Deck Chief (Ye) was responsible for "calling the deck" during flight deck operations. He had to make split second decisions when sorting and prioritizing aircraft on their way to the catapults and positioning the aircraft after landing. All flight deck personnel keyed on this man.

The Aircraft Handling Officer (ACHO) (Ye) was the parking lot attendant. The "Handler" directed all movement of aircraft on the flight and hangar decks from Flight Deck Control. Additionally, he maintained a running maintenance status of every aircraft on board, including its weapon systems. The latter was done through liaison with the Weapons Department, AIMD (ship's maintenance department that also repaired planes), Supply Department, Air Operations, and Strike Operations Officers. Due to limited space on the flight deck and hangar deck he also coordinated all space allocation between other departments plus the use of the three aircraft elevators.

Weapons Department personnel armed 500 pound bombs to be carried, while the pilots were below being briefed on a forthcoming mission. When ready, these bombs were taken to the flight deck via the munitions' elevator. Ordnance Handlers (Re), or "B-B Stackers," moved ordnance and loaded it onto the aircraft. They also removed unspent ordnance from returning planes.

 

Bomb loaders and flight deck crew normally worked fourteen-hour days, seven days a week.

The Explosive Ordnance Disposal Officer and crew (Re) disposed of, disarmed and neutralized defective ordnance. Their jerseys had "EOD" on front and back. The Ordnance Officer (Re) was responsible for the safe movement, handling and loading of aircraft ordnance. His jersey had a black stripe and "SAFETY" written on both front and back. If a plane to be launched or recovered had passengers or cargo to be loaded or unloaded, this would be coordinated by the Air Transport Officer (ATO) (Wh). Any refueling needed would be carried out by the Aviation Fuels Crew (Pu) or "Grapes." They pump jockeyed the aircraft using sixteen fuel access stations located around the flight deck and five stations on the hangar deck.

The Crash and Salvage crew (Re), or flight deck fire department, were always on hand. They operated the fire-fighting, foam delivery tractors and "Tillie," the crash crane. Their jerseys had "Crash/Salvage" on the front and back. Augmenting Crash/Salvage were the medical crew (Wh with a large red cross front and back), who provided immediate medical assistance/treatment to any flight deck personnel casualties. Safety Officer and crew (Wh) were responsible for the general safety of flight operations, ensured all activities were executed according to established safety procedures.

The pilots boarding the planes were the product of hundreds of hours of training and experience in launch and recovery, both on land and on ship, in daylight and at night. These fellows were a different breed of animal, and some were from another planet. I recall watching two pilots on the KMID/TV broadcast "Forum" one evening aboard ship. One pilot seemed in control and reserved, but the other was pure excitement, fresh from the kill. He exclaimed that dropping bombs on targets at night was the ultimate in exhilaration. Approximately in his own words, and referring to the different lighted dials on his control panel, "It's like playing a pinball machine! Only much more exciting!" Especially appealing to this particular fellow was the ability to detect heat on the ground produced by an engine or the like using the plane's infrared equipment. Then this pilot gleefully would bomb the hell out of "Charlie," who believed he was safe in hiding. I didn't object to the technology as much as to the attitude.

Each plane had both a pilot and a navigator, while some newer ones had a third person to man the ECM (Electronic Counter-Measures) equipment. The ECM provided radar for the plane plus radar and high frequency transmission jamming against the enemy. Our planes were more than adequate for their tasks, unholy as these may have seemed to many of us.

The planes, when not in use, were mainly stored on the flight deck. The hangar deck was reserved for planes being serviced by the maintenance crew (Gr). Aircraft Handling Crew and Chockmen (Bl) were responsible for handling planes, chocking the wheels, and chaining unused aircraft to the flight deck. They also operated the handling equipment including tractors and electrical power units on the flight deck. Squadron Plane Inspectors (Wh) were responsible for physical safety and inspection of aircraft. The green helmeted "Inspectors" were identified by the black and white checkerboard pattern on the front and back of their jerseys.

Repaired planes that were ready for combat were returned to the flight deck from the hangar deck by way of one of three elevators conducted by Elevator Operators or "EOs" (Bl with white helmet). Not long after I departed the ship for the states in September, 1972, a fellow was caught between the edge of the hangar deck and the edge of an elevator. He was working on the stuck elevator when suddenly it lowered. I do not know whether the man involved was an "EO," but I do know (without getting sickeningly graphic) that he was killed.

All planes were situated on the aft flight deck, at the start of a launch cycle, according to the Flight Deck Officer's and Aircraft Handling Officer's specifications. While the Handling crew maneuvered each jet into its slot, Plane Captains (Br) ensured their respective squadron's aircraft were properly inspected and serviced, done pre-flight, post-flight and during turnaround. Plane Captains were also responsible for the cleanliness and corrosion control of their aircraft and for supervising ground starting procedures.

Pilots and navigators manned and started each plane, while Squadron Inspectors and Plane Captains carried out any last minute checks. The flight crew went through its own checklist before launch, establishing positive radio communications with Pri-Fly. Meanwhile, the Helicopter LSE (Gr) directed the two planeguard helicopters' takeoffs with visual hand signals. When the planes were ready to be moved, there were two options. The Aircraft Handling Crew could pull them using flight deck tractors according to Flight Deck Chief hand signals. Otherwise, the pilots could "jet propel" the planes according to hand signal instructions from Plane Directors (Ye). The Plane Directors keyed off the Flight Deck Chief's signals.

The ship's captain would turn the bow into the wind and have the ship's engines operating at high speed by the time the planes, pilots, Pri-Fly, CIC, CATCC, and flight deck crew were ready. Facing directly into the wind, and at high forward speed, the ship was as steady in the water as possible. This increased wind velocity for launching and subtracted from aircraft speed during recovery cycle. Now the flight crew launched the extremely odd-looking "Frisbee." It received its nickname because of the large, flat, Frisbee-shaped radar attachment disk that hovered above it horizontally, affixed to a platform over the craft's beam.

Once the helicopters and "Frisbee," or Hawkeye, were up, planes were brought forward in launch order. The Catapult Officer or "Shooter" (Ye with green helmet) was responsible for the entire catapult crew, weight verification and Catapult Capacity Selector Valve (CSV) settings. He checked each aircraft before it launched for proper flight configuration, saluted the pilot and signaled the Deck Edge Officer (Gr) to "fire" the catapult. Helping the Catapult Officer were the Center Deck Operator (Gr) and the Weight Board Operator (Gr). The Center Deck Operator communicated with catapult control relaying aircraft type, gross weight and the side number, and assisted in selection of Capacity Selector Valve (CSV) settings. Each plane required a different catapult setting based on weight. The Weight Board Operator verified the aircraft's gross weight with the air crew as a final check before launch.

The Bow Safety Man (Gr) had to signal that the forward portion of the ship was clear of FOD and personnel before launch could take place. Also signaled was that he had switched launch hardware either to the "shuttle," for nosegear launch bar aircraft, or the "spreader," for bridle equipped aircraft. Next the Hook Up petty officer (Gr) attached either the plane's launch bar or bridle to the catapult's shuttle or spreader configuration.

Now the plane was ready for takeoff. The JBD (Jet Blast Deflector) Operator (Gr) would raise the jet blast deflector shield from the flight deck directly behind the plane to reduce jet blast danger to crew and planes aft. The CSV would then be set appropriately before the catapult fired in response to a signal from the Catapult Officer. Resulting was a cloud of vapor from 17,000-plus psi steam pressure whipping the plane down a track and into the air off the forward flight deck like a stone ejected from a sling shot, assisted all the way by the plane's screaming jet engines. Finally, the jet blast deflector would lower and the next plane move forward according to hand signals from a Plane Director.

Thus it would continue repeatedly, and not necessarily one launch at a time. There were two catapults, and normally both would be used simultaneously. Meanwhile, each helicopter circled its respective side of the ship out of the planes' flight path. The launched jets, now governed by Air Traffic Controlmen in the "control tower" (Pri-Fly), would buzz our Destroyer Escort in formation until the complete contingent was airborne. Then the bombers, laden with their lethal loads, and the fighters, armed with offensive guns and air-to-air missiles, would be off on their mission.

Return to the ship was helped by radar, UHF beacon and voice communications. The Landing Signals Officer, or "LSO" (Wh), ensured each aircraft remained within safe parameters during landing approach through radio communications and light signals. His station was port side aft, and he initiated the wave-off of aircraft outside the safe landing envelope. Before each landing the Deck Checkers (Gr) would make sure the landing area was personnel and FOD free, and the arresting gear wires were in proper position for aircraft recovery. Simultaneously the Arresting Gear Officer, or "Hook," (Ye with Green helmet) would ensure that the proper weight was set in the arresting gear engines for each aircraft (each had a special maximum trap weight). The "Hook" was also responsible for the general safety of the arresting gear crew and stood on the starboard side across from the Landing Signals Officer.

Landing, itself, was viewed as a "controlled crash." When the pilot received a "go ahead" signal from the LSO, he would lower his landing hook and make his approach toward the aft flight deck. The landing portion of the flight deck angled in such a way as to free the launch area for plane storage, respotting (moving planes to pre-determined positions), refueling, munitions loading or unloading, repairs, continuous launching, or a combination of these. The plane would come in at approximately 110 MPH and attempt to snare one of three arresting gear wires (cables) stretching across the landing path from port to starboard. While the plane hit the flight deck the pilot would gun the engine in case of a "hit-and-miss," when he would have to lift off and make another attempt. If the catch were good, the arresting gear mechanism would go from zero to full resistance within a matter of yards, when the plane would be stopped (arrested).

A landing completed, the Deck Edge Operator (Gr) located in a nearby catwalk would retract the arresting gear wire. Hook Runners (Gr) ensured the wire remained in the landing area during retraction using a five-foot steel bar. They also made sure that all wires were taut and rested atop bow springs. The springs kept the wires up and off the deck to be snared by the next plane's landing hook. Now the newly landed plane taxied out of the landing path following instructions from a Plane Director. One astonishing aspect of each landing sequence was that all steps would happen in a matter of seconds. Then the Arresting Gear Crew would be ready for the next plane, also in a matter of seconds.

Launch/recovery cycles would take place day or night, rain or shine. The only things that would stop them while we were on the line were a cease fire, bombing halt, Ropeyarn Sunday, or the weather was so rough as to make flight operations especially dangerous. Upon occasion I would venture out onto the ship's island in the evening between launch and recovery cycles. The evenings were always muggy, even late at night. I would look out toward shore across the blackness and see momentary silhouettes of land against a background of intermittent lightning.

Copyright 1992, 1998 Charles W. Paige

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