This is a training mission. The USS America is sailing 100 to 150 miles off Norfolk, Va., a floating training station for fliers getting their carrier qualifications - the required practice landings to keep their skills up to snuff.
Squadrons from Jacksonville, Fla., Memphis, Tenn., Whidbey Island, Wash., and elsewere around the United States have either flown directly to the carrier or have staged to Naval Air Station Oceana, east of Norfolk, then flown to the operating area.This day the carrier pilots are not happy. The America was a day late leaving Norfolk when a low band of fog cut visibility in the entrance to Cheasapeake Bay to 40 feet at water level. Though it was sunny and clear at 200 feet, on the water the captain could not have seen the ship's bow. He decided the risk of collision in such busy waters was too high for a training mission.
The next day the America sailed majestically out to sea and met the circling jets of a training squadron ready to plunk down on deck, only to find that the electronic landing system was not working. It took an hour to fix the equipment, straining the endurance of the aircraft.
Once the deck was cleared for landings, the F-14 Tomcat fighters set up their landing circles, first making touch-and-goes, rocketing back into the air after only close approaches to the deck.
Then, one by one, the jets began to touch down, reaching their tailhooks for the wire that would snug them down to the ship. The first few approaches were waved off because the lineups were not perfect, then the planes began to come all the way in, slam down, and catch the wires.
Once aboard, a Tomcat has to be jerked back by the wire operator so that the wire would drop free of the hook. A green-shirted seaman stood by the landing spot to signal the operator and the pilot, when the wire was loose. It's a job as dangerous as any in the Navy. An errant plane or a broken wire could mean death or mutilation.
The carrier's deck crew was clearly rusty from the long 16-month layup in a Portsmouth shipyard, with only a short cruise to New York to practice flight operations. The greenshirts did their jobs on landings well enough, though it seemed to take a long time, sometimes, to disengage the tailhook from the wire, and a following plane would be waved off because the deck was still occupied by a taxiing plane.
Where things got sticky was in plane-spotting on the deck. Jets brought to the waist of the ship for refueling were blocked in by just-landed aircraft, in a kind of tic-tac-toe mixup. The landing system delay meant most of the jets needed fuel on one of their first landings, and the slowness of the deck crew compounded the probem.
More experienced pilots were shuffled to the end of the landing stack while nugget, or first-tour fliers, made their landings. The sluggishness of the operation meant some planes had to be brought down just to refuel, rather than in the order the training plan called for. Pilots who had walked on board at Norfolk, scheduled to fly certain jets, found their planes still in the air when they were ready to go flying.
Capt. Christopher J. Wilson, the commanding officer of VA-85, out of Whidbey Isand, and a trainee, spent eight hours in the cockpit of his jet that day - two hours longer than the Navy specifies is safe for the demanding job of landing aboard carriers. Others spent seven hours and made only one or two landings.
As the day wore on, some of the circling fighters and bombers approached their "bingo" fuel states - the point at which they would have just enough JP-5 kerosene to reach the beach - the nearest land base. The Navy doesn't want its jets to let their fuel reserves get so low in peacetime that they have to land aboard the carrier. The carrier might get its deck fouled by a minor landing accident, or the plane might lose its tail hook, or otherwise be unable to recover aboard the ship, so it has to have the gas to fly to a shoreside field.
To make matters worse, a weather front moved in from the west - the leading edge of a week of rotten flying weather. The front threatened to sock in Oceana Air Station with below-minimum visibility.
The nearest alternate was Pautuxent River NAS, Maryland, south of Washington, D.C.
Pax River, however, was farther away, and a disagreement broke out among the Air Boss on the carrier and the fliers over just how much fuel was necessary to bingo there. By the end of the day, tempers were raw on both sides.
Wilson was not happy. If his fliers had to divert to Pax River they would find no "hot fueling" available so they could gas up with engines running. By the time they were cold-fueled they would have to re-file a flight plan to take off, an hour's task. If they had too little fuel, they might have to declare an emergency and land at a non-Navy airport, with bureaucratic difficulties.
As it happened, no one ran out of fuel, but Navy jets were parked several places along the Eastern seaboard by nightfall.
Of the jets that remained aboard overnight, several were available for night practice, a scary business of making incredibly precise landings into a black hole. In the midst of the night's operations, a thunderstorm lit up the night, forcing an hour's hiatus in landings.
Wilson said the next day that he had passed up an invitation to dine with the America's skipper, Capt. James A. Lair, because he didn't want to have to tell Lair that the day's operations had been so screwed up.
The day's delay in getting out of port and the next day's slow operations cost some of VA-85's pilots their chance to make the required six qualification landings. They had to be back on the West coast two days later.