Steam emits from a catapult as an aircraft director motions for an aircraft to lineup and ready for launch. A jet-blast deflector is raised, troubleshooters make their final checks, hold-back devices are attached, aircraft launch bars lowered and catapult shuttles are in position. Within seconds receiving the “clear to launch” signal and going to full power, the aircraft is launched from the flight deck from 0-173 MPH in three to five seconds.
This is just a part of life, day-in and day-out, in the life of a naval aviator on an aircraft carrier. What you may not see is the training they must endure. From the difficulties of land vs. carrier-based launching and landing, to the camaraderie of the aviator names, known as “call signs,” the life of a pilot has many aspects that go unseen to those outside the community.
July 30, 2017 - Pilots stand on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Kenneth Abbate)
Pilots of every platform start their path to becoming a naval aviator at Aviation Preflight Indoctrination (API) in Pensacola, Florida. After completion of API, they report to their primary platform training in either Corpus Christi, Texas, or Milton, Florida. Based on which platform the pilot qualifies for, they may attend an advanced flight training school in Kingsville, Texas (E-2 Hawkeye and C-2 Greyhound pilots).
“Hawkeye pilots have a slightly different training track in that we have a third stage of flight training prior to getting our wings,” said Lt. Cmdr. John “1-Up” Dues, from McLean, Virginia, assigned to the “Tigertails” of Airborne Early Warning Squadron (VAW) 125. “As far as common track, everyone goes through API in Pensacola and then their primary platform training is done in Corpus or Whiting. We are also sent to a Fleet Replacement Squadron prior to entering the fleet.”
Like most officers assigned to the Navy’s forward-deployed aircraft carrier, USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76), pilots have secondary duties when not flying, to include coordinating their squadron’s flight schedule as squadron duty officer and performing the duties of a maintenance officer.
“As a pilot, I have flight duties, as well as my ground job as maintenance officer,” said “1-Up,” who has flown in E-2C and E-2D Hawkeye aircraft in the fleet. “Every pilot has a ground job. It is rare that a pilot doesn’t have a job as a division officer, department head or other squadron job.”
“Daily tasks depend on the day,” said Lt. j.g. Lizzy “Pound Cake” Elrod, from Orlando, Florida, assigned to the “Diamondbacks” of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 102. “More than likely, you’ll get to the ready room way ahead of brief time for your flight. While waiting, you may study or help out whoever is briefing or leading the flight.”
“I think the same goes for all pilots, but our daily life revolves around the flight schedule,” said Lt. Brian Colby, from Palatine, Illinois, assigned to the “Saberhawks” of Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron (HSM) 77. “The MH-60R is always flying for the strike group, even during fixed wing, no-fly days. At night, Romeos from the cruiser and destroyer detachments are airborne while we are on deck. When we are not flying, we are studying for our next flight or qualification or performing our ground jobs, of which each pilot has at least one.”
Even with consistent military training, pilots, both experienced and new, still have difficulties transitioning from landing aircraft on shore to landing on a carrier.
“We cannot simulate deck movement or winds that we experience around the ship, such as the ‘burble,’” said “1-Up,” a naval aviator with 14 years of experience. “The burble is an area behind the ship, where the wind coming over the deck creates a disturbance and can cause an aircraft to lose lift close to the ship. It can suck a plane down below glideslope if you are not careful.”
The difficulties that come with landing on shore vs. landing on a ship can also vary across different platforms of aircraft.
“Although we fly logistics run and medical evacuation missions, HSC-12’s (Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 12) primary purpose on the carrier is to support fixed-wing launches and recoveries as the plane guard (PG) asset,” said Lt. Shagore “Swamp Tree” Paul, from San Diego, assigned to the “Golden Falcons” of HSC-12. “On the terrible chance that a jet goes down during these critical phases of flight, the PG will be airborne and ready for an immediate rescue. This immediate need places time and position restrictions on us that are not present during our home-based missions.”
Throughout the military camaraderie is a big factor in developing teamwork and healthy competition, but maybe nowhere more so than within the pilot community.
July 30, 2017 - Pilots brief in the ready room of the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Kenneth Abbate)
“There is competition between squadrons and pilots to see who has the best grades at the end of a certain time we call a line period,” said “1-Up.” “The top five new pilots get ‘Top Nugget’ patches, and the top 10 pilots get ‘Top Hook’ patches. The squadron with the best GPA gets ‘Top Hook’ for that line period.”
The unseen world of a naval aviator is much more than just launching and recovering aircraft, but the pilots assigned to the squadrons aboard Ronald Reagan are always ready to take on any mission.
Comradery: Call Signs
Call signs are one of the oldest traditions in naval aviator history that cannot be traced back to a specific time. In general, a pilot was given his call sign by his fellow aviators based on a particular event with significance.
1-Up (LCDR John Dues)
“I told a lot of stories as a JO. Someone would tell a story and then I'd tell another one, and so they said I was always trying to 1-up them. Really, anyone who knows me knows that the call sign fits. I have embraced it and now I have a Mario costume and have the 1-up mushroom from Mario Bros on my shirts, binders, etc.”
Pound Cake (LTJG Lizzy Elrod)
“My call sign is Pound Cake. I received it last Fall during our port call in Busan. The story behind it: when I first got here last August, my wife and I didn't know that all of my mail would go directly to the ready room for everyone to sort through. One day, I received a post card from her addressed to "Pound Cake". She wrote a pretty ridiculous message written on the postcard, one my squadron won't let me forget.” --
Swamp Tree (LT Shagore Paul)
“My call sign is Swamp tree, and like many other call signs it has its origins from drinking. While drinking I tend to lament that I would be better off as a tree, but my pride has me claiming that I would be a great California Redwood. From there, my squadron mates decided that I would actually be a swamp tree, an idea that I resisted. Real call signs end up being unflattering and if you show your squadron mates any sign of resistance, the call sign will usually stick. In the end the best way to deal with it is to own the name and make it your own.”
By U.S. Navy Mass Communication Specialist Kenneth Abbate
Provided through DVIDS
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