Landing on an Aircraft Carrier—Then and Now

Landing on an Aircraft Carrier—Then and Now
In the days of the straight-deck aircraft carrier, landing signal officers would use signals to guide pilots during the last phase of landing. The wave off and cut signals were mandatory; other signals were advisory.

In the days of the straight-deck aircraft carrier, landing signal officers would use signals to guide pilots during the last phase of landing. The wave off and cut signals were mandatory; other signals were advisory.

By Fred “Crash” Blechman

On Nov. 14, 1910, at Norfolk Navy Yard, Virginia, Eugene Ely, a demonstration pilot for airplane builder Glenn Curtiss, flew a Curtiss pusher biplane, with wheels, on a 57-foot takeoff run from a wooden platform constructed over the foredeck of the USS Birmingham, an anchored scout cruiser.

On Jan. 18, 1911, Ely landed on a 32- by 127-foot platform erected on the quarterdeck of the armored cruiser USS Pennsylvania, anchored off the San Francisco waterfront. Hooks on his Curtiss biplane gathered up sandbag-weighted ropes in succession, bringing him to a stop within a hundred feet.

Aircraft carrier design has progressed in the intervening years, including a major change from straight to angle decks in the late 1950s. Rather than go into a detailed history of carrier design, I’m going to describe the differences in operations between straight-deck and angle-deck aircraft carriers. These differences are based primarily on my own experiences as a Navy fighter pilot flying F4U Corsairs from a number of straight-deck carriers in the early 1950s.

Most American carriers still in service at that time—and during the Korean “police action”—were leftovers from World War II. They consisted of three general types: escort carriers (also known as “Jeep carriers”) with a CVE designation, around 525 feet in length; light carriers with a CVL designation, about 600 feet in length; and battle carriers with a CV designation, about 800 feet in length. I landed on all three types.

The straight-deck carriers had long rectangular decks; from the air at a distance, they really did look like “postage stamps.” During takeoff operations, the planes on the deck were moved as far aft as possible, affording room for launches. If there wasn’t enough wind over the deck, aircraft were catapulted from one of two hydraulic catapults on either side of the forward deck.

All planes on deck were moved for landing operations. They sat ahead of several sets of barriers—steel cables on retractable supports, called stantions. Eight to 13 arresting cables—depending on the size and design of the carrier—were raised slightly from the deck to catch the dangling tailhook of a landing aircraft. If an airplane missed an arresting cable, the barriers would prevent the airplane from running into the parked planes.

A typical landing operation began with a “Signal Charlie.” The carrier would turn to a heading that would provide about a 10-degree crosswind from the port (left) if there was any surface wind. This would clear the area behind the ship of turbulence from the superstructure and prop wash from planes that hadn’t yet parked ahead of the barriers.

As soon as a plane landed and caught an arresting wire—called a “trap”—the barrier cables were dropped, the plane quickly taxied forward and the barriers were raised behind it, clearing the deck for the next landing.

Pilots would orbit the carrier, usually in groups of four aircraft, called a “division,” in a right step-down (echelon) formation. The division leader would fly upwind past the starboard (right) side of the carrier at about 800 feet above the water, and then we would individually break off to the left about five seconds apart.

The attack carrier USS Hornet (CVA-12) is now a museum in Alameda, Calif. The landing portion of this typical angle-deck carrier is at a 12-degree angle to the left of the carrier’s centerline.

The attack carrier USS Hornet (CVA-12) is now a museum in Alameda, Calif. The landing portion of this typical angle-deck carrier is at a 12-degree angle to the left of the carrier’s centerline.

While making a 180-degree turn to downwind, we would establish an interval behind the plane ahead. Then, flying downwind about 3,000 feet on the port side of the carrier, as it churned in the opposite direction, we would lose altitude, drop our landing gear, full flaps, and tailhook, unlock the tailwheel and slow down. Then we’d turn toward the carrier’s aft, all the while adjusting power, propeller and tab settings.

This was a busy time for pilots, who were trying to intercept the aft of the carrier at the right altitude and speed, and properly line up with the centerline. This was particularly difficult with the Corsair, since the long nose raised about 15 degrees in slow flight, preventing forward visibility. In order to see, we would have to be in a left turn until the last few seconds before landing. We carried enough power to be flying only about 100 miles an hour, just above stalling speed.

While turning toward the carrier, at about 45 degrees from the centerline, we could see the landing signal officer with his “paddles,” providing mostly advisory signals to guide us into the “groove” for landing at the right speed and on the centerline. Two signals were mandatory: the “cut” meant to cut power and land; the “wave off” meant to add power and go around again. However, adding power too quickly could result in propeller torque, putting the plane in an uncontrollable left roll, over the side of the carrier and upside down into the water!

If we received the cut signal, we were usually only 10 or 15 feet above the deck, just high enough to avoid flying into the back of the carrier. We would chop the power, drop the nose and immediately pulled back on the joystick, dropping the plane into a three-point attitude to catch an arresting wire, resulting in a rather sudden stop.

After landing, a deckhand would disengage the tailhook, and we’d fold our wings as we taxied over the dropped barriers to clear the deck for the next aircraft.

Trying to land on an aircraft carrier was risky business. If we didn’t get the nose up in time after the cut, we’d bounce and fly into the cables—or over the cables into the planes parked forward! If we didn’t get the tail down in time or the hook bounced over the arresting wires, we’d fly right into the barrier cables.

It’s easy to see why accidents were common when landing on straight-deck carriers. When jets came into the fleet during the Korean War, accidents became even more common because of the greater landing speed. Something had to change. That’s when the angle-deck carrier was designed.

In the early 1950s, the British Royal Navy developed three basic changes to carrier aviation: the angle deck, the mirror landing system and the steam catapult. American carriers—starting with the USS Antietam (CV-36), an Essex class carrier—converted to an angle deck in 1952. Other ships followed, and all new American carriers had an angled deck.

The angle deck, at a 10- or 12-degree angle to the left of the ship centerline, provided a landing path clear of parked planes. If a plane missed one of four or five arresting wires, the pilot could “bolter,” which meant adding power, taking off and flying around again.

The gyro-stabilized mirror landing system provides a visual signal, using a bright central light (the “ball”) and horizontal lights. This indicates if the pilot is at the right height and lined up along an imaginary three-degree landing path. “Paddles” are no longer used—only radio contact and lights. With jets, when they touch the deck, they add full power until they catch a wire. If they’re not arrested, they simply bolter.

This new technology doesn’t prevent accidents. Today’s aircraft are bigger, heavier and land at higher speeds. They’re able to fly in worse weather conditions and in heavier seas. The steam catapults are much more reliable than the old hydraulic cats, but catapult shots still have an element of danger. It takes a lot of special training to be a carrier pilot in today’s Navy, despite the many operational and equipment improvements.

I’m proud to be a member of the tailhook fraternity, with special respect for those now flying faster and more complex aircraft off aircraft carriers.

Fred “Crash” Blechman’s two flying books, “Bent Wings – F4U Action & Accidents: True Tales of Trial & Terror!” and “Flying With the Fred Baron,” are available at [] or [], or call Crash at 818-346-7024, or email